“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.” (Jno.13:34-35)
It was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ time on earth, and there were things that needed to be said—final instructions given, and priorities laid down (Jno.13:1). His motivating force through the past thirty-three years had been, and still was, love (Jno.13:1). And, before He explained just how important it is in the life a true believer, Jesus gave the disciples a picture of love’s demeanor: humility. He condescended to wash the feet of men who were unworthy to even loosen His shoes (Mk.1:7). Afterward, when Peter failed to see past the immediate action, Jesus told him, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (v.7). Humility and love go beyond ritual and figure to life and practice. Washing dirty feet may be a beautiful picture, but putting our arms around a dirty sinner says more about our Christianity.
After giving them a pictorial introduction, our Lord then issues a “new commandment.” New, only in the sense that it was not spelled out in the original list. The kind of love their Lord displayed that day (and all other days) was to be their pattern as His disciples. “If you can love one another the way I have loved you,” He assured them, “everything else will fall into place.” This one thing—Biblical love—was to be their badge. The thing that would set them apart from non-disciples. In fact, it is so telling a characteristic of a follower of Christ that the world will use it as a litmus test for our authenticity. Of course, among ourselves, as believers, we know that adherence to Biblical doctrine and teaching identifies one as a true believer, but love for the brethren is part of this (1Jno.3:14), and it is the only part that a lost world is capable of comprehending. When it comes to sending a message to the world, love trumps every badge, bumper sticker, T-shirt, bracelet, or Christian “uniform” we might choose to wear. Jesus is not saying that if I ever fail in Christian love (as we all do from time to time), I am not a Christian; what He is saying is that when I do, the world has every right to believe I am not.
Where does this “new commandment” stand in relation to the Decalogue, then? Ah, that is the all-important question. In Matthew twenty-two, Jesus was asked by a lawyer to single out the greatest commandment in the law; to which our Lord replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (37-40). The love thing again—we cannot get away from it, can we? To paraphrase, you’ll never get the hang of the Ten Commandments without love. As G. Campbell Morgan says, “Every breach of the Decalogue is a violation of love.” If I love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, I will not be tempted to put any other god before Him, resort to spiritual tokens, invoke His name indiscriminately, or fail to set aside one day of the week exclusively for Him. Nor will I dishonor parents that I truly love. If I love my neighbor as myself, I will not kill him, violate his marriage, steal from him, lie about him, or lust after what he has. Jesus, in His own words, did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt.5:17); and He did fulfill it…by love. “[T]herefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom.13:10b). Our only hope, then, as believers, is to allow the love of God that has been shed abroad in our hearts (Rom.5:5) to become the handle that fits all ten of the original commandments. It is the only thing that makes them workable.
What does this kind of love look like? Well, First Corinthians thirteen gives us a good idea; but I think one sentence in Morgan’s book on the Ten Commandments opened my eyes in a new and living way: “The supreme evidence of the life of love lies in the fact that love takes the blame attached to others.” One has only to look at Calvary, the highest expression of love, to see the validity of that statement. He, who was blameless, took our blame (Rom.15:3). You and I cannot claim blamelessness, yet we are so quick to take the spotlight of individual blame off ourselves and shine it on another. And this can prove disastrous in a life. Like the prodigal son, until we are willing to acknowledge that no matter what part others have played in our lives, we alone are to blame for our sin, we will never exchange the hog pen for the Father’s house.
As you go about your duties, remember that keeping God’s commandments are the “whole duty of man” (Ecc.12:13). Every other “duty” must fit within that framework, if the approval of God means anything at all to us. Remember, too, without love, the keeping of the law is just an exercise in futility; and to break the first and greatest commandment—to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind—is to commit the greatest sin of all. In short, if you don’t know love, you don’t know God (1Jno.4:8).