Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Commandment (John 13:31-38)


Sometimes when things are “new,” they aren’t really “new.” Someone recently asked me if I had heard about the “new” professional basketball team coming to North Carolina this year: the Charlotte Hornets. Of course, most of us know that this is not really a “new” team, or a “new” name. This was the name of Charlotte’s NBA team when it came into the league in 1988. Then that team moved to New Orleans in 2002, and two years later, the Charlotte Bobcats came into the league. But this year, it’s a new team: the Charlotte Hornets. But it isn’t really a new team at all. It is the same old team as the Bobcats, and the name is the same old name of the team now known as the New Orleans Pelicans. So, it is not new as in “brand-new”, but it is new as in “renewed.” They have a new logo, they’ll have some new players, and hopefully a better record, but otherwise, you know, it’s the same old team it used to be.

In our text today, Jesus gives His disciples a “new commandment.” The new commandment is to “love one another.” Now, this is not a new commandment as in “brand new.” It is actually an old commandment. In Leviticus 19:18, God had commanded His people to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Mark 12:31, Jesus said that this was the second greatest commandment, second in importance only to the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

So, in what sense could this commandment that Jesus gave the disciples in the Upper Room be called “new”? Well, there are new features to it. There’s a new focus. The command is for Christians to love one another. But are we not supposed to love all people? Jesus said that we were even to love our enemies (Mt 5:44), did He not? Well, the point here is not that we are to love others less, but to love our brothers and sisters in Christ even more. The love we have for each other in the Body of Christ is being drawn up to a higher standard than that which the world recognizes as “love.” We are to love our neighbors “as ourselves.” But we are to love one another in Christ with a new, and even higher standard, as Jesus says, “as I have loved you.” The love of Jesus for the special objects of His redemption far surpasses the love that we have for others, or even for ourselves. His love for those whom He has redeemed was a self-giving, sacrificial love that led Him to lay down His life for us. And this new standard is how we are to love one another in the family of God. As Kostenberger writes, “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,” the Church of Jesus Christ.[1]

The kind of love that Christ has for us, and with which we have been called to love one another, is nowhere expressed in more clear and specific terms than in 1 Corinthians 13, the passage which was read at the beginning of the service today. This passage is often assumed to relate to the kind of romantic love that may exist between a man and a woman, but that is not the context of the passage. First Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between the longest and most practical teaching on the exercise of spiritual gifts in the ministry of the Church that is found anywhere in Scripture. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 13 is that, whatever our spiritual gifts may be, what matters most is that we exercise those gifts in the kind of sacrificial, selfless love that Christ Himself has lavished upon us. So, what is this love like? It is patient, kind, not jealous or arrogant, it does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not keep a record of wrongs, rejoices in truth, not in unrighteousness, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. This is how we are to love one another within the Church of Jesus Christ. This is the new command: we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. The command is simple enough for a child to memorize, but so profound that even the most spiritually mature Christian cannot help confessing how far short we fall of the standard.

So, there is a new focus and a new standard, and hence this is rightly called “a new commandment,” or in Latin, mandatum novum. Maybe you’ve attended a “Maundy Thursday” service before on the Thursday before Easter. That word “Maundy” comes from this Latin word mandatum, and that service commemorates Jesus’ gathering with His disciples here in the Upper Room where He gave this new commandment. Today, we want to focus on the commandment and several aspects of it that are found in our text today. As we do, my prayer is that we will find our love for one another in the Church of Jesus Christ being drawn up to this higher plane where we love each other even as Christ has loved us.

