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.”
Kent Hughes has told the fascinating story of Johanne Lukasse’s efforts to get Christians on the mission field to love one another.
A number of years ago Johanne Lukasse of the Belgian Evangelical Mission came to the realization that evangelism in Belgium was getting nowhere. The nation’s long history of traditional Catholicism, the subsequent disillusionment resulting from Vatican II, and the aggression of the cults had left the land seemingly impervious to the gospel. Driven to the Scriptures, he read John 13 and devised a plan. First, he gathered together a heterogeneous group – Belgian, Dutch, American – whoever would come. Second, he had them rent a house and live together for seven months. As is natural, frictions developed as the believers rubbed against one another. This, in turn, sent them to prayer for love and victory. Finally, they went out to witness to others, and they began to see amazing fruit. Outsiders called them “the people who love each other.”
It is an interesting strategy: take Christians from different backgrounds and different customs and lifestyles and throw them all into one house until they figure out how to work through their problems and love one another. In many ways, that is exactly what the Church is. It is the house in which we who are followers of Jesus learn to work through our divisions and conflicts so that we can emerge on the other end loving one another.
That we do this – that we work through our differences and conflicts to love one another – is, according to Jesus, absolutely crucial. The Church becoming an authentic family is critical to our mission as a people. Jesus elevates the call to love one another to the status of a commandment in John 13:34-35. What is more, he says that our witness before the watching world hinges on precisely this.
Followers of Jesus are bound by Jesus’ commandment to love one another.
We start with the fact that this is a commandment.
34a A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another
“A new entolen I give to you…” “A new commandment I give to you…” There is a powerful statement about the deity of Jesus Christ in this. “Jesus does not hesitate, like the Father, to give commandments (15:10,12),” writes A.T. Robertson. “Like the Father”! That is so. Jesus, in giving commandments, announces that He has the divine authority to do so.
And what is the commandment that Jesus gives His disciples? “Love one another.” It sounds so simple, does it not? Yet experience shows that it is anything but. D.A. Carson wrote of this commandment:
The new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, [yet] profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice: Love one another.
Love one another.
We know this.
But do we know this?
“You cannot command love,” somebody might say.
Of course you can. Jesus did so here. He elevates this to the level of a commandment so that we will see the seriousness of it and so that we will understand that high treason is in the violation of it.
If we do not love one another we are disobeying God.
So we say we are a people who love one another, but is that so? Have we said it so often that we know longer understand it? There is a way that we can come to ignore commandments simply by virtue of allowing overfamiliarity to lead us to contempt. Perhaps we might say of the commandment, “Love one another,” what William Faulkner said of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Thou shalt not kill you see – no accusative, heatless: a simple moral precept; we have accepted it in the distant anonymity of our forefathers, had it so long, cherished it, fed it, kept the sound of it alive and the very words themselves unchanged, handled it so long that all the corners are now worn smoothly off; we can sleep right in the bed with it; we have even distilled our own antidotes for it as the foresighted housewife keeps a solution of mustard or handy eggwhites on the same shelf with the ratpoison; as familiar as grandpa’s face, as unrecognisable as grandpa’s face beneath the turban of an Indian prince…even when it breaks down and the spilled blood stands sharp and glaring in our faces we still have the precept, still intact, still true: we shall not kill and maybe next time we even wont.
Again, the same indictment could be made of our handling of the commandment, “You shall love!” We must reject the temptation to wear the corners off of this commandment! We must not keep an antidote ready at hand for our violations of it! We must understand the simple and devastating truth: to refuse to love is to disobey. Lovelessness is rebellion!
The love we have for one another must reflect Jesus’ love for us.
There is something curious in the way Jesus puts this commandment.
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another…
Did you catch that? “A new commandment…” But how is it new? The commandment to love is, in fact, old, not new. In Leviticus 19:18b, so many years before this, the Lord had said, “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
How then can Jesus call this commandment “new”? It is because of the kind of love Jesus calls His followers too. This can be seen in the concluding words of verse 34.
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.
Amazing! We are to love one another “just as I have loved you…”
In the same way as…
Andreas Köstenberger writes of this:
The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself was not new…What was new was Jesus’ command for his disciples to love one another as he has loved them – laying down their lives. This rule of self-sacrificial, self-giving, selfless love, a unique quality of love inspired by Jesus’ own love for the disciples, will serve as the foundational ethic for the new messianic community.
How can this be? How can we love with the love of the cross?
