I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.
Introduction and Review
Under the overarching theme of "The Greatest of These Is Love" we conclude today a four-part mini-series on the "Depth of Christ's Love." The series took its start in Ephesians 3:18–19 where the apostle Paul prays that we—and this has been our prayer for our church—might "be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge." And that's my goal again this morning—that God, in answer to our prayers, and through the ministry of his Word, would help us "comprehend" the depth of Christ's love for us, though it passes knowledge. Comprehending the incomprehensible is a very high calling. But with God all things are possible.
The Costliness of His Love
What we have seen is that the depth of the love of Christ for us is shown in four ways in the Bible. You can see it in the costliness of his love: "Christ loved us and gave himself for us" (Ephesians 5:2). His love was strong enough that he was willing to give up his life for us. Not just some conveniences, but his life. And not in an easy way, like bullet to the head; but in the most horrible suffering—death on the cross.
How Little We Deserved It
Secondly, you can see the depth of Christ's love in how little we deserved it. Here's the way the Bible describes his love and our desert in Romans 5: "Christ died for the ungodly." That's a crucial word, because in other places being ungodly is what makes the wrath of God come upon the world (Romans 1:18). He goes on,
One will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7–8)
So his love for us is deeper than any ordinary human love. We were ungodly, we were sinners, and we were enemies (v. 10). And Christ loved us and gave himself for us.
The Lavish Benefits
Thirdly, we can see the depth of Christ's love for us in the lavish benefits that he gives to us.
See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us [he and the Son were of one heart in this matter], that we should be called the children of God.
This is what we saw last week—God loved us so much that he would not settle merely to save us from sin and give us forgiveness; he penetrates to the core of our sinful being and causes us by his Spirit to be born again as his own children—to give us something of his own character so that we have a family likeness to his Son, and so that we are fellow heirs of Christ. And that means heirs of all things.
All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
The depth of his love is seen in the lavish display of his generosity toward us.
Jesus Is Not Constrained to Love Us, It Is His Joy
Finally, we come today—on this Easter, Resurrection Sunday morning, to consider the fourth way that the depth of Christ's love for us is revealed in Scripture. You see the depth of someone's love for you not only by the pain it costs, and by how much undeservedness in you the person overcomes, and how great is the bounty the person gives you; but you also see the depth of love in how free the love is. In other words is the good thing they are doing for you, constrained and under some external compulsion so that they don't really want to do it but because of some kind of pressure they do it?
Most of you know that the heartbeat of my life and thinking is this vision of reality which I call Christian Hedonism. And one of the central claims of Christian Hedonism is that unless you care about your joy and pursue it with zeal, you cannot be a loving person. When I say that for the first time in a group, they scratch their heads and say, "Sounds backwards. I thought love was renouncing the pursuit of my own joy and pursuing somebody else's instead. How can you say that the pursuit of my joy is a necessary part of loving?"
To answer that, I ask a very simple question—I ask it to you now: "When somebody does something good for you, do you feel more loved if they are doing it begrudgingly or gladly?" Virtually everyone who has ever been willing to respond to me says, "We feel more loved when people do good things for us willingly and eagerly and gladly rather than begrudgingly or under compulsion." Which I think means that my joy in loving you is an important part of what makes love. So if I try to renounce the pursuit of my joy for the sake of love, I wind up destroying the very thing I seek. The demand for love in the Bible is not a demand to renounce the pursuit of your joy for the good of others; it's a demand to pursue and find your joy in the good of others.
The more engaged and willing and glad and free is your love for others—especially if it's costly—the more amazing it is; the deeper it is. And so it was with Jesus. We see the depth of Jesus' love in the freedom of it—the willingness of it, the eagerness of it, the gladness of it. He was not forced into doing what he was not willing and eager to do. Yes, it's true, he did not enjoy the suffering per se. Physical pain did not become physical pleasure on the cross.
