I know people struggle with the idea that love can be commanded by anyone, even Jesus. He is not demanding the presence here of an emotion. That’s a modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic way of reading the text. Instead, Jesus is instructing his disciples in a set of practices. They are, after all, “learners” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for “disciples”). We teach children how to love and to be loved – sometimes in words but mostly through example.
“Love” is not a feeling. It is an action. Or more properly, it is an ongoing set of actions. Therefore, “love one another” is a commandment. This commandment is found in verses 12 through 17. Therefore, these verses indicate a unit marked by an inclusion. This paragraph (12-17) is at the center, textually and thematically, of the Farewell Discourse in John. The inclusion begins and ends with the “love one another” commandment.
We must be careful how we interpret the word “commandment.” We would tend to hear that word as a law, a requirement, or a command. However, the Hebrew behind that word has much more the sense of a teaching that is put into practice. It’s probably worth some time to explore that Hebrew term, mitzvah.
The Hebrew noun is really a participial form of the verb zwh, which means to “order, direct, appoint, or command.” We Christians might think first and foremost of the “Ten Commandments” in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Of course, in Exodus 20, there are more than ten “commandments,” and they are not called “commandments” at all, but rather “words.” Likewise, in Deuteronomy 5, there are more ordinances than ten, and once again they are not called commandments.
But I quibble a bit. The plural of the word does appear in Exodus 20:6. Following the prohibition of idol worship, the Lord promises multi-generational punishment for those who bow down and worship idols. The Lord also promises “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (the promise is paralleled in Deuteronomy 5:10). It’s worth observing that “love” and “commandment” show up in the same verse already at this point.
The noun in Hebrew can and does indeed mean “command,” or “commandment.” The word appears over 180 times in the Hebrew scriptures in a variety of contexts. In traditional Jewish usage, the word can refer to a commandment in the Scriptures. It can refer to a religious duty or obligation. It can also refer to the deed or deeds necessary to carry out that obligation. Thus, it often refers to the actions, especially of kindness, compassion, or love that result in carrying out a religious duty or obligation.
We children of Luther have a deep and wide bias against “commandments” (even though they make up more than half the volume of our catechisms). We are sure that the commandments are “Law,” and that the Law is bad since it leads to works righteousness. We know we are not saved by works but rather by faith.
So, any discussion of commandments seems contrary to the Good News of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This line of thinking is not particularly Lutheran (as in being rooted in the specifics of Luther’s theology or Paul’s theology, for that matter), but it is certainly a baseline in popular Protestantism.
This bias causes us to be very confused about a passage which makes loving a commandment. I think the word “instruction” would be a much superior translation here in the place of “commandment.” But I think that “obedient practice” is perhaps the best translation of all. The description in Deuteronomy 30:16 (NRSV) captures this sense of the word:
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
Jesus engages in the obedient practice of laying down his life and taking it up again (see John 10:18). He has received the commission to carry out this practice from his Father. Jesus offers a description of this obedient practice as the conclusion to the Book of Signs (see John 12:49-50).
The Father has given Jesus the words to speak. What Jesus speaks is “eternal life.” The “commandment” is linked here in the Farewell Discourse to the “example” (or, as I prefer to translate, the “template”) that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Footwashing in chapter 13. (See Moloney, pages 114-115).
Jesus’ obedient practice requires that he will go away into the glorification by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension which has been the goal of his mission from the beginning. As he prepares to depart in chapter 13, he gives his disciples “a new obedient practice” – that they should love one another. This practice imitates the love Jesus has embodied with and to them. When others see this practice, they will know that the disciples belong to Jesus.
Schrenk does a good job of connecting the scriptural dots for us. “The new factor is not the law of love as such, nor a new degree of love,” he writes, “but its new Christological foundation. They are to love one another as those who are loved by Jesus. They are to actualize the basic love of Jesus. Thus,” he concludes, “the loving self-giving of Jesus is the root and power of the new” love (page 553).
Jesus promises that the disciples (then and now) are not on their own in living out this obedient practice. Instead, we receive another Encourager, “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-16). Even though the lectionary committee splits this section of John’s gospel (John 15:1-17) over two Sundays, the passage from John 15:1 through verse 17 is of a piece. “The vine can only be understood in light of its definition as an abiding in love, and the fruitfulness of this love,” Meda Stamper writes, “as described in John 15:16 only makes sense in light of the vine.” The point is that we remain connected to the Vine by the Encourager.
This verse is, among other things, the conclusion to the conversation that began in John 3. God loves the world in a particular way. God sends the Son into the world to die so that the cosmos might have abundant life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus expands on and illustrates that love over and over. It is, for example, the identifying mark of the Good Shepherd that the Good Shepherd lays down the Shepherd’s life for the sheep.
Love, as described in John 15 is, therefore, a set of obedient and intentional practices that flow from our connection to the Vine and make that connection more intimate as we continue our obedient and intentional practices. Loving does not graft us into the Valid Vine. Rather, loving is the clearest sign that we are branches of that Vine and the surest expression of the life we share with that Vine and with the other branches. We did not choose Jesus, after all.
What can it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s “friends?” Clearly, the “friends” Jesus means here are other disciples. That is perhaps too narrow a framework for understanding the whole of New Testament theology, but if we simply started by loving other Christians as an obedient, intentional, and concrete practice, our world might change a great deal.
For example, it is indisputable that some of my Christian co-religionists are Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and of other ethnic heritages. They are, in terms of John 15, my “friends.” Will we white Christians be willing to give up our power and privilege, our wealth and property (or even some of it), that is, our “lives,” in order to fight the racism that infects our churches and our lives?
Here is a website that lists a number of actions that white people can take to fight racism – “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” (it used to be 75 things, but hey, we’re trainable, right?). If you can’t bring yourself to grapple with the systemic racism that exists in our country (and it does, not matter what some public figures would have us believe), then at least consider taking one or more of these actions because millions of your “friends” will benefit.
Working for justice always has a cost for those of us who are privileged, positioned, propertied and powerful. That’s the deal, so, white friends, let’s deal. I don’t believe the folks who think they can make real justice painless for the privileged. Loving our friends will cost us something that we experience as “life.” Otherwise, it’s probably not love.
At our house, for example, we support through weekly donations a black congregation in our community. I don’t think we’ll ever attend there or be involved in any significant way. That’s for the best. We don’t attach any strings or conditions to the gift. We don’t assume we know anything about how that money should be used. In fact, it’s not a gift at all. It’s repayment on a debt long overdue.
I think every white Christian church should dedicate ten percent of its revenue right off the top for repayment to a congregation or organization rooted in a different heritage and history. If there’s some sort of partnership or relationship that develops, well and good. But connection with and listening to white people should not be a condition for us making the reparations we need to make in order to begin to approach justice.
Perhaps that would be one small step in our obedient practice of loving our friends. If we could make progress on that practice, we might be better positioned to love others as well.
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/.
Moloney, Francis. https://repository.divinity.edu.au/2586/1/Moloney_LoveGospelJohn.pdf.
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.
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.