The Command which is Old and New – 1 John 2:7-8

  • Nov 11, 2013
  • Series: President's Bible Study

I was eight years old when I first climbed a lighthouse. It was a classic old lighthouse: tall, white, and of course circular, standing right on the edge of cliffs warning sailors to keep well away from the rocks far below. Climbing that lighthouse was hard work, at least for my little legs. Those stairs seemed to go on forever.

But it was worth it. I still remember being surprised but impressed that the light at the top was quite small, but it was surrounded by lenses and mirrors which meant its beam shone out over the ocean for miles. But the strongest memory of all is of that spiral staircase, slogging my way round and round, step after step, up and up. It felt like I was getting nowhere, for the staircase always looked the same. But I was getting higher and occasional views through tiny windows let me see that. Every circle of that staircase got me a little nearer to the goal.

John’s letter is like that staircase. Over and over he seems to come back to the same place, to his main themes, and you think “We’ve been here before.” Well, you have, but each time John has moved us higher and nearer his goal of a complete understanding of the truth. The view is never quite the same.

Today’s passage moves us upward and onward.

1 John 2:7-8

7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

These verses explain how an old command has come alive in new ways, and the last of these new ways is especially surprising. Here is what John says about that command.

  1. It was a command which is old and new.

A church elder took me aside one day. “Wonderful things have been happening in the church,” he said. “But now it’s time to move on to new things.”

“Oh, what kind of ‘new things’?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied, as if what he was looking for should be obvious to me. “You know: new things!”

Well I was fairly sure I did know what he wanted, but I wasn’t giving in to pressure for novelty. “So,” I asked, “do you think it’s time to leave behind knowing more about God, teaching people how to live like Christ, winning others for Jesus, and caring for the people in our neighborhood?”

There was a long silence after that. The elder gave me a puzzled look, decided he wasn’t winning me over, and moved on.

In the Christian life there are some things you never outgrow, the things that are yesterday’s agenda and today’s agenda. Loving others is one of those.

Loving others has always been God’s will, and doing so was a command way back in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19: 18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Examples of what that means in practice were taught over and over by the prophets.

Isaiah 58:6-7

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
   to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
   to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
   Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
   when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
   And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.

God’s people have always been required to love others. That’s the old command.

It also became the new command when Jesus put it front and center. A teacher of the law asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. Jesus’ answer was very revealing: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

What Jesus said is a wonderful answer, but there is one thing strange about it. Jesus was asked for only one commandment. But he answered with two commandments: “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Because he would not let anyone think loving God was enough; they had to love people too.

Jesus put the command to love others right up there at the top very close to the command to love God. Loving others was not an optional extra. It would be the hallmark of every Christian.

Jesus reinforced that message at other times too:

John 13:34 – “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

John 15:12 – “My command is this: Love each other.”

Love was commanded by Jesus.

When I was a young child and it was a freezing cold winter’s day in Scotland, my mother would say: “Wear your gloves or you’ll die of pneumonia.” I often didn’t wear my gloves, and I didn’t die.

Some years later I went to high school. That school required students to wear a school uniform. But, in fact, you didn’t get thrown out for not wearing it and some students didn’t.

A few years after that I joined a rugby club. One of their rules was that you had to attend midweek training or you would not be picked to play in the weekend match. I never attended training but I was always picked for the match.

You will have your own examples, but most of us learn that life has rules but often we don’t have to keep them. Sure, those rules represent good practice, but it isn’t a big deal to break the rules. They’re guidelines – things we should do but don’t have to do – we may do, not must do.

That’s not what the Bible teaches about love. “Love each other,” said Jesus. It was not an option, not a suggestion, not best practice. It was an essential, non-negotiable, indispensable, integral part of being a Christian. The command to love was old and also new.

  1. It was a command demonstrated by Jesus’ own life.

A moment ago I quoted Jesus’ commands: “Love one another,” and “Love each other.”

Jesus commanded love, but he did not just command it. He lived it. And he told the disciples to love like they had seen and experienced his love.

There was more to those commands of Jesus.

John 13:34 more completely says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

John 15:12 says: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

Jesus did love his disciples from beginning to end. He called them, fed them, led them, discipled them, explained mysteries of the faith to them, showed his risen body to them, commissioned them, and ultimately promised he would return for them. He invested his life into his people.

