"Abide in my love"
This post is the lightly-edited text of a presentation by Grace Communion Seminary president Michael Morrison at the July 2023 Grace Communion International denominational celebration.
|"Jesus Teaches the People" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In John 15:9-11, Jesus tells his disciples,
as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (NRSVue)
Let’s start by looking at one of the key words, the word “abide.” That’s an old English word related to the noun “abode.” A person abides in their abode. They reside in their residence. They live in their home. The Oxford English dictionary says this is an archaic meaning of the word abide, but quite a few translations still use it because it’s traditional biblical vocabulary. Some of the newer translations say, “remain in my love.”
Well, what does it mean, to remain in Jesus’ love? On first reading, this passage looks like Jesus loves us only if we obey his commandments. If we are disobedient, he won’t love us anymore.
Verse 14 conveys a similar thought: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Some people conclude from this that if we do not do what Jesus says, then we are not his friends.
Both of these conclusions commit what is known as the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent,” or “converse of the condition.” Logicians analyze the statement by putting it in this form: “If P, then Q.” But it erroneous to think that if P is not true, then Q isn’t true, either.
Here’s an example: “If it is snowing, then it must be cold outside.” It’s erroneous to negate both sides of the statement and say: “If it’s not snowing, then it must not be cold.” That would not be a good conclusion – it is possible for it to be cold, and yet not snowing. Coldness is necessary for snow, but coldness is not sufficient for snow.
If we apply that analysis to the saying of Jesus, we might say, If we obey Jesus, then we will remain in his love. But is it possible that Jesus could also love people who do not obey? Is it possible that Jesus could be friends with people who don’t always do what he says?
Well, it is a logical possibility, but it does seem to go against the literary intent. John does not want to convey the message that we don’t need to be concerned about whether we obey Jesus – “Jesus will love you whether or not you obey.” That might be true, but that’s not the message John wants to give us. We need to see what the passage is really saying.
We do have reason to question the typical interpretation of these verses. For example, “You are my friends if you do what I say” sounds like something that a Mafia boss could say. Is that the kind of friendship Jesus has with us? It does not it seem to work very well with what Jesus says in verse 15: “I do not call you servants, but I have called you friends.” Our relationship to Jesus is not based on obedience, but on friendship, on his desire to love us.
“I will love you only if you obey me” does not sound like the sort of love that Jesus has, and it is not the kind of love we want to see in a marriage, and we might wonder whether this really qualifies for the word “love.” A love that has conditions like that doesn’t seem like love at all.
Almost everyone admits that we don’t obey Jesus all the time. We are not perfect in our attitudes and actions. This could then lead to anxiety as we fall in and out of Jesus’ love. It’s like we are pulling petals out of a daisy, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not.” If that’s the case, we don’t know where we stand with him, because if Jesus’ love for us depends on what we do, then we are on pretty shaky ground, and we could fall out of his love before we get home tonight. This seems like a threat, a warning, and it is not the comforting word that we might expect from Jesus in this situation.
The other Gospels tell us that all the disciples abandoned him in his hour of need. They all failed, and we all fail sometimes, too. We have no confidence in our own strength, and it does not seem here that Jesus intends to put us into an anxiety bind: You’d better do this, or else!
So we have reason to look at this passage again, to see if another interpretation is possible, and whether it makes literary, grammatical, and theological sense.
What does it mean to remain in Jesus’ love? Is it possible that Jesus is not putting conditions on his love for us?
Let’s consider verse 11, where Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you.” What is he talking about here – that Jesus has joy when he thinks about his disciples? We might paraphrase that idea: “I have said these things so I can take pleasure in what you do.” In this interpretation, Jesus was thinking of his own joy, but that’s not a very noble motive when we put it that way.
The other possibility is that Jesus means that his disciples will have joy when they do what he says. That fits better with the thrust of the passage. D.A. Carson writes, “Jesus delights to do his Father’s will; his joy depends on pleasing his Father.” The parallel thought is that the disciples will have joy when they please Jesus. He is talking about the joy of the disciples.
