Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The greatest of these laws was to love the Lord and to love our neighbors. But under the former covenant fulfilling the command to love was simply impossible, for it was an external covenant where God “took men by the hand” to lead them (Heb. 8:9). Then Jesus came to pay the price for sin and usher the Holy Spirit in to men’s hearts and minds. Under this new internal covenant loving God and our neighbor became possible, because man now had God’s love living in him. It was no longer external where he could not understand nor employ it. Now it was internal, and it worked! Now men could truly love God and their neighbors because God’s love was alive in them. By fulfilling His mission on earth Jesus truly did “fulfill” the greatest law of all.
In John 15:1-17, Jesus restated the Great Commandment under the new covenant He came to establish. It is the cornerstone teaching of Jesus from which all others spring—as He called it, “The sum of the law and the prophets.” This New and doable Great Commandment, simply put, is “Abide in Me [Love the Lord], and bear fruit [love your neighbor].” Jesus’ message to us here can be broken into three parts:
- Two commands in lockstep (verses 1-8)
- Two commands become one (verses 9-12)
- One command becomes mission (verses 13-17)
In the first 8 verses, Jesus ties together and perfectly balances the mutually beneficial concepts of abiding in Him and bearing fruit. These are the disciplines we must engage in fully, through a combination of empowering by the Spirit and striving through our will. It is our personal responsibility to seek to abide in Christ through faithful involvement in the reading of His Word, prayer, and small-group and corporate fellowship. It is also our personal responsibility to step out in faith, under His prompting and empowerment, to seek out and serve others in His love.
We see this balance in verses 4-5 and 7 and 2(b), 5, and 8. In the first group Jesus talks about the absolute priority and benefits of abiding in Him. Those who abide will bear much fruit, and whatever they ask as they do so will be given to them. In the latter group of verses, we find equal importance and benefits in bearing fruit. Jesus says that His Father is glorified when we bear fruit, and that in bearing fruit we prove to be His disciples. But then there’s a very somber side to the command, and that is found in verses 2(a) and 6. There He says that anyone who does not bear fruit shall be “taken away” (see Matt. 3:10, 7:19, 25:29-30, and Luke 19:26-27), and anyone who does not abide in Him will be cast into a burning fire. It is important to note that in each one of these circumstances Jesus was referring to His followers. He was not discussing the fate of unbelievers.
The concepts of abiding and bearing fruit exist in absolute balance and lock-step. They are inseparably fused together, dependent upon one another, and cannot function separately. Both the benefits of obedience and the consequences of disobedience are identical. Never does Jesus mention one without the other, and though everything begins with that abiding relationship, it does not end there. Our Good Shepherd set the example by regularly sending His disciples out and away from the comfort of the fellowship, to step out in faith and bear fruit (see Luke 9). Then He would call them back in to abide once more. This took willingness on their parts to act in faith, and to be disciplined and obedient. This balance of abiding and practicing is the model of John 15, and it has never stopped being the example of how He wants His disciples to be trained.
Whereas the first 8 verses of John 15 can be seen as “the disciplines that for the moment not to be joyful, yet sorrowful” (Heb. 12:11), verses 9-13 become “the peaceful fruits of righteousness for those who have been trained” by those disciplines. Something incredible—a miraculous transformation—occurs between verses 8 and 9 as Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Abide in My love.”
Here the two commands to abide in Him and to bear fruit in our neighbors become one great command to abide in His love. Notice from this point on in this passage He never again reverts to saying abide and bear fruit. Now they have become one seamless whole, as our obedience and His empowerment transform us into those He calls “friends”—those who find the kingdom of heaven on earth as His love and His life flow through them! This is the goal! This is when Paul’s revelation of Galatians 2:20 [“It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”] is fulfilled in the life of the believer, and emissaries of Christ’s presence on earth are born. This is where John’s words in 1 John 5:3 [“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments and His commandments are not burdensome”] become the mark of those Jesus calls “friend”!
Once this transformation takes place through a sovereign work of the Spirit in response to the obedience of His sons, life will never be the same for them. They come to understand fully the kingdom and their purpose in life, because the One alive in them becomes their mission. They must reach out to touch others both with their hands and their words, because that is what the One who now flows through them did. They do not grow weary and quit on their neighbor in need, because there’s no quit in the One who directs their steps. They are now, as Paul called himself, “prisoners of Christ Jesus,” and will climb to the gates of heaven or dig to the gates of Hell to follow their Master if that is where He is leading. This does not mean they no longer need to fight the good fight, or endure through discipline the trials and temptations all disciples must endure, but they now have a source of strength that will not let them down, will never give up, and will tirelessly empower them to keep His commands with endurance and peace.
Jesus begins this final thrust of His New Great Commandment by saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for a friend.” We cannot love people by merely praying for them [except where physical contact is just not possible]. We cannot love people by merely sharing the gospel with them. We cannot love people by merely teaching them doctrine. We cannot love by word alone, but we must share “in deed and in truth” to truly love (1 John 3:18). Though He proved with Lazarus and the Centurion’s slave He could indeed heal with a word, Jesus’ way was to touch people. He didn’t merely stand in the temple and preach about loving, He went out into the community and “laid down” His [physical] life for people.
When the love of Christ indwells and empowers us, we must likewise touch people. Jesus separates disciples from pretenders when He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Jesus said much the same thing in Luke 6, “Why do you call Me Lord, and do not do what I say?” Yet this is the norm in the modern church. We say we believe because we want to go to heaven, but do not do what Jesus says because it will inconvenience us. It is an illusion we can be His friends without doing what He commands, yet that is precisely what modern evangelism proposes. Men can only exist under an illusion for a short time before they demand something real. Unfortunately, they are finding their illusion in their temples and their something real in the world.
Jesus ends this discourse with the litmus test of a true disciple: that he or she should not only bear fruit, but “fruit that remains.” What is fruit that remains but the fulfillment of the Great Commission—the perpetuation of the species we call “disciple”? The Great Commission was, is, and will always be to “make disciples of all nations,” not converts. As the disciplines of abiding and bearing fruit become the natural walk of the disciple, they come to abide in Christ’s love. Then in going out and laying down their lives to bear fruit that remains in the interest of perpetuating the species, they fulfill both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We need to get back on track with the lifestyle model of John 15 and start running with Jesus’ vision again. That is going to start with courageous leaders bucking the popular trends of the Classroom model, leading by example as well as word, and then demanding more from their followers as Jesus did from His. Obedience is not optional for those who wish to be called “friend” by the One who gave the persistent, non-negotiable command: “Follow Me!”