John 15:13 is quoted often throughout Christianity as the great example of Jesus’ willingness to die for his disciples and all who would accept him as their Lord and Savior, but I believe this singular perspective robs that verse of much of its power and actual message. I think there is a huge difference between “laying down his life” and “dying” – and I think it is fundamental and deeply important difference in how people view Jesus and the concept of the Atonement.
John 15:13 says:
There is much that might be gained by parsing this verse word-by-word, but I am going to focus strictly on one phrase (“lay down his life”)- and begin simply by pointing out that this does not say “die”.
What does it mean to “lay down one’s life”? There are two possible meanings – the literal and the figurative.
The literal would be to die. An example of the applicability of this particular phrase to death would be that of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, who literally “laid down” their bodies and were killed in the process of praying to their God. An application of doing so “for his friends” would be running into a street and pushing someone out of the path of an oncoming car – or jumping in front of a bullet meant for someone else – or being killed while rescuing someone from a burning building – or any number of other scenarios I could envision. Perhaps the most oft repeated yet overlooked example is a mother’s willingness to risk death to give life. Surely, that is “laying down one’s life for a friend.”
In this sense, Jesus certainly laid down his life for his friends when he allowed himself to be tortured and killed in the Garden and on the cross – “dying” spiritually and physically to keep us from eternal death spiritually and physically. That is profound and important, but it isn’t the Atonement in full, imo.
I mentioned Psalms 55:22 in my last post, which says, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord.” There is a powerful symbolism in that phrasing, and I look at John 15:13 in much the same way. In order to illustrate that more directly, I am going to focus first on the actual mortal life of Jesus.
We have very little recorded about his life – and I believe that is due mostly to the fact that is was HIS life. The writers of the Gospels were not interested in teaching about the carpenter’s son; they wanted to teach about the Messiah. They had no desire to teach about the man prior to his ministry; they wanted to teach about the Miracle Worker during his ministry and the God after his resurrection. They really didn’t care about the life he crafted for himself; they cared about the life he lived for them, his friends. They cared deeply about more than His dying for them; they cared equally about His living for them.
We read about his birth, about the visit of the wise men when he was a young child living in a house, about his family’s flight to Egypt after the visit of the wise men and about their later trip to the temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve years old – then nothing for the next 18 years. Nothing. Not a word. Interestingly, over the course of the next 3 years covered in the Gospels, we only get glimpses into those missing years when circumstances make it impossible to avoid those glimpses – like the wedding feast where he turns the water into wine and we learn a little of his mortal family. (Similarly, the only reason we are aware that any of his disciples was married is that there is a very brief mention of Peter’s mother-in-law being sick.)
He was the carpenter’s son, but what did he do to earn his living? Did he marry? If so, to whom; if not, why not? Did he have children? If so, how many, and what happened to them; if not, why not? If he married, was he widowed prior to his ministry? Is that why he had no home or place to lay his head? How often did he return to the temple – or did he live completely away from the politics and intrigue of Jerusalem? Was he raised with or near his cousin, John – and was he taught of that twin miracle of birth? Did he wrestle or race? Did he attend school, or was he taught to read by his parents? As an adolescent, did he love and face rejection? We have no idea what occurred during those 18 years. I am left to ask, “Why are those things missing from our record?”
Again, I believe it was because those 18 years were HIS life – the life He “laid down for his friends” in order to “take (His Father’s) yoke upon (Him)”. I see in that example the statement that there is no greater love than this – to leave the life you have crafted for yourself and dedicate yourself to the service of others – to lose your own life and live for your friends. I see full-time missionary service in this light, including the young men and women who serve, the retired couples who serve and the Mission Presidents (both husband and wife) who serve. I see the concept of priests and nuns dedicating themselves to Christ and the Catholic Church in this light, even as I don’t accept many of the aspects of that service that have developed over time. I see this foundation concept interwoven into the lives of those who walk away from prestige and power and influence in order to work for the common good and live lives of relative poverty – substituting what they could have for what they want others to have. I see my father’s sacrifices for my mother and their children in that same light. (My Niece Died This Morning)
I hearken back to the mother risking death for her child and see it in the decisions of those who set aside their own lives for a season to serve and raise their children – and I include in this last group those fathers who choose to stay home while their wives return to their occupations (or couples who restructure their occupational arrangements to share more equally in the time spent with their children – when that means neither of them will rise as far in their chosen field).
I believe, in the heat of the moment, it is MUCH easier to die for someone than it is truly to live for someone – to lose your life in their service. I honor and respect and stand in awe of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but I view the greatest expression of His LOVE for us as His willingness to lay down his own life, shoulder the yoke His father had prepared for Him, walk away from that old life and live with single-minded focus from then until His death – working only to serve and bless and uplift and teach all with whom he came in contact and, ultimately, seal that work with his sweat, blood, tears and very breath. I believe he laid down his life by letting go of the desire to gain more for himself and live instead to give to others.
None of us are asked to pick up that exact same yoke, but all of us are asked to mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, bless those that revile and persecute us, pray for them that despitefully use us and, in very real and practical ways, lay down our own lives and live a new life for others. That, in my opinion, is the yoke that makes His burden light and brings abiding rest to our souls.