This commandment is no call to mere feelings of fondness. It is no call to cordiality. It is not a call to sentimentality. It is not even a call to niceness per se. It is a call to love one another in the exact same way that Jesus has loved us.
How did the disciples understand this? What did they think of this? We must remember that Jesus said these words on that side of the cross. The disciples did not understand the cross yet. Jesus had not taken the cross at the point when He said these words, but Jesus was trying to prepare them for the cross when He said them.
John 13 does begin with a description of Jesus washing their feet. So perhaps they thought, “Well, He means He wants us to have the kind of love that washes another’s feet.” And that, of course, is true. We must love one another like that! But they could not have known that Jesus was not only looking back with this commandment, He was also looking forward.
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.
That “just as I have loved you” also meant “just as I will love you” and that meant the cross. When Christ laid down His life on the cross, suddenly the full and unbelievable impact of this statement became clear.
We must love one another like Christ loved us on the cross!
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Paul would go on to write in Ephesians 5:25. That was said to husbands. This commandment shows that the same call is to all of us.
Stop for a moment and let the astonishing reality of this teaching settle in on you: you are not truly the disciple that Jesus wants you to be until you can look at any follower of Christ and say, “I would die for him. I would suffer for her. I would endure the cross for these people.”
That is how Christ loves us! That is how we must love one another.
“That is impossible!” you might protest. “It is one thing for Christ to lay down His life for us, but how could He expect us, fallen people that we are, to lay down our lives for one another?”
It is because we have been redeemed and the Spirit of the living Christ indwells us! How else could Paul say in Romans 9:
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Paul felt such love for the unbelieving Jews that he said he would be willing to be “accursed and cut off from Christ” for them! If Paul can say that about non-believers, some of whom were trying to kill him, can we not say the same about fellow believers?
We have not loved until we have loved like Christ…and to love like Christ requires a miracle of grace in our lives.
The truthfulness of our claim to be followers of Jesus goes only as far as our love for one another.
Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp that such a love will inevitably win the attention and awe of the watching world. Conversely, only when we begin to understand this can we understand that if we do not love like this the world will not think we are truly followers of Jesus!
35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This love – specifically this kind of love – is how the world will know we are disciples. When they see us willing to die for one another, then they will say, “Ok. Whatever I may think of Jesus or the gospel, it is now clear to me that those people actually do believe in Him and actually are following Him! Their love for one another is truly a thing to behold!”
Whenever the world sees the actual love of Christ, it marvels. It does not even know how to comprehend it! It stands in awe! Let me give you an example.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it could be tough to be a Christian. In some parts of the Roman Empire Christians paid for their faith with their very lives! During this time, a church father named Tertullian wrote his Apology for the Christian faith. It was his explanation and defense before a skeptical public of who the Christians were. Allow me to share with you a section of what he wrote.
I shall at once go on, then, to exhibit the peculiarities of the Christian society, that, as I have refuted the evil charged against it, I may point out its positive good. We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation. We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful…
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. And they are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity are assumed in mere pretence of affection. But we are your brethren as well, by the law of our common mother nature, though you are hardly men, because brothers so unkind. At the same time, how much more fittingly they are called and counted brothers who have been led to the knowledge of God as their common Father, who have drunk in one spirit of holiness, who from the same womb of a common ignorance have agonized into the same light of truth! But on this very account, perhaps, we are regarded as having less claim to be held true brothers, that no tragedy makes a noise about our brotherhood, or that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us…
Give the congregation of the Christians its due, and hold it unlawful, if it is like assemblies of the illicit sort: by all means let it be condemned, if any complaint can be validly laid against it, such as lies against secret factions. But who has ever suffered harm from our assemblies? We are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are individuals; we injure nobody, we trouble nobody. When the upright, when the virtuous meet together, when the pious, when the pure assemble in congregation, you ought not to call that a faction, but a curia [i.e., the court of God.]
Let the gathered church say Amen! When we love as Christ loves and forgive as Christ forgives and live together with and in the peace of Christ, we are truly the court of God!
“See how they love one another!” said the onlookers! “Wow! Look at how they love!”
If we are to be an authentic family – if we are really to become this – we must ask for the grace of the love of Jesus in our own hearts.
Whatever else people might say of us, may they say, “See how they love one another!”
Then, and only then, will they know that we follow Jesus.
 R. Kent Hughes, John. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), p.325-326.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. V (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1960), p.246.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p.484.
 William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p.195.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p.423-424.