The word â€œcommandmentâ€ is one every first century Jew understood. God had made Adam in such a way that he was responsible to obey Godâ€™s commandments. The Ten Commandments were the law of God for his covenant people, expounded and expanded in the books of the law from Exodus through Deuteronomy.
It was the law of God that measured Israelâ€™s covenant obedience. In the Psalms, the righteous man lives by, meditates on and obeys the commandments of God. The prophets convicted Israel and Judah of their failure to obey the law of God.
The Pharisees sought to center the life of an oppressed nation around the commandments of God, fencing the commandments with traditions of exacting, comprehensive obedience.
Jesus had taught that he did not come to do away with the commandments of God, but to fulfill them in himself. His teaching took the externals of covenant obedience and revealed their internal reality and authority.
On occasion, Jesus affirmed the â€œGreat Commandmentâ€ summary of the law: Love the Lord your God with all that is within you, and love your neighbor as yourself.
At no time, however, did Jesus speak of giving â€œnewâ€ commandments. Now, in the shadow of the cross and in the aftermath of washing his disciples feet, Jesus speaks of a â€œnewâ€ commandment for his followers and the movement he has generated. We should pay close attention to these simple words
John 13: 34 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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.â€
How â€œnewâ€ is the new commandment? It certainly does not change the existing law that calls on Godâ€™s people to love their neighbor. It does not change Jesusâ€™ commands to love enemies and to move beyond simply loving those who also love us as we love them. Jesus is not asking us to draw a large demarcation between those who are to be loved and those who are not. (Some Christians conclude that the â€œone anotherâ€ commands are limiters, commanding us to feed our fellow Christian, but not our unbelieving neighbor. This is a serious error.)
The â€œnewâ€ commandment is not meant to turn Jesusâ€™ disciples into a club or clique, but it is given in the context of the movement that Jesus is initiating. Jesus is about the business of rebirthing and remaking Israel. This new community has continuity with the old covenant Israel, but in this new community the love of God has been specifically focused into Jesus himself and his words/actions.
Prophetic texts calling Israel into relationship with God, forgiveness, grace and mission have all been made profoundly personal in Jesus. Certainly God loved his people in the old covenant, but the new covenant is Christ focused; it constantly calls us to â€œlook to Jesus, the author and finisherâ€ of our faith.
Jesus says that we are to love one another â€œjust as I have loved you.â€ This calls us into the foot-washing that has just occurred, but it also calls us to draw conclusions and inspiration from all that Jesus has said and done.
One key for this text is to recall how, as Jesus encountered differing kinds of people, he demonstrated various ways that he loves us and exemplifies different ways we can share his love with others.
The love of Jesus for people is rarely mentioned, but it is always shown and demonstrated in the Gospel stories. â€œJust as I have loved youâ€ is Jesus referring to the lepers, women, strangers, Pharisees, sinners, tax collectors, children, thieves, enemies, zealots and outcasts that filled his world.
How did he love them? In what ways can I relate to and imitate that love? How can the watching world see Christ in me, rather than what they expect to see from Christians carrying placards and shouting at the culture?
Jesus is creating a counter-culture; a community with his words and actions at the core. He wants this community to not wait until everyone has agreed to love everyone else before it can function. He wants a community where the dominant question isnâ€™t â€œWho will love me now?,â€ but is â€œHow can I love one other person as Jesus loves me?â€
Because I live in a Christian community and live under the constant, up-close scrutiny of those who are not Christians, I can see what Jesus is doing in the â€œnew commandment.â€ I think about his criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, with his emphasis on being unable to distinguish the relative value of tithing the spices in the kitchen and living out justice, mercy and righteousness. Jesusâ€™ criticism is stinging, but it is in his actions and words that we can see the true balance and focus of the godly life. In the â€œas I have loved you,â€ the world can see what the community formed around Jesus should look like, and how â€œprinciplesâ€ and â€œlawsâ€ come into incarnational life.
This is the reason the Lordâ€™s Supper, the Christian year, the liturgical life of the church, the preaching and teaching of scripture and the overall emphasis of the Christian community should return, again and again, to Jesus himself as he is presented in the Gospels. Jesus is â€œthe new commandmentâ€ embodied for his community, and he is â€œgood newsâ€ incarnated for all persons everywhere.