READ : John 13:34-35
What did Jesus mean when He said to His followers, “I am giving you a new commandment”? Listen, I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 13, verse 34,
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.
In what sense was the commandment new? Hasn’t it always been the calling of God’s people to show love? Didn’t God say in the Old Testament law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”? (Lev. 19:18). Hadn’t Jesus already singled that out as the second of the great commands, on which all the law and the prophets depend? Yet He said to His disciples on the night before He died, “I am giving you a new command. Love one another as I have loved you.”
A NEW MODEL
Jesus gave to His followers here a new model of what it is to love. There’s a real difference, isn’t there, between reading about something in a book, and seeing it demonstrated before our eyes? For a number of years, I have been interested in the game of golf. Like all aspiring golfers, I’ve wanted to learn how to play the game well. I’ve read books and articles on the subject of the golf swing, a host of details about the stance, the grip, the backswing and the turn. I can read articles like that and even reread them, then get out on the golf course and somehow find that they haven’t helped me at all. I get bewildered at the things I need to remember, and often lapse back into the same bad habits I’ve always had.
But when I watch a golf tournament on television and see how the professionals play the game, it’s an altogether different feeling. Suddenly what I read about in the books and articles comes to life and form before my eyes. Here is someone who swings the golf club smoothly, hits the ball well. That gives encouragement. And now and then, watching, I’ll pick up something that will help me. It may not transform my game. At least it hasn’t done that yet. But it helps me to move in the right direction. I’ll take a model over a lecture any day.
This is even more profoundly true when it comes to character – the art of living. What really influences a child when he or she is growing up? It’s not so much the instruction of parents as their example. Children tend to conform themselves to what mom and dad do, rather than to what they say.
Jesus embodied for the disciples what it means to love. They saw Him reaching out and touching lepers everyone else avoided, even making them whole. They saw Him extending compassion to hurting people, forgiveness to moral outcasts. In Him, love became a winsome, present reality in human life.
A NEW MOTIVATION
In Jesus the disciples found also a new kind of motivation to love. They were to love, He said, as He had loved them. These men had experienced His acceptance. They had heard His gracious calling in the midst of their common lives. They had known His transforming friendship. And just a few moments before He spoke these words to them, He had done something truly amazing. He had gotten up from supper, laid aside His outer garment, girded Himself with a towel, and gone around the circle, washing their feet. Soon after that, in a supreme act of love He had hinted at before, He would give His life on their behalf. They were to love now as He had loved them. It was not simply that they had seen with their eyes the way He loved others. They had experienced personally what it was to be loved by Him.
Two public figures were discussing recently the terrible rise in violent crime among youth in America. Someone raised to them the prevalent notion that crime is rooted in poverty. Surprisingly, both men rejected that notion. The world has always known poverty, they argued. But in most cases this has not led to criminal violence. Their conviction was that the crime crisis in American life, though poverty is undeniably a factor in it, is rooted in something much deeper – the deterioration of the American family. A huge percentage of those who engage in criminal violence come from families broken by divorce and desertion. They are the children of abuse and neglect. They’ve known little of the stability of a strong family unit, little of constructive discipline, less of real love.
All of us tend to live out what we’ve experienced in our primary relationships. Those manipulated become manipulators; the abused become abusers; the despised and unwanted characteristically treat others as insignificant. Only the loved learn what it is to love someone else.
Right at the heart of Christian ethics is the calling to treat other people as God has treated us. Has He been patient with us? Then we are to be forbearing with them. Has He accepted us in spite of our past? That’s our clue for welcoming others. Has He loved us with lavish self-giving? That moves us to treat other people so. The commandment is new for these disciples because they’ve known the wonder of what it is to be deeply cared about by Him. In glad and grateful response they want to learn what it is to love.
A NEW POWER
But there’s even more to this newness. We need not only a model for loving and a motivation to do it ourselves. We need a power beyond our own. Jesus would speak to His followers on this last night about His going away and sending the Holy Spirit to them. He would not leave them orphans, He said. He would come to them and make His abode with them. They would be joined to Him as branches in the living vine. They would partake of His life. Their love would not be a pale, weak imitation of His, but somehow a participation in His loving power. The command was somehow also a gift. Along with the charge came the imparting of new life and strength. Theirs would be a miracle kind of love, “the life of God in the soul of man.”
