The first time the word church is mentioned in the New Testament, it comes from the lips of Jesus. To a ragtag band of Apostles, He declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). With these words, Jesus set a course to change the world. The twentieth-century scholar Alfred North Whitehead once suggested that the development of Western thought is a series of footnotes on Plato. While the prominence of the famous Greek philosopher is undeniable, Jesus’ assertion is even more far-reaching. The entire history of the world is an unpacking of Jesus’ claim to build His church in hostile territory.
Several observations about Jesus’ comments are worth considering. First, Jesus promised to build His church. At its most basic level, the church represents a gathering of blood-bought sinners who belong to Jesus. Second, the building of the church is God’s plan, crystallized in the Great Commission, for the salvation of His people throughout history and around the world. Third, the church will exist amid unthinkable wickedness both inside and outside her boundaries. Yet no power of darkness—heresy or hellion, death or division, sin or Satan—will be able ultimately to overtake her. The final victory has already been secured for Christ’s church in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Given that Jesus is the owner, builder, and defender of the church, followers of Christ are left with a fundamental question: What should be the distinguishing mark of Christians when they gather together to worship the triune God, carry out the work of everyday ministry activities, and engage in the rigors of apologetics and evangelism? Stated succinctly, How shall we then live as Christ’s church?
One answer may be found in the Upper Room Discourse in the gospel of John. On the heels of Judas’ exit to betray Him, Jesus offers a parting exhortation to His frazzled disciples in order to prepare them for His crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). To overcome a world vandalized by betrayal and death, Jesus directs His followers to love each other.
At first blush, Jesus’ call to love may ring hollow. In our day, love is pervasive but impotent. Sadly, many think of love in terms of self-gratification rather than self-sacrifice. For them, love is only a feeling that must be coddled and accommodated. As a result, love in our culture is a commodity to be used, not a commitment to be cultivated. For Christ, however, love is more than whimsical palpitations.
In one sense, there is nothing new about Jesus’ command. As early as Leviticus 19:18, God’s people were instructed to love their neighbors. What is new is not the principle but the paradigm. We are to love each other, Jesus says, “just as I have loved you.” The sacrificial love of Christ displayed on the cross is the standard by which we are to love one another. This does not mean that we must literally be crucified to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. But it does mean that we must consider their interests above our own (Phil. 2:3–8). To the extent that Christ-centered love defines our churches, the watching world will measure the credibility of our witness. Not only that, Jesus further states that the world will judge the truthfulness of the gospel based upon our love for one another (John 17:20–23).
If Jesus’ new command encapsulates our marching orders, then the opposite of His words is also true. Our failure to love will have a direct impact on our congregations. If we do not show each other the love of Christ, the world will not know that we are His disciples, and, even more sobering, they will not know the love of God in the gospel. As the late Francis Schaeffer rightly argued, observable, Christlike love is the final apologetic. If we speak in the tongues of men and apologists, but have not love, our churches will sound like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Cor. 13:1). Without the love of Christ, why should the world listen to the church’s witness?
Love is the great mark of the church. Our love for one another demonstrates that we are Christ’s disciples and displays to the world the love of God in Christ. While the Christian faith is objectively true regardless of how well we follow Christ’s command, we should remember that the world often measures the truth claims of Christianity against the lives of professing Christians. When we fail to love (and we will), we must also remember that Christ does not build His church because of us but despite us and even through us. The great testimony of the church is that “God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). If that is true (and it is), perhaps a better question for us to ask is, How shall we then love?