Readings: Acts 10:34–48 | 1 John 5:1–8 | John 15:9–17
Text: John 15:9-17
Today’s Gospel lesson is a challenge for Lutherans, who so heavily stress that we are saved by grace through faith, not a result of works [Eph. 2:8-9]. But it’s challenging not only Lutherans, but anyone who confesses that the Lord loves us unconditionally and that the Gospel is ours unconditionally. That’s because the plain English meaning of today’s text is that the love of Jesus has conditions: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” “You are my friends, if you do what I command you.” That word “if” burns in our ears with uncertainty because we want to know if it’s all up to us or even part way. It might be somewhat comforting to hear that the Greek ties the “if” condition to what Jesus does as well. But you got to know you’re Greek pretty well to argue that. And how is everyone else supposed to know? Besides, our Epistle lesson uses the same condition. “By this we know that we are the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments.” (1 John 5:2)
However, the great counter to the argument that God’s gift of Christ and our place in God’s family is conditional, is also found in the Gospel lesson: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” Fruit like keeping commandments, loving the Lord, and receiving the Gospel. So, what is the Lord teaching? Two truths, both of which we need to uphold? A text that makes more sense when we look at it closer? The answer is: yes.
I’d like you to have the text handy in your bulletin or on page 902 in the pew Bible. Remember, last week we heard John 15, verses 1-8. And Christ the Vine is still the context. Abiding in Jesus and bearing fruit all stems (pun intended) from Jesus’ resurrection given to us. Faith clings to Jesus. Jesus, given by the Gospel proclaimed, by the forgiveness of sin, by Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And that’s where we are to remain, because it’s only in Him that we have life.
Verse 9 continues that thought: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” Where is the Father’s love shown to Jesus? In the resurrection of His Son. That’s where we abide in Christ as well. But then Jesus says in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” That’s the “if” statement that throws us off. Because we stop thinking resurrection, and start thinking about what obedience we must render again. Because what else does it mean to keep Jesus’ commandments? Aren’t they just like the Commandments which tell us what to do and not do?
But keep doesn’t mean something so narrow as obey. It’s bigger. A better definition is ‘to treasure.’ Because treasuring means you hold it close, you consider it valuable, you treat it with care. ‘Obey,’ conveys none of those things. But ‘obey’ would be implied if we treasure Jesus’ commandments. They aren’t to be ignored, that’s for sure. But is that the condition we must meet in order to abide in Jesus’ love?
Take another look. The sentence doesn’t end with our keeping, but the Son’s: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. The conditions that have to be met include Jesus keeping His Father’s commandments and Jesus’ abiding in the Father’s love, which He has done. In fact, it is finished. Remember, He is the Vine, we’re His branches. He has already produced the fruit and “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” (Jn. 15:3) And it’s Jesus who keeps the commandments in us. He cuts off the dead works of the Old Adam in us, burns it in the fire. Then, the True Vine causes His fresh growth to sprout up, and renewal in us treasures what Jesus says.
9 As the Father has loved me,
so have I loved you.
Abide in my love.
10 If you keep my commandments,
you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s
and abide in his love.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” If abiding on Christ depended on our obedience to these commands, then Jesus speaking them to us could hardly fill, much less give us any joy. They would just be another Law that the old, sinful flesh in us could never keep. It would be another place we would fall short [Rom. 3:23].
The fact that Jesus says that His words deliver His joy is important. It completely upends what the word ‘commandment’ typically means to us. We’re trained by life and our sinful flesh to think of commandments as edicts given from above and the rests on our shoulders to do it. This is why a doctrine of works-righteousness either ends in pride or despair: pride for those who are at the top of their game, but despair for the one who sees their own failure and is without hope.
But commandment as our Lord uses it here, rather than holding a high and holy bar which we must meet, is a commandment gives the very thing it says. Think of when the Lord had Ezekiel command the bones in the dry valley to live (Ezek. 37:1-14). In the same way, Jesus commands us from death to life. Jesus commands us resurrection. And the resurrection is our joy.
Now, before we move on, we need to remember what godly joy is. It is not the absence of sadness. Joy is not the absence of pain. Joy is not the absence of emptiness. Jesus felt all those things on His cross. And, as Hebrews tells us, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) And just like Jesus, we can feel more than one thing at the same time. So, even in the face of the greatest loss we can still believe, the joy of the resurrection is still there in you, filling you up to the top with His hope.
But then what do we do with verse 12? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We know that elsewhere Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God, and love neighbor. But that’s not the same thing Jesus says here. We’re so used to it, that we just fill it in. Here, love isn’t demand for obedience, love is the result. In verse 17, it’s the same thing. Because the commandment here is life. The commandment here is forgiveness of sin. The commandment here is the gift of Jesus out of His death and resurrection.
It has been spoken. It has happened. Jesus died on that cross as your substitute. And Jesus rose from the dead on the third day as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep [1 Cor. 15:20] For your resurrection is next. And as a result of what Jesus has done and given to you, now you truly can love one another. And not just the love we see ordinarily—a love which loves those who love in return—but the same self-sacrificial love with which Jesus loved us with. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It’s not simply that Jesus is commanding us more and harder things than Moses did. That would be servanthood. You are my friends when what I command is fulfilled in you and done by you.
Now it all makes sense when Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” This is what Jesus has been saying to His disciples all along. It’s the same thing John says in our Epistle lesson when he writes, “For this is the love of God, [namely] that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3)
Jesus speaks, and it happens. He speaks, and our sin is taken away. He speaks and our death is reversed. Jesus speaks and we are given eternal life. That commandment, coming from the Vine who gives us life, fills us up with joy! This is our joy no matter what else we’re feeling along with it. Abiding in Him and His love, having His joy within us, loving one another sacrificially, being called friends of God—it’s all accomplished through Him! Never let someone convince you that somehow being obedient enough will fulfill Christ’s conditions. The conditions have already been completed: It is finished. We treasure His commands because that’s where our life is, our the strength of our walk, the love we have for even our enemies. It’s always from Jesus, and so to Him be the glory forever. Amen.