But I want you to see the depth of his love this morning in the freedom of it—the willingness of it, the eagerness of it, and even the joy of it. He loved us with all his heart. Not a fraction of his heart. Not with a slight inclination, with some cosmic force pressing him to do what he didn't want to do. And as we look at the freedom of Christ in loving us, the Easter connection will become clear—because the very freedom with which he loved us is the freedom with which he rose from the dead.
Jesus' Free, Eager, Joyful Love for Us
Let's begin in John 10:17–18,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.
The Fathers Loves the Son for Loving Us
This means that there is a special delight that the Father has for the Son because of his willingness to lay down his life for his people and defeat death on their behalf. The Father loved the Son before he did this. Jesus said to his Father in John 17:24,
You loved me before the foundation of the world.
But that very love was rooted in the greatness and beauty of the Son's perfections. And part of that perfection was the love that brought Jesus obediently to the cross. And so it is right for Jesus to say,
The Father loves me because I lay down my life.
What this should say to us is this: the Father loves the Son for loving us. And what does that say to us about the love of the Father for us?
The Freedom of Christ in Loving Us
Now onto verse 18 and the freedom of Christ in loving us:
No one has taken it [my life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.
Now we need to let this sink in this morning. It is very plain and very forceful. "No on takes my life from me." That's astonishing. Didn't Judas take it? What about the mob in the garden? And Annas the high priest? And the false witnesses that came against him? And the crowds who cried, "Crucify him"? And Herod who sent him back to Pilate? And Pilate who handed him over? And the soldiers who hammered the nails? What does he mean, "No one takes my life from me"?
He means, "At every point where it looks like I was under constraint—every moment where it looks like I was being forced to do what I did not want to do—I was not being forced. I was choosing it. I was embracing it. Indeed I and my Father were orchestrating it—because we love you. No one takes my life from me. I lay it down on my own initiative. My love is free."
Why Does Jesus Stress the Freedom of His Love?
Why does Jesus say this? Why does he stress it? Because if it weren't true—if his death were forced on him, if it weren't free, if his heart weren't really in it—then a big question mark would be put over his love for us. The depth of his love is in its freedom. If he didn't die for us willingly—if he didn't choose the suffering and embrace it—then how deep is his love really? So he stresses it. He makes it explicit. "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down on my own initiative" [literally: "from myself"]. It comes out of me, not out of circumstances, not out of pressure, but out of what I really long to do. Yes, verse 18 ends with "this commandment I have from my Father." But that is simply to show that the Father's heart and Jesus' heart are in perfect harmony. The Father loves, the Son loves. And what the Son loves the Father loves. The command was no burdensome constraint.
Jesus is stressing to us this morning that his love for us is free. He seems to hear some enemy slander saying, "Jesus doesn't really love you. He's a mercenary. He's in it for some other reason than love. He's under some kind of constraint or external compulsion. He doesn't really want to die for you. He's just got himself somehow into this job and has to submit to the forces controlling him." Jesus seems to hear something like that, or anticipate it. And he responds, "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down on my own initiative." So he is pressing this on us to see if we will believe his protest of love, or if we will believe the opposite—that his heart is really not in this.
Since Jesus cared so much that we know how freely and willingly he suffered for us, let's look at just a few other illustrations of this truth. Let the truth sink in. No one took his life. He chose to give it for us. He embraced the suffering. He was eager and willing. It was—I risk the statement—his joy to live and die for us.
Jesus Walks Through an Angry Mob
Do you remember the story in Luke 4 where he comes to the synagogue in Nazareth where he had grown up? He read the Scripture reading that day. Then he said that the Scriptures were fulfilled in their hearing that very moment. But when he pointed out that the blessings of the Messiah were going to include the Gentiles and not just the Jews it says in verses 29–30,
They rose up and cast Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, He went His way.
Now what's going on here? A mob of people, enraged over the local teacher's teaching, carry him to the edge of a cliff to throw him down. And the next thing you see is Jesus walking through their midst—like the children of Israel through the Red Sea—and going his way. Why? The reason is this: his hour was not yet come. No one take's my life from me. I lay it down on my own initiative. And I lay it down at the appointed time. Not before and not after.
