Do you ever find yourself reading your Bible and coming across a verse that doesn’t quite go in the direction that you’d initially expected?
If I’m honest, in the past I used to find myself skim-reading through the Bible – especially passages that were familiar, or ones that I could recite verbatim. However, the danger in this is that it can be all too easy to miss the ‘surprise’ when we do so. Likewise, when we take a moment to carefully read through these better-known verses – word for word – we could be in for quite a shock!
Just the other day I was struck by a passage which didn’t go quite as I’d had expected it to, in 1 John 3:11 (NET). The verse starts out like this:
This is the gospel message, so what would you think comes next? Just a couple of chapters earlier there is a similar verse which speaks of God being light (1 John 1:5) and so I was fully expecting something similar to follow – something about Jesus. But then it took a slightly different direction:
“For this is the gospel message that you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another…”
Hang on a moment, isn’t the gospel about Jesus? What’s this about loving each other? I mean, that’s a noble thing for sure, but what does it have to do with the gospel of salvation? I unfortunately can’t read New Testament Greek so I had to do some research to make sure that the translation of ‘gospel message’ was correct. Some other translations just say ‘message’, however, the meaning of the word used for ‘message’ is one of proclamation. It may not be the whole gospel message, but John certainly intended it to refer to part of the gospel message.
Evidently this idea of loving one another is fairly fundamental to the gospel, and in trying to understand just how interwoven the gospel of salvation and loving one another is, I had to take a step back and consider what true sacrificial love really was. To do that, I turned to what I understood as sacrificial love – laying your life down for one another.
A Lesson From Military History
All my life I have been fascinated by history – particularly by military history. I believe that you can learn a lot about the heart and nature of a nation, and how it’s changed over the years, by looking at their military history. There is something about war that brings out the best – and worst in mankind. There is honour and sacrifice, mixed with greed and malice; a spotlight on the fallen nature of man with scattered reflections on the virtue that we were created for. For this reason, when travelling, I have often gone out of my way to seek out places of importance in military history. Whether at a gun battery on the cliffs above the beaches of Normandy, or at a quiet graveyard around the corner from the bustle of Bondi Beach or the desolate and rocky outcrop of Spion Kop – I always find a war memorial to remember the fallen. Often, these memorials will quote from a particular verse in the Bible, John 15:13 (NET):
“No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends.”
I’ve always thought that the concept of sacrifice that’s expressed in combat is somehow a reflection of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Surely no greater love can there be to give your life for a friend! And in one sense, that’s certainly true. From a purely human perspective, it’s the ultimate offering – your own life.
I stand with everyone else in being utterly humbled by the cost that hundreds of thousands of men and women from many nations paid to secure liberty and freedom.
I think this verse speaks of the gospel of salvation, even louder than I had ever thought.
A Greater Love
In the above verse in John, Jesus was talking to his disciples, simultaneously hi-lighting two concepts at the same time. In one sense he was talking about self-sacrifice for one’s friends, then going on to command them to love one another. At the same time, he too was speaking about his imminent crucifixion. The Bible says that the disciples didn’t really understand at the time what he was saying (John 16:17-17) but they would recall these words later.
The disciples were Jesus’ friends, and he was about to pay the ultimate price for them so that they could better understand true love, and in turn, love one another. But the love Jesus was about to show was far greater than any that even they could express.
Romans 5:6-8 tells us what this greater love is:
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Do you spot the difference here? Paul is saying that people are not generally self-sacrificial. Maybe for a righteous person – or a friend – we might be self-sacrificial. But Jesus gave even more than that; he gave his life for us when we were his enemies! This is something no man would do. This is something only an all loving God would do. Something only an all loving God could do.
The Gospel of Love and Salvation
Now I can understand why John speaks of loving one another as being part of the gospel message. Jesus modelled love in a way that the world cannot understand, and calls us to follow that example and love each other in the exact same way. 1 John 3:16 (NET):
“We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians.”
My initial surprise that Jesus wasn’t mentioned in the ‘gospel message’ of loving one another was actually because I missed something –
As it says in the following chapter, 1 John 4:16:
“And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him.”
When we love one another in the same way Jesus showed us, then the gospel message of loving one another is all about Jesus! Both the message of love and message of salvation are intertwined and interlinked. There cannot be one without the other. Without true love there is no salvation – and without salvation there cannot be true love.
Showing a Greater Love
As war memorials so clearly demonstrate, there is an understanding of what the ultimate expression of love is that mankind can express. In times of ease and peace, the idea of love can become ‘cheap’. It becomes an emotion that sells pop songs and greetings cards.
We have to love our brothers and sisters with no exceptions. John tells us what this looks like (1 John 3:17-18 NET):
“But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.”
The love that God calls us to is not just an emotion. It’s not simply words, a greeting card or a WhatsApp message. It is a deed and living truth. There does need to be wisdom and discernment in all things; we aren’t called to be foolish stewards of our time and resources. However, we have to always be soft-hearted and compassionate, remembering that Jesus died for his enemies. How much more should we show love in action to those who are our brothers and sisters?
This is God’s heart. This is part of the gospel. Maybe you are reading this and you don’t understand this greater love? Maybe you’ve never experienced it for yourself? Today, you can experience it! Lay all that you are at the feet of Jesus, the one who showed us what love truly is. Let him open your eyes to a new way of living, as the Spirit of God comes and dwells within you.