15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 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 4:13-21 ESV
Christians are to be known for their love. And that love is not up for debate or a negotiable part of the Christian experience. It’s a mandatory divine imperative. It was Jesus who said, “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” (John 13:34 ESV). It’s a command, not a suggestion. And Jesus uses His love of us as the gold standard. He sets the bar high and expects us to reach it because our love for one another will provide the world with evidence that we belong to Him.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35 ESV
But, according to the apostle John, our ability to love one another will also provide tangible proof of our salvation – to us.
If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. – 1 John 3:14 NLT
And the kind of love of which Jesus is speaking is not to be confused with the counterfeit kind of love the world offers. Worldly love is fickle because it’s usually based on the loveliness or lovableness of the one being loved. It also tends to be reciprocal in nature. In other words, it’s a love that lasts only as long as the other party loves us back. And worldly love is essentially a love of self. It involves a cost-benefit analysis or risk-reward assessment that helps us determine if the love expended will be worth it.
But Jesus wasn’t using worldly love as the model. He offered His own love as the sole criteria for emulation and evaluation.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:10-14 ESV
It’s important to note that these words were spoken to His disciples before His crucifixion. While He had tried to tell them that His death was inevitable and unavoidable, they had refused to believe Him. And, as a result, this command was lacking its full significance for them. They only had the last 3-1/2 years of life with Jesus as evidence of His love. While they recognized Jesus as being special, they probably thought His brand of love was well within their capacity to replicate. And, as far as laying down their lives, it was Peter who had told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35 ESV). But when the time came, Peter didn’t follow through on his commitment. Rather than die on behalf of Jesus, he chose to deny Him.
Jesus’ reference to someone laying down their life for a friend probably escaped the disciples. But it would not be long before they recognized the full import of those words. Jesus eventually made His way to Jerusalem, where He was arrested, tried, convicted, and murdered. And the apostle John later explained the full significance of Jesus’ actions and their implications for us as His followers.
We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16 NLT
That is what Jesus meant when He had said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And that is the kind of love He expects us to show one another. It’s sacrificial and selfless in nature. It is other-oriented and expects nothing in return. And it has nothing to do with the loveliness and lovableness of the recipient. As the apostle Paul reminds us, it was “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t deserve His love. In fact, we were His enemies, standing opposed to the will of He and His Father. And just so we don’t misunderstand and assume that this kind of love is only required for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus provided us with clarification.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” – Matthew 5:43-45 NLT
It’s relatively easy to love a friend. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And Paul ups the ante by reminding us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Romans 5:6-7 NLT). The kind of love Jesus commands is a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love. It is intended for all. No hidden clauses or list of unworthy candidates. Paul doesn’t want us to miss that “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). And that’s the kind of love Jesus expects us to practice.
But how? It all seems so impossible to pull off? And that’s the point. That’s why Jesus said it would prove to the world that we were His disciples. And it would prove to us that we have truly been saved. That kind of love is impossible. It is divine. It is not something we manufacture on our own. Which is why John said, “We love because he first loved us.” It was His love for us that makes it possible for us to love others. When Jesus commanded His disciples to love others the same way He had loved them, He was speaking prophetically. He was referring to His coming death, when the Good Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:10). It would be His death, burial, and resurrection that made the love He commanded possible.
We can love as He did because He loved us as He did. His selfless, sacrificial death is what makes possible the kind of love He demands of us. And the power behind that kind of love does not come from us, but it does come from within us – in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the capacity to love as Jesus loved. We have the power to live and love as He did.
Look closely at John’s words: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:19 ESV). We have the love of God, in the form of the Spirit of God, living within us. When we love Him, we are simply returning His love to Him. When we love others, we are sharing His love of us with those around us. We become conduits of His love. Loving others is not an option for us, because we have the love of God living within us. Yes, our old natures get in the way and cause us to live out our former patterns of selfish, self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But John would have us remember that the love of God abides in us. And what is resident in us must flow out from us. Jesus was loved by God and that love did not rest or remain on Him. He shared it with those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus gave His life because He loved His Father. And His love of the Father showed up in His love for the lost.
Again, look closely at John’s words:
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. – 1 John 4:20 ESV
The proof of Jesus’ love for the Father is found in His love of others. Jesus lived out His love for God by expressing it in sacrificial, selfless love for others. And He calls us to do the same.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.