A NEW COMMANDMENT
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34, 35).
By Gordon Wilson
This is the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, delivered to His eleven apostles (Judas Iscariot had already left the company) on the very night He was betrayed. He had shown His love for these men many times in many ways, most clearly by having chosen them out of the world (Jn 13:1). During this last Passover supper with them, He repeated this commandment more than once (see 15:12, 17). We must realize, though, that this commandment was not given onily to the apostles, as important as it was for the success of the mission they were soon to embark on. At that very gathering, they had been quarreling among themselves. Yet, because they all loved Jesus, their union with Him depended on their loving each other. This commandment was one of several things spoken only to the apostles at the Last Supper that were intended to be passed along to us. John certainly understood this, for in his first epistle he made direct reference to this “new commandment,” saying that his readers had known this commandment from “the beginning” (1 Jn 2:7, 8). Indeed, his epistle is full of references to this commandment to love one another.
Now, certainly, when Jesus called this “a new commandment” He could not have meant that love for one’s fellow man had not previously been commanded. The total love for God required by the Shema (Deut 6::4, 5) would have inherently included the requirement to love those who are in God’s image. But the law specifically demanded love of one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). Not only so, but the same chapter commands love toward the stranger who came into their land (vv 33, 34). Then when we come to the ministry of Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount He literally commands love for everybody (Mt 5:43-48). This would surely include loving one’s, fellow disciple. In light of all this, it becomes clear that for Jesus’ “new commandment” to actually be new, there must be a kind or degree of love between His disciples that exceeds or differs from love for anyone else. And it must be a love that shows all people that we are Jesus’ disciples.
We know that in the early days of the church, during a period of severe persecution, according to Tertullian, pagans were saying things like, “See how those Christians love one another.” We shall return to this quotation later, but just here we can recognize that outsiders do observe the attitudes of members of the Lord’s church toward each other. They form opinions about whether we are really the Christians we claim to be, based on whether they see harmony and unity among us or quarreling and bitterness. And they make decisions about whether they want to become what we are. So, if we want the people who observe us to know that we are truly disciples of Christ –not to mention abiding in Jesus and He in us—we need to know just what is involved in obeying the commandment to love one another.
Love does not refer just to how we feel about other disciples. It is best defined as active goodwill. This does not mean, however, that how we feel about a fellow disciple does not matter. It is indeed a part of love; just not the only part. Hear Paul about this. Love one another with brotherly affection Rom 12:10). He then goes on to mention a number of other things that should characterize our relations with each other It would be good to read the entire book of Romans. We all know that there are some brothers and sisters that it is difficult to feel affection for. There are people in the church as well as outside that are hard to get along with, much less really feeling a sense of goodwill toward. But difficult does not mean impossible. We can look at such a person with the deliberate intent of discovering the good traits in him or her. We can note those things that indicate that they love God just as we do. We have all had the experience of seeing our feelings toward someone change over time. But this is not all there is to loving one another.
Love for disciples includes a willingness to serve others even to the point of dying for them if called on to do so. Jesus was, as we easily discern, speaking of His own death, His giving His life –which was going to happen within the next 24 hours, when He said, Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). He went on to tell His disciples that they were His friends if they obeyed His commandments. In that context, the main commandment He was talking about was their loving one another. Jesus loved us to the extent that He was willing to die for us. But wait! Are you aware that He asks us to love one another to the same degree? Well, John, who was there, understood Him to mean just that. Turn to 1 Jn 3:16. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. That describes the degree of the love we must have for one another in the church of the Lord.
Actually, in our Western society and in this historical time we are not called on to die for our brothers. In John’s time, it was altogether likely that a threat of death was very much present for Christians. I mentioned before the quotation of Tertullian, “See how those Christians love one another.” But that is not the whole quotation. In that time of bitter persecution, it was appropriate that the pagan observers should also add, “They even give their lives for one another.” We might rejoice in the fact that we are not in that position. So in the same passage, John presents something else that is an essential ingredient of love.
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? The question is also an affirmation that sharing with the needy in our fellowship is a part of genuine love. So now we have developing affection, willingness to die for the brothers, and gladly giving what we can to those who have need. We might note that this may be a personal direct and private giving. But the church treasury is first and foremost designed to be used to help the poor among the saints; so when we give on the first day of the week, our love for our brothers is shown by the cheerfulness and generosity with which we give when the collection basket is passed.
One additional ingredient of the kind of love that Jesus was enjoining is the use of whatever abilities we have been given by the Lord to build up and strengthen each other. We grow spiritually with the help of one another so that the whole church is built up. This is the argument made by the apostle Paul In Ephesians chapter 4. The passage that develops the thought is too long to write out in this short article, but the context is Eph 4:11-16, and it ends with this: When each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. The way and circumstance under which we can do this is explained in another passage.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25. Let no one, then, think being present at the times the church has agreed to meet together is a trivial matter. I do not say attendance is the most important duty a Christian has; but the passage quite clearly says that it is an essential part of the most important duty: to love one another. It is hard to believe that one loves the other members if he doe not want to associate with them when an opportunity is provided and scheduled. Or maybe you love the other disciples, but you love going to the beach or the mountains or watching a ball game just a little bit more. I will stop here and leave it to every reader to examine your own conscience. Do you love your fellow disciples as Jesus loves you?