Jesus Christ Is a Model of Perfect Love

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 31 August 1988, the Holy Father found in “the filial union of Jesus with the Father” the expression of perfect love which He made “the principal commandment of the Gospel, You shall love the Lord your God…"

The filial union of Jesus with the Father is expressed in the perfect love which he also made the principal commandment of the Gospel: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment" (Mt 22:37-38). As we know, to this commandment Jesus attached a second, "like the first," that of love of one's neighbor (cf. Mt 22:39). He proposed himself as a model of this love: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34). He taught and gave his followers a love patterned on his own model.

The qualities of charity listed by St. Paul can truly be applied to this love: "Charity is is not jealous or boastful or does not insist on its own does not rejoice at rejoices in the bears all things...endures all things" (1 Cor 13:4-7). When the Apostle in his letter presented such an image of evangelical charity to the Corinthians, his mind and heart were certainly filled with the thought of Christ's love. Therefore his hymn to charity may be regarded as a commentary on the commandment of love after the model of Christ who is Love (as St. Catherine of Siena was to say many centuries later), "as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34).

In other texts St. Paul emphasizes that the summit of this love is the sacrifice of the cross: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.... Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children" (Eph 5:1-2). It is instructive, constructive, and consoling for us to consider these qualities of Christ's love.

Christ's love for us was humble and characterized by service. "For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). On the eve of the passion, before instituting the Eucharist, Jesus washed the apostles' feet and said to them, "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:15). On another occasion he admonished them, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all" (Mk 11:43-44).

In the light of this model of humble availability which extends as far as the final "service" of the cross, Jesus can invite the disciples: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Mt 11:29). The love taught by Christ is expressed in mutual service which includes self-sacrifice for others; its final proof consists in offering one's own life "for the brethren" (1 Jn 3:16). This is what St. Paul highlights when he writes that "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25).

Another quality extolled in the Pauline hymn to charity is that true love "does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5). We know that Jesus has left us the most perfect model of such disinterested love. St. Paul says it clearly in another passage: "Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself..." (Rom 15:2-3). In Jesus' love the Gospel radicalism of the eight Beatitudes proclaimed by him is realized and reaches its summit. Christ's heroism will always be the model for the heroic virtues of the saints.

We know that John the evangelist, when he presents Jesus to us at the beginning of the passion, writes of him that "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1). That "to the end" seems to prove here the definitive and indomitable character of Christ's love. Jesus himself said in the discourse recounted by his beloved disciple, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13).

The same evangelist writes in his letter: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jn 3:16). Christ's love, which was definitively manifested in the sacrifice of the cross—rather, "in laying down his life for the brethren"—is the definitive model for all genuine human love. If in many followers of Jesus crucified it takes the form of heroic sacrifice, as we sometimes see in the story of Christian holiness, this measure of the imitation of the master is explained by the power of the Spirit of Christ, obtained by him and sent from the Father also for the disciples (cf. Jn 15:26).

Christ's sacrifice has become the price and the indemnity for man's liberation: liberation from the "slavery of sin" (cf. Rom 6:6, 17), and the passage to the "liberty of the children of God" (cf. Rom 8:21). With this sacrifice, derived from his love for us, Jesus Christ completed his salvific mission. The announcement of the whole New Testament has its most concise expression in that passage of Marks' Gospel: "The Son of Man...came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45).

This word "ransom" has encouraged the formation of the concept and expression "redemption." This central truth of the new covenant is at the same time the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophetic announcement regarding the servant of the Lord: "He was wounded for our sins...with his stripes we are healed" (Is 53:5); "He bore the sins of many" (Is 53:12). We can say that the redemption was the goal of the whole old covenant.

Therefore, "having loved to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1) those whom the Father "had given" him (cf. Jn 17:6), Christ offered his life on the cross as "a sacrifice for sin" (according to the words of Isaiah). The awareness of this task, of this supreme mission, was ever present in the thought and will of Jesus. His words about the "good shepherd" who "offers his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11) tell us this; so does his mysterious though clear desire: "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I constrained until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:50); and that supreme statement over the chalice of wine during the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin" (Mt 26:28).

