April 14, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Sublime Riches of Christ’s Love

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (13:1)

The Feast of the Passover was the annual Jewish festival commemorating God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The name derived from the angel of death’s passing over the houses of the Hebrews when he killed the firstborn of the Egyptians (Ex. 12:7, 12–13). This Passover would be the last divinely authorized one. From this point on there would be a new memorial—not one recalling the lambs’ blood on the doorposts but the blood of the Lamb of God (1:29, 36; Rev. 5:6; 6:9; 7:10, 17; 14:4, 10; 15:3; 19:9; 22:1, 3) “poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The Last Supper celebrated by the Lord with His disciples gave Him opportunity to use the elements of the Passover meal to form a transition from the old covenant Passover to the new covenant Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26).

An apparent discrepancy exists at this point between John’s chronology and that of the Synoptic Gospels. The latter clearly state that the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:7–15). John 18:28, however, records that the Jewish leaders “led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early [Friday morning; the day of the crucifixion]; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.” Further, according to John 19:14 Jesus’ trial and crucifixion took place on “the day of preparation for the Passover,” not the day after the eating of the Passover meal. Thus the Lord was crucified at the same time that the Passover lambs were being killed (cf. 19:36; Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12). The challenge, then, is to explain how Jesus and the disciples could have eaten the Passover meal on Thursday evening if the Jewish leaders had not yet eaten it on Friday morning.

The answer lies in understanding that the Jews had two different methods of reckoning days. Ancient Jewish sources suggest that Jews from the northern part of Israel (including Galilee, where Jesus and most of the Twelve were from) counted days from sunrise to sunrise. Most of the Pharisees apparently also used that method. On the other hand, the Jews in the southern region of Israel counted days from sunset to sunset. That would include the Sadducees (who of necessity lived in the vicinity of Jerusalem because of their connection with the temple). Though no doubt confusing at times, that dual method of reckoning days would have had practical benefits at Passover, allowing the feast to be celebrated on two consecutive days. That would have eased the crowded conditions in Jerusalem, especially in the temple, where all the lambs would not have had to be killed on the same day.

Thus, there is no contradiction between John and the Synoptics. Being Galileans, Jesus and the Twelve would have viewed Passover day as running from sunrise on Thursday to sunrise on Friday. They would have eaten their Passover meal on Thursday evening. The Jewish leaders (the Sadducees), however, would have viewed it as beginning at sunset on Thursday and ending at sunset on Friday. They would have eaten their Passover meal on Friday evening. (For a further discussion of this issue, see Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977], 74–90; Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels [Chicago: Moody, 1979], 321–22).

John repeated Jesus’ declaration that His hour had come (12:23); no longer was it future as in 2:4; 7:30; and 8:20 (cf. 7:6, 8). The Lord knew that the time had come for Him to depart out of this world to the Father. He was in full control of everything that was happening, and was never a victim of circumstances, or of men’s evil schemes.

Though He yearned to return to His full glory in the Father’s presence (cf. 17:5), Jesus never wavered in His focus on loving His own (cf. 10:29) who were in the world. The Lord loved them to the end. Telos (end) means “perfection,” or “completeness,” and signifies that Jesus loves His own with the fullest measure of love. There is a general sense in which God loves the world (John 3:16) of lost sinners (Matt. 5:44–45; Titus 3:4), but He loves His own with a perfect, eternal, redeeming love—a love “which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). The words of the hymn writer capture the Lord’s marvelous love for believers:

Loved with everlasting love,

Led by grace that love to know;

Gracious Spirit from above,

Thou hast taught me it is so!

O, this full and perfect peace!

O, this transport all divine!

In a love which cannot cease,

I am His, and He is mine.

In Romans 8:35–39 Paul exulted,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Even the imminent arrival of His own death could not separate His disciples from His love. That reality becomes even more wonderfully clear in His prayer in the seventeenth chapter.[1]

1 John places the events of the evening just before the Passover Feast. The question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover Feast (Mk 14:12 par.) or a meal on the previous day that had Passover characteristics is discussed at great length in more critical commentaries. Carson, 457, after working through the issue, concludes, “Jesus and his disciples did indeed eat a Passover meal on Thursday, the beginning of 15 Nisan.” Passover was a sacred festival commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Ex 12). It took its name from the “passing over” of the angel of death and the sparing of all the firstborn among the Israelites. At the time of the Passover, devout Jews came to Jerusalem from all over the inhabited world to join in that most sacred and holy festival.

