The pastor asked a great question. “What is new about the new commandment Jesus gave to love one another?” As he pointed out, the idea of loving one’s neighbor had already been given. Loving others was even an Old Testament concept (see. Lev. 19:18).
One thing new was that Jesus was in the flesh giving the commandment. The word of God which had come to the people in the past had been given by prophets. God “spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). But now Jesus was giving the word from God, who “hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2).
When God had given His truth, beginning with Moses, He was making a statement not only to the Israelites, but also to the people of the world. As Israel kept God’s commandments, the world would notice a major difference that identified them as unique among all of the nations. “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:6-8).
God emphasized the greatness of what He had done in giving His commandments to the people. “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” (Deut. 4:32, 33).
Since the beginning of mankind, there had been nothing like what God was doing for Israel. Here was a new thing. It was to be the mark on them by which all other nations knew that they had been specially chosen by God to give a message to the world. They were the people of the commandments. They were the people who had been given a law directly from God. As they kept it, they were identified as the people of God. They were identified as people who knew what God wanted of them. The world recognized them because they were the people God had spoken to. It made a difference.
When Jesus said He was giving a new commandment, He indicated a major change. Instead of His followers being known as those who followed commandments like the Jews, His disciples would have a new identifier. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” John 13:35).
The Jews had been well-known for being identified with the law. They had devised over 600 specific instructions for life which were derived from their interpretation of the commandments of God. To keep people in line, they had rigid codes of conduct. They were intent on keeping their identity as the people of the commandments. But they had lost the heart of the matter. Jesus said of them, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).
As their hearts strayed far from the Lord, they had also ignored the commandment to love one another. Their love had become tied to their adherence to their legal interpretations. If someone strayed from a conformity to their ways of keeping the commandments, that person would not be loved. Rather, they would be cast out of fellowship, excommunicated.
So Jesus gave a new commandment. It was to be the way the world would know new covenant people. The followers of Jesus would not be known for the outward conformities to commands that men had embellished. They would be known as the people who had love one for another.
Years ago I made a foray into politics, running during a primary for public office (which I lost). During my campaign, my brother was making contacts for me. One lady in a small village at the foot of a Pennsylvania mountain indicated her support for me with this statement. “I’ll vote for him. I’m against a lot of things, too.” We chuckled at this, but it gave me pause. Did I want to be identified as a person who was “against a lot of things?” Of course I had my positions, but that identifier was rather negative. I would rather be known for something more positive.
Jesus gave the greatest positive identifier for His followers. The world would know them by their love for one another. As Francis Schaeffer said, the love must be an observable love. It is love that walks and talks, not to be noticed, but as a genuine expression of Christ’s love which is “shed abroad in our hearts.”
During an evangelistic rally at a university, a student gave his heart to Christ. He went back to his dorm and invited his roommate to the next service. After the meeting he commented on the service. “That wasn’t my kind of music. I think the speaker was too old. But there is one thing: I’ve never seen people love each other like those people do.”
The best argument for Jesus is that His people love each other. It is what Schaeffer called the final apologetic. This is what Jesus had in mind for His followers. This is what they were to be known for. This is what the world would see that would convince them that Jesus is real. “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:23).
It is not that we have God’s commandments that is to be a testimony of Christ to the world. Rather, the testimony “that the world may know” is that Christ’s followers are united in love for one another. That is the new commandment. That is the new identifier.
We should immerse ourselves in 1 Corinthians 13 which describes this love, agape, that sets the follower of Jesus apart from all others. “Lord, give me more of this love.”