Jesus came into a world that focused on the vertical dimension of the life of faith. Most first century Jews would have acknowledged that faith has both a vertical dimension (between me and God) and a horizontal dimension (between me and other people), but they would have assumed that the most crucial part was the vertical part. They figured that what God most wanted was for them to avoid worshipping idols, to offer the correct sacrifices, to get the Sabbath right, to say the right prayers, to tithe properly, and so on.
One of the audacious things Jesus did was to elevate the horizontal. He insisted that the way we treat other people matters deeply to God. He taught that our relationships with people have an impact on our relationship with God, and that those horizontal relationships are actually the best indicators of the health of the vertical relationship.
One clear example of this tendency to elevate the importance of human relationships is in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he describes a specific case in which we should prioritize the horizontal over the vertical:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” – Jesus, Matthew 5:23-24
No other rabbi would have the audacity to tell people to keep God waiting while they go and straighten things out with a cranky neighbor. The instruction becomes even more surprising when we realize the major production involved in giving a gift at the altar: For Jesus’ original hearers, it meant traveling a great distance to the temple in Jerusalem, undergoing extensive purification rituals, and purchasing an animal to offer. Jesus said that if they went through all of that and then remembered someone back home they had wronged, they should leave Billy the newly purchased goat running loose in the temple and travel all the way home to try to make things right.
How we treat people is a big deal to Jesus.
My favorite example of Jesus elevating the horizontal is recorded in John’s Gospel. It comes at a pivotal moment: Judas has just walked out of the room to go turn Jesus in. Jesus knows that this will be his last chance to say anything to his disciples before he dies. So he tells them he won’t be with them much longer, and then he utters these profound words:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jesus, John 13:34-35
I would excuse you for arguing with Jesus that his command to love isn’t all that new. What is unquestionably new is the metric he tells them to use to quantify that love: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Wow. That’s a lot of love. Jesus is saying, “You remember how I welcomed you when nobody else would have you? I want you to love like that. You remember how I gave you a second chance, and a third and a fourth chance when you kept blowing it? I want you to love like that. You remember how I served you, even washing your feet? I want you to love like that. You remember how I spoke the truth to you even when it wasn’t pleasant? You remember how I fed you when you were hungry? You remember how patient I was with all of your questions and doubts? I want you to love like that.”
Jesus says he wants his kind of love to be the identifying characteristic of his followers – he wants it to be how people recognize us. That’s how our discipleship shows: Not by the beliefs we profess, or by the rules we follow, but by the love we demonstrate. Jesus says that job one for his followers is to love like he loved.
Jesus shares this profound instruction with his disciples, and they apparently don’t hear a word of it. Peter speaks as soon as Jesus pauses (no shock there), but he is still stuck on the thing Jesus was saying before giving his big new command. Peter just asks Jesus where he is going. It is one of many times we see the disciples being the “duh”-sciples, not getting it at all when Jesus says something profound. But I’m glad they don’t get it the first time, because Jesus takes the opportunity to reiterate his instruction just a couple of chapters later, this time taking its practical application to even more audacious depths:
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – Jesus, John 15:12-13
Again, Jesus gives the command to love. Again, he tells them his love is the pattern. But then he tells them exactly what “as I have loved you” means: it means laying down your life for the ones you love. Jesus lets them know that love is more than warm feelings or good intentions. It is sacrifice. And he is just hours away from showing them how it is done.
Then, I suppose just in case Peter has zoned out again, he says it one more time in verse 17: “This is my command: Love each other.”
It is the culmination of a teaching ministry that audaciously elevated love for people to a higher place of prominence than anyone who came before him.
“Here’s what I command: love like I have loved you. Period. Full stop. That’s not only the first item on the list. It is the list. Love!”
Want to explore further?
- Check out a few other passages in which Jesus elevates the horizontal: Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 6:27-36
- Read all of John 13. Pay attention to the stark contrast between Jesus’ unfailing love and the failures of his disciples.
- Jesus says your primary assignment is to love like he loved us. What is a practical way you can fulfill that assignment today?