“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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There’s a story about John the apostle as an old man, recounted by Jerome.1 Whenever John’s disciples carried the frail apostle in to their meetings, he would say, “Little children, love one another”. Every. Time.
His disciples eventually got a bit cranky and bored with this repetition, and asked him, “Why do you always say this?” He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone be kept, it is sufficient”.
John certainly wrote a lot about what Jesus said concerning love. Famously, God so loved the world that he gave his own Son, Jesus (John 3:16). Jesus talks often about the love the Father has for him (3:35, 5:20, 10:17, 15:9, 17:23). Chapter 13 gives us a particularly intimate demonstration of the love Jesus had for his disciples. As he takes the position of a servant and washes his disciples’ feet, he gives them a demonstration of how they are to act (13:15). In imitating Jesus, it seems there’s nothing more like our Lord than to forget about any sense of entitlement you might have, or what you think you might deserve, and get on with looking after others.
So in these verses in chapter 13, as Jesus announces that he is going away and his disciples cannot follow him, he outlines his expectations for them in his absence. He expects them to love one another.
The ‘old commandment’ of the law stated that God’s people should love their neighbours as themselves (cf. Matt 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31). Love for one another in this sense is not new, and Jesus’ “new commandment” does not do away with this concern for others. What Jesus is doing here is extending and deepening that command to treat others rightly, by providing a new basis for love: the extent of his own love for his people. In washing his disciples’ feet, Christ showed that he loved them “to the end” (13:1), pointing to the love that he would soon demonstrate on the cross.2
And so our love for others now is not because of social or national ties, or geographic ‘neighbourliness’; it’s perhaps least of all because we like the other person. “New commandment” love for other people is grounded in the fact that they are fellow sinners, redeemed by Jesus Christ in just the same way we were.
That is, rather than loving your brothers and sisters as yourself, we’re talking here about loving them as if they were better than yourself (cf. Philippians 2), and worth laying down your life for.
Why can I say that? Well, this theme of love is taken up and expanded in chapter 15, particularly verses 9-16. The kind of love for a friend that would lead you to lay down your life for them—that’s the kind of love that Jesus is commanding here:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)
How has Jesus loved us? He loved us by self-sacrificially dying for us. We too must be prepared to go to a similar extent for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are two things worth finishing on regarding this divine love, modelled on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son (15:9). Loving one another like Jesus loved us is a commandment. Our submission and obedience to Jesus requires that we continue to do this.
Secondly, this commandment carries an element of evangelism, or at the very least a demonstration of who we are. There’s a link in these chapters between the disciples being caught up in Jesus’ love for them and being sent out into the world in mission (cf. 17:20-25, 20:21). Our loving service of others in seeking their good, in laying down our lives for them, in building them up in the word, is all service with a mission: so that “all people” will know the love of God that has transformed us. Our verbal witness about Jesus in testifying about him must be matched by a visual demonstration of his love. Our love for one another is a defining characteristic of our relationship with Jesus; through our demonstration of love, the world can come to know what we know.
My brothers and sisters: love one another. It is the Lord’s commandment!