“No one has more love than this: that one would lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
John 15:13 is the heart of the Farewell Discourse. It is the heart of John’s gospel as well. As always, John uses the smallest words and the simplest expressions to bring forth the most complex ideas and the deepest experiences. This verse is no different.
First, we can discuss what John is not saying. This is not the language of the Synoptic Gospels. There, Jesus is handed over to death by others. The Greek word can mean “handed over” in the sense of “betrayed” or “presented.”
Jesus notes in Mark 10:45 that the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” The word for “give” is related to the word for “handed over.” In the Synoptics, this death is something that happens to Jesus, and he is obedient to the Father, the one who does the handing over.
That’s not what happens in John’s gospel. Jesus is never the passive victim. He is always the intentional actor. The word that is often translated in John 15:13 as “lay down” is the simple and extremely common Greek word that means “to put, place, or lay” something. This basic sense is the “local” sense of the word. There is no direction built into the term.
There is a second, “transferred,” sense of the word which means to establish, to bring about a specific state, to institute, or even to make. This expression – to put one’s life on behalf of others – is specific to John, as Maurer notes in his TDNT entry (I:152ff.). The expression is found in John 10 (verses 11, 15, 17, and 18), John 13 (verses 37 and 38), here in John 15:13, and in 1 John 3:16.
Maurer writes, “The Greek-Hellenistic parallels…all denote taking a risk rather than full sacrifice of life…” (page 155). But he suggests that the contexts in the Johannine passages make it clear that something more is going on. In the Hebrew scriptures and the Apocrypha, the cognate Hebrew word means “to hazard one’s life” (see Judges 12:3; 1 Samuel 9:15, 28:21; Job 13:14).
We might think that “offer up” is a better translation that “lay down.” But Maurer is not convinced. “Yet the emphasis in all these [Johannine references],” he writes, “is on the actual sacrifice of life…John thus adopts the form of the Greek expression…but gives it a new sense in order thereby to reproduce in his own way the Synoptic” understanding in Mark 10:45 and parallels (page 156).
Maurer suggests, as do others, that John relies (as do the Synoptics) on the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:10 (NRSV) – “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.” The phrase the NRSV translates as “offering for sin” Maurer renders as “give as an atonement.” So, we can see the connection to the Synoptic texts.
Yet, the question in interpreting John’s Gospel is always the same. If John wants to say the same thing as the Synoptics, why does John use different words? Before suggesting some responses to that question, perhaps we should take one more look at the different words John uses.
We go back to John 10 and the Good Shepherd imagery. “I am the Honorable Shepherd,” Jesus tells the anxious disciples. “The Honorable Shepherd lays down his life for the sake of the sheep” (John 10:11, my translation). We have the same word here for “lays down,” although it is in the indicative rather than the subjunctive mood. This is certainly what the Honorable Shepherd does.
It’s interesting that early copyists weren’t entirely comfortable with the wording. A few early manuscripts substitute the word for “give” in place of the word translated as “lays down.” It seems likely that these early scribes wanted John to be more consistent with the Synoptic “atonement” story and thus made the terminology more consistent.
John’s Gospel, however, is not having it. The insistence that the Honorable Shepherd is the active agent is heightened in John 10:14-15. “I am the Honorable Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,” John writes, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sake of the sheep.” Jesus is not acted upon but acts willingly and with intention.
Again, a few early manuscripts aren’t crazy about this Johannine innovation and seek to substitute “give” for “lay down.” To finish off the point, however, Jesus makes it emphatic in verses 17 and 18. “Through this the Father loves me,” Jesus continues, “that I lay down my life, in order that I take it (up?) again.” There is no question of an “outside actor.”
One wonders how the early copyists could make the change they did, given the context. “No one takes it up from me, but rather I lay it down on my own. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it (up?) again” (John 10:18, my translation). Twice in these verses, the first-person pronoun is emphatic – almost as if John is anticipating the objections of the future copyists.
Not only is Jesus the active agent in putting his life at risk for the sake of the world, but no one else can do what he does. At the end of John 13, Peter declares that he will follow Jesus immediately. But that cannot happen. Peter declares that he will lay down his life for Jesus. That will happen later, but first comes a dark chapter.
Peter makes his promise, and Jesus makes the prediction of Peter’s denial. Only Jesus can walk this path. Only later can disciples follow, once the way has been opened.
That way of discipleship is then described in 1 John 3:16. If the preacher focuses on John 15:13, it will border on homiletical malpractice to miss the chance to include the First John reference as a way to interpret the Gospel text. The paragraph begins with a reference to Cain and the murder of Abel, his brother (Genesis 4:8). That image is used to describe the way “the world” views human relationships – that we are not our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
“We know that we have crossed over from death into life,” John writes in his letter, “because we love the siblings. The one who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14, my translation). Love for the siblings is evidence that the Resurrection life fills us here and now.
Those who do not embody that love are still in the tribe of Cain. “Every one who hates their sibling is a murderer,” John declares, “and we know that every murderer does not have eternal life abiding in them” (1 John 3:15, my translation).
Now we come to the words important for our reflection. “In this we have know (and continue to know) love, that He has laid down his life for our sakes,” John asserts. Then comes the application of the principle for disciples. “And we are obliged to lay down [our lives] for the sake of the siblings” (1 John 3:16, my translation). The words spoken to Peter in John 13 are now put to work in the Johannine community.
We should not think that somehow this laying down of our lives is theoretical or non-specific. The writer of John’s first letter moves to the compelling conclusion in the form of a rhetorical question. “The one who has life from the world and sees their sibling having a need and closes off their guts to that one – how does God’s love abide in them?” (1 John 3:17, my translation).
Let’s take a moment to pause with this verse. The “murderer” gets life (Greek = bios, not psyche) from the “world,” not from God. This one sees (as in “observes,” not merely “perceives”) a sibling who is having (ongoing) needs. The murderer closes off their guts – the location of compassionate response – to the one in need. Such a one cannot be a location where the love God has for the world dwells and remains. In every sense, then, the murderer is the one who not only does not give up one’s life for the sake of a friend. In the act of closing oneself off to the needs of the sibling, one commits murder of a sibling in precisely the way Cain did.
Verse 18 begins a new paragraph in the NRSV. It works best, however, as the conclusion to the preceding paragraph. “Little children,” the writer of 1 John summarizes, “let us love neither merely in reason nor in talking but rather in authentic action” (1 John 3:18, my translation).
This is the practical punchline for what “no greater love” looks like in the life of the disciple. Laying down one’s life for the sake of the Other is what eternal life looks like here and now.
References and Resources.
deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.
Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15, Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.
O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.
Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-3. Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.