The New Commandment, Lesson 6

Originally posted at Women of Purpose.

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. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 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 2:7-11)

In last week’s lesson we learned that we can be assured that we are in Christ when we obey God. God’s love for us and our love for him in return motivate us to obey his commandments. Obedience motivated out of love for God takes the shape of love for God and for others, so love and obedience overlap. This overlapping continues as we now come to the second test of assurance of faith: the social test, or, the test of love. Framed as obedience to God, John now narrows the obedience to a particular command.

He opens his topic by addressing his readers as “Beloved.” This shows the tender concern he has for them, that they would grasp the truth of what he is writing, and understand the great love with which they are loved, not only by him, but far more so by the Father. By calling them Beloved, he is reminding them of who they are in Christ and that this truth ought to shape their love for one another.

The new/old commandment of which John writes is that believers are to love one another (John 13:34; 1 John 4:11). It’s an old commandment that has been written into the law since the Lord gave Moses the Book of the Law, when the Israelites were first organized into a nation (Lev. 19:18). But that’s not all that John means when he writes to his readers that they have known it “from the beginning” (7). He means that they have known this commandment from their own beginning with the gospel—when they first believed in Christ and were saved. And yet, as we saw in Leviticus, this is no new command. That the people of God are to love one another is entirely consistent with the teaching of the Old Covenant, and even reaches back to Eden, the beginning of humanity, when one of the first results of the Fall was the destruction of the love and trust between Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:12).

If the commandment is so old, how then is it new? We find the answer in John’s gospel:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

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 have love for one another (John 13:34-35)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15-17)

Moses’ law was not opposed to grace, but it was impossible to keep without the grace and truth which have now come through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself called this a new commandment, and by his love for us he gave us the example of how we are love one another. Our living obedience is evidence to the watching world that we belong to our Lord Jesus Christ, because the only way we are able to obey is by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The kind of love which we are to demonstrate for one another does not come naturally, but believers enlightened by Christ and empowered by the Spirit are able to learn this new way to love. The coming of Jesus transforms the impossible old commandment into something new and obtainable.

Literally, “The word new in Greek suggests that the old has given birth to the new. The old does not cease to exist but continues along with the new.”[1]

This command to love one another has been in force from the beginning, but now, in Christ, it is given new power as believers are enabled by the Holy Spirit to obey. The newness is not the command itself, but the “in Christ-ness” of the command. This ancient command finds its fulfillment in Christ, in his supreme act of love for us by his self-sacrifice on the cross. As we are found in him by faith, we are enabled to more fully obey God’s call to love.

John addresses this new commandment to believers, as did Paul and Peter (4:11; Rom. 12:10; 1 Peter 1:22, 4:8). Only those who are beloved by the Father and purified by obedience to the truth by believing in Christ are truly able to love one another. But also note that this particular command is directed to believers for love within the covenant community, hence, the “one-another-ness” of the command. This is to be a mark of the Church, the New Covenant people of God.

Jesus did issue a call for believers to love their enemies and their neighbors, yes. But in this epistle John is dealing with conflicts within the church and divisions caused by unloving false teachers. Those of us who have already mastered loving other Christians may skip ahead to the next lesson… 😉

Scanning John chapter 13, we see that the occasion upon which Jesus gave the new command is the Last Supper, where we have recorded (by John) the longest extended teaching of our Lord exclusively to his disciples, also known as “The Upper Room Discourse.” This command to “love one another” (34-35), comes right after Judas has been excused to go to the chief priests and betray his Master (21, 27), and before Peter’s rash declaration of unwavering loyalty, which Jesus knows will fail in Peter’s thrice-over denial of his Lord (36-38).

Against this backdrop of treason and betrayal, Jesus gave a new commandment (which wasn’t really so new), exhorting the disciples (and us) to love one another. He then marched boldly to the cross to lay down his life for his friends. Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 gives a clear picture of what walking in love is and what it is not. Read slowly: this is not a motivational poster, but, when considered carefully against the reality of our lives and relationships, is a difficult and nearly impossible calling:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

Surely among the covenant community of believers, being filled with the Holy Spirit to help us, and having all received this commandment to love one another— surely this is easy to do, right? No, sadly, it’s not. In real life, sinners loving other sinners (though we are sanctified sinners) may be a very difficult calling indeed. The difficulty of the command does not exempt us from obedience to it. Take a moment to remember that we are only able to love one another because God loved us first. Read the passage from 1 Corinthians again. This is how God loves us in Christ: patiently, with kindness, not irritably or resentfully, but rejoicing with truth. Christ, because of his love for the Father and the Father’s love for us, endured the cross and bore our all sins. We are loved with a great love, and are therefore called to love one another greatly.

After looking more closely at Jesus’s command that we love one another and Paul’s definition of love, what will this look in your life? Where do you need to adjust your thinking and your loving?

