Monday, September 15, 2014

The Perfect Love of Jesus (John 13:1)

“Love” is one of the most commonly used and frequently misunderstood words in the English language. The complexities of this word are evidenced in that the Greek language actually had at least four distinct words to describe the various ways in which we use the word “Love.” We use this one word to describe our love for God, His love for us, the love we have for our spouse, our children, our parents, siblings, and friends. But we also use it to describe how we feel about our favorite foods, sports teams, pastimes, hobbies, and interests. If we were teaching English to someone who had no concept of our language, imagine how confusing it would be for them to find that we use the same word to describe, for example, our affection for our spouse, our parents, and pizza. Surely, we understand that the different uses of the word convey different meanings. When someone tells us that they love us, we certainly hope that they mean something more significant than how they feel about food or entertainment. Deep within each of us there is a longing to both love and to be loved in a way that transcends these earthly affections. In short, we want to experience a perfect love. Our frequent experiences and disappointments seem to suggest, in the words of the old country song, that we’ve been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” There is a perfect love that can be found, but it can only be found in one place ultimately. Our text today shows us the source of this love.

Before we dive into it, we need to orient ourselves a bit to where we are in the Gospel of John. We’ve just passed the half-way point here. The first chapter told us of the eternal origins of Jesus Christ, and how God came to dwell among us as a man in Him. From that point, over the next 11 chapters, we’ve covered the highlights of Jesus’ three year public ministry. As Chapter 12 began, we were entering into the final week of His earthly life. That means that the entire second half of John’s Gospel is devoted to a single week. But more noteworthy is this: Chapters 13-19, the lion’s share of the remainder of the book is devoted to a single 24-hour period that begins here in verse 1. It is Thursday night as the Chapter begins. And it is as if John has put his Gospel into super-slow-motion. They will not leave the upper room where they are observing the Passover meal together until the Chapter 18. By the end of Chapter 19, Jesus will be dead and in the tomb.

These events did not come upon Jesus by surprise. John says here in verse 1 that He knew “that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father.” This “hour” had been known to Jesus since He first left the glories of heaven to enter this world. The events of this hour, including His betrayal and crucifixion, were the very reason He had come. At the wedding of Cana in Galilee in John 2, Jesus stated that His hour had not yet come. On two other occasions (John 7:30 and 8:20), John states that no one was able to seize Jesus because His hour had not yet come. But beginning in John 12, Jesus began to say that His hour had come, and here it is stated that He knew it had come, this hour that He would depart out of this world and go to the Father. He knew that His death was at hand, less than 24 hours away in fact.

It would be understandable, in these moments, if Jesus turned His thoughts solely to Himself. If we were to read that He withdrew from everyone to spend the evening in prayer in preparation for His death, it would not surprise us. But this is not what He did. Instead, He gathered with His disciples for this meal and He determined to demonstrate His love for them. And in so doing, we see perfect love on display and are drawn to that love as the fulfillment of our heart’s greatest desire.

So, what do we learn – what are the facts – about this perfect love that we can discern from our text? Let’s consider them here.

I. Notice the special objects of His love.

1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. It is His nature to love, and He cannot not love. In fact, the Scriptures make it plain that God loves the entire human race. John 3:16 comes to mind – “God so loved the world.” That word “world” in Scripture can and sometimes does mean the universe and/or planet Earth. It also means at times a way of thinking or a system of belief that operates against God in the world. And it often is used to refer to the human race, God’s image-bearers in the world. That’s how it is used in John 3:16. Some would suggest that God does not love those who reject or do not believe in Him. Scripture actually proves this to be false in a number of ways. First of all, we have direct statements like John 3:16 that say without question that He does. We also have passages that imply God’s love for unbelievers, such as when Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem (Lk 19:41), or in Ezekiel 33:11 when God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”

We also have His love for unbelievers expressed in His commandments in the Law. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded, of course, that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then He continued by saying that the second is like the first, in that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). When Jesus was immediately asked, therefore, “Who is my neighbor?”, He responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans and the Jews bitterly despised one another. But the point of Jesus’ parable was that our love should be extended to all people, even those who are not like us. Jesus even commands us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies (Mt 5:43-44). What does this prove? Well for one thing, because God’s law is an expression of His own nature, He does not command us to do something that He does not do, or to think or act in a way that is not consistent with His own character. Also, because Jesus fulfilled the entire Law in His life of perfect righteousness and absolute sinlessness, we know that He Himself lived in complete obedience even to these commands.

