A preacher once asked a class, “What do you do with the commandments in the Bible?” A little old lady raised her hand and answered, “I underline them in blue.”
Okay, but then what do you do with them? Underlining all the commandments in blue may help you spot them as you read your Bible. But the point of the commands in the Bible is that we obey them, not just underline them in blue.
If we all were to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 on how well we obey the biblical command to love others, probably most of us would put down a 7 or 8. Maybe a few would dare to score a 9. A 10? Hey, no one’s perfect! But I have a hunch that most of us think, “You know, I’m a basically loving person, but I sure wish my mate (or kids or roommate) would be more loving.”
But when you stop to think about the fine print in Jesus’ command, your ratings will plummet. He said (John 13:34), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” The “fine print” is that phrase, “even as I have loved you.” That bumps His command up to a Mt. Everest kind of command! A very few may make the summit of Everest, but no one lives up there. On rare occasions, we may succeed in loving others as Christ loved us, but none of us live there consistently. It’s the same as Paul’s command (Eph. 5:25), “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” You never reach a point where you can say, “I’ve got that one down! Let’s move on to other things!” These are commands that we’ve got to keep working on.
You may wonder, in what sense is Jesus’ command a new commandment? After all, Leviticus 19:18 commands, “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Old Testament law is summed up by the two commandments, love God and love your neighbor. So how is Jesus’ command new? I agree with most scholars who say that the newness of Jesus’ command is the new standard that He gives, “even as I have loved you.” Jesus’ sacrificial love in going to the cross for us is the new standard. So the main idea of our text is fairly simple to state, but impossible to live out consistently apart from the power of the Holy Spirit:
Jesus commands us to love one another even as He loved us.
The crux of this command is to understand how Jesus loved us. Our text reveals five aspects of this love:
1. Jesus’ love was costly love (John 13:31-32).
John 13:31-32: “Therefore when he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately.’” This statement takes us back to John 12:23, where after hearing that some Greeks were seeking Him, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” As the context there makes clear, He was referring to His death on the cross. The cross glorified both Jesus and His Father (John 12:28).
On one level, the cross was the epitome of humiliation and shame. There was no worse way to die than to be stripped naked, flogged, and then nailed to a splintery cross and hung up to suffer a slow death as a public spectacle. But in another superior sense, the cross was the epitome of glory both for the Father and the Son. To glorify God is to magnify or display His perfect attributes. At the cross, God’s love, righteousness, justice, mercy, and grace were magnified as at no other occasion in history. At the cross, God’s justice was upheld as His sinless Son bore the awful penalty that His justice demanded for all sinners. But His love and grace shine forth as He offers eternal life to all who will repent of their sin and trust in Jesus alone.
John 13:32 refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension: “… if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately.” The resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus’ death. Jesus’ ascension into heaven exalted Him again to God’s right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21).
But the point is, Jesus’ love as seen at the cross was costly. That theme is repeated over and over in the Bible:
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Ephesians 5:2: “… walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her ….”
1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
I realize that it was for the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). Through the cross, He would bring many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10). But still for Jesus to go to the cross was an act of supreme self-sacrifice. It was costly.
2. Jesus’ love was caring love (John 13:33).
John 13:33: “Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” We see Jesus’ tender care for His disciples here in two ways. First, He addresses them as “little children.” This is the only time that this word is used in the Gospels. It is only used elsewhere in 1 John, where the apostle whom Jesus especially loved uses it seven times (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). It was a word of tender feelings, much as a father has toward his little children who need his help and protection.
Second, we see Jesus’ tender care for His own in that He explains to them that He will be leaving them soon. They could not follow Him to heaven at that time, although, as He explains to Peter (John 13:36) and to all (John 14:1-3), they will follow later. The picture again is of a caring father explaining to his children that he has to go away for a while, and they can’t accompany him. But he promises that they will be reunited later. The point is, Jesus’ love was filled with tender feelings for His disciples.
There used to be a popular Bible teacher who emphasized knowing Bible doctrine above all else. He taught that biblical love is not a feeling, but rather a mental attitude. But in practice, he was rude, insensitive, and arrogant. Jesus’ love was not like that, and neither was Paul’s love. He wrote (1 Thess. 2:7-8), “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.”
