I began the lesson in Sunday School this morning the way I’ll begin this blog post – with a video from Shane and Shane and John Piper on suffering. Our passage today deals with the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, His surpassing greatness, and His call to follow in His footsteps.
15:12-14 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
Disciples Obey because they love Jesus
Before getting too far into this passage we need to note that the entire sentence here is couched in terms of friendship. Love for Christ and His commands will characterize those whom He calls friends. Christ makes enemies into friends through blood and resurrection. We’ll get into that more later, but for now its crucial to understand the terms of Christ’s discussion.
Our motivation is to love others because we love Jesus and are His friends. As He says clearly here, “love one another as I have loved you” and “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It is not only our gratitude for His saving work that ought to drive us to love others, but it is the fact that He has made us to love others. We love Him because we are loyal friends.
This is part of being a new creation in the new covenant, as it was when God first made Adam. Listen to how Michael Horton describes it:
We were not just created and then given a covenant; we were created as covenant creatures…(because) God’s very existence is covenantal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion to each other, reaching outward beyond the Godhead to create a community of creatures serving as a giant analogy of the Godhead’s relationship.
God Himself within Himself in the trinity is loyal and loves as a loyal friend loves. Peter Gentry says, “Within the being of the one God we can speak of a Father who initiates and a devoted, loyal, and obedient Son whose relations in the fellowship of a Holy Spirit are covenantal, i.e. always characterized by hesed and emet – faithful love and loyal obedience.”
We are made to be like this. And as I studied these verses I was struck by the cohesiveness of Scripture. God is immutable – He never changes. When we look at God and His laws and actions in the Old Testament, for example, these are motivated and grounded in love with the express purpose of driving His people toward grateful love for His provision, and a loyal servant heart of love for one another.
The major difference in the New Testament is not God’s desire for us to love, but how far He goes to help us love. He gives us His Son as an example, He wipes away the guilt of sin, cleanses our conscience, and then fills us with the very power of God – the Holy Spirit. Commenting on the book of Leviticus and its canonical relation to the NT Tom Schreiner says:
According to the NT, the holy one is Jesus Christ. Believers are holy and blameless because they belong to him. They have been sanctified in Jesus Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:30; 6:11). Believers have also received the Holy Spirit, who empowers them as the new and true Israel to live holy lives, to live in a way that is pleasing to God. The holy conduct of believers (1 Pet. 1:15-16) marks them as God’s people, showing that they are truly in the circle of the redeemed.
The OT Israelites were supposed to be driven to live holy lives and love others because God had rescued them from Egypt and was dwelling among them. God was a friend to their leader Moses. Scripture says this, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent” (Ex. 33:11).
Jesus has rescued us from the taskmasters of sin and the slavery that bound us for eternal death, and He calls on us to respond in heartfelt grateful love. But even more than that, He calls us to be His friends – true friends are loyal and follow the wishes of their dearest friends.
I could go on and on about this – but the old Hymn ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ says it best:Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Disciples Love Jesus Because He First Loved Them
This leads to the second thought, which I have covered elsewhere so won’t spend a lot of time on it here, but it needs to be noted that we love because He first loved us. John says as much in his first letter:
We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21)
Notice in this 1 John passage how closely intertwined love for others is with the love Jesus first gave us. This sums up the Christian life and Christ’s commands, does it not?
This week I was reading Frances Schaeffer’s book ‘True Spirituality’ and came across a portion of the (very long) preface where he was giving some biographical thoughts and told about how several years after becoming a Christian and serving in the pastorate, he was provoked to a season of serious spiritual crisis. The reason? Because he looked around Christendom and didn’t see Christianity acting as though they were really effected by what they believed. That is to say, he saw no love, no gentleness, and especially no joy. How could he be a Christian and associate himself with a group of people who were joyless and loveless?
Ultimately the answer came, in my own estimation, in the form of a call to a wider and more impacting ministry to those who were tired of Christianity devoid of Christ’s love and joy. He began to understand afresh for himself why it is that we have joy. It is the love of Christ.
So many of us are stoic Christians unrecognizable to anyone who had seen the risen Christ – far from Peter and Paul and Timothy’s joy are we. Men today are reserved about spirituality and will never express emotion – much less joy in the Lord! Women are catty, judgmental and coy about serving in the joy of their Master. Far from submissive in love to others, we tower above them in scoffs of disapproval expressed verbally, or simply with an eye roll.
If this describes you then I would admonish you to seek the face of the Lord immediately. Is this love as Christ loved? We have been called to joy and obedience and all of this is rooted in love – which He first initiated in our lives. F.F. Bruce says, “The measure of the love enjoined by Jesus – ‘as I have loved you’ – is beyond measuring.” Ya…that’s about right, is it not? Measureless love…don’t stop forgiving, don’t stop loving others. That’s the sum of the parts.
Christ didn’t stoop so far so you could ring in each Sunday with a dour face and a stoicism that would frighten even Stalin himself! If you are truly a Christian, you ought to contemplate the love He has for you – that love that He first initiated in your life. Be rejuvenated once again by the remembrance of who you were when He found you – and what He has done for you.