And then we have actual incidents in which we see His love for unbelievers on display. One that comes to mind is the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10. When he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him, “You know the commandments, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” The man said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up,” which was obviously not true, because it is not true of anyone. And the Bible says that Jesus looked upon him, and “felt a love for him,” even as He said, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” That call to come and follow Him was the key. He was inviting this young man into a personal relationship with Himself. And the Bible says that “at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” Here was a man who blatantly rejected Jesus’ offer of eternal life, and who walked away from the invitation. How did Jesus feel about that man? The Bible says He loved him.

In God’s love for the entire human race, He acts in lovingkindness toward all men in some ways. Jesus said that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). In Acts 14:17, Paul addressed a crowd of unbelievers in Lystra and said that God had done good for them and given the rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying their hearts with food and gladness. There is no one on the earth whom God does not love! He proves His love over and over again in His many gifts to mankind. Everything from the next breath you draw to the next meal you will eat comes to you as a gift from His hand. We can say without hesitation on the authority of God’s Word that, whoever you are, God genuinely loves you.

But, now I want us to notice something here in our text. In His final hours on the earth before His crucifixion, Jesus’ heart was not occupied with this universal love that He has for the entire human race. He has withdrawn from the multitudes and drawn to Himself His twelve disciples, and John says that He “loved His own.” “His own” are those who belong to Him in a personal relationship by faith. These are the special objects of His perfect love. He did not stop loving the rest of the world, and He never has and never will. But, His love for His own is qualitatively different than His love for the rest of humanity. It has been well said by some, “God has given some things to all men, and all things to some men.” We can say the same of the love of Jesus. He has given some of it to all, and all of it to some. And those “some” are His own. In fact, it is this perfect love of Jesus that unites us to Him and makes us His own.

He loved His own, John says, “who were in the world.” That’s an important statement (actually all statements in Scripture are important!). This world that is fallen and thoroughly corrupted by sin; this world of humanity that is lost an in rebellion against God; this world that Jesus was soon to leave – this is where the special objects of His perfect love dwell. That means that they are still imperfect, still battling the presence and power of sin in their own lives, still affected daily by the outworking of sin’s effects in the world. But they are no less beloved of the Lord Jesus. In this very chapter, Jesus will tell Peter (one of His own) that he will deny the Lord three times before sunrise the next morning, but that did not negate His love for Peter. The Lord doesn’t love you because you are good. He loves in spite of the fact that you are not good. He loves you with this special kind of love because you are His. We will all fall and fail as long as we are in this world, but if we are His, we fall into His loving arms which are able to raise us back up when we do. Peter experienced that, and so will you if you are His own.

There is a strain of teaching that calls itself Christian that says if you love God and trust Him enough, then He will love you back and protect you so that bad things won’t happen to you. This weekend, one of the preachers of that message has been across the street at the Coliseum, and in a few weeks another will come in behind him. But don’t believe it for a moment; it is a lie from the devil. As long as you are in this world, you will wrestle with sin and its devastating effects, both in your own self and all around you. You will be hurt, you will be grieved, you will experience suffering and tragedy, because no one in this world is immune to it. Jesus Himself was not immune to it. And when those things happen to you (not if, but when), the devil will tempt you to think that you are not loved by the Lord Jesus. But friends, you must hear this statement very clearly: “He loved His own, who were in the world.” He has promised to take His own out of this world eventually to be with Him, but for now, you remain in the world. But it is not home. You are in the world, but Jesus says in John 17 that you are not “of the world.” You are just passing through on your way to your true, eternal home with Him. Don’t be like the world, and don’t love this world and the things in it too dearly, because you are a pilgrim here. Be in it, and be His special objects of love in it, and bring others into the experience of His perfect love as you bear witness to them of your true King and true Kingdom, but you are not of this world. Your citizenship has been transferred elsewhere. Jesus will say in John 16:33 that in this world, you will have tribulations, but take courage, because He has overcome the world. And the one who has overcome this world loves you, and if you are His own, you are the special object of His perfect love, regardless of what hardships you encounter in this world. As I have often said, “In this world, you may often be unwell, but you are never unloved if you are one of His own.”

