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What’s New about the “New” Commandment?

The commandment of God that his people are to love one another is not new. Everyone was familiar with Leviticus 19:17-18. Continue reading . . . 

The commandment of God that his people are to love one another is not new. Everyone was familiar with Leviticus 19:17-18. There God spoke to the children of Israel and said:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17-18).

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “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” (John 13:34)?

Clearly the “newness” of the command to love isn’t in the command itself. It is instead in the pattern or standard or model of our love for one another. It is the “way” in which we are to love that is different due to the coming of Jesus Christ. Never in the history of mankind had God appeared in human flesh and demonstrated his love for sinful and broken people by sacrificing himself on a cross so that they might live forever. Love may well have been required prior to the coming of Christ. But love to the degree and in the same fashion as was seen in the self-sacrifice of Jesus for his church is altogether new. Quite simply it has changed loving forever.

So the place where we need to begin is with the question: How did Jesus love his disciples? In what ways is his love for us made manifest? We must answer this question if the pattern or model of our love for one another is Jesus’s love for his people. Here is a handful of answers.

First, he loves his own by spending time with them. In Mark 2:13-14 where his calling of the twelve is described, we read this: “And he appointed twelve (who he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 2:14-15). Note the phrase: “that they might be with him.” Jesus did not call the twelve and commission them into ministry and then retreat to let them figure things out on their own. He wanted them to be “with him” everywhere he went, to watch what he did, to listen to what he said, and to enjoy his company and fellowship.

Second, he loves his own by bearing patiently with their struggles and stumbles and stupid responses. Not one among the twelve was ready or prepared for leadership when he called them. But Jesus was committed to helping them grow up spiritually. He didn’t let his own frustration with their immaturity undermine his determination to love them well. Consider a few examples.

At one point several of them got into an argument about which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46). Instead of taking their cues from Jesus and learning from his humility and deferential ways, they became competitive and played the game of one-upmanship, arguing about who was more important and who would sit closer to Jesus in the coming kingdom. In response, Jesus said, “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48).

On yet another occasion, after Jesus had been rejected by the Samarians, James and John asked Jesus: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus was disappointed by their immaturity and probably more than a little offended. The text says that “he turned and rebuked them” (9:55). But his “rebuke” was motivated by love and a desire that they learn from their mistakes. He didn’t excommunicate James and John or kick them out of the twelve and start looking for their replacements. His love for them was incredibly patient.

As if that were not enough silliness on the part of James and John, on another occasion they persuaded their mother to ask Jesus if he would put one of them at his right hand and the other at his left in the coming kingdom. When the other ten disciples heard about it they got angry with the two. Jesus said to all of them: “whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matt. 20:27).

And who can count the number of times that Peter said something impetuous, ill-timed, or downright stupid?

Add to this the fact that Peter would deny him three times and the others would run away scared when he needed them most, and you can get a sense for the depth of Christ’s love for them.

Third, he loves them by persevering through thick and thin and not allowing their faults and failures to quench the fire of affection in his heart. We saw this already in John 13:1-2 – “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Fourth, he loves his own by teaching them the truth, even when it might be hard to grasp or be offensive to their sensibilities. He never hid things from them but clearly instructed them on what being his followers entailed: persecution, slander, imprisonment, rejection, perhaps even martyrdom.

Our world today has a terrible problem with love. They think they know what it means. The standard definition of love is that you never do or say anything that might be upsetting or offensive to another person. You never do or say anything that might get in the way of them expressing their own personal desires in however they choose. To love someone is to affirm and approve whatever it is that they believe about themselves or choose to do with their bodies or their money or their lives as a whole. In our world today it is virtually impossible to say, “You are wrong, but you are loved.” To tell someone they are wrong, they are misguided, they are in danger, they are in the process of destroying their lives both for now and for eternity, is to hate them. To love them is to give them unqualified, unconditional approval and affirmation.

Jesus never did that. He always spoke and acted with the best interests of his people in mind. And often those best interests are served only by his speaking harsh things, things we prefer not to hear, things like:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life [now that sounds very loving; but Jesus doesn’t stop there; he goes on to say]; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

“Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24b).

“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:42, 44).

Why did Jesus say such things? He said them out of love. He said them because they are true and apart from faith in him people stand in jeopardy of eternal damnation.

Fifth, he loved them by praying for them consistently. In fact, the entire 17th chapter of John’s gospel is devoted to the prayer of Jesus for his disciples. “I am praying for them,” said Jesus in John 17:9. “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”

Sixth, he loved them by making known the Father to them. Again, in John 17:26 Jesus said this in his prayer: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Seventh, although I could continue to give numerous other ways in which Jesus loved his own, the preeminent expression of his love for them and for us is seen in his sacrificial death in our place, to bear the judgment of our sin in order that we might have eternal life.

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