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God’s Love Manifested
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 1: God’s Eternal, Preserving, Renewing Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 19, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: John 15: 1-17
One of the unique features of John’s Gospel is its unusually long Last Supper scene. While the other gospel writers devote less than a chapter to the setting of Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples, John devotes five of his chapters to that occasion. Scholars remind us that by volume, it is arguably the central event of the Fourth Gospel. Our scripture lesson today, John 15:1-17, is taken from that extended Last Supper scene.
Another unique factor of John’s Gospel is its “I am” statements. Seven times in John Jesus reveals something about himself by declaring what he is. “I am the true vine” is the last one of the seven.
Now, the whole idea of the Judeo-Christian religion is based on the connections. God connecting with people, people connecting with God, and people connecting with one another. This, of course, is the basis of the faith community. And this is also at the heart of what the writer of John wants to get across to us with Jesus referring to himself as the Vine and us being the branches. Above everything else, we are to stay connected to him.
Jesus cast three sets of players in this vineyard scene. He is the first and the True Vine. His Father is the second, the Gardner, the Vine grower. And we are the third, branches, intended to bear fruit.
Jesus said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The purpose of this Vine is to produce fruit. As you are aware, there are numerous references to Israel as the vine in the Old Testament, but this vine is always brought forth as a symbol of Israel’s degeneration and not her fruitfulness (see Isaiah 5:1,2,7; Jeremiah 2:21).
So God came looking for justice and righteousness, but what He found was oppression, cruelty, exploitation and indifference to the needs of others. Then God sent Jesus – the True Vine in whom “God is well pleased.” It is evident that what God expects of the branches is character – Christ likeness. As Paul stated it, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
How does this Christ-likeness take place in the disciples? It develops as we remain or abide in Christ. “Abide in me and I abide in you” (John 15:4), Jesus said.
Note here that Jesus divides this passage into two sections. There is an activity to be done, and a passivity that is to be acknowledged. First Jesus is talking about our wills, the decisions we make. We must decide to do things that will keep us in touch with Him. Believing in Jesus as Son of God and Savior, we commit ourselves to Him as Savior and Lord of our lives. It is something we do!
Second, we are to allow Christ to remain in us. This has to do with encouragement and enablement. We make choices, but we cannot fulfill them. Though we are responsible for making the choices, we are not responsible for the necessary power to carry them out. Here, we are to depend on Him, to let Him abide in us.
When we decide to love and forgive and rejoice and give thanks, where do we get the strength and the power to do it? We get the power and strength through Him (Philippians 4:13).
Now, the ultimate emphasis of this fruit bearing is upon the glory of God! Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). God hasn’t put us here for mediocrity, but for a life of abundant fruitfulness. Simply stated, the purpose of every life is to glorify God.
So what is the anticipated outcome of Christ living in us? Love! Love is the fruit of the Spirit! In fact, it is the chief fruit, for “the greatest of these is love.”
Moving into the heart of the rest of our scripture lesson, Jesus said, “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9,12).
For the rest of this lesson, we want to examine the role of love in human life and explore how God’s love empowers and changes human love.
What’s a cubit?
Scholars tell us that a cubit was an old unit of measurement. Before human beings had standardized units – like inches, yards, meters and such – they used what they had at hand. Literally, in order to measure things, people used parts of their bodies. For instance, the “span” represented the distance from the thumb to the little finger of an open hand. The foot was a foot. And the cubit was the distance from the top of the middle finger to the point of the elbow.
Modern translations of the term, cubit, reckon it to be 18 inches long, but it really depends on who’s doing the measuring. You see, its length depends on whose arm is being used.
So we are told that a cubit makes a rather variable unit of measure. If a cubit is our standard, it makes a great deal of difference whose cubit you’re using. And when it comes to love, the disciples were introduced to a new cubit.
The standard standard
Generally speaking, human beings operate with a certain predictable standard when it comes to loving other people. Scholars remind us that it is a natural reflex, though not a very commendable standard. The idea is that we love others the way that others love us.
Therefore, love begins as a responsive thing. As we know, a baby is not born loving. Through the years, we have heard sad stories about how babies who were not given adequate personal attention and love during their first years actually lost their capacity to receive and express love. That part of themselves was never fully developed. So it seems that we have to be loved by others in order to learn how to love others.
And so love begins as a responsive thing. Our parents love us from the beginning, and then we learn how to love from them. We love in our response. For good or ill, we tend to learn how to love based on the love that we have received, which may have been beautiful or dysfunctional, conditional or free.
At any rate, that kind of responsive love can continue into our behavior both as children and adolescents. We just keep loving in response. We love people who love us. On the other hand, we dislike the people who dislike us. Thus, we live and we love in response to how were treated. That is our natural bent.
But what about adulthood? As adults, we do not automatically grow out of that style of love. Jesus mentioned this pattern in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46). We are reminded that it is our natural inclination, and it can spell doom for many of our relationships.
For a moment, consider strangers or even circumstantial enemies. This childish kind of love will be disinclined to take any kind of initiative whatsoever. No love will form in numerous relationships if our love is only a response to the other person’s love.
Then there are our close relationships. This pattern of love can be most devastating in those relationships. The relationship gets off to a fantastic beginning, loving the other as the other loves us. In a marriage, the husband and wife are simply enthralled with each other, loving each other in response. But what happens when something interferes, like a conflict or some accidental hurt? He spends more time at the office or she is more tired? Each partner feels the slight of the other and that “love in response” cycle that worked so well at first becomes a painful downward cycle for them.
Consequently, we are reminded that our standard standard is a product of our infancy. We learn to love in response to the people who are loving us. But our need is to grow out of that childish love.
The new cubit
Scholars point out that in contrast to the natural human instinct, God’s love proposes a new standard for love. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This new standard was revolutionary, and Jesus later called it the second greatest of all the commandments (Mark 12:31). Instead of my loving you in response to how you love me, I am now challenged to reach a higher standard. Let me seek to love you as I love myself.
Now, this sort of love does not abandon our fallen human nature, but it does move it forward. In our sinful state, we may not know much about true love but we do know about self-interest. For the most part, we do know how to take care of ourselves, guard our feelings, watch out for our own best interests and such. And so with this still higher standard, I will apply that same set of caring skills to you. I will carefully try to guard your feelings and seek your best interest as zealously as I do my own.
According to scholars, that’s a high standard. The Old Testament law has given me a better, fairer, cubit. Instead of measuring my love for you constantly by your love for me, I will now measure it by my love for myself. That will pretty well guarantee that I love you rather well.
But then, on the night that He was betrayed, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That’s a higher standard, still. At this point, we begin using Jesus’ cubit!
What is Jesus’ cubit? “Since grace is everything Jesus” according to Max Lucado, this definition of grace may help us in understanding Jesus’ cubit. I shared it this morning in a sermon. Grace is utter generosity, unselfish, spontaneous, reckless generosity that acts in another’s behalf regardless of whether they are worthy or not.
Jesus’ cubit for love is self-sacrifice. It is the initiation of a relationship that risks rejection and includes endless forgiveness.
To be sure, we don’t need to be reminded that Jesus’ cubit presents a daunting standard. However, as the scholars have suggested, it is completely natural. Our natural instinct is to love in response, but Jesus redirects to whom we are responding. Rather than loving you in response as to how you love me. I am invited to love you in response to how Jesus has loved me. And that’s true for all of us!
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- What enables Jesus’ followers to stay connected to Him?
- Ask the class to discuss the three cubits mentioned in the lesson.
- Invite class members to give examples of how keeping God’s commandment to love brings them great joy.