I give you a new commandment---to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples---if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35 (NET)
Most certainly, this is a very familiar saying that is attributed to Jesus. Some might insist that this statement represents the cornerstone of what it means to live as a Christian, and it would be difficult to disagree with that assertion. Surely, those that lay claim to a confession of Jesus as Lord would and should have a desire to live out the prescription of these words, thereby showing themselves to be functionaries within the community that has oriented their lives around Jesus and His pronouncement of the kingdom of God. These words are reported to have fallen from the lips of Jesus at what is generally referred to as the “Last Supper,” and is immediately bracketed by Judas’ departure for the purpose of executing his plan to betray Jesus to the Temple authorities, and Jesus’ insistence that Peter is going to be shortly offering a three-fold denial of his Lord.
So what is meant by these words? What is implied? What will it look like when Jesus’ disciples are loving one another? Quite rightly, each of us comes to this text and these words with our own ideas concerning what it means to love. Due to the fact that we are relational creatures, formed in community with other relational creatures, we come to define love in relational terms. For the most part, we formulate our conceptions about love primarily according to that which we receive from parents and family. The love of fathers and mothers readily serves to shape and define the parameters that are placed around the concept of love, and we generally consider the love of a father or mother to be the strongest type of love there is. It is this type of love, generally of the completely unconditional variety that is simply presumed upon and taken to be an unalterable matter-of-fact, that we most often desire to cultivate in our relationships, regardless of the type of relationship.
The model of love that we associate with our mothers and fathers, whether it is a good model to which should be aspired or a faulty model which might possibly need to be avoided, lies behind the age-old adage (within societies that do not participate in arranged marriages) that insists that women most often marry men like their father, whereas men desire to marry women that remind them of their mothers. For better or for worse, we are programmed to seek out love based on the terms of love that have been presented to us from the time of our birth. Unsurprisingly then, it is this type of love (painting with an overly broad brush), that we desire to offer up as part of the experience of our relationship with God, and that we believe God desires to share with us---defining the God of love based upon (generally) parentally constructed concepts of love. Of course, this does not hold true one hundred percent of the time.
Thinking about this quite broadly then, when we come to the words of Jesus we almost automatically presume that what Jesus means when He commands His disciples to love one another accords neatly with our pre-constructed opinions about the nature of love. However, as we are always seeking to build and reinforce an appropriate framework from which to view the Scriptures (which is an important component that must be in place before we attempt to assess and ascertain meaning), and especially the words and life of Jesus in accordance with His life-setting and the life-setting of the community by and for which this Gospel was compiled, it behooves us to approach these words of Jesus apart from our own terms.
Rightly then, we do not approach these words of Jesus based upon what we believe to be Jesus’ terms (defined self-referentially through our own ideas concerning love), as outlined by the portraits painted by the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or by the path laid out by New Testament authors such as Paul, Peter, James, Jude, the author of the letter to the Hebrews, or John the Revelator. Rather, we must approach these words of Jesus, and attempt to understand their full import according to the terms that are presented by the author of this Gospel. We must hear the witness of the Johannine community concerning love, doing so through the Gospel and the Epistles that bear the same name. We must hear Jesus’ words within the narrative construct and presentation of Jesus offered by this author as He seeks to present Jesus. We must allow love to be defined on John’s terms, and in so doing, we will position ourselves as disciples that are ready to adequately respond to Jesus’ command to love one another and so be identified as people who have thrown their lot in with Him.