So what exactly is it that Jesus has commanded us to do? If our fruitfulness and our joy depend on our abiding in Him, and our abiding in Him depends upon our keeping His commandments, what are His commandments? Jesus answers the question in John 15:12: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (NKJV). The defining characteristic of the church should be love.
The first thing that should be noted is that this love is demonstrated in the context of brotherhood. Jesus directs his commandment to His disciples, and by extension to the church, of which the disciples were the core. But they were to “love one another” – it was to be a mutual love. Some people today, professing to be Christians, claim not to see any reason why they should be actively involved in a church – sometimes because of bad experiences they have had with churches in the past. But the Christian life is not something that can be lived in isolation. Its core value is love, and love is something which must be demonstrated towards others. And so Christians exist together in a community of believers, and they are commanded, by their Savior and Lord, to love each other. But in order to do that they must have regular contact with each other. Anything less than a visible demonstration of brotherly love misses the whole point of the Christian life.
But how is this love demonstrated? Jesus says that we are to love one another, “as I have loved you.” And how did He love us? “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (v. 13). This Jesus said as He was on His way to His execution! Love means that you care about others as much as you care about yourself: “. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). It is a self-sacrificing love. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). On the one hand it means a willingness to suffer wrong without retaliation. “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has love us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 4:31-5:2; cf. Col. 3:12-14).
On the positive side Christian love responds readily to human need. “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed and truth” (I John 3:17,18). If we genuinely care about a brother who happens to be in need we will try to meet that need as we are able to do so. Christians demonstrate their love for one another by serving each other. (Gal. 5:13,14) and by giving preference to each other (Rom. 12:10).
But most importantly, Christian love is expressed in church unity. We are to be “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3), and Paul goes on to remind his readers that “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called into one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (vv. 4-6; Phil. 2:1-11). When Paul says, “there is one body” he is referring to the universal church, the body of Christ. All Christians, of whatever theological opinion, are to be united.
And then, to reinforce the message, Jesus adds a remarkable promise: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (vv. 14,15). Jesus is our Lord and Master. He could, if He so desires, simply assert His authority over us and demand blind obedience. But instead He chose to His disciples “My friends,” and said that they would continue to be His friends if they continue to do what He commanded them. The difference between a servant (or “slave” – Gk. doulos) and a friend is that a servant has to yield blind obedience to his master. He does what he is told to do simply because he is told to do it. No explanation is necessary. But a friend is in an altogether different position. Friends share information with each other. And so it is with us and our relationship with Christ. He is not asking us for blind obedience, but for a knowledgeable and willing compliance with His will. It is an intimate relationship in which the reasons for the commands are made known. Granted, in one sense Jesus is our Master and we are His servants. But we are more than that – we are also His friends. What an amazing way to look at our relationship with Him!