Having established that the motif of relational love that demonstrates the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love functioning in a redemptive manner in relation to the establishment of the kingdom of God (mimicking Jesus’ love, which is the manifestation of God’s redemptive and reconciliatory love for the world), we can achieve and operate with a better understanding of what is truly meant by Jesus’ insistence that His disciples love one another as He has loved them. We must remember, as we consume and consider the message of Jesus and of Scripture, that the type of love given voice in the declaration concerning the way that God loved the world, within this Gospel presentation that explicitly equates Jesus with the Creator God of Israel, will color the way that love is perceived by the recipients of this narrative. Beyond that, God’s love for the world, with its connection to concerns related to exile and exodus (perishing or eternal life) and the fact that an overt presentation of Jesus as the very embodiment of God means that Jesus was and is the Messiah of Israel, is indissolubly connected to prevalent notions about the messianic banquet, and of the types of things that will accompany the hoped-for-and-messianic-banquet-signaled in-breaking of God’s reign on earth.
The declaration of the fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, that “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us,” is not only an unequivocal declaration that Israel’s God was present among humanity, and in the world as Jesus, but it is also an unmistakable use of Temple-related language. Thus, an implied conflict with the Temple authorities, because of that claim, becomes the explanation for the underlying source of antagonism between Jesus and those that present themselves as His adversaries, as well as the ultimate cause of His death (though the raising of Lazarus will be reported as the proximate cause of His death---though this is understandable, as the raising of Lazarus, historical or not, certainly underscores the claim that Jesus is the place in which God’s power is present and therefore the true Temple). Because the dwelling place of God was always thought to be the Temple, the author makes it clear that everything that follows in His narrative (written at least a couple of decades after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in association with the Jewish revolt in 70 A.D., though it most certainly draws from traditions in circulation from the days of Jesus on), portrays Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Temple. This helps us to make contextual sense of John the Baptist’s quite early declaration in the Gospel that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29b), as the removal of sin mentioned in this statement that is provided by its context by the Day of Atonement (without even getting into John’s legitimate claim to the high priesthood), is something that was carried out in connection with the Temple.
Why mention this here? We mention it because the presence of God among His people, with Jesus serving as the Temple (especially in the light of the fact that at the time of these writings the Temple of Jerusalem no longer existed), signaled the end of exile. God’s presence meant that exodus was at hand. God’s presence meant that Israel was free from its oppressors. A new and glorious Temple (“the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth---1:14b), would cause a hearer or reader to hearken back to the construction of the first Temple, under the reign of Solomon, when Israel’s glory reached its full height and extent, and all nations came streaming to Israel and to Solomon, paying homage and tribute. This could also call attention to what is to be found in Ezra and the story of the establishment of the second Temple, in that those that had seen the glory of the first Temple wept. If this situation of glory in relation to the Temple was again in effect (and the language suggests such thoughts), then the messianic age---the kingdom age---had dawned in and with Jesus, and the remainder of the narrative, including the notion of the love to be meted out by Jesus’ disciples, must be heard amidst these words as echoes of that fact. Jesus’ words and actions can then be understood within that context, as they reveal the love of God, while providing the model for love for one another that marks out the fact of the kingdom of God on earth that was inaugurated and commensurate with all that was included in the incarnational Word.
In light of all of this, it will be the concrete activities of Jesus, as reported within John, that identify what is to be the lived-out love of the Christian community. Therefore, the first instance of Jesus’ activity, apart from Him coming to be baptized at the hands of His forerunner, is the call to follow Him. Surely, the greatest example of love to be expressed between Christ’s disciples is the ongoing encouragement to follow Jesus. Of course, the idea of what it means to follow Jesus (and therefore love in the way that He loves---which is the way that God loves) must be rounded out and given its full orb through the procession of the presentation, which is precisely the path of John’s narrative.
We first see Jesus calling men to follow Him in the first chapter, as He answers a question posed to Him by two of John’s disciples in regards to where He was lodging, with a simple “Come and you will see” (1:39a). In the forty-third verse, Jesus speaks to Philip and says “Follow me.” These disciples will go on to learn about what it will mean to follow Him, as He reveals to them the kingdom of God through His functioning as the Temple, which will also be the experience of those that hear or read this Gospel. To that end, the first chapter closes with Him telling these newly minted disciples: “I tell all of you the solemn truth---you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51). These words, with the use of “Son of Man” language, are designed to evidence messianic and therefore kingdom of God sensibilities, while also building on the Temple language previously used, while also causing the informed hearer to think of Genesis and “Jacob’s ladder.” In that story, following the vision of his dream in which angels were going up and down on the ladder or stairway (depending on the translation), Jacob exclaimed, among other things, that “This is nothing else than the house of God” (28:17b), thus prompting him to name the place “Bethel” (house of God). By using these words, the author makes clear the fact that Jesus is presenting Himself as the Temple, thus defining Himself as the locus of God’s activity and of the life of Israel. All of this serves to prepare us to see Jesus as God in the flesh, and by extension, the outworking of the redemptive and restorative love of God that is to be the model for living life in the way of Jesus.