There would be nothing automatic about it. It would surely not be forced upon them. It would call for prayer, faith, diligent effort, perseverance. They would pour their whole souls into the work of loving. But the resources for this new kind of love would all be in Jesus Christ. The disciples would be able to do it because of their vital union with Him.
WHY SO IMPORTANT?
Now why do you suppose it was so important to Jesus that His followers show this kind of love for each other? He wasn’t speaking now of compassion toward those outside the bounds of the church, though that would be a calling of theirs, too. He wasn’t referring to forgiveness toward enemies, though that would be involved as well. This was a love they would express to one another, as fellow members of the body, as brothers and sisters in Christ. In His closing words with His disciples, Jesus insisted on this over and over again: “Love one another, even as I have loved you. This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). It seemed to be the one great obligation that He laid upon them. He didn’t mention at this point several commands that He had for them. It all seemed to come down to this one – that they should love each other as He had loved them.
In this extended passage we gain a number of hints about why it was important. Only so, Jesus said, could the disciples bear fruit. Only so could they have the Lord’s joy abounding within themselves. But there was an even fuller reason. Listen to Jesus again, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In other words, this mutual love among the disciples would be fundamental to their mission in the world. It would be the distinguishing mark that would identify them as His disciples. It would be the sign of their living kinship with Him. It would be their authentic witness to His grace, their embodying of His life here on earth.
The original calling of God’s people, Israel, was that they would be a source of blessing for the whole world. They would be a light to the nations. Through them all the families of the earth would be blessed. And this was the calling also of the twelve. Their faith had significance not only for themselves, but for all the world. They were to be the body of Christ on earth, through whose witness the word of the Lord would go out to all the world’s peoples. And they would be recognizable as His disciples and bear authentic witness to Him, only as they loved one another with His love.
This was exactly the way it happened in the ancient world. The church father Tertullian, one of the great defenders of the faith in the third century, wrote of what the enemies of Christians had to admit grudgingly about them: “See,” they say, “how they love one another.” The marvelous preacher John Chrysostom (his name means “golden mouth”) some generations later deplored the fact that this was no longer the case. “Even now,” he wrote, “there is nothing else that causes the heathen to stumble, except that there is no love.” And from those days to ours, the fortunes of the church’s witness have tended to rise and fall with the expression of mutual love within the Christian fellowship.
I’m afraid that we Christians have not always realized how vital and essential this is. We’ve imagined that if we are properly orthodox and duly zealous in propagating our faith, the people will come. Our churches will grow. And I believe, as firmly as anyone, in the importance of a commitment to biblical truth and in the bold proclamation of the gospel. But I have to realize also that all our efforts in evangelism lead to the incorporation of new believers into the Church, into the body of Christ, into a local congregation. And there, the relationships that newcomers sense among the believers will either powerfully reinforce or seriously undermine for them the credibility of the gospel.
Suppose that we’re a church that proclaims the welcoming love of the Lord, but we don’t want certain types and classes of people in our number. Why, then, we’re practically denying the evangel we profess. Suppose we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, but let longstanding grudges go on among families within the fellowship. What are our lives saying about the power of the gospel?
Those wistful, watching people out in the world are not especially drawn to a group of people characterized by pettiness, coldness, envy and insincerity. They can find enough of that elsewhere. But where they sense a body of believers who genuinely care about each other, who enjoy being together, who bear each other’s burdens, deal gently with each other’s weaknesses, and delight to serve one another’s needs, O friends, there’s something magnetic about that. Who wouldn’t want to warm his hands at that kind of fireside of caring hearts?
Isn’t that what the apostle Paul was saying to a church which prided itself on its many gifts and graces, but was short on love, the church in Corinth?
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Love, friends, is not simply one element in our lives as Christians. The lack of it is not simply a minor weakness. Love is the heart of our life and witness. It’s precisely in the quality of our caring, the burden-bearing which Christians manifest toward one another, that the world comes to see that we belong to Christ and comes to know that He is the one sent by the Father to be the world’s Savior.
What’s the secret, friends, of becoming a truly loving human being? It’s really quite simple. You look to Jesus as your model. You put your trust in His self-giving love for you, this one who died for us and rose again. Then, living in fellowship with Him and relying on the power of His Spirit, you seek to live out that love toward your fellow Christians. That’s the new commandment. Yes, and that’s the way a watching world will know that Jesus is alive and that He is Lord.
Prayer: O God, make this real for us. Greatly loved as we are, teach us what it is to love one another. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.