Even as I Have Loved You
There is a story told about Samuel Rutherford, the great Scottish divine, who so staunchly supported the cause of the Covenanters and whose premature death denied him martyrdom at the hands of the Stewart monarch. It would appear that a stranger came to his church one Sunday morning and was invited home to the manse for dinner. As was his custom, the learned doctor prepared to read from Scripture before partaking of the meal. On this occasion, he prefaced his reading with the question, “How many commandments are there?”
A chorus of, “Ten,” greeted his inquiry.
Then the voice of the stranger was heard to say, “But my dear brother, there are eleven.”
The saintly theologian was aghast at the thought that anyone in Scotland could be mistaken about the number of the commandments, but he soon understood the stranger’s remark when he quoted John 13:34, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (RSV).
Most of our readers are familiar with this commandment of the Lord. In this day and generation, it is more often quoted than all the other ten together. Indeed, in some quarters, it is received as the whole gospel, replacing the gospel of grace to fallen man. I am afraid, however, that those who subscribe to such a view have not read the complete verse, or if they have, they have never fully considered the implication of the words, “even as I have loved you.”
Love means many things to many people. There is scarcely a poet of the Romantic Period but did, at one time or another, pen an ode to love. The histories of the nations contain many stories of great devotion and love. Cyprus has contributed the well-known story of Damon and Pythias, and Sir Phillip Sydney immortalized the words, “Thy necessity is greater than mine,” when he handed his glass of life-giving water to a soldier who lay dying at his side on the field of battle. Charles Dickens brings his historical novel, “The Tale of Two Cities,” to an emotional and dramatic conclusion with Sydney Carton at the foot of the guillotine, about to give his life for the French nobleman, Charles Darney, saying, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
Then, there is that idealistic poem of Leigh Hunt, committed to memory by the writer and many of his generation, in an age when it was not fringing on someone’s right to include in our school texts poetry with a moral.
Abou Ben Adhem, (May his tribe increase),
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, like a lily in bloom
An Angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” - The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay not so,”
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, “I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The Angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
One cannot but admire the lofty sentiment here expressed, but alas, it falls far short of the love of our text, “Even as I have loved you.” Both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John knew very well that love is both the central fact and central doctrine of Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 13 we have the supreme panegyric of love. Here in words unparalleled in English, love is set forth as the acme of all virtues. In this beautiful rhapsody, the sentences move forward with rythmic melody, the imagery unfolds in dramatic propriety, and the theme develops with rhetorical accuracy. Yet not once in this exquisite love poem is love ever used as a verb of action; nor is any mention made of the burning sacrifice of the One Who is the very embodiment of love. All is in the abstract and can be understood and even applauded by the unregenerate. But in 1 John 4, we enter a bower open only to the initiated. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (v. 10).
Life without love is exaporia, a dead end from which there is no escape; love without the cross is erotomania, an ephemeral pink cloud on which the enamored heart floats and which dissipates at the slightest breath of adversity. Time and eternity crossed paths at the cross. There “Mercy and truth met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). From the cross, blessings innumerable flowed and will continue to flow into an eternity yet to come.
What shall we say of this love, “even as I have loved you”? Beverley Shea puts the answer in song when he sings on the “Hour of Decision”:
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the sky of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure,
How measureless and strong,
It shall for evermore endure,
The saints and angels song.
The love of God is eternal. It knows neither measure nor end. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee,” says Jeremiah of God (Jeremiah 31:3). Before time was or man was made, the triune God took counsel together and the plan of our redemption was made. “Jesus having loved His own that were in the world, He loved them unto the end” (uttermost) — (John 13:1). God is “rich in mercy” and it is “a great love wherewith He hath loved us.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Christ’s love is incomprehensible. In his great prayer of exaltation in Ephesians 3, Paul prays that we might be able to “comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (vs. 18, 19). His is a love that no tongue can teach, a love that no thought can reach; there is no love comparable to His.
To try to explain this love, “Even as I have loved you,” would exhaust our every superlative. “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). This love is too vast to comprehend. True, we can, in a measure, understand the physical suffering of Christ when He was set at naught, when He gave His back to the smiters and His cheeks to them who plucked off the hairs, when they made long their furrows on His blessed back, but who, in all truth can say he understands the sufferings of Christ when a holy God dealt with Him on account of our sin. Who can fathom Calvary’s vast unfathomed sea, when He sank in deep mire where there is no standing, when the waves and billows of God’s righteous wrath passed over His spotless sinless soul, when there was wrung from His agonized lips that cry, “My God, My God, why halt Thou forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1). Truly, none of the ransomed ever knew the depth of the waters crossed, nor the darkness of the night He passed through to find the sheep that were lost.
“Even as I have loved you.” What trenchant words, fraught with a suffering and a sorrow we could never attain or even faintly understand!
The real tragedy of erotomania is that the dear child of God becomes so engrossed with the love notion, the Lover is completely forgotten or at least neglected. What better evidence have we of this than the neglect of the Lord’s Supper and the lack of exercise among those who do attend.
In addition to the commandment we have been dealing with, the Lord left two other requests, if not commandments. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15), and “This do in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). The words of our text have a very real and deep meaning as applied to the latter of these two requests. The one thing that characterized the Covenanters of Samuel Rutherford’s day was their devotion to the Lord and their meetings to remember Him in the caves and on the moors of the Scottish Highlands. So too, in the days of Jan Huss, when the Christians huddled together in the loft of some unobscure building to break bread. The persecuted church owed a loyalty to Christ that is not too evident in some of our gatherings when we come together “to dwell upon His dying love and taste its sweetness there.”
It is not surprising that our young people find this meeting to remember the Lord dull and frustrating. So often the meeting begins with a prayer, ends with a prayer, and the only other prayers are for the emblems. Then too, the ministry so often bears no relation to the purpose for which we are gathered. Some who minister think it is a time to scold their brethren, or to expound some little word of their own. Many avoid any mention of the death of Christ as if it were too morbid for contemplation. Surely the paucity of offeratory prayer is a reflection of the barren condition of our souls. One cannot quarrel with the other, but in 1 John 1 the order is “fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ,” then “fellowship one with another” (vs.3, 7) If our gathering together is simply to share one another’s burden, and it does nothing to inspire devotion to the Lord, then it is an exercise in futility. It is the duty of those older in the faith not only to instruct the young in the Lord but also to show them by example the requirements of the Lord.
Saviour, Thy dying love, Thou gavest me.
Naught would I ought withhold, dear Lord from Thee.
In love my soul would bow, my heart fulfil its vow.
Some offering bring Thee now, something for Thee.
What have we to bring to the Saviour? What shall we lay at His feet? Thank God, we have hands to do His bidding and feet to walk in His ways. But best of all, and dearest to His heart, we have lips to sing His praises; we have voices to raise in prayer, thanksgiving, worship and adoration. Shall we then sit in stony silence, “while His dear cross appears”? Surely not! God grant. that we may enter fully into the meaning and implication of those words, “even as I have loved you”. May we with hearts, truly exercised before Him, bring to Him “the sacrifice of praise to God continually, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say His flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near… Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:19-25). May God impress on our hearts these words, “even as I have loved you”.