A New Commandment: Love Each Other

Bible

John’s gospel is often divided into two major sections. The most common titles used by scholars today are the Book of Signs for John 1 – 12 and the Book of Glory for John 13 – 20. The Book of Glory has four major sections. They are The Introduction in John 13:1-30; The Last Discourse of Jesus in John 13:31-17:26; The Passion Narrative in John 18:1-19:42; and The Resurrection Narrative in chapter 20.

In the Book of Signs, John usually presented a narrative describing an event (preforming a miracle or “sign”) followed by the discourse explaining the deeper meaning of that event. That pattern is impossible in the Book of Glory. The event is Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection; his glorification as John would say. It would be quite distracting to insert all the explanation of the meaning into John 18-20. Also, the disciples needed to know the meaning before the cross. Thus the Last Discourse deals with Jesus’ departure to return to the Father.

In literary form, the Last Discourse can be called Jesus’ testament or last words. Another term is farewell speech. This was a common literary form for Judaism. We can see it in the Old Testament. Jacob’s final speech and blessings appear in Genesis 48-49. Joshua’s farewell to the nation is found in Joshua 22-24. David’s final speech appears in 1 Chronicles 28-29. In one sense the whole book of Deuteronomy presents the farewell speech of Moses.

John 13:1-30 deals with the foot washing and the prediction of Judas’ betrayal, the Passion, and the Resurrection is primarily narrative. John 13:31-17:26 is a unique section of the gospel in that it is one long discourse uninterrupted by narrative. It is the longest discourse section in the gospel of John, containing 125 verses. In the middle of this discourse, Jesus tells His disciples to love one another. He calls it a New Commandment.

John 13:31-38 starts this narrative. It starts after Judas leaves the upper room. The departure of Judas, mentioned in verse 30, means that all the disciples, and especially Jesus, are now focused on the will of God that will lead to the cross. The word now and the five occurrences of glorify in verses 31 and 32 point to a new level of intensity. The departure of Judas means a purity in the group that enables Jesus to declare, “Now the son of man is glorified.”

Several things should be noticed with regard to Jesus’ emphasis on glorify in these verses. First, the Greek word for glory means brightness, radiance, and splendor. In stark contrast to the mention of night in verse 30 as the context of Judas. Jesus now is able to express the brightness of his obedience to the Father. Second, there is a note of triumph in verse 31. With Judas departure, Jesus’ statements about being glorified ring out with much more joy and excitement.

In John 13:31-32 Jesus confidently proclaims that glorification has come about (The first three “glorified’s” are past tense in the Greek. The last two are future.). The crucifixion and resurrection are viewed both as completed, but still to come. By Jesus’ death and resurrection God will visibly manifest His (God’s) majesty in acts of power. That is glorification and verse 32 concludes that it is about to happen immediately. The cross looms before Jesus; it is urgent that he give the disciples their final instructions before he goes the way of the cross. Because the time is short Jesus begins in verse 33 with a statement he has already made to the Jews twice in the book of signs, “You will seek me and . . . where I am going you are not able to come.” In John 7:34 Jesus had said this and noted that the Jews would not find him. In John 8:21 he had added that they would remain in their sins. Here, he addresses the disciples and instead of the negative conclusions he had given the Jews, Jesus begins a discourse full of promises and hope. The condition of those promises is the love command of verse 34.

The command to love one another is not new in the sense that it had never been given before. The Greek word for new that is used here does not refer to an innovation – something never before existing. Rather, it refers to renewal and restoration. The love command’s newness comes from the fact that the work of the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit were about to make it possible to really love one another for the first time. The commandment was renewed by the work of Christ that was beginning.

We will never successfully love one another without the work of Christ – the cross and the gift of the Spirit – in our lives. When we find ourselves locked in hatred and paralyzed from loving we need to be crucified to ourselves and raised to the will of God. In fact, the love that flows from that work of Christ in our lives is the only real sign of discipleship. That is Jesus’ message in verse 35.

Any of the spiritual gifts can be and have been imitated by anyone. Any of the external marks of piety that Christians have adopted can be faked. Sustained, on-going love for each other, love modeled after Christ’s love for us cannot be counterfeited. Such love is the true mark of the Christian. Peter’s question in verse 36 seems to change the subject. Being dissatisfied with the command of love, Peter takes up v. 33 in his desire to follow Christ at once. Knowledge and religious experiences are more attractive than obedience.

If Peter is to love the other disciples like Jesus loved them, he realizes that it will mean washing their feet. It is time to change the subject. But his very effort reveals his failure to share the heart of Jesus. Jesus had just told them that they could not follow where he was going. Peter persists, “Where are you going?” The implication is that Peter will be the one to decide whether or not he can follow if he just knows where Jesus is going. Jesus’ response is prophetic. Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me later. Christian readers who know the tradition of Peter’s crucifixion would immediately see the point. Peter cannot and will not follow Jesus to the cross now, but years later he did.

Peter’s response, “Why can’t I follow you?” sounds like a young child. He refuses to accept Jesus’ distinction between now and later because, down deep, Peter does not acknowledge that the Master is greater than the servant. A disciple cannot follow where the Master has not led. After Jesus has blazed the trail Peter can follow only if he has died to self and been raised to the will of the Father.

John very subtly and ironically reveals Peter’s problem. Though the other gospels contain Peter’s boast to give his life for Christ, John’s choice of words for Peter is very revealing. “I will lay down my life for you.” John makes Peter assume language which is only applicable to Jesus. To lay down one’s life in the sense in which Jesus lays down his means complete obedience to the Father and perfect love for men, neither of which does Peter possess. In fact, the truth is the reverse of what Peter thinks.” Jesus is the one who will lay down his life and it will be for Peter. That great love will be demonstrated in spite of the fact that three times Peter will deny Jesus before the sun rises the next morning.

God the Father gives commands to the Son, and Jesus gives commands to His followers. The Love Command is not a suggestion any more than the Father’s words to Jesus Christ were suggestions. This command to love bears all the weight of the person who uttered it. The command to love was one of John’s foremost concerns. Throughout 1 and 2 John, he refers to it again and again as the hallmark of those in whose lives the presence of God is being reflected.  The love command puts words to the action of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  Jesus said, just as I have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.  In the love command, Jesus is saying that as I have loved you –by taking your sins on myself and going to the cross – you should love one another and putting each other’s needs before your own. The command to love one another follows immediately after the foot washing.

The gospel of John speaks generously of God’s love for the world (John 3:16). Jesus’ mission is to save the world (4:42), to give life (6:33), and light (12:46). The disciples are commanded to go into this world and continue Jesus’ work (17:18 and 20:21). But Jesus has specialized interests in the present setting. Jesus wants His followers to show a quality of love that is unparalleled in the world. Jesus – by giving this new commandment – is telling His followers not that they should love the world less, but they and we are to love each other more. Their and our love for each other ought to be a reflection of our new status as children of God.

 

NOTE: Information shared in this blog was taken from the below resources.

Burge, Gary M.. The NIV Application Commentary of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Elwell, Walter. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Kostenberger J. Andreas. Encountering John. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999.

Morris, Leon. Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.

Townes, Elmer. The Gospel of John: Believe and Liv

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