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“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” — John 13:34
A Serious Summary
Have you ever noticed that the popular music you listened to in your teenage years always seems superior to anything you’ve heard since?
For people my age, no artists will ever compare to groups such as the Beatles, the Four Tops, or the Supremes. For me, no contemporary singer-songwriter can hold a candle to Don McLean, James Taylor, or Carole King. Readers who were teens in other decades will have differing opinions about when music was the best it will ever be.
Scientific studies have shown that the music we hear as our brains develop from age 12 to 22 becomes hardwired in particularly rewarding neuronal pathways. It is intertwined so tightly with our social, cognitive, and identity development that it becomes the soundtrack of our lives.
That’s why I’m glad to have come of age at a time when Christian youth were singing an old folk song that began like this: “Love, love, love, love. The gospel in one word is love. Love thy neighbor as thy brother. Love, love, love.” I sang “Love Lifted Me” as a child and “I Love You, Lord” as an adult, but the one that sticks is the one we sang at every youth retreat I ever attended or led: “Love, love, love.”
Maybe that’s one reason why John 13:31-35 has always been a favorite text for me. Maybe it’s because Jesus’ message there is so simple and straightforward. Let’s take a closer look.
A new glory(vv. 31-32)
The Gospel of John, like those attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was shaped within the life and experience of the early church. It was the last of the Gospels to be written, and it speaks clearly to the needs of people who were struggling to come to grips with who Jesus was and how they were to follow him. The Fourth Gospel, more than any of the others, emphasizes Jesus’ teaching about the importance of learning to love like Jesus if we expect to live like Jesus.
The setting of today’s text is in Jerusalem, on the night of Jesus’ arrest. It was after the poignant meal we often call “the Lord’s Supper,” but before Jesus and his disciples left the upper room and headed for Gethsemane. Just prior to v. 31, Judas had left the room, a dark harbinger of things to come.
In telling the same story, the Synoptic Gospels move quickly from the supper to the garden, but the author of John’s gospel includes a lengthy farewell discourse and intercessory prayer (13:32-17:26) that began with Jesus explaining that the world as the disciples knew it was about to change: he would be leaving, and they would have to learn to get along without him.
In a confusing mixture of tenses, Jesus told his closest followers: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (v. 31). He then added: “If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once” (v. 32). What are we to make of this shift from past to future tense?
A likely solution is to recognize that Judas’ departure to reconnoiter with those who would arrest Jesus had set in motion the crucifixion story through which both the Son and the Father would be glorified. Once Judas left, the die had been cast: there was no going back. The divine story would push inexorably toward its climax.
Because the passion story had begun its certain march, Jesus could speak of his glorification in the past tense. Because it had not yet reached its end, elements of glory remained in the future.
A new commandment(vv. 33-35)
The disciples needed to understand that Jesus as they had known him would soon be gone. “I am with you only a little longer,” Jesus told them, and “Where I am going, you cannot come” (v. 33). Jesus had said similar things in conversation with Jewish leaders, but that was in a different context. He did not tell the disciples that they could not find him, or that they would die in their sins, as he had told the Jews who had questioned him (7:34, 8:21). He went on to tell Peter that though he could not follow then, he would come later (13:36), and he explained to all that he would prepare a place for them in the Father’s house (14:2-3).
In the meantime, the disciples would have work to do. Jesus couched that work in the form of “a new commandment,” saying “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v. 34). Jesus might appear to be absent, but his presence would continue to be seen in the love of his followers: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (v. 35).
Why did Jesus call this commandment “new”? The rabbis had long cited Deut. 6:4 and Lev. 19:18 as the greatest of the commandments. The first called on the faithful to love God with all of their being. The second was to love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus had agreed that those two commands summed up the law and the prophets, according to Mark 12:28-31.
What was so new about Jesus’ command in v. 34? It’s that qualifying line: “Just as I have loved you.” Lev. 19:18 called for those who love God to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. But here, Jesus said we are not to measure our love for others by how much we love ourselves, but by how much he loved us. That’s another thing altogether.
The kind of love that Jesus showed – a self-sacrificing love that led him to forsake the security of heaven for a hard life and a hard death on earth – that’s something different. To call for his followers to demonstrate that kind of love really was something new.
A verb, not a feeling
When Jesus stood (or sat) before his disciples on that dark night and tried to prepare them for life without him being around to hold their hand and be their conscience, he could have given them a long string of instructions, but instead, he left them this one commandment: “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”
That’s the bottom line. That’s how we are to live as Christians, and how others will know we are Christians. The Apostle Paul said much the same thing in 1 Corinthians 13. We can make all kind of noise and sing with the voice of angels. We can build an impressive worship center. We can have a worldwide TV show and wear three “WWJD” bracelets and keep an electric candle burning in our window every night, but if we don’t love like Jesus did, we’re just blowing smoke and making noise.
If that is the case, then it’s clearly important that we learn something about loving people. The first thing to learn is that we can’t just love others when we feel like it or when they appear to be lovable. Jesus did not go to the cross because he was overcome with gushy feelings for sinful and spiteful people. He went to the cross because it had to be done.
Parents don’t take loving care of their children or of each other because they are constantly filled with warm and mushy feelings. The truth is, sometimes what we feel toward our children or spouse is anger or resentment or frustration or disappointment or even hopelessness. But people who know what love is keep right on caring and keep right on loving and keep right on doing good even when their love is rejected or unappreciated.
Do you remember the movie Forrest Gump? Forrest knew that truth. “I am not a smart man,” he told Jenny, his childhood sweetheart, “but I know what love is.” And he did. There was never a moment in that memorable movie when Forrest was not showing faithful love to his mama, or to his buddy Bubba, or to Jenny, or to his son.
We’re all aware that it isn’t always easy to love people. Indeed, Jesus knows that better than any of us. Those who nailed him to the cross, and those who ordered them to do it, hardly inspired feelings of love and forgiveness. Sometimes we may find it hard to love, too.
A group of Americans once went to visit Mother Theresa at one of the homes in Calcutta where she and the nuns who worked with her gave tender care to the sickest of the sick, to people who had nowhere else to turn. In many cases, the most they could accomplish was to help someone die with dignity with a clean body in a clean bed, but they persevered.
In a book of prayers and meditations called A Gift for God, Mother Theresa recalled what happened when the tourists left.
“Before leaving, they begged me: ‘Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better.’ And I said: ‘Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.’ And then one of them asked me: ‘Are you married?’ and I said ‘Yes, and I find it difficult sometimes to smile at Jesus.’ And it is true, Jesus can be very demanding also, and it is at those times when he is so demanding that to give him a big smile is very beautiful.”
We live in a troubled world filled with people who can also be demanding, and we serve a God who calls us to love them. Can we begin by smiling at all we meet? Can we love one another? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for April 24, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: John 13:31-35
There is no greater feeling of love when you see your child for the first time. Movies can’t capture it with their cinematography. Songs can’t capture it in their lyrics. Love takes everything else away until there is only two people in that space at that time. There are times when we want to run back that first glimpse of the love of our children as well. It might be after a hard day or a discussion that turned rude. It might also be that our teenagers are discovering who they are and are becoming more independent. There are days that we need to stop and remember those that we love. Hold your students close; they will appreciate it later. Send them a text simply saying “I love you.” You might not ever hear about it from them, but it will make their day. You don’t have to show your love through buying stuff, but by being involved in their lives, being in their space.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“I’m Not a Smart Man” from Forrest Gump via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: John 13:31-35