It would seem from John’s account of the last hours Jesus spent with his disciples that there was one thing uppermost on his mind as far as his desire for them was concerned. He was preparing them for what lay ahead, not only in the few hours during which he would be betrayed by Judas, tried before Pilate and crucified by the Jews by the hand of the Roman government, but for the days, weeks, months, and years – even to our time in the 21st century and on to the end of time. No less than twenty one times does the word “love” appear in the chapters which record that last night with his disciples.
In John 13:34-35 he told them that he was giving them a “new commandment” …
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How was it new since it had been given all the way back in the Old Testament in Lev. 19:18? Albert Barnes commented on this statement thus …
“It is called new, not because there was no command before which required people to love their fellow-man, for one great precept of the law was that they should love their neighbor as themselves Lev. 19:18; but it was new because it had never before been made that by which any class or body of people had been known and distinguished.” (Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible).
Every religion has its distinguishing or identifying marks. All my life and in all my years of preaching I have heard dozens of sermons on the “distinctive marks of the New Testament church” and have preached not a few of these myself. These “marks” are usually listed under the headings of the “work, worship and organization” of the church. Dozens of scriptures are lifted from here and there to support (proof text) each of the several items under each heading, all leading to the logical(?) conclusion that since we have all these marks we must be the New Testament church and therefore the true disciples of Jesus in the present age.
Jesus could have given a simple statement of requirements such as he gave in John 13:34-35. (“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another”) had that been what would have identified his disciples. But what he would have gotten was a repetition of the superficial, external religion practiced by so many of the Jews during the time of Jesus and before. Lists are for remembering chores or for grocery shopping. Love is the prime directive for Jesus’ disciples.
But love is not simple nor is it easy. Oh, compared to the burden of sin or the load of legal requirements Phariseeism offered, love is easy. Jesus said his “yoke” is easy and his burden “light”. But love is not without demands. Love cannot be tied up in neat packets. Love is messy because people are messy. We do not live ideal lives. We are not very loveable at times. Love can be refused and the one offering love rejected – and that hurts. Love often demands more of us than we think we get in return, and we don’t think that is fair. But love is what the Lord expects of us and love is what we must have in our lives to distinguish us as Jesus’ disciples.
When it comes to the extreme Jesus taught as essential to being like God, love is very very hard. He said in Matt. 5:43-48 …
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If we are to love our enemies who hate us, persecute us and would seek to do us harm, then by comparison it would seem it should be easy to love our brethren who do none of these things to us. But that is not the way some of us see it. Let some disagreement arise among us over our treasured (pet) doctrines and we cut ourselves off from those who disagree with us.
In contrast to this attitude of exclusivity think about Paul’s message to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 13 … Here the problem was over spiritual gifts. Some were boastful and others envious of those who had what they considered to be the “best gifts”. The solution Paul offers to this problem? Love was the answer.
He said that even though one person could possess all the gifts and do the greatest of miracles, without love it didn’t mean a thing. It all would be “sound and fury” with no real value if love were absent. These gifts had been given by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the whole body, but they were defeating the purpose of their gifts by the way they were boastfully parading them and causing envy and jealousy.
Love, by its very definition, seeks the well being of the other. Love is selfless. Others are esteemed better than one’s own self.
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4).
Why should we humble ourselves in love for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Paul answers in the next verses …
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8).
It is essential that we love because this is how we are to be to be like Jesus. He has loved us, even though we are imperfect, limited, often stubborn, rebellious, weak people who sometimes do wrong things and have bad attitudes toward him, our families and toward others who love us. We expect him to love us – and he does – even when we are imperfect in our love for him and in our love for others.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
He said in verse 8a; “Love never ends” or “Love never fails.” True love – agape love – can be counted on. It is always there, no matter the circumstances. All else may fail, but love never will. How can this be?
Love is not conditioned on the merit or qualifications of the object of our love. It grows out of our own character as we are being transformed into the likeness of our Creator. John tells us that “God is love”.
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8).
According to John, the quality of love is so fundamental to God’s nature that he is identified by that quality. There has never been a human conception of a god with this quality. Idols and mythological gods become angry if men do not appease them and, in the imaginations of their worshipers, throw thunderbolts or cause famines and plagues or other calamitous events to occur.
God took pity on his people, who, even though their trouble and oppression from their idolatrous neighbors was the result of their own unfaithfulness, and rescued them from their trouble (Judges 2:18). Would he do any less for us today? And yet we are so quick to judge and condemn others over things that are of no real, lasting significance. It is to our shame that we do this!
In the commercial world, businesses have their “logo,” a symbol by which they present their business to the public. When one sees the horizontal oval with the word “Ford” on it we identify not only the product of the company, but the company itself with all it stands for. The same is true for the big “G” on a box of cereal, the “swoosh” on a pair of sneakers or thousands of other such illustrations. Jesus came into the world as the “Logos,” the perfect representation of God (John 1:1). He demonstrated what God is like by showing what love is. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, restored sight to the blind and raised the dead, not just to demonstrate divine, miraculous power, but to show what God is like through his loving compassion and mercy.
Nothing less is expected of the disciples of Jesus. When we judge others and separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters who may hold some difference in judgment or opinion from us, we prove ourselves to be something other than or less than disciples of Jesus – and that ought to scare us into repentance and cause us to fall at the feet of our brethren and beg their forgiveness and their prayers!