“Love” is a loaded word. It does not take a philosopher or psychologist to discover that it means so many different things to so many different people. What matters most to the Christian, however, is how Jesus defines “love”. The mistake we often make, in both gross and subtle ways, is applying our own definition of the word to our relationship with Jesus. Can you imagine the horror of standing before Him on that Day and Him asking us a question like “did you learn to love?” and not having walked according to His definition? Thankfully, He has not made His definition of “love” either mysterious or impossible to understand.

In John 14, Jesus gave a clear definition of how to love Him, and what those who said loved Him would do: obey Him. For Jesus, love is expressed through obedience.

““If you love Me, keep My commandments. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:15, 21, 23 NKJV)

The Christian life is not just an abstract set of morals or even a lifestyle, but is best defined as conformity to a Person – being like Christ and walking like He walked. Therefore to love Jesus is to conform our lives to His. So many things are done under the banner of Christianity today that are drifting further and further from the identity, life, and teaching of Jesus, and love for Him is being marginalized through two extremes – legalism and “free grace”. But at the judgment seat, love will not consist of emotional affection or appreciation, and only one lifestyle will be endorsed and rewarded – a life that mirrors and magnifies the Man Jesus. Love's substance is obedience.

In addition, many Christians are looking to experience the love of Jesus apart from His invitation into the fellowship of His sufferings, but will never fully find what they seek apart from fellowshipping with Him in the place of complete self-abasement and death. The cry to experience the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:16-19) at its deepest level is actually a cry to experience the pain of our cross while finding fellowship with Jesus there, because the cross is where love was perfectly displayed.

As the forerunner of the LORD Himself, John the Baptist carried this self-denying, Christ-exalting perspective. “He must become greater, I must become less”, he said to his followers (John 3:30). Jesus expounded John’s message of repentance and self-denial throughout His ministry, and gave a clarion call to conform to His life in Luke 9:

Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24 NKJV)

In this passage, Jesus gives a sequence of three commands for anyone who would choose to love Him - to be His disciple, follow Him in the resurrection, and inherit eternal life with Him.

On the first step of the path to discipleship, He says to deny ourselves. We make daily choices to either assert ourselves or humble ourselves before others, preserve our reputation or honor another, and make ourselves more comfortable or give self-sacrificially. These choices have roots in our heart posture towards God, which is what Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The self-denial that Jesus calls us to is not masochism or for the sake of mortifying our flesh as an end in itself. He invites us to make ourselves of no reputation before men because that is what He did (Philippians 2:7-8). He chose obedience to His Father and trusted in Him every time He was confronted with a decision to shield Himself from broken humanity, demonic temptation, and the full brunt of the human experience.

“And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8 NKJV)

Obedience was the way Jesus expressed love to the Father, which is why He went on to say “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). It is no wonder why He identified our obedience as the expression of our love for Him, and why He linked it to forsaking all for Him. We find greater fellowship with Him when we are more like Him, therefore each step on the path of self-denial is a step towards conformity into His likeness and deeper friendship with Him (John 15:14). This is what gives us courage to actually deny ourselves and obey Him today and not just preach it or hope that we will be mature in our obedience one day by some miraculous act of God.

If we long to love Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we must take His call to discipleship seriously. In the call He defines practically how to love Him and experience His love in return. So in the next post in this short series, I'll write about the second step on the path to discipleship - "take up your cross daily". Lord, help us to actually do this and not just talk about it!