Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Greater love has no man..."

This point has been bothering me for a while... most people probably haven't even put a lot of thought into this, but for months it's been nagging at me. I finally decided to post on it tonight after hearing someone actually use the quote right (at long last!).

John 15:13 is probably one of the most misunderstood (or at least, misunderstood when quoted) passages I can think of in the entire New Testament, if not the entire Bible. Jesus was speaking to His disciples and said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." We often say this - in a very well-meaning way, of course - as referring to how Christ laid down His life for us, seeing us as friends, and thus being the greatest of all men. Certainly, He was the greatest of all men. But this verse is saying something more, something that's honestly a lot deeper and richer than the meaning we usually assign it.

There's a reason that exegetical reading of the text is considered so important a part of Christian doctrine (exegesis being the process of basically reading the text and letting it interpret itself, rather than reading a specific, desired interpretation into the text). There's also a reason that the best teachers of Scripture always rely on the context - and the reason is simple: the context in which something is said makes all the difference. For a concrete example, before I return to my primary discussion: the Bible very clearly and openly states, "There is no God." Rather stunning moment, eh? Well, only if you take it out of context - it actually reads, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 14:1). Context is essential. Likewise, in this passage in the New Testament, the context of what Jesus was teaching is critical to our understanding the passage as He actually taught it.

Jesus was speaking here of how the disciples ought to behave toward each other and toward Him. Starting in verse 12 of John chapter 15, Jesus begins a short sermon (in the context of His final, lengthy sermon to His disciples before His crucifixion) on their relationships with each other. He begins by saying in verse 14, "This is My commandment, that you lov eone another, just as I have loved you." Moving from there into 13, He continues that thought by saying that the greatest love they can demonstrate toward each other is by laying down their lives as servants for each other (and physically, if necessary). Furthermore, they are His friends when they do the things He commands (15:14) - that is, when they lay down their lives for Him. He then immediately notes that they are no longer slaves but friends. The passage, contrary to how it is often quoted, is a discussion of how we ought to behave toward each other. It is not a description of what Christ did for us.

In fact, the description of what Christ did for us would sound quite different from this - if we were to accurately use this passage in a discussion of what Jesus accomplished, it would be in contrast to His atoning death on the cross. No man loves - in his own strength - anyone other than his friends, and it takes an exceptional man to just put aside his own wants for his friends on a regular basis, much less to physically die for them. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, didn't come for those who were already righteous, but died quite intentionally for his enemies. The concept of someone who dies only for his friends at best stands in stark contrast with the God-man who surrendered His life for those who persecuted and hated Him - for those of (namely you and me) who by our willful rejection of God required an atoning sacrifice.

That's love. And it's not how that passage gets used.

Grace and peace be with all of you!

- Chris

1 comment:

  1. Good points... I think I have almost always heard it preached in the way you presented it, but I know I've also heard it referred to as describing what Christ did for us. You were right in saying that He died for those who were His enemies. I might add that He died for those who were His enemies *so that* we could become His friends. Isn't it an amazing thing that He did??! But that's why He is amazing. And it is why we are to love one another (even dying physically for each other, if necessary)--He died for each of us and has made us His brethren, and since we are to model His love for us to each other, then we are to love and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.


Got some thoughts? Fire away. Please be polite, thoughtful, and kind! Please provide your name and, if applicable, website. Anonymous comments, along with all forms of spam, trolling, and personal attacks, will be deleted.