“Lay down your life” means what now?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 November

John 15.13.

John 15.13 NIV
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I know; George Benson’s popular 1977 song “Greatest Love of All” (which Whitney Houston remade in 1985) said learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Obviously the lyricist didn’t read her bible, and figured the way to feel best about herself was to value herself way above her friends. (Didn’t I just write about how people are inherently selfish?) No surprise, popular culture gets it wrong again.

Translators are awfully fond of phrasing this verse Yoda-style: Object-verb-subject “Greater love has no one,” rather than the usual subject-verb-object “No one has greater love” of today’s English. (The NRSV phrases it normally.) It’s ’cause the King James Version is the most familiar form of the verse, and if translators make it too different for no good reason, people balk. I think clear, readable English is a darned good reason. But that’s me.

Anyway. Right after the average preacher quotes this verse, it’s immediately pointed out, “Jesus demonstrated this very truth himself: He laid down his life for his friends. He died for their sins on the cross. He died for all of us, because he considers all of us his friends. There’s no greater love than Jesus’s love.”

There is no greater love than Jesus’s, but when Jesus made this statement, he wasn’t talking about his soon-coming death on the cross. He was talking about submitting to one another, Ep 5.21 instead of looking out for ourselves. It’s about living for one another. Not dying for one another.

Love one another.

The night Jesus was betrayed, he taught his students a lot of things, including his new command: Love one another as he loved them. That’s the context behind this verse.

John 15.12-17 KWL
12 “This is my command, so you may love one another like I love you.
13 Nothing has greater love than this: One prioritizes their life for their friends.
14 You’re my friends when you do as I command you.
15 I no longer say you’re slaves, since a slave never knows what their master is doing.
I say you’re friends, since I’ve explained to you everything I heard from my Father.
16 It’s not you choosing me, but me choosing you,
appointing you so you’d go off and produce fruit, and your fruit would last—
so whenever anyone asks the Father in my name, he could give it to you.
17 This is my command, so you may love one another.”

The words I used to translate tis tin psyhín aftú thi ypér ton fílon aftú (woodenly rendered “one, the soul of him, he might assign [a place] upon the friends of him”) may not sound familiar to you. ’Cause we usually go with the King James’s “a man lay down his life for his friends.” Most translations figure there’s no point in improving upon it. Problem is, English evolves. “I lay down my life for others” has come to mean “I’ll die for others.” And that’s not what Jesus, nor even the KJV’s translators, meant.

Like the other lines in this passage, the parallel ideas Jesus surrounded this with, others must become important. Jesus must become important; he considers us friends when we do as he commands. He considers us important—friends, not slaves—and taught us about the Father. You love your friends, Jesus said, when you are not the priority: They are.

Doesn’t usually work like that in our dog-eat-dog world. We take others into consideration only when we want something out of them—or we know they’re gonna give us grief if we don’t. But when we voluntarily think of them first, not because we expect any reward or to dodge some punishment, it’s what we call selflessness. It’s love. The best kind of love, Jesus says.

It does not mean to die for them. Dying for people is easy. Rescue workers die for people—even strangers—all the time. Living for them, that’s the hard part. Jesus demonstrated this love, as Paul described it in Philippians, like this. (I borrowed it from the first edition of the ISV ’cause I like how they made it rhyme. The current edition, by using “the Messiah” instead of “Christ,” threw it off.)

Philippians 2.5-11 ISV
5 Have the same attitude among yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus:
6 In God’s own form existed he,
and shared with God equality,
deemed nothing needed grasping.
7 Instead, poured out in emptiness,
a servant’s form did he possess,
a mortal man becoming.
In human form he chose to be,
8 and lived in all humility,
death on a cross obeying.
9 Now lifted up by God to heaven,
a name above all others given,
this matchless name possessing.
10 And so, when Jesus’ name is called,
the knees of everyone should fall,
wherever they’re residing.
11 Then every tongue in one accord,
will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
while God the Father praising.

Clever poetry aside, the point is Jesus emptied himself, figuring his own life, his own psyhí/“soul,” didn’t take greater precedence over ours. And that is why he deserves our worship. Not just ’cause he’s our creator and Master and all that, but because he demonstrates the greatest love of all.

Demonstrating this greater love.

It’s so easy to figure we’d die for our friends and loved ones. After all, how often are we gonna be called upon to actually do it? Likely no more than once. More likely, never.

It seldom happens that we can jump in the way of a bullet, or dive on a grenade, for our loved ones. And few ever live long enough to regret that decision. Instead, all we ever do with this idea is imagine it, hold it in our minds, and bask in its warm glow: “If it ever came to it, I really would die for them.” And that’s it.

As I said, living for them is the hard part. Submitting to one another—like Jesus submits himself to his church, and serves us and empowers us and encourages us and represents us to the Father—isn’t just a happy mental picture which we’ll never really be called upon to do. It’s something we’re always called upon to do. Our friends always need to be taken into consideration. We always need to put others first.

How do we lay down our lives for our friends? Well, we’re certainly not allowed to be selfish anymore. We don’t get any more free passes to inconvenience them, and expect (or demand) their forgiveness for our short-sightedness. We gotta think about them. Again, like Jesus thinks about us.

Yeah, you probably just realized following Jesus is way more complicated than you thought. Sorry to drop this dirty bomb on you. But loving one another has always meant this. We didn’t realize it ’cause the usual way Christians “love one another” is to passively stand aside and stay out of one another’s way. And that’s not love. That’s apathy.

Love is active. It’s not just restraining ourselves from hindering people. Do for others as you’d have them do for you. Lk 6.31 We gotta act. We gotta lay down our lives for one another daily—just as Jesus does for us.