You don’t have to search long to find disunity in our world. Everywhere you turn, people torn by failed relationships are longing for something that will offer them stability and significance. Christianity should be able to offer a solution to the chaos, but many are skeptical of its value. The apostle John believed love was the only answer in a loveless world.
Love in John’s View
Throughout his New Testament writings, the word ἀγαπάω (“to love”), or one of its related forms, is used 112 times. Perhaps John occupied his teaching with love because it cascaded from the ministry of his dearest friend and savior, Jesus. John describes himself as a disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Jesus’ followers were not slaves but friends (John 15:14). Johnfamously records Jesus’ vision of true love: “no one has a greater love than this, that a person would lay down his life on behalf of his friends” (John 15:13). It was clear that Jesus genuinely cared for and cherished his friends. He made this most clear by willingly offering himself in death so they might have eternal life.
John took this picture of love with him into his later ministry to churches. The theme of love pervades his letters. In 1 John, for example, he uses a form of the word for love 27 times in a span of twelve verses (4:7-18). John regularly addresses his hearers as “loved ones” and appeals to their obligation to “love one another” (1 John 4:7, 11). John’s message is unquestionably clear: love is at the foundation of all that is godly.
Similarly, in 3 John, love and friendship stand as the thematic structure of the whole work. The letter begins with John greeting his friend, “the beloved” Gaius, whom he loves in truth. The letter concludes with John’s haste to see them “face to face” for a personal connection. He notifies Gaius that his friends greet him. He instructs Gaius to greet all his friends by name (3 John 13-14). On three other occasions, John addresses Gaius directly as “loved one,” almost as though it was another name for him (3 John 2, 5, 11). You can sense that John is referring to him as “my dear friend.” John points out that Gaius is doing a faithful work on behalf of the brothers that came to visit his church. It was especially notable because they had previously been strangers. The behavior that stood out in their testimony was the love Gaius had before the church (3 John 5-6).
John also contrasts their godly love with “one among them who loves the first place” (3 John 9). This individual did not love people; he loved to hold the place of prominence. As a result, he was hurting others and casting them out of the church for doing good. You wonder if John had Jesus’ words in mind – no one has a greater love than to lay down self for others. This individual was more interested in laying down the lives of others as he sought the first place.
Love in a Real Application
The world around us often looks more like this wayward individual in 3 John — and too often so do we. The fractured and loveless nature of the world sometimes pervades the church of Jesus Christ. The body that supposedly follows the Prince of Peace often more closely resembles the one who accuses day and night. Too often we trade the way of our savior for violence, unforgiveness, an inability to listen, distrust and slander. Or, we avoid showing our overt disdain for brothers and sisters by shutting them off from any attention at all. We use our platforms of influence to exploit people for our gain.
In the kingdom of God, “the way up is down” (The Jesus Paradigm, David Black, 4). The only way to follow Jesus is to choose to love our neighbor. The only way to honor Jesus’ sacrifice is to lay down our lives, if necessary, to the point of death. This could mean you simply bless your friends by extending a personal greeting. It could mean you look them in eye and assure them they are “beloved” by both you and Jesus. It might mean you take a serious financial sacrifice to ease a friend’s burden. It might mean you faithfully labor on behalf of a stranger simply because they are loved by God. Think of a person in your life who you have always assumed added no social or professional capital and invite them to lunch. Sit down for an hour this week and seriously evaluate all the areas of your life where you are using others in order that you might take the “first place.” Remember that Jesus taught us these things so his joy would be in us and that our joy would be full (John 15:17).
Love and the Great Commission
Recently, I moved to North Carolina for school, and the Lord soon after provided a community of friends who displayed the vision of friendship and love that Jesus and John had in mind. Through this group of friends, deeply rooted wounds have been healed, genuine pleasure is found in fellowship and life giving speech is the norm. The group decided that relocating to a different community would be advantageous for meeting new people and introducing them to Christ’s love.
Since the move, we have experienced numerous joys and setbacks in our attempt to be faithful ministers of the gospel, but one case stands out to me. We met a girl who’s friends haven’t historically followed Jesus. She told us that the way our group displays genuine care for one another is unusual. We don’t try to tear each other down to make ourselves look better. This observation provided an opportunity for us to tell her about Jesus — explaining that Jesus came in the name of love. He changes communities and revolutionizes the way they treat one another. We have our story because Christ’s love has changed us and empowered us to extend that love to one another.
Jesus has been reshaping our new friend’s life, and she got an opportunity to see him because his followers had a peculiar love for one another. It is worth considering love and friendship how Jesus envisioned it for the world. The fullness of our joy and the salvation of the world is at stake.
Mark Silverthorn is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the sciences.