Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Time has honored any semblance of this type of love – even legends such as Pythias and Damon of Syracuse.
In the ancient legend Pythias was found guilty of plotting against the despotic ruler Dionysius of Sicily (ca. 400 B.C.) and sentenced to death. Pythias pleaded for the opportunity to return home and settle his affairs before his execution. Dionysius agreed if a suitable substitute could be found who would be executed in his place if he failed to return. Damon agreed, and Pythias went off to his home village to say farewell to his family. Dionysius thought he would never see Pythias again, but when he returned he was so impressed with the love between these two friends that he freed them both.
Christ’s love was infinitely greater than this, since it was not imposed upon Him by circumstances but rather originated in His own heart in eternity. When Christ prayed in the Garden He said to the Father, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39), and the answer was that it was not possible, for both the love and the justice of God demanded it. In God’s love the punishment for sin was not ignored, human sin was not said to be other than it truly is – vile, ungodly, unacceptable, a perversion, resulting in death – but out of His love Christ died that death.
He is our example of perfect love, that sets aside any thoughts of reward or benefit on our part and looks solely on the need of the object of our love. Our human selfishness defies these thoughts and wishes to be the center of attention. We can hardly listen to another person tell his story before butting in to tell ours, so how can we ever be capable of putting aside our personal best interests for the other? Only by God’s grace and the work of His Spirit can we love like this.
But Christ died not for His friends, rather for His enemies – while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) – so He is truly peerless and His love is truly matchless. And if we could find somewhere in the annals of human history such a willing human sacrifice for one’s enemies other than Christ’s, we would still find it falls far short of Christ’s in the depth of love, in the steadfastness and consistency of love, and certainly in the effect of the love. Christ’s sacrifice was not merely a display of affection, rather it was an effective payment for our sin planned from the foundation of the world.
“Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Our responses are: to marvel at His love, to stand in amazement at how greatly He does love us, to worship Him with awe and gratitude. We are also called to take up our cross of self-denial and seek in His power to love others. His love stands alone, and our love is at best a poor reflection of His. His is the sun and ours is the moon at best, so we point people to Him and stand in the shadows.
We love like this when we focus on the needs of others, when we are happy to not be noticed at all, when we delight to see the advancement of others in all good things, when we give anonymously and never breathe a word about what we have done. We love like this in the small decisions we make every day to help another without calling attention to ourselves, giving our life by rejecting attention, doing it solely for another’s benefit.