From the beginning, the apostolic preaching inculcated the truth that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3). Paul said firmly to the Corinthians: "So we preach and so you have believed" (1 Cor 15:11). He preached to the elders at Ephesus: "The Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood" (Acts 2:28). Paul's preaching fully agrees with what Peter says: "Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet 3:18). Paul repeats the same idea, namely, that in Christ "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph 1:7).

To systematize and continue this teaching, the Apostle resolutely states: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25). The Apostle is aware of the contradiction revealed in Christ's cross. Why, then, is this cross the supreme power and wisdom of God? There is only one answer—love is manifested in the cross: "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8); "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph 5:2). Paul's words re-echo those of Christ himself: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13), for the sins of the world.

The truth about the redemptive sacrifice of Christ who is Love forms part of the doctrine contained in the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ is portrayed as "a high priest of the good things that have come," who "entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking...his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:11-12). He did not offer that merely ritual sacrifice of animals' blood which used to be offered in the old covenant in the sanctuary "made with hands." He offered himself, transforming his own violent death into a means of communion with God. In this way, through "what he suffered" (Heb 5:8), Christ became "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb 5:9). This single sacrifice has the power to "purify our conscience from dead works" (cf. Heb 9:14). Only this offering "makes perfect once for all those who are sanctified" (cf. Heb 10:14).

In this sacrifice, in which Christ "through the eternal Spirit offered God" (Heb 9:14), he found the definitive expression of his love: the love with which "he loved to the end" (Jn 13:1), the love which required him to become obedient "unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8).

Related Q and A

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 7 September 1988, the Holy Father reflected on God's plan of redemption, which required Christ's "self-abasement in obedience even to death."

In the messianic mission of Jesus, the climax which we have been gradually approaching in the previous catecheses is that Christ was sent into the world by God to accomplish humanity's redemption through the sacrifice of his own life. This sacrifice had to take the form of self-abasement in obedience even to death, a death which at that time bore a particularly shameful stigma.

In all his preaching, in all his actions, Jesus was guided by the deep awareness which he had concerning God's designs for his life and death in the economy of the messianic mission, with the certainty that they flowed from the Father's eternal love for the world, and in particular for humanity.

If we consider his adolescent years, those words of the twelve-year-old Jesus spoken to Mary and Joseph at the moment of his finding in the Temple of Jerusalem, are very thought-provoking: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:49). What had he in his mind and heart? We can deduce it from other such expressions of his thought throughout the whole of his public life. From the beginning of his messianic activity, Jesus insistently impressed upon his disciples the concept that the "Son of Man...must suffer many things" (Lk 9:22). He must be "rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed (and after three days rise again)" (Mk 8:31). Yet all this did not originate merely with people, with their hostility toward his person and teaching. Rather it was the fulfillment of God's eternal design, as announced in the Scriptures containing the divine revelation: "How is it written of the Son of Man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?" (Mk 9:12).

When Peter tried to deny this eventuality ("This shall never happen to you," Mt 16:22), Jesus reproved him in words of particular severity: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mk 8:33). The eloquence of these words is impressive. Jesus wished to make Peter understand that to be opposed to the way of the cross was to reject the designs of God himself. "Satan" is indeed he who "from the beginning" is opposed to that "which is of God."

Jesus was aware both of man's responsibilities for Jesus' death on the cross, which he would have to face because of a sentence by an earthly tribunal, and of the fact that through this human condemnation the divine eternal design would be fulfilled: that "which is of God," that is, the sacrifice offered on the cross for the world's redemption. Even if Jesus (as God himself) did not wish the evil of the "deicide" committed by man, nevertheless he accepted this evil, to obtain the good of the world's salvation.

