Christ’s New Commandment

Lesson ▪ 1999
Tags: Christian love; Christian ethics; John 13:34-35; 1 John 2:7-8; 2 John 5
Related Resources: Love Thy Neighbor: A Call to Extend Our Boundaries (Lk 10.25-37) Two Tests of True Christianity: An Analysis of 1 John Newness in the New Testament ▪ Life in the Vine: Notes on John 15:1-17


Objectives

  • To persuade participants of the centrality of love to Christian life and witness
  • To explain what makes the new commandment new
  • To motivate participants to demonstrate love toward other Christians
  • To suggest ways brotherly love can be demonstrated

Introduction

Three commandments summarize the Christian’s spiritual responsibility:

  • The first and greatest commandment—to love God with one’s entire being (Deut 6.5; Mt 22.37-38; Mk 12.29-30)
  • The second commandment—to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19.18; Mt 19.19; 22.39; Mk 12.31; Rom 13.8-10; Gal 5.14; Jas 2.8)
  • The new commandment—to love one’s fellow believers as Christ loved us (Jn 13.34-35; 1 Jn 2.7-8; 2 Jn 5)

Texts

John 13.34-35

34   A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

35   By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

1 John 2.7-8

7      Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.

8      Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.

2 John 5

5      And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.

Analysis

In the hours preceding his betrayal, Jesus shared vital spiritual truths with his disciples. He communicated some of them through symbolic acts such as washing his disciples’ feet and sharing a commemorative meal with them. He conveyed others verbally, often using statements that were simple yet sublime. One such statement was his pronouncement of a new commandment, found in John 13.34-35. The meaning of the new commandment is fairly apparent from the text: His followers were to love one another as he had loved them. What is not so obvious is what made this commandment new. The law of Moses enjoined the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves (Lev 19.18), and Jesus had recognized this statute to be of great importance (Mt 22.37-40; Mk 12.29-31; cf. Mt 5.43ff; 19.19; Lk 10.27ff). In addition, John recognized in his epistles that in a certain sense Jesus’ new commandment was old (1 Jn 2.7; 2 Jn 5). Not surprisingly, John’s three brief references to the new commandment have generated much debate during Christian history, yielding a variety of interpretations (Crum 379).

The most plausible explanation of the newness of Christ’s love commandment is that which focuses on its “christological reference” (Collins 4:1088). This interpretation sees the Lord as “the model, ground, and means of the disciples’ love for one another” (4:1088). F.F. Bruce explains:

Love itself is not a new commandment, but an old one (Lev. 19:18). The new thing appears to be the mutual affection that Christians have for one another on account of Christ’s great love for them. A brotherhood has been created on the basis of Jesus’ work for men, and there is a new relationship within that brotherhood. . . . Jesus Himself has set the example. He calls on them now to follow in His steps. He is not asking them to do any more than He Himself has done. (1:633)

This view of the new commandment acknowledges the fact that the brotherly love Christ enjoined was actually a reflection of his relationship with God the Father (cf. Jn 10.17-18; 14.31; 15.9-10). Barrett develops this idea:

The mutual love of Christian disciples is different from any other; it is modelled upon, and in some measure reveals, the mutual love of the Father and the Son. The Father’s love for the Son, unlike his love for sinful humanity, is not unrelated to the worth of its object, since it is a part of the divine excellence of both Father and Son that each should love the other. Similarly, it is of the essence of the Christian life that all who are Christians should love one another, and in so far as they fail to do so they fail to reproduce the divine life which should inspire them and should be shown to the world through them. (452)

The love commandment is new in that its focal point is the revelation of God in Christ. It makes sense only in the light of the love that Jesus exhibited through servanthood both in life and death. Not surprisingly, the world judges the legitimacy of a person’s claim to be a follower of Christ by his or her love for fellow Christians (Jn 13.35).

Why, then, did John state that the new commandment was old (1 Jn 2.7; 2 Jn 5)? The most reasonable answer to this question seems to be that by the time John wrote his epistles, decades had passed since Jesus’ original commandment. Anyone who had spent time in the Christian community—especially in proximity to John—understood that brotherly love was the very foundation of its social order. Because the love commandment was so familiar, John could very appropriately tell his readers that it was old (Marshall 129).

Loving one’s fellow believers is a central element of the Christian life. No New Testament writer emphasizes this more than John. The theme of brotherly love literally saturates his writings (cf. Jn 15.12-13, 17; 1 Jn 3.10-11, 14-18; 4.7-12; 4.16; 4.20-5:3). According to John, a believer’s love for God is expressed through love for his children (5.1). In fact, loving God, loving fellow men, and obeying God’s commandments are an inseparable whole (5.2-3; 2 Jn 6).

Christians have an identifying mark in secular society—sincere, sacrificial love for one another. Such love is costly. Genuine Christian love is not socially conditioned, as Francis Schaeffer explains:

The observable and practical love among true Christians . . . should cut without reservation across such lines as language, nationalities, national frontiers, younger and older, colors of skin, levels of education and economics, accent, line of birth, the class system in any particular locality, dress, short or long hair among whites and African and non-African hairdos among blacks, the wearing of shoes and the non-wearing of shoes, cultural differentiations and the more traditional and less traditional forms of worship. (140)

Christ’s injunction to brotherly love is a principle that aptly summarizes much of the ethical teaching of the New Testament. It is only fitting that the new spiritual age ushered in by the coming of Christ should make itself known by something new—a love that gives sacrificially in testimony to the supreme gift of eternal life. Believers can share in this love (albeit imperfectly) as they surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Application

The New Testament provides examples of several ways to fulfill the new commandment:

  • Showing hospitality: Lydia ---> Paul and his company (Acts 16.14-15)
  • Giving gifts of charity: Gentile churches ---> Christians in Judea (Acts 11.29-30)
  • Welcoming newcomers: Barnabas ---> Saul (Acts 9.26-27)
  • Sharing one’s possessions: Jerusalem believers ---> disciples in need (Acts 2.44-45; 4.34-35)
  • Ministering to the hurting: Onesiphorus ---> Paul (2 Tim 1.16-18)

Works Cited

Barrett, C. K. The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978.

Bruce, F. F. The Gospel According to John. 2 vols. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

Collins, Raymond F. “New Commandment.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Crum, Terrelle B. “New Commandment.” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Everett F. Harrison. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

Schaeffer, Francis A. “The Mark of the Christian.” The Church at the End of the 20th Century. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1970.


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