In John 13:33-38, we see the continued education of Peter in being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure, and He tells them that they cannot follow Him. So He gives them this command: Love one another as I have loved You.
Jesus just didn’t want 12 disciples who knew His love. He wanted the WHOLE WORLD to know His love. Jesus was soon leaving this earth, so now His disciples needed to love one another, like He loved them. This was God’s plan to reach the entire world: The living examples of disciples loving one another like Jesus loved each of them.
Even though Jesus taught His disciples many things, they were all to point to how He lived: He loved each of His disciples. Jesus was not interested in people who got advanced degrees from analyzing His words. He didn’t eloquent sermons about His love. He needed disciples who very simply loved one another as Jesus loved them.
How do I want to follow Jesus?
But here in this passage, Peter get fooled into a false sense of devotion: He valued his idea of human loyalty over simple obedience to God’s Word. Peter got caught up in his human emotions, that he ignored the clear commandment of Jesus (verses 34-35). Jesus’s disciples were not meant to join Jesus on the cross; they had to live on and show the love of Jesus to others by the way they loved one another.
So while it was humanly nice and touching for Peter to want to follow Jesus, it was a disobedience to Jesus’s request. This human loyalty was the dangerous soil that nurtured Peter’s biggest failure. Peter failed Jesus publicly more than any of the other disciples did, because he was the only one who tried to push through with his human love/loyalty, and try to do more than what Jesus ever asked of Him.
If Peter had simply obeyed Jesus’ command here (to love his fellow disciples), he would have stuck with them and encouraged them in their fear and distress. Instead, he prided himself in fighting for Jesus. And that led to Peter being alone without his fellow disciples, and where he finally denied Jesus even to a servant girl. Peter, who had probably staunchly defended Jesus to his family and maybe even the religious leaders, could not now withstand the simple questions of a servant girl.
So we too must not confuse human loyalty with devotion to Jesus. We can even be eager to die for Him at church, but then give in to our lusts a few hours after church! When this happens, we must recognize that we have a human loyalty to God, and not the sincere and pure devotion to Jesus that honors Him.
So what is the test for true devotion to Jesus? Simple and pure obedience to God and His commandments (1 John 5:2-3). All other ideas of Christian devotion – like how many hours I studied the Bible, how many verses I memorized, how much I gave to the poor, how many people I healed, etc. are dangerously false indicators.
Peter did not see that following Jesus in the way Jesus loved His disciples was far superior to following Jesus physically and trying to offer up his life for Jesus.
This is a common problem for many of us. We too can be eager to copy the physical miracles of Jesus and the apostles. But the message of Jesus is spirit and life (John 6:63). So to follow in Jesus’ footsteps is not to follow in His physical footsteps (being a carpenter, living in Capernaum, or even walking on water). There is NOTHING spiritual in visiting Israel. If it did, the rich would have a clear advantage over the poor.
To follow Jesus is to follow His spiritual footsteps. So if we want to follow Jesus in His heart of devotion to the Father, we strive (like Jesus) to do nothing on our own initiative (John 5:19). And to have a heart that cries out to the Father in helpless dependence to be saved from every last temptation to sin (Hebrews 5:7).
The heroic acts for God may not please Him. God who looks at our motives, can find our heroic acts meaningless because it is done out of self-interest and not out of love. As Paul says, I could “surrender my body to be burned” and it could be useless if I did not have love. And I could “give all my possessions to feed the poor” and it could be useless without love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Is it really true that somebody who died in the name of Jesus, could receive no reward? Yes, if it was done without love! What a tragedy that would be indeed.
Let’s think about this question: Is it possible that a mother who took care of her three children might get a much greater reward than a man who lost his life as a missionary? Absolutely – if the woman had a greater love for God than the man, then she would get a greater reward. Maybe the missionary started out well, but slowly lost his first love for Jesus. He continued on the mission field, but slowly served out of obligation to those who supported him, and for the paycheck that he was too afraid to lose. Such a person might be greatly extolled on this earth. Meanwhile the mother lived her life raising her children to be disciples of Jesus, out of her deep love for the Lord. Such a mother will surely get a much greater reward than this missionary. This is a most sobering thought, but God’s truth nonetheless.
Disciples must grow in true obedience
So we must recognize that there is only one kind of obedience that is meaningful to God in the New Covenant: Obedience out of love. Obedience out of a sense of obligation is the dangerous trap of living life with a set of rules and regulations.
And here is how we can test the quality of our obedience:
Obedience to God’s commands must be valued higher than all our self-sacrificial acts, even if they are for God (1 Samuel 15:22). Martha was wrong in all of her service for Jesus, because she didn’t do the one thing that Mary did – to prioritize listening to Jesus and checking with Him first about what He wants us to work on.
Obedience in the hidden is more impressive than obedience in the visible. There are so many ways where we obey God in our external lives but are secretly motivated by a fear of man, the guilt and shame of being exposed, etc. This was the problem of the Pharisees, and this was why Jesus exhorted them to clean what was inside of them (Matthew 23:25-28; Matthew 12:35)
A “most-of-the-way” obedience where we obey most of God’s commands but not all is most dangerous. The danger with a mostof-the-way obedience is that it can fool us into thinking that we’re fine because we’ve mostly obeyed. Let us learn from King Saul in 1 Samuel 15. The obedience that is pleasing to God is an all-the-way obedience. James 2:10 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
And here’s the really good news about living a life of loving obedience. Jesus is our example in this. He too learned obedience (as a Man) through the temptations He faced and by constantly crucifying His own will (Hebrews 5:7-9). So the Holy Spirit did not automatically impart obedience to Jesus. Obedience through suffering was how Jesus was made “perfect” or complete as a Man.
Jesus was always perfect because He was fully God while on earth. But as One who was also fully Man while on this earth, He was made perfect (complete) through His obedience to the will of the Father in every trial He faced. Every trial caused His own will to suffer at the expense of the Father’s will.
This suffering from His daily temptations is what we need to be enamored with. The physical suffering of Jesus on the cross lasted for less than a day. The suffering that Jesus went through to become the source of eternal salvation for us all (Hebrews 5:9) was of never giving into the temptation to be independent from God (the root of sin). This is what makes Jesus truly magnificent: His obedience to the Father at all times. Without this, Jesus could never die for our sins.
So this will be the distinctive of the true disciples of Jesus. We too will learn obedience as we suffer in temptation, and surrender our will to show our love for our Savior and Example (1 Peter 2:21-22; 1 Peter 4:1-2).