In the Gospel of John (13:31-35), Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment. Love one another.” That’s not really a new commandment. You can find that commandment as far back as the book of Leviticus 19:18 which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That commandment was ancient and very prominent in Judaism. So why would Jesus call this a new commandment? What made this commandment new was the next sentence. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
Notice that Jesus said that this is a commandment not a suggestion. We are commanded to love one another as He loved us. So it would be prudent for us to make absolutely sure that we understand exactly what it means to love one another as He did. And the first thing that becomes obvious, as we look at the life of Jesus, is that the love that Jesus revealed to humanity was a love that is utterly gracious and totally self-giving; self-giving even to the point of sacrifice.
Each and every one of us was born into this world with an innate need to be loved. But each and every one of us will spend our entire lives learning how to love. And the ability to love perfectly is not innate. It does not come to us automatically simply by our birth. Perfect love must be learned and it must be practiced before it can be perfected.
Remember, real love is much more than just an emotion or a feeling. Real love is a commitment. It is committing to living your life lovingly for another. But we cannot give what we do not possess. We must first learn to love ourselves, love the uniqueness that is our own, before we can give that love to another. And committing to live for others requires that we love even if we are not loved in return. For the sacrificial love that Jesus lived wasn’t expressed because He was being loved in return. He did not love to be loved.
Jesus loved perfectly. Which brings up an obvious question; was it necessary for Jesus to make the ultimate sacrifice? Many years ago I had someone ask me that very same question. A young man asked me, “Why did Jesus have to die?” A good question! In fact it was an excellent question. And to be honest with you, I felt stumped at the time, but I collected my thoughts and I responded by saying, “Our God became man, in the person of Jesus Christ, and took upon Himself the punishments that we deserve for our sins.” Have you ever said something, then immediately afterwards regretted having said it? As soon as those words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back. I just knew, deep in my heart, that my answer was incomplete, if not downright wrong.
What troubled me most about my answer to that young man is that my words painted a terrible picture of who God is. My answer said that our Heavenly Father is an angry, all powerful God who demands that a penalty be paid for the transgressions of mankind. Mankind is apparently incapable of paying this penalty, so God the Father sent his Son to take the punishment that we deserve.
This deeply troubled me because this is not the God that I see in Jesus. Jesus’ life demonstrated the perfection in committed, self-giving love. And Jesus said, “If you really knew Me you would know My Father also. – Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:7-8) But my answer to that young man described an angry, judgmental God. Not a loving, committed, self-giving God.
Take this Gospel passage and read it in light of John 3:16 & 17, which says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Again, Jesus said: “Love one another as I have loved you”. (John 13:34)
Both passages are familiar! But when you read them in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, you come to understand that the starting point in understanding the Easter mystery isn’t God’s anger. It’s God’s love.
The God revealed to us in the life of Jesus was a God of love. Jesus did suffer greatly at the hands of an abusive authority and at the hands of an abusive culture. But Jesus did not endure that pain as a substitute for what God is demanding of us. Our God became one of us so we could come to know who our God really is. So we could come to know Him as one who identifies with us, who goes with us, who suffers with us, and who loves us to the point of providing us with an example of how to live our lives.
We get our strength for living from the life of Jesus, His mission, His teachings and His parables. We get our hope for what comes next from the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. To ask which is more important, Jesus’ life or His death is like asking which wing on an airplane is more important. You need them both to fly.
In trying to comprehend the reasoning behind Christ’s suffering, it helps to understand that we live in a world filled with problems, pain and suffering. And Jesus introduced us to a God who is not immune to our plight, for He has experienced the worst that this world can offer.
Jesus freely chose to experience all the things that He did so that we could feel safe in sharing our experiences with Him. We can trust Him because He’s been there. He understands, and He cares.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus commanded that we do more than just talk about our faith. We have to live it. We have to walk the path of love, service and self-sacrifice, for only then will we truly experience the abundant life that He offers us. And remember, “Service is the action form of love. The command to ‘Love One Another’ could easily have been worded, ‘If you love one another; then serve one another’” (“The Message” by Lance Richardson, page 139)