Disciples Are Called to Radical Obedience and Love
Before we can go much further, we must once again bear in mind that all of this teaching from Jesus comes in the context of the farewell address (cf. Ridderbos). When Jesus calls us to obedience He calls us to follow His example, and that example is couched in the work of sacrifice – namely the ultimate sacrifice of laying down one’s life for one’s friend (Ridderbos aptly notes that enemies aren’t addressed here).
This laying down of one’s life is something we’ve heard many times before – especially if you have grown up in the church you will have likely heard this verse before. Jesus laying down His life for us is at the epicenter of the Christian story, and all other narratives (yours and mine) ripple out from its center. In short, we are here because He died for us. This isn’t Kiwanis, this isn’t Rotary or the fitness club. The uniting factor of our gathering on a Sunday or Thursday or any other day of the week is the thread of redemption: His death has united us all. We drink coffee, read our bibles, talk and fellowship because this man died 2000 years ago.
Before we look at what His example means for our obedience, we have to look at the example itself. We have to realize the utter supremacy of Christ. We talk about sacrifice, He actually sacrificed EVERYTHING…for you.
Can you feel the weight of this now, you sinner? The more you have the more difficult it is to give up. Ultimate power is very very hard to give up. You don’t just see a United States Congressman retiring without extenuating circumstances – and when they do, it’s a big deal. Big big deal.
But our sacrifices of power or money or even our lives are not really worthy to compare with Jesus’ sacrifice. James Boice says this is the case for a few reasons. First, because Jesus didn’t have to die – He wasn’t mortal, so to speak. Second, Jesus knew he was going to die – from before time began He knew. Thirdly, Jesus died spiritually whereas we only die physically. Boice explains:
Spiritual death is the separation of the soul and spirit from God. This is what makes hell such a terrible place; those in hell are separated from God. And because God is the source of all good – all joy, peace, love, and other blessings – hell is just the opposite. It is misery, unrest hate, and so on. This is the separate that Jesus endured for us. He died physically also that is true. His death was particularly painful and degrading. But the truly horrible aspect of his death was his separation from the Father when he was made sin for us and bore sin’s punishment.
When we think of the supreme value of Christ’s death, its helpful to remember who we are in comparison to who He is. This contrast is worked out by Paul in a powerful way:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, ESV)
That is why Boice is right to point out that while Christ couches all of this in terms of His friendship with us – what an awesome thought that is on its own – we also must understand that the friendship is one made from an enemy. Jesus has turned enemies into friends by dying for them on the cross. As Boice says:
Here especially do we see the wonderful love of the Lord Jesus Christ. So long as we think of ourselves as being somewhat good in God’s sight we do not see it. But when we see ourselves as God sees us, then the surpassing worth of the love of Christ becomes evident.
Jesus who is King of the universe set it all aside for people who hated Him. He suffered humiliation and death – a painful horrific death. All with love in His heart.
These words come to us just hours prior to that event – this is a window into the mind and heart of the Being who laid His life down for you. What a sacrifice. What a cost. Ponder that love first…and then the rest of this will perhaps make more sense.
…An Example is an Example Because it is Followed
Now, can you imagine the (much smaller yet significant) impact the laying down of a life has for others? As I mentioned before, the supremacy of Christ’s sacrifice cannot be matched – it’s simply untouchable. But there is a sense in which Christ is here calling us to martyrdom.
We are to have this mind of Christ (Phil. 2:4) and see Him as our example. Again, I want to handle this gingerly, and not read something into the text that isn’t there, but I but I don’t think its wrong to hear Jesus’ words as a call to martyrdom if that is what following Christ entails. Most of all I see this in the passages overarching call to ultimate obedience. So, if you’re wondering at what point you would ever pull the ripcord on obeying Christ (how much persecution can you take etc.), Jesus is giving you the answer – you never pull the ripcord. You die. Remember – He is your friend. True love would die for a friend – and certainly true love would go above and beyond the “call of duty” for a friend, would it not?
Now, in America we have virtually no life-threatening persecution, and therefore virtually zero first hand understanding of martyrdom – praise God! But as Voddie Baucham recently noted, worldwide persecution of Christianity has grown so intense in recent decades that in the past 100 years more Christians have died than in the previous 1900 or so years combined. Combined. That is simply an astounding number and it means that we simply can’t brush this teaching aside. What may take us mere moments to glance over in John’s 15th chapter is one of the most precious and important truths to tens of millions of Christians today.
It Means Something
We have to assume that when Christ calls us to come and die, when He commands us to take up our cross, when He promises persecution, that He does so because it is driving at an end that is so glorious that it will make everything worthwhile.
