“If you love me, keep my commands” (NIV).
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (ESV).
Above are two versions of John 14:15 that, despite interpreting the same verse, present different messages. One issues a command, “keep my commands.” The other could be a command, but it could also be a prediction, “you will keep my commandments.” We can illustrate the difference by considering another pair of phrases:
“If you take this course, study!”
“If you take this course, you will study!”
The first phrase indicates a command, “study!” It also implies a condition: “If you take this course, then you had better study.” The second phrase might be a command, but it also could be a prediction: “If you take this course, then you will study.” In other words, the studying will happen naturally because of taking this course. Why? Perhaps the material is so interesting that you will want to study it. Perhaps the professor teaches the content so compellingly and with such passion, inspiring affection among students, that the students are delighted to study for the course. For these two reasons, perhaps the hours of work that might have been a drudgery for other courses are a delight for this one.
…how easy the long hours of reading, writing, and studying felt when I admired the professor and loved the subject.
Have you ever had a class like that? I know I have: Ancient Classics by Dr. Haluska. He was a demanding professor, but one committed to helping his students succeed. I admired him and wanted to perform well in his class. In addition, the subject fascinated me: it was ancient history and literature, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Greek tragedies, Augustine, and Job. I looked forward to reading these epic works attentively, so I did well on the quizzes. When the exams came, I was eager to refresh myself on the storylines, ideas, and themes we had discussed and studied ardently, so I aced the exams. When we wrote papers, I was eager to apply what I had learned into a writing project of my own and met with the professor several times to refine my ideas and style, so I received good marks on my papers. The point is not how hard I worked, but how easy the long hours of reading, writing, and studying felt when I admired the professor and loved the subject.
Similar to the situation above but in a much greater, life-encompassing sense, what if Jesus is like a good professor teaching an interesting course? This would mean that the second translation of John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” is the better of the two, and has the tone more of a prediction than a command. We will explore three angles to support this idea. First, what does the language tell us about John 14:15? Second, what does the context of John 14 as a whole tell us? Third, does this interpretation align with other parts of the New Testament? By examining these factors, we hope to make a case for John 14:15 as a prediction for those who believe, thus inspiring hope in God’s promise and an affection for Him who makes that promise succeed.
I. The Language
Here’s John 14:15 in Greek:
Ean agapate me, tas entolas tas emas teresete.
The first word is ean, which means “if” but, in a slightly different way than ei, can introduce a hypothetical scenario; so one might translate it as “if ever” or “if, therefore.”2 Following ean is agapate in the present subjunctive mood, a fact we know chiefly by the presence of ean, since it is otherwise nearly identical to the present indicative. Thus, it forms a hypothetical scenario, and we might propose that the rest of the verse answers the question, “What would you do if you loved me?”
In the sentence’s main clause, answering the “if” clause, teresete is the verb to analyze. This is clearly in the future indicative, which is interesting because it follows the hypothetical subjunctive with the more certain future tense. What this could mean is that, if one meets the condition of loving Christ, then one will keep the commandments. It’s not the other way around, as if we should go and keep the commandments first in order to count ourselves as lovers of Christ. Loving Christ becomes the spring from whence commandment keeping flows.
One possible objection to the interpretation is that some languages, like Hebrew, Latin, and English, can utilize the future indicative with an imperative sense. For example, in Exodus 20:3- 17, the English Standard Version phrases the ten commandments as, “you shall not.” Though in the future tense, these are clearly commands. We can note that the Vulgate’s Latin and the Septuagint’s Greek also translate the commands in this passage in the exact same manner, with the future indicative. Therefore, while not standard Greek, one might assume that John was using the same convention here. This is a strong counterargument and makes the next section crucial.
II. The Context
If analyzing John 14:15’s language leaves room for doubt whether or not the verse offers a prediction instead of a command, the immediate context provides some clarity. The most commanding sections of the chapter are verses 1 and 11: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me,” and, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” The ESV translates these accurately as imperatives. Therefore, we see that Jesus’ commands in this chapter deal chiefly with belief.
If Jesus is commanding us to believe in John chapter 14, then with what does the rest of the chapter deal? Promises. To list them all would be to list most of the chapter, so here are just a few:
3 “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (ESV).
12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do.”
14 “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
Christ’s promise reassures us that we are not depending on our own power…
15-17a “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…”
In John 14’s battery of promises, one notices an “if…then” pattern; if something occurs, then a promise related to that occurrence will happen. This lends itself to the predictive quality of verse 15: if you love me, then you will keep my commandments. In other words, you will keep my commandments because you love me. Though the counterargument presented in section I remains, the question is, would John insert a command using the future indicative right in the middle of all these promises, which use the future indicative, when he uses true imperatives, grammatically speaking, elsewhere?
III. Support from 2 Corinthians 5
In addition to the immediate context of Christ promising what he and those who believe in him will do, including empowering them to keep the commandments through love, other places in the New Testament point to a similar idea. There’s not time to explore them all, so we’ll choose one, 2 Corinthians 5. Here, Paul expands upon the idea of the love of Christ, and its power:
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:14-17.)
Here’s how these two passages connect: In John 14:15, Christ promises that those who love him will keep his commandments. Above, Paul summarizes this same phenomenon by saying, “The love of Christ controls us.” And not robotically, there’s a personal realization and choice involved, “because we have concluded this:” he died for us and was raised. Paul had already explained what this resurrection means to his audience in 1 Corinthians 15:23: Christ is the first fruits of what we can expect when He returns. Yet, a spiritual resurrection takes place before then: just as Jesus told Nicodemus one must be born again in John 3, and baptism is described as a death to sin and resurrection with Christ in Colossians 2:12, so does Paul state that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” In this new creation, by the Spirit, Christ’s promise in John 14:15 is fulfilled: those who love him will keep his commandments.
In John 14:15, Christ has every right to command us, “Keep my commands.” Yet, there’s a compelling case that Christ is actually making a promise. The language and context both support this interpretation, and it fits well with the rest of the New Testament. It makes sense, because if one truly loves Christ, why wouldn’t one want to keep His commandments? The insecurity might come less from the desire than the ability—we worry that, though we try, we will never be able to live a truly righteous life. But Christ’s promise reassures us that we are not depending on our own power, but His power: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23-24).
Aland, B., Aland, K., Karavidopoulos, J., Martini, C. M., & Metzger, M. B. (Eds.). (2013). Novum Testamentum Graece, Greek-English New Testament (28th Revised ed.). (E. Nestle, & E. Nestle, Trans.) Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
Biblia Sacra, Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem. (2007). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Joint Association of Classical Teachers. (2007). Reading Greek, Grammar and Exercises.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. (1851). (S. L. Brenton, Trans.) London:
Samuel Bagster & Sons.
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1Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece
2ean combines ei (“if”) and an (“ever” or an understood uncertainty), from Joint Association of Classical Teachers. (2007). Reading Greek, Grammar and Exercises, p. 305.
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