The Friends of Jesus Love Each Other
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (15:12–13)
For the second time that evening in the upper room, Jesus gave the commandment that His followers are to love one another (cf. 13:34). Love is the fulfillment of the commandments Jesus had referred to in 15:10. Paul expressed that same principle to the Christians at Rome:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8–10)
Only those who abide in Him have the capacity to love divinely as Jesus loved. At the new birth, the “love of God [was] poured out within [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to [them]” (Rom. 5:5; cf. Gal. 5:22). What Paul wrote concerning the Thessalonians, “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9), is true of all Christians. Love for fellow believers characterizes the redeemed, as John repeatedly emphasized in his first epistle:
The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (2:9–11)
By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (3:10)
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (3:14–15)
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (4:7–8)
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (4:20)
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. (5:1)
The daunting standard for believers’ love for each other is set forth in Jesus’ words just as I have loved you. They are to love each other as the Lord Jesus Christ loves them. That does not mean, of course, that believers can love to the limitless extent or in the perfect manner that He does. But just as Jesus loved sacrificially, so also must they. “Walk in love,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:2, “just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” The love believers have for each other is marked by a selfless devotion to meeting one another’s needs; it is not mere sentiment, or superficial attachment. In fact, Christians’ love for each other is the church’s most powerful apologetic to the unbelieving world (John 13:35).
The Lord’s death, at that point only a matter of hours away, was the supreme evidence of His love, as His statement Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends indicates. Jesus did not die for Himself, but so that others might live. In Romans 5:6–8 Paul wrote,
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
In a marvelously concise statement—only fifteen words in the Greek text—Paul summarized Christ’s substitutionary atonement for believers: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Peter reminded his readers that “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Echoing the Lord’s words in this passage, John wrote, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Then the apostle expressed the practical implications of that truth: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (vv. 17–18). The friends of Jesus Christ show their love for one another by humbly meeting each other’s needs.
No Greater Love
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
There is something charming about the word “friend” or “friendship.” It is due partly to our desire for a close friend or friends and partly, too, to our remembrance of them. We look to our past and can almost mark the major periods of our lives by friends we have had. We think of the friends who went to grade school with us and of the things we did with them. Perhaps at the point of going into high school we made different friends, and we think sometimes, not only of the friends, but of the adventures we had—sometimes adventures that the teachers or other authorities did not entirely appreciate. We have had college friends and those we have acquired later in life. We value friendship and know that we would be much impoverished if we had no friends at all.
It is this awareness that probably gives the verses to which we now come their special appeal, for in them the Lord Jesus Christ, the great incarnate God of the universe, speaks of friendship in terms of our relationships to him. He calls us friends, saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
When Jesus says, “You are my friends,” it is evident that he is speaking to us on the human level in terms we can clearly understand. And he is doing so—we cannot fail to see it—so that we might contrast his friendship, which is great and perfect, to even the best of the other friendships we have known.
The best known of the biblical examples is the friendship between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and David, the young hero of Israel. Jonathan was in line for the throne. But David was so evidently blessed of God that the people were saying that he should be the next king. Here was cause for great antagonism, antagonism between the apparent rights of the one and the supposed aspirations of the other. But there was no antagonism. Instead there was a great and beautiful friendship. It was a case in which each sacrificed in order to put the other’s interests ahead of his own.
Sometimes the love that exists between one friend and another leads to the ultimate sacrifice, to death. A friend of mine tells that as he was growing up he knew a man who in a sublime moment of self-sacrifice gave his life to try to save his grandson. The two were out in a boat on the Monongahela River in West Virgina, and neither of them could swim. The child, for one reason or another, fell overboard and was drowning. So the man jumped in after the child. Both drowned. But afterward when they found the bodies, the grandfather still had the young child clutched in his arms. He had been so anxious to save his grandson that he had not even opened up his arms to attempt to swim to save himself.
When we hear a story like that we tend to become silent, for we know that we stand before something sublime. It is the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life. Because of such sacrifices we understand what the Lord is saying when he declares in clear reference to his own self-sacrifice: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Friend of Sinners
On the other hand, it is not really fair to talk about Jesus’ sacrifice in merely human terms, for his death surpasses anything we can imagine. It may not happen often, but sometimes one human being will voluntarily die for another; still, this gift never equals or even parallels Jesus’ sacrifice. We see this when we reflect on Jesus’ death.
