JESUS TAUGHT TO CULTIVATE A RELATIONSHIP
OF LOVE BETWEEN HIMSELF AND HIS DISCIPLES
Depending on whether you use a KJV or NKJV as your basic study text or you use a translation based on an eclectic Greek text such as the ASV or NASB, you will get the principle first in either John 14:15 or John 14:23. Either way, the key to success in the teaching process, viewed as a whole, is easy to grasp, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
In the church, we often fret and fuss over failures and unsuccessful ventures. We wonder what to do? We try different programs and methods that only frustrate us. We have long lists of “things” to try, but these things seem to give only fleeting results at best. What is missing?
The answer is simple – we fail due to a lack of love. That doesn’t mean there is a total lack of love, just that there is an insufficient amount necessary for the challenge at hand. This principle has gigantic implications that should forever change the way we commonly teach. If we really want to be successful, we need to first focus on growing in our love for Jesus. To the extent that we love Him, we serve Him and serve Him well.
A conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter in John 21:15-19 is instructive at this point. Prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Jesus had told Peter he would deny Him, which, as we know, Peter said he would not do (Mk. 14:27-31; Lk. 22:31-34). The conversation at the end of John’s gospel draws from that previous exchange between Peter and Christ.
In the passage from John, there is an interesting twist in the Greek text. The back and forth between Jesus and Simon employs the word “love” six times, three by Jesus, three by Simon. It goes like this: Do you love Me? Yes, I love You. Do you love Me? Yes, I love You. Do you love Me? Yes, I love You. The curious feature, unrevealed in our English Bibles, is that “love” is not always translated from the same Greek word. In order of appearance from the Greek text, it goes like this: First exchange – agapao/phileo; second exchange – agapao/phileo; third exchange – phileo/phileo.
Two principal views are advanced to explain this peculiarity. Some feel it is merely a stylistic characteristic common to John. He often uses two different words to mean the same thing. The other main line of interpretation believes there is more to be made of the words chosen than just John’s writing style. I side with the latter.
While it is true John does, at times, use words with double meanings and either meaning can fit, or use different words to mean the same thing – this looks different to me. The a/b, a/b, b/b rhythm is unbalanced, it is not uniform. Those who read the gospel in Greek would have readily noticed the obvious difference at the point of the third exchange.
Here’s what I make of it. Remember the pre-crucifixion conversation where Peter pledged not to deny the Lord, only to deny Him three times. The later conversation in John seems to draw a direct connection as Jesus asks Peter for a threefold affirmation. Additionally, although agapao and phileo can be used interchangeably, and John does this on occasion (cf. Jn. 3:35 and 5:20; 11:5 and 11:36), the words possess a degree contrast. Unlike the common view that phileo is purely emotional and agape involves only dogged determination, the differences are not always so stark (note I Cor. 13:4-8a where agapao is shown to have quite a bit of emotional content).
Although the two words have overlap, there is also the possibility of contrast. Phileo may have a stronger emotional emphasis; it does not have as strong a mental toughness as agapao might express. The point of the Holy Spirit using the different words, I believe, was Simon’s need for both a stronger and a different sort of love.
Jesus deals with Peter’s need in a very realistic and helpful manner, though the process is a difficult one for Simon. First, Jesus gives him a reality check so He and Simon can move forward in keeping with the realistic nature of their relationship. In short, Simon did not have as strong a love as he had previously professed. In order to grow, Simon needed to begin where he was in his commitment to Jesus. The third exchange in John 21:15-17 highlights this reality check.
In the third question and answer phase of the conversation, Peter is not, as I understand it, upset because Jesus asks him a third time if he loves Him. In other words, the number of times the question was asked is not the issue. I am convinced the matter striking Simon in the third exchange is that Jesus questions if Peter actually possessed phileo love. Thus, I believe Peter’s third response finds him smarting because Jesus now asks him if he truly does have even the lower level of love represented by the word phileo.
Peter’s third response virtually cries out, “You know all things; you know I don’t have the agapao level of love I professed, but you do know I have phileo love for you.” At this sobering moment, I believe a needed reality was achieved!
