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Faithlife

The New, Old Commandment of Love

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7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Last week we learned that the Apostle John wants his readers, including us, to have an assurance of being in fellowship with God. That assurance, John said, comes when we keep God’s commandments. And we learned that the keeping of the commandments refers to the love of God in our hearts coming full circle so that God’s commandments become our delight rather than our duty.

In this passage John wants to deal with one of God’s commandments as a test case for us to see how we will respond to it and thereby help us to determine whether or not we truly are in fellowship with God. This commandment is the commandment of love for others. Since Jesus said that the whole law of God could be summed up with two commandments—love for God and love for one’s neighbor—it is not surprising that John would want us to test our love for God by examining how we love other people.

So the main point of what John has to say in this passage is simple enough, namely, that whether or not we love our brother is an indication of whether or not we are in fellowship with God. We could simply stop at this point and ask ourselves how we are doing with this commandment. But I am afraid that many Christians would too quickly respond, “Sure, I love my brother or my sister.” John would not want us to speak so quickly. There is far too much at stake here to do that. 

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

I want us to see, first, how much is at stake in this question of whether or not we love others. To do this, we will look first at the end of our passage.

Love or Hate? You Must Choose.

Verses 10 and 11 set up a contrast for us between “whoever loves his brother” and “whoever hates his brother.” John says that if we do not love our brother then we hate our brother, and vice versa. We don’t normally talk that way. We like to think that there is middle ground. After all, how can I be forced to one of these two options with someone that I hardly even know?

But John says that those who are “in the light” (in fellowship with God) are those who love. Those who are “in the darkness” (out of fellowship with God) are those who hate. Just as there are two realms there are only two attitudes we can hold toward others. I think what this proves is that we cannot be in both realms at the same time. We are either in the light or we are in the darkness. It’s one or the other.

What we need is a way to define love or at least a way to distinguish it from hate. Love is doing what is best for someone. And what is absolutely best for all people is God. So love is doing whatever it takes to point people to God. If we do not do this, we do not love our brother; we hate him. And if we hate our brother, we have no way to be assured of our fellowship with God.

So if we are not living in love toward all people then we are in danger of being out of fellowship with God. Just one broken relationship with another is a serious threat to our own relationship with God.

Hate is a Serious Threat

I call a broken relationship a “threat” because that’s what John calls it in verse 10: “whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” The word translated “cause for stumbling” is an important word. And a dangerous word. It originally meant simply a “trap.” But when it is taken up in the Bible it takes on a more serious tone. Note a few other places where it occurs in the New Testament:

Matthew 5:29-30: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 18:5-6: Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

These two verses suggest that the idea of this word in the Bible is something that causes one to sin. But in both of these cases the response to the “stumbling block” is very severe: tearing out the eye, cutting of the hand, drowning the offender in the sea. There is much more at stake here than isolated acts of sin. Listen to this verse:

Matthew 13:20-21: As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

Here the word is translated “he falls away.” And what we find is that the word means much more than feeling hurt. “The primary meaning is ‘deep religious offence’ . . ., and this both causes and includes denial and rejection of Jesus.”[1] So in the Bible this word refers to being offended at someone (usually Jesus) and is the opposite of belief in Jesus. It refers to a crisis of faith; it refers to something that causes one to not believe in Jesus.

John says that when we love others we walk in the light and there will be no “cause for stumbling” in us. But I don’t think John is referring to something within us that would cause another to stumble. In light of verse 11, I think John is saying that when we love others we ourselves will not stumble (so NIV). “The person who loves his brother is not going to succumb to temptation because he has his principles right and will not be deflected from them by the attractions of a self-centered existence.”[2]

Verse 11 emphasizes this point. The one who hates his brother “is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” The state of such a person is serious indeed. He not only “abides” in the darkness—the realm in which fellowship with God is not possible—but  he also walks around in the darkness. He is trying to discover his purpose and meaning in this life without fellowship with God. Worse, he doesn’t even know what it is he is missing. He has been blinded by the darkness so that he cannot even see the light any more.

Having chosen to live in the darkness, he now finds that his eyes can no longer see the light; in other words, having yielded to sin, he finds that his heart has become so hardened that he cannot respond to the call of God and he falls into further sin.[3]

John would not write these words to the church if he did not think that even we are susceptible to such a dangerous situation. How we relate to others is a real indication of how we relate to God.

WHO IS MY BROTHER?

Perhaps you are wondering why I keep referring to our love for other people given that John refers here only to love for one’s brother. Clearly when John uses the term he is talking about our fellow Christians. So why do I say that this commandment of love requires us to love all people?

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Jesus told that story in response to a question he was asked by a lawyer. The lawyer, having noted that the law commanded him to love his neighbor as himself, asked Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s parable answered the question loud and clear: all people qualify as my “neighbor” when it comes to fulfilling the requirement of this law.

