“In this we have seen love, that Jesus laid down his life for us, so we owe it to lay down our lives for our brothers.” – 1 John 3:16
John makes a very simple comparison between the love Jesus showed for us and the type of love we are called to show for others. It is simple to understand yet agonizing in its all encompassing call on our lives. Jesus gave up his desires, his comforts, his reputation, his family, and ultimately his life. Perhaps the simplicity of the call is what chafes us as disciples, because we struggle to find loopholes and avenues around the call to lay down our lives.
Anticipating this, John clarifies his meaning in the following verses. In verse 17 he talks about our obligation to help other Christians we see in need. If we consistently close our heart to other Christians who are in need, then how can we say in any meaningful sense that we have the love of God in us? Our love, in verse 18, should not be mere lip service, but should be consist of “sincere deeds”. Jesus’ love for us was an active love, so if we practice a passive love toward others, then there is no real comparison between our love and Jesus’.
There is no room in this command for qualifications or stipulations. Jesus’ entire focus here on Earth was to seek the good of those around him, even if it meant that he would suffer and die as a sacrifice to reconcile Earth with Heaven. In like manner, John calls us to consistently regard other Christians’ needs before we consider our own. We don’t increase our love by being fed, but rather by feeding others.
If this is the manner in which we are to love, Jesus places a further call on us that stretches us to our limits. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus takes clear aim at the addition to the command to love your neighbor in Leviticus 19:18. It was said at the time that love for your neighbor was good but also that hate for enemies was permitted. Now this is an easy out for someone wanting to restrict the scope of their love. They are only required to show love to their “neighbors”, those who show them love first.
In contrast, Jesus commands us to love like the Father, showing love for both neighbor and enemy. He then returns to Leviticus 19:2 to counter the teaching by reminding us that we are to be “perfect” just like the Father. Upon hearing these words we push back, “How can anyone be perfect like God?”
To illustrate this, our middle school group was challenged to draw a
perfect circle. Their immediate reaction was to remind me, forcefully, that it was impossible. But after drawing their imperfect circles, they were asked to imagine all the people in their life that were represented in the circle. Each student drew a line through the circle to illustrate the proportion of “neighbors” versus “enemies” in their lives. No one had a majority of enemies, but everyone had a set of enemies.
So how could they make the circle perfect? By loving not only their neighbors, but their enemies as well. The word translated “perfect” carries with it the idea of completion, and that makes good sense of the scope of the Father’s love for us. It is complete. It is universal.
Isn’t imperfect love what ultimately ails us? How easy is it to exclude people from our love through any number of categories? Can we show love for people across the political spectrum? Can we show love for people of different races or ethnicities? Can we show love for people with whom we disagree? Can we show love for people that have hurt us or taken advantage of us? If we can’t, then we are not showing love like the Father practiced with us.
So ultimately, the concept is not beyond us. Love is active and comprehensive. But in order to practice this kind of love we must resolve everyday to do right by the others around us. Perfect love has no room for selfishness, envy, or callous disregard of others. And all praise goes to Jesus because He chose to lay down his life so that we wouldn’t perish, but have eternal life!