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John 15:9-17 Biblical Commentary:
This is near the end of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ lengthy discourse began in chapter 14 and will run through chapter 16. Chapter 17 is Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, and chapter 18 starts with his arrest and betrayal.
Verses 1-8 set the stage for verses 9-17. Those earlier verses introduced the idea of abiding in Jesus (“Remain in me,” v. 4), and the later verses continue that imagery (“Remain in my love,” v. 9). They also introduce the idea that “everything begins with the Father” (Ridderbos, 519). This is reflected in the earlier portion with Jesus’ statement, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer” (v. 1). It is repeated in the second section by Jesus’ statement, “Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you” (v. 9).
JOHN 15:9-11. REMAIN IN MY LOVE
9“Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love. 11 I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be made full.”
In verses 1-8 Jesus told us that the Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. In those verses Jesus said, “Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me” (v. 4). Now he continues, “Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love” (v. 9). The message throughout is of interrelationships among Father, Son, and disciples.
This Gospel, from the beginning, has emphasized the unity of Father and Son:
• “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made” (1:1-3).
• Jesus has already said, “I and the Father are one” (10:30).
• In his high priestly prayer, shortly before his death, he will pray that the disciples “may be one, even as we are” (17:11, 22).
“remain (meinate—from meno) in my love” (v. 9b). What does it mean to “remain” in Jesus’ love? The Greek word meno means dwelling in a particular place—remaining there—abiding there. It suggests to me the kind of peace and stability that we associate with being at home—or at the home of a hospitable friend.
When used of relationships, as it is here, meno suggests steadfast relationship—heart and soul unity. To remain in Jesus’ love, then, suggests being immersed in Jesus’ love—surrounded by Jesus’ love—comforted by Jesus’ love—empowered by Jesus’ love.
Imagine a swimming pool filled, not with water, but with Jesus’ love. When we find the courage to dive in, we will find ourselves in a new and different world—refreshing—quiet, cut off from the noise and distractions of the world—supportive, a place where we are upheld by Jesus’ love.
The emphasis is love. Love begins with the Father and flows through the Son to the disciples (v. 9). It is contingent on obedience—“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (v. 10). Jesus provides us with a model of obedience. He has come to do the will of the one who sent him (4:34; 6:38; 8:29). He keeps the Father’s word (8:55). He does the Father’s will so that the world might know that he loves the Father (14:31). The Father loves Jesus because he lays down his life in obedience to the Father’s command (10:17-18). Jesus promises to love the disciples if they obey his commandments.
The image that comes to mind is that of nested dolls—the kind that pull apart to reveal a smaller doll inside—and inside of that doll there is a still smaller doll. Jesus invites us to obey so that we might abide in him as he abides in the Father. If we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in the Father, it follows that we also abide in the Father. The little disciple nestles into the larger Jesus, who then nestles into the great Father. This series of relationships is made complete as we keep Jesus’ commandments.
This is the third in a series of entreaties by Jesus for his disciples to obey him (see also 14:15 and 14:23). In our churches today, we rightly emphasize the importance of grace. However, we will fail those who depend on us for spiritual wisdom if we fail also to emphasize the importance of obedience.
Jesus then says, “I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be made full” (v. 11). Jesus is not calling us to dreary, lock-step obedience but to joy. It is not the hollow joy of luxurious surroundings and sated appetites—joy that dissipates as soon as things change. It is, instead, the joy of the disciplined life, like the joy of the athlete who rejoices after conquering a difficult challenge to win the race. That athlete might have blistered feet or strained muscles, but those matter little while experiencing the joy of victory.
JOHN 15:12-13. THIS IS MY COMMANDMENT
12“This is my commandment, that you love (Greek: agapate) one another, even as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
“This is my commandment, that you love (agapate) one another, even as I have loved you” (v. 12). Agapao is the verb form. The more familiar agape is the noun form.
This is a restatement of Jesus’ “new commandment” in 13:34.
In verse 12, the “commandments” of verse 10 are narrowed to one—loving one another as Jesus has loved us. This Gospel does not emphasize moral teaching in the way that Matthew does. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) includes many specific teachings that are missing here. Part of the reason is that John is a different person with a different style and emphasis. However, it is also true that Jesus’ love-commandment pulls together all the law and the prophets. The person who loves needs no commandment not to steal or kill, because the person who loves will not do those things. Reflecting on this principle, Augustine said, “Love, and do what thou wilt.”
