September 3, 2014

The New Commandment

footwashing_02.jpgThe word “commandment” is one every first century Jew understood. God had made Adam in such a way that he was responsible to obey God’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 Israel’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 “Great Commandment” 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 “new” commandments. Now, in the shadow of the cross and in the aftermath of washing his disciples feet, Jesus speaks of a “new” 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.”

How “new” is the new commandment? It certainly does not change the existing law that calls on God’s people to love their neighbor. It does not change Jesus’ 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 “one another” commands are limiters, commanding us to feed our fellow Christian, but not our unbelieving neighbor. This is a serious error.)

The “new” commandment is not meant to turn Jesus’ 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 “look to Jesus, the author and finisher” of our faith.

Jesus says that we are to love one another “just as I have loved you.” 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. “Just as I have loved you” 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 isn’t “Who will love me now?,” but is “How can I love one other person as Jesus loves me?”

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 “new commandment.” 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. Jesus’ 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 “as I have loved you,” the world can see what the community formed around Jesus should look like, and how “principles” and “laws” come into incarnational life.

This is the reason the Lord’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 “the new commandment” embodied for his community, and he is “good news” incarnated for all persons everywhere.

Comments

  1. “This is the reason the Lord’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 “the new commandment” embodied for his community, and he is “good news” incarnated for all persons everywhere.”

    Amen!

    Thanks Michael.

    – Steve

  2. I had never before thought of the “new commandment” as the initiation of the “new” way of being Israel centered around Christ. This is a truly profound meditation to sit upon at this time in the liturgical year. Your questions are also timely. Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. Jesus is always the living example of God’s commandments. He doesn’t just tell us things like “Love your neighbor,” or “Pray for those that use you,” he demonstrates those commands himself. As he hangs on the cross dying, he asks God to forgive the very people who are crucifying him. If we are to love as Jesus loved, the bar is set pretty high.