Colin Kruse has a similar explanation: “Jesus’ joy came from doing the Father’s will, and the joy of the disciples would come from doing what Jesus commanded them.” He’s talking about the joy that the disciples themselves experience.
Why then does Jesus call it “my joy” – “my joy will be in you”? He is saying that the kind of joy that I have, you can have, too. Just as I have joy when I do what the Father wants, so also you can have that kind of joy when you do what I’m telling you to do. It will bring my kind of joy to your heart. I am telling you this – I am giving you these commands – so that you’ll have joy.
He’s talking about “my kind of joy,” and I suggest that a similar meaning works for Jesus’ love. He’s talking about “my kind of love.”
Let’s see how it might work in the context.
In verse 10, we would have something like this: “If you keep my commandments, you will be living in my kind of love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and live in his kind of love.”
In other words, If you do what I say – and the very next command here is to love other people – then you will be living in my kind of love. It’s talking about the love that the disciples themselves have. It is patterned after the love that Jesus has, and theologically, it actually comes from God, but it is expressed through the actions of the disciples. They are living with that kind of love.
The Greek word used here can mean to live, or to stay in a particular place, or to continue doing something. So we might translate it like this: If you keep my commandments, then you will continue expressing my kind of love, just as I have kept the Father’s commandments and I continue to express God’s kind of love.
Grammatically, how does that work? The construction is a pronoun in the genitive case; the genitive case has many uses, and is often translated with the word “of,” which in English is a very flexible preposition. In Romans 5:5, for example, “the love of God” could be either God’s love for us, or it could be our love for God. The grammar, in itself, is not enough to make the decision.
The genitive case, like the English word “of,” can be used to indicate a wide variety of relationships, including action, possession, description, basically any sort of association between the words. One category listed by Daniel Wallace is “the genitive of quality.” That’s what I’m suggesting for John 15:10 – Jesus is talking about a certain quality of love, namely the kind of love he has. Just as Jesus talks about his kind of joy in the next verse, he is talking about his kind of love in this verse.
Now, I admit that the verse about love and the verse about joy use a different syntactical construction. Instead of using the genitive case of the first-person pronoun, verse 11 uses the possessive pronoun. Greek has a possessive pronoun, and that makes it possible to alter the construction even while having a similar meaning.
I would have a stronger case for my interpretation if the grammar was the same, but I have to admit that it isn’t. I think it’s important that we admit where our case is weak – that is part of our respect for the text. We do not want to force the text into our own interpretation, but we should admit when it is possible to have different interpretations. The grammar itself doesn’t always settle the question.
Of course, we should love people like Jesus does; the question now is whether that’s what this verse is saying. If this verse is saying something else, then we want to be open to that truth as well, rather than shouting it down by our prior beliefs, and imposing them as a conclusion that the text must be forced to fit. We want to hear what the text says.
Let’s look now at verse 14: “You are my friends if you do what I tell you.” It’s the Greek word ean with a present-tense verb – what Daniel Wallace calls a “fifth-class condition.” It does not express iffyness in the way that other conditional sentences do. Rather, it is speaking of “a generic situation in the present time.” It is expressing a general truth.
A biblical example is in John 11:9: “If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble.” It’s a proverb. As a modern example, we might say, “If you are a bachelor, then you don’t have a wife.” There’s no conditionality being expressed there – it’s just a general truth.
I think that’s what’s going on in John 15:14: “You are my friends if you do what I tell you.” That’s just what friends do; it’s part of the definition of what a friend is. Now, there is some stress here that Jesus wants his disciples to obey him. That idea is repeated several times, in several ways. But we should not stress the conditionality of the statement, because the grammar here says we should not.
Functionally, Jesus is encouraging them to obey his command, specifically in this passage the command to love one another. He’s saying, As one friend to another, I want you to obey this command. You are acting friendly to me when you live in the way that I have taught you. If you are doing that, then you are doing what friends do. It’s a timeless truth, a general principle – it’s not a veiled threat for Jesus to cut off his affection for the disciples. It’s not a contradiction of verse 15, where Jesus says that his relationship with the disciples is not a master-slave relationship.
A similar approach could be used for the saying about love in verse 10, although it uses a future tense and is a third-class conditional sentence: If you do what I tell you, then as a matter of definition, you will also be abiding in my kind of love. Living in love is the same as obeying; one side is a paraphrase of the other.
Now, again, I admit that my case would be stronger if the same grammatical construction existed in both verses. One is a third-class conditional, and the other is a fifth-class conditional, and those categories have been developed because a difference in meaning is often associated with them, but I think there is enough flexibility in the third-class condition that a similar meaning could be conveyed.
Now, perhaps you have noticed that I have not treated these verses in the order they come in the text. I have skipped around in my discussion, and that can be a suspicious approach to a text. When people take verses out of their original context, they can do something fishy with them, trying to negate what they say, one at a time. So let us back up and see whether my idea fits the context.
The context begins in verse 1, with Jesus describing himself as the true vine, and the disciples as branches. There is an interesting Old Testament background to this parable, and some interesting questions in the text itself, and it would take a long time to discuss all that, but I think I can legitimately summarize it. The main point of the passage is repeated several times: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (v. 4). “Abide in me and [let] my words abide in you” (v. 7). “Abide in my love” (v. 9).
The point is that Christ lives in us, remains in us, and we are to live in him, remain in him, and by doing so, we will bear fruit. It will have results in our lives. There are some parallel phrases here: Abiding in Christ, and abiding in his love. The question with parallelism is: Are these different concepts, or are they different ways of saying the same thing? And when Jesus talks about his words abiding in us, is he talking about something distinct, or is this yet another way of conveying the same idea?
I suggest that they are all the same. We remain in Christ, and Christ remains in us, when we let his words remain in us and produce fruit in our lives. This matches the frequent emphasis in the Gospel of John that Jesus and the Father are one; and he does only what the Father says. Jesus wants his disciples to be an extension of that same relationship. When he is in us, and we are in him, we act like he does, and we bear fruit and we are indeed his disciples (v. 8).
Now comes a difficulty: Verse 9 speaks of Jesus’ love for his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” This verse supports the idea that Jesus is talking about his love for them when he commands them, “Abide in my love.”
However, there is a logical problem with that. How can Jesus command us to do something when he is the one who is actually doing it? “I command you that I should do something” makes no sense.
Here I think we should see a transition in this verse, as Jesus moves from the love that the Father has, to the love that Jesus has, and then to the love that the disciples have:
As the Father has loved me, so also I have loved you. Now I want you to do the same: Continue in the kind of love I have shown you. If you keep my commandments, you will be continuing in this sort of love, just as I have kept the Father’s commandments and I continue in his sort of love. You will then experience the same kind of joy that I have, if you are loving people in the same way that I do, in obedience to the Father’s command. Now here’s the commandment I’m talking about: Love one another.
Ah, but Jesus didn’t stop there – he said, "Love one another as I have loved you." This fits into the repeated pattern: Just as I do what the Father does, so also you should do as I have done. When he commands the disciples to “Abide in my love,” he is commanding them to do something – he is commanding them to love. You are acting as one of my friends when you love one another. You are abiding in me, and I’m abiding in you, when you are loving people in the way that I love you.
This interpretation is not as strong as I would like. But I think the traditional interpretation has serious theological, grammatical, and logical problems, and we are justified in looking at other possibilities. My interpretation makes good sense, fits the context, and avoids the serious problems. Grammar alone cannot answer the question, but I think in this case the new interpretation is better.
But the main point of the passage is simple: Love one another.