Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
When Jesus told his disciples “No greater love has any man … ” they may have thought he was talking about them, something they should do. This was Passover, so it was a good time for wise words and remembering important truths.
We sometimes hear this verse out of context and do the same thing. We think maybe it’s a proverb about the importance of choosing your friends well. But these weren’t just words of wisdom to memorize and call to mind later. These were words they were going to need to understand right away. These were words about the magnitude of the gift of a laid-down life.
The Seder dinner of Passover always included the story of the preparation for the rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. But if this was a Seder dinner they were having, Jesus was off script. Instead of recounting the rescue of their forefathers, he was preparing his own disciples for another rescue – their own rescue from sin.
He was telling them about himself. He was proclaiming how much he loved them and promising to prove it by the most important act of generosity in history.
He was chosen to trade his life for ours
The truth is, Jesus’ great act of generosity began before history. Before the creation of the world, the Father, the Creator and Ruler of everything demonstrated his own radical generosity by giving us the only thing he had just one of – his Son. God chose his Son, who knew no sin, to become sin for us. And so our Messiah was born on earth.
Jesus’ life was laid down from the beginning. In full submission to the Father, his generosity was one seamless act that began before he came to earth and would be consummated on the cross. Only hours after this last supper with his disciples, this great act of generosity would be complete. He told them in plain words as they walked up the road to Jerusalem:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
Jesus knew what would happen when he entered Jerusalem, and he went anyway, laying his life down again. He knew what he was doing. His life wasn’t taken from him. (Something that is taken from you is not a gift to the taker, or to anyone else.) He was handing it over.
This is what you do with a gift.
He poured himself out
Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
– Philippians 2:5-11
Theologians wrestle with the word “emptied” found in Philippians 2:7. They call it the “kenosis.” The Greek word for what happened in our Savior’s incarnation – kenoo – means “to be emptied” or “poured out,” or “to render void.” It can mean “to be perceived as valueless” or “be without recognition,” which is likely why the King James translation says Jesus made himself “of no reputation.”
John Piper describes the Philippians passage as a series of descending steps. Even though he was with God and was God in heaven, he came down to earth and refused to use his equality with God as grounds for getting anything for himself. Though he is a king, he chose to lower himself, taking the form of a servant.
Though he had all the wealth of heaven, the Bible says he became poor to make us rich. Jesus had all the glory of heaven, yet in his love for us, he made a selfless choice.
He emptied himself to live in flesh, “made in the likeness of men,” so he could conquer the power of death over us and be our high priest. And finding himself in the form of man, though he is God, he humbled himself, in complete obedience to the Father.
But the lengths Jesus went to in order to rescue us and give us the gift of abundant life didn’t stop there.
Though Jesus never sinned, he knew what it was to be tempted by it. He learned what it was to suffer in it. And then he died in flesh like we do, so we would never experience the punishment our sin deserves.
Then he laid down his life as a ransom
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
– 1 John 2:2
“Propitiation” is another word we can wrestle with. Some newer translations have abandoned it. It shows God as too wrathful, some say. But there it is in the letter from the Gospel author most known for talking about love. The Bible says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and we all deserve death because of it. The Bible also tells us that Jesus took all of that wrath, our death sentence, on himself. He ransomed us from death.
There’s no softening this. Without understanding how bad sin is and the power it had over us, we can’t really understand the magnitude of our Savior’s generosity. But Romans 6:23 says Jesus’ death was a free gift to us from the One who loves us more than anyone else ever will.
This generosity is sacrificial in a way that is hard for us to imagine. We couldn’t put ourselves in Jesus’ place and do the same. But that’s the point. No one has to. No one will ever have to die again for us to live.
Finding himself in the form of man, Jesus humbled himself, in complete obedience to the Father, even to death, even to the most shameful form of death of his day – for us.
This is why we celebrate, and this is why we give
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
– 1 John 4:10-11
Jesus conquered at the cross. When he said, “It is finished,” he did not mean, “I am done for.” These were not the words of a miserable man giving up. “It is finished” meant the generous work he had come to do was complete, we were redeemed, the Church was established on earth, and our fatally wounded Christ would rise to the glory of God and the rejoicing of all who love him.
This is what we celebrate on Easter.
We are the recipients of the greatest charitable act in history. In Christ alone, we have all we will ever need – freedom, right relationship with our Father, an abundant life, an imperishable inheritance, and the love of the One who poured himself out and laid down his life for us, his friends.
This extraordinary act is not only the foundation of our salvation. It’s the foundation of our generosity too. We love because he loved us. We give because we understand what it is to have a need we will never be able to meet ourselves. We live a new kind of life, a full life we offer to share with others. And we hope for the day that is promised to us, the return of our generous king.
In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
– by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty