In the little book, The Mark of a Christian, by the inestimable Francis Schaeffer, we are reminded that for centuries Christians have sought to put forward symbols testifying to their relationship with Jesus Christ. Specifically, he writes:
Through the centuries men have displayed many different symbols to show that they are Christians. They have worn marks in the lapels of their coats, hung chains about their necks, even had special haircuts.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of this, if one feels it is his calling. But there is a much better sign — a mark that has not been thought up just as a matter of expediency for use on some special occasion or in some specific era. It is a universal mark that is to last through all the ages of the church till Jesus comes back.
What is this mark?
And therein is the defining question. What is this mark? I have made the case that the defining words of the entire Bible may well be found in 1 John 4:19, where the Apostle John writes, “We love because [God] first loved us.” We have established the power of the final part of that sentence, the cause of any action we pursue. Any love we give is because God has first loved us—he is the source of our love, the spiritual sap from which our spiritual fruit comes. Anything great in our lives, particularly love, is because God is love (1 John 4:8). We receive love from him.
But then we are to give it away, and this is the mark of which Schaeffer writes. Consider Schaeffer’s next thought:
At the close of his ministry, Jesus looks forward to his death on the cross, the open tomb and the ascension. Knowing that he is about to leave, Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come. It is here that he makes clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian:
My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:33-35)
This passage reveals the mark that Jesus gives to label a Christian not just in one era or in one locality but at all times and all places until Jesus returns.
The defining mark of the Christian is that we love one another. Period.
We see this affirmed in some important ways in the New Testament. Jesus, in Matthew 22:34-40, remarks that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our being and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. He exclaims that “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). Significantly, Jesus’ brother James, in James 2:8, pens, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” Of course, the Apostle Paul underscores the vital place of love in the oft-heard verses of 1 Corinthians 13:1 and following, climaxing his argument with the declaration, “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Notice the kind of language that is used: greatest commandments . . . royal law . . . greatest of these. Love is the defining mark of the disciple of Jesus. Certainly it is noteworthy that important things like worship or instruction or fellowship or evangelism are not put forward with such prominence. Indeed, these things, and many others like them, merely flow from a mature love relationship with God and one’s neighbor. It cannot be said, therefore, that discipleship is about teaching or missions or worship. Do not misunderstand! These are important, and have a place in the entire construct of helping the spiritually hungry. But they are always secondary to love.
Jesus offers a profoundly helpful key to loving well. He says it simply in John 13:34: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. This, of course, is the “cause” factor that we find embedded in 1 John 4:19, but with his very life Jesus makes this more tangible. If we are to love as Jesus has we should glimpse at how Jesus has loved. And what we can observe readily is that on a spectrum of giving away something of ourselves, Jesus was not sentimental, which is one extreme, nor was he self-righteous, which is the other extreme. To be sentimental would suggest he was just a nice guy who was kind-hearted, kind of like being Minnesota Nice with long hair and dusty sandals. To be self-righteous would suggest that he was, frankly, condescending, always patronizing, thinking of himself as more spiritually mature than everyone else. Both of these can look loving, using lots of spiritual language and touches, but they fall short. Neither costs anything. The love Jesus offers was costly. He showed the Father’s love by submission to his Father, surrender of his own rights and comforts, and sacrifice of his own life. These get us rather close to understanding the nature of genuine love, the kind of love we are to manifest.
And should we live by submission to our Father, surrender our own rights and comforts, and own a spirit of self-sacrifice, then we do something that is utterly missional, to use a common cliché in today’s evangelical environment—we present Jesus, the “sent” one, to a watching world. Bible studies and worship services and mission trips and small groups and big checks cannot do that, unless, of course, they are mere vehicles for . . . love.
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding material is from the message “The Mark of a Christian,” part three of the sermon series entitled, “Follow Me,” a study on being a disciple who makes disciples, presented on the weekend of October 5, 2014, at Bethel Church.