I. The reason for the new commandment: Christ has been glorified (vv31-32).

Throughout all human history, God has been relentlessly working to make His own glory known in the universe. In nearly everything we pray for, we ask (or else we should ask) for God to bring glory to Himself through the circumstances. So, if you were to consider the entire sweep of history and ask, “When and where was God the most glorified?”, what would the answer be? Would it be at Creation, when God spoke the universe into existence by the Word of His power and declared it to be “very good”? Would it be the Exodus, when God brought His people out of bondage through a series of monumental miracles, including the parting of the Red Sea, and the utter defeat of the world’s most powerful nation at that time? Would it be at the first Christmas when the Lord Jesus came into the world and was worshiped by angels in the heavenly places? Surely God was glorified in all these things, and countless more. But the point in space and time in which God was most supremely glorified was in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We often consider these things as three separate events, but it is right in some situations to consider them as a whole. Christ’s death is meaningless apart from the resurrection and ascension, and His resurrection and ascension are predicated upon His suffering and death. They are inseparably bound as one significant event – the event through which God was most glorified, and in which He most glorified His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 31 Jesus begins to speak following the departure of Judas Iscariot. Judas is the “he” of verse 31 when it says, “when he had gone out.” Out he went, into the darkness of the night, to betray the Lord into the hands of His killers. And as he departed, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” Now that the wheels of His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension have been finally set in motion, all of human history past, present, and future, flows together in this dramatic display of the glory of God-in-Christ. They do not have to wait an indeterminate amount of time to behold the glory of God in these events. He says, “If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately.” It is as if Jesus says, “The events you are about to behold are astonishingly glorious!”

It didn’t seem that way at first did it? Being betrayed and abused? Being slandered and shamed? Being mutilated and murdered? Doesn’t seem glorious, does it? But it is glorious, because this is the provision God is making to rescue His creation from the curse of sin. Here every promise God ever made is coming to pass in some sense, including the very first promise of redemption: the seed of woman is crushing the head of the serpent. Here sin is receiving the full outpouring of wrath it deserves; here death is being dealt a fatal blow; here the victory and vindication of God-in-Christ is manifested through the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the heavenly ascension of Jesus.

And this is the reason for the new commandment for us to love one another. It is only in this glorification of Christ in His death, resurrection, and ascension, that we see perfect love exemplified. Here is the breadth, the length, the height, and the depth of divine love. Romans 5:8 says it: “God demonstrated His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Earlier in John’s Gospel, in John 3:16, Jesus said, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Elsewhere, in his First Epistle, John will write, “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). The word propitiation means “to turn away wrath.” Because God loved us, He sent His Son to turn away the wrath that our sins deserve. He diverted that wrath upon Jesus in our place, so that as Jesus was dying, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was bearing the full outpouring of divine wrath in our place, and became our propitiation, because He loves us.

 In that First Epistle, once John explains that this “is” love, he says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). It seems that John was paying attention in the Upper Room! That is exactly what Jesus was saying. He was saying, “This is how I have loved you, and it is how you are to love one another.” It is only as Jesus is glorified in His cross, His resurrection, and His ascension that perfect divine love is exemplified. But, we must also say that it is only as Jesus is glorified through His death, resurrection, and ascension, that we are enabled to love one another in this way. In Jesus’ departure from this world, He promised His disciples that He was not leaving them alone, but sending His Spirit to live within them. And beloved, it is only as we are indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit that we can love one another in a way that reflects the love of Jesus Christ. It is a love that is entirely unnatural, and wholly supernatural. It requires supernatural enablement to live out this kind of love, and this is why Christ has given us His Spirit – to enable us to live in obedience to His commandments, including this new commandment to love one another as He has loved us.

So, the first aspect of this new commandment that we have considered here is its reason. We are to love one another because Christ has been glorified through His death, resurrection and ascension. Only this glorification of the Lord Jesus exemplifies His love for us, and only this glorification of the Lord Jesus enables our love for one another. Now, let’s consider the second aspect of this new commandment.

II. The Realm of the New Commandment – Christ’s followers are to love one another here and now (v33).     

There’s a little saying that you may have heard – “To live above with the saints we love, Oh! That will be glory. But to live below with the saints we know, well, that’s another story.” Most of us could kind of resonate with that. We’ve found out that life together with others, even with other Christians in the church, can be like putting a bunch of porcupines in a small cage. Someone is going to get stuck! And so we may be tempted to think that this unconditional Christlike love for one another is impossible in the here and now. Surely we must have to wait for heaven, when we are all perfected, to give and receive this kind of love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, right? Well, in fact, no. This kind of Christlike love is what we have been called to exercise in these days, here in this world, in this church, as we wait for the hope of heaven to be fully realized.