Jesus Threatened by Herod the Fox
Later on in his ministry he was on his way to Jerusalem and some Pharisees came up to him (Luke 13:31–32) and said, "Go away and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You." But Jesus said, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.'" What does this mean? Don't go up there, the king wants to kill you. The king! He has all the authority in the realm. He can do anything he wants with people like you. You don't stand a chance.
How does Jesus respond? There was a saying among the rabbis in Jesus day that went something like this, "Better to be a lion's tail than a fox's head" (I.H. Marshall, Luke, p. 571). Here was the lion of Judah being warned that a fox was out to get him. So he says, "Tell that fox that I have ministry to do and I have a plan. I cast out demons, I perform cures, and on the appointed day—not before and not after—I reach my goal." In other words, "Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own initiative."
In the garden of Gethsemane in the last night before his death Jesus said two stunning things that sealed his death and showed that he was acting in the utter freedom of his love. When the mob finally came, and Peter struck out and cut off the ear of the priest's servant, Jesus said,
Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53)
What's he saying? He is saying, "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down freely. I choose this. I embrace it. This is my love at work here, Peter. This is no accidental mob violence. This is my sovereign love for you, Peter. Don't try to stop it."
Then he turned and healed the man's ear and said an amazing thing to the mob:
While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours. (Luke 22:53)
Up until now you could have killed me easily. But you didn't. Do you know why? Do you think it was because you were deciding what hour I would die? Wrong. The reason you are here now is because, "this is your hour"—not before and not after. "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own initiative. I decide the hour, not you. I am not being swept away. I am walking willingly, with my eyes wide open, and with all my heart to the cross—because I love my sheep. I love them. I really love them."
Psalm 40:8 (Hebrews 10:9)
But to push this truth to the limit, let me quote for you a psalm that the New Testament applies to Jesus (in Hebrews 10:9). It refers to his coming into the world to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin: "Then I said,
Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do Thy will, O my God. (Psalm 40:8)
The ultimate freedom is joy. He rejoiced to do his redeeming work for us. The physical pain of the cross did not become physical pleasure. But Jesus was sustained through it all by joy. He really, really wanted to save us. To gather for himself a happy, holy, praising people. Like a husband yearning for a beloved bride (Ephesians 5:25ff.).
The Resurrection and Jesus' Amazing Love
We must bring this to a close. Today is Easter. What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with this amazing love? Verse 18 of our text makes the connection.
No one takes my life from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.
Anybody who makes a statement like that is either mentally deranged, or lying, or God. I have authority from inside death, as a dead man, to take life back again, when I please. Now what's the point here? Well, which is harder, to control when you die, or to give yourself life again once you are dead? Which is harder: to say, "I lay my life down on my own initiative"? Or to say, "I will take my life back again after I am dead"?
The answer is obvious. And that's the point. If Jesus could—and did—take his life back again from the dead, then he was free indeed. If he controlled when he came out of the grave, he certainly controlled when he went into the grave.
So here's the point. The resurrection of Jesus is given to us as the confirmation or evidence that he was indeed free in laying down his life. And so the resurrection is Christ's testimony to the freedom of his love.
What Easter Means
Of all the great things that Easter means, it also means this: it is a mighty "I meant it!" behind his death. I meant it! I was free. You see how free I am? You see how much power and authority I have? I was able to avoid it. I have power to take up my life out of the grave. And could I not, then, have devastated my enemies and escaped the cross?
My resurrection is a shout over my love for my sheep: It was free! It was free! I chose it. I embraced it. I was not caught. I was not cornered. Nothing can constrain me to do what I do not choose to do. I had power to take my life from death. And I have taken my life from death. How much more, then, could I have kept my life from death!
I am alive to show you that I really loved you. I freely loved you. Nobody forced me to it. And I am now alive to spend eternity loving you with omnipotent resurrection love forever and ever.
Come to me all you sinners who need a Savior. And I will forgive you and accept you and love you with all my heart forevermore.