Greater love hath no man than this…
War memorials the world over record these words from Jesus:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
In the context of a war memorial we might picture a brave soldier taking a bullet for another. Or perhaps throwing himself on a grenade, or stretchering out an injured comrade under heavy fire. If we were the one saved, we would be eternally grateful.
But when Jesus originally spoke these words, He was telling us that we are the saved ones. Therefore we are His friends. And He is the one who takes the bullet. Out of immense love, Jesus comes to the fight, joins us in our predicament and lays down His life for us.
Over the past few days we have been speaking of the eternal love of God. But in John 15 we see this love earthed into the blood, sweat and tears of our own fallen state.
And that is absolutely essential. Because someone reading the last few posts might well object to this lofty talk about God’s love. It’s all very well, they may protest, to speak of the life of the Trinity before the world began. It’s all very well to speak of our mystical union with Christ. It’s all very well to speak of our participation, through Christ, in the eternal love of God. But how on earth does that love meet with me in my sin and suffering, my curse and condemnation? The answer that Jesus gives is that it meets us at the cross.
This great love, about which Christ has been speaking for the last three chapters, does not and cannot remain a heavenly love. It must descend to our situation. Which means it enters into even our hellish cut-off-ness from the life of God. Jesus comes into the trenches, takes up our cause and faces the fire.
Having taken us into Himself, the True Vine is consumed on the cross (Psalm 80:14-19), taking the judgement that belongs to us. This is how He loves His friends.
To believe in an abstract love from heaven is not enough for us. When we know the depths of our own depravity, our consciences are not placated by imagining some benign smile from above. We need to know that God’s love is a knowing love, a divine “nevertheless”. Before He declares His oaths, we need to know that He sees us to the bottom – that His love does not skim over but actually plumbs the depths of our sin. But this is precisely what the cross tells us.
There can be no greater love than this. Our Heavenly Friend does not forget about our unloveliness – He enters into it, He endures it and its consequences, and He rises again to say “Even so, I have loved you with eyes wide open, I have loved you at your very worst, and I have loved you more than my own life. Nothing can separate you from my love.”
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10)