Jerusalem was an exciting place during Passover. Religious emotions ran high. Friends from different areas would meet in the crowded streets and excitedly exchange stories of home and family. But for Jesus, his time had come, and only this one last evening remained for him to spend with his disciples. At an earlier point in his ministry, the Pharisees had tried to seize Jesus but were unable to do so because “his time had not yet come” (7:30; cf. 8:20). But now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23; cf. 17:1). This was the hour toward which, in the eternal plan of God, all history had moved with inexorable pace. It was the hour in which the redemptive love of God would reveal itself as voluntary suffering for the unworthy. A Savior crucified by those he came to save is paradoxical only to those who have not grasped the fact that God wins his victories through suffering, not by an outward demonstration of power or might. In the great throne room scene of Revelation 4–5, the Lion of the tribe of Judah turns out to be a Lamb, who is worthy to open the seals of the scroll because he has been slain and with his blood has purchased human beings for God (Rev 5:5–6, 9).

Specifically, it was the time for Jesus to “leave this world and go to the Father.” For the believer, death is not the end but the beginning. It is a departure from the realm of evil (cf. Gal 1:4) and a going home to the Father. Since Jesus is the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18), we may logically expect that as his death was a journey to the Father so also will be ours. All ideas of soul-sleep are foreign to NT teaching. Neither is the “soul” entrapped along the way in some place of physical punishment. Paul said it clearly: “Absent from the body … present with the Lord” (2 Co 5:8 KJV). What a remarkable way to complete what we call life! Death has been robbed of its terror and made the passage to our eternal home. Waiting for us is the One whose love bridged the gulf created by our sin. We are the prodigals returning home, and he is the Father who rushes out to meet us. This world has been a place of hostility and heartache. Death is the entrance into joy eternal and inexpressible.

The text says that Jesus “knew” that his time had come. This was more than mere premonition; it was a clear understanding of what must necessarily take place in the dark days that lay ahead. As the Lamb of God whose blood would be shed for the sins of the world, he knew not only what would happen but also that the critical time had arrived. Jesus was not trapped into a sequence of events that unexpectedly led to the cross. With full knowledge of what the future held, he moved steadily through his years of public ministry to a destiny ordained by the Father and known by the Son. This foreknowledge makes his sacrifice all the more remarkable.

Though his disciples had often failed to grasp the full meaning of his words and had demonstrated by their behavior an inadequate commitment to his ethical demands, he “loved his own” and would now show them “the full extent of his love.” In the prologue to his gospel John notes that the Word came to “his own creation,” (ta idia is neuter plural), but “his own people” (hoi idioi is masculine plural) did not receive him (1:11–12). Those referred to in ch. 13 as “his own” comprise a much smaller group. To belong to Jesus—to be “his own”—requires far more than to find oneself somewhat unintentionally within an ethnic or religious organization. It requires separation from the prevailing world system and allegiance to a kingdom that belongs to another world. As Paul puts it, the Christian has his citizenship “in heaven” (Php 3:20). “My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Elsewhere believers are called “a people that are his very own” (Tit 2:14, drawing on Moses’ reference to the Israelites as God’s “treasured possession,” Ex 19:5). To be called God’s own is a reward given to those few who by faith have committed themselves to the reality of a universal kingdom yet undisclosed. As Jesus, misunderstood and rejected, moved among people, so also do his current followers find themselves at odds with much of contemporary wisdom and culture.

Throughout his entire ministry Jesus had loved his own. He bore with their lack of spiritual understanding and put up with their all-too-human reactions. When they failed to understand his teachings, he found other ways to communicate what he wanted them to learn. He loved his disciples. And now he was about to show them “the full extent of his love.” The expression may mean either that he loved them utterly and completely or that he loved them to the end, i.e., to his death. It is better in this case 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. A bit later he will remind his disciples that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13 NRSV). One of the most remarkable things about Jesus from a human point of view is that there is no disparity between his words and his life. What he taught he lived.[2]


Love Letters from the Lord

John 13:1

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

In 2 Timothy 3:16–17 the apostle Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” But having acknowledged that this is indeed true, that all Scripture is God’s gift to us and is of inestimable value, we nevertheless recognize that for one reason or another some sections of the Bible are particularly valuable and are therefore especially prized and loved by God’s people. We come to such a section in this volume.

To many persons the Gospel of John, as the most intense and spiritual of the Gospels, is the “holy place” of Scripture. But if this is so, then these chapters, 13 through 17, which contain the final discourses of the Lord with his disciples just before his crucifixion and which conclude with his great high-priestly prayer on their behalf, are the “holy of holies.” Nowhere in the entire Bible does the child of God feel that he is walking on more holy ground. For here, more than in many other portions of Scripture, he hears the voice of Jesus leading him into a greater understanding of his new place before the Father and consequently also of his new position in the world. These chapters contain teaching about heaven, the new commandment, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the mutual union of Christ with the disciples and the disciples with Christ, and prayer.

To what can we compare these chapters? They can only be compared to love letters, in this case love letters from the Lord. For here the One who is the great and faithful Bridegroom of the church speaks to those who are themselves the church and assures them of his special and enduring love for them.

Not for Everyone

This means that the truths contained in these chapters are not for everyone. They are for the Lord’s people only. We have one evidence for this in the fact that they were spoken only to the Twelve in the upper room and not more widely. This irritates some people, of course, for it suggests partiality on the part of God, and in their view partiality is both unjust and despicable. But such people do not recognize the nature of the partiality that is found here, nor do they recognize how much they practice partiality themselves, in some cases even with justification.

We can immediately see the justice of these chapters not being for everyone if we simply extend the idea of these being the Lord’s love letters. What would we think of a man who, for instance, is married to one woman but who writes intimate and endearing letters to many other women whom he knows? We would call that man a philanderer, a hypocrite, a liar. We recognize at once that while he may rightly have friendly contacts with many persons, including other women, nevertheless the most intimate things, those that belong in a marriage, deserve to be spoken only between husband and wife. Marriage is a private relationship. Consequently, it must be partial. In the same way Jesus has taken unto himself a special people, the church. These are his bride. It is entirely fitting and even expected that he should have special, loving, and touchingly tender words for them only.

Is this partiality? Not at all! It is grace. For it is God, of his own sovereign will, choosing those whom he thus determines to save and bless abundantly. This has nothing to do with any supposed merit in God’s people, for there is none. It is simply that when men had rejected God, choosing to go their own way, God out of infinite mercy still elected to save and bless some. If he had not done so, not one soul would have been saved. That he has done so, is tremendous.

The World

It is not surprising in view of the special nature of these chapters that the verse that begins them makes the contrast between those who are Christ’s own and those who are not, sharper than any other comparable passage in the Word of God. It is true that Paul does much the same thing in Romans 9 and 10. A similar contrast is found in Ephesians 2, and many times in the Old Testament. But nowhere is the contrast clearer and the categories involved more absolute. For here, in the first verse of John 13, we are at once introduced to those who are Christ’s own, whom he loved faithfully until the end.

The verse says, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”

Who are Christ’s own? The answer has already been given many times in John’s Gospel. They are those who have been given to Christ by the Father (6:37, 44). They are those for whom Christ was about to die (10:11, 15). They are those who were born, “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:13). They are those to whom Christ gives eternal life, who shall never perish, and who therefore shall never be plucked from Christ’s hand (10:28–29). What is the world? The world is the human race out of which Christ called them.

It is worth considering this term “world,” for, as we pointed out in one of the studies toward the end of John 4, this is one of the most important concepts in the fourth Gospel. There are several Greek words that are translated “world” in our Bibles, but the one we are interested in is kosmos, from which we get our word “cosmopolitan.” Kosmos means “world.” Politēs means “citizen.” So a citizen of the world is a cosmopolitan. The Greek word kosmos occurs 185 times in the New Testament. But what is extremely interesting is that of these 185 occurrences of the word kosmos, 105 are in the books traditionally ascribed to John. There are 78 occurrences of the word in the Gospel, 24 in the Epistles, and 3 in the Book of Revelation. Moreover, the importance of the word in John’s Gospel is made even more obvious when we compare its 78 occurrences to the 8 times it occurs in Matthew and the merely 3 times each it occurs in Mark and Luke.