Now, moving on from the special objects of His love, let’s notice the second fact of His perfect love …

II. Notice the fervent intensity of His love.

In football, there is a penalty for what they call “piling on,” when multiple players jump on the ball carrier after he’s already been tackled. That’s a bad thing in football. It will get you 15 yards. But in the Bible, we often find a literary phenomenon that we could call “piling on” that is often a good thing. It’s when a biblical writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit repeats a word for emphatic intensity. And we find that here in John 13:1. John says, “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Having loved them, He loved them. And He loves His own “to the end.” That’s how the NASB translates the Greek prepositional phrase here. But it is not the only way it can be translated accurately. It could also be rendered with reference to completion, like “He loved them to the uttermost.” In 2011, the NIV was revised, and by all accounts it is a far inferior translation than the 1984 edition of it. In the older edition, the NIV translated our verse here this way: “He now showed them the full extent of His love.” As one commentator handles the phrase, it is love “in its highest intensity.”[1] This is how Jesus loves His own. It is the demonstration and the proof of it. So how does He love His own? He shows us here.

You might have heard sayings like, “Actions speak louder than words,” or “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It is not that words have no value, but words can be empty or meaningless if they are not accompanied by deeds that validate the words. Jesus did not just tell His disciples that He loved them. He showed them. He showed them His love on more than one occasion, but what He was about to do for them was the greatest act of love they had ever seen, and it foreshadowed an even greater act of love.
In verse 4 we read that He got up from the supper, laid aside His garments, took up a towel and girded Himself. In so doing, He was putting aside the dress of the Teacher and Master, and taking up the simple and humble garb of the servant. Then, verse 5 says that He poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. This was one of the most menial tasks one could perform, the washing of the dirty feet of another. Most people, even most servants, would consider this task beneath them. But the Lord Jesus did not. Even though He was the Lord of Glory, He was not ashamed to serve His disciples by washing their feet.

In Luke’s account of this last supper, we find that the disciples were actually disputing amongst themselves on that very evening about which of them was the greatest. But Jesus wanted to teach them that greatness in God’s Kingdom was seen from a different perspective. He said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:26-27). And He demonstrated it by washing their feet, what the lowliest of servants would ordinarily do, and what apparently none of them were willing to do for one another or even for Him. No greater act of love had ever been seen by them, or by any man. But it was merely a shadow of the ultimate act of loving service that He would render for them.

In Mark 10, upon hearing them bickering once again about who was the greatest among them, Jesus taught them with almost the exact same words, and then He said this: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” To ransom is to pay a price on behalf of another that they may be released from captivity. The entire human race is held captive in sin, and Jesus had come to be the ransom that they may be set free. And the price of that ransom was His very life. If what they had witnessed at the table blew their minds, what they would witness on the ensuing day would even moreso, as the Lord Jesus would lay down His life on the cross to take the sins of the world upon Himself that He might bear the wrath of God in our place. This is the full extent of His love. He loved us with His life and He loved us with His death. He was serving us by meeting our greatest need – the need to be rescued from sin and reconciled to God. In the words of Philippians 2, even though He existed in the form of God, He did not cling to His equality with God, but “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:6-8).

Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Would you lay down your life for your friends, for your loved ones? I dare say that many of us would say “Yes.” If it came down to it, I would gladly forsake my own life for my wife and children. I have told my best friend in the world on more than one occasion, and I truly mean it, I would take a bullet for him. After all, he led me to Jesus. But the love of Christ is greater still than even this. As Paul says in Romans 5:6-8, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet siners, Christ died for us.” In verse 10, he says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” He did more than lay down His life for His friends, He laid down His life for His enemies, that He might make them – no, that He might make US – to become His friends.

