As we continue to refresh our thinking about what is fundamental in the life of the church, here is a helpful question to begin with: What does Jesus point to as the key factor in identifying a group of his disciples?—”Others will know that you are my disciples by how many sermons you listen to and how many bible studies you are apart of. They will know that you are my disciples by how many good books and articles you have read. They will know that you are my disciples by how much service and money is put towards meeting the physical needs of the world.”
Those things are wonderful for Christians to engage in, but the greatest indicator of a group of faithful disciples is stated with absolute clarity in John 13: 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
While it is good to take the time to listen to faithful preaching week in and week out and to study the Bible and to read helpful books and articles, those things are merely a means to an end of cultivating a love for Christ, which is expressed in loving his bride. Furthermore, when Christians want to express compassion for those suffering in the world by meeting tangible needs, that is certainly commendable, but it can never be a substitute for committing to and loving a body of believers. I’ve personally served in soup kitchens, feeding the homeless and I’ve been to impoverished countries to serve orphans who were literally abandoned on the street, but I can wholeheartedly attest to this: It is far more difficult to love Christians in the body for the long-haul in light of their sin, weakness and immaturities, while trying to be faithful to all the one another commands in the NT.
But why is that the case? Why is love such a strenuous exercise in the body of Christ? If our first thought is on the difficult and immature people in the church, that’s not going to lead us to a place of having the most clarity. Instead, while it’s certain that our own selfishness and/or laziness are massive hindrances to love, there are also large measures of entitlement and expectations that are brought to the church. In essence, some maintain their pre-converted understanding of love they derived from the world and attempt to implement that in their relationships in the body. This can be manifested by only moving towards others who are comfortable to love based on mutual commonalities or preferences or loving others with an expectation of some sort of tangible return on our investment. All this is based on the world’s premise that we are entitled to be loved by others and to be recognized for our love.
That being said, it doesn’t take too much reading in the NT to realize that Christian love is entirely distinct from any understanding of love in the world and the only way to rid ourselves of faulty thinking is to discover the kind of love which glorifies God. Thankfully, Jesus points us in the right direction in the verse immediately prior to John 13:35—34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
Christ’s love for his people is the gold standard of all love and of course, the centerpiece of his love is put forth in Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His sacrifice on the cross became the measuring rod of all love because he gave up everything to demonstrate God’s love. And there was nothing comfortable or worldly about Christ’s love. This is why we must understand that loving others is not supposed to be easy, since loving others requires a dying to oneself. Therefore loving others will often be painful and disappointing, however it’s in those times that God meets us with unique grace and strength because he can get much glory when we are taken beyond what we are able to handle in our own abilities and strength.
Let us excel still all the more in our love for one another.