The ultimate investment – the example above all other examples of his love for them – was by giving his life on the cross:

John 10:15 – “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

John 15: 13 – “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

After all the wrestling I did as a young man about faith, what moved me to give my life to Jesus was that he chose to lay down his life for me. He didn’t get sick. He wasn’t assaulted. He didn’t do something terrible that earned a death penalty. He walked into Jerusalem aware he’d be arrested for no sin. He knew he’d be mocked and tortured. He accepted he’d be nailed to a Roman cross and suffer the most excruciating form of death ever invented. All of that he chose. He didn’t have to die. No-one took his life from him. In the fullest sense, he laid down his life for me.

Jesus’ disciples witnessed love in action in Jesus’ life and they witnessed love in action in Jesus’ death.

The old command had come alive in a new way and they saw love and understood love as never before. William Barclay writes,

In every sphere of life it is perfectly possible for a thing to be old, in the sense that it has for long existed; and yet to reach a completely new standard in someone’s performance of it. A game may be a new game to a man when he has seen some master of it play it. A piece of music may be a new thing to a man when he has heard some great orchestra play it under the baton of some master conductor. Even a dish of food can become a new thing to a man when he tastes it after it has been prepared by a cook with a genius for cooking. An old thing can become a new experience in the hands of a master. And love became new in Jesus Christ.[1]

Exactly, the old commandment to love your neighbor was not new only because Jesus also said it. It was new because he modeled the command to a depth and extent like no-one had before. His love ultimately took him to the cross. Apostles like John had watched it. Everyone in the Christian community knew it.

  1. It was a command being seen day by day in the lives of Christians.

Here comes the truly amazing part of John’s words in 1 John 2. The truth of the old command made new is not just because of ancient or new scriptures, and isn’t only by Jesus’ words or even his example. It’s because of what God is doing day by day in the lives of Jesus’ disciples.

1 John 2:8 – “I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”

He says: “…its truth is seen in him” – yes, we know that. But that’s not all John wrote: “…its truth is seen in him and in you because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” “And in you” – in the Christians of John’s day; in that New Testament church with all its mistakes and flaws. Love is being seen in ordinary Christians just like them. The darkness in which they had lived is passing, and light is already shining and that light shows new lives, lives in which the new command to love has taken root.

I have two golfing memories, one of golf in darkness and one of golf in light.

The first is from when I was a child. My father was playing a golf match, and it was a close one. My Dad and his opponent were all square – exactly even – with just one hole to go, but it was late in the evening and the sun had set. Somehow they had got through the 17th hole in semi-darkness, but near total darkness had descended by the time they reached the 18th tee.

That is when my brother and I were sent for, and we were told to go out about 200 yards. One of us was to stand on one edge of the fairway and one to stand on the opposite edge of the fairway. My Dad said: “You won’t see these golf balls come down, but you should hear them and that will give you a sense of where they’ve gone.” It did not seem to occur to my father that we would hear them only if they landed near us which meant they might hit us.

We took our places down the fairway, shouted back ‘we’re ready’ and waited. Somewhere deep in the darkness we heard the sound of a ball being hit. Two or three seconds later there was a swish as the ball soared past me. It landed somewhere in the rough and I had no idea where. Moments later another crack as a ball was struck, another swish as it whistled past my brother and landed in the rough on the other side.

Two minutes later the men appeared. My brother and I said we’d heard the balls but had no idea where they were. We helped my Dad and the other man stomp around in the long grass for a bit, but none of us could see our feet never mind a golf ball. “It’s hopeless in the darkness,” Dad said. His opponent agreed and they decided they’d finish their match another day.

Second memory. By now I was grown up and playing golf myself. I was scheduled to be first player off at dawn in the club championship. When I arrived the course was still dark. By the time to start the sky was getting lighter but there was mist stretching out like a blanket over the ground. I couldn’t see more than 50 yards, and I had ambitions to hit the ball much further than that. “Just wait…” I was told. The sun rose, warm light bathed the course, the mist vanished and there was the fairway stretching out in front of me. The light had come, and now I could play golf.

In darkness people stomp around hopelessly. When the light comes, you see and a new life begins.

“…The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining,” says John. Jesus has come, and he’s come deeply into the lives of those who read these words from John. Now, with the light, they see a new way and they have a new power to love neighbors, to love enemies, to love lost, lonely and unlovable people near and far. The old command was new for them, and the way ahead clear.

That love has reached us too. The old command has been made new day by day by day as God keeps shining his light into and through our lives. The mist has lifted, God’s warmth bathes our path, and we can move forward and bring the greatest love ever known to this world.

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[1] William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1960), 52-53.