Do you wonder if you are loved by the Lord? My friends, He has shown us the fervent intensity of His love. Had we been in that upper room, He would have washed our feet in the humble service of love. We weren’t there, so that didn’t happen. But something greater did. He did more than take up a towel for you. He took up a cross for you. This is how He loved us and how we know He loves us. He loves us with His cross. This is the fervent intensity of His love.

Now let’s look at the final fact of His perfect love for His own.

III. Notice the unending duration of His love

We’re still looking at that little phrase, “He loved them to the end.” Remember we said that the phrase could also be translated either as “to the end” or as “to the uttermost.” Well, which is it? Well, it is both. This Greek phrase occurs five other times in the New Testament. Four of them speak of duration, one speaks of intensity. Here it means both. In several passages, John uses phrases that have more than one meaning, and he uses them in such a way that both meanings are implied, intended, and expected. As one scholar notes, “It is better … not to separate the two ideas, for because the love of Jesus was of the highest degree, it would consequently carry through to the very end.”[2] And that is the case here. He does intend to convey to us the fervent intensity of Jesus’ love: He loved His own to the uttermost. And he intends to convey the unending duration of His love: He loved us to the end. To the end of what? To the end of His life, to the end of their lives, or to the end of all things, to the end of all time and into eternity future? The answer is, “Yes! All of the above.” His perfect love for His own never ends.  

The text speaks of His love in the past: “Having loved His own.” He had been loving them up the very moment. And then it speaks of His love in the present: “He loved them,” or we might say, “He was loving them even at the moment.” And then it speaks of His love in the future: “He loved them to the end.”

Some time ago, I was visiting with one of our members, and she had been given a piece of jewelry by a family member with a Hebrew inscription. If I remember correctly, it was a silver circle hanging from the end of a necklace. She asked me to translate it for her on the spot, and I told her that my Hebrew was a little too rusty to do that, so I scribbled down the inscription and came back to the office to work on it. As I began to parse the words, the meaning leaped off the page: “Loved with an everlasting love.” It’s from Jeremiah 31:3, where the Lord says to His own, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” We who are His own, are loved with the everlasting love of the Lord Jesus that will never, ever end. It is as if the Lord Jesus has placed that very pendant around our necks to promise us forever, “I love you, and My love for you will never end.”

Think of it. He has given to His own a life that transcends death, even as the Lord Jesus overcame death. And why has He granted us everlasting life? Is it not that we might be with Him forever? Why in the world does He want us to be with Him forever? Is it not so that for all eternity He might lavish upon us the riches of His mercy and grace and that we might bask in the glory of His love forever?  If you are His own, if you have come to Christ by faith in Him and been adopted by His grace into the family of God, you need not fear that you will ever be unloved. His love for you will never cease. Having loved His own, He loves us to the very end.

Is it not the yearning of every human heart to be loved with a perfect love? Is not the cause of so much of our disillusionment and depression the fact that human and earthly loves have so often failed us, and that we have failed to live in that kind of love? This love is attainable. It can be yours. But it can only be found in Jesus. He alone can love to the uttermost with an everlasting love. He has shown you His love in the cross, and He will love you to the end. If you do not know Him by faith as your Lord and Savior, it is His love that has brought you to this place and given you the opportunity to receive Him. The Bible says that it is His kindness that leads us to repentance. Would you turn from sin and turn to Christ to trust Him as your Master and your Rescuer from enslavement to sin? His love has been poured out for you. Will you receive it? If you will, you will become His own, the special object of His perfect love that is of the utmost intensity and unending duration. And many of you have entered into that love. If you have, you need never feel unloved. If every other person fails you in life, the Lord will not. If all other loves fail you, the love of Jesus never will. The Lord says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isa 49:16). You have been inscribed there with the markings of the nails that were driven through His hands as He died for you on the cross. You are loved, and you are loved with an everlasting love. Will you rest in that love, and if all other loves fail you, will you be content in knowing that you are loved by Your Redeemer and Your King forever?

[1] Herman Ridderbos, cited in Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 402.
[2] Robert H. Mounce, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 10:545. 

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