The Great Commandment
Scripture: John 13:31–35
The Great CommandmentJohn 13:31-35
Sunday, October 12, 2003
Pastor Randy Smith
Before I begin this sermon, I wish to ask you a question. "What is love?" How would you define this popular concept? If I gave you a slip of paper with two words that said, "Love is …," how would you complete the sentence? There is no doubt that love is one of the most popular thoughts, but ironically it's one of the most difficult to define.
In seeking an answer this week, I found a website that offered 613 definitions for love. Here is just a sampling:
Love is a fire that reigns in the heart."
Love is like swallowing hot chocolate before it has cooled off. It takes you by surprise at first, but keeps you warm for a long time."
Love is a journey not a destination."
Love is a precious gift that you receive, and you need to give it with caution!"
When love comes so strong there is no right or wrong. Your love is your love."
Love is too strong a word to say it too early, but it has too beautiful a meaning to say it too late."
The first sign of love is the last of wisdom."
Love is my religion!"
Amidst such contradiction and mysticism, I walked away even more confused.
Since all humans believe that love exists, why can't we reach unanimity on a collective definition? Is it because we have not experienced true love ourselves? Is it because we have misunderstood the concept of love? Is it because we (as the country song declares) look for love in all the wrong places?
The Bible emphatically declares, "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8). Since God is our Creator and the embodiment of love, shouldn't we logically begin by looking to Him, not only for the definition, but also for the reception of love? And if love is such an important concept both to us and God, isn't also logical to believe that He would reveal all that is necessary to know about love to those whom He has created in His image?
In a crucial sermon this morning, I would like to present to you the biblical response regarding the definition and expression of love. Together, from God's perspective, we'll examine the what, how and why behind the greatest commandment to love one another, especially as it pertains to loving those within the body of Christ.
1. THE "WHAT" BEHIND THE COMMAND
Let's begin with the first point, the "what" behind the command.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to clearly realize God's exhortation. Three times in the span of two verses (34 and 35), the Apostle John makes it abundantly clear that we are to "love one another." This is not a suggestion nor it is simply wise advice. It is a command! These words fell directly off the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ after the departure of Judas as the initial charge given to His disciples in the Upper Room. Later in the discourse, Jesus restated the same love command (Jn. 15:12), followed by these words; "You are My friends if you do what I command you" (Jn. 15:14). Just before stating the "love commandment" in his first epistle, John said, "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected" (1 Jn. 2:3-5a). So love is a command that the Lord expects to be followed.
Also by way of introduction, Jesus identifies the commandment to love as one that is "new." The beginning of verse 34 states, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." Confusion has often surrounded the newness of the command, because elsewhere in the Johannine literature regarding the love command we read: "Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning…On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you" (1 Jn. 2:7-8a; c.f. 3:11; 2 Jn. 1:6). So is the requirement to love one another a new or old commandment? The answer is "yes."
From the dawn of revelation, the command to love God and love one another has been clearly stated in Scripture (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). There was nothing new in this command. The priority of love for God and love for others was made known from the beginning. Jesus Himself stated that love for God and love for one another were the two greatest commandments and the fulfillment of the Old Testament law (Mt. 22:36-40; c.f. Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14).
The love command is as old as creation. Yet this commandment is also new. How? Let's move to the second point.
2. THE "HOW" BEHIND THE COMMAND
The newness of the command comes in the extent or degree of our love. In verse 34 Jesus calls us to "Love one another even as I have loved you." In other words, we are to love one another with the same love we have received from Christ. A pastor from old stated the new commandment like this: "Love was now to be explained with new clearness, enforced by new motives and obligations, illustrated by a new example, and obeyed in a new manner" (Scott, Quoted in Pink, John, 749). Once again, with the coming of Christ came a newer and higher standard to be obeyed. The new commandment is more than only loving others as we love ourselves. The measure of love must now parallel the love Christ has for us.
This week I was thinking of the many ways people choose to define or express love. Maybe we should compare these common ways with the love demonstrated by Christ. Some believe love is needing another individual. Yet Christ existed perfectly content from all eternity without us. He doesn't love us because He needs us. Some believe love is a special feeling. Yet Christ's love is not transitory like feelings. Rather it is determined and consistent without degrees of variation. Some people believe love is physical attraction. Yet Christ loves us for whom we are, not how we look. Spiritually speaking we are very unattractive. Some believe love is only an expression of words. Yet the love of Christ demonstrated on the cross speaks far louder than verbal communication. Along these lines, by way of summary, A.W. Pink said, "Christ had displayed a love superior to the faults of its objects, a love which never varied, a love which deemed no sacrifice too great" (Pink, John, pg. 748).
Simply put, our model of love is not the world, but rather Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 4:11). Looking backward, we have already learned how Christ washed the disciple's feet (Jn. 13:1-11) and then exhorted us to follow His example (Jn. 13:15). Looking forward, in chapter 15 Jesus will say, "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:12-13). How can we forget the love He displayed for us at Calvary? We also are to follow His example by dying to self for the betterment of others.
Well, this new commandment may be simply stated, but we would all agree it is not simply followed! Before exasperation sets in regarding this lofty commandment, let me see if I can provide some words of comfort and assistance.
