What Does John 13:35 Mean in Today’s Polarized Context?

John 13:35 is a famous Bible verse spoken by the Lord Jesus merely hours before his arrest, his prosecution, his sentencing, his death by cross, his burial, and his resurrection from the dead. What did he need to say to his disciples before these historically defining moments? Well, among other things, he needed them to know that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Now, hermeneutically the meaning of Jesus’ words are straightforward. Jesus is commanding his disciples to love one another “just as I have loved you (v. 34).” This obviously begs the question “how has Jesus loved his disciples?” Once we come to an understanding of what Jesus means by “loving one another,” then we can apply this command to our immediate context. Jesus clearly states that the one thing that is going to show “all people,” that Christians are indeed following Jesus is that they love each other in the same way their Lord (Jesus) has loved them. By “all” people we can contextualize this to mean literally all people-white people, black people, poor people, rich people, democrats, republicans, people who live in the U.S., people who don’t live in the U.S., baby-boomers, generation Z, whatever, the means by which “All people” will know that we Christians follow our Savior is that we display the same love towards one another that Jesus displayed towards us.

The reason this commandment is often problematic for us is not because it isn’t straight-forward in its meaning, or even in its application, but that our culture has infiltrated the evangelical community itself, and so therefore we Christians often don’t agree on the term “love,” and we don’t agree on who the “one another” is that we are supposed to love, because we have allowed the polarization of our society to creep into the church. Many political writers and sociologists have lamented the polarization of democrats/republicans in 21st century American society, or they’ve lamented the divide between conservatives/liberals, or Fox News/CNN, or traditionalists/non-traditionalists. The issue that I am currently seeing within evangelicalism is that we have allowed the way people outside the Church speak, in terms of dichotomies and rivalries, to now impact the way we view and speak about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. So, this post aims to address what “love” means in the midst of a society that hasn’t a clue the biblical meaning of the word, and to define who are the “one another” that Christians are called to love


There is not time in this context to address everything which needs to be addressed about the meaning of the word “love.” As Christians, we should just always have it at the front of our minds that we will not think of love in the same way as our Non-Christian friends. This is because we Christians know love is defined by the Bible and not the culture, and we also know that Jesus defined the “greatest love” and showed it in action rather than in emotion or sensation. We should not be surprised when our non-Christian friends generally speak of “Love” as in they are “in love with someone or something,” but we should hear such language and know it is not biblical. So, here is the core of what we Christians need to know about Jesus’ command for his followers to “have love.”

God is love.

Our view of love derives from 1 John 4:8, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God in all of His holy attributes defines love, not only because He has the right to define it, but even deeper actually is because God in His perfect character actually is love. God is the source of love. God is the display of love. God is the extender of love, the enabler for us to love, all that is love comes from God because God is love. How amazingly different this is from our society! The most recent update of the dictionary has defined love in the following way(s), “an intense feeling of deep affection;” “a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone;” “a great interest and pleasure in something…” I find it incredibly fascinating that the dictionary is now defined by a relativistic culture rather than definitions being objective and the culture adapting to them. Now, we have definitions of eternal truths, such as love, that are always changing. The Bible does not allow Christians to think of love in any of the ways defined by the dictionary (sure affections grow but only as the mind changes in sanctification). Love and to love is objectively and eternally the same, because God is unchanging and God is love.

The Greatest Love

In John 15:13 Jesus says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus was of course extending a command to his followers while simultaneously pointing to the cross. Jesus then explains that those who keep his commands are his friends. So, Jesus has laid down his life for his friends, who are those who believe in him and follow his commands out of their faith. What does it mean then for Christians today to “lay down (our) lives for our friends?” Well, we must understand that the friends being described here are not different from Jesus’ friends, but actually the commandment to sacrifice for our friends is referring to our fellow believers. This is not to decrease the dignity, respect, and love we show non-believers, but it is to highlight that even more so should we be sacrificing for fellow Christians. Why is this true? Well, because remember that as non-Christians look at the way Christians love each other they are supposed to be seeing a picture of the character of God Himself… And God is love.

Jesus’ command in John 13:35 necessitates Christians sacrificing for each other:

We know God is love, we know Jesus is God, we know Jesus showed us the greatest love by dying on the cross for the sins of all who believe, so what does this mean for us as His followers? What it means is that we must sacrifice for each other. This entails a deep individual love for God, appreciation for the Gospel, and purposeful humility to serve our brothers and sisters. This is precisely what the Holy Spirit wrote through the apostle Paul in Phil. 2, “complete my joy by being of one mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Then, he explains, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” If we as Christians are truly loving one another then it means by necessity that we are making the rational decision in our minds to be like Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit we are then able to consider others as more significant than ourselves, and this is what motivates us to sacrifice for one another. Sacrificing for one another then necessitates moving towards one another rather than away from one another (the opposite of polarization), listening to one another, excusing small slights from one another, and etc. Sacrificing for one another does NOT mean we sacrifice the truth of the Gospel or of the Bible. God has given us the Church in order that we as Christians would all point each other to our eschatological end- which is to “love God and enjoy Him forever.” We sacrifice for one another because God has called us all to live in a way that points each person in our lives to our eschatological end of “loving God and enjoying Him forever.” As individual Christians love God more, we sacrificially love fellow believers with an active obedience to Christ pointing them to their eschatological end, which is to love and know God more, and this is what we have been called to do in John 13:35.

