Love Ethic in John

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What is new in both the Gospel and the epistles is the primacy Jesus gives to the command to love one another as the Father loves Jesus and Jesus loves the Father. In the TBC entry, “Love,” for John 21, the statistical analysis showed that words from the agap- stem occur 96 times in the Gospel and the epistles, and the verb phileō verb occurs 13 times in the Gospel. Put together, the Greek words for love in John and 1–3 John thus occur a total of 109 times, representing over 10 percent of the occurrences of love in the entire Bible (in the NRSV), even though the OT abounds with descriptions of God’s loving nature and activity.

As noted in the introduction to my commentary, several scholars have judged John as sectarian, intra-community oriented. Their dismissal of John on the basis that it does not provide any viable love ethic (cf., e.g., Schrage and Meeks), does not do justice to the Gospel. Because this Gospel speaks of love far more than any other Gospel, such a predisposed discount of love in John is unjustified. More, it is evidence of a negative moral bias regarding the Gospel. Käsemann’s dismissal is lamentable: “The object of Christian love for John is only what belongs to the community under the Word, or what is elected to belong to it, that is, the brotherhood of Jesus” (1968: 65). This dismissal reflects the assumption that an “ethic”—to be called such—must address directly such world issues as politics, economics, and culture. The notion that the new community of the Gospel, characterized by a distinctive love-ethic, is relevant to these world-issues escapes consideration. Unfortunately, Käsemann’s own weak ecclesiastic prevented him from understanding—let alone appreciating—John’s substantial ethical message.

Two articles in the volume edited by Painter, Culpepper, and Segovia (2002) open a path to a needed corrective. The first by Culpepper on “Inclusivism and Exclusivism” (85–108) corrects the misperception that John is only sectarian and exclusivist. While such elements do appear, a strong thread of social and theological inclusivism pervades the Gospel (note, e.g., the prominent role of women, one a Samaritan, and God’s love for the world, which includes “other sheep not of this fold”): “The exclusiveness of the gospel of John is therefore balanced by an inclusiveness that sets the revelatory and redemptive work of Jesus in the mystery of God’s love for the world” (105).

D. Moody Smith directly addresses the issue of the nature of John’s ethic. Smith recounts the negative arguments (110) against a love ethic that reaches beyond the proposed sectarian in-group and a different view:

John . . . distills out of his message the one ethical commandment to love one another (13:34)—not just your neighbor, but also not your enemy. Yet the commandment to love one another is capacious, capable of infinite expansion, so as to include all humanity. . . . The synoptic Jesus’ command to love your enemy (Mt. 5:44) is not contradicted. (111)

Schnelle’s theological exposition (2009: 726–34) exposits John’s ethic similarly, noting especially that Jesus’ love commandment is twinned with his deed of footwashing, which together, provide “normative content of the loving service the disciples are to do” (734). Rensberger’s contribution exposits this love ethic as a valued form of sectarianism that has the capacity to critique and transform the world’s hatred and indifference, thus witnessing to the world the costly love of God for the world, manifest in the Son on the cross. John’s love ethic combined with its strong emphasis on mission and peace may be the best hope for transformation of the world’s ways into the ways of the Father and Son, who in self-donation have given and give themselves for the life of the world!

See also “Ethics of the Gospel” in “Introduction” and commentary on John 13:31-35 with its TLC “Love for One Another; for 15:9-15, TBC “Commandments in John” and TLC “Life on the Vine, Living Love;” for 21:15-23, TBC “Love” and TLC “Love and Ministry.”


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  • Barton, Stephen C. “Johannine Dualism and Contemporary Pluralism.” In The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, ed. Bauckham and Mosser, 3–18. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
  • Chennattu, Rekha M. Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2006.
  • Donahue, John. “Who Is My Enemy? The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Love of Enemies.” In Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament, ed. Willard M. Swartley, 137–56. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
  • Ferguson, John. The Politics of Love: The New Testament and Nonviolent Revolution. Cambridge: James Clarke; Nyack, NY: Fellowship; Greenwood, SC: Attic, 1973.
  • Furnish, Victor Paul. The Love Command in the New Testament, rev. ed. Nashville: Abingdon, 1972.
  • Howard-Brook, Wes. Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994.
  • Meeks, Wayne A. “The Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist.” In Exploring the Gospel of John, ed. Culpepper, R. Alan, and C. Clifton Black, 317–26. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
  • Segovia, Fernando F. “The Love and Hatred of Jesus and Johannine Sectarianism.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981): 258–72.
  • _____. Love Relationships in the Johannine Tradition: Agapē/Agapan in I John and the Fourth Gospel. SBLDS 58. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.
  • Swartley, Willard M. Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
  • _____., ed. The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
  • _____., ed. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Pandora US; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
  • Van der Watt, Jan G. “Ethics and Ethos in the Gospel of John.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 97/3–4 (2006): 147–76.

Willard M. Swartley