The True Light

According to John, this new commandment is “true in him and in you” because “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (8). John began his gospel with the proclamation that Jesus himself is the “true light” whose “life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4, 9). And yet, the true light has not yet extinguished all darkness. We still pray for the coming of the kingdom in all its fullness; we are still taking the gospel to the lost, making disciples and teaching them to obey all that Jesus taught us; and though Jesus has risen from the grave as the firstfruits of spiritually living humanity, we still await the end, “when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (Matt. 6:10, 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 15:22-26).

As soon as Christ brings light, we have the full brightness of knowledge: not that every one of the faithful becomes wise the first day as much as he ought to be, (for even Paul testifies that he labored to apprehend what he had not apprehended, Phil 3:12) but that the knowledge of Christ alone is sufficient to dissipate darkness. Hence, daily progress is necessary; and the faith of every one has its dawn before it reaches the noon-day.[2]

Sisters! Do you see how our growing love for one another reassures our hearts that we are indeed in Christ! We do not yet love as we ought, but we make progress gradually, as the light of Christ rises in our hearts and minds and brings warmth and life to our covenant community.

In verse 9 John introduces (again) contrast for the sake of the believer’s assurance. The difference between a believer and a non-believer, as illustrated in verses 9-11, is whether we love one another. Those who love the brethren are walking in the light and giving no cause for stumbling. Those who hate the brethren are stumbling around in the darkness, not knowing where they are going and blinded. According to these verses, there is no neutral ground between loving and hating the brethren. Neither does John give exceptions to this command that we love one another: not personality, circumstance, mood, or any other such excuse. No loopholes. We are called to love.

John is leveling a serious accusation against those who verbally profess to be in the light while their lives prove otherwise. The hypocrisy of professing belief while hating our fellow believers such a serious matter because it reveals a heart of unbelief that is not only murderous toward others, but also holds no love for God (11; 3:15; 4:20).

According to verse 11, the one who suffers most from this lack of love is the one who is doing the hating, bitterly eaten up with unbelief and wandering in the darkness. In contrast, as Psalm 119:165 tells us, those who love God and his word will enjoy great peace and, “nothing can make them stumble.” Simon Kistemaker agrees, writing in his commentary on our passage that:

Darkness has a blinding effect on the eyes. When eyes are kept idle for sustained periods of time, blindness inevitably results. When a person is in spiritual darkness, life becomes meaningless and goals are without purpose. The tragedy is that walking in darkness need not take place, for God’s true light is available to everyone (John 1:9).[3]

Upon a careful reading of verse 9 we see that John leaves the door of hope open to those who walk in darkness. When he writes that these unbelievers are “still” in darkness, he implies that theirs is not a terminal condition. One who walks in darkness may yet see the light. Jesus spoke of this very hope when he said, “The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36a). Lest we forget that we have not always walked in the light ourselves, Paul reminds us, while describing those still in darkness who will not inherit the kingdom, that, “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Indeed, before we given new birth by the Holy Spirit, washed, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we were:

Dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace [we] have been saved (!!!)—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. —Ephesians 2:4-9

Therefore, our loving response to those who still walk in darkness is to offer the same gift which we were given by grace and share the light as ambassadors for Christ, imploring the lost to be reconciled to God and earnestly appealing to them to come to Jesus, who is the only way of salvation (Matt. 5:15-16; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:2).

The Covenant Thread

Assurance is the theme of our passage: our assurance that we are in Christ as evidenced by our love for one another, love that proves we are walking in the light and not stumbling in the dark.

Jeremiah prophesied, saying,

“Thus says the LORD:

‘Stand by the roads and look,

    and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way is; and walk

             in it,

   and find rest for your souls.’” —Jeremiah 6:16

God has given his people paths to walk in and light to see by. Ever since Genesis 3, everyone has been born into spiritual darkness, blind to the things of God and the light of Christ. One of the consequences of the darkness is broken relationships, evidenced by our inability to love one another as God has commanded. But God, because of his covenant faithfulness, has sent his Son to light our path….

Jesus declares that he himself is The Way, The Truth, and The Life, and no one comes to the Father but through him. (John 14:6). God entered into covenant with Christ to save a people for himself, which was the mystery of the ages, “way back” in eternity past (Eph. 3:9-12). This is called the Covenant of Redemption, agreed upon within the Trinity before the foundation of the world, when (but wait—it was eternity, so there wasn’t really a when—bear with me) all those elected for salvation were predestined to be saved (Ephesians 1:3-5).

Jesus himself is our ancient path, the good way in which we should walk and not stumble. He builds us up into his Church, and the angels stare in wonder and awe. We are his people, chosen to walk the covenant path before the foundation of the world because of no merit in ourselves, but because of God’s love for us. What reassuring grace it is to know that we did nothing to set ourselves on this path, and therefore can do nothing (ultimately) to lose our way! Let us therefore walk together in love, asking, looking, and walking in the light, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Then we will find rest for our souls. Oh, sisters, the walk may be long and wearisome; do you need rest? Look to Jesus!

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. —Jude 24-25

[1] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 260.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of John, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009), 179.

[3] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 264.

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