A NEW COMMANDMENT FOR CHRISTAINS
A new commandment I give unto you. That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. John 13:34,35.
One of the surest signs of decay in any society is a great deterioration in relationships between its members. It has always been the case that where a people sink into idolatry, they eventually become brutalized in their outlook and behaviour, even towards those who have the greatest natural demand on their affections and care. Few discerning Christians will contest the assertion that such a decline has been evident in our land for many years, or claim that it shows evidence of coming to a halt. The increase in violence against people’s persons and properties, the high rate of divorce and separation, the comparative rarity of good working relationships, and the disintegration of personal friendships, all proclaim that a godless society where pleasures have mattered more than principles and possessions valued more than people, is now reaping what it has sowed.
Such a state of affairs has always posed real dangers for the Lord’s people. Scripture history shows only too clearly that the Lord’s people, who find themselves living in such times, can so easily adopt the ideas and drink in the spirit of the world around them, that they eventually become part of the very decline against which they should have been testifying. ‘They did not destroy the nations, concerning whom the Lord commanded them: but were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works. And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them’ (Psalm 106.34-36). Here again, believers who are no longer looking at the present evangelical scene through rose-coloured spectacles, but have begun to assess the situation in the light of Holy Scripture, cannot but lament the increasing worldliness now manifest in many evangelical circles, and particularly the cheap way in which many professing Christians behave towards one another. Indeed, there have been occasions when exercised souls, having either witnessed the base way Christian has treated Christian, or been on the receiving end of such treatment themselves, have found themselves echoing the words Samuel Rutherford wrote in similar circumstances over three hundred years ago: ‘I am broken and wasted by the wrath that is upon this land. It is hard when saints rejoice in the sufferings of saints, and redeemed ones’ hurt, and go nigh to hate redeemed ones; for contempt of communion of saints we need newborn crosses scarce ever heard of before. Our star-light hideth us from ourselves, and hideth us from one another, and Christ from us all. A
doubt it is if we shall have fully one heart till we enjoy one heaven.’ It is against this background, then, that we shall consider, with the Lord’s help, the verses placed at the head of this article, in which the Lord Jesus Christ, at His last, solemn gathering with His disciples before His arrest and crucifixion, gave this valuable teaching about brotherly love.
1. A new commandment for Christians
Before we look at what Christ tells us about what we may call the secrets of maintaining brotherly love, We must spend a little time considering two general points which emerge from Our Lord’s use of the term “new commandment”:
(a) Christ’s description of His commandment.
At first sight, Our Lord’s statement, “A new commandment I give unto you …” may seem to indicate that He was giving His disciples an entirely new precept which had never been revealed from heaven before. But this is far from being the case. As the requirement for Christians to love one another had long been covered by the Ten Commandments – ‘For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Gal. 5.14), we must look for a different explanation. Surely what Christ is doing here is reissuing the old commandment under His own, personal seal? Just as one sometimes sees newly-crowned monarchs setting their own seal to existing and well-tried laws, so Christ, the King in Zion, has stamped His personal seal of authority on this particular commandment. Now this fundamental point is one that Christians must grasp, if they are really to benefit from what Christ goes on to tell us, for it reminds us of our responsibility for obedience. Reformed Evangelicals tend to congratulate themselves on their orthodoxy without reminding themselves what their soundness of doctrine implies for their practice. In the present evangelical climate, it is so easy for Christians to rest in the knowledge that every true convert receives Christ as Saviour and Lord, at the time of his or her conversion, without going on to enquire whether they are substantiating their own claim to be converted by actually obeying Christ’s laws. Yet Christ makes it abundantly clear that the reality of any professed Christian’s love to Him will be demonstrated by the reality of that Christian’s obedience to His word. “He that hath my commandments, and keepth them, he it is that loveth me” (John 14.21).
(b) Christ’s application of His commandment.
