John 15:12 states, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” Jesus spoke these words to His disciples shortly before His crucifixion in a long discourse with different instructions. From verses 9–17, Jesus emphasizes the importance of love, both toward Himself and others. His disciples are to love Him by keeping His commands, and they are also to love each other.
The theme of love holds great significance in Jesus’ ministry. While John emphasizes love more than other gospel writers, we can find this theme in the Synoptic Gospels as well. An example is Matthew 5:43–44, 46: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . . If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”
The prevalence of love in Jesus’ teachings is evident to modern readers, even to those who are skeptical. However, we sometimes isolate love from other aspects of God, such as justice and holiness—something Jesus never did. There is no true love without justice, holiness, and righteousness. It would be challenging for anyone to thrive in a country where there is “love” but also a high level of injustice, immorality, and wrongdoing. We would not refer to such a country as “loving.”
Another misconception people have about love is that it always affirms every behavior, even sinful ones. However, as Timothy Keller once stated, “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws” (The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, with Kathy Keller, Penguin Books, 2016, p. 40). Truth and love must go hand in hand (Ephesians 4:15).
It is a mistake to attempt to separate love from God’s commandments. Steven Furtick once caused controversy when he stated that “God broke the law for love” (“It Works Both Ways,” posted 6/26/15, http://elevationchurch.org, accessed 6/27/23). Besides the serious problems this statement presents for God’s reputation and for sound theology, the idea that love and God’s law are mutually exclusive is biblically false.
Jesus refers to loving God and loving others as the greatest commandments because “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). “The Law and the Prophets” refers to the Old Testament, which is summarized by love. Jesus also tells His disciples that loving Him means obeying His commandments (John 14:15; 15:10).
In one of his letters, John informs his readers that “we know that we have come to know him [Christ] if we keep his commands” (1 John 2:3). Paul refers to love as “the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). We cannot claim to love God if we are rebelling against His commandments, and, likewise, we cannot claim to love others if we mistreat them.
Before we can love each other as Christ loved us, we must address how culture defines love. The world primarily limits love to feelings, assuming that, as long as we feel good toward God and others, we are demonstrating love. However, biblical love is a character trait produced within us by the Spirit, who transforms both our attitude and actions toward God and people. Biblical love does not disregard feelings, but it surpasses them and sometimes exists in spite of feelings.
The Greek word for “love” used in John 15:12 is agapao, which refers to sacrificial love. Jesus portrayed His love through sacrifice, and we are called to do the same. Again, John has insights for us: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18).