After the resurrection, while walking unrecognized with two of his disciples toward Emmaus, he explained to them the Scriptures of the Old Testament in these terms: "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Lk 24:26). On the occasion of his final meeting with his apostles he declared: "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled" (Lk 24:44).

In the light of the paschal events, the apostles understood what Jesus had said to them in anticipation. Through love for the Master but also through lack of understanding, Peter had seemed to be particularly opposed to his cruel destiny. But he would say to his hearers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, speaking about Christ: "The man...delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:22-23). On another occasion he added, "What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18).

Christ's passion and death were announced in the Old Testament not as the end of his mission, but as the indispensable passage required in order to be raised up by God. In particular, the song of Isaiah about the servant of Yahweh as the man of sorrows says, "Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up...and shall be very high" (Is 52:13). Jesus himself, when he pointed out that the "Son of Man...must be killed," also added that "after three days he will rise again" (cf. Mk 8:31).

We find ourselves, then, in the presence of a divine design which, even if it appears so obvious when considered in the course of the events described by the Gospels, yet always remains a mystery which cannot be explained fully by human reason. In this spirit the Apostle Paul explains himself with the magnificent paradox: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25). These words of Paul concerning Christ's cross are invaluable. It is difficult for man to find a rationally satisfying answer to the question "Why Christ's cross?" Nevertheless the answer comes to us yet again from God's word.

Jesus himself formulated such an answer: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). When Jesus said these words during his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, probably the latter could not imagine that the phrase "gave his Son" would mean "give him up to death on the cross." However, John, who narrates it in his Gospel, well understood the meaning. The course of events has shown that that was the precise meaning of the answer to Nicodemus: God "gave" his only Son for the salvation of the world, giving him up to the death of the cross for the sins of the world, giving him out of love: " loved the world," creation, humanity! Love remains the definitive explanation of the redemption through the cross. It is the only answer to the question "Why?" with regard to Christ's death being part of God's eternal design.

The author of the Fourth Gospel, in which we find the text of Christ's answer to Nicodemus, returns to the same idea in one of his letters: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10).

It is a question of a love which surpasses justice. Justice can investigate and catch up with the transgressor. If an innocent person who is holy, like Christ, is sentenced to suffering and death on a cross to fulfill the Father's eternal design, it means that, in sacrificing his Son, God goes in a certain sense beyond the order of justice. He reveals himself in this Son, and, through him, all the riches of his mercy—dives in misericordia (cf. Eph 2:4)—as if to introduce, together with his crucified and risen Son, his mercy, his merciful love, in the story of the relations between man and God.

Precisely through his merciful love, man is called to conquer evil and sin in himself and with regard to others. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mt 5:7). "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).

The Apostle comes back to this subject in various places in his letters, in which there often recur the three words: redemption, justice and love. "Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ his blood..." (Rom 3:23-25). In this way God shows that he does not wish to be satisfied with the rigor of justice which, on seeing evil, punishes it. He wishes to triumph otherwise over sin, that is, by giving the possibility to be free of it. God wishes to appear just in a positive way, by giving sinners the possibility to become just through adhering to faith in Christ the Redeemer. Thus God "is righteous and he justifies" (Rom 3:26). This happens in a disquieting way since, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

He who "knew no sin"—the Son, consubstantial with the Father—took upon himself the terrible burden of the sin of all humanity, in order to obtain our justification and sanctification. Here is God's love revealed in the Son. The love of the Father "who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (Rom 8:32) is manifested through the Son. To understand the significance of these words, "he did not spare," the account of Abraham's sacrifice can be useful. He showed himself ready "not to spare his beloved son" (Gen 22:16), but God spared him (22:12). On the other hand, God "did not spare" his own only Son, "but gave him up" to death for our salvation.

The Apostle's certainty that no one and nothing, "neither death nor life, nor angels...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39) has its origin here. Together with Paul, the entire Church is certain of this love of God which conquers everything, the ultimate word of God' self-revelation in the history of humanity and of the world, the supreme self-communication which comes through the cross, at the center of Jesus Christ's paschal mystery.