Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards. Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice (Jn. 13:33b–38 KJV).
The words “as I have loved you” stand out when I read this passage. They qualify the meaning of the new commandment that Jesus has given to his disciples: to love one another. Adding “as I have loved you” make this commandment different from the love that is naturally known in every human heart: love for kith and kin; love for those we admire; or love for those who provide for, participate with, or in any way please us. The words “as I have loved you” bring a new, different meaning to the word “love,” and we can no longer let those feelings that we formerly called “love” occupy the prime position in our hearts. For what Jesus commands is not a human but a divine love, what Paul describes as the “love that has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he [God] has given us (Rom.5:5).
The contrast between the newly commanded love and the old human love is illustrated by Peter who expresses the human love that comes so naturally to us. Frequently in Scripture stories, Peter is the all-too-human foil for the divine man Jesus. In this passage, Peter first reveals his lack of understanding: Where is Jesus going? Why can’t he follow Jesus now? Then quick-on-the-heels comes Peter’s avowal to the one he loves and admires: “I will lay down my life for thy sake.” Immediately Jesus puts this natural, deeply felt but ungrounded, human love in its rightful place: “The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.” Unlike the divine love that Jesus commands, the natural, human love is weak: contingent upon the needs, desires, powers, and fears of our human nature. Jesus commands us to love in a different way, a way which the natural human cannot grasp, cannot follow (33, 36), and so Jesus prepares the place for us (14:2–3).
The divine love that Jesus commands entails self-sacrifice, as does the love with which we’re all familiar: our security or comfort gladly forfeited for the loved one’s benefit. Peter’s claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus’s sake shows his willingness to sacrifice. Relying upon his own will, however, to carry through the sacrifice was Peter’s error: human motivation rather than adherence to the divine law of love that Jesus commands. Peter’s self-reliance on his own will and sentiment is, in fact, a form of self-exaltation, ironically dooming his intent from the outset: rather than sacrificing himself, he exalts himself believing in the strength of his feelings; he places faith in human power. When the cock crew, his crowing self-exaltation fell, along with his bitter tears (Mt. 26:75). Peter typifies each of us when we put our faith in our own power to love others as he loved us.
When Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, it is a command to know God, for it is only in knowing God that we are in unity with him and his love. Our ability to love depends first on knowing God, a dependence that can be seen in the answer given by Jesus when asked by a scribe for the first commandment:
The first of all the commandments is, HEAR, O ISRAEL; THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD: AND THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THY HEART, AND WITH ALL THY SOUL, AND WITH ALL THY MIND, AND WITH ALL THY STRENGTH: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF (Mk. 12:29-31a).
“The second is like” the first commandment in that both are enacted by the power of God; in his image and likeness we feel and partake of his love for neighbor and for all, ourselves included.
The power of God’s love is unchanging and not contingent upon the nature or behavior of the recipient. Unlike human love, no fear or resentment can impose upon or diminish it. In unity with God, as was Jesus, we too can love others free of the fear that giving our love will result in our loss or destruction.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute you; That ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5: 43–45).
In knowing God and his love, we feel no such fear of loss from an enemy; our loss has already occurred and is swallowed up in abundant life.
When Jesus informs the disciples that he will prepare a place for them that they may follow him, he is speaking of the cross. In undergoing the cross, Jesus affirms that obedience to God, though entailing loss or even death, is preferable to all gratification gained through willful aspiration or enjoyed apart from God. In sacrificing himself on the cross in obedience to God’s will, Jesus prepares a place for us: he shows the destruction of that which we call most inherent in human nature (knowledge from self) must precede the new heavenly being (wisdom) that will follow.
The new being, Christ, finds more happiness in knowing and obeying God than Adamic man gains through willfulness—or conforming to the will of the group, be it culture, folk, tribe, or congregation. The abundant joy in knowing God supersedes any sense of well-being known previously, all of which can be cast aside as no longer worthy of our desire. The completion we sought and pursued with such eager determination is now Given. That gift of faith is peerless as the pearl of great price.
All ancient religions see love as essential for happiness; only in Christianity does love become more than a virtue; it becomes a law, a commandment, which Jesus acknowledges, we cannot follow. It is the example that he has set for us that alerts us of something new, prepared, and waiting for us to come into: the knowledge of God and of his love.
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love (1 Jn. 4:7–8).