“Greater love than this no one holds: that one would set (down) his soul over his dear (friend)s.”
The duty (e)ntolh/) of believers to love one another was presented in verse 12 as a directive, given by Jesus, to his disciples. The verb a)gapa/w (“[show] love”) is in the subjunctive mood, with the force essentially of an imperative (“you should love,” i.e., “you shall/must love”). The wording in v. 12 is virtually identical with the earlier ‘love command’ in 13:34; cf. the discussion in the previous note.
Here in verse 13 Jesus distills the essence of what it means for disciples (believers) to show love for one another—particularly love that follows the example of Jesus himself (“just as I have loved you”). The greatest love—the love that Jesus (the Son) holds and shares with God the Father—is characterized by a willingness to lay down one’s life for others. This point is formulated by the comparative adjective mei/zon (“more, greater”), along with a comparative use of the genitive case (“greater than…”). The specific expression in mei/zona tau/th$ (“greater than this”), with the demonstrative pronoun referring ahead to the statement that follows: “that one would set (down) his soul over his dear (friend)s”. The phrase “set down his soul” is a literal rendering in the Greek; the corresponding idiom in English would be “lay down his life”. In this instance, the subjunctive mood of the verb ti/qhmi indicates volition— “would set (down),” i.e., be willing to set down.
The goal or purpose of this willingness to lay down one’s life is expressed by the final phrase “over his dear (one)s” (u(pe\r tw=n fi/lwn au)tou=). The preposition u(pe/r (“over”) can be understood as essentially meaning “for the sake of, on behalf of”. The expression tw=n fi/lwn au)tou= (“his dear [one]s”) might be more accurately translated “th(ose) dear to him”, i.e., his friends or loved ones. The verbs file/w (“have affection for”) and a)gapa/w (“[show] love”) are, to some degree, interchangeable, and very much so in the Gospel of John.
The verb file/w occurs somewhat more frequently than the noun fi/lo$. Outside of the Vine illustration (vv. 13-15), fi/lo$ occurs just 3 times in the Gospel. In 3:29, John the Baptist refers to himself as a “dear (friend) [fi/lo$] of the bride-groom”, as a way of explaining that he himself is not the Messiah, but only a close friend to the Messiah (Jesus), who stands nearby and listens. In 11:11, Jesus refers to Lazarus as his “dear (friend)”, parallel to the designation of Lazarus in v. 3 as the one whom Jesus loves (“the [one] whom you love [vb file/w]”)—i.e., a close and beloved friend. This has led some commentators to identify Lazarus with the ‘beloved disciple’ mentioned in 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20. Finally, fi/lo$ is used in 19:12, referring to Pilate (in relation to the Emperor), echoing the idea alluded to in 18:33-38, viz., that Pilate represents the kingdom of the world, in opposition to the kingdom of God (and Christ).
As noted above, the verb file/w is largely synonymous with a)gapa/w, being similarly used in reference to the love between Father and Son (5:20; 16:27), and also between the Son and his disciples—11:3, 36; 16:27; 20:2; 21:15-17. The occurrence in the discipleship-saying of Jesus in 12:25 is also relevant to our study here:
“The (one) being fond [filw=n] of his soul loses/destroys it, while the (one) hating his soul in this world will guard it unto (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”
The love believers have for one another characterizes and demonstrates their identity as true disciples of Jesus (13:34-35). Here the noun fi/lo$ specifically designates a fellow disciple/believer. It is important to realize that, in the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters), love is understood almost exclusively in terms of love toward other believers. Virtually nothing is said about love toward non-believers, and this distinguishes the Gospel of John from the Synoptics, which record a number of sayings by Jesus regarding love toward enemies and outsiders, etc. The Johannine writings focus on love between believers, reflecting of the bond of unity between believers, as they/we are united with the Son (and through the Son, with the Father). As previously discussed, to remain in the Son’s love means essentially the same as remaining in the Son himself (cp. verses 4-7 with 9-10).
Such love is demonstrated by a willingness to “set down” one’s soul (i.e., life) “over” one’s fellow believers. The key terms are the verb ti/qhmi (“set, put, place”) and the preposition u(pe/r (“over”). In the next daily note, we will examine the significance of these terms, in relation to the self-sacrifice of Jesus (i.e., his death) as a manifestation of this ideal of love.