The second general point to notice is that Christ applies His “new” commandment to those sitting around Him at the table, i.e. His true disciples. Surely it is significant that Our Lord, having already given much teaching about brotherly love during the earlier
part of His ministry, returns to the subject yet again in the intimate fellowship of the Upper Room? How clearly He understood the weaknesses of His disciples, and the subtle ways in which Satan was only too ready to exploit them to his own ends! Let us take just one example which has much to say to us in these days. Who would have thought that the sin of pride would have raised its ugly head during the Saviour’s final, solemn gathering with His own, and yet it did! ‘And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest’ (Luke 22.24). Oh, how much of the strife and division in Reformed circles today can be traced to the workings of pride! Witness that arrogant, dismissive spirit which is so ready to write-off other Christians’ work for the Lord, and that for the slenderest of reasons. Listen to the harsh, denunciatory language believer uses against believer, some of which is little better than the language commonly heard in military barrack-rooms, and the way expressions such as “apostate” and “heretical” are being applied in a way far removed from any Scriptural precedent. Look at the stubborn, resentful attitude being displayed at times when much-needed changes are suggested, even if the resultant change would mean a local church having the blessing of a full-time pastor. Observe the way in which a proud, impenitent spirit causes breaches to remain, instead of being healed. The spiritual wreckage is there for all to see, but nobody is to blame, nobody shows any signs of repentance, and nobody aims at sincere reconciliation! It is to be feared that Christians professing the doctrines of grace have as much reason to be concerned about the damage they inflict upon their cause by their own misbehaviour, as they have about the damage done by their enemies. The recent war in the Gulf has reminded us all too clearly that it is possible for soldiers and airmen, operating under the stress of battle, to mistake friend for foe, and hastily open fire with truly tragic consequences. Alas, that evangelical Christians should be doing the same kind of thing in their spiritual warfare today! Little wonder, then, that Christ, in His infinite wisdom, addressed His precept specifically to His true disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another …”
2. The motive and pattern for brotherly love.
As we often find in the Four Gospels, Our Lord was not satisfied with merely reminding His disciples of their obligation to love one another. Having given His precept, Christ proceeded to give them further teaching designed to encourage actual obedience. If we look carefully at His next words, “… as I have loved you, that ye also love one another …” (verse 34), we shall see that Our Lord is reminding us of the two great secrets of maintaining brotherly love:
(a) The motive for brotherly love.
Notice how Christ began by reminding His disciples of His love for them, “as I have loved you”, and only then added the words, “that ye also love one another”. Is He not reminding us here that our motive or reason for loving our fellow-believers is that we have experienced His amazing love, and that that love should be reflected by our love for other sinners who have also been brought to know Him in this saving way? But if Christ’s love leads His true people to love their spiritual brethren, how do we explain the want of it that seems so evident at the present time? Christ’s own words provide the answer to that important question. If the Christian only begins to love other true believers as a result of a rich, personal experience of Christ’s love in his own heart, it follows that love for his brethren will flourish only as he continues under the actual influence of Christ’s love. Sadly, what we seem to be witnessing today are numbers of professing Evangelicals deluding themselves about the state of their spiritual health, for one of the surest signs of spiritual declension is a want of brotherly love. At the same time, Christ’s words point us to the right road for recovery. And that road always goes via Calvary. It is only as the erring Christian enters into a new experience of His Saviour’s love, that He will begin to view his brethren in a new and correct light, value Christ’s image in them, make reparations for past misdeeds, and seek to walk with them as Christ desires. ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another’ 1 John 4.10,11).
(b) The pattern for brotherly love.
The other important point Christ is emphasizing here is the pattern for brotherly love. After all, it is not enough for believers to be reminded why they should love their brethren in Christ: they also need to be shown how that love should be manifested. Christ’s pattern for brotherly love can be seen in two very clear ways. Firstly, there is His personal example. One hears little of this in Reformed circles today, perhaps due to an over-reaction against its misuse by modernists, yet we neglect it to our loss. Christ is the Example His people should follow, as we see clearly from the account of the Saviour washing His disciples’ feet, recorded for us so beautifully in verses 1-7 of the chapter we are considering. By performing that menial task, normally carried out by a household servant, the Master was inculcating that humility which is the very opposite to the pride mentioned earlier in this article. “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given an example, that ye should do as I have done to you”
(John 13.13-15). And it is worth adding that it is Christ’s example believers are to follow, and not the example set by some of their fellow-believers. In days of spiritual declension, it is easy for evangelical Christians to assume that all is well, when in fact all they may be doing is conforming to the behaviour of a backsliding brother. Secondly, there are Christ’s written precepts. In addition to portraying Christ’s perfect example, the Holy Scriptures contain clear, written precepts by which any serious believer may soon discover how he should behave towards his brethren. Here again, we have to ask ourselves. Why are these written commandments being neglected at the present time? One reason springs to mind immediately, i.e. the way Christians are allowing themselves to be influenced by the attitudes of an ungodly world which does not have any time for God at all, let alone any concern to enquire after His word. However, the present writer believes there is another factor encouraging a lowered view of Scripture among Evangelicals today, and that is the way the Bible is being mishandled by professing Evangelicals themselves. Some have clearly drunk at the well of modernism, and begin to justify all sorts of ideas and practices which have long been in vogue in modernistic circles. Others make such a ‘song and dance’ about their particular denominational rules and practices that one instinctively feels they are in danger of making void God’s commandments by their traditions. Charismatic claims, too readily adopted and reiterated by some who profess to be Reformed preachers, can soon lead sincere believers to a neglect of the written word, and even encourage, in some cases, Christians to believe that, as a result of being converted, they have nothing further to do with God’s moral law. Some Reformed activists have so stressed the need for witnessing that every other consideration in Holy Writ seems to have flown out of the window. High Calvinists explain away the plainest Scriptural precedents for addressing the unconverted, and superimpose their pre-conceived spiritualizings on other passages of the Bible in a manner which flouts the most basic rules of exposition. How Satan can use all this kind of thing to yitiate the believer’s appetite for Holy Scripture, and lead him to neglect the written word which God has provided for his guidance and comfort! One thing is certain, and that is whenever the Church has been in a healthy, flourishing condition, the Lord’s people have been found longing to be taught more of Christ’s precepts, and have their hearts inclined to obey them, as the 119th Psalm clearly proves. If we would see a restoration of more Christlike conduct among us, we must first see a rediscovery of the nature and value of Christ’s written precepts, as well as a renewed appreciation of Christ’s love.