What does kosmos mean? The answer to the question is a complex one, for the word is old and therefore in time has acquired multiple meanings. The word originally meant “an ornament,” that is, a decorative object, the unique feature of which was its fine proportions or beauty. This meaning is preserved in our English word “cosmetic,” though in this case the meaning has shifted from what is beautiful in itself to that which is used to improve features that perhaps are not. In time the word was applied to the universe or world globe, as the well-proportioned ornament of God. This meaning occurs in John 1:9 and 10, which tell us that the Light “that gives light to every man was coming into the world” and that “the world was made by him.” Even here another meaning is also present, however, for verse 10 goes on to say that “the world [that is, the people in the world] did not recognize him.”

Since kosmos was used to describe the “world globe,” it was natural that it next came to denote “the world of human beings.” In this second sense we might also translate it as “the human race.” It is said of the world in this sense that God loved it and gave his only Son for it (John 3:16), that it is the object of his saving purposes (John 3:17), that Jesus died for it (1 John 2:2), that he is its Savior (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). It must be understood of this use of the word that it refers to the human race collectively and not necessarily to each individual, otherwise the verses cited would imply a universal salvation of all men that is clearly repudiated elsewhere.

The third and major use of the word kosmos is the one that occurs in our text and that comes to dominate the remaining chapters of John’s Gospel. This usage also signifies the world of human beings, but with the additional thought that this world stands in rebellion against God. At times we may translate this use of kosmos as “the world system,” including the world’s values, pleasures, pastimes, and aspirations. It is said of the world in this sense that the world does not know God (1 John 3:1), that it rejected Jesus (John 1:10–11), and consequently that it also does not know and therefore also hates his followers (15:18–21; 17:14). This sense of the word is involved in every instance in which Christ’s own are distinguished from the world. For example, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (15:18). Or again, “I have given them your words and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (17:14).

In summary we may say that, in the first sense, Christians are to receive the world and be thankful for it, for it is God’s gift. In the second sense, they are to love the world and seek to evangelize it, for God also loves the human race. In the third sense, however, believers in Christ are to reject the world and then by God’s grace also order their lives according to an entirely different set of values.

All Things for Some

The difference between God’s relationship to the world and his relationship to his own has sometimes been stated in this way. God has done some things for all men, that is, everyone in the world. He has created them, sustained them, kept them from the worst that is possible, even tolerated them and thus kept them for a time from hell. On the other hand, God has done all things for some men. These are his own. They do not lack and will never lack any good thing.

What has God done for his own? In one sense the chapters we are to study are themselves the full answer to that question. The answer will come in fullness only as we study them. But as we stand at the threshold of these chapters cannot avoid at least a partial answer by way of expectation. The answer has at least six parts.

  1. The first and greatest teaching of these chapters is that Jesus specifically loved those who are his own. This is how the section begins: “Jesus … having loved his own who were in the world … showed them the full extent of his love” (13:1). It ends with: “I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (17:26). It is not necessary to say at this point that there is no love of God for the world in general. There is a sense in which the love of God extends to all people. It is only necessary to say that the love of which we are speaking here is a special, saving love as a result of which those who are Christ’s own become his own and are kept by him. For having loved them, “he showed [and continues to show] them the full extent of his love.”

While this undoubtedly gives some special privileges to those who are his own, it also gives them equally special obligations. For if they are loved, they also are to love. In this lies the basis for Christ’s new commandment. “A new command I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34).

