A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 6, 2020.
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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).
You and I need to be loved. It is a basic human need. In fact, the need for love and the ability to love are part of what makes us human. Neither you nor I know anyone who doesn’t want to be loved. And I imagine that everyone would agree we need more not less love in the world. This of course is a topic of the utmost importance for the Christian, as we have been loved from eternity past, are loved in the present, and will be loved through eternity future, so we, as the beloved, are to be people of love.
The Bible