3. The universal testimony of brotherly love.
We have now reached the stage where we can consider our Lord’s words in verse 35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Obviously, the Lord had much more in mind than just the benefits obedience would bring to the disciples’ immediate circle. In Christ’s view there was, and always will be, a very real link between the way Christians behave towards their brethren, and their testimony in the world at large. As his point is of considerable importance to evangelcial Christians
today, we shall reflect on it under two simple headings:
(a) The universal testimony of brotherly love to believers.
Among the “all men” who are going to conclude, from witnessing the real brotherly love in action, that any professing Christian is what he claims to be, will be his fellow-believers. Our Lord’s words remind us that brotherly love will always be a mark of a true convert. Just as a city’s silvermark proclaims the origin and genuineness of the finished article, so brotherly love attests the reality of a sinner’s professed conversion to the Saviour. The Apostle John puts the same truth for us in a different way in 1 John 3.14, where he writes,
Â•We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren: He that loveth not his brother abideth in death’. Brotherly love will always attract other sincere believers. Wherever it is truly practised, it lays the foundation for life-long personal friendships, draws isolated Christians into the fellowship of the local church, strengthens the life and unity of the local fellowship, and promotes wider union among true Gospel churches. Brotherly love also encourages other believers to behave in the same godly way. In days like these, when true believers find themselves rather thin on the ground, cold-shouldered at times by members of their own family circle, and frowned upon by many people in compromised churches, they should be able to find the companionship, affection, sympathy, support and encouragement of Christ’s people. Oh, how much the Reformed churches stand to gain by returning to the Biblical practice of brotherly love!
(b) The universal testimony of brotherly love to unbelievers.
There is an even larger number of people, also included in our Lord’s “all men” of verse 35, who can be influenced for the Gospel by witnessing the love of believer for believer. The attractive power of brotherly love is not confined to reaching those who already believe the Evangelical message. Godly behaviour, especially when it manifests itself in real unity and genuine affection, though not primarily aimed at the unconverted, may nevertheless make a deep impression on many people who would not otherwise pay any heed to the Gospel. The writer has never forgotten that it was the love demonstrated by a group of Christians serving in the Royal Air
Force, most of whom were National Servicemen, that first attracted him to the fellowship meetings where he was to hear the evangelical Gospel for the first time, and eventually be converted. Are not the times in which we live ripe for such a practical testimony to the Gospel? Many non-Christians in our modern, materialistic society not only feel bewildered and frightened by a situation they do not understand, but also feel insignificant, unwanted and unloved. These symptoms of many people’s spiritual plight are particularly noticeable in the larger towns and cities of our land at the present time, where greater concentrations of people have resulted in greater concentrations of evil. It was instructive to hear the comments made by Sir Peter Imbert, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, when questioned about his Annual Report in 1990. Asked whether the increase in “nasty crimes”, i.e. attacks on people’s persons and properties, could be attributed to unemployment and homelessness, London’s Police Chief said that, although he felt that unemployment and homelessness were contributory factors, they were not the main ones. “I am afraid that what we are confronted with here is man’s inhumanity to man.” It is against this background that our Lord calls His people to proclaim His Gospel today. But that declaration of the truth will only be heeded by those who need its saving message when they see its confessors practising what they preach. Let no evangelical Christian conclude, then, that his personal walk, and especially his behaviour towards his fellow-believer, does not count in his overall testimony to the Gospel. Nor let him rashly think that past failures cancel out future usefulness. Our Lord’s words assure every Christian that “if ye have love one to another” all men “shall know that ye are my disciples”.
Wherever true, brotherly love flourishes between believers, be it in individual friendships, the fellowship of the local church, or the wider context of evangelical work and witness, it will stand-out and begin to make many an unbeliever take notice, think hard, and ask questions. Let it always be remembered that it was when the young converts in the Early Church obeyed Christ’s “new commandment”, as we read in Acts 2.41-46, that they had ‘. . . favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved’ (Acts 2.47).
P. D. Johnson