3. Jesus’ love was commanded love (John 13:34).
John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” In going to the cross, Jesus was obeying the Father’s commandment (John 10:18). Now He commands His followers to love one another, even as He has loved us.
The fact that Jesus commands us to love one another means that you can do it. There are no excuses if you fail to love another believer. You can’t do it in your own strength, of course. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, produced in us when we walk in dependence on the Spirit’s power (Gal. 5:16, 22). But just as Jesus obediently sacrificed Himself to go to the cross for our salvation, so we are obediently to sacrifice ourselves for others’ ultimate good.
I’ve had husbands come to me and say, “I don’t love my wife anymore! We’re going to get a divorce.” But the wedding vow wasn’t, “as long as we both shall love.” It’s “as long as we both shall live”! The biblical command is, “Husbands, love your wives….” If you don’t love your wife, you’re being disobedient. Figure out some practical ways that you can show her God’s love and start doing it!
He may protest, “But I don’t have any good feelings toward her. All of the years of anger and bitterness have just drained the feelings of love that I once had.” But lacking the feelings of love is never a valid excuse for neglecting the actions of love. You’ve probably seen the train diagram in the “Four Spiritual Laws” tract. The engine is God’s Word. The coal car is faith. The caboose represents feelings. The train will run only if you put your faith in God’s Word. Then good feelings will follow. But you can’t run the train on good feelings. When we obey God’s Word and begin to love others sacrificially, feelings of love will follow. But you can’t bail out on the commandment to love others because you lack feelings for them. I’m sure that if Jesus had followed His feelings, He would not have gone to the cross! His love was costly and caring. But it also was based on obedience to His Father’s commandment.
4. Jesus’ love was conspicuous love (John 13:35).
John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus wasn’t just talking about having nice thoughts toward others, which no one else can see. He was talking about love that can be seen. It stems from the heart, but it’s seen in outward actions. It’s the sort of love that stands out conspicuously in this self-centered world. They should see the way that we Christians love one another and say, “They must be followers of Jesus!”
Sadly, the church is often known more for its fighting and divisions over petty issues than it is for its love. Back in the 1970’s some church growth gurus observed that Christians like to go to church with others who are just like they are. Whites like to be with whites. Blacks like to be with blacks. Rich college graduates like other rich college graduates. Rednecks don’t like going to church with long-haired liberals who favor gun control. Rednecks use long-haired liberals for target practice! So these church growth gurus gave us the homogeneous unit principle: If you want your church to grow, you’ve got to target the niche that you’re trying to reach and market your church to those folks.
The problem is, that principle is completely contrary to the New Testament! Paul wrote (Gal. 3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the church (Col. 3:11), “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” The church is the family of God and God has designed families so that there are young and old together.
Have you ever thought about the diversity among Jesus’ apostles? He chose Simon the Zealot. Zealots were a radical political group that used intrigue, violence, force, and deception to try to achieve its goal of liberating Palestine from Roman rule. They refused to pay taxes and they attacked and murdered government officials, especially the hated tax collectors.
And then He chose Matthew, the tax-collector! The tax-collectors had sold their souls to Rome. They milked the Jewish people of their money in order to line their own pockets. You could not have put two men of more diverse backgrounds into the same group if you had tried! These are the men that Jesus is telling to love one another! That kind of love would be conspicuous!
This has several practical implications. For one thing, I refuse to have a contemporary service for young people, who prefer rock music and a casual format and a separate traditional, more formal service for the older folks, who prefer hymns with organ accompaniment. That wrongly divides the church along age lines. The older folks need the fresh enthusiasm of the young people and the young people need the wisdom and stability of the older folks.
Also, the church should reflect the racial and socio-economic diversity of our community. The world can understand when churches divide along racial lines. But our love for one another should conspicuously cross divisions that we see in the world. Flagstaff is approximately 64% white, 18% Hispanic, 12% Native Americans, 2% black, and 2% Asian. I want this church to reflect that mix and show the love of Christ to the world.
When Marla was a new Christian, she attended a church that met in a park. It consisted predominately of “hippies,” most of whom were under 30. The way the church got its start was another sad example of Christians violating Jesus’ command to love one another. A youth pastor at a Baptist church started seeing a number of young hippies come to Christ, so he started bringing them to church. But the people in the church protested. They didn’t want kids looking like that coming to their church! What would people think? For starters, they might have thought, “Those people must be Jesus’ disciples!” That youth pastor went to several churches and tried to get them to accept his group, but was turned down at every church. He finally was forced to start his own church.
So, Jesus’ love was costly, caring, commanded, and conspicuous. Finally,
5. Jesus’ love was committed love (John 13:36-38).
John 13:36-38: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, where are You going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’”
I have preached other messages that focus on Peter’s failure and restoration (“Failure and Hope,” Luke 22:31-38; “Spiritual Failure and Restoration,” Luke 22:54-62; “Hope for All Who Have Failed,” Mark 16:7; “Hope for All Sinners,” Mark 16:7, all on the church web site). I’m not going to focus here on the many lessons that can be gleaned from that poignant story, except to say that while Peter thought that he was fully committed to Jesus and in many ways, he was, his failure stemmed from not recognizing his own weakness. Trusting in his own loyalty rather than in the Lord set him up for his colossal failure.
But here I want to focus on Jesus’ commitment to Peter and to the other ten disciples in spite of their failure. Jesus knew that Peter would deny Him and He predicts it here. He knew that all the disciples would flee for their lives when He would be arrested later that night, in spite of their protests to the contrary (Matt. 26:31, 35, 56). But, He didn’t cast them off because of their failure. He loved them to the end (or uttermost; John 13:1) and He showed that love by restoring them and using them after His resurrection.
Love means being committed to the other person’s highest good. The highest good for all people is that they would become more like Jesus Christ by growing in holiness and living to glorify Him. That commitment to the other person’s highest good is the glue that holds a marriage together. As Paul says (Eph. 5:26-27), a husband’s love for his wife should aim at sanctifying her so that she would be holy and blameless. That same commitment should cause church members to work through conflicts and seek to preserve the unity of the church in the bond of peace.
Bringing together these five elements of Jesus’ love, we can hammer out a definition of biblical love: Love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment which, in obedience to Jesus, shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.
The costliness of love means that we have to sacrifice our selfishness for others. The caring aspect of love means that we should never be calloused or rude. Love is kind. The commandment facet of love means that we do it in obedience to our Savior, who gave Himself for us. The conspicuous part of love means that it doesn’t consist just of nice thoughts, but of visible actions. And, the commitment of love is to see the other person become more like Christ, which is his highest good and for God’s glory.
I recognize that this kind of love is the ideal and we live in a sinful world that presents us with many difficult situations that require prayerful wisdom to obey Jesus’ command. I can only offer a few seeds for thought here on how to apply this.
Does loving someone require that I like that person? Does it mean that I must become a close friend with a difficult person? By looking at Jesus’ example, I have to say, “Not necessarily.” While He loved all people, He did not give His time equally to all. He spent the most time with His disciples, but even among the twelve, He was closer to Peter, James, and John. And John is the only one called, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:1, 23).
Jesus didn’t even spend time with His half-brothers when He had the opportunity. He could have gone up to the feast with them (John 7:1-10), which would have meant several days of traveling together. He could have used that time to influence them, since they were not yet believing in Him. But He let them go alone and then He went later by Himself.
Jesus also loved His enemies, the Jewish leaders, but He constantly provoked and confronted them. He instructed His disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on if people rejected them and their message (Matt. 10:14). Apparently, that was the loving thing to do, since Jesus never would have commanded them not to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44).
Also, since biblical love seeks the highest good for the other person, namely, that he become more like Christ, love sometimes requires confronting the person with his sin or letting him experience the consequences of his sin so that he learns to hate it (Acts 8:18-24; 13:6-12). Love does not enable a person to continue in sinful or irresponsible ways. Love tries to help a person learn to be obedient to God and responsible to “bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5).
I don’t say any of this to give you a cop out from loving difficult people, but rather, as Paul put it (Phil. 1:9), my aim is “that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment.” I encourage you to meditate often on the characteristics of love (1 Cor. 13:4-7): “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Then go through Paul’s letters and his actions in the Book of Acts and see how he worked out those qualities in real situations.
Growing in love requires lifelong effort. You will experience many failures. But your aim should be to love others even as Jesus loves you.