“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:34–35, NASB95).
I can think of few places in the pages of Scripture where the heart of Christ is more clearly revealed than in this section of John’s gospel known as the “upper room discourse”. From 13:31 through 16:33, Jesus is pouring Himself into these 11 men whose ministry will have life-changing impact on people of every generation to follow. The crowds are gone. The betrayer is gone. It’s just Jesus and His true apostles.
And here in vs. 34-35, Jesus gives them this “new commandment” to love each other. How is loving each other something new? If we are to love our neighbor, would this not include each other? What’s new about this kind of love? Are we to love other disciples differently than we are to love those who are not in Christ?
Clearly, the love Jesus speaks of is not merely something we feel, but it is, rather, something we do. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. We are to do as He has done. This love, however, is not devoid of feelings of affection. In fact it is precisely our affection for Christ that motivates our behavior toward others who share this same affection. Jesus repeatedly reminds us that our love for Him manifests itself in our obedience to Him. JM Boice describes this love like this.
“The vertical love of disciples for the exalted Christ must be expressed horizontally in their love for all other Christians. Moreover, the horizontal love, which can be seen by everyone, is proof of the vertical dimension.” James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 1038.
If we truly love Jesus, our love for Him will be made evident by the love we show each other. There are three noteworthy characteristics of this love contained in this passage that should also be found in our behavior towards each other. This love is exclusive. This love is specific. And, this love is demonstrative.
This love is EXCLUSIVE
This is not an “All you need is love” or “What wonderful world this would be” sort of command. He’s not saying to all mankind, “Can’t we all just get along?” The love Jesus is referring to is given specifically to those who confess Him as Lord.
Let’s remind ourselves of what is happening here. Jesus is in the upper room with His apostles, but not all of His apostles. Judas has left to carry out his betrayal of Christ. The crowds that typically follow Jesus are gone, as well. He is speaking to the faithful eleven, all but one of whom will die a violent martyr’s death because of their devotion to Christ; and the one who doesn’t will spend the rest of his relatively long life suffering horrible persecution for his Lord.
It’s important to note that Jesus waited until that particular moment to give this command to these men—rather than to a crowd of people who are spiritually unable, and dispositionally disinclined to obey such an imperative. That the apostles loved Jesus is undeniable. So now, on the verge of His departure from their earthly presence, He was commanding them to turn their affection for Him into love for each other. This is a command that only those truly in Christ are able to obey.
This love is SPECIFIC
In many other places, and in many other circumstances, Jesus has commanded those listening to love. As the Logos, He commanded the children of Israel to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). When speaking to the gathered crowd, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, He revealed the identity of their neighbor as the object of generous, sacrificial love (Luke 10:25-37). In the Sermon on the Mount, He taught the people to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:43-45). But here, this command is something new. This love is reserved for those within the body of Christ—those for whom Jesus is Lord. Not only is this love to be expressed only by true disciples, but this it is to be expressed toward true disciples. He’s telling them “Love all who belong to me.”
There is a unique and special bond that believers have with each other. We have a connection to one another that runs deeper than heritage, geography, and language. And, it will outlive every other type of human relationship. The bond we share in Christ is eternal; but, this love is not private.
This love is DEMONSTRATIVE
When we love each other in this manner, it shows a watching world that our bond to each other is centered on our love for Jesus. It tells those outside this bond that we, as one body, stand together under the Lordship of Christ. It demonstrates that our devotion to Him surpasses any other factor that might otherwise divide us. In addition, when those in the world see this love at work, it opens the door for the gospel.
So, this love is exclusive, specific, and demonstrative; and, Jesus showed us how to do it. The disciples were about to find out, in stark reality, how deep Christ’s love for them would go. Jesus subjected Himself to the cruelest kind of punishment ever devised by man, primarily out of uncompromising obedience to His Father, but also because of His unfailing love for those who follow Him. That same love is extended to us as well, and serves as an example for the love we are to have for each other.
Do we truly love Christ? Our love for Christ is expressed and made evident by the love we have for all those who belong to Him. When we consider the various disputes and struggles that occur within the body of Christ, somewhere in the midst of all the strife is a failure to obey this command to love as He loves. We are one in Christ. We share our successes and our failures. We see each other’s weaknesses, and we benefit by each other’s strengths. We love each other, not because we are particularly loveable, but because we love Him. And, we love Him because He first loved us.