The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively. I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further. Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God. In John 15:18-21, he said:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.”
Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”
The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them. The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own. For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:
“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, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world). He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love. Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God. Why is that point important? Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that? Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower? Absolutely not! Even pagans are capable of human love. It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian! A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love. Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!
We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”
Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant. Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore. To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene. Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””
We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here. Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?
Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.” Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God! He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s! He is the Only Begotten Son of God! All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth? No. Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will. He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified. He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.
But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow. It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.
Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”. If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it. But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose. Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own. No one asks or cares about what they would like. That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet. And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children. With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”? We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world. How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach? What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?
Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard? In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us. So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?
Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom. The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.
In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him? The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.” So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter). Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty. What was Peter missing? When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition? Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond? Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice! Take those questions a step further now. Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him? Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make? I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly. What phenomenon was at work here, then? This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”
Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31). He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully. He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand. Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41) It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter. What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against? I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.
The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead. Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter. He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him. And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment. He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.
Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him! Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27). God is love and God is spirit. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love. But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply. Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us. In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold. I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God. Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.