In verse 33, Jesus explains to the disciples that He will only be with them a little while longer. “You will seek Me,” He says, but “where I am going, you cannot come.” He had said the same thing to the unbelieving Jews earlier, in John 7 and 8. But there is a difference in what He said to those, and what He says here to His own. He had told the unbelievers, “You will seek Me, and will not find Me.” He said to them, “You will seek Me, and will die in your sin.” But He does not say these things to His own. To them He says merely, “You will seek Me, but you can’t come where I am going,” and the implication is at least, “not now,” or “not yet.” So, we understand that Jesus is saying He is ascending back to heaven, from whence He came, while His followers remain earthbound for now. Have you ever wished you could just go immediately to heaven as soon as you become a Christian? It sure would eliminate a lot of suffering, wouldn’t it? But, it would also mean that the Lord’s work would have no one to carry it on here on earth. And part of that work involves Christians loving one another as Christ loves us. That’s why the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are the new commandment. It is as if He is saying, “I’m going away, and you are staying here for now, and while you wait here and now, love one another as I loved you.”

Now, if we are going to love one another here and now like Christ loves us, then several things are going to be invariably true. We are talking about imperfect Christians imperfectly loving other imperfect Christians in an imperfect world. That means we are going to get our hearts broken. A lot! We are going to have to love people who try to make us not love them. We are going to have to love people who are going through some unspeakably difficult times. And there are going to be times when we are hard to love as well. But this is the realm of the new command, the laboratory of love if you will. The time is now, and the place is here, for Christians to love one another as Christ loves us. There are things we do now that we will not do in heaven, and things we will do in heaven that we cannot do here. But loving one another is a project that is to begin now, and never end for believers in Christ.

I want to just quickly point out how John took this to heart. Notice in verse 33, Jesus addresses the disciples with tender affection, calling them “little children.” That’s supposed to be endearing, not condescending. It is the only time the Greek word is used in John’s Gospel. But John was so moved by Jesus’ tender love for His own, that seven times in his first Epistle, he refers to his fellow Christians with this same expression. He is mirroring the love of Jesus as he relates to them. And he is doing it here and now. And we must love one another here and now as well.

So, our first aspect of the new commandment was the reason (Christ has been glorified); the second aspect was the realm (here and now). So, we come to the third and final aspect here, and that is …

III. The result of the new commandment: When Christians love one another, they show Christ to one another and to the world. (vv 35-38).

Christians often adopt a kind of symbol to identify themselves as followers of Christ. Maybe it’s a cross on a necklace, a cross on a lapel pin, an ICHTHYS fish on the back of the car, or any number of other things. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these, and in fact, these or other such symbols could open the door for witnessing opportunities if one is intentional about seeking them. However, we also know that none of these things prove that the person is a Christian. A non-Christian can just as easily buy  a necklace pendant, a lapel pin, or a car emblem as a Christian can. But Jesus gave His followers one certain identifier that would mark them out in the world. We find it in verse 35: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “This passage reveals the mark that Jesus gives to label a Christian not just in one era or in one locality but at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”[2]

Amazingly, Jesus says that when Christians love each other, it is proof to the world that we are His followers, and a powerful defense of the truth of the Gospel. As we love each other in here, in the family of God which is the Church, we are showing Christ to the world out there. The third-century Christian leader, Tertullian, said that the deeds of a love so noble, as the Christians of his day had toward one another, had led the unbelievers to “put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another.” He said that the unbelievers marveled that these Christians were “ready even to die for one another.”[3] That is what the pagans were saying about the church in that day. What do they say of the church today? The report is not good, brethren! As we look at our internal relations, it is no wonder! As this love is found lacking in the church, so will wane the influence of the church for Christ in the world!

Schaeffer writes that Jesus here gives “a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians. … [I]f people come up to us and cast into our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.”[4] Friends in this day and age when the culture’s perception of the church of Jesus Christ and of Christ Himself is going, frankly, down the drain, can we not rise up to the challenge of our day and show the genuineness of our faith and the credibility of the Gospel by loving one another in the way that Jesus has commanded us? As we do, we show Christ to the world.

