Judas had now left the room, and Jesus was now free to address those who remained as His genuine disciples. And He begins by addressing them as “little children” (John 13:33: NKJV). This is significant because it tells us how He saw His relationship with His disciples and, by extension, us. On the one hand we are “little children” – we are not His equals; there is a vast disparity between Him and us. And so He is a kind of father-figure to us – strong and wise, and able to take care of us in our need. And we, for our part, are finite and limited, and absolutely dependent on Him.
But “little children” is also a term of endearment. We bear a special relationship with Him, and because of that He has a special, warm, personal love for us. It is reminiscent of the description of a father’s love found in Psalm 103:13,14:
“As a father pities his children
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame,
He remembers that we are dust.”
And so, as Jesus looks around the table at His remaining disciples, His genuinely committed disciples, and He reflects on what is about to happen to Him and where that will leave them, He is filled with compassion and concern over their well-being.
And so He continues: “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I way to you” (v. 33). In other words, He was leaving, and was leaving them behind in the world. They will seek Him, they will want to be with Him, but He will not be there. And then He repeats to them what He had previously told the Jews: “Where I am going, you cannot come” (cf. Jn. 7:34; 8:21). The disciples probably did not understand what He meant by this – it was an oblique reference to the fact that He was about to be crucified, resurrected from the dead, and the then ascended into heaven. It was all a part of the special mission to which He was assigned by God the Father. The disciples themselves would eventually be martyred, but not right away. And that meant that there would be a length of time during which they would be separated from their Master.
The question then is, how were they to function in His absence? And the first thing that He tells them is, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). God has always required human beings to love each other. Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament reads, in part, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus had previously said that this was the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39,40) How then is it a “new commandment”? This answer lies in the phrase “As I have loved you.” What was new was Christ’s personal example – His willingness to die on the cross to save lost sinners – something that was unique and unprecedented in human history. And Jesus says that this is the way we should love one another: “as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
This, in turn, is to be the distinguishing mark of the church: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (v. 35). It was this kind of brotherly love that sets Christians apart from the fallen world around them. It is the kind of love that is possible only through the inward renewal by the Holy Spirit, transforming us inwardly and making us more like Christ. And this is what should strike unbelievers when they look at the church – a fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters who genuinely love and actively care for one another.
This can only happen, of course, if the church is a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. On this point the 16th Century Anabaptists were absolutely right, and it is one of the so-called “Baptist distinctives.” And so far have modern Baptist churches, and evangelical Bible-believing churches generally, strayed from the biblical ideal, that oftentimes outsiders can see little difference between the church and the world. It is a sad commentary on the current state of affairs that James Baldwin, the prominent African-American writer and civil rights activist, could tell an NAACP gathering in 1973:
“I am obviously opposed to the Christian church. It has a pretty
shameful record. Let’s leave it at that. But to be opposed to the
Christian church and to loathe its history is not to say that I hate
you or anybody else. In fact, that’s my argument with the Christian
church: precisely that there is no love in it.”
(European Stars and Stripes, Feb. 27, 1973)
That an outsider could say such a thing about the church is an absolute scandal. What a reproach on the name of Christ!
Part of the problem stems from the fact that many churches have weak views on conversion and regeneration, taking people into their membership who show little evidence of repentance or a changed life. The problem then is often compounded by lax standards of church discipline. The end result is that the church’s testimony in the community is ruined.
What the world needs to see is a fellowship of believers in close communion with God and a loving relationship with each other. Only then can we manifest the life of Christ to the world.