Contradictions. Flip-flops. U-turns. These words get a lot of mileage on CNN every election season. The pundits on one side are always looking to find opposing views within the other camp. The public can put up with a lot of things from a candidate, it seems, but not a change of mind.
A surface reading of 1 John 2:7-8 makes it sound like John himself has joined the ranks of the flip-floppers (NRSV):
I am writing you no new commandment, . . . I am writing you a new commandment.
Which is it? Old or new? Let’s look deeper and see what the commandment is, and look at whether it’s old or new—or both.
. . .
To make things difficult, the commentators don’t even to agree on what commandment is being referred to here. Kruse thinks the commandment is
to believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, since John equates it with the word they heard from the beginning. Bultmann thinks that the command is a way of referring to the gospel in general—John simply replaced the plural term with the singular. I tend to agree with Stott on this issue, though:
[John] does not explicitly reveal what the nature of this commandment is; but since the subject of verses 9-11 is love, and since the ‘new commandment’ which Jesus gave was ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ (Jn. 13:34; cf. 15:12, 17), it is plain that the command concerns brotherly love.
This interpretation adds poignancy to the way John begins the sentence: beloved (agapētoi). John refers to his church as agapētoi six times, with this being the first. He’s essentially saying: Beloved, be-loving!
So is this command to love old or new? It’s both. John probably referred to it as old and fundamental, because he was intent on contradicting the new false teachings that were moving through his congregations. Indeed, God’s desire for us to love each other is very old. However, Jesus called it a new command when he gave it:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34, NRSV)
. . .
Stott points out four ways that this old command could be called new:
- New in the emphasis he gave it.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by pulling together two old themes (from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). Love for God, and love for our neighbour sums up God’s desire for us (Matthew 22:34-40).
- New in the quality he gave it.
When Jesus reminded his followers to love each other, he expected them to follow his example even to death! I have problems sacrificing a peaceful drive alone to pick up a hitch-hiker—Jesus took took the command as deep as it could go, and modeled it in his own death.
- New in the extent he gave it.
Jesus’ command that we love each other doesn’t end with our friends, or even with other Christians. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? We are even called to love our enemies, and to do good to those who hate us.
- New by our fresh apprehension of it.
Here’s the most important aspect of this command’s newness. We are called to continually apply this command. It’s not enough that we made a loving gesture in a soup kitchen last winter. We need to walk in his love daily. Candlish articulates this point well:
Though doctrinal Christianity is always old, experimental Christianity is always new.(in Stott)
. . .
We’re living in an overlap of two ages. John represents the old age with the the word darkness, and reminds us that it’s passing away. The new age is characterized by light, and not just any light: the light of Jesus Christ himself! I like the way Revelation describes the new heavens and earth:
The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (21:23, NRSV)
As Christians, we’ve passed into this new age where the light of Christ is already shining. The divine love that Jesus commands us to participate in is already truly expressed “in him and in you” (v. 8, NRSV). We’re under orders to pull people (of course, with the help of the Spirit) out of the dark age and into the loving light of Jesus. For this reason, it says:
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
Ephesians 5:14, NRSV