We don’t normally use the words “love” and “commandment” in the same sentence, for love hardly seems like something that could be commanded. Imagine watching a romantic comedy in which boy meets girl and falls in love, and then, wanting to be loved back, commands her to do so.
I think we know how that scene would play out.
Yet we know that Jesus himself taught that the two greatest commandments are that we should love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34). Love is the essence of God’s law because God is love (1 John 4:8).
Similarly, in his Farewell Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples:
As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, CEB)
This is the follow-up to his declaration that he is the true vine, of which they are the branches (John 15: 1, 5). As such, they are expected to be fruitful. But as we have seen, they are not directly commanded to bear fruit; they are commanded instead to remain or abide in Jesus (vs. 4), as a branch must remain in the vine to draw life.
Here, the command is to remain in Jesus’ love. Jesus draws upon what the disciples have already seen and heard in their time together with him. They know that Jesus loves the Father, and for that reason obeys. And just as the Father loves Jesus so has Jesus loved them. Why wouldn’t they want to remain in such a love? If they do, they will know their true joy.
Think about a child’s obedience and love. Sometimes, obedience is at best grudging; children obey out of fear or feel otherwise coerced. Ideally, however, we’d want a child to obey willingly out of love. And not in a tit-for-tat kind of way; the attitude should not be, “Well, I think you’re wrong, but I’ll go along with it because I like you.” It would be better for a child to obey because the parents’ love engenders a sense of safety and trust, a unity of spirit and purpose.
The reason that there needs to be a commandment at all is because the disciples have a job to do, a mission to accomplish. But even then, the mission is grounded in love: they are to show that they have been with Jesus, show that they have been loved and loved well, by the way they love one another.
Jesus is the true vine (John 15:1), which as we’ve seen suggests that he is the embodiment of all that God’s people were meant to be from the beginning. The disciples, as a branch that draws its life from that vine, demonstrate that they are the true church by their love for one another. This is to their joy, because by remaining in Jesus’ love they are at one with him in purpose, and what brings Jesus joy brings them joy.
Jesus’ commandment to love one another (cf. 13:34-35) springs from the love he has already shown them, indeed the love he is about to show them on the cross. If it sounds like too much to ask (“What, you mean I have to love that person too?”), then chances are we’ve lost touch with Jesus’ love for us.
When that happens, we have some abiding to do.