A New, Old Commandment

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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. 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.      I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.       I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.      I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.      I write to you, children, because you know the Father.       I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.      I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 1 John 2:7-14

In 1 John 2:3-6, the apostle gives a test by which you can know that you truly know Jesus Christ, namely, if you walk in obedience to His word. In 2:6, he states, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” Then, in 2:7-11, John goes on to apply this test of obedience more specifically to the area of love. If Jesus’ life and especially His death epitomized love, then those who claim to follow Him are obligated to live in love.

In the Upper Room, on the night He was betrayed, Jesus demonstrated His great love for the disciples by taking a towel and a basin of water and washing the disciples’ feet. After that unforgettable object lesson, He drove the point home (John 13:14-15), “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” He was not instituting a ceremonial foot-washing service, where everyone comes with clean feet to be washed! He was saying something much more difficult to practice, that we who follow Jesus must set aside our rights and serve one another out of love.

In that same chapter (John 13:34-35), Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Obviously, those words of Jesus were behind John’s words about the old, new commandment. It may be that the heretics against whom John was writing claimed to have some “new” truths. Using an obvious play on words, John counters them by saying that we don’t need new truth, but rather the old truth that his readers learned early in their Christian experience. On the other hand, if you want “new” truth, John says that the old commandment is the new commandment, which Jesus gave to us. In short,

Loving one another is an essential mark of a true Christian.

John never specifically identifies the old, new commandment in these verses, and he only mentions love once in this entire section (2:10). But his reference to the new commandment makes it obvious that he is referring to Jesus’ command to love one another.

This commandment was old in two senses. First, it was old in that Moses taught it in the Law, “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus identified this as the second greatest commandment, after the command to love God with all your being (Matt. 22:37-40). So in that sense, this command had been with God’s people for 1,400 years.

But the main sense in which this was an old commandment is that these believers had heard it from the very earliest days of their Christian experience (2:7): “… which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.” John uses the phrase, “from the beginning,” in the same way in 1 John 3:11, “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”

The “New Commandment”, the Wycliffe Bible Commentary states, “was new in that the love was to be exercised toward others not because they belonged to the same nation, but because they belonged to Christ…and the love of Christ which the disciples had seen…would be a testimony to the world”.

One of the novelties introduced by this commandment – perhaps justifying its designation as New – is that Jesus “introduces himself as a standard for love”. The usual criterion had been “as you love yourself”. However, the New Commandmant goes beyond “as you love yourself” as found in the ethic of reciprocity and states “as I have loved you”, using the Love of Christ for his disciples as the new model.

The First Epistle of John reflects the theme of love being an imitation of Christ, with 1 John 4:19 stating: “We love, because he first loved us.”

John tells his readers that they have had this commandment “from the beginning,” and then identifies it as “the word which you have heard” (2:7). It was part and parcel with the gospel that they had believed at the outset of their Christian experience. When we hear and respond to the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners, at that point the love of God is “poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). The first fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal. 5:22). As I mentioned, the entire Bible may be summed up by the two great commandments, to love God and to love one another. So learning how to establish and maintain loving relationships is not “graduate level” Christianity. It is basic, beginning Christianity.

It all begins with how you think about others. Instead of thinking first about yourself, your feelings, your rights, and your needs, you must learn to think first about others. How can I show this difficult person the love of Jesus Christ? How can I serve this person in love? Rather than thinking angry thoughts about how he wronged you and how you’ll get even, you begin to think about how Jesus wants you to think about the one who mistreated you. You begin to pray for this person, that he would come to know Jesus. You look for opportunities to return good instead of evil. I recommend that you write out Paul’s description of love (1 Cor. 13:4-7) on a card and read it over several times each morning, until you have in your mind how a loving person acts.

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.1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I have often written about people who profess to know Christ, but their relationships are marked by anger, abusive speech, bitterness, and self-centeredness. Invariably, they don’t have a clue as to why they keep experiencing such hate. While I do not know their hearts (only God does), their lives do not give evidence that they have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ. Rather, they seem to be in spiritual darkness, blindly colliding from one profession of hate to the next. They do not practice biblical love, which is an essential mark of every true Christian.

Again, none of us loves perfectly. When we fail, we need to repent and ask forgiveness of the one we wronged. It is a lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. But those who have met Him at the cross will be growing in love for others.

Also, note that love for others is a commandment, not a warm, gushy feeling. That should give you hope, because God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3) and God’s Spirit gives us the grace and power to obey His commands, which are for our good. Biblical love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. You can obey the commandment to love others!

So if you’re thinking, “But I don’t love my mate any more,” or, “I just don’t like that difficult person,” the Bible is clear: Get to work obeying God’s commandment to love him or her. It’s not optional for the follower of Christ. It’s essential!

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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