On Misreading “Greater love…” (John 15:13)

In my previous post, I counseled preachers not to apply John 15:13 to war-deaths. Of course I know it is done all the time. By coincidence, an old (very old!) set of friendships is being renewed on Facebook over this issue. Below is what has transpired in the last 24 hours among me (MJG), old friend #1 (FB1), and old friend #2 (FB2).

FB1: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13

This Memorial Day weekend, take time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, thank those who served and serve today to preserve that freedom, and pray “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

MJG: With all due respect, FB1, wasn’t our Lord in John 15 talking about his disciples abiding in him and imitating his radical love, rather than patriots??

FB1: ?”By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35. I choose not to dwell on the distinction between discipleship and patriotism at this time, but rather on the intersection of the same.

MJG: Once again, with all due respect, I would suggest that that is one of the most serious–and potentially dangerous choices–one can make. It’s worth thinking through again, IMHO.

FB2: Actually, Mike, Jesus was equating what he was about to do (willingly get crucified) as setting an example of the ultimate sacrifice one can exhibit. Whether for your country or your beliefs, willing offering your life still fits the example.

MJG: FB2, I would agree that Jesus is setting an example, but he is speaking to his disciples about their willingness to die for one another and for him, as disciples, in their mission in the midst of a hostile world. (See the rest of John 13-17.) He is not enunciating a general principle but articulating a potential consequence of being his friend in the world that killed him. Applying this to other kinds of deaths robs it of its meaning for mission and discipleship. Jesus is not creating a proverb (“dying for friends is a loving thing to do”) but borrowing and radically redirecting one.

FB1: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14

To expand upon my admittedly oblique point, I believe it is easier (the broad road) to compartmentalize our faith. In so doing, many have isolated themselves to some extent from the world and the issues of the world. But I make the more dangerous (narrow road) choice of integrating my faith with my life to the extent that God grants me courage, so that all of my words and actions may be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Thus, I focus on the intersection of my faith and my patriotism.

MJG: FB1, I certainly agree that our lives should not be bifurcated, and that all of life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ. But as a good friend of mine says, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” Or, to put it differently, the reign of God and the Lordship of Christ challenge all our other allegiances. More to the contextual point about the quote from John, I think Jesus is telling his disciples (and therefore us) that his kingdom is indeed worth dying for. But other kingdoms do not have the right to demand our bodies and ultimate allegiances, at least in part because their claim on our dying includes a corollary, inextricable, and ultimately unChristian claim on our killing. In other words, the church is called to make and honor martyrs, not soldiers.

8 Responses to “On Misreading “Greater love…” (John 15:13)”

  1. Bill McReynolds says:

    Thanks for this post. Mike Huckabee made the same point as FB1 on his show this past Saturday. It was the first and last time I will be watching!

  2. MJG says:

    Thanks, Bill. Do find something/someone else to watch!

  3. Peter says:

    I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. What a misuse of scripture. I’m British and was aghast when I saw President Obama on the news laying a wreath in what I think was Westminster Abbey. The priest looked on and there was a Union Jack in the background. I have the deepest respect for members of the military who are killed, and my heart goes out to their families, but, please, let’s leave God out of it!

  4. Alex says:

    MJG for the win.

  5. MJG says:


    Thanks, but it;s not about winners and losers. :-) In fact, there was a subsequent rejoinder from FB!:

    FB1: Mike, we fully agree on your first point, the Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and that obedience to the government is secondary to obedience to God, but also that we should be obedient to the government as good citizens when that obedience does not contradict our obedience to God. The rest of your comment seems to me to open several timeless topics of discussion, including the crisis of conscience of the Christian called to be a soldier, and living under the law as opposed to living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I would enjoy an exploration of these, but this is probably not a suitable medium for such a discussion.

    To the point of the original quote “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, do you claim that this is not a general truth? If you accept that it is a general truth, then why is it not applicable to the soldier? If it is not generally true, then what love can a man have that is greater?

    I have not yet responded to these two paragraphs.

  6. MJG says:

    My response to FB1 in the previous comment:

    While we certainly cannot explore everything here, I wish to clarify my comments about the proverb-like text “Greater love….” My point is that Jesus’ main point is not to articulate a general truth but to re-fashion something many people already think into a claim about discipleship and martyrdom. The proverb is thus thoroughly recast, and the emphasis moves dramatically from the proverb to its recalculation by Jesus in terms of discipleship and martyrdom. But when people cite it, especially in reference to soldiers, they almost always wrest it from its context and re-generalize it, moving precisely in the opposite direction–away from Jesus and his use of it. As Christians, therefore, we are not called on to make general affirmations about this proverb but to follow the interpretive move of Jesus if we are to read the text properly–in its context. Moreover, if we assume that the proverb has a sort of fill-in-the blank quality to it, we can insert all kinds of test-cases besides soldiers that would make us wonder whether the proverb is really so generalizable for Christians (think, for instance, drug-dealers).

  7. MJG says:

    Thanks, Peter.

  8. [...] have used what Christ said in John 15:13 to justify their stance as Michael Gorman has pointed out here which I HIGHLY recommend [...]

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