Since we live in a complex, highly charged, contentious historical moment, when cultural and political issues stretch and tear not only the social fabric of a nation, but also the unity between Christians in many of our churches, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this two-sentence statement by Jesus:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)
It’s an important statement to meditate upon because Jesus spoke it in a complex, highly charged, contentious historical moment. Moreover, he spoke it to his small band of closest disciples the night before he died, knowing his death and resurrection would only increase the complexity and contention of their world.
Along with these disciples, nearly every new disciple after them would live in a wide variety of complex, highly charged, contentious historical moments. In fact, it would be a rare exception when a disciple wouldn’t live in such a moment. Therefore, all disciples who would hear or read Jesus’s two-sentence statement would need to ask themselves these two questions:
- What does it mean to love one another as Jesus has loved us?
- Do outside observers actually recognize us as Jesus’s disciples because of the distinctly Jesus-like ways we love one another?
And so, these are the questions for us to ask ourselves.
Serious About Obeying Jesus
As soon as we ask these questions, however, we realize that, though they are generally the right questions, they aren’t quite sufficient.
Asking, How do we love one another in ways that are recognizably Jesus-like? is like asking, How do we love our neighbor as ourselves? The answer is, “It depends.” There are endless possible answers. A specific answer to the question requires a specific context for the question. That’s why when a lawyer queried Jesus on neighbor-love, he answered with the Good Samaritan story to illustrate what it looks like in a specific situation (Luke 10:25–37).
This is the genius of Jesus’s two-sentence love command: it’s endlessly applicable. But it requires us to be serious enough about obeying it to press these two questions into our specific contexts.
So, what is our context? What’s causing the fabric of Christian unity in some places to stretch and tear much like the social fabric of the wider culture? Here, each disciple or local-church family of disciples must do the hard work of pressing these questions into their unique contexts, since each will have unique differences.
But still, like Jesus, who provided the lawyer an example in the Good Samaritan, it’s helpful to look at an example. One good example is Richard Sibbes.
Another Contentious Age
Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was a prominent Puritan pastor who ministered during a time when, in England (as in all of Europe), the ecclesiastical and political ramifications of the Protestant Reformation were being worked out in tragically bloody ways. There was no separation of church and state. For reasons of mutual conviction or convenience, monarchs allied themselves with powerful Christian institutions.
This meant Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Nonconformist Protestants were, willingly or not, entangled in high-stakes struggles for political and religious power. Especially toward the end of Sibbes’s life, how one spoke of the Lord’s Supper, the Book of Common Prayer, or apostolic succession could get one imprisoned or killed. Suffice it to say, it was a complex, culturally contentious, frequently brutal historical moment. Strife was rife. Professing Christians said and did horribly offensive things to each other.
Yet in this environment, Richard Sibbes became renowned for his compassionate care of anguishing souls and his ability to help his hearers (and readers) encounter in Scripture the tender love of Jesus, the beloved Servant who would not break “a bruised reed” (Isaiah 42:1–4; Matthew 12:18–21). Not surprisingly, that phrase became the title of his best-known book: The Bruised Reed.
And in that book, Sibbes proposed one specific way Christians living in contentious times could love one another in a recognizably Jesus-like way.
The Christian’s ‘Good Strife’
It were a good strife amongst Christians, one to labor to give no offense, and the other to labor to take none. The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others. (The Bruised Reed, 47)
Having witnessed much evil strife between Christians, Sibbes proposed that, if Christians are going to strive with one another, then let them strive, let them labor, let them exert great effort, let them do everything in their power to not give or take offense. Let them strive to cultivate the spiritual discipline of being hard on themselves and tender toward others — or as Jesus put it, let them address the logs in their own eyes before addressing the specks in others’ (Matthew 7:3–5).
Now, even though we live in a different day, doesn’t Sibbes’s pastoral counsel sound remarkably relevant? What sanctifying, joy-producing good would it work in our souls, what would it do for the health of our local churches, what would it say to a watching world about Jesus, if we Christians today engaged in this good strife of doing everything in our power to not give or take offense?
Put It to the Test
Sibbes’s “good strife” proposal is an example of just one specific way Christians in conflict can obey Jesus’s love command in John 13:34–35. But it is a good one. We can test it out with our two application questions from Jesus’s love command, each of us filling in the blanks with our contextual specifics.
What does it mean for us to love one another as Jesus has loved us given our context?
Sibbes’s (and the apostle Paul’s) answer: it means we labor to give no offense and take none by doing everything in our power
- to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3),
- to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10),
- to never be wise in our own sight (Romans 12:16),
- to give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all (Romans 12:17),
- to never repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17),
- to bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other, as the Lord has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13), and
- to let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).
Is this the expression of Jesus-like love most called for in our specific situation? If so, we have a roadmap for what obedience looks like. If not, we need to keep prayerfully pressing the question until we get a specific answer.
Do outside observers recognize us as Jesus’s disciples because of the distinctly Jesus-like ways we love one another?
Since this second question is really an evaluation of how well we’re obeying the first, we can’t answer it until we’ve been walking in obedience for a while. But using Sibbes’s “good strife” example, there’s no question that if we as individuals and as churches become characterized by the conduct described in the bullet statements listed above, most outside observers will recognize that we really do follow Jesus’s teaching.
Which means, regardless of whether the “good strife” is the best application of Jesus’s love command in our complex, culturally contentious historical moment, it is a strife we are nonetheless called to engage in as Christians. It is part of our call to follow in the footsteps of our great Servant-Lord, the Son of God, who also lived in brutally contentious times and knew when to hold his peace that he might not break bruised reeds.
How “good and pleasant” it would be for brothers and sisters to pursue this dimension of unity (Psalm 133:1) and share together in the blessing given to the sons of God, who learn how to make peace (Matthew 5:9) by counting it a glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11).