Currently I am working on my thesis for the Master of Arts in New Testament at Trinity International University. My topic/title is “Paul’s Use of Torah for Ethics in the New Testament – A Study on Romans 12-13”. It is interesting to see the many approaches to ethics in the New Testament. There are a whole lot of people who would pose “love” as the foundation of ethics. Whereas I think that love is crucial, I do not think that it is a foundation to ethics. In my mind love is fundamental to ethics, but it is not fundamental ethics.
But this is not the point of this post here. In this post I would like to explore the Apostle John’s understanding of the new commandment.
Having just talked about the crucial aspect of obedience in the believer’s life, John now turns to a new topic- the new commandment. He writes in 2:7 that he is writing to the readers no new commandment, but something they already know – hence an old commandment. Here the term “beloved” is used for the first time and will appear six more times in this letter (2:7; 3:2, 21; 4:1, 7, 11). The phrase “in the beginning” might refer to the time when the gospel was first preached to the readers especially if seen in accordance with the second part (i.e., the “word you have heard”; cf. Kruse, PNTC, 82).
Though it is no new commandment, it is a new commandment. This is quite confusing now, John. What does he mean by that? We read in John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”. The writer just stated in the previous verse that he is not introducing a new commandment, so why is he saying here that it is “new”? Brown argues that it is new in that in the sense at it is tied more closely to the New Covenant (267). In the first instance then the author would suggests that the commandment is not “new” in a sense that he introduced it (Jesus already gave that command); and yet it is “new” because Jesus gave such a title to it. Kruse on the other hand maintains that it is “new” command is “old” because the historical ministry of Jesus which by the time of writing has long been past. “So the ‘new command’ of Jesus was the ‘old command’ for the author and his readers, and it was something his readers had heard long ago, when they first received the gospel” (Kruse, 83). This latter interpretation is preferred but the other should not be excluded.
Further, we see that the new commandment is “true in him and in you”. The sense here might very well be that the new commandment is truly expressed by Jesus and Christians (cf. Kruse, 83; Brown, 267). The darkness of this present age is passing away and “the true light is already shining”.
In verse 9 the love/hate relationship to one’s brother and sister is elaborated on. When we compare John 1:12-13 (But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God) and 1 John 5:1(Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him) we clearly see that for the author a “brother” (and sister) is only one who is of the faith community. The theme of the love for fellow believers is resumed – after a short interlude (vv.7-8) – in contrast to hate. To “hate one’s brother” is “to be in darkness” a realm which is passing away (see previous verse).
Verse 10 poses some difficulties to the student of Scripture. The first part is fairly clear. He who loves his family members within the faith community belongs and abides in the realm of light. The second part however is a bit more “problematic.” Akin points out (NAC, 98-99): “The second portion of this verse poses two exegetical difficulties for the interpreter. First, does the pronoun in the phrase en auto refer to the believer (NIV) or to the light where that believer remains (RSV)? Second, does this part of the verse mean that in the light the believer cannot be tripped up or that he cannot cause others or himself to stumble?” This is a fairly difficult issue, but in light of the following verse it seems best to take the second part to mean that it refers to light and that in light there is no cause for stumbling.
Verse11 brings this section to a drastic conclusion. Darkness is not merely the absence of light but a strong force which blinds (cf. Brown, 276). In 2 Cor 4:4 we read: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Though Satanic powers are not mentioned here “‘the evil one’ will appear in the next unit (2:13-14) and the Antichrist in the following unit (2:18,22)” (Brown, 276). Kruse further observes that “‘darkness’ stands for either sinful behaviour (1:5; 2:11) or the realm in which sinful behaviour predominates (1:6; 2:8, 9, 11)” (86). The one who hates his sibling within the faith community does not belong to the community of light.
The problem we often face in our churches today is that we value freedom and free choices so much, that obedience has seldom room or is pushed to the peripheral. We also redefine love as being merely attraction so that when our emotions tell us something different (i.e., our feelings change) we just go somewhere else (or to someone else).
I hope this post and these questions will provoke you to look into your won life and that you will be able to examine whose you are.