  1. The second great teaching of these chapters is that Jesus has gone to prepare a place known as heaven for his people. We are not told a great deal about heaven or what awaits us there. But we are told that in it there is a place for us who believe in him, and we are also promised that he will return one day to guarantee that we get there. “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am” (14:2–3). Even if heaven did not exist, the love of the Lord that we have come to experience here on earth would be wonderful in itself. But, in addition to this, there is heaven. In this promise we learn that the fact that the Lord loved his own “to the end” does not merely mean “to the end of Christ’s life” or even “to the end of our lives.” Rather, it means “to the very end,” “to the uttermost.” His love for us will never end; it is eternal.
  2. During these last discourses, the disciples were naturally troubled, for they had been told that the Lord, whom they loved, would be leaving them in order to return to the Father. In this context, Jesus’ words about heaven were a source of great comfort. But there is another source also, and in this is found the third of Jesus’ teachings. He tells the disciples, and therefore also tells us, that he is going to send a replacement for himself; that replacement, the Holy Spirit, would come and dwell within those who belong to Jesus. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him; for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (14:16–17).

It is also the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the apostles into all the truth concerning Jesus, bringing it to their remembrance (14:26; 16:13), and to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8–11).

  1. The fourth teaching of the Lord concerns his commissioning of the disciples to a special work, indeed a different work in each individual case. We find it in the fifteenth chapter. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (v. 16). According to this verse, each of us has a spiritually fruitful work to perform. The promise of the Lord is that all we will accomplish in this area will remain.
  2. We are told in these chapters that the Lord intercedes or prays for us. Here the seventeenth chapter is itself one long example. It is encouraging; for in these verses the Lord prays that his own might be kept from the evil that is in the world, that they might have his joy fulfilled in them, that they might be sanctified by means of the Word of God, that they might be one, and finally that they might be with Jesus in heaven. Can God turn his back on a request made by his own dear Son? Of course not! We rightly sing,

The Father hears him pray,

His dear anointed One;

He cannot turn away

The presence of his Son.

So these requests are already fulfilled or are in the process of being fulfilled. They carry the same weight as direct promises. We shall be kept from evil. We shall have joy. We shall be one. We shall be with Jesus in heaven.

  1. Finally, just as Jesus has prayed for us, so he invites us to pray, describing this as a new and blessed privilege. “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (16:23–24).

These are the themes that are developed fully in this important fourth section of John’s Gospel. Perhaps the best comment about them is that of Paul in the great eighth chapter of Romans: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (vv. 31–32). God has indeed given us all things. But to whom much has been given, much shall also be required. May God use our study of John 13–17 to help us become increasingly his obedient and therefore also his exceedingly joyous children.

Having Loved, He Loved

John 13:1

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

In the previous study of the first verse of John 13 we saw that, while God has done some things for all men, he has, in addition to this, done all things for some. This is a tremendous truth. But, like all great truths, it almost cries out for an explanation. Fortunately the explanation is in our text also. For having distinguished between those who are of the world and those who are Christ’s own, the verse goes on to say, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he showed them the full extent of his love.” Love is the explanation. Jesus loves his own; he loves us. This is the entire explanation of why God has done all things for those who are his spiritual people.

No Explanation

When we say this, however, we must immediately recognize that love itself is unexplainable. For if we go on to ask, “But why did God love us? Why does Jesus love us?” there is just no answer to be given.

Obviously we are not loved because we are lovable, for we are not. It is true that some of us may be lovable to some others of us, but this is only when we look at the matter from a human perspective. From God’s perspective there is nothing in us to make us even remotely desirable. He is holy; we are unholy. He is just; we are unjust. He is loving; we are filled with hatred and all forms of sin. In short, we are sinful and in willful rebellion against him. Yet he loves us. In fact, this is so great a marvel that God even uses it to commend his love to us. He says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6–8).

God has not loved us because we first loved him; he is not merely returning our love. We did not love him. On this point the apostle John writes clearly, “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Again, the Lord did not love us because of anything that we could do for him, for we had nothing to offer. He does not need praise; the angels praise him. He does not even need spiritual children; for, as Jesus said, he is able of stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even our numbers are not an asset. So why does God love us? The only answer is the one he gave Moses concerning the children of Israel. “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers” (Deut. 7:7–8). The reason God loves us is that he loves us. Beyond that, his love is unexplainable. It is without reason, at least without reason known to us.

Empirical Data

If we were to stop at this point, I suppose that in that thought alone we would have enough to keep us pondering on the love of God for eternity. But there is more. For the verse that tells us that God loves without reason also tells us that God loves without variation and without end. His love is eternal. The verse says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he showed them the full extent of his love.

