John 13:34a says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”
Who we are to love? One another. The love of Christians for one another should be the distinguishing mark by which the world recognizes us as followers of Jesus Christ. Love is one of the key terms in Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse which covers John 13–17. The word ‘love’ occurs thirty-one times in these five chapters as compared to only six times in John 1–12.
In striking historical confirmation of the words of Jesus recorded here in John 13, Tertullian, an early church pastor (about 200 A.D.) wrote: “But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘Behold,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” (Apology XXXIX).
Jesus’ command simply calls all who profess loyalty to Him to “keep on loving one another.” This is truly the most important instruction that Jesus left his followers. What Jesus says here is not a suggestion. It is a command: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
The Apostle John was known in the ancient church for his concern for love. Jerome tells of John in his extreme old age saying, whenever he was carried into the assembly, “Little children, love one another.” When his disciples got tired of this, they asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “It is the Lord’s command. If this alone be done, it is enough” (Jerome Commentary on Galatians at Gal 6:10).
In our day and age of sentimentality, it is vital to define what we mean by love? The word that Jesus uses here is ‘agape.’ In this context, it refers to sacrificially serving the interests and needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
C.S. Lewis in one of his last books examined the four Greek words for love. He concludes that they come down to one seminal distinction: the difference between what he calls “need love” and “gift love.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together, describes need love as human love and gift love as spiritual love. He says this:
“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Need love is always born of emptiness. It is basically inquisitive to the core. A need lover sees in every beloved object or person a value that he or she covets to possess. Need love moves out greedily to grasp and to grab for itself. If one were to diagram it, need love is always circular, reaching out to the beloved to transfer value back to itself. In a popular image, need love sucks the life out of another and into itself. Many times when we say to another, ‘I love you,’ what we are really meaning is, ‘I need you, I want you. You have a value that I very much desire to make my own.'”
Just yesterday I was listening to two of my favorite singer/songwriters – Carly Simon and James Taylor. Why is it that their marriage never worked? I so enjoy the music that they made and played together. However, if you listen to their lyrics, it provides us a clue into how we are all easily prone to focus on need love. “I needed the shelter of someone strong. There you were. I needed someone to understand my ups and downs. There you were.” Their relationship like most of our relationships was a ‘need love’ relationship rather than a ‘gift love’ relationship.
Now C.S. Lewis contends there is another reality which he calls gift love. Instead of being born of emptiness, this form of loving is born of fullness. The goal of gift love is to enrich and enhance the beloved. Gift love is like an arc, not a circle. It moves out to bless and to increase rather to acquire or to diminish. Gift love is more like a bountiful, artesian well that continues to overflow than a vacuum cleaner that sucks up everything with which it comes in contact. The love of Jesus Christ is gift love, not need love. This gift love describes the way Jesus loved. And the good news for all of us today is not only that we are loved by our Savior in this marvelous way, but also that that He empowers us to love others in this way. We love because he first loved us.