Most of us know that Jesus told us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:31). It’s a common phrase among Christians, being called the second greatest commandment by Jesus (after ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – Mark 12:30), and even among non-Christians the idea that you should at least treat others as you would want to be treated is pretty widely accepted. And this is a good thing, of course it is. It is always good when a command of Jesus is so widely regarded. However, Jesus was not giving a new command here, he was simply restating the Old Testament law. And as He says Himself, Jesus came to fulfil the law, as in, it was not complete before He came. With that in mind, and with Easter Sunday around the corner, I want to draw attention to a new commandment that Jesus gave the night before His trial:
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
John gives us more than any of the other gospel writers of the words Jesus spoke the night before His crucifixion, and though all of them are life-transforming, it is this command that I want to focus on now. This command, I believe, takes the commandment of the Old Testament to the next level. Rather than using ourselves as the standard for love, the standard is now Jesus. For all that we desire love, we are flawed and imperfect, and we’re not capable of knowing what perfect love truly is, let alone capable of showing it. This is in keeping with the message of the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus took the commandments of the Old Testament to a new level, culminating in the command to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Therefore, just as we are called to be perfect in resisting sin, we are called to be perfect in love, to love as Jesus (i.e. God) loves.
Unfortunately, that’s impossible. Just like it’s impossible to banish every lustful thought, every shred of non-righteous anger, every hint of pride. It’s impossible for a single human to reach God’s standards. It’s impossible for us to love perfectly in the way that Jesus commanded us to. To love God with everything we have, maybe, just maybe, we could manage. To love others as we love ourselves, that’s probably even more manageable. But to love one another as Jesus loved us? That’s impossible.
So what’s Jesus asking us to do? Surely there’s a rational explanation…maybe Jesus is using exaggeration to emphasise His point, and really we should just try and copy His example in loving people as much as possible, without actually achieving the same level as Him.
It’s true that Jesus does appear to use exaggeration for emphasis at points in His teaching, but I don’t think that this is one of those times. This is a commandment, and it’s given as a simple imperative. Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus expects this of us, but how?
It has to do with what He accomplished on the Easter weekend. Jesus died so that through Him we could be seen as righteous and perfect before God (Isaiah 53:11). , and able to share in glory (Romans 8:17), but more than that, when we accept His sacrifice, Jesus lives in us; the life that we now live in the flesh is lived through faith in God, it’s not us in control of it anymore (Galatians 2:20). What all this means is that whilst Jesus expects perfection from us, at know point does He expect us to achieve that on our own. His blood makes us righteous before God, and His Spirit helps us to live in a way that reflects that.
That’s the Holy Spirit. I don’t have time for ideas that say that God isn’t active today, because the only way that any sort of ‘Christian life’ is possible is if the Holy Spirit of God is present and living in the lives of real people living now. Jesus Himself promised that the Spirit would come to dwell with us (John 14:17). The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus has said and constantly points us towards Him (verse 26). The Spirit is called a Helper in John 14, and that is what He primarily is for us: He helps us to do what we never could do on our own: to love as Jesus loved, and to live lives pleasing to God the Father.
So what does it look like to love as Jesus loves? That love is sacrificial, humble, and overwhelmingly generous. That’s a starting place, but the only way to know and live that love for yourself is to see it first at the cross of Christ, then in His incredible ascension to the right hand of God, where He remains to hear our prayers and to bring them before the Father, and finally in the ongoing work of the Spirit, who strengthens us and equips us to live this love for ourselves.
As Easter Sunday comes around, let’s remember this command, to love one another as Jesus loved us, as we clearly remember what He did, and what that love looks like.