That is why Jesus can talk the way He could here just hours before He was about to be tortured and beaten to a bloody mess. When He suffered it MEANT something. Likewise, when you suffer for Christ – when life is horrific – you need to know that He suffered first and that He did so as an example – your suffering isn’t wasted. It isn’t meaningless. That’s what John Piper was talking about before in that video I posted online. That’s what separates Jesus from any other sick lunatic leading a cult following. Those people are genuinely crazy and their suffering is wasted. Your suffering is building for you an eternal weight of glory.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross as a defeated and hopeless man. He climbed that hill knowing that He was ushering in a victory that would be tasted by millions of souls who put their trust in Him.
Now, how is this done? How do we look at this and start – where do we start? I think that what makes this kind of love possible is completely supernatural. It isn’t powered by you; its powered by God. But you will be given power to obey.
What does it look like? It looks like selflessness.
The beginning of following Christ is a daily death to self. This is one of several things Schaeffer came to realize in the pursuit of true discipleship. When you die to your own desires you necessarily will be more equipped to physically die for others/for the Lord if and when that time comes.
We see this attitude expressed by Paul this way:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
We must – must – look around our church and our neighborhood and our family and be willing to consider them more important than ourselves.
More than this, we must recognize the value of every soul to the degree that those “unlovable” people who are placed in our lives are also worthy of this radical love. They are also to be targets of our love knowing that the cost could be embarrassment, social death, financial death or simply emotional hurt.
This is not Optional…but there is Help and Hope
Lastly, I want to exhort you to examine these verses closely to show me where these principles are conditional or applicable to a certain select few – perhaps those in full time ministry. (I think you see where I’m going here…)
When we read these verses they are undoubtedly a challenge. Not only because they call us to love those who are unlovable, but because there are people in our church and our family who we simply don’t “gel with.” You know who I’m talking about…this is why clicks develop, isn’t it? And its natural to be around people who are more like you or who you enjoy – nothing terribly wrong with that. But the question must be asked: how are you loving (or not loving, more accurately) those who rub you wrong at work, here at church or in your family. Do you ignore them? Do you slander them behind their backs? I am preaching to myself. We all struggle with some aspect of this.
But unlike the Israelites whom I mentioned earlier on, we have the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. This simply can’t be overemphasized. If Jesus stooped to love you, as vile and wretched as you are (and you are, if you’re anything like me), then surely you cannot simply tolerate but love those who God has placed in your life. No excuses. Ask for God’s help – you can’t do this in the flesh.
Lastly, evil in the world does not have the last word. For those who obey by the power of God and lay down their lives and love radically as Christ loved, there will be reward. See what John says later in Revelation 20:
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)
Those martyrs aren’t in heaven wandering around with no head. They aren’t missing anything now, because they are reigning with Christ. Right. Now. When you die Christian, you will go immediately to be with our Lord Jesus who is reigning right now at the right hand of God. And you will reign with Him. You will join in that reign the moment you die – that 1000 years began when our Lord’s reign began – upon His ascension into heaven.
This is our hope – you cannot kill a Christian, for a Christian goes from suffering to reigning within an instant. The moment evil thinks it has triumphed, the moment Satan finds happiness in the death of a Christian, that Christian is translated into glory and power in the reign of Jesus Christ. What a slippery situation for the enemy! There is no winning. And for us…there is no losing. Let’s live life with this reality in mind.
15:15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
Bruce rightly says, “The point (of verse 15) is rather that now, n the upper room, he is admitting them to the inner motives of his ministry and impending sacrifice.” It isn’t as though “Jesus had formerly called his disciples ‘slaves’, or treated them as such.” The emphasis is rather on His gracious self-disclosure/self-revelation.
He is saying, in essence, “as my friend I am letting you into the plans of the Father.” He is drawing us into relationship and sharing His plans for redemption with us.
What an unspeakable privilege.
We are, of course, still the slaves of Christ. That hasn’t changed. But as Ridderbos says:
Not that their subordinate position as pupils in relation to their teacher and servants in relation to their master was abolished by this (cf. 13:13, 16); rather, their servant status solely under the commandment has no made way for their initiation into the purposes of their Lord – into the secret of his own coming and mission in the world, which Jesus refers to as ‘all that I have heard from my Father’ (cf. 5:19, 20, 30; 3:11, 32: 8:26, 40).
I just don’t think I can add more to that, except that to ponder this verse is to ponder the depths of Christ’s love for us (see vs. 9). When you love someone – truly – you include them in on your thinking. You bring them into your plans, and you make them a part of your life. That is what Jesus is doing here. He has graciously condescended to include us in on the eternal plan of redemption. The mysteries hidden for long ages have been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate.
That He stoops to such self-disclosure is gracious because it goes far beyond the deserts of His flock. These evil sheep have been made pure by the blood of the Lamb sent from heaven. And redemption is only the beginning, isn’t it? What an awesome and unspeakably glorious truth that He has come and shown us His plan. What we can comprehend of His magnificence we take in as eager spiritual children. It changes us, this glory of His, this plan of His, this shared knowledge. It is like a beam of light emanating from the sun. It not only lights our ways, it warms us to the core. We are changed. And we are His. Praise God! We are His.