First, when we begin to reflect on Jesus’ death we recognize that his death was exceptional if only because Jesus did not have to die. That is not true of us. We are mortal. We must die. But Jesus was immortal and therefore did not have to die. Indeed, he was life itself; for he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He could have come into this world, performed a full and varied ministry, and then have returned to heaven without ever having experienced death. On the other hand, of us it is said, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). What does this mean in terms of self-sacrifice? Merely this. If you or I were to give our lives for someone else, while that would undoubtedly be a great and heroic sacrifice, it would nevertheless at best be merely an anticipation of what must eventually come anyway. We would simply be dying a bit sooner than normally. The Lord did not need to die under any circumstances.
Second, the death of the Lord Jesus Christ is exceptional in that he knew he would die. Again, this is not usually the case when a mere man or woman gives his or her life for another. Few who die in this way do so knowing in advance that they will die. Rather, it is usually the case that although the act is a risk and death is possible, they nevertheless think they may escape death while yet saving their friend. People take calculated risks and sometimes die, but they do not often die deliberately. Jesus by his own testimony deliberately went to the cross to die for our salvation.
There is another area in which the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for his friends shines brighter than any love of which we are capable. The text says that we are Christ’s friends and that he was going to give his life for his friends. But if we think of this closely and honestly, we must recognize that, when the Lord Jesus gave his life for us, strictly speaking we were not exactly his friends. True, he calls us friends. It is also true that we become his friends. But we become friends because of his act, because of his electing grace toward us manifesting itself in the atonement and in the ministry of his Spirit by which our natural rebellion against God is overcome and our hearts are drawn to love and serve Jesus. When he died for us, or (if we may push that even farther back) when in eternity past he determined to die for us, he did so while we were yet enemies or were forseen to be enemies. It was “while we were still sinners, [that] Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Here especially do we see the wonderful love of the Lord Jesus Christ. So long as we think of ourselves as being somewhat good in God’s sight we do not see it. But when we see ourselves as God sees us, then the surpassing worth of the love of Christ becomes evident.
It is this that leads up to the verse I have just quoted from Paul’s treatment of the human condition in Romans. The opening chapter of that book deals with man’s sin, showing how all men and women have possessed a certain knowledge of God but have turned from that knowledge in order to worship a god of their own devising. Paul says that a certain knowledge of the existence and power of God is disclosed in nature and in the consciences of all men and women. But we have rejected that knowledge. Paul says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles ” (Rom. 1:21–23).
There are certain consequences of this, as the chapter goes on to show. We have given up God. So, says Paul, in a certain sense God has given us up. He has given us up to certain consequences. Three times in this chapter we read that “God gave them over.” In every case, however, we are told what God gave them over to. This is important, for it is not as if God were holding the human race in his hand and then let go with the result that the human race simply drifted off into nowhere. If I let go of an object, the object falls. I have not given it up to nothing. I have given it up to the law of gravity, and the law of gravity draws it downward. In the same way, God gives us over to the sad consequences of our rebellion.
First of all, God has given us over to “sexual impurity” (v. 24). That is, when we turn our backs upon God, who is perfect in his purity, we inevitably become dirty spiritually.
Second, God has given us over to “shameful lusts” (v. 26). That is, the good affections we have and that we rightly cherish become warped because they are severed from their source. Love becomes lust. A proper sense of responsibility becomes the driving pride of personal ambition. Self-sacrifice becomes selfishness, and so on.
Third, God says that he has given us over to a “depraved mind” (v. 28). This means that we have developed a way of thinking that is antagonistic toward God so that we are constantly devising philosophies and actions that try to eliminate his presence from our lives.
These important verses from Romans give God’s assessment of the human race. He made us. More than this, he made us in his own image. But we have rebelled against him and defaced that image. Instead of God’s glory, we have advanced man’s depravity. Instead of his sovereignty, we have sought human autonomy. Instead of holiness, we have sin. Instead of love, hate. Yet, in spite of our depravity, Christ came to be our friend and prove his friendship by dying for us. As Paul states, “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 demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6–8).
There is one more reason why the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for his friends, seen in his death for us, is superior to all human loves. The death of the Lord was a spiritual death, whereas ours, if we are Christians, is only physical.
