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.

A season to plant—A season to water, but God

And so the war begins. Maybe war is too strong of a word. There is however a clear distinction between two styles of churches and both think that they know the best way to do it.

Are you an attractional church? Maybe a church you can invite your friends to. After all, the church is the hope of the world. Or perhaps you’re a church that emphasizes the Word? Didn’t Jesus tell us to teach people to obey? Indeed, the Scriptures help reveal to us who God is, and if we can’t recognize who God is in the pantheon of gods, how can we have a relationship with him?

There often appears to be two types of healthy churches out there, churches that are good at planting seeds and ones that water well. Of course, there are the dysfunctional churches that keep seeds to themselves, and there is no water in sight, but that is for another blog.

What I have too often seen is that these two types of churches battle between which is the better/more-biblical model. What ends up is a reciprocal argument. “We want people to feel this is a safe place to discover Jesus.” “Yes, we need to communicate the Good News, but they need to know the whole of Scripture.” “But, you can’t disciple if there are no converts.”

It reminds me of the battle in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the discord in the church where the people were aligning themselves to one person of the Gospel or the other. The Apostle Paul was travelling around and telling people of the Good News that Jesus has come to be their Saviour. The other guy, Apollos, was in the teaching/discipleship vein. Sound familiar?

The Corinth Church began to argue on which was correct. They found themselves in camps. It is like modern-day people saying, “I’m a disciple of Billy Graham,” and another saying, “I’m a disciple of Wayne Grudem.” Or saying that one group are disciples of Nicky Gumble and another is a disciple of N.T. Wright, and allowing it to destroy the Christian fellowship between them. The argument is silly. They all want to point people to Christ. They do it in different ways and are for different points of the journey.

We have puffed out chests—inflated egos, rather than humility, and wanting to learn from each other. What ends up happening is that we create idols out of style, personality, models, and theology. Instead, we should be looking to God first and have the humility to learn from one another.

The Apostle Paul writes it like this, ” I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” 1 Corinthian 3:6

I don’t care what you have done, what you know, how charming, experienced, or connected you are, unless the Holy Spirit is working, your church will never grow.

Sure, we may be able to get people in a room by our marketing savvy, maybe even be able to close the “back door” with our groups and programs, but God requires more of us. On the flip side, there’s a tendency to be so engrossed in the Word, that we miss what it is saying. We can be so busy learning about what God is that we never enter into the relationship to know who God is—to know His heart.

We have planters. We have waterers. Maybe you are either or depending on the season. However, we must always always always remember that it is God who makes it grow.

Instead of the war of words—the whose doing it better—we need to seek how to learn from each other and accept the challenge from each other to do better in what Christ has called the church to be.

Yesterday I sat in Starbuck’s across the table from a colleague who used to pastor in the same town as me. We talked about ministry. We encouraged each other in where God has called us, and what God has called us to. We did it because we are united in Christ. He, a Reformed Presbyterian, and myself a (some would say more liberal in my theology) Pentecostal. Challenging and encouraging. A hardcore Calvinist and me, a hardcore non-Calvinist.

It’s not about who does what. It is about pointing people to Christ. It is about knowing the heart of God. It’s about being united because we are all a part of the same family, the family of God. Most importantly, it is about having the humility to know that we don’t have it all together and that no matter how good we think we are, God is bigger and greater and is the only one who can bring real lasting, life-changing growth.