First of all, we must realize that we will never arrive. None of us, this side of eternity will ever completely love one another as Christ loves us, just as no husband will ever master Ephesians 5:25 by loving his wife as Christ loves the church. Though we make every ambition to strive for this high standard, we should realize how miserably short we fall. Such an understanding should lead to profound humility, which then facilitates greater dependence on His grace. Grace for what? Grace that is needed not only for forgiveness, but also empowerment to be more successful in the future.
You see, God wants us to live for His glory. And we glorify Him when we seek to obey His commandments fully depending on His grace for success. Contrary to popular opinion, grace is not dispensed so we can indulge in a life of sin. On the contrary, grace is dispensed so we can fulfill the high standard of discipleship to which He has called us. When in a trial, grace enables us to rejoice, give thanks and do all things without complaining or grumbling. When tempted, grace strengthens us to pursue greater delight in the promises in His Word. Therefore grace not only delivers us from sin's condemnation, but it also delivers us from sin's domination. All this to say, we are desperate for grace to love one another as Christ loves us.
Why is the Christian standard so high? Reason, because we will only succeed if God's supernatural power is working through us. God has structured it so that we will be fully dependent on His grace. Where sin reigns, grace abounds all the more. And when Christ raises the bar in the New Covenant, He provides the Holy Spirit. And that power, in the Person of the Holy Spirit is reigning in the life of every believer. As we yield to the Spirit, He bears fruit in our life enabling us to obey and hence fulfill the commandment to love one another, because as you know, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love (Gal. 5:22). Displaying this love then becomes no longer a duty or a chore, but rather the natural overflow of God's love already in our heart, flowing horizontally from us to others.
So first of all, in order to love one another as Christ loves us we must be dependent on and submissive to the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. Second, we must have experienced the love of Christ for ourselves. Adults who have a difficulty in expressing "common love" are often those weaned in homes without any verbal or physical affection. Along these lines, in order to love one another as Christ loves us, we must have experienced the love of Christ that we are commanded to give. And in order to understand His love, we must continually see the magnitude of our sin against the backdrop of God's holiness. Only then will we see His patient, unconditional, undeserving, sacrificial, endless and forgiving love. And once we have a profound encounter with Christ's love in our own life, we will not only understand this love, but also desire to express it to others, especially to His children (Gal. 6:10).
How can I love that sister who has stabbed me in the back? By realizing Christ's love despite my stabbing Him in the back. How can I love that brother with bad breath and dirty clothes? By realizing Christ's love despite my filthy sins. How can I love that sister who is spiritually immature? By realizing Christ's love despite my immaturity. How can I love that brother who is so demanding? By realizing Christ's love despite my demands. In Matthew 5:46 Jesus said, "If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" Jesus did not extend His love to me only to be kept to myself for a personal blessing. That's not Christianity, that's selfishness! Someone once said regarding this agape love, "Love in your heart isn't put there to stay. Love isn't love till you give it away"
God shows us His love and then empowers us to extend His love to others. But how does it practically look? In other words, how do we love others in the church the way Christ loves us? Generally put, we must understand what Christ has done on our behalf and then emulate His example (1 Jn. 2:6). We should treat others as Christ treats us. We should do to others what Jesus Himself would do were He still physically present. Specifically speaking, we must love without partiality. Jesus went out of His way to love the sinners and rejected of His day. We too must love others regardless of their social status, attractiveness, age, gender, ethnicity, spiritual maturity and personal interests. We must love in deeds and not only in words and emotions (1 Cor. 13:4-7; 1 Thes. 1:3; 1 Jn. 3:18). Love is a verb and Jesus demonstrated His love by actions. We too must love others through visitation, physical and financial assistance, hospitality and encouragement. We must love eternally. John 13:1 says Jesus loved His own faithfully until the end. We too must demonstrate love that is unconditional, ongoing and strong through the winds of adversity. Augustine said, "What does (this love) look like? It has hands to help others, feet to hasten the poor and needy, eyes to see misery and want, ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like" (Swindoll, Illustrations, pg. 360). Maybe the Apostle Paul put it best, "Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Cor. 16:14).
Beloved, we must fulfill the command to love one another as Christ loves us. We must keep this principle continually in the forefront of our minds. Even while conducting Christian ministry, I'm sure we've all witnessed some of the most unloving actions from fellow siblings in the context of church life, whether it is a selfish desire to exalt self or inconsiderate attitude or a sharp dispute over doctrine and policy.
It's like the teenager came who home from choir practice early one evening. His father was surprised. The boy had never come home early from anything. Looking over his paper he asked, "What brings you back so soon?" The son replied. "We had to call off choir practice for this week. The organist and the choir director got in a terrible argument about how to sing 'Love Divine.'"
Take for example the Christian book I read this week. The dedication inside the cover went like this: "To my wife. Thank you for letting me ignore you all these months while my head was buried in my Bible and my fingers tapped on the keyboard just about every night." Where in the Bible does it say you can stop loving your wife for the sake of Christian ministry?
