Exploring what’s New about the “New” Commandment in the First Epistle of John (1)
In the previous article we began by looking at the “new” commandment given to us by Jesus in John 13:34-35 that we love one another as he, Jesus, has loved us. The Apostle John, who was leaning against the breast of Jesus when our Lord spoke these monumental words about loving one another, took them to heart in a way that we see nowhere else in the NT. This “new” commandment of Jesus had a profound and life-changing impact on John. We know this to be true because it becomes the most important point of emphasis in John’s first epistle. In fact, it is there that John unpacks for us eight critically important truths about this love commandment. Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we began by looking at the “new” commandment given to us by Jesus in John 13:34-35 that we love one another as he, Jesus, has loved us. The Apostle John, who was leaning against the breast of Jesus when our Lord spoke these monumental words about loving one another, took them to heart in a way that we see nowhere else in the NT. This “new” commandment of Jesus had a profound and life-changing impact on John. We know this to be true because it becomes the most important point of emphasis in John’s first epistle. In fact, it is there that John unpacks for us eight critically important truths about this love commandment.
(1) John echoes Jesus when he says that the commandment to love one another is both “old” and “new” (1 John 2:7-8).
“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:7-8).
The commandment in view is clearly love of the brethren. In one sense it is old, insofar as they had learned it before (Lev. 19:18); they had known it from the beginning of their Christian lives. Yet, Christ had invested this command with a richer and deeper meaning. It is new because of the standard by which it is now to be expressed: we are now to love “even as I [Christ] have loved you” (John 13:34). It is one thing to love your neighbor “as you love yourself.” It is another thing to love your neighbor “as Christ loves you!”
If we listen to what John says in his first letter about what makes this commandment new, we see there’s more going on than imitation. It is new, says John, “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).
John is saying that what makes this love “new” is not merely that we now have a new standard or pattern but that we have a new power! You are able to love others because there is the light of Christ himself shining into and through you. Do you recall how Paul describes Christian conversion?
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
In other words, when we love as Christ loved we don’t simply copy or imitate his love. We participate in it! His love is in us and then through us on behalf of others. Our loving others is more than a mere simulation of the love of Christ: it is the manifestation of that very love.
Let me say it again, lest we miss the point. It is not simply that Jesus is our pattern for how to love one another. There is a sense in which he and his Father are also the power by which we love one another. Or, to put it another way, loving others as Jesus loved us is not simply about following his example but also about experiencing his energy.
Look again at 1 John 2:8. We love as Christ loved because “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” He’s talking about Jesus. He’s talking about the supernatural spiritual “light” that suddenly appeared and enveloped the people who responded to him in faith. We don’t simply love others because we see Jesus doing it. We love others by virtue of the powerful, energetic presence of the light of Jesus in us. We participate in him, and in that we receive his power to overcome our selfishness and our prejudice and hatred and disdain for others.
(2) Jesus said that by loving our Christian brothers and sisters we show to the world that we are truly his followers, his disciples. But John goes even further and says that by loving one another we demonstrate that we are born again.
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9-11).
In other words, to say that our love bears witness to our being disciples of Christ is simply another way of saying that our love bears witness to the fact that we are born again.
Here the falsity of the claim to be “in the light” (one is either in light or darkness; there is no “twilight”!) is revealed not by disobedience but by hatred. This is strong language from John. He is saying that the failure to love others is revelatory of a moral condition that is the exact opposite of what you are claiming. The one who truly knows God and truly is in the light will obey God's commands and love his brother.
We often find ourselves asking the question: How do I know if I’m a Christian? How do I know if you’re a Christian? Is merely saying so good enough? Is attending church faithfully good enough? Is singing loudly and praying regularly good enough? John says, No, it isn’t. It actually matters little what you say and how often you attend church and how much you give of your finances; if you are bereft of genuine, sacrificial, Christ-like love for other believers, you are still in spiritual darkness. You don’t know you are in darkness. You actually believe you are in the light. But as John says in 1 John 2:11 you are “blinded” by the darkness.
That sounds odd. We typically think that excessive light leads to blindness, not excessive darkness. But John is talking about spiritual darkness. He’s talking about our capacity to see and understand spiritual truths. And his point is that if you are unregenerate and don’t truly know Christ as Lord and Savior you are accustomed to spiritual darkness. It feels so natural that you aren’t even aware that you can’t see the light. The darkness of unbelief actually exerts a blinding effect on the human heart. As Paul said with regard to the unsaved, “the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
(3) The presence of love for the brethren confirms and assures the genuine Christian as having passed out of death into life, whereas he in whom it is absent abides in death, and is manifested as a murderer and one in whom eternal life does not abide. Again, this is strong language, but look at 1 John 3:14-15.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15).
The Greek word for brother is used 15x in 1 John and, with the exception of 5:16, is always used of other Christians. Therefore, it is not simply hatred, but hatred of Christian men and women that is in view. Eternal life is manifested not in love for mankind in general but in love for Christians in particular. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t display a love for all. It is simply to say that there is a unique and special affection that we must have for members of our spiritual family.
John is here setting forth a test of spiritual life. He is telling us that a present, on-going practice points to a past reality. Love for the brethren now, in the present, is an indication or sign of regeneration then, in the past. Note: it should be stressed that active love is the sign of life, not its procuring cause. Our love for the brethren is evidence that we have been regenerated, that we have passed out of death and into life. It is by no means the condition for life. The person who does not love the brethren is exposed as yet abiding in death. Note: John does not say that if he does not love he will die, but that he does not love because he is already dead; death is his natural state.
To be continued . . .