John 13:35 necessitates “speaking the truth in love” with the sacrificial humility of Christ:

The love we are commanded to have for fellow believers is anything but a mamby pamby, lovey dovey type of love. We aren’t talking about a love that some categorize as soft. I am not a proponent of Christians living in the reality of Aerosmith’s “I don’t want to miss a thing,” or John Legend’s “All of Me.” What I’m concerned with is that some people in evangelical culture seem to be obsessed with what they call “Speaking the truth in love,” however, they are ignoring the way in which we are called to “speak the truth in love.” It would appear that many are allowing the culture to impact the way we deal with interpersonal conversations and relations within the Church. So, for example, the culture says it’s sufficient for debate to tweet political opinions carelessly about your opinions “unfiltered,” and therefore when there is a conversation within evangelicalism many go on to do as everyone else does. Jesus’ command in John 13:35 to “have love for one another,” actually rebukes such brashness in our actions and demands a sacrificial humility as we speak the truth in love.

We find the command to “speak the truth in love” from Ephesians 4:15, so what does this verse mean for us as we live out the command of John 13:35?

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Commenting on this verse in context, John Stott wrote, “To allow ourselves to be hurled hither and thither by the fierce blasts of false teaching is to condemn ourselves and the church to perpetual immaturity (verse 14). Instead, what we need is ‘the truth,’ provided we speak it ‘in love (verse 15).’ For it is ‘in love’ that the church grows and builds itself up (verse 16).’ What Paul calls for is a balanced combination of the two. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is not the best rendering of his expression, for the Greek verb makes no reference to our speech. Literally, it means, ‘truthing in love,’ and includes the notions of ‘maintaining,’ ‘living’ and ‘doing’ the truth. Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle calls us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself ‘the Spirit of truth,’ and his firstfruit is love. There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity.” (“The Message of Ephesians,” page 173.)

I am amazed at how prophetic Stott’s words are for what we experience within evangelicalism today. I’m so amazed actually that I have nothing to add to what Stott said back in the 1970’s. Allow Stott’s words to show us that yes today’s rhetoric is amped up by media and social media, but because of sin the polarization we see today is not unlike the polarization of past eras, and may we ask God not to allow us to fall on one of the two extremes Stott presents as many saints of the past have.

One Another:

So, we’ve discussed the “all people” of John 13:35, and we’ve discussed the “love” we are meant to have as Christ’s followers, but who is Jesus referring to when he says “one another?” Is Jesus generally talking about just everybody? The context is obvious that is not the case, because Jesus differentiates between “all people” and “you.” “All people” would include “you,” but “you” does not include “all people.” So, is Jesus talking about only the disciples who originally heard his words? If this were the case then the application would have nothing to do with us today. Or does Jesus’ “one another” refer to everybody who claims to be a Christian? In context of the Gospel of John I do not take that to be the case, because there are many self-professed Christians who don’t actually have a Gospel understanding. The next paragraph after John 13:35 is Jesus explaining to the disciples that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” I take it then that in the context of John 13-14, the “one another” Jesus refers to is every true believer who knows God through faith in the perfect life of Jesus, and the shedding of his blood on the cross in our place, and his resurrection from the dead, by which we have been made alive together by Christ. The “one another” refers to everybody who believes in Jesus for salvation and nobody or nothing else-So, they don’t believe in Jesus + something else for salvation. This is the “one another” who every Christian is called to love in the way described in Scripture, in order that “all people will know that you are my disciples.”

Conclusion and why it matters

From all this post has explored we can conclude a couple of things.

  1. If someone adds or subtracts to the Gospel of Jesus then they are not included in the “one another” John 13:35 refers to. Does this mean we don’t love these people? Of course not! What it does mean is that we love them in a different way than we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our love for people who are not wholly trusting in Jesus for salvation is one filled with evangelistic zeal. We want them to meet the true Jesus and receive the gift of faith described in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
  2. If someone is trusting in Christ alone for salvation, and they really do have an understanding of sinful people being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone then Jesus’ command to love them in a biblical way is binding. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with this person on secondary issues (not that those issues aren’t important, but that you are called to biblically love them in spite of differences), it doesn’t matter if you don’t even naturally like this person– you must love them as God has shown love to you. Is this not what 1 John 4:7 means? “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

So, my conclusion to the apparent polarization of 2019 evangelicalism is this… Let’s be clear on the Gospel, and let’s make clear when we are talking about a primary issue that impacts an understanding of the gospel, or a secondary issue which is not attached to the Gospel. If Christians are going to speak to any issue, regardless of what the issue is, then their meaning should not be left vague or unclear, otherwise it is bound to confuse somebody. Whenever a brother or sister explores any implication of the gospel the entire body of Christ benefits from Gospel clarity. If gospel clarity is ever lacking then there must be a way for two sides to humbly sacrifice for the other side in a discussion of the topic, so that a Gospel consensus is reached. If there is a secondary issue being addressed then we should do so in a way that is clear on the gospel, and then the conversation should be had in a way that is open, honest, and unwaveringly faithful to the centrality of the Christian faith-the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Secondly, Christians should have all discussions on any issue through the Gospel lens of “speaking truth in love,” and displaying the love and humility of Christ described in Phil. 2:6-11. Just because you CAN send out a tweet, or a Facebook comment, or a blog post discussing a person on another side of an issue from you doesn’t mean you actually should; but if you do then at least make sure you are saying each statement with the one who was “pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities,” at the forefront of your mind as you type the words which will be made public– this should keep you and I from mis-characterizing or misrepresenting others, speaking harshly about them, or labeling somebody a heretic who is actually a brother or sister in Christ.

As we do this, let’s keep in mind the words of Jesus recorded only a few short paragraphs later… “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” Because we have received the Holy Spirit we should want to, and we are able to “speak the truth in love,” and “have love for one another,” in a way that is vastly different from non-beleivers, because they “cannot receive (the Holy Spirit).” As we love each other in such a biblical way Jesus says non-Christians will take notice, and will be attracted to God. The way in which Gospel believing Christians speak to each other in person or on the internet is actually meant to be a gospel apologetic to non-believers; let’s just allow that to sink in for a while.

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