We want to come back to that phrase, “the full extent.” But before we do so we need to see the reasons God gives why we should believe that his love is eternal. We cannot see into the future; therefore, rationally at least, the future lends no evidence. Why should we believe in this everlasting quality of God’s love? The answer is an empirical one. It has to do with observable data, particularly data from the past and present. First, there is the past: “Having loved.” Second, there is the present: “he showed.” This second occurrence is a past tense (an aorist); but the sense is present, for it refers to what Jesus was then doing and was about to do.

In other words, the verse calls our attention to the observable past and present love of Christ, and it is asking us to reason on that basis. Is not love his nature? Will not he who loved in the past and loves in the present also love in the future? If he loved his disciples to the end, will he not love us similarly?

Past and Present Love

What do we know about the love of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ in the past? Obviously that is a big question, the answer to which can never fully be given. But we can suggest some areas in which the answer can be seen.

First, we can see the love of God in the creation of ourselves and other human beings. We refer at this point, not merely to the fact of our existence, for our existence in itself might prove nothing. We refer rather to the fact that in creating us God created us with a spiritual vacuum within that can be filled only by himself. In other words, he created us, not to a meaningless existence but to an existence that is the highest existence possible for any created object, namely, communion with the One who created it. So it is as Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The fact that we can know God and are restless until we do know him is proof of his love.

Second, God’s love is seen in the fact that he, by the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power has called us to himself. We have seen this several times in John’s Gospel. We are told, on the one hand, that no one can come to God unless God draws him. In this fatal inability we measure the extent of our depravity. But then, on the other hand, we are told that God does draw some to himself and that none of these can be lost. In this we see God’s love, for apart from the sweet drawing of that love, no one would ever come to him.

Third, we see God’s love in Jesus’ death for his people. This, if you will, completes the trinitarian formula, for in creation we see the love of the Father. In the effectual calling of God’s people we see the love of the Holy Spirit. In the act of redemption we see the love of Jesus Christ, the Son.

The love of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for us may be illustrated by the following story as told by Harry Ironside. Many years ago, Czar Nicholas I of Russia knew a young man for whom he cared a great deal. He was the son of a good friend of his. Because of his interest in this young man, Nicholas had him assigned to a border fortress of the Russian army and caused him to be given charge of the money used for paying the soldiers. The young man started well. But he fell into bad habits, took to gambling, and eventually gambled away not only his own wealth but also a great fortune taken from government funds. He had taken just a few rubles at a time, but these had mounted up and become prodigious. One day he received notice that on the following day an official would be coming to inspect the books. The young man knew he was in trouble. So he took out the records to find out how great his debt was. He totaled the amount. Then he went to the safe, took out his own small amount of money, and counted it carefully. He subtracted the lesser from the greater. The debt was astronomical. As he sat looking at the final figure, the young officer picked up his pen and wrote in large letters, “A great debt; who can pay?” Then, because he did not see how he could face the terrible dishonor the next day held, he determined to kill himself with his revolver at the stroke of twelve.

The night was warm and drowsy. So as he waited for the midnight hour, in spite of himself the young man’s head dropped lower and lower and he fell asleep.

It happened that Nicholas, who was in the habit of sometimes putting on the uniform of a common soldier and visiting the troops to see how they were getting on, did so this night, coming around to the halls of the very fortress in which the young officer was sleeping. Most of the lights were out, as they should have been. But when Nicholas got to the door of this one room he noticed a light shining under it. He knocked. No answer! He tried the latch and opened the door. There was the young officer, whom he recognized, asleep. He saw also the books and the money. The whole thing became clear in a moment. His first thought was to awaken his young friend and place him under arrest. But as he read the young man’s note, his heart went out to him. “A great debt; who can pay?” Moved by a generous impulse, the Czar leaned over, picked up the pen that had fallen from the hand of the sleeping officer, wrote just one word, and tiptoed out.

