Rev. James Slopsema, minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches and member of First PRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. John 13:34, 35

Jesus was with His disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem eating the last Passover supper. After dismissing Judas Iscariot to set in motion the events that would lead to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus informed His disciples that He would be with the disciples only for a little while. And where He was going, they could not come—at least for the present.

In the verses we consider for this meditation, Jesus gave His disciples a parting commandment. He will have them love one another even as He loved them. This applied not only to the eleven disciples present but to the whole church, which the disciples represented.

That we love one another is above all what Christ expects of us in His absence. Jesus expects many things of us as our Lord. But that we love one another is His chief expectation of us. This is evident from the fact that this is the first thing He told His disciples after informing them of His departure.

“Love one another”

Love is the attraction that two or more people have for one another. Love is often based on what people have in common. Love is also based on qualities that people admire in each other.

Both apply to the love that Christ commands us to have for each other. There is something that all true members of the church of Jesus Christ have in common. They all possess by faith in Jesus Christ what Jude in verse 3 of his epistle calls “the common salvation.” From a natural, physical point of view the members of the church are very diverse from one another. They come from every race, nation, and social standing. But they all have in common the same faith so that they have one Lord, one Spirit, one baptism, one salvation. And possessing the common salvation, all the saints have been transformed into the very image of God. They reflect in a human way many of the glorious virtues of God in Jesus Christ. The command of Christ is that we focus on that which we have in common in Jesus Christ and the admirable virtues each member of the body possesses, so that we are drawn together in a close bond of love.

When this love flourishes, it manifests itself in several ways. It manifests itself in a closeness in which we seek each other’s company and companionship. It manifests itself in unity and peace. Those that love each other in Jesus Christ are able to look past each other’s weakness and work out their differences to live in peace. This love also manifests itself in seeking each other’s welfare and good. And it manifests itself in a laboring together for the cause of Jesus Christ.

“As I have loved you”

There are several things that characterize Jesus’ love for us.

First, Jesus’ love for the church seeks her salvation and eternal welfare. The church is comprised of the elect of God, whom the Father loves eternally and with whom He will live forever in covenant friendship. God has given this elect church to Jesus Christ so that as Mediator He may save the church from her sins and bring her to God. And so Jesus loves the church and in that love seeks above all her salvation.

Secondly, Jesus loves the church so deeply that He is willing to sacrifice anything for her salvation and welfare. The church of God’s love has sinned and deserves eternal destruction. To save the church Jesus must endure all the punishment of hell that would otherwise come on the church. This Jesus willingly did in His love by His horrible death on the cross.

Thirdly, Jesus loves us, even though we are often difficult to love. Certainly, the disciples who represent the church were not always easy for Jesus to love. They were not much inclined to listen to Jesus when He had something to say contrary to their perspective and wishes. Selfishly some sought the place of preeminence in Jesus’ kingdom. Presently, they would all forsake Him. One would even deny Him. And we are no different than the disciples. Yet Jesus loved His disciples, even unto death. And He loves us the same way.

We must love each other even as Christ loves us.

That means that we are to love the brother and sister in the church even when we find them hard to love. There are the members with whom we have very little in common from a natural, physical point of view. There are members whose mannerisms and personality traits annoy us. There are those who disagree with us. There are those who have hurt us. We are much inclined to turn away from them, to despise them, and even hate them. But we are to love them. Jesus has loved us with all our frailties. We must then look beyond the idiosyncrasies and faults of our fellow saints to see the work of salvation in them. Seeing in each other the work of grace, we must be drawn to each other with cords of love.

But there is more. If we will love each other as Christ loves us, we must also be willing to sacrifice for the welfare and salvation of each other. Christ-like love means that we are concerned with the desires, wants, needs and salvation of the other members of the church. In love we must be busy in promoting the welfare and salvation of each other. And in love we must be willing to sacrifice for each other—our time, our energy, our resources, and even our life.

“A new commandment I give unto you”

That Jesus’ commandment to love one another is a new commandment does not mean that it had never been given before. It had been given by God in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19:18 we read, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” Jesus even cited this love for the neighbor as the second great commandment of law (Matt. 22:37- 40).

That this is a new commandment means rather that this commandment was new to the people. The nation of Israel had long ago departed from the word and law of God so that they had lost sight of the great commandment of the law to love. Their obedience to the law was only outward and formal. From that point of view the command to love was something entirely new.

This only demonstrates how easily we lose sight of the command to love and how difficult it is to observe it. Only in Jesus Christ is this love possible. In Christ we are born again, having received the salvation of God. Love is the inevitable fruit of God’s work of salvation in us. However, the works of salvation are only begun in us. We still have a sinful nature that is evil and selfish. That sinful nature makes it difficult for us to love one another. Easily we focus on the natural differences we have with each other, on the annoying traits that we see in others, at the faults and the hurts that easily surface in our life together. Consequently, instead of loving each other we pull away from each other and even fight with one another in hatred.

And so, if we will continue to love one another day by day, the new man created in us must be renewed day by day in the power of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross is the death of our old man. Jesus’ resurrection is the quickening of the new man. Daily we must look to Christ to be renewed as new men and women to love one another.

“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples”

A disciple is one who is a student of a teacher. He sits at the feet of a teacher to be instructed. He also embraces the instruction of his teacher so that he also confesses what he is taught. Most importantly, he lives as his teacher has taught him to live, following the very example of his teacher.

All these things are also true of Jesus’ disciples.

A true disciple of Jesus diligently studies all that Jesus has taught. These teachings are the content of the Bible. A disciple of Jesus also embraces His teachings and confesses them. And according to these teachings, a disciple of Jesus strives to order his own life according to the example of Jesus’ own life.

In keeping with all this, Jesus informs us that the one thing that above all identifies us as His disciples is that we love one another. Love is the central teaching of Jesus. Jesus even gave us the pattern of love to follow. And so if we love one another, all men will know that we are His disciples.

Let us, therefore, love one another. Should we fail to love one another, we cannot claim to be His disciples. We may know the Scriptures, make a wonderful confession, and even proclaim the truth with great eloquence. But if we do not love each other, we have no claim to be Jesus’ disciples.

What are you revealing about yourself in the community? Can the community recognize you as Jesus’ disciples? God forbid that your life contradicts what you are saying about yourself. Let us all show the world that we are Jesus’ disciples and do so by loving one another as He loved us.

Then God is glorified by our confession and walk!