John 13:18-38

June 3, 2001

GOVERNING BY THE PRINCIPLE OF LOVE

Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

John 13:18-38

In Dorothy L. Sayers first play on the life of Christ, she has Herod chiding the Magi as they are searching for the new born king who will rule by love. “You cannot rule men by love. When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people - fear and greed and the promise of security. Love is a traitor. It has betrayed me; it betrays all kings; it will betray your Christ. Give him that message from Herod.” When we look at governments, we would have to conclude that Herod was right. Maybe in fairy stories a kingdom is ruled benevolently; but then Jesus says, love is the guiding principle of my kingdom. Yet what we can see of the preliminary character of the kingdom of God as we find it in churches, it is very hard to govern by love.

The passage in John 13 where the issue about ruling by love is raised contains two events. The first event is Jesus awareness of Judas’ heart which is ready to betray him. The second incident is Jesus’ awareness that Peter is going to deny him. Jesus is not taken by surprise about either of these, but, according to verse 21, they do trouble him.

In verses 18-30 we see that Jesus does not take Satan lightly. Even though Jesus is going to win a great victory over Satan at the cross, evil in all forms disturbs him. For its part, evil contests Jesus’ lordship.

Before Judas’ betrayal happens Jesus says that one of his disciples will “lift up his heel against me.” He refers to a thing still offensive to middle eastern people, to sit so that the sole or heel of one’s shoe is facing toward another person. When Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 and when he says more strongly in verse 21, “one of you will betray me,” everyone doesn’t turn at that point and look at Judas. They know one another. Nobody in this group is suspect. Who would do such a thing? Peter encourages John to ask Jesus who it is, and Jesus replies, not to stop the act, but to demonstrate he knows who will betray him, that it is the person to whom he hands a piece of bread dipped in a sauce.

The middle eastern practice is to hand someone at the table as a mark of special favor, a piece of bread dipped in sauce. No one suspects. John knows, but when Judas leaves he can’t act quickly enough to do anything about it. And if in verse 1, the hour has come, now in verse 30, night has come. That is not simply a chance statement about the time of day. It paints darkness as a time for evil deeds. But Jesus is Lord over the night. Further, it is true that when Jesus’ hour comes, so does the time to launch the church. And in its history the church has been in constant battle with the powers of darkness.

You might ask, what is the connection between receiving this favored piece of bread and Satan entering Judas’ heart? The answer is, at that very time when he receives the bread, he makes a choice. Judas decides not to repent. Until that moment, things hung in the balance, as they do for us when we are faced with decisions. Our question is, will we repent or not? Will we choose God’s way when the choice comes?

There is a revealing incident in the biography of G. K. Chesterton the early 20th century English writer and painter. He is sitting in a pub frequented by students from the Slade School in London, and he overhears a student he knows saying to another, “No, I’ve done every sort of evil, but if I did that, it would put me over the edge.” And, Chesterton says, he fled as if the very devils of hell were after him. But not Judas. There are choices we have which can push us over the edge. We know they are wrong. We consider, and then do them anyway.

Of course in every church there are both wheat and tares. Jesus says they will grow together. This anecdote about Judas among the disciples is a reminder of that ambiguity of life among God’s people in every age. The church is always a mixed bag until the judgment day when Jesus himself will separate the faithful from the unfaithful.

In Bunyan’s tale of the Pilgrim’s Progress, as Pilgrim approaches heaven he notices a cave out of which smoke is coming, and he concludes, “there is a road to hell at the very gates of heaven.” There is also a road to heaven. And to follow it we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Something different occurs beginning at verse 31. After Judas leaves Jesus goes on to teach. We get the beginning of his last instructions to his disciples where he prepares them to evangelize the world. Jesus does three things in this passage:

1. he reveals his glory
2. he tells the disciples he will leave them shortly
3. he gives his new command, about loving

Let us examine these three acts.

1. First Jesus is glorified now. The word “now” refers to the fact that the deed is set in motion. For Jesus is glorified when he is lifted up at the cross, but when Judas leaves to betray Jesus the battle plan is set into final motion and Jesus won’t run away.

God is glorified, according to verse 31, when Jesus obeys him because doing the will of God the Father is all important to Jesus. Jesus’ glory comes in doing the Father’s will. Both at his baptism and at the transfiguration God the Father affirms Jesus by speaking into history. At the cross, at this crucial act of Jesus’ obedience, God will forsake him in order that he might glorify Jesus in his obedience.

2. Glorification leads Jesus in verse 33 to speak about his leaving them soon. Jesus approaches this tricky topic by calling the disciples, “my children.” A number of years ago when Tom Howard spoke in the college chapel he called Messiah students, “little lambs.” And they took it from him because of the way he said it. Jesus is calling the disciples his children because that is like Jesus’ relation to the Father. He’s making the analogy.

Picture the Passover celebration. Families celebrated together, but when a group larger than a single family banded together to celebrate Passover, they patterned their celebration on the life of a family and one of the group acted like the father and explained the significance of the Passover meal as the Old Testament had commanded. That’s what Jesus is doing here. He is the father who explains to his children a new covenant.

I got a letter this week from a pastor I met at Princeton at a continuing ed course. He talked about how hard it was for him to believe in Jesus’ reality. You talk to him, but he doesn’t talk back like other people do. He seems to be gone. I wrote back and said it is as we read the Bible the Holy Spirit makes passages feel like they are addressed directly to us. When we seek him in this way we do find him because the Spirit makes him real to us.

Peter asks in verse 36, “Lord, where are you going?” He asks that so he can follow him. He will follow him into the high priest’s courtyard. He will follow his trail to the tomb. He jumps into the water of the Sea of Galilee because he recognizes Jesus on the shore and he wants to follow him.

Jesus answers Peter that he can’t follow him now. And Peter asks, in verse 37, why can’t I follow you now? When he does this he shows both his love for Jesus and his lack of confidence in what Jesus says. Jesus has said that Peter can’t follow him now. Peter says, “oh, you don’t know me.” What if Peter had repented right then and said, “I know! I am not strong enough to withstand pressure.” What would Jesus have done? Wept? And given Peter power to overcome.

Aren’t we like Peter? We think more of our ability to obey than Jesus does. True disciples believe what Jesus says and act on the basis of that. What Jesus says to Peter is, “where I am going you cannot follow now.” (Verse 36) Jesus ends by saying, in fact, Peter, you are not going to follow me. You are going to deny you know me when the going gets tough. Peter is a great model for us, because that’s our problem. We want to be loyal to Jesus but our loyalty is often to Jesus as we would like him to be.

Now what do you imagine the rest of the disciples are thinking? They know Peter. If Peter is going to deny Jesus then that would shake their own confidence. It is the very shakiness of their confidence that brings Jesus to say in 14:1, continue to trust in me!

Our own need to continue to trust Jesus is so we can conquer the world. That’s what John says in another place (1 John 5:4) “everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world” - Jesus’ death on the cross. Well, yes, but that’s not what John says in 1 John 5:4. He says, the victory that overcomes the world is “our faith.” So when Jesus demands that his disciples believe that is more than a request for a vote of confidence. When Jesus’ own heart was troubled in 12:27 what Jesus did was he focused on the Father and on doing his will. That’s a solution for us also. We need to focus on God.

3. It’s interesting that when Peter speaks in verse 36 he doesn’t ask about Jesus’ new command to love one another, but about what Jesus had said before that about going away. So now Jesus comes to this third matter, about love which is the new command that guides life in Jesus’ kingdom. Herod’s problem!

In what sense is love new? Love was important in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Psalms speak of love: Psalm 5:12, “those who love your name rejoice in you.” Psalm 18:1. “I love you, O Lord, my strength.” But the love of the Psalms is love for the Lord and for his law. That command of Leviticus 19 to love your neighbor wasn’t easy to live up to. It meant you had to love people who didn’t necessarily love you, a hard task in any age. As Herod, and those like him, know.

Jesus turns that advice on its head, as Isaac Watts understood when about 1707 he wrote a hymn for a communion service in his church. Watts was thinking of that scene where Jesus hangs on the cross, the crown of thorns on his head, the nails in his hands and feet, the soldier pierces Jesus’ side with his spear, and Watts turns the blood and water which surge out of Jesus’ body into sorrow and love which flow down from Jesus:

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

That is the biblical picture of Jesus’ love. After Jesus talks about the new command of love, he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

The reason for a troubled heart is these three matters the passage speak of that Jesus’ glory is revealed in such a strange way, the agony on the cross overshadowing the shining glory of the transfiguration; the fear rampant in Jesus saying he will leave them, and the pressure of this new command, when the whole Jewish nation had trouble obeying the old commands.

What brings peace to troubled people? That we trust Jesus. He will give us peace. The words of 14:27 will rush upon these beleaguered disciples like fresh rain, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives.” And over the ages, in the midst of turmoil and persecution and trauma, Christians have found this peace that is part of the kingdom of love, even in this world. Have you found that? Love is something Jesus works in people who want to be part of his kind of kingdom.