For an hour or so the young man slept. Then he suddenly awoke and, seeing that it was long past midnight, reached for the revolver. As he did so his eye caught sight of his note—“A great debt; who can pay?”—and under it the one word that had not been there before: “Nicholas.” He was astonished. Dropping his gun, he raced to the files where the signature of the Czar was available. He pulled this out and carefully compared it with the signature on his note. It was the real signature. He said to himself, “The Czar has been here tonight and knows all my guilt; yet he has undertaken to pay my debt; I need not die.” So instead of taking his life, he rested upon the word of Nicholas and was not surprised when, early the next morning, a messenger came from the palace bearing precisely the amount of money needed to satisfy the deficit. Later, when the inspector came, everything was found to be in order.

Thus did Jesus love us and pay our great debt. We are sinners. There is no possible way for us to atone for that sin. But Jesus has paid that debt. He has signed his name to our bankrupt account. No wonder we sing:

Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain—

He washed it white as snow.

That is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for us as seen in the past. It is that to which God points us and directs our eyes. Thus has he loved. Who then can doubt that he will continue to love us unto the end?

Full Extent … Unto the End

The phrase “the full extent” brings us to the second half of our text. The King James Version says “unto the end.” It raises the question: Unto the end of what? There are several answers.

First, it means “unto the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ.” Even the context suggests this, for the verse is given to us at the start of those chapters that tell of Christ’s final ministry to his disciples prior to his crucifixion. We must admit that we are not always appreciative of this, for we take Christ’s love for granted. Yet, if we would think of the possible hindrances to love both on his part and on the part of the disciples during these days, we would be more sensitive.

On his part there were great hindrances, as the verse indicates. It says, “Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father,” thereby indicating that Jesus knew clearly that he was about to die. So if we were to read that in those moments his thoughts turned from his own to himself so that, at least for a time, he ceased to love them or think about them, who could blame him? Yet knowledge of his impending death did not deter him. There were also hindrances on the part of the disciples. They were worldly, for instance. He thought spiritually. But every time he tried to teach them spiritual things, they interpreted his words on a wordly level. Moreover, they were dull. He explained great truths to them, and they did not understand. In fact, he had been explaining that he was to leave them to go to the Father, but they could not understand even this. Not one of the disciples was a fit companion for the Lord Jesus Christ. So if he had said to himself, “I have thought about these men long enough; I have done everything for them that I know how to do; it is time I thought of myself,” who could blame him? No one! Yet he loved them, fully and unselfishly, to the end of his life.

Second, he obviously also loved them to the end of their lives. True, he was to be the first to die. He died before Peter, James, John, or any of the others. But then he rose, and as the risen Lord he returned to bestow his own Spirit upon the disciples and then guide them and preserve them until the time when each would go to be with him in glory.

Finally, the phrase also means “to the very end,” that is, “to the end of ends” or “without end,” “forever.” In Greek the word is telos, which literally means “perfection.” Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them perfectly. So we sing:

The love of God is greater far

Than tongue or pen can ever tell;

It goes beyond the highest star,

And reaches to the lowest hell.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—

The saints’ and angels’ song.

Such love is indeed forever. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loves them to the end.

Love Others, Love Him

How shall we apply these truths? On the one hand, we must apply them to believers, and, on the other, to those who are not yet believers. The word to those who believe on Christ is this: If this is the way in which God has loved us, then should we not love one another, and also fervently love him? We will never in this life love as he loved, but we can begin to try to love as he loved—unselfishly, without discrimination, without wavering. We should also serve him. For, as the hymn declares:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Again, there is a word for those who have still not become true Christians. If you are not yet a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, let me ask you a question that flows from everything I have been saying. If God loves like this, how can you afford to be without such a great love? There is no love on earth like it. Your husband or wife will not love you like this. Your children and parents will not love you like this. Your neighbors and friends will not love you like this. Only Jesus Christ loves with a perfect and everlasting love! Moreover, one day you must stand before the judgment seat of his Father, whom you have offended by your ungodly conduct and by your rejection of his great grace. What will you do in that day—if you refuse the love of the Lord Jesus Christ? What will you do without having him to stand by you and say, “This is one of my own; this is one for whom I died; this is one whose debt I undertook to pay; this is one I love unto the end”? Without such love you will be lost forever. Fortunately, the day of God’s grace is still present; you may yet come to Jesus Christ as your Savior.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 62–64). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 543–545). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 995–1006). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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