Jesus’ prime commandment was love. Only hours before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, he told his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” He not only made the command but modeled it: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34). We look to the cross, and rightly so, for the ultimate display of this love. Yet Jesus also fleshed out this command in his friendships. Prior to the Lazarus story John intentionally notes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Because of this love, John continues, Jesus waited until Lazarus died then took his disciples to see the grieving sisters. In the process he modeled at least three expressions of love.
1. Love speaks God’s truth.
When Jesus made his way to Lazarus’ funeral he first encountered Martha, who seemed stoic enough to engage in theological discourse at her own brother’s funeral. When Jesus promised her, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23), she affirmed the Jewish belief in an end-times resurrection: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). To this Jesus spoke a clarifying and greater truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). His next words confirm that speaking God’s truth is indeed an expression of love. He asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” knowing that she would not benefit from these truths apart from trust in Jesus himself.
2. Love empathizes.
Next Jesus encountered Martha’s tearful, distraught sister Mary, who echoed her sister’s sentiment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21, 32). In this episode Jesus said very little. There was no theological clarification, only compassion. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John11:33). The word we use for this is empathy. Unlike sympathy, which acknowledges and understands the painful emotion, empathy is the willful entrance into that pain. Because Mary wept, Jesus wept. Love empathizes.
3. Love acts.
Lazarus’ death was a problem. It represented a departure from God’s original design of life and harmony, and thus Jesus was not content to simply speak truth and feel emotions about life and death. He did something about it. He gave the mourners a heads up that they were about to see the glory of God, prayed to his Father, then acted. “He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43–44).
When our love weaves speaking God’s truth, empathy, and action, it becomes durable and strong. Of course, it is the weaving of these three together that demands great wisdom. Imagine a friend grieving over a miscarriage or the loss of a job or the discovery of a chronic illness. When do you open up God’s word and speak God’s promises? When do you sit silently, absorb the news, and join in the tears? When do you offer to do something that can address the problem? The order of operations can make the difference between interactions that compound the pain from those that bring healing.
A good place to start is by humbly asking. We ask God for wisdom, for patience, and for the empowerment of his Spirit to love well. We acknowledge our role as agents of his grace and conduits of his power to save. Then we ask the person what they need and how we can serve them. Such humble asking keeps us in our role as servants and keeps Jesus in his role as Savior.
Love, Jesus told us, is how people will know that we are his disciples (John 13:35). As we continue to experience Jesus truth-speaking, empathy, and action toward us, may we engage in loving others in the same way.