3. THE "WHY" BEHIND THE COMMAND
We have examined the "what" and the "how" behind the love command, let's move to the third and final point, the "why" behind the command. In verse 35 Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
Many Christians are similar to the cleaning store I read about this week. As a result of poor planning, Dennis, from Katy, Texas, needed some same-day dry cleaning before he left on a trip. He remembered one store with a huge sign, 'One-Hour Dry Cleaners,' on the other side of town, so he drove out of his way to drop off a suit. After filling out the tag, he told the clerk, "I need this in an hour." She said, "I can't get this back to you until Thursday." "I thought you did dry cleaning in an hour?" replied Dennis. "No," she replied, "That's just the name of the store."
We are not to be Christians in name only. According to verse 35, our distinguishing mark is not church affiliation or a fish sticker on our rear bumper or Christian lingo or ministry or health and wealth. It's not even Sound doctrine! Verse 35 clearly says that our badge of Christian discipleship is love. And when such love for one other is put on display, a watching world should recognize us as Christ's disciples. Don't miss the condition in verse 35. If and only if we have this love for one another, will all men know that we are Christ's disciples. Love is our jersey, our tattoo, our banner, our colors, which identifies us as belonging to God's team.
Regarding the early church and the new commandment, Alexander Maclauren in Expositions of Holy Scripture said, "Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant…sat down at one table, and felt themselves all one in Christ Jesus. They were ready to break all other bonds, and yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from His Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies, and complicity in unnamable vices. It was only that disciples were obeying the new commandment, and a new thing had come into the world - a community held together by love and not by geographical accidents or linguistic affinities or the iron fetters of the conqueror…The new commandment made a new thing, and the world wondered" (Maclauren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, pg. 227-228).
Leon Morris, in his book, Reflection on the Gospel of John, remarked, "Tertullian, who lived towards the end of the second century, said that the heathen said of believers, 'Behold, how these Christians love one another!' Minucius Felix reports the comment of a heathen called Caecilius: 'They love one another almost before they know one another'…The heathen, of course, were prejudiced against the Christians. They did not like them at all and were ready to spread any slander about them. They ridiculed and opposed them. They put them in jail and executed them. But they were compelled to pay their grudging tribute to Christian love. It was undeniable. Such references ought to make modern Christians think hard. There are not many places in our busy, materialistic world where we believers so live as to compel the heathen to bear their testimony to the love we have for one another. On the contrary, they often accuse us of bickering among ourselves, of hardness, of indulging in petty criticisms of one another, of backbiting, of intolerance…Modern Christians should give serious thought to the importance of love for one another" (Morris, Reflections, p. 485-486).
Imagine with me for one moment a church where everybody loved one another as Christ loves them. Visualize with me: No backbiting, no bickering, no complaining, no sarcasm, no gossip, no rudeness; only gentleness, selflessness, service, acceptance, kindness, patience, and humility. How such a church would be a refuge for those who get abused by a persecuting and vicious world. How such a church would demonstrate to unbelievers the power of love as the solution to child abuse, abortion, divorce, crime, depression, racism, drug trafficking, pornography and terrorism. How such a church would adorn the gospel to people who are desperately seeking to find radical, genuine and faithful love. Yet based on the way some "Christians" act, I'm not surprised that the world both mocks and ignores our faith. Oh how a loving church would glorify God by reflecting His love so profoundly displayed in our lives.
Francis Schaeffer once wrote, "We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus' claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of oneness of true Christians. Now that is frightening. Should we not feel some emotion at this point" (Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World, Christianity Today, v. 34, n. 1)?
So this morning we learned that Christ has given us a new commandant to love one another. The call is to give to others the same measure of love we've received from Christ. Though the standard is high, we love this way by first realizing the love Christ has for us and then depending on the Holy Spirit to produce this love in us whereby it might overflow to others from us. And when others, especially unbelievers, see the love Christians have for each other, God will be glorified and the gospel will be adorned because we are displaying the ultimate quality as His disciple.
I conclude where we started. What is love? Based on John 13, love is personally receiving the love of Christ and then extending that same love to others through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible often compares the Christian life to a war. As soldiers of Christ we get beat up by the world, but our healing comes in the infirmary of each other's presence. The church is like the intensive care unit.
In One Church from the Fence, Wes Seelinger wrote: "I have spent long hours in the intensive care waiting room…watching with anguished people...listening to urgent questions: Will my husband make it? Will my child walk again? How do you live without your companion of thirty years? The intensive care waiting room is different from any other place in the world. And the people who wait are different. They can't do enough for each other. No one is rude. The distinctions of race and class melt away. A person is a father first, a black man second. The garbage man loves his wife as much as the university professor loves his, and everyone understands this. Each person pulls for everyone else. In the intensive care waiting room, the world changes. Vanity and pretense vanish. The universe is focused on the doctor's next report. If only it will show improvement. Everyone knows that loving someone else is what life is all about. Long before we're in the intensive care waiting room maybe we can learn to live like that" (Seelinger, Leadership, v. 16, n. 1).
And if we love like this beloved, all men will know we are Christ's disciples!
And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints" (1 Thes. 3:12-13).