How to recognize a Christian

2016 Jul 6

At Jesus' last Passover supper with his disciples, he gave them some of his most significant teaching: about love, and about the mark of a Christian. He started this by acting out two parables: of foot washing, and of a simple meal. Since these parables teach overlapping points, each gospel includes only one of the stories.

John (13) tells us that Jesus, knowing who he was, where he was in time, and what was about to happen, washed his disciples' feet.

Final Teaching

Jesus knew that he was shortly going to die for his friends, for those he loved. His death would provide the means to save them, but would also be the ultimate teaching example of how he wanted them to live.

Jesus would die to finalize forgiveness from God. Giving real forgiveness for an offense unavoidably includes personally paying for the relational costs of the offense against you. Jesus took on himself the costs of our broken relationship with God. The cross was the result of his full experience of what we have done to our relationship with God. The cross was a key part of God saying to us, “Yes, I know you have done wrong, but I value relationship much more than retribution, so I will absorb all the injustice in our relationship so that I can restore the relationship.” So, his death on the cross was all about love, a love that voluntarily brings forgiveness to the relationship.

As disciples of Jesus, we are to live and love like him (John 13:34), so we are to forgive like him too. When Jesus died on the cross, he did the big "forgive" that restarts our relationship with God. But forgiveness is also an on-going thing in life. God forgives us each time we ask it of him, and we are also to forgive each other in this same way.


This was the point of the parable of foot washing. We get dirt on us as we walk through our life, but if we have already had a bath all we need to again be clean is a little washing where we are dirtied. All of the disciples except Judas had had this initial bath in their hearts (of desiring to change to follow God), so they only needed forgiveness for the failures of the moment (their feet washed) to be all clean again. But Judas had not bathed his heart; his heart had never changed, so he had never entered into restored relationship with God. And so when Jesus washed his feet, it did not make his heart right with God (John 13:10,11).

The other Gospels tell that Jesus also taught the parable of the meal. (We know it as communion or the Eucharist. Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20) Jesus gave them (broken) bread to remember his (human) body, and he gave them the cup as a remembrance for the new covenant he would make with them by his blood. These concepts were understandable to the disciples from the existing Jewish system of animal sacrifices.

But there was an additional meaning for the future. The disciples were Jesus’ continuing body on earth. Jesus broke the bread and shared it around to illustrate that they were all one body. When we reenact the illustration, we are recognizing other Christians as part of his body. When we share the bread, we are symbolizing our commitment to the one body of Christ, and therefore our commitment to love each other. Jesus also shared a common cup around to symbolize that we all share a common restorative new deal from God. As God, Jesus bore the cost of our rebellion against God so that he could forgive us and bring us back to relationship with God. As Jesus shared the cup with his disciples, he was symbolizing God's commitment to love them.

As Jesus talked about this love during the meal, he said the greatest love was to lay down your life for your friends, and also that we are his friends if we love like him (John 15:14-15). Jesus loved us by forgiving us, and requires us to forgive each other (Matthew 5:14-15). This parable also then was about forgiveness, and for us, how we forgive each other.

Not Christians

However, Judas refused to change the values of his heart even though Jesus gave him one final chance. So, Jesus sent him out of the group (John 13:27,30). Judas was very good at hiding that he had not accepted the teachings of Jesus; none of the other disciples suspected that he was about to betray Jesus. But his unchanged values did show in his actions. For instance, he had been selfishly exploiting the others by embezzling from their common funds (John 12:6). This is why Jesus waited until after he was gone before giving and teaching the commandment of love. Jesus was protecting his disciples from exploiters (like Judas) by only requiring that they love each other (Christians) as he had loved them.

There is a theory that Judas didn't hate Jesus, but only wanted to force Jesus' hand to establish a Jewish kingdom free of the Romans. But by pushing Jesus to his own personal mission, it still showed Judas’ rejection of what Jesus had been consistently promoting. Judas' heart was unchanged to love, and he wouldn't "forgive" Jesus for the mission Jesus actually was teaching. (That is: Judas did not accept the mission of Jesus as his own mission.) So, Judas was not a Christian.

We can certainly recognize that the Jewish leadership of the day were not Christians. They exploited their people by a system of rules that made life difficult (and was a significant financial burden). They performed to get adulation from people, and worked to keep their own domain of power for themselves. They did not live a life of love and sacrifice for others as Jesus lived and taught. Again, their actions showed they were not Christians.

Love and Forgiveness

After Jesus sent Judas away from the group, he taught his disciples in detail about love and forgiveness. He gave them a new commandment to love each other (John 13:34). Twice more, Jesus repeated this command (John 15:12,17) so it could not be missed. And he made it clear that our discipleship depends on us keeping this commandment (John 14:15,21; 15:10,14).

The part in the commandment about loving was not new (Matt 22:35-39), but the part about loving each other like Jesus loved them certainly was. This part was so distinctive that Jesus said it would show everyone that they were his disciples (John 13:35).

Of course, if we love like Jesus, then also we must love non-Christians just as Jesus did. Jesus loved them deeply too, but with limitations: he prevented people from exploiting him, and he did not unconditionally forgive all people. (Jesus did not die for the unrepentant.) Certainly Jesus did good to all of them. This then is the generous model of living that we are to emulate.

How others know we are a Christian

So, if we love other Christians like Jesus loved us, then by our actions everybody will know that we are Christians. This is the only recognition marker that Jesus gave us.

Notice that ALL people will recognize Christians through their Christ-like love. Of course this means it is the way that other Christians will recognize us too! Since one of the most significant parts of Jesus' love is that he forgives us, this readiness to forgive also must be a mark our love towards Christians.

Neither this kind of love nor forgiveness are natural human characteristics. They will stand out to others as looking like Jesus.

Can others see the love and forgiveness of Jesus in your actions in life?


The value system perspective used here is based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa.