As we resume our study of John 15, and come to verse 9, it can be no occasion for surprise that the theme of love recurs. As we have already noted, it is the unifying theme of this section of the gospel, written by the one who reclined in the bosom of his Lord (13:23,25).
The love of Jesus
In John 15:9, our Lord first mentions the love his Father has for himself and then proceeds to state that this love is reflected in the affection he bears to his followers, and surely his disciples of all ages are embraced by this same love. Then we take note of another key word in these chapters, “abide” (v. 10). Each of the eleven is invited to make his experience of Christ’s love a permanent feature of his relationship with Jesus. With our flawed and self-centered human nature, it is all too easy to allow some experience to make us lose sight of the Lord’s great love for us. Yet the experience of that love is the supreme privilege life can offer. In an abiding relationship with our Lord, there is the guarantee of eternal life, that life which was with the Father and was manifested in the person of His Son (See I John 1:2).
The experience of this love is the condition of knowing joy, a joy which is to be “in” the believer. Thus we come again to another fundamental theme of these unforgettable chapters, “joy” in the believer, as a part of his very being. It is the inward unforgettable experience alone of this joy which can lead to its being fulfilled, or “complete” (REB).
Then the Lord (in v. 12), patient teacher as ever, returns to the commandment he has already given; the apostles are to love one another, with that love which the Lord himself has manifested in humbly serving them (cf. 13:34). So they must not be allowed to forget this love, and they are reminded of the quality which should characterize it: “even as I have loved you.”
It is the next verse (13) which, in unforgettable language, reveals how this love manifests itself in the voluntary sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of the other: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Here is a truth to ponder, to be thought about constantly. As for the eleven, they were very soon to have what we may term practical experience of this love for in the garden, when the authorities came to arrest our Lord, he deliberately called attention away from the others. Lest the apostles should become involved in the arrest, Jesus focused attention on himself (18:7). When in reply to his question they answered they had come to arrest him, he said simply, “if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way” (18:8).
Obedience is outflow of belief
But, to be sure, there is an additional dimension to the truth that the Lord laid down his life for his friends. The very language he uses echoes what he had already declared in the allegory of the good shepherd. In chapter 10, the thought of the surrender of his life recurs insistently; it is in verses 11,15,17,18. In obedience to his Father, his life is being laid down (10:18), and because this is so, he will be able to give his sheep eternal life, and they will never perish (v. 28).
There is another great truth in John 10 which anticipates what he says to the eleven in the upper room: the sheep hear his voice and respond to it (see vs. 3,4,16,27). Implicit in these verses in John 10 is the notion that not only do the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice, but they follow the shepherd (v. 4) by which we are surely to understand they act in implicit obedience to him. This is the thought which we find again in John 15:14: “Ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you.” Yet once more, we must take account of a truth laid down insistently by our Lord: our discipleship is an empty concept if we do not carry out in full the commands of our Lord. In the great picture of the redeemed in Revelation 14, we read what we have noted in John 10 and 15: “These are they which follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev. 14:4).
Believers not servants, but friends
In John 15:15, the Lord reveals another token of his graciousness: the eleven are no longer to be regarded as his bondservants, but as his “friends.” In the incident of the washing of their feet, he had made clear what relationship existed between himself and his followers: he was their Lord and master (teacher – REB). In the Roman world of the time, the slaves would have little knowledge of their master’s purposes. They existed on a totally lower plane. Henceforward the Lord’s followers are to enjoy a higher status: they are to be made acquainted with all the Lord himself has been taught by his Father.
This process will continue after his resurrection, for then he will open their minds to understand his mission in its fullness (cf. Luke 24:45). This assurance that the Lord is disclosing all his personal knowledge to the apostles should give us confidence in their teaching, preserved in the Acts and the epistles they have left.
The call of Jesus not to be rejected
The Lord then proceeds to remind the eleven that the position they occupied, and were to occupy in the Lord’s service and as his ambassadors to the world, was not of their choosing. He had called them, and that after consultation with his Father in prayer (see Luke12:12-13). But here, in keeping with the great truths enunciated in the allegory of the vine, he reminds his hearers that the purpose of their call was to bear fruit, and this fruit was to abide (once more we take note of one of the key words in these chapters in John). Now we need to heed especially the thought enunciated by Jesus: the thought of God’s response to their prayers was contingent upon their bearing fruit, the fruit of the spirit. The understanding of Christian dogma can be barren, even dangerous, unless it is accompanied by humility and love.
We need look no further than the next verse for a confirmation of this reflection, for yet again the Lord reminds the eleven of the fundamental need for brotherly love: “These things I command you, that ye love one another.” The threefold enunciation of this command (13:34;15:12, and now in v. 17) is a powerful token of its importance. Where there is schism and division, somewhere the Lord’s reiterated commandment has been forgotten.
One of the experiences of life in the Lord Jesus is the possibility of persecution (which the apostles certainly endured), of hostility shown in various ways, or of indifference, even of contempt and mockery and ultimately, for some of them, death (cf. Acts 17:32; II Peter 3:3). The Lord warns the eleven that as the world (the Jewish leaders in particular) has hated him, so will the apostles be hated (v. 18). If the Lord’s followers lived in conformity with contemporary practices, they would be accepted, for the world, or society, loves its own. When a different way of life is adopted, society can feel criticized, and the possibility of misunderstanding arises.1
The principle of separation
The Lord tells his listeners that he has chosen them out of the world to form a new society. The growth of monasticism in the Christian world was an attempt to escape from society. But this was not what the Lord required and Paul, with his wide experience of all the problems encountered by his converts, understands the tensions which could arise in the experience of the early Christians, and faces the problem. In the case of the Corinthians, affected in some cases by the world of which they formed a part, the Apostle instructs them not to consort with fornicators, yet they could not altogether avoid contact with them, for that would mean withdrawing from society altogether (I Cor. 5;9-10). The answer for the Lord’s disciples is to follow his example, and to make the body, as he did, a temple of the holy spirit (see John 2:19-21; I Cor. 3:16; 6:19, also II Cor. 6:16). John himself, an attentive listener to the Lord’s words, was later to write: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I John2:16).
But there is reassurance as well as solemn warning in what the Lord says to the eleven: “If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” Their witness to him and their preaching of the gospel would not be in vain, and Acts 21:20 informs us that in Jewry itself there were many thousands who had embraced the faith, a process initiated on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41).
In our next study, we hope to discuss the reason which lies at the heart of all unbelief.
Tom Barling, Teignmouth, England
1 It was not difficult for Nero, himself suspected of instigating the great fire ofRome, to transfer the responsibility to the Christians. There is clear evidence, especially in the Roman historian Tacitus, of misunderstanding of the Christian attitude to the state, and to their follow men.