John 15:12–13 (ESV) … “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
For the second time Jesus mandates his “new” commandment: Love each other (see 13:34). Before Jesus explained that this community love would mark them as his disciples. Now he gives further explanation as to the nature of this love. This explanation answers some latent questions about the commandment. How should we love each other? Jesus says, as I have loved you. Well, how, exactly, have you loved us? Jesus says, “I am going to show you the greatest love of all. I am going to die for you.”
The stirring words of verse 13 have often been quoted in eulogizing brave men and women who have given their lives to protect or save the endangered. These applications are somewhat legitimate and certainly inspiring, but not quite in harmony with the thrust of this passage. Jesus is talking about more than a spontaneous act of selfless courage. He is, first and foremost, talking about himself. He is the one who “lays down his life” (cf. 10:11, 15, 17). His coming death will be the ultimate demonstration of love, a superlative act of obedience motivated by the greatest possible love. There is no reason or explanation for Christ’s willing sacrifice except for his love. It is beyond rational human explanation. The paradox was aptly put by Paul when he wrote, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8; cf. Eph 5:2). This was not a circumstance shoved upon Jesus. It was his mission from the outset. He came to die.
The early church fathers, particularly the monastic masters, understood what this required. For Jesus’ disciples to follow his pattern, we must live as if we have already chosen obedience over death. St. John of the Ladder called this the “contemplation of death.” We must look death squarely in the eye and say that its threat hanging over us will never be a sufficient reason to disobey Jesus. We will love Jesus and his community of believers, no matter what the cost. As an anonymous Christian author has said so beautifully, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Similarly, Paul wrote, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).