It was Thursday night of Passover week in the ancient city of Jerusalem. The sacred memorial of Christ’s impending death was instituted, and the impervious disciples were bickering over which of them should be considered the greatest (Luke 22:14-24). Jesus then teaches humility and service by washing their dirty feet (John 13:3-17).
While John omits several details included in the synoptic accounts and vice versa, all four record the treachery and sudden departure of Judas Iscariot. The greedy conspirator had participated in the communal meal and feet washing, but as long as he was present, Jesus was “troubled in spirit” and could not speak to the group as a unified whole. The Lord had much to say to the ones still loyal to him, and once his betrayer had slipped away, the extensive discourse of John 13:31 to 16:33 is directed to them. Our current text (13:31-35) is the beginning of the conversation.
With Judas’s hasty withdrawal, the circumstances leading to Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection and exaltation are set in motion that will ultimately glorify the Son of Man and God in him. What does Jesus now need to say to the remaining eleven who have been struggling with confusion, jealousy, and discord? In view of his imminent departure, he declares: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 NKJV).
THE HEART OF THE MESSAGE
Love is a commandment to be obeyed. There is a huge difference between the biblical concept of love and the spontaneous, shallow, emotive variety with which our world has become enamored. Biblical love is not some flimsy emotional state that is fallen into and out of according to variable moods and circumstances. The kind of love we read about in the Bible is much more stable, dependable, and lasting.
The irony of postmodern religion is its heavy emphasis on unconditional love, tolerance, and acceptance, while dismissing objective truth and commandment keeping. Yet genuine love, according to its divine source, is an objectively stated commandment to be kept.1 In fact, it is the greatest commandment (Mark 12:30-31). When the foundational principles of loving God and neighbor are implemented, no part of the divine will is compromised or ignored.
Godly love is not simply a heightened emotional experience that occurs naturally, freely, or easily. It requires deliberate choice and concerted effort. It is a conscious decision to genuinely pursue the interests of others beyond oneself. Unlike the superficial “warm fuzzies” glamorized by Hollywood and the romance novel industry, biblical love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8).
Love is a new commandment. While the injunction is no longer “new” to modern-day Bible students (cf. 1 John 2:7, 8; 2 John 5), its novelty was particularly relevant to the vulnerable and temperamental disciples in the upper room. As ethnic Jews they would have already been familiar with the long-established requirement of the law to love God and fellow man.2 The newness is thus qualified by the adverb kathōs (“even as”). Whether this refers to the motive (“since I have loved you”) or the type (“after the manner of my love for you”), love is now measured by a higher standard.
It is new in its scope: “Love … those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). It is new in its expectation: “hoping for nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). It is new in its model: “you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). It is new in its intensity: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). It is a self-sacrificing, revolutionary kind of love.
Love is active and reciprocal. Prior to issuing this order, Jesus had hand washed twenty-four odorous feet. He then said to those attached to these feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14-17). Love is more than mere words or feelings. Love is demonstrated by action.3 Seeing that the love commandment undergirds “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40), it is not without significance that the Lord also affirms: “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). The so-called golden rule is a practical expression of what it means to love, encapsulating the attitude and behavior expected of those who follow Jesus.
The directive is to “love one another.” Biblical love is not determined by fluctuating emotions or the lovableness of the recipient. It is patient and kind; it is not envious, self-asserting, prideful, rude, or selfish; it does not anger easily or hold grudges; love rejoices not in iniquity but in truth; it is forbearing, trusting, and hopeful, and does not readily give up (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Love is the enduring affirmation of discipleship. The Lord’s purpose for his ambassadors would be defeated without a unified presence in the world (cf. John 17:11, 20-23, 26). Love is the cohesive force that makes it work. Christ has not instituted a literal badge or uniform or gold-plated icon to identify his true followers. They are recognized by the love they exhibit toward one another.
The requisite of mutual love remained a consistent theme as the New Testament was formulated.4 In the second century, at a time when followers of Jesus were most cruelly despised and persecuted, among the charges leveled against them was the concession, “See how they love one another” (Tertullian, Apology 39). It is through godly love that the real meaning of Christianity is understood.
MESSAGES FOR TODAY
We must be personally committed to the restoration of New Testament Christianity. Our allegiance to God and to his word compels us to acknowledge that there are biblical requirements to obey. As we speak where the Bible speaks, we cannot fail to recognize and implement the greatest command of all. Let us therefore, in our efforts to restore the original apostolic church, particularly remember the central charge given to its original members – “that you love one another.”
We must emphasize both purity of doctrine and purity of behavior. If we preach baptism for remission of sins and have not love, we have become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. If we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday but have not love, we are nothing. If we insist on unaccompanied a cappella praise but have not love, it profits us nothing. While these we ought to do without leaving the others undone, God forbid that the weightier matters are neglected. “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
We must define biblical concepts biblically. God’s criterion of love is deeper, stronger, and more dependable than mere sentimental affection. It is a cognitive resolution to earnestly seek the best for the recipient, irrespective of arbitrary feelings or popular opinion. Christ-like love is always submissive to the divine will (John 8:29; 14:23-24). It warns of judgment and hell (Matt. 5:29-30). It pleads for repentance (Luke 3:8; 13:3) and refuses to justify or tolerate sinful conduct (1 Cor. 5:1-5; 13:6). It effectively counters the strife and division caused by sin (Gal. 5:13-15).
As God has overwhelmingly demonstrated his love for us, we are instructed to love one another. This is the preeminent test of discipleship. It is practical, indiscriminate, and constant, ensuring the faithfulness, legitimacy, effectiveness, and integrity of Christ’s church. May we be as the Lord expects us to be.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See also John 14:15, 23-24; 15:10, 12, 17; Rom. 12:9; 13:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:5; 1 John 2:7-11; 3:18, 23; 4:7-12; 2 John 5-6.
2 Exod. 20:6; Lev. 19:18, 34; Deut. 5:10; 6:5; 7:9; 10:12, 19; 11:1, 13; 13:3-4; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20; Josh. 22:5; 23:11; et al.
3 See Luke 6:27-36; John 3:16; 14:15; 15:12-14; Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 13:1-7; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Gal. 5:13-15; Phil. 2:1-4; 1 John 3:16, 18; et al.
4 John 15:9-17; 17:26; Rom. 12:9; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor. 4:21; 8:1; 13:1-13; 14:1; 16:14, 24; 2 Cor. 2:4, 8; 6:6; 8:7, 8, 24; 12:15; Gal. 5:6, 13, 14, 22; Eph. 1:4, 15; 3:17, 19; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2; 6:23; Phil. 1:9, 16; 2:1, 2; Col. 1:4, 8; 2:2; Col. 3:14; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:6, 12; 4:9; 5:8, 13; 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 Tim. 1:5, 14; 2:15; 4:12; 6:11; 2 Tim. 1:7, 13; 2:22; 3:10; Tit. 2:2; Philem. 5; Heb. 6:10; 10:24; Jas. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:17; 3:10-11; 4:8; 5:14; 2 Pet. 1:7; 1 John 2:10; 3:10, 11, 14, 18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:2; 2 John 1, 5; 3 John 1, 6; Jude 2, 12, 21; Rev. 2:19.
*Prepared for the 2016 SEIBS lectureship.
*Prepared for the 2016 SEIBS lectureship.
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