Let me begin today with a question. What is the one distinguishing
mark of a Christian? What is it above everything else that would communicate to those who are not followers of Jesus that we are His disciples? Obviously, the fact that we believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior sets us apart from those who do not believe that. But in terms of how we live, what should be so much a part of who we are that even those who do not profess to have faith in Christ could not help but notice?
Well, Jesus answered that question for us. And the answer has nothing to do with how religious we are, or how moral we are, or how often we attend church. Not that those things aren’t important, but those are not what set us apart as followers of Jesus. Let’s look at John 13:34-35 to see how Jesus answered that question.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are
my disciples, if you love one another.
When Jesus spoke these words, it was His last night before He would be crucified. He had just finished washing the disciples’ feet. In that very humble act of service Jesus demonstrated the full extent of His love for His disciples. For washing their feet symbolized a far greater washing that would soon occur – the cleansing of their souls from sin and shame. That cleansing would take place through Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus dying for us that we might live is the full extent of His love, for it would be impossible to love any more than that. And Jesus added that we are to follow His example by loving and serving others.
After Jesus washed their feet, Judas left to carry out his act of betrayal. Then Jesus continued to teach the remaining eleven, and as a part of that gave them this new command.
As I said, Jesus knew that in just a few hours He would be gone, having completed His earthly ministry. But Jesus will not leave without a witness. His work will and must go on. People must be made aware of God and His love. People must be shown how they can enter into a personal relationship with God, having their sins forgiven and thereby receive God’s gracious gift of eternal life.
What was God’s strategy for this? How could the movement continue after Jesus was no longer physically here? Well, in these two short verses Jesus gave us the key. Jesus commanded His disciples that they must love one another even as He had loved them, and through this love the world would know that they were His disciples. When people see others loving one another with a love that is unconditional, sacrificial, and active, they will know that these people are different, for the world cannot produce this kind of love. And the implication is, of course, that people will be drawn to this love and the One who is the source of this love.
To understand this command the first thing for us to note is that Jesus told us how we are to love one another. Jesus told His disciples that they were to love one another as He had loved them. The love that Jesus demonstrated is our model for loving. And how did Jesus love?
Jesus loved the disciples to the fullest extent possible. In offering up His life for them – and us – Jesus showed that His love knows no limits. At one point, Jesus said (Jn. 15:13), “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
When Jesus said this, He wasn’t simply reflecting on the nature of love; He was making reference to His own love for His disciples. He knew that soon He would lay His life down for all His friends. So Jesus loved His disciples with the greatest kind of love possible – putting the needs of others first, even at the cost of His life. That’s how He loved, and that’s how we are to love - putting the needs and interests of others ahead of our own.
Now in addition to understanding how Jesus loved, we must also note just who were the recipients of this great love. It’s true, of course, that both Jesus’ love and this command are for all His followers, but originally this was addressed to eleven specific people. There were twelve, but by this point Judas had left the group. So to get the full impact of this command - to love others as He loved us - and what it means for us, we must first look at just who these eleven men were that Jesus loved so completely. As we do that, we will see that they were certainly not an easy bunch to love. Far from it in fact.
Take James and John. They were nicknamed “the Sons of Thunder.” That sounds real loveable, doesn’t it? Remember the time when a certain Samaritan village did not welcome Jesus. James and John had just the answer. “Lord,” they asked, “do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Not exactly kindhearted, were they?
Then there was the time when, along with their mother, they approached Jesus toward the end of His ministry with a request: “When you enter your kingdom, grant that we may sit with you, one on your right and one on your left.”
They had just spent three years with Jesus, and yet they still had not grasped who Jesus was. They didn’t comprehend what the heart of His teaching was nor what the thrust of His ministry was. The fact of the matter is they were in it for themselves. They saw following Jesus as a way to enhance their own prestige, their own reputation. It was an opportunity to gain power. And they wanted to make sure they got more than the other disciples. When Jesus would finally establish His kingdom, there they would be in positions of honor, immediately on the right and left of Jesus.
You’ve probably known some people like that, haven’t you? Perhaps you have some colleagues at work whose only concern is their own prestige and advancement. They want to take credit for everything that is good, even if they had little to do with it, and they always have to be in the limelight. At a party, they have to be the center of attention. They’re not easy to love, are they?
Or consider Peter. Do you suppose Jesus ever became annoyed with Peter? If Peter lived in the wild west He would be the guy to shoot first and ask questions later. “Leap before you look!” would be Peter’s motto.
Peter saw Jesus walking on the water so he thought he should do it also, and Jesus had to come to his rescue. When the Roman troops came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, Peter whacked off the ear of one of the Roman slaves. There they are, eleven disciples with Jesus, and Peter wants to take on a whole Roman detachment of soldiers. Not only did Peter miss the whole essence of who Jesus is and why He came, but he almost got them all killed right there. Jesus had to quickly intervene and restore the man’s ear. Bailing Peter out must have been something Jesus became quite good at.
And of course, when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was, Peter gave the correct response when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But when Jesus said, “That’s right, and I must go to Jerusalem where I will suffer, be killed, and then be raised on the third day,” Peter shot back, “No way! This shall never happen to you!” And from Jesus’ response we can see that Peter allowed himself to be used by Satan to try to get Jesus to change His course of action and thus not fulfill the purpose the Father had for Him.
And as we well know, when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. How would you do at loving someone who constantly misunderstood you, made life unnecessarily difficult for you, and then denied even knowing you? Peter was not easy to love.
Or take Matthew. Until the moment Jesus called Matthew he was a tax collector. Tax collectors don’t have the best reputation today, but it’s nothing compared to being a tax collector for the Romans in first century Palestine. It meant you were a traitor, collecting taxes for the cruel oppressor of your people. And the motivation for betraying your people was simple – money! That’s what Matthew cared most about – his own financial well-being. The way he got ahead was by charging more than the required amount. Anything over and above the basic tax rate was his to keep. He got rich by robbing his countrymen. That’s not an easy kind of guy to love.
On the other end of the spectrum was Simon the Zealot. The Zealots opposed the payment of taxes by Israel to Rome, for they saw that as treason – contributing to a pagan, idol-worshiping nation. In the year 6 AD, the Zealots launched a rebellion against Rome. Though unsuccessful, the spirit of revolt against Rome by the Zealots continued until their last stronghold at Masada fell in 74 AD. Simon was a Zealot, and while he wanted to honor the one true God, he was a political fanatic, and it’s hard to love people who are fanatics about anything, for they are always trying to push their view on others and have no tolerance for those who hold a different opinion.
Thomas, of course, will forever be remembered as the one who doubted. When Jesus was raised from the dead just as He said, and then appeared to some of the disciples, Thomas refused to believe. Have you ever been around someone who refused to believe in you? Maybe it was a coach who didn’t think could get the job done and so never gave you a chance to play. Or maybe it was a teacher who advised you not to go to university because you’d never make it. It’s hard, isn’t it, to love or even like those who doubt you, who don’t believe in you.
These are the ones that Jesus loved – flawed to the core. And the amazing thing is that Jesus loves each one of us just as much. He even loves the “them” in us, for there is a part of each of them in each of us.
For instance, aren’t we all sometimes like James and John seeking to be on the right and left of Jesus? Don’t we all sometimes have the wrong motives, no matter how carefully we try to disguise them? Aren’t we all at times motivated by selfish desires? If we’re honest, don’t we have to admit that often our main concern is our own glory and recognition, prestige and position? Don’t we all struggle with pride and the desire to get our own way?
And aren’t we all sometimes like Peter, just plowing ahead with our own plans and agenda, without a clue as to if that is really God’s will? Like Peter trying to walk on water, don’t we all do some things for which Jesus has to bail us out because we didn’t check it out with Him first?
And like Peter cutting off the ear of the slave, don’t we sometimes do things that damage Jesus’ reputation? Imagine, Jesus had just spent three years teaching and demonstrating love, telling His followers to love even their enemies. That’s what Jesus was known for. And then one of His closest friends, one of the inner circle, does just the opposite by lashing out with his sword. What did that say about Jesus to those who came out to arrest Him? What a blow to His name, His reputation. Peter struck a severe blow to the slave; but he struck an even more severe blow to Jesus’ reputation.
But we sometimes do the same, don’t we? It may be telling an off-color joke at work, or showing indifference to someone in need, or swearing at the umpire at our child’s sporting event, or harboring racist attitudes, or gossiping about someone at work, or living a materialistic lifestyle, or a host of other things.
When we do these things, we make a mockery of Jesus and of the Christian faith. Dorothy Sayers commented that God has undergone three great humiliations. The first was the Incarnation, when God the Creator became like the creature in taking on human flesh in Jesus Christ.
The second was the cross, where God subjected Himself to the will and fickleness of His creatures, even enduring the suffering and humiliation of a public execution.
The third humiliation of God, Sayers suggests, is the church. You are known by the company you keep, and God is known by those who claim to be His, and far too often, the church in general, including you and I, have failed to accurately represent who God is and what His character is like. As with Peter, by our actions we have damaged the reputation of God.
And like Peter denying three times that he knew Jesus, we probably all have to confess that sometimes we are ashamed of Jesus. Through our words or through our silence, we deny that we know Him, that we belong to Him. We are afraid of what others might think, and so we deny Him.
And we all are sometimes like Matthew. Is there anyone here who doesn’t struggle in some way with materialism? Aren’t we at times motivated simply by the desire, even the drive for more and more? Are not our lives sometimes characterized more by the values of this world than the values of the Kingdom?
At times perhaps we resemble Simon the Zealot. Like Simon, maybe we are always trying to push our political views or our views regarding other matters on others, and we cannot tolerate those who see things differently. We even allow our differences of opinion to separate from others; sometimes friendships are destroyed. And like Simon, maybe we confuse our political views, and the means of attaining our desired ends, with God’s agenda.