If we were to give our life for someone else, the death we would endure would be only physical. We cannot die spiritually in the place of another person. But that is precisely what Jesus Christ did. Death is separation. Physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul and spirit from God. This is what makes hell such a terrible place; those in hell are separated from God. And because God is the source of all good—all joy, peace, love, and other blessings—hell is the opposite. It is misery, unrest, hate, and so on. This is the separation that Jesus endured for us. He died physically also; that is true. His death was particularly painful and degrading. But the truly horrible aspect of his death was his separation from the Father when he was made sin for us and bore sin’s punishment.
This is the meaning of the cry wrung from his lips in that moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I do not know how to explain that. I do not know how it is possible for the second person of the Godhead to be separated from the first person of the Godhead, even for a brief time, as this was. But this is what happened as Jesus experienced ultimate spiritual death in order that we might never have to experience it. Love like that goes beyond our best understanding.
These truths and more are involved in Christ’s statement: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We read that and acknowledge its truth. But then we go on to say, “Yes, and greater love has no one at all—either man, devil, or angel—than that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, should die a spiritual death for us sinners.”
Do you know him as the One who demonstrated his love and friendship for you by thus dying? Is he your friend in that sense? If not, you are not yet truly a Christian. But you can be. You can find him to be your friend, indeed, a superlative friend. As the hymn says:
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,
No not one! No not one!
You need only come to him, confessing your sin and acknowledging your need of him to be your Savior.
Friends of Jesus
There is one other question that arises from our text. I have asked, “Is Jesus your friend?” This is the question that emerges from verse 13 in which Jesus speaks of his love and, therefore, of his friendship for us. But in the next verse we have what might be called the other side of that question. It is, “Are you Christ’s friend?” Jesus suggests this when he declares, “you are my friends if you do what I command you” (v. 14).
I am glad the Lord put it as he did, for I suppose that if we had come to him and had asked, “Lord, you have shown yourself to be a friend to us; what must we do to be your friends?” Jesus could have answered, “You have my example of what a true friend is; do that.” But if he had said that, we would have been discouraged. How could you or I do that—love as he loves, give ourselves as he gave himself? It is impossible for us to die spiritually for someone else. If Jesus had required us to do all he did, it would be impossible to become his friend. But he did not say that. Instead, he put the requirements in our terms and on our level, saying, “You can be my friends if you will only do what I command you.” This means that we are to show our friendship to him by simple obedience.
Did I say “simple”? Yes, it is simple; but it is simple obedience, and this means that it must be active, continuous, and in all things. We see that our obedience must be active, for Jesus said, “You are my friends if ye do. …” Unfortunately some Christians talk about the Christian life as though it consisted largely in refusing to do certain things. If we fall into that way of thinking, we imagine after we have refused to drink alcohol, refused to play cards, refused to have extramarital sex, refused to cheat in business, and so on, that we have done a great deal. But we have not. We have obeyed negatively but not positively. Christ calls upon us to love one another, and that cannot be done except in very practical ways. We are also to pray. We are to worship with other Christians. Our lives are to be marked by good deeds. It would make a great difference in the lives of many Christians if, as they read their Bibles and pray each day, they would pause as part of their devotions to ask what practical things the Lord would have them do.
Second, our obedience should also be continuous. Jesus did not say, “If you do what I command and then quit” or “If you do it on Sundays” or “If you do it when you feel like it.” The verb is a present subjunctive meaning “If you are doing.” The idea is of continuous action, day after day, year after year. There is no vacation from being a disciple of the Lord.
Finally, our obedience is to be in all things, for he says, “If you do whatever I command you.” It means coming to him in love to do whatever he asks of us, not picking and choosing as some do, not exalting those aspects of the Christian faith we like and neglecting those we dislike. Rather it means coming with that yielded humility of mind and body that places us prostrate at his feet and asks from that position, “Lord, what will you have me do?” It is only when we ask that question and mean it that we find ourselves being lifted up to do the great errands of our king, and not as slave either, but rather as a friend of Jesus.
I asked earlier, “Is Jesus your friend?” Now I must ask, “Are you Christ’s friend by this definition?” God grant that you might be, to your own great joy and to the praise of his glory.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 156–158). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1177–1182). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.