But then, also, as we love one another in this way that Christ commands, we show Him to one another within the church. Let’s look at Peter here in the final three verses of the chapter. Jesus has barely gotten the words of the new commandment out of His mouth, when Peter says, “Lord, where are you going?” And when Jesus tells him that he cannot follow, but will later, Peter replies, “Lord, why can I not follow you right now? I will lay down my life for you.” Now I want you to notice something very important here. Jesus has commanded His disciples to love one another because He is leaving them. But Peter is more interested in going away with Jesus than he is in obeying the command and loving his fellow disciples. Now, we say, “Well, isn’t it a good thing to want to be with Jesus?” Sure, it is, but not in disregard or disobedience to the Lord’s command. He said, “You stay here and love each other,” and Peter says essentially, “No, I don’t wanna do that, I just want to have my own private thing going on with you.” Now, here is a danger my friends that will tempt every one of us at some point or another and has swallowed multitudes over the history of the Church. We will be tempted to turn our back on the church and pursue a private, individualized relationship with Jesus, assuring ourselves all the while, “I don’t need those other folks anyway. I have Jesus and He is enough.” Friends, there is no doubt that if Jesus was all you had, He would indeed be more than enough, but the New Testament repeatedly warns us that a faith in Him that does not engender a love for one’s fellow believers is at best shallow, and often counterfeit. In John’s First Epistle, one of the assurances we find that we are followers of Christ is our love for the brethren.

Now, it is really hard to find fault with Peter here, because we can actually resonate with him so often. We do sometimes just long to be with Jesus and to leave this broken, fallen world behind. But here is the thing, if you want to be where Jesus is now, start by loving one another, because in a very real sense, He lives in all His people in the person of the Holy Spirit. And if you want to lay down your life for Him, as Peter says he is willing to do here, then you can do no better than laying it down in love for one another. You say, “Jesus I would die for you!” He says, “Will you love your brother or sister in Christ?” And we will so often say, “Well, now, seriously! I would die for you!” And just like Peter, if we are unwilling to die to ourselves in love for one another, we are in no way willing to lay down our lives for Him in death. Peter is all talk here, but when the rooster begins crowing, we will see the mettle of his commitment proven. He will deny the Lord three times.

Here’s the thing. We should all want to depart and be with Christ. In Philippians 1, Paul said that was “far better.” But love for one another in the church only further stimulates the hope we have of heaven. It does this in two ways. First of all, when it is done well, our love for one another is like a sneak preview of what eternity in heaven will be like. Second, when our love for one another malfunctions and we hurt and disappoint one another, that imperfect love only makes us long all the more for the perfections of heaven, where there will be no disappointments and no imperfections in our love for one another. So, our love for one another shows Christ within the church by stimulating our hope for heaven.

Then, our love for one another shows Christ within the church by anchoring us in enduring faith. You see, there isn’t a single one of us who, like Peter, may not in any given circumstance be strongly tempted to deny our faith and deny the Lord Jesus. But as we love one another with the love that Christ has shown to us, we are bearers of the good news to one another that He will never leave us nor forsake us. We remind each other of the love of Christ that exceeds our imperfections and failures. We remind one another that He first loved us, so that we can love Him and each other as a response to Him. And as we love and are loved in this way, we are continually strengthened in our faith in Christ.

So you see that when Christians love each other as Christ loves us, and as He commanded us to do, we are showing forth Christ. We are showing Him to the world, proving the genuineness of our faith and the truth of the Gospel when they behold our love for one another. And we are showing Him to the Church, as our love stimulates our mutual hope for heaven and anchors us in enduring faith. Therefore, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the greatest because it is able to produce and strengthen faith and hope. And when we arrive to the portals of glory, faith will pass away and be replaced with sight. Hope will pass away, having been ultimately satisfied with the reality of Christ’s eternal presence. But love will remain, and will be perfected, and will be exercised for all eternity. The Lord Jesus has given us a new commandment, so that His church might begin now to live in the love that we will know for all eternity. This love is showing Jesus to the world and to one another. This love, here and now, manifests the presence of Christ within the hearts of His people, even though He has been glorified through His death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, “love one another, even as Christ has loved you, you also love one another.” This is the new commandment of Jesus Christ for His people. May we be found in faithful obedience to it.

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 423-424.
[2] Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), 14.
[3] Tertullian, Apology, 39.7. Accessed October 24, 2014.
[4] Schaeffer, 23. 

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