By Bob Bunn
In his classic documentary on the Civil War, filmmaker Ken Burns ended the first episode with an edited version of a letter from a Union soldier to his wife. Sullivan Ballou was a Rhode Island politician who had joined a regiment of volunteers and was quickly elected to a rank of major. In the days leading up to the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as First Manassas), Ballou felt compelled to write to his bride, Sarah.
The letter, written from the regiment’s camp in Washington, D.C., is a stirring tribute. In the note, Ballou confessed again his undying love for Sarah, balancing it with an unwavering commitment to the Union cause. He bemoaned the possibility of dying in battle and reducing the couple’s dreams to metaphorical ashes. He also regretted that they might not get to grow old together or watch their boys grow into “honorable manhood.”
“If I do not return,” he wrote, “never forget how much I loved you.” He added that his last breath would whisper her name. As it turned out, Major Ballou’s words proved prophetic. He was killed at Bull Run, just a week after writing the letter to Sarah.
One can honestly say that Sullivan Ballou loved Sarah to the very end. The apostle John could say the same about Jesus’s love for His disciples as His earthly ministry began winding down.
Chapter 13 represents a turning point in John’s Gospel. After spending the first twelve chapters focusing on Jesus’s preaching and ministry, John spent much of the remaining chapters describing the hours leading up to the cross. Even as the end drew near, Jesus never changed His mission: demonstrating genuine love.
As John noted, Jesus showed undying, eternal love toward His followers every step of the way. He had revealed His heart to them and had forgiven their foolishness time and again. Now, as they shared Passover, He taught them about servanthood (John 13:1–20). Even after He identified the traitor who would betray Him, He commanded them to love one another well (v.21–35).
Of course, Jesus’s ultimate demonstration of love was yet to come, when He gave His life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Still, He had shown His disciples how to love well, and He expected them to follow that example. In a sense, He challenged them to love each other until the end, just as He had loved them.
More than 2,000 years have passed since John provided his evaluation of Jesus’s love, and the standard remains unchanged. Jesus has never been a “do I say, not do as I do” kind of Savior. His people are still called to love one another until the end because that’s how He lived.
Jesus refused to set limits or restrictions on who we should love. He never accepted excuses for why someone might be standing beyond the reach of our love. He simply commanded us to love.
That’s how He did it, and it’s how we should do it too.