Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 4
On the night that our Lord was betrayed, just after celebrating the Passover meal with His disciples and just before instituting the Lord’s Supper, He turned to His friends and said: “A new command I give you: Love one another.” (John 13:34 NIV). Christ had just partaken of the last Passover feast, that old covenant shadow and sacrament, the significance of which was about to be transcended by His work on the cross. He will momentarily inaugurate the new memorial meal, the Lord’s Supper, a new sacrament for the new covenant, but not before speaking this great word, this new commandment. But what did Jesus mean? How could this command be called new? Was He suggesting that the Old Testament saints had not been commanded to love? Was he establishing a new standard of behavior for New Testament believers? What are we to make of our Savior’s monumental directive?
As we consider this commandment, it will be useful to understand what Jesus did not mean. Two observations will help us in that regard. First, the love-command is clearly set forth in the Old Testament. For instance, in Leviticus 19:18, the Lord says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus knew this passage, quoted it frequently, and considered it to be an absolutely essential declaration of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 22:36-40). So, when Jesus calls His command to love one another “new,” He was not even remotely suggesting that the Old Testament did not teach such a standard.
Second, in the Old Testament this command entailed loving even people who were outside of the covenant community. Nevertheless, some have suggested that the newness of Jesus’ love-command resides in His redefinition of who our neighbor is and His extension of the scope of the command. They would point to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) to prove that He was broadening the Old Testament law of neighbor-love. But Christ’s most stringent declarations are in perfect keeping with the spirit of Leviticus 19:34 which says: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Furthermore, in John 13:34, Jesus’ immediate concern is specifically for His followers’ love for one another. Hence, we must again look elsewhere for the newness of our Lord’s new commandment.
But if Christ were simply reaffirming the Old Testament norm, why did he (indeed, how could he) speak of a new command? The answer to the question lies in His words, “as I have loved you.” When He spoke to his disciples in the upper room that night, He said: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus’ words were not spoken in a vacuum, and before He initiated the commandment, He illustrated it in a most startling manner.
John provides us with the context of Jesus’ great command in chapter 13:1-17 of his gospel. Jesus and His disciples had walked from Bethany to the room where they would celebrate the Passover. Their feet were dirty, and their host had failed to provide a slave to wash them in the customary manner before the meal. Luke tells us that in this very context the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). Among them was one of such despicable character that he had already arranged to betray his Master. And none of these men, not even Judas, would demean himself by stooping to perform this menial task reserved for slaves. In that setting, Jesus, the Lord of Glory, stood up, laid aside His outer garments, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash and dry the disciples’ feet!
For Peter, the act was incomprehensible. The others had not spoken (perhaps they were too horrified or ashamed to see their Master assuming the role of a slave), but Peter simply could not let this pass. My Lord wash my feet? NEVER! Christ’s answer was gentle but firm, and might be paraphrased like this: “Peter, unless I cleanse you from your sins by my work of humiliation (of which this is only a part and example) you will have no part of the fruit of my redemptive work.”
In some ways, Peter’s reaction is understandable. He quite naturally sensed the incongruity of Jesus’ washing His quibbling disciples’ feet. And, more importantly, Peter was very aware of Who was kneeling and washing — the Messiah! However feeble was Peter’s grasp of all the manifold implications of that divine truth, he had blurted it out at Caesarea Philippi months before, and he believed in this man (Matthew 16:13-16). And we must not forget that Peter had been among those privileged disciples who had seen Christ in His transfigured glory speaking to Moses and Elijah and being spoken of as “My Son, My Chosen One” by the voice of the Almighty Himself (Luke 9:28-36). Here was that same Jesus, the Messiah, Son of the living God, kneeling like a bondslave at Peter’s feet. Well, it was just too much. My Lord? Stooping to serve me? Never!
But even if Peter’s reaction is understandable, it is not excusable. For Jesus’ display of servanthood in the upper room was not out of keeping with what He had already taught the disciples about Himself, nor was it a temporary expedient for the sake of illustrating a point. This Man was born to serve. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). His disciples, and Peter among them, had witnessed His life of humiliation and servitude, and on the morrow they would watch Him undertake the ultimate service as He bore the curse in His own body on the tree. His service and humility were but the manifestation of the intensity of His love for His people and His commitment to the will of God the Father. It was in His service that Christ showed the boundless measure of His love for His disciples. The upper room was simply a reminder of the lengths to which the Lord had gone (and would go) in His love for His own.
THE NEW COMMANDMENT!
In those circumstances, Jesus said to the disciples: “A new command I give you: love one another as I have loved you.” How then is the commandment new? It is new in that Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, has shown us what it is to love and has, on the basis of that revelation of love, called us to love. No man ever loved as that Man loved, and forever we are constrained by our love for Him to obey His words: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). As He considered our interests above His eternal glory, as He humbled Himself on our behalf, as He chose to serve rather than to be served, as He deliberately sacrificed all that He might have claimed as His right on our behalf, we also should show that kind of love to one another.
This is a difficult command, not only because of our own sinfulness, but also because of the sinfulness of the people whom we are commanded to love. But the Lord has not left us without the motivation and resources necessary to obey this divine mandate.
First, we really must never forget who calls us to love. It is the Christ of the upper room, the Christ of Gethsemane, the Christ of Calvary, the Christ whose love for you cost Him dearly. He laid aside His glory to bear the curse which His people deserved. Can you turn a deaf ear to His voice calling you to love?
Second, by virtue of our union with Christ, we are to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), for we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18). One important manifestation of that righteousness is our love to one another.
Third, Christ Himself provides the grace we need to keep His commands through the work of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost He poured out His Spirit on His church, and the Spirit of Christ indwells every believer (Romans 8:9,11) conforming him to the image of Christ.
Finally, Jesus sets before us the promise of divine benediction for those who will follow His example. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). This side of glory, we cannot know the fullness of the blessing which awaits the saints, but in Luke 12:37 our Lord Himself profoundly promises: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.” Oh, the wonder of it all, that on the last day, at the great wedding feast of the Lamb, Christ will again stoop to serve His faithful people.