Do I really need to give up my life for everyone: a fresh look at John 15

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

John 15:12-13

What does it mean to lay down our life for another?

Is Jesus telling us to die for another literally? Or maybe he is saying give your life, with the emphasis on the word give? As in, you give your love, resources, your essence away to those who are your friends.

However, this brings up another question. Who is a friend? Like, what qualifies a person to move into the friend-you-give-up-your-life-for (whatever that means) category? It may seem a little extreme for either interpretation of “give up your life” to be applied to the guy you see on the bus every once in a while and have a chat with between stops.

Jesus also tells us to love one another as He has loved us. Good luck with that. To be honest, I don’t think I could love anyone as much as Jesus loves them or me. Has Jesus fastened us to perpetual failure?

If we look, as one commentator labels it, at the full formula in verse 12, Jesus is calling us to lay down our lives as he literally laid down His. WHOA. Are you ready for that? I’m not sure I am.

Craig Keener, in his amazing two-volume set on the Gospel of John, points out that in the ancient world, the subject of friendship was much debated in many essays. Greco-Roman and Jewish philosophers debated. The word signified a gambit of interpretation from a dependant to a political dependent of a royal patron to a high official in Hellenistic Syria to a friend of Caesar. Most commonly, in the ancient world, the word friendship meant alliances, cooperation, or nonaggression treaties among people. No matter what the exact definition is,

“Hellenistic ideals of friendship include a strong emphasis on loyalty.”

Keener p.1009

So what does this mean? Keener points out,

“John therefore portrays friendship with Jesus as an intimate relationship with God and his agent, one that John believed was continuing in his own community, and one that no doubt set them apart from the synagogue, which has a much more limited understanding in continuing pneumatic revelation.”

Keener p.1015

While we are called to love and be grace-filled in every interaction, we are not to give up our life for everyone. That would be physically impossible. After all, I am not Jesus, and neither are you. What is interesting is that if every follower of Jesus gave up themselves to their sphere of people, YOU or I wouldn’t have to give up ourselves for everyone because WE would give up our lives for everyone.

In chapter 14 Jesus is talking to the disciples (we) and says that the Holy Spirit will come upon them “and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12). It is not Peter, John, Matthew, or Simon, who is going to do great things than Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is the WE. It is you and I—all of us together.

The burden of doing greater things and the burden of laying our lives down for others isn’t a burden that lays upon one of us. It is a burden that, as my friends in the south would say, is for all y’all.

Don’t be anxious about all the burdens in your community. You or your church can’t do it all. What we are called to do is to give ourselves to our sphere of influence. We are to join with all followers of Jesus to meet the needs of the whole. The pressure is on, and the pressure is off.

Let’s carry the burden together.

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