The Mark of Discipleship

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, ESV)

Today’s passage is very short, and I’d like you to pause and read it through several times, slowly. This comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching ministry. He has just celebrated the Passover with His disciples in the upper room and He has given them symbols of a new covenant that God is making with His people. Christ’s body will be given for them, and His blood will be shed for them, but they do not understand it all yet. As Jesus draws His teaching to a close, He focuses in on a critical issue. What will mark those who are His followers? What is to distinguish His disciples in the eyes of the world? Jesus’ simple response is, their love for one another, modeled on Jesus’ own love for them.

Consider for a moment what is about to happen. Jesus knows He is going to be arrested, tried, and crucified. His disciples are about to lose their Master, and He is the only thing that holds them all together. Sure, a few of the disciples are brothers, some share a common trade (fishing), but there is nothing else that binds them all together, other than their common commitment to Jesus. I can imagine the tensions that arose at times between Simon the Zealot, who sought to end Roman rule over Israel, and Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans. With Jesus gone it would be easy for this group to split into rival factions, fall apart, and lose their impact as Christ’s disciples. Jesus knows the dangers, and He gives them this new commandment to love one another. This love is to be deeply sacrificial, steadfast, and unshakable, like the love Jesus has shown them.

Those of us who lead Bible studies are called to be Christ’s disciples first, then to teach others. Our own discipleship is foundational, it matters to God more than what tasks we take on in His name. If this is true (and I believe deeply it is), then we must allow Jesus, through this passage, to examine our hearts and our actions to see where we are loving well and where we are not. We may be smart. We may know a lot about the Bible. We may be good at leading group discussions. We may be witty and help people feel comfortable in our groups. We may practice spiritual disciplines well and offer impressive prayers in public. None of these, as useful as they may be, marks us as Christ’s disciples. According to Jesus, only love does. And it is not just fondness, or affection, or “liking” that Jesus is talking about. It is the kind of “steadfast love” that God showed His people in the Old Testament, and Jesus demonstrates with His disciples when they run away at His arrest. His doesn’t stop loving them when they are afraid or disobey. This quality of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ marks us as His disciples.

In The Church at the End of the 20th Century (IVP, 1970), Francis Schaeffer wrote an appendix on “The Mark of the Christian,” focusing on this passage and on John 17. He notes that Jesus’ statement here is not a fact, but a command with a condition. If we love one another, then people will know we are His disciples. As Schaeffer points out, this love is what is to distinguish us as people who follow Christ. The love that we have received from Him changes us, enabling us to love others. And when people see that difference, they will know we are Jesus’ disciples.

I want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and I want people to see the difference Jesus has made in me. Ultimately, this will not be revealed by my Bible knowledge (as important as that is for teaching others), discussion leadership skills (as helpful as those are to facilitate group learning), or faithfulness to spiritual disciplines (as beneficial as they may be to help me be attuned to God’s work in my life). It is the fruit of God’s work in my heart, stirring me to love as He has loved me. Love is the mark I am to bear.

How about you? When people see you, over time, do they know that you are a disciple of Jesus because they see a quality of love in you that has no other explanation? Has Christ’s love so impacted you that others see it as you interact with your brothers and sisters in Christ? Where you have seen that kind of transformation by God in your life, give thanks to Him. Where you are struggling to love well, seek God’s help to remember Christ’s own love for you, that though you were in rebellion against Him, He still loved you and gave His life for you. I hope you will grow to be a great Bible study leader, but even more, I pray you will bear the mark of the Christian as one who loves as Jesus loves.

Father, You have loved me so well, so faithfully, so deeply. Thank You for sending Christ to die for me so that I might be forgiven my sin and restored to right relationship with You. Thank you for loving me each day, particularly in those times when there is nothing lovable about me. Please transform my heart by Your love so that I am better able to love Your people, my brothers and sisters in Christ. May this be the mark You make in my life, and may others know that I am Jesus’ disciple because of this transformed love. Amen.

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