9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
In every age certain aspects of the biblical message need reemphasis and highlighting. They are usually related to other aspects that have been over-emphasized or one-sidedly emphasized in previous eras. What our age emphasizes acts as a filter that screens what we are able to hear or not hear from Scripture. This process seems inevitable if the church is paying attention to the culture in which it lives and to which it ministers. It is the needs, dynamics, and struggles of the age that call forth biblical and theological reflection. We don’t do our work in a vacuum! We lift up those parts of the biblical message that enable such reflection and leave aside those that do not. All this is to say that in times of transition and change, we will hear different accents and aspects of the Bible more clearly than we were able to in earlier times.
Our age has seen a need, a legitimate need, to redress our default understanding of God. We have had an image of a stern, vengeful, wrathful, law-oriented deity before whom we cower and seek to avoid – the “God with a Scowl,” as I call him. This is the deity Philip Pullman pillories and kills off in the His Dark Materials trilogy. And rightly so! The “God with s Scowl” needs to die!
But the covenant God of the Bible does not and should not die with him. And I suspect this happens on more than a few occasions. Instead of “God with a Scowl” we often find “God the Indulgent,” an all-loving, accepting deity who expects nothing from us and when we gets it, does nothing about it.
The covenant God of the Bible, however, is not “God the Indulgent” either. He forgives and accepts us where we are, but has no intention of leaving or allowing us to stay there! Instead, this God expects his love to make a transforming difference in and through us. He intends us to play our roles in his covenant drama of redemption: “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last” (v.16). Moreover, Jesus has let us in on what he is doing because we are his friends and not servants (v.15). He wants us to enter into the joy he himself enjoys in communion with the Father.
Therefore he can also say: “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you” (v.12). This is covenant language. What it means to “love” the God we are in covenant with is to “do what I command you” (v.14). Covenant loyalty is the definition of “love.” It’s not a warm fuzzy feeling we have for God (though we may have those occasionally). Love as covenant loyalty is obedience to what God says. We are to choose to love as Jesus did (v.14). We are to set our obedience to seek and serve the good of others, even to the point of death (v.13). It is a matter of will and intention; and that is what the Bible calls the “heart.” To love God from the heart, then, means to live as God desires and fulfill his purposes for us and the world.
This covenant God of the Bible stands eternally equidistant from “God with a Scowl” and “God the Indulgent.” The former knows no love; the latter a bastardized form of love. The God of the covenant knows the only true love there is: love in action. That’s the way he loves and the way he expects, yes expects, us to live as his people (v.12).
“God with a Scowl” knows no grace, only moralistic score-keeping.
“God the Indulgent knows no grace, only a hopeless sentimentalism.
The God of the covenant is grace, grace which accepts us as what we are, grace which empowers us to become what we are not yet. And all the while God includes us in Christ so that we might participate in his own life, the eternal fellowship of love shared by the Father and the Son (and the Spirit).
So we are Jesus’ “friends” by his grace and choice. Let us then go and “do what I command you.”