I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Facebook today. It is one that I’ve had before and, I’m sure, one that I will have again. No doubt many of you have had similar discussions in the course of your lives. The topics? Love, truth and how Christians should or should not be behaving both inside and outside of the church walls.
So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. (John 13:34-35, NLT)
This scripture is perhaps one of the most quoted in American Christianity. It sure sounds nice, doesn’t it? It’s what we all long for and what we were created for. God, Himself, said that it was not good for man to be alone. Over six-thousand years ago, our Creator not only recognized, but installed, the deep need to love and be loved in the first man and woman. But, sometimes it seems that there is very little love to be found in this driven Western culture.
But, what is this commandment that Jesus gave to His disciples? Is it really the commandment that we have always been taught, or could there be something that we have missed?
Before we delve into the actual meaning of love in this scripture, let’s clear up what Jesus was definitely not saying. John 13:35 is very often quoted like this:
They will know you are my disciples by your love.
Do you see the difference? What Jesus actually said was, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” Jesus was not speaking about our loving actions toward the world here, but toward other Christians. Although Jesus taught us to love even our enemies, it is a mistake to believe that this is what should be inferred from His words. Just two chapters later, Jesus tells us what the world will think of us if we choose to follow Him.
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19, NKJV)
You see, the world is not supposed to love us. They are not supposed to think well of us. If they have rejected God but do not reject us we are doing something wrong. We are supposed to be salt and light to the world. Yes, salt makes food taste good and light makes our path easier to see, but salt also stings when it touches an infection (like sin) and light exposes things that are hidden in darkness. When hearts have become softened, they will begin to be drawn to Him and to His people in their search for truth. If, not, then they will continue to reject God and hate His people. So, if the world does not think that we are loving, we should rejoice because that is exactly how Jesus said they would feel about us if we were truly following Him.
Next, we must be like the Bereans of Acts 17 and reject the temptation to accept blindly everything that we are taught, and instead search the scriptures diligently to find out whether our presuppositions are accurate.
This is certainly the case with John 13:34-35. The word for love in these verses is agape, which the church has traditionally defined as divine love. As Chuck Missler teaches, however, this is not entirely accurate. In his word study on agape love, he explains that the following scripture uses the word agape:
Their judgment is based on this fact: The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. They hate the light because they want to sin in the darkness. They stay away from the light for fear their sins will be exposed and they will be punished. (John 3:19-20, NLT)
So, through careful study, which I have confirmed for myself, Missler defines agape as “to be totally given over to”. This definition, then, sheds new light on Jesus’ commandment in John 13:34-35. When we replace “love” with Missler’s definition, it reads like this:
So now I am giving you a new commandment: Be totally given over to each other. Just as I have been totally given over to you, you should be totally given over to each other. Your being totally given over to one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. (John 13:34-35, revised)
It’s amazing the difference one word can make. In America we understand love to be an emotional thing that makes us feel good. This is, I believe, the reason for the skyrocketing divorce rate, as well as the increasing unwillingness to marry at all. When we understand love to be an action, to be something that we do, it changes everything. When we are totally given over to another, everything we do will be for their own good and with eternity in mind, no matter how difficult it is or how much it hurts. This is how God behaves toward all people, both those that belong to Him as well as those who have rejected Him. It is this type of love that was carried out by the early church as they shared their whole lives. They shared all they had with each other, they shared each other’s burdens, they ate together and met regularly to study the Bible together. These were not Sunday morning Christians, but more of a family. They were, indeed, totally given over to one another. Church was not something they did, but something they were. They did not separate church from their daily lives, because it was their daily lives.
This is what the world should see when they look at us. Now, that doesn’t mean that this is what the world will say about us. That’s not what Jesus said. Jesus told His disciples that the world would know that they belonged to Him because they exercised this type of love for each other. Unfortunately, though, what we know and what we do or say do not always correspond. For example, Romans 1:20 says,
“From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God.” (NLT) In other words, God is telling us that all people know that He exists and that He created everything, yet all people do not worship God or even profess a belief in Him.
There are atheists, agnostics, and people who adhere to a variety of other belief systems which reject
God. So, just as in these instances, if the church is really totally given over to one another, the world will know that we are His disciples, whether or not they admit it to anyone but themselves.
With all of this in mind, I believe that it is time that we get back to what the church was in those early days. That we stop seeing church as a once or twice a week meeting, and start seeing it as a way of life. It is time that we stop trying to hide our flaws and imperfections, indeed our sin, from each other and live as one body, unified in the understanding that we are all just desperate sinners in need of grace and God’s help to become more like Him. And, it is time, that we stop finding pleasure in discovering the sins of a fellow believer because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Perhaps, then, the church can become a safe, transparent place for followers of Christ to grow and mature together so that we can be the salt and light to this world that we are called to be.