New commandment (John 13:34)
A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Most people know that Jesus taught us to love one another. In John 13 he describes this as a ‘new command’. What is new, or fresh, about this commandment is not so much its content as its point of reference. The Old Testament Law, contrary to common perceptions, was really an embodiment of love. It was given by a loving God to the people He had graciously redeemed from slavery in Egypt in order to forge them into a theocratic nation, a people of His very own who would enjoy His blessings and demonstrate His character to the nations. The Law was also intended to draw individual Israelites into a loving relationship with God, by showing them their sin and providing the sacrificial system on the basis of which they could seek His forgiveness and express their gratitude to Him.
Not only did the Law express God’s love for His people, it was also intended to guide them into more faithful love for Him and truer love for one another. Buried within the 613 laws that make up the Law (the number is quoted by Jewish Rabbis – I haven’t counted personally!) are the commands to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). When questioned about which commandment was the greatest, Jesus put these two together and said that the whole Old Testament Law hung on them (Matthew 22:37-40). To pick out two commandments in this way might seem arbitrary, if it were not Jesus who was doing it, but when you examine more closely you realise it is far from that. The command to love God is contained within a passage of Deuteronomy that is widely acknowledged to be the central declaration of Israelite faith. It is clearly the bedrock of the Law – a love of God that embraces every part of our being and that becomes the integrating force in our lives. This is the defining essence of faith.
The command to love one’s neighbour does not sit in such a privileged position within the Law – in fact, it is part of a chapter the NIV unpromisingly titles ‘Various laws’. On what basis can this commandment be stripped from its context and put on a par with the command to love God? For that is what Jesus does in Matthew 22 – He basically says that these are two sides of one coin. You cannot claim to love God unless you love your neighbour and you cannot learn how to love your neighbour until you love God. To explain the connection fully would require more than a blog post, but the relationship between loving God and loving others flows from the biblical understanding of our fellow human beings as creatures made in God’s image. We are made to work together in harmony to fulfil God’s purpose for us. The 10 commandments illustrate the link – the first four give shape to what it means to love God and the other six show how it flows out into genuine love for others. That’s why Jesus expended so much energy explaining that love for others is not limited to those who are like us – His followers must love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and our neighbour is a much more inclusive label than we might like to imagine (Luke 10:29ff.).
So, when Jesus tells His disciples to love one another, it is not a brand new commandment, but a restating of something very old. What is new is the fact that He now defines the standard of love that we ought to have for one another in terms of His own example. Earlier in John 13 He had demonstrated His love by washing His disciples. Within a few hours He would demonstrate it again in the most profound way possible, by laying down His life for His friends (see John 15:12-13). This is the standard of love to which Jesus calls His followers. It is the kind of love that the Spirit wants to produce in us as we follow His leading (Galatians 5:22). The kind of love that truly marks His work among God’s people and which is, therefore, the cardinal virtue (1 Corinthians 15). To love as Jesus loved is the inescapable result of genuine Christian faith – the unavoidable outcome of truly grasping the truth and walking in its light (1 John 2:3-11).
When Jesus commands us to love one another He commands us to die to our own sensitivities and suspicions – to assume the best of them and to give them the benefit of the doubt. He commands us to lay down our own ambition and pride and to commit ourselves to helping others grow into the people God wants them to be. To seek their ultimate good is the essence of love. Anything less is an affront to their creator and ours.