The agape (pronounced a-GAH-pay) love that Jesus commands is more a “doing” than a “feeling” word. It doesn’t require that we approve of the actions of the person whom we love—or even that we enjoy their company. It does require that we act in behalf of that person—to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion. An agape person will do what is possible to feed the hungry—and to give drink to the thirsty—and to welcome the stranger—and to clothe the naked—and to visit the sick and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). The agape person has little or nothing to gain by helping these hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, imprisoned people. The thrust of his/her agape love is giving, not getting.
This understanding of love is quite different from that of our culture—a culture that too often understands love as the satisfaction of one’s own needs rather than as satisfying the needs of the other. The person who says, “I love you,” may mean only “I want you” and may even resort to manipulation to possess you. How different that is from the person who stands ready to sacrifice in behalf of the other person—even to quietly walk away if that best meets the other person’s needs. To understand the love of which Jesus speaks, it helps to understand how we have debased the word love in our common usage.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13). In the Greco-Roman world, people placed a high value on friendship—and recognized the possibility that it might become necessary for a person to sacrifice his/her life in behalf of a friend (Kostenberger, 458).
At this point, the disciples do not understand that Jesus will soon die for his friends. After the resurrection, they will finally understand the significance of these words. Jesus’ love will require him to go to the cross for his friends. His commandment to love each other as he has loved us (v. 12) also requires serious sacrifice. The love of which Jesus speaks is more than a feeling—it is love in action—love that pays the price.
1 John 3:16 makes this explicit: “By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Note the similar emphasis of 1 John 3:16 and John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Godly coincidence!
Earlier, Thomas said to the other disciples, “Let’s go also, (to Jerusalem), that we may die with him” (11:16), but it was clear that Thomas had no enthusiasm for sacrifice. Peter said, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” (13:37), but when the time came, Peter denied Jesus. Talk is cheap! Love is costly!
JOHN 15:14-15. NOT SERVANTS, BUT FRIENDS
14“You are my friends, (Greek: philoi) if you do whatever I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you.”
“You are my friends (philoi) if you do whatever I command you” (v. 14). The Greeks have three words for love:
• Agape, a love characterized by concern for the welfare of the other person.
• Philos, companionate love (Philadelphia, which means the city of brotherly love, is derived from philos, which means love and adelphos, which means brother).
• Eros, romantic or sexual love.
Only agape and philos are used in the New Testament. In this Gospel, they are used somewhat interchangeably (O’Day, 758).
Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does” (v. 15a). Earlier, he called them disciples (8:31; 13:35; 15:8), and that is the word that this Gospel usually uses for them—but Jesus also implied that they are his servants. He said, “If anyone serves me, let him follow me. Where I am, there will my servant also be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (12:26) and “a servant is not greater than his lord, neither one who is sent greater than he who sent him” (13:16).
There is no shame attached to being God’s servant. The people identified in the Bible as God’s servants include Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5), Joshua (Joshua 24:29), David (Psalm 89:20), Paul (Titus 1:1), and James (James 1:1). Jesus acted as servant to the disciples at the foot-washing (John 13:13-16).
But now Jesus refers to the disciples as friends, saying, “but I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (v. 15b). A master gives servants orders, but a friend communicates with friends, sharing intimacies and trust.
In the prologue to this Gospel (1:1-18), John refers to Jesus as the Word. A word is a means of communication. Christ came to earth in human form to reveal God and God’s mind clearly to us. As God in flesh, he made it possible for us to see what God is really like. He “made known to (us) everything that (he had) heard from (his) Father” (v. 15b). This kind of openness is characteristic of friends.
This friendship is contingent on the obedience of the disciples—“You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (v. 14). Jesus and the disciples have not become equals, and their friendship is not a democracy. Jesus is Lord, and expects obedience.
Jesus’ words here gain even more significance in the light of then-contemporary usage. In Roman courts, the phrase “friends of the Emperor” designated the emperor’s closest advisers. Those friends had easy access to the emperor—a perquisite that most people, even senior officers, could only covet. Jesus offers us that kind of access to himself (Barclay, 208).
JOHN 15:16-17. GO AND BEAR FRUIT
16“You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed (Greek: etheka—from tithemi—set aside) you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 I command these things to you, that you may love one another.”
“You didn’t choose me, but I chose you” (v. 16a). Rabbis mentor students preparing for the rabbinate, and prospective students seek rabbis to become their mentors. The greater the rabbi, the more students seek his assistance. Jesus, however, tells his disciples that he has chosen them.
It is a great honor to apprentice under a great rabbi, so we would assume that Jesus has chosen the brightest and best—but we would be wrong. These disciples hardly qualify as quick to learn. Instead the Gospels present them to us as slow—a bit thick-headed—weak of faith—sometimes denying—sometimes doubting. A few, such as Peter, James, and John, will become prominent, but even they often veer off course. Most will remain obscure. One will betray Jesus.
We wonder what Jesus was thinking when he chose this very ordinary group of disciples. And yet, the growth of the first-century church shows that Jesus chose well—or that he empowered well. These disciples will do great things, not because they are great, but because the one who empowers them is great.
There is an important lesson here. God chooses whom God chooses. God empowers whom God empowers. A quick glance around the typical congregation shows that God has not chosen the brightest and the best. Most Godly work is done by ordinary people distinguished by only one characteristic—they have given God their heart. That should encourage us. It should also make us hesitant to judge any person’s potential. The star athlete and the valedictorian might be too full of self to be much heavenly good. The person who seems to have the least to offer might be the person that God chooses to transform the world. God chooses whom God chooses.
“And I appointed (etheka—from tithemi—set aside) you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (v. 16b). It is this verb, tithemi, that Jesus used in verse 13 to speak of laying down his life. Paul will use this verb in Acts 13:47 to speak of God setting Barnabas and himself aside to be a light to the Gentiles. Paul will use this verb again in 1Timothy 1:12 to express his thankfulness to Christ for appointing Paul to Christ’s service. Tithemi brings to mind an ordination where a person is set apart for a particular ministry. The purpose of such appointment is not to honor the person being ordained, although there may be honor associated with it. The purpose is mission—getting the job done—bearing fruit.
Jesus says that he appointed these disciples to “go and bear fruit” (v. 16b). Jesus does not specify the fruit, but disciples are appointed to bear the fruit with which God endows them. I am reminded of Dale Bruner, a renowned Presbyterian teacher and scholar. When he was younger, friends told him that he had to be evangelistic—to buttonhole people—to tell them about Jesus. He tried, but failed mightily. He then spent a decade as a missionary in the Philippines, producing little fruit. Finally he found his calling. It was not on the street corner or in the pulpit, but in the classroom—in the library. Bruner loves libraries, and produces beautiful fruit for Christ there. He has written a great commentary on Matthew and another on the Gospel of John. Great scholarship! Great fruit! God calls other disciples to produce other kinds of fruit.
If we are to produce fruit for Christ, it is important that we seek his will for our lives—to let him direct our appointment. The humblest Sunday school teacher, serving whole-heartedly in a Christ-given appointment, can render as important a service as any pastor or bishop. Christ often uses very humble people to change the world.
“that your fruit will remain” (v. 16b). Some people are called to produce reports that will be good for a few weeks—others to build cars that will last for a few years—still others to build houses that will last for a few decades. Christ appoints disciples to bear fruit that will last for centuries—for eternity—forever.
“that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (v. 16c). Earlier Jesus said, “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you” (v. 7). The person who abides in Christ—who becomes one with the Son as the Son is one with the Father—becomes so attuned to the will of God that God will give that person whatever he or she asks in Christ’s name. So it is with the person who serves whole-heartedly in the appointment to which Christ has appointed him or her (v. 16).
“I command these things to you, that you may love one another” (v. 17). This is almost a restatement of verse 12, but with an interesting twist. In verse 12 Jesus commands us to love, but verse 17 he says that these commands enable us to love one another.
There is synergy here—intertwined elements that feed each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us and invites us to abide in his love (v. 1). As we keep his commandments, we abide in his love (v. 2), and we experience a complete kind of joy (v. 3). This joy fills our hearts, driving out poisonous feelings that would otherwise make it difficult to love our neighbor. Knowing that this neighbor is a child of our Father and is therefore our brother or sister also helps us to love. Thus God’s love, Jesus’ love, our love, our abiding in Christ, and our keeping of the commandments change us in ways that enable us to love those imperfect souls with whom we rub elbows every day—to love them warts and all—and that is a miracle!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
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Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Burridge, Richard A., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Cousar, Charles B., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Kostenberger, Andreas J., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: John (GrandRapids: Baker Academic, 2004)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
Wright, Tom (N.T.), John for Everyone: Part 2, Chapters 11-21 (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002, 2004)
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