Working backwards then, when coming to the words of Jesus there is an almost automatic presumption that what Jesus means when He commands His disciples to love one another accords neatly with pre-constructed opinions about the nature of love. However, it behooves the reader to approach these words of Jesus apart from his or her own terms. These words of Jesus are not to be approached based upon what is believed to be Jesus’ terms (defined self-referentially through subjective 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, one 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 particular Gospel.
Thus, it is necessary to hear the witness of the Johannine community concerning love, doing so through the Gospel and the Epistles that bear the same name. Jesus’ words must be heard from within the narrative construct and presentation of Jesus that is offered by this author as He seeks to present a specific picture of Jesus. Love must be allowed to be defined on John’s terms. When this is done, the reader is them positioned as a disciple that is ready to adequately respond to Jesus’ command to love one another and so be identified as a member of the people who have thrown their lot in with Him.
If one is going to attempt to come to grips with the concept of Christian love, then the New Testament’s Johannine compilation is a reasonable place to turn. If one is 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 the 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, one finds “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, “love” or “loved” is employed a total of seventy-two times in the Johannine corpus. This is unsurprising, as the author refers to himself in terms of love. He is known self-referentially as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
By way of comparison, a quick glance through the synoptic Gospels provides a total of twenty-five variations on “love” (love-22, loved-2, loving-1). Surprisingly, while it details the activities of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles contains no mentions of “love” or any of its variations. The New Testament letters however, excluding those of John, are well-represented in this area of “love”. Romans, the letters to Corinth, and the letter to the Ephesians all reach into the double digits in their employment of the term.
In the sixteen chapters of Romans, “love” or “loved” appears on fifteen occasions (twelve and three respectively). The first Corinthian letter uses love thirteen times (six times in the “love chapter”). The second letter to the Corinthian church scores twelve uses of “love” and “loved” (eleven and one). The relatively short letter to Ephesus (though, because it does not contain the types of specifics to be found in other Pauline letters, and because it doesn’t seem to deal with any particular vexing issues or pressing matters within a particular church, as 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.