I heard a story once about a practical joke a family pulled on some friends they were having over. What they had done was fill a five-gallon thermos with clear Kool-Aid and another thermos with water died green with food coloring. Then they wrote paper labels to identify which drink was which, putting the “Water” label on the clear Kool-Aid thermos and “Kool-Aid” on the green-colored water one. Their unsuspecting friends came, read the labels, then poured a cup of whatever drink they desired. The liquid looked like they expected it to be based upon the sign they read, and they had no reason to suspect otherwise. Yet when they tasted it, they soon discovered that they had actually gotten a completely different drink than what they had expected. The signs claimed the drink was a particular type, and the appearance of the liquid seemed to authenticate it, but the taste proved the truth.
It is a similar matter when it comes to determining what is authentic Christianity. If we were to ask the question, “How do we know someone is a Christian?” we might get several different answers—
- They are bearing enough fruit (John 15:8).
- They attend Church every service.
- They dress a particular way.
- They do not judge others, but are accepting of all (Matt. 7:1).
- They avoid particular kinds of music.
These may at first seem like good answers, even Scriptural, and many of them are. Yet some emphasize a particular truth at the expense of the context, and others are superficial evidences that do nothing to reveal heart condition and are not easily transferable across time or culture. We might even say that a person is a Christian if they believe that what the Bible teaches is truth. That also sounds good, but fails to stand up to a test, for the demons themselves believe what the Bible claims about God……” and shutter” (James 2:19).
That does not discount that all of those other marks may have their place, but they are not the all-inclusive mark of a Christian, or even ones that we should first focus upon at all. So what is the true defining mark that shows to everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ?
Our Lord answered that Himself in His last instructions to His disciples before His crucifixion. After finishing His act of humble service by washing all His disciples’ feet, Jesus said—
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Now there are several things that need to be said about this. The love that Jesus is speaking about here is not the hippie, type-2 bus, peace sign style of “love” that just accepts everyone no matter what and is some kind of soft, fuzzy kind of feeling (if you were a hippie, sorry: it was the first thing that came to mind). Rather, this is a deep, personal commitment of service that Jesus demonstrated by first washing all of His disciples’ feet—including Judas—then dying upon the cross for sins. That is the kind of love He commands us to have.
And second, this love is not directed at everyone. Yes, we must show the love of Christ to this lost world which is on its way to a literal hell, but this mutual-service and commitment love that Jesus is speaking of is to be shown to a particular type of people: the Church. Jesus said, “if you have love for one another.” He did not say, “if you have love for everyone.” What He was teaching is that there is a higher level of commitment, a higher level of service we owe to our brothers and sisters in Christ simply because of who they are—our spiritual family.
Again, this is not to say that we are harsh, rude, or insensitive to the world. Not at all. Jesus set us the example by eating with the outcasts of society that the religious elite labeled as “sinners” in order to lead them to the Gospel (Matt. 9:9-13; 11:19). And Paul told us that he never intended us to somehow try to escape all contact with unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:9, 10). It is not compassion or grace that Jesus is speaking about in John 13:35.
Looking at a few other passages may help clarify the difference. Writing to the believers in Galatia, Paul exhorts us to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). The command was to serve all, but there was a higher level of necessity to give priority to fellow believers.
This can also be seen in his first letter to Timothy, when Paul is giving instructions to slaves. After exhorting them to serve their masters willingly so as to honor God and bring no reproach upon the Lord’s name, he says, “those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful…but must serve them all the more” (1 Timothy 6:2). The reason for this, he says, is because it is fellow Christians who will benefit from this more fervent service. Once again, he was commanding all slaves to diligently serve whatever master they had for the Lord’s sake, but they were under compulsion to give even more attention to their service for fellow believers.
This commitment to serving one another regardless of feelings, differences, or opinion for the sake of the Gospel is the one true defining mark of a Christian. Jesus said it would proclaim to the world that we belong to Him. The Lord said through the apostle John that if we claim we love Him but do not show true love to fellow believers, we are liars and do not even have His love in us to begin with (1 John 2:3-11; 4:8, 12, 20, 21). We are to reflect God’s love for us through our interactions with fellow Christians, primarily in our own local church, but to all believers in general.
This love Christ commanded is commitment to serve, not a resignation to ignore sin and accept anything. The very passage where Paul said that he had not commanded us to avoid all contact with unbelievers engaged ins sinful practices is one of the main passages involving Church Discipline (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Although there is not judgment in this love, there is accountability, but that can only be done to fellow believers who have the Spirit of God within them.
This is what proves our discipleship, this dogged, stubborn determination to overlook petty offense, to give over ourselves till it hurts, and to exhort one another to remain faithful to the Lord. It is what authenticates whatever claims or appearance to know that truth that we have made or hold. When it is absent, the world knows it. Far too many people have said “I want nothing to do with the church—just look at all the hypocrisy, backbiting, and selfishness of those who profess to know Christ. I want no part of it.”
While we do not need to ignore other matters, we must not lose our focus. When we confront a brother or sister about a habit or situation that they are slipping into that is sinful, we are to confront them in love, and not to learn more to spread gossip (Gal. 6:1, 2). When we choose Christ’s love, we will let go of perceived offenses, grudges, and bitterness towards other Christians (1 Pet. 4:8). Demonstrating true love towards fellow believers brings us into fellowship with God, and it gives us comfort as we face the future (1 John 4:16, 17). This love is so important, both Peter and Paul commanded Christians that beyond anything else as new creatures, they must “keep on loving one another earnestly” (Col. 3:14; 1 Pet. 4:8).
We all have our personal standards about how we are to follow Christ, or what “Good Christians” do, and they may have their place, but we should not become fixated upon them that we lose the true mark of the Way. Christ commanded us to show the highest love we can to fellow believers. It proves to the world that we indeed know what we claim to profess. Let us truly love one another as He commanded.