Greater love?

John 15:13 says,

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Now, it is difficult to comprehend how this simple thought can be misunderstood, but it has almost universally been so. In fact, the misrepresentation of this verse demonstrates clearly the difficulty in translation caused by projecting backward Christian ideas and forgetting the Hebrew values which spawned it.

Albert Barnes wrote: "No higher expression of love could be given. Life is the most valuable object we possess; and when a man is willing to lay that down for his friends or his country, it shows the utmost extent of love."

John Gill wrote: "By these words our Lord shows, how far love to another should extend, even to the laying down of our lives for the brethren; which is the highest instance of love among men"

These thoughts clearly represent the Christian value developed as a result of Yeshua's death. But, Yeshua was not referring to his own death. In fact, he was referring to a simple, mundane act in his own life--stooping to wash the feet of his friends.

Two important issues regarding the translation that follows. First, the Greek word normally translated as "that," is hina. Clauses beginning with the word hina are purpose and result clauses and should normally be translated beginning with "so that," or "as a result." Second, the Greek word agape, which is normally translated as "love," means much more than love. It means "to act out of love," or "to care for." In the Hebrew mind, agape represented an ethic (or morality) of care, a form of restorative justice, intended to create and preserve shalom among a community.

An ethic of care emphasizes a person as a part of an interdependent relationship that affects how decisions are made. In this theory the specific situation and context in which the person is embedded becomes a part of the decision-making process. Instead of considering the consequences or our duties (as in virtue ethics), an ethic of care considers the situation that may involve a vulnerable, dependent, and weak person who needs the support of the community.

Yeshua had in mind just such a code of ethics of care in this instance. He begins his thought actually in Chapter 13. Just prior to partaking in the Passover feast with his disciples, he does a remarkable thing. (verses 4-5) He rose up from the supper and laid aside His garments. And taking a towel, girded Himself. Then He put water into the basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe [it] off with the towel, with which He was girded.

Explaining to them (at verses 12-15) he said, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me the teacher, and, the master. And you say well, for I am. If then I, the master and teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another. For I gave you an example, that as I did to you, you also should do." Yeshua told them, (at verses 34-35), I give a new precept (or ethical command) to you, so that you might care for one another; according as I cared for you… By this all shall know that you are my disciples, if you have care among one another. (14:12) Indeed, I tell you truly, the one being faithful toward Me, the actions, which I do, that one shall do also, and greater than these he will do... (14:27) I send forth shalom to you; My shalom I give to you. Not as the world gives [do] I give to you.

After explaining, through a metaphor of the vine, how, in order to remain within the sphere of God's care, the disciples must "bear fruit" (by demonstrating care for one another), he said (again referring to the feet-washing example) (in 15:8) "In this thing My Father is glorified, so that you should bear much fruit; and (so that) you will be disciples to me."

Yeshua then repeated the same concept two times (verses 12, 13), "This thing is my precept, as a result you care for one another as I cared for you. 13 Greater care than this thing has no one, as a result, one is laying aside his self in place of his friends.


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