The Gospel of John records how, in the upper room in Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus began to reveal to the disciples the imminence of His departure from them, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you”, John 13. 33. This tender form of address is full of significance. Earlier He had taught, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”, Matt. 18. 3. Little children are just embarking on life. They are ignorant of what lies ahead. They are weak, helpless and often stumbling and falling. They can be vain, stubborn, rebellious and quarrelsome. They are capable, however, of simple, guileless and spontaneous love to those who care for them, whom they trust instinctively for provision and protection, and to whom they are normally very precious and lovable, with all their weaknesses and faults. “Ye shall seek me”, the Lord continued, “and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you”. Little children cling to those who care for them, and search desperately if they lose them. The Lord’s words here were meant to bring home to His followers the realization that they really were about to lose the Leader and Companion with whom they had walked for some three years.
“A new commandment I give unto you”, v.34. The new commandment was designed to meet the new situation which was to arise at His departure. They had been enjoying His personal companionship and the unfailing love which He had given them. They were now to love one another in the personal, practical way which He had demonstrated. It is helpful to consider this matter in three ways: the precept, the pattern and the promise.
It is vital to realize that this is a precept, a command, an order. The Lord is not making a request, offering a suggestion or giving advice. He is issuing an order. It goes without saying that, as our Lord and Master, He is perfectly entitled to do this. Very well then, let us bear in mind that orders are intended to be obeyed. The mutual love between disciples is not to be subject to their whims and inclinations. We are not to love merely those to whom we feel readily drawn, or whose social position is similar to ours, or who happen to share our opinions in matters either spiritual or material. No believer must be excluded from our love, our prayers, our fellowship, our concern. If there is only one Christian in my assembly, or in my acquaintance in general, whom I do not love and whom I therefore fail to greet and from whom I withhold friendship and kindness, it follows that I am guilty of glaring and flagrant disobedience to the Lord. Let us be ruthless with ourselves in this matter. There is no excuse for disobedience. The Saviour knew the men in the upper room. There had been occasional flare-ups among them over the months past. He gave this order because He knew it was needed, and knew that it would always be needed. Nor does He leave any room for doubt as to the quality of love which He expects of us.
“As I have loved you, that ye also love one another”. As the Lord spoke these words, He knew that one of His disciples was betraying Him. He knew that another would shortly deny Him three times. He knew that the remainder would forsake Him. But He did not cease loving any of them. He loved them to the uttermost, John 13. 1. Now the Lord Jesus rarely talked about His love for the disciples. But it flashes out occasionally in the gospel narratives, especially when outsiders presumed to criticise His followers. On such occasions (as when religious leaders found fault with the disciples for eating corn in the fields on the sabbath) the Lord intervened on their behalf. He dealt with His own quite severely at times, but would not allow others to find fault with them. This is of the essence of loyalty. How do we react if we hear someone criticising our fellowbelievers? Do we join in? If so, we are lacking in love and loyalty, and will be answerable. But how demanding is the standard before us, for love took the Saviour to Calvary! Think of the searching words of the beloved apostle in his first Epistle, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”, 1 John 3. 16. The writer confesses to falling far short of this requirement, but it reveals the spirit which should animate our relationship with one another. The Lord went on to supply a great incentive to obedience.
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another”, John 13. 35. Since He first recruited His followers, their identity as such had been obvious. He had lived and walked with them, teaching them, providing for them a flawless example of the quality of life He expected of them, and maintaining an unbroken personal relationship with them. These words of His made clear His earnest desire that they should retain their identity as His disciples when He was no longer physically present. This would be the inevitable outcome of their loving one another as He had loved them. He does not explain this. He certainly does not imply that they should seek to draw attention to their mutual love. There is to be no conscious, deliberate demonstration of it. They are scarcely to be concerned with the effect of their obedience, save to know that it will be so produced. They are simply to love one another. Now this promise is so unexpected, so staggering and so well-nigh unbelievable that it should leave us with a lasting sense of wonder, and of longing—for it solves one of the greatest problems of Christian living. How can we bear effective witness to our identity as Christians today? How may we reveal our allegiance to the Risen Christ? Various expedients have been used over the years. Some Christians rely on word of mouth. Some distribute tracts. Some wear badges. Some wear uniforms. Some write letters or articles for the local or national press. These are mentioned merely as examples, and not for assessment, much less for criticism. The glorious promise before us involves a form of witness which is at once easier and harder than all the rest. It demands neither gift, courage, money nor materials. Above all, it has two shining qualities: (i) it works universally, “By this shall all men know”, apart entirely from racial, cultural, social or educational barriers, and (ii) it works infallibly, “By this shall all men know”, making it plain that when the precept is obeyed, the promise is fulfilled.
Perhaps this is what our non-Christian friends, neighbours and colleagues are waiting to see, without exactly realizing it. They are not overinterested in our preaching or formal gatherings. But how great an impact they might feel if confronted by real evidence of believers loving one another, as Christ loved them! Ought we not earnestly to seek grace to put this marvellous promise to the test?
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