This article continues a series on what Jesus set as the hallmarks of discipleship. Servant love (John 13:34-35) is the one trait that gives evidence to the world that our apprenticeship is authentic.
When Jesus met with His disciples for the Last Supper, He challenged them with a final measure of true discipleship: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are My disciples” (John 13:34-35, NLT, emphasis added).
The disciples may have wondered, How is this a new commandment? The command to love one another was of paramount importance in the Old Testament. In fact, when Jesus was asked to sum up the Old Testament law, He offered the well-known duality of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:29,31). So what made the commandment “new”?
The answer is not in the trait itself but in the model. In the Old Testament the requirement was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, NIV). That is a model we can relate to all too well. Serving self is in our DNA. We are the center of our own affections and acts of kindness. To serve others the same way we serve ourselves is a good model.
But our new birth in Christ is intended to free us from the self-focus and narcissism of our fallen nature. We need a different point of reference. With the incarnation of God in Christ, we now have a better model of servant love: Jesus Christ.
With our new commandment to love others as Jesus loves, it becomes less relevant how well we love ourselves. “You can’t love others without first loving yourself” may be popular psychology, but it is not New Testament discipleship.
In this new model, Jesus is raising the bar, as He often did when giving His interpretation of Old Testament precepts. Our whole lives must be modeled on the sacrificial love of Jesus: “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are His dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NLT).
The command for us to love others as Christ loves requires both the power of His Holy Spirit and an accurate understanding of how Jesus loves.
Before Jesus commanded His disciples to love in the same way He loves, He gave a practical example by washing the disciples’ feet. This job was normally reserved for the lowest servant of the household, and apparently all the disciples thought it was beneath them to perform it. Jesus served in this way to demonstrate His love for them and to prepare their hearts for the exhortations and discourse that would follow.
Foot washing, Jesus’ model of servant love, had at least three levels of meaning:
Physical: an act of kindness. This is the most obvious meaning and amazingly (in this context) it even included Judas, who was only hours away from betraying Jesus.
Emotional: an expression of enduring love. John introduces this act of kindness with the comment, “Having loved His own . . . He loved them to the end” (John 13:1, NIV). Jesus’ expression of servant love came out of His very nature as both a servant and lover. Paul states that Jesus took on the form of a bond-servant (Philippians 2:5-11, NASB). The word form implies His serving was an expression of His inner essence.
In contrast with love that needs to be placated, coerced, and manipulated, our sovereign Lord expressed His nature as a servant who loves. This love removes obstacles to relationships and communicates to another person that he or she is valuable, important, and deeply appreciated. Serving is one way to express enduring love.
Spiritual: an illustration of forgiveness and spiritual healing. Perhaps out of embarrassment, Peter resisted having Jesus wash his feet. However, when Jesus told him the foot washing was an illustration of cleansing and forgiveness, he asked for a bath. Jesus explained that he didn’t need a bath because he’s already had one (justification, 1 Corinthians 6:11), but he did need his feet washed (daily cleansing, 1 John 1:9). Peter didn’t understand this until later when he realized that Jesus’ love and forgiveness transcended even his denial.
On this side of the cross, we can see how forgiveness is an expression of Christ’s self-sacrificing love. As His apprentices we also recognize the need to demonstrate servant love by forgiving others (Matthew 6:12). One way we can do this is by “forgiving forward.” We decide beforehand not to be offended or attribute motives to the actions of others.
In other words, we give up our right to be right and choose not to be offended. Paul described this approach to relationships: “Love is patient and kind. . . . It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. . . . Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NLT).
Jesus not only commanded us to love as He loved, He said the world will judge the authenticity of our apprenticeship by our love rather than by our religious practices. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are My disciples.”
All the hallmarks of discipleship reflect the nature and character of Jesus. Each trait is a thread woven throughout His earthly ministry. Servanthood was one of the more obvious ones. If you did a “man on the street” interview asking people to describe Jesus, the most common response would probably be, “He went around doing good for others.”
The early church demonstrated servant love within the family of faith by taking care of their widows (Acts 6). Paul urged the newly established churches in Asia Minor to send aid to the family of faith in Jerusalem, who were suffering from a famine (2 Corinthians 9:1-5). In both cases the aid was for those in need within the body of Christ.
Demonstrating servant love begins at (but is not limited to) home and the family of faith. Servant love at all three levels (physical, emotional, and spiritual) should be highly visible within and among God’s family. When it is put into practice even those outside the faith will recognize it as a mark of being a disciple of Jesus. In fact, Jesus gives the world permission to assess our discipleship based on how well we love one another. I wonder: If servant love was our public image, would there be more interest in the gospel?
Questions for reflection:
What might be some reasons that Jesus changed the model for loving others from loving self to loving as He loved?
Why do you think the first focus for servant love was on the family of faith rather than on the world at large?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). This article is adapted from his blog The Adventure of Discipleship, September 5, 2018. © Ron Bennett.