Surely we are all at times like Thomas. We all have our doubts, don’t we, no matter how many times God has proven Himself faithful to us? Perhaps we doubt a matter of doctrine or belief, such as the second coming of Christ. Or maybe we doubt God’s promises to us or His love for us. It could be we doubt that God could really forgive our sins. Perhaps we doubt when we are confronted with death, wondering if God really is on the other side to meet us. Like Thomas, maybe we doubt that Jesus really did rise from the dead. We all have our doubts.
Yes, those disciples were not chosen by Jesus because they had it all together and they were just wonderful guys to be around. No, the fact is they were a hard bunch to love. And the truth is we resemble those disciples much more than we’d like to admit.
But the good news is that Jesus loved them so much He died for them, and He loves each one of us just as much as He loved them. Jesus loved those men with all their quirks and faults, and He loves us with just as great a love.
So before this exhortation to love one another as He loved us is a command, it is first a gift. It is the gift of God’s love for us, no matter who we are or what we have done. God loves us to the uttermost, to the fullest extent possible, and we can’t do anything to make Him love us any less. The biblical pattern is always God’s gracious action on our behalf, and then our response to God. Before God tells us to do something, He has already done something for us. Before He gives us the command to love, He has first loved each one of us just as we are. As I Jn. 4:19 states, “We love because He first loved us.”
So how will we respond to God’s gracious outpouring of love for us? First, we have the gift of His love, but then we have the command to love one another with this same kind of love. Will we obey and love one another?
The fact is it is often difficult to love one another. The disciples may have been shocked to hear Jesus command them to love each other as He loved them. For that meant they had to love James and John, who were trying to push the rest of the disciples out of their way so they could have places of prominence and recognition. It meant Matthew and Simon the Zealot had to love each other – one who sold out to the Romans for personal gain and the other who was trying to overthrow the Romans.
It’s not much different today. In any church, there will be plenty of people who challenge our capacity to love. Loving others doesn’t come automatically. When we receive Christ as our Savior we are not instantly filled with love for one another. If that were so Jesus would not have had to command us to love one another. As it is, we have to work at it. So Jesus gave us the gift of His love, the example of how to love, and then the command to love.
Now it’s important to note that Jesus is not saying we must always have feelings of love for one another. The Greek word for love here is agape, which is an active love that works for the good of the other. That’s the love Jesus showed for us when He died for us. That’s how we are to love one another – considering the needs and interests of others and not just our own.
It’s not easy to love one another because not only do each of us as individuals resemble those disciples with all their flaws and weaknesses, but so does that person on the pew next to you. They have their share of flaws. They do things that irritate you. They have different opinions on things than you do. Someone has written a short little verse that goes like this:
To live above with the saints we love
Ah, that would be glory.
To live below with the saints we know,
Well, that’s another story.
The fact is that each one of us has certain things about us that make it hard for others to love us. And the temptation is to focus on those negative or unattractive things in each other. Or because we disagree with someone about something, we dismiss them and don’t actively show love to them.
But this is what Jesus calls us to – to love as He loves us. And we do this not only for the sake of one another, but also as a testimony to the world. That’s what Jesus said. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Anyone can love the lovely, those who are easy to love because they look and think and act just like us, those who don’t have any of the quirks that just drive us crazy. But because we have experienced God’s gracious and unconditional love, we are to be different. We also are to love unconditionally. We are to love with the same kind of love with which Jesus loves us. We are to love those who are hard to love.
When we do that, and only when we do that, will the world know that we are His disciples. We can say what we want, but only when we live differently from the world, only when we live in a way that the world is incapable of living, only when we love each other with the same love Jesus has for us, only then will we give a credible witness to the world. If we do not do this, then all our activities and programs of outreach are meaningless.
Why is love the distinguishing mark of the Christian and of the church? Why not other positive qualities like wisdom or power or morality? Because unconditional, sacrificial love is the one thing that the world cannot duplicate and Satan cannot counterfeit. In a selfish, greedy, me-centered world, Christ-like love for one another is the one thing that will captivate those who have never experienced such love.
Tertullian was a leader in the church in the second century. Some of his writings have survived, and in one instance he wrote of what the pagans, the non-Christians were saying about the Christians of that time. As they observed their Christian neighbors, the non-Christians said, “See how they love one another. How ready they are to die for one another.” It was not any easier to love back then than it is now. But those early Christians allowed the love of Christ to fill them and transform them so they could love in the same way.
This is what God calls us to. This is what God calls this church to – to be a body of believers who may not always agree on everything and who sometimes annoy each other, but one thing you can count on: This group of imperfect people loves one another.
Even though this church may be filled with James’s and Johns and Peters and Matthews and Simons the Zealot and Thomas’s, nevertheless we are willing to lay our lives down for each other in love.
For that is what we have received from our Lord. That is His gift to us, and so it is also His command to us. So brothers and sisters, let us love one another even as He has loved us.