Yes, Peter had a strong love for Jesus. I believe he would have died for Him without hesitation, if he could have done it his way (cf. Jn. 18:10). Phileo, however, has its limitations. Agapao has an expression exceeding that of phileo; agapao can act when everything else, including phileo, gives up and runs away. Peter needed growth in his love for Jesus. He would later experience that growth in his love (Jn. 21:18), but it needed additional development. Jesus was willing to take Peter where he was and move on to better days. He is willing and eager to do the same with us.
My point is this, if we are going to move forward with our Christ-likeness, we must have a sufficiently strong love – otherwise our progress will be slowed. Therefore, Jesus developed relationships with people so their love for Him could increase the quality of both their character and their service. We should honor this vital factor and give a strong priority to cultivating an ever-growing love for Jesus in ourselves and in those we teach.
How will we do this? Remember how we previously observed there was a message in how God determined that the four Gospels would fill about 50% of the New Testament. A light bulb of discovery should be turning on at this point. Jesus living among us in the flesh is without doubt the most pointed focus of the New Testament. This “in the flesh” view of the Christ is fundamental to all that follows in the church (cf. Jn. 1:14, 18; 14:8-9).
We have at times heard among that Acts 2 and the beginning of the church is the “hub” of the Bible. It may be “a” hub, but it is not “the” hub. Jesus, the builder, founder, and anchor of all that pertains to the church is the undisputed, unrivaled, unchallenged “hub” of the Bible. Our love and loyalty to Jesus is what establishes our love and loyalty to His church, not the other way around.
I have considerable passion for this point, but you can easily see the reason for the passion. All loves are secondary to our love for God. In the Christian Age, this love focuses on the Christ (cf. Jn.16:13-16).
Therefore, let’s reflect on a pivotal passage in the Epistles to reinforce even further the critical nature of our point about loving Jesus. Our text is II Corinthians 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their ¬¬¬¬behalf (NASB).” The point is hard to miss isn’t it?
Now, back to our point relating to extremely high percentage of New Covenant content taken up by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Here we see Jesus in action in the best object lesson God could ever give – God in the flesh (Jn. 2:14; 14:7-9). We get a sense of who God is and what that means for our life in this incarnated opportunity that surpasses all other learning experiences.
As we see Jesus in action, if we have any ability at all to appreciate and love God, this will arrest our hearts. His courage, compassion, brilliance, commitment, devotion, energy, ingenuity, wisdom, zeal and love make Him the Man among men. Jesus is unlike any person who has ever lived. If we cannot love Him, how could we ever love anything? We will be drawn to Him in shameless adoration, unless selfishness and pride are allowed to rule (cf. Lk. 7:36-50).
Moreover, the clincher is this; this God/Man died for us! While we were sinners, He died for us (Rom. 5:6-8)! He is the greatest gift of love that ever could be given (Jn. 12:32-33)!
The Gospels are indeed foundational. Some have shortchanged this truth; others have distorted it to undermine the presence of the mind of Christ in the Epistles. The fact, however, remains — the Gospels are fundamental. Apart from the Christ presented in the Gospels, there is no reason to move any further with the New Covenant. Because of Jesus, however, there is every reason to grow in our love and our service to the Christ.
Yes, to grow in love for Jesus is truly the key. Even as a devoted mother would suffer great injury, even death, without thinking of abandoning her child, so a devoted love for Jesus will not think of abandoning Him! Much more than not abandoning Him, however, we will imitate Him without embarrassment, even as a child imitates a beloved parent.
Teaching begins with love; the love Jesus has for us and the love we have for Him. Apart from the motivation of love, we will fail. The lesson is unavoidable; we need to employ as a first priority the development of relationships of love between Jesus and all of humanity. Our teaching must seek this high standard.
SUMMATION AND CONCLUSION
JESUS is preeminent. The “Jesus First” principle of always looking first to Him is non-negotiable. His character was the basis for His success as a teacher. From His God-like nature He successfully employed a variety of real-world discovery methods to engage the true searchers in a great adventure of personal growth. As the greatest, most giving person who ever lived, He draws us to love Him with a love exceeding all others. With the love of Christ in our hearts we are motivated to serve Him with the best we possess. As we teach, let us remember these things. May we use our knowledge to grow in the Lord and help others to do likewise.