Jesus goes on to reinforce the command to “love one another” by saying, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16; NKJV). This takes us into deep and difficult doctrine of election. Jesus clearly states, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” Some have imagined that the doctrine of election would leave to a life of lawlessness and sin. If God is the One who does the choosing, if it is not my free will that chooses to become a Christian, then why should I exercise my will to live a godly life? But that line of reasoning misses the whole point of election. God had a specific purpose in mind when he chose us, and that was to redeem us from sin, set us apart from the world, and consecrate us to live lives that are pleasing to Him. Jesus chose us, “that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” If we have been chosen by God, if we have experienced the work of grace in our hearts, we will be people different from what we were before we were saved. We are new creatures in Christ Jesus (II Cor. 5:17), and so we live differently. Our aim now is to please Him. And it is significant that Jesus specifically says that He wants us to bear fruit, and that our fruit should remain. He wants us to be successful in the Christian life; He does not want us to be defeated Christians.
And Jesus further reinforces the exhortation by reminding them of what He had told them earlier, “. . .that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give it to you” (cf. v. 7). One of the benefits of having a vital connection to Christ is that He acts as our intercessor. If we pray in His name, our request carries the weight of His authority behind it, and the Father will not deny a request from His Son! This is all the more reason why it is vitally important that we remain in close fellowship with the Son. And so Jesus comes back to His original point: “These things I command you, that you love one another” (v. 17).
The practical implications of all of this are hard for American Christians in particular to grasp. We are used to a plethora of denominations dominated by a professional clergy. We accept divisions within the Body of Christ as normal, and can scarcely conceive of the existence of a universal church. Yet Jesus is beseeching His disciples – all of His disciples – both then and now, to love each other. That means that there are several things about American church life that are highly problematic.
Perhaps the first thing that should be mentioned is overbearing pastors. Most churches today have just a single pastor; or, if they are large enough to have more than one, one is designated as the “senior pastor.” This pastor, or senior pastor, is then in charge of the ministry of the church. Unfortunately in some cases he can be an overbearing tyrant, and some churches have been brought to ruin by poor decisions made by the impulsive and stubborn personality in charge.
But the model of church life that we see in the New Testament was quite different. All of the believers within a given geographical area were considered members of a single church, and if the Christian community in Jerusalem is any indication, one of these community-wide churches could number up into the thousands. Within this larger church there would be smaller groups that would meet in private homes where they would “break bread” (Acts. 2:46), evidently a combination of fellowship meal and Lord’s Supper. The large, metropolitan church was led by a board of elders which at one point was called a “presbytery” (presbyterion) (I Tim. 4:14).
But the elders were all on an equal footing – there was no “senior” pastor. It was not until the Second Century that “bishop” and “elder” were considered two separate offices, with a single bishop being in charge of an entire diocese – what is generally known as a “monarchical episcopate.” This became a characteristic feature of early Catholicism, and eventually led to the papacy. But in New Testament times the terms “elder” and “bishop” were used interchangeably, and , as noted, were all on an equal footing. And the elders were told to “shepherd the flock of God among you . . .not as being lords (katakurieuontes – exercising dominion) over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2,3). “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will give them repentance, so that they may know the truth . . .” (II Tim. 2:24,25). How very different from what we so often see today!
But the larger problem in American church life today is the sin of denominationalism. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and rebuked them for dividing into factions and saying “I am of Paul,” and “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (I Cor. 1:12), and yet we say “I am Lutheran,” “I am Mennonite,” “I am Wesleyan.” Granted, denominational differences cannot be easily papered over. But each of us needs to engage in careful self-examination to see how many of our beliefs and practices are really found in the Bible; and we need to strive together to achieve as much visible unity within the evangelical community as possible. What is especially pernicious in this regard is the practice of “Second Degree Separation” – the idea that not only must we separate from unbelievers (First Degree Separation, which is Biblical), but we must also separate from fellow believers with whom we might disagree over some secondary point of doctrine. Granted, there are serious doctrinal errors that should not be allowed within the church. But the question should always be asked, is the other brother acting in good faith? Can he build a solid argument for Scripture? If so, we should be working for peace and unity, not rancor and division.
The “bottom line” is Christ’s commandment that we love one another. Love is the evidence of a life transformed by grace, and is the most eloquent testimony that we can offer the world. May the love of Christ shine through us as we love one another!