The word of the day is “commandment.” “Love your neighbor!” It’s an age-old commandment, repeated so often it seems almost like an old and worn-out platitude. But in today’s reading of 1 John 2:7-17, the apostle appears to contradict himself by saying that the command to love one another is new. He writes, “I am writing you no new commandment but an old commandment that you had from the beginning… Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is in Him [Christ] and you…” vs. 8). Today we talk about what makes the commandment to “love one another” radically new.
The “Old” Commandment
“From the beginning,” John says that the faithful have already heard the “word” of the old commandment that he is giving them. It is “old” in the sense of existing for “a long length of time.” Therefore, it is “familiar” and “well known” (Strong’s #3820, 1887). Already in the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses), we find this decree: ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet in the Gospels, the Lord endorsed its key status. He said, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40).
On the other hand, the apostle says that he is issuing a new commandment. It is “new” not in terms of age, but in terms of how we share it (Strong’s #2537, 125). It is not novel but different in quality from the old (Strong’s #2537, 125).
The Need for a New Commandment
If the Lord said the love for one’s neighbor and the love of God are the commandments on which the others depend (Matthew 22:41), then why is there a need for a new commandment? The apostle answers, “I am writing a new commandment… because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (vs. 8). He is speaking of the true light of the Incarnate Son of God, who said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12).
The difference between the old and the new is the appearance of Christ, who taught his followers a new way of living. In our reading, John described this way of living as a “commandment.” Thus, the apostle writes, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in Him’ ought to walk as He walked” (vs. 6).
Accordingly, our reading teaches that whoever hates his brother, still lives in the dark. He is spiritually blind, liable to fall, and lost (vs. 11). Conversely, the apostle writes, “He who loves his brother abides in the light” and does not stumble (vs. 11). In these statements, John puts “walking in the Light of Christ” and loving one another together. They become two ways of pronouncing the same command.
The Lord Gives a New Commandment
The Lord Himself called loving one another “a new commandment.” Recall that on the night of His betrayal, he stooped to wash His disciples’ feet. Then he said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 15:13). By this example, the Lord gave His disciples a new commandment “that you love one another as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
Note that the Lord’s instruction is a radically new interpretation of the “old” commandment. This expression of the will of God clarifies both the standard and the motive for love. From it, we understand the self-giving nature and utmost extent of love. Accordingly, John said, “By this, we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).
And we also have the motive for love. To speak of this incentive, John writes “It is not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [i]for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).
It is the Cross of Christ that is truly new in human history. The Cross is the singular demonstration of the breadth and depth of God’s love for us. And it becomes the model for all who would take up their cross daily and follow the Lord (Luke 9:23). By walking in the light of the Cross, we will reach our destination of eternal life in the Holy Trinity. We will lose our life in the radical love of one another so that we might find it. And in the self-sacrifice of love, we will be obedient to the new commandment that the Lord gave us during the Last Supper.
[i] “Propitiation” refers to the means by which we are released from the punishment for our sins by the mercy of God.