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What's New about the New Commandment?
Dave Martin     06/09/2021

The other day I was arrested by a small word in John 13:34. The word is “new.” Jesus says to his disciples, “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.” He adds, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Why did he call it a new commandment? As Jews they were familiar with the command recorded in Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” So what was new about Jesus’ commandment?

Most commentators I sampled, from contemporary all the way back to Augustine, locate this newness in the new standard and model of Jesus, who became a servant and sacrificed himself for others. True enough. The result, says commentator Lawrence Richards, is that “The Christlike love that permeates the new community of Christian brothers and sisters is a witness to the world that Jesus is real. Only Jesus’ living presence can explain such love for others.”1

That’s also true. But it doesn’t go far enough. One of our pet evangelical phrases is “the watching world.” Of course, “the watching world” is quick to criticize and ridicule us when we mess up, but we are fooling ourselves if we think “the watching world” is really paying attention to the positive things we do for one another in our religious enclaves. If homogeneous groups of Anglos or Blacks or Jews or Latinos or Asians are loving each other in Christlike ways, is that really remarkable to outsiders? Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).

Back to the word new in John 13:34. When I read that, my mind went immediately to John 17:23 and to Matthew 28:19. In John 17:23 Jesus is envisioning a new community drawn from every ethnicity and culture when he prays “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Jesus’ great commission in Matthew 28 is a multiethnic, multinational mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

I’m convinced in reading these passages that when Jesus envisioned the church confirming his divine credentials, he saw it as a supernatural unifying of diverse people that could only be explained by his influence. Juxtaposing these three texts presses me to the conclusion that we must vigorously pursue multiethnic relationships within the church of Jesus Christ, so that the beautiful love of Jesus among former “incompatibles” becomes un-ignorable and irrefutable evidence that the Kingdom of God is among us.

Isn’t this exactly what happened in the early centuries of the church? Alexander MacLaren (1826-1910), famed Scottish Baptist pastor, eloquently describes the world in which the church was birthed:

‘Love one another.’ The newness of the precept is realised, if we think for a moment of the new phenomenon which obedience to it produced. When the words were spoken, the then-known civilised Western world was cleft by great, deep gulfs of separation, like the crevasses in a glacier, by the side of which our racial animosities and class differences are merely superficial cracks on the surface. Language, religion, national animosities, differences of condition, and saddest of all, difference of sex, split the world up into alien fragments. A ‘stranger’ and an ‘enemy’ were expressed in one language, by the same word. The learned and the unlearned, the slave and his master, the barbarian and the Greek, the man and the woman, stood on opposite sides of the gulfs, flinging hostility across.2

We think of our modern world as being fragmented, but MacLaren points out that in Jesus’ day the chasms of separation were deeper and wider, and the hostilities more intense. Against this backdrop, listen to MacLaren’s description of the spectacular impact of those three words, “Love one another,” on the Roman world:

A Jewish peasant wandered up and down for three years in His own little country, which was the very focus of narrowness and separation and hostility, as the Roman historian felt when he called the Jews the ‘haters of the human race’; He gathered a few disciples, and He was crucified by a contemptuous Roman governor, who thought that the life of one fanatical Jew was a small price to pay for popularity with his troublesome subjects, and in a generation after, the clefts were being bridged and all over the Empire a strange new sense of unity was being breathed, and ‘Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free,’ male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant, clasped hands and sat down at one table, and felt themselves ‘all one in Christ Jesus.’ They were ready to break all other bonds, and to yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from His Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies, and complicity in unnameable vices. It was only that the disciples were obeying the ‘new commandment,’ and a new thing had come into the world—a community held together by love and not by geographical accidents or linguistic affinities, or the iron fetters of the conqueror. You sow the seed in furrows separated by ridges, and the ground is seamed, but when the seed springs the ridges are hidden, no division appears, and as far as the eye can reach, the cornfield stretches, rippling in unbroken waves of gold. The new commandment made a new thing, and the world wondered.3

Jesus paid for our unity by dying on the cross, thereby tearing down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14-16) between Jews, Gentiles, and all other warring factions. He prayed for our unity just before his arrest, seeing it as a sign to the world that he came from God (John 17:23). He said our stamp of authenticity as disciples would be our love for one another (John 13:35). This radical, loving unity in diversity is our calling card.

But are we using our calling card? We aren’t when the world sees local churches as affinity groups based on class, ethnicity, culture, education, political affiliation, and so on. What’s remarkable about that? The “watching world” isn’t paying attention, no matter how much love is being expressed internally.

This can be our moment to shine. As cynicism and polarization rise politically, racially, and economically, we the church have a golden opportunity to present to the world a radically different vision, just as the early church did to the Roman Empire.

It starts with admitting where we’ve gone wrong. Just as many have become comfortable separating faith and works, many of us have become comfortable detaching love from diversity. We have come to believe that we can obey Jesus’ new command while remaining in our comfortable affinity groups – and we cannot.

How is the new commandment new? It’s new because it gives us a new model – Jesus, who came as a servant and laid down his life for his friends. It gives us new motivation and power – we are born again and empowered to love by the Holy Spirit. And most importantly for this discussion, it gives us a new scope – no longer a command for Jews only, the command draws former antagonists together in harmony such that the world is amazed at Jesus.

We cannot – we dare not – separate the mission of making disciples from this new commandment to love one another. The “watching world” has every right to demand from us proof of concept. Jesus said his church would be the proof of concept – a loving community that offers answers to racism, sexism, violence, poverty, family breakdown, and all the other ills plaguing our world. This new community of disciples won’t be perfect, but it will show that, by the Spirit’s power, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). It will be an outpost and a preview of the ultimate community that convenes at the King’s return!

Bottom line: When we insist on remaining in our Christian affinity groups rather than pursuing the “fellowship of incompatibles” that Jesus envisioned, we strip the church of its most powerful authenticating sign to the world – not to mention the richness of relationships that’s missing in our affinity groups. Making disciples of all peoples should include inviting people into these revolutionary, diverse Kingdom communities.

__________

1Richards, L. O. (1987). The Teacher’s Commentary (pp. 740–741). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

2MacLaren, A. (2009). Expositions of Holy Scripture: John 9–14 (pp. 226–227). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

3Ibid

 

Comments

Audrey   06/11/2021 06:54 AM

This is really good. Many blessings to you for this insight.
Carl A Dixon   06/11/2021 10:52 AM

I have been teaching for decades that 'new' meant AS I HAVE LOVED YOU! Now I still believe that but your exposition is truly correct. We are to be making disciples of those from the whole world Jews, Gentiles, Men, Woman, Young, Old, Canadians, Americans, Hispanics, Asians, white and black and brown etc. When the world see a multiplying of people from every ethnic group it will then have to ask how that could be - and the answer is The Gospel - the Good News about Jesus - we are to love one another as Jesus did by dying for everyone who calls on His name.
Paluku Wangahemuka   06/12/2021 08:25 PM

Thank you, Dave, for this article. You wrote what you practice and live. You loved me the way you describe 'new love' in this article although I am a guy from the African jungle. God bless you.
John   06/14/2021 06:35 AM

Thank you for your post, which I pray gets wide reading and deep application. FYI, the Lord recently led a new ministry, Be United in Christ, to develop this insight in a number of resources, most of which are free. John 17:20-26 is discussed at length in https://www.beunitedinchrist.com/product/john-1720-26. May our Lord unite His new covenant people that we might more faithfully fulfill His commission to our divided world.

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