Similarly, John surely does not intend to limit the extent of this commandment to our fellow Christians. Keep in mind “that John was writing to a specific situation in which members of the church (or former members) were not loving their Christian brothers. He is dealing with this particular problem and concentrates all his attention on it.”[4]

So don’t be tempted to ask the question, “who is my brother?” as if there are some people that we are not called to love. Verses 9 and 10 give us the thesis of our passage: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.” These verses in no way suggest that our love is to be confined to those who are in the faith. It may be that John would say we should especially love those who share our faith, but he is not limiting our obligation to love to just other Christians.

HOW AM I TO LOVE OTHERS?

That we are here commanded to love all people is also suggested by the fact that John says in verse 7 that this is not a new commandment but an old one. One in fact that his readers had “from the beginning.”

The “Old Commandment” of Love

So when John commanded his readers to love he was not originating the command but appealing to a commandment of God that was already known by his readers. Jesus himself had affirmed the command to love God and others as a summation of the entire law of God (Mark 12:28-31).

So this is an “old commandment.” Outside of the gospels we find Paul twice summarizing the law with this commandment (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14) and James does so once (Jam 2:8). This is not just a summary of the law, however. It is also explicitly taught in the Old Testament: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).

The “New Commandment” of Love

But John goes on to say that this commandment of love is at the same time a “new commandment.” Here John is clearly echoing the words of Jesus in 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.”

The “newness” of the command is found in these words of Jesus: “as I have loved you.” In other words, the Old Testament command was to love your neighbor as you love yourself. But Jesus took it deeper. Commenting on those words of Jesus in John 13, one commentary says:

It is no denigration of the Old Testament command to love one’s neighbor as oneself to acknowledge this new dimension of the command given in the Upper Room; not even love of self can possibly rise to the heights of the divine love for humankind revealed in the cross of Christ, and the noblest self-regarding love cannot compare with the outflow of love from the Redeemer who draws his own to him.[5]

So the “newness” here refers to the new covenant, to the “eschatological reality of Christ’s redemption,” making us his children the kind of lovers who, like him, will even lay down our lives for the unbelieving world. That is the kind of radical love that captures the attention of the world. In the next verse (John 13:35) Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Remember that John had said in 1 John 2:6 that we are to keep the commandments by imitating Christ’s commandment-keeping. That’s what he is pressing us to see here. The command to love is new because it has Christological foundations. We are to love one another as those who are loved by Jesus.[6] But note well: this command of love is not “new” because of something we do. John says it is new “because the darkness is passing away and true light is already shining.” He says it is new because it “is true in him and in you.” In other words, we are able to keep this commandment in a new way because something remarkable has happened to us. Only those who have experienced the love of Christ can in turn love in this way. For them the light rays of dawn have broken into their darkness. Duty has now become delight because of what Christ has accomplished for them.

For the one who has met Christ, everything has been turned around. Now we are to forgive others as those who have been forgiven by Jesus: not seven times but seventy times seven. Now we are to do good to our enemies rather than seeking revenge as those who have been “done good” by Jesus while we were yet sinners. So now we are to love others in the same radical way that Jesus loved us.

That means we cannot be passive about our relationships with other people. We should be greatly bothered when we have conflict with other people. We should never feel right about relationships that are strained.

And that’s why the practice of church discipline is so important to the health of the church. Matthew’s report (18:15-20) of Jesus’s discussion on this topic is interesting, especially when we note what is placed before and after Jesus’s instructions. First, he reports Jesus’s parable on the lost sheep (18:12-14). The implication is that it is church discipline and not evangelism that is in view in this parable. When sin has brought us out of loving relationships with others, it is a serious issue indeed. We must pursue reconciliation lest “one of these little ones should perish.” Immediately after we find Peter’s question about forgiveness and Jesus’s parable showing the extent to which we should forgive others (18:21-35). In other words, this entire section is about the eternal significance of our relationship with others whether we are the offender (the lost sheep) or the offended (how many times must I forgive?).

So the question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we have done everything possible to make peace with everyone (Rom 12:18). Peace is not always possible, but the Christian simply cannot take lightly unresolved conflict. So ask yourself, “What is it that keeps me from having peace with this person?” It will not do to say, “They are trying to take advantage of me.” Following Christ means we will be taken advantage of, we will suffer wrong, we may even die for our enemies. That is the Christian way. It is the way of life for those who walk in the light. 

CONCLUSION: TWO CONTRASTING VERSES

Consider two contrasting verses from later on in John’s letter. In 1 John 3:10 he says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” If you find it impossible to forgive someone who has wronged you, or if you feel that reconciliation with another is not an option for you, my prayer is that God will give you the light to see the darkness you are in. Because you cannot see it yourself.

The second verse is four verses later in 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” If you have felt the freedom of loving others (including your so-called enemies) at great cost to yourself, loving them even when you are hated, this is an evidence of God’s saving grace in your life. Thank God for it and continue to seek your joy in this kind of radical love. 


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[1] G. Stählin, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–74), 7:350.

[2] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978),132.

[3] Marshall, The Epistles of John, 133.

[4] Marshall, The Epistles of John, 131.

[5] George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1999), 248.

[6] G. Schrenk, TDNT, 2:553.

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