If we are going to attempt to come to grips with the concept of Christian love, then the New Testament’s Johannine compilation is the place to go. If we are looking to ascertain the conception of love, and to do so on the terms of a particular New Testament author, while considering the topic as vital to Christian living, then the collection of “John” writings should be our preferred destination. In the Gospel of John, a term that is translated as “love” is employed twenty times. “Loved” appears twenty-one times. Adding the epistles of John, we find “love” used an additional twenty-eight times (twenty-three for 1 John, three in 2 John, and two in 3 John). The epistles employ “loved” three times, with all three appearances in the first letter of John. In total, we find “love” or “loved” employed a total of seventy-two times in the Johannine corpus. This is unsurprising, as the presumed author refers to himself in terms of love. We know him self-referentially as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
By way of comparison, a quick glance through the synoptic Gospels provides us with a total of twenty-five variations on “love” (love-22, loved-2, loving-1). Surprisingly, while detailing the activities of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles contains no mentions of “love” or any of its variations as a motivating factor for the earliest of Jesus-believers and kingdom adherents. The New Testament letters, excluding those of John, are well-represented in this area. Romans, the letters to Corinth, and the letter to the Ephesians reach into the double digits in their employment of the term. In the sixteen chapters of Romans, we find “love” or “loved” on fifteen occasions (twelve and three), the first Corinthians letter uses love thirteen times (six times in the “love chapter”), second Corinthians scores twelve uses of “love” and “loved” (eleven and one), and the relatively short letter to Ephesus (though, because it does not contain the types of specifics to be found in other Pauline letter, and because it doesn’t seem to deal with any particular vexing issues or pressing matters within a particular church, it may have originally been a circular letter designed to be shared by a number of churches) clocks in with nineteen mentions of “love” or “loved” (fourteen and five) within its scant six chapters.
Combined, the remainder of the New Testament letters make mention of “love” in some variation an additional seventy-four times, meaning that, outside of the Johannine texts (this excludes Revelation), we find one hundred fifty eight words variously translated as “love,” “loved,” or “loving (133, 22, 3). Added to the seventy-two instances to be found in the Gospel and Epistles of John, “love” appears in the New Testament texts two hundred thirty times. Nearly a third of the total number of uses are located in the Johannine texts. While we note that not all of the uses of “love” are presented in a positive sense, we have little reason to wonder at the reason that the doctrine of love becomes foundational for the life of the Christian community.
We can note the development of the doctrine, as it take center-stage for the followers of Jesus. Over time, love begins to define the life of the community, as Christians attempted to put into practice what they believed was implied by the Resurrection and the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. Putting aside the letters, the majority of which pre-date the written forms of the Gospels, we make note of the use of “love” in what is taken to be the earliest Gospel, which was that of Mark. Mark makes use of “love” only three times. Matthew and Luke, which rely heavily upon the Markan narrative, while also drawing on other sources (both oral and written), expand the usage of “love,” with Matthew offering up ten instances of the term, and Luke employing the vocabulary of love on twelve occasions.
By the time that the Gospel of John is composed, with the letters of John most likely being roughly contemporary with the Gospel, it is love that has taken the field as the driving force that underlies the living out of the life of allegiance to the claims of Jesus and the response to His Resurrection and His kingdom. That is evidenced by the narrative of the life of Christ that has been constructed by the author of the Gospel of John, and it is reinforced by the sensibilities of the Johannine-related community which are revealed to us by the letters of John. It is obvious that love has taken center-stage for the Christian community to which the writings of John are directed (and perhaps for the wider Christian community as well), and this is reflected by the narrative that has been passed down to us. It is also possible that the author wanted to push the community in the direction of love, but with the growing presence of “love” in the synoptic Gospels, it seems more likely that John’s structure is a response to the direction that has been previously taken.