By Rob Beames
Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). It’s difficult to read those words without feeling the sharp pangs of guilt. We know we love Jesus, and yet, we know deep inside that we don’t obey His commands all of the time. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we would probably have to admit that we don’t even obey all that often. We can hear the accusations of our “old selves” using the cold logic of a mathematical theorem: We don’t obey like we should, therefore we don’t truly love Him, and so that means… Well, we can’t bear to finish that thought. It leads us to a place we don’t want to return. Our doubts have taken us there too many times.
But these words don’t have to cut so deeply. They don’t have to crush our view of our new self in Christ and destroy our trust in a completely reconciled relationship with God. What kind of effect did Jesus want them to have on us? Is it actually possible to read this verse, and be encouraged, rather than feeling like we just heard the rooster crow three times? If we consider this verse in context and in the Greek language, it’s highly possible that Jesus meant these words to be more than just a warning to us.
In the Greek, John 14:15 could be classified as a third-class condition, so that the statement “you will obey My commands” happens only when the condition “if you love Me” is actually met. It’s like saying, “If you love Me—and I know that you do—don’t worry, you’re going to eventually obey My commands.” This removes the manipulative parental overtone. However, we should be cautious in placing too much weight on the nuances of the original languages alone. So let’s look at the context too. John 14:15 is preceded and followed by more conditional clauses: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (14:23), “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (15:10), and “You are my friends, if you do what I command” (15:14). It’s almost as if there is an emphasis on them. But if we only attend to the conditional clauses in this passage, we can easily miss the entire message Jesus wanted to convey.
After Jesus says, “If you love me,” He tells His disciples immediately that He will give them another Comforter, a Helper, to be with them forever. Later Jesus explains that He is telling them these things so that His joy will be in them, and their joy will be complete (15:11). So, before telling His disciples that they will be His friends if they do certain things, He reminds them of the great love they are about to be shown when He lays down His life for them. There was absolutely no condition attached to this selfless act of love. He doesn’t say, “I’m going to do this for you if you obey.” No, He simply tells them this will be done for them because they are His friends. It’s almost like He is saying, “Hey, when you find yourselves obeying Me you should really be happy, because it proves that you are friends of Mine.”
Fortunately for us, there are even more unconditional statements in these two chapters to balance out the conditional ones. Perhaps the most encouraging statement is actually in the form of a promise. John 15:16 says that the disciples “did not chose Him, but He chose them, not only to bear fruit, but fruit that will last.” Paul further defines this fruit to the Church at Philippi as “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:11), and encourages them that he is “confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). These verses imply that God doesn’t give us a task only to watch us fail.
It’s important to note that only 12 verses after our initial condition at John 14:15, Jesus explains exactly how He wants His disciples to feel by saying, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you…do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (verse 27). He apparently doesn’t want them to be troubled about what will happen to them, or even how well they will obey His commands. He is sending them the Holy Spirit to give them peace, so they don’t have to worry. They can have peace knowing that He will accomplish in them what He set out to do. These conditional statements in John are meant to encourage us today too, not to load us down with guilt.
It’s important not to isolate those 10 words and get only part of the message. Neither should we ignore what they clearly say. Our responsibility to obey Christ remains; the command to bear fruit is always before us. However, we also have the opportunity to rest in the peace He freely offers us though faith in Him. God’s powerful Spirit has been given to us to ensure we can obey and bear lasting fruit—as His friends. Perhaps if we would focus more on the intimate friendship we now have with Him—regardless of our performance—we may be surprised at how obedient His Spirit will eventually cause us to become. (I believe He wanted me to remind you of this.)