© 2006 Edgar E. Thomas
Laying down one’s life
What exactly did Jesus mean when he said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” ? (Jn 15:13) 1 Perhaps it wouldn’t injure anyone’s good sense to conclude that he meant dying in someone else’s place, since that is exactly what Jesus himself eventually did. He died in our place, but He hadn’t yet done that when He spoke these words.
Nevertheless, that meaning of the text seems inescapable. It would be illogical to see it otherwise, wouldn’t it? So, in that case, why go any further into it? For at least two reasons.
A troubling standard
First, it is troubling that the standard of this Greatest Love may have been laid down in a way that the vast majority of us will never be given an opportunity to be tested by it. Circumstances that would examine my love under that condition, that is of dying in someone else’s’ place, are unlikely to ever develop. Let alone, for multiple people (remember He said “. . . lay down his life for his friends”). Under this setting I have little chance, in my lifetime, of ever showing this Greatest Love. Under what set of conditions would this opportunity arise? And even if it should happen that the opportunity does arise, and I respond by giving my life, I can only do it once and not on and going basis.
Someone might argue that something like a parent’s willingness to trade places with a child who is dying of some terrible disease would satisfy the requirement. But it can also be argued that willingness doesn’t replace the actual doing of it. ‘round and ‘round we’d go on that one. Such arguments as that notwithstanding, and granting our original interpretation of actually dying in place of someone, is there some other possible meaning?
In the second place, the English word ‘life’ has a number of alternate meanings. We obviously speak of life in the sense of our physical life, the life of our body, but we also think of it in terms of our “way”, or “manner” of life. And we say things like, “love life, prayer life, home life”, “bigger than life”, and so on. We write biographies tracing the course of one’s life. Additionally, we use phrases like, “life of the party”, and “the investigation took on a life of its own”. We can add to those such phrases as “he was lifeless”, not meaning dead, but listless, lacking energy. What is meant by “life” must be cleared up.
The meaning of “life”
In English we have one word, life, which has many meanings and nuances—that is, shades of meanings. We arrive at the intended meaning by seeing or hearing how the word is used. (That is what is meant by context.) In the Greek language of our Bible there are a number of words that are translated to the single English word, life. There are at least four Greek words translated “life” in our English Bibles. Of these, three are most frequently used2. They are:
1. Bios. Referring to duration, means, and manner of life. Examples of its use are in Mk 12:44 and Lk 8:14. Our English words beginning with bio find their root here, in bios.
2. Zōē. Meaning to live; life in the main. Generally, physical life and existence as opposed to death and non-existence. In the New Testament it is also often taken to mean full and intensive life, as God has it. In English we get from it zoology, the study of animal life. It is used in Jn 1:4, Lk 16:25 and other verses.
3. Psuche. —pronounce it sukee— Literally, to breathe; blow. Generally used of the soul, the immaterial part of man. Psuche, in an important sense, is self—the seat of the mind and emotions; our self-will. Here is where we get our words psyche and psychology. Examples of its use are in Mt:10:28, He 4:12, Jn 15:13, and others.
Another is “helikia” found in Lk 12:25 and it means adulthood, or maturity. We are going to be most concerned with psuche, which is translated both as ‘soul’ (as in Mt 10:28) and as ‘life’ in our text, Jn 15:13.
Life is more than the body
If you were following closely, you now know that ‘life’ in Jn 15:13 is psuche. Let’s see how that might aid us in our examination. Looking again our text, we can see it like this: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his psuche for his friends.” Psuche, not zōē or Bios or some other word. Now, in the word psuche, we have evidence to explore.
To lay down one’s psuche-life (the immaterial part of life) can be seen as to forfeit one’s dreams, aspirations, wants, or even needs in favor of someone else. To put our self-will on the back burner, so to say. In other words, to sacrifice self; to give up the desires of the soul. Now, the word “love” in our text, John 15:13, is agape, a sacrificial love; love by doing; love in action. It is the love we are commanded to have in the verse just preceding John 15:13. See them together: “Here is my command. Love each other, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:12,13). Take note of the past tense when Jesus says, “as I have loved you” in verse 12. Jesus is commanding a love that mimics his own, but He has not yet given up his physical life. It (agape) is a kind of love that one can be commanded to show to others. It is a love one can decide to demonstrate without necessarily having feel love in the same sense that one loves their spouse or children. It is a choice one makes. That choice, to show agape-love, can be made even to benefit someone you never even met, such as a hurricane victim you come to the aid of. Jesus made that choice daily and continually, in a laying down his psuche-life throughout his ministry as recorded in the gospels. Eugene H. Peterson translates John 15:12,13 this way in The Message: “Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put you life on the line for your friends.”
Jesus’ self denial
Consider Jesus’ life style. He had no wife and family, no house of his own, no change of clothes, no method of transportation beyond his feet. He earned no money. He took no vacation from his intensive ministry. He was plotted against, and killed illegally, but didn’t revile or complain. In fact, he forgave. Whatever things his human side may have yearned for, he forfeited. He chose to put all of us first. He is the prime example of sacrificial love—agape—not just in his death, but importantly, in his life. Those things which Jesus didn’t have, and which we do have, are very often considered by us to be very important. Even indispensable.
Imitating Jesus’ life
Without demeaning those who have been martyred for the Faith, and while it may be praiseworthy that one would die for someone else (Paul believed that was an unlikely thing to happen; see Ro 5:7), I believe it is Jesus’ life we are expected to imitate, not his death. Before Jesus gave his physical life for us, he demonstrated to us the sacrificing of one’s self-life (psuche). He gave up his zōē-life for us, but first he gave up his psuche-life for us. He set for us the example of a life given up—that is, lived–for others.
If your not on board with me yet on how I read life, or psuche in john 15:13, here is another way of looking at it. Psuche is immaterial as opposed to material, self as opposed to body. It is who you are, as opposed to the body you live in. Let’s get some clarity from Mt 10:28. “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul (psuche); but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul (psuche) and body3 in hell.” Here, psuche obviously doesn’t mean physical life. Both your body, physical life, and the soul, your “self-life”, are distinguished as separate. They are not the same.
Jesus demonstrated the giving up of “self” in the choices he made. No less is expected of us. I believe that in John 15:13 Jesus said you can show no greater love for others than to live as he lived, sacrificing yourself. In so doing we may not only show love for others, but also begin to fulfill the prime commandment to love our God with all our heart, soul (the word here is psuche), and strength (Lk 10:27).
Seeing John 15:13 is this way may also shed some light on how we can heed the warning that, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me (Mk 8:34, emphasis is added). This remark by Jesus is important enough to appear twice in Matthew and to be found in each gospel book. Whatever it means to “pick up your cross”, it must be voluntary. It simply can’t be any, or all of the various hardships we face, but which we cannot choose not to face. The very next verse, Mk 8:35, puts the phrase, “Let him deny himself”, into context: “For whoever wishes to save his life (psuche) shall lose it; but whoever loses his life (psuche) for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it” The object? Deny one’s life, that is, lose yourself for Jesus and the gospel and you will save it. And we can show no greater love than that.
A final scripture on life: He who loves is life (psuche) will lose it, and he who hates is life (psuche) in this world will keep it for eternal life (zōē), John 12:25. Two different kinds of life are indicated in this passage, but in the English translation that is certainly not clear.
Seeing this, let us seek to say no to ourselves and to take up the cross of agape-love. In short, let us in dying to self and living for Christ, seek to show the Greater Love and lay down our lives for each other.
Yielding to the Holy Spirit
A final word of caution must be added. We must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Our work of Greater Love must spring out of our spirituality. It must come from our relationship with Jesus, being powered by the Holy Spirit. We can’t power it ourselves, putting the cart before the horse, and generate spirituality by trying hard to show the Greater Love. It isn’t in us. It is in Him. He must do it through us, using our mind and body as if they were his own. But first, we must agree to be used. We must yield to Him. We must say no to ourselves and pick up the cross of submission. It will be a hard road to travel on our own steam—even impossible. But this is the gospel, the good news: we don’t have to do it on our own. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-30) When you yoke yourself to Jesus he will do the work of Greater Love, and to the outside world it will appear as if you are doing it.
Who is in control?
Just so, it appears to us that the “world” is doing evil. But the reality is that its their father, Satan, doing it through them. It is a question of who is in control. “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Ro 6:16) There is no offering of middle ground here: obedience is to either one or the other leading to either death or life (righteousness is used here as the opposite of death). And its not a question of whether one ever sins at all, but of whether one is under the control of what Paul calls the law of sin (Ro 8:2).
The paradox is that to have life we must give it up. We give our lives to the Christ. To Jesus and the gospel. In so doing He can live out his life through us, His body on earth. We can then, in His power, labor to reach His goals and objectives rather than our own.4
1. Scripture is quoted from the NASB
2. Definitions of the Greek words are condensed compilations derived by comparing the following:
A. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates, editor, AMG International, Revised 1993. Chattanooga, TN.
B. A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament, W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gengrich, 1957, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
C. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, W.E. Vine, et al, 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, NY.
D. The New Bible Dictionary, J.D. Douglas, editor, 1962, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
3. Body, soma. Generally of any material body, the antithesis of psuche. Note first Thessalonians 5:23 where the complete person consists of spirit (pneuma), soul (psuche) and body (soma).
A. Col 3:23 “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men;” (emphasis mine). In the NIV the emphasized part reads, “work at it with all your heart.” The phrase emphasized comes from the two words ek psuche where the ek denotes “out of”, or “from”, and we have seen what psuche means. Literally, the passage means “bring your whole soul to it”. Clearly, I think, psuche can’t be construed to be talking about your physical, or bodily life. Translators in all versions agree, or they wouldn’t translate it as “heartily,” and with similar phrases.
B. Lest you think I have overlooked the context of our main text, John 15:13, Let’s consider it. Jesus is in the midst of long address to His disciples. He has reached a point, in chapter 15, where He is explaining the relationship between Himself and is friends. In verse 12 He gives a commandment to love each other “as I have loved you.” (note the past tense and that He hasn’t yet given His life.) In verse 14 He says that you are My friends if you do what I command you.” What did He command? In the immediate context it was to lay down one’s life for his friends. In the larger context He said “abide in me”, and “abide in My love.” (15: 6,9) He spoke of keeping His word (v. 14:23), and said that “He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (14:24). Chapters 14 and 15 (note especially vs14:15) consistently harmonize love with obedience and friendship. This crescendos to the amazing statement that the greater love, the ultimate love one might say, is to give your life for your friends. In context this has nothing to do with dying, and everything to do with an ongoing demonstration of love. Paul emphasized it in 1 Cor 13:13, “But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” One can hardly live (abide) in love if one is dead.
None of this, of course, denies the love shown by someone who actually does literally give his life for someone else. It does happen. Especially in situations where one is trying to save the life of another who is in some mortal danger. But these kinds of examples notwithstanding, it wasn’t the kind of thing that Jesus was talking about.
An example of zoe. Ephesians 4:18. The word ‘life’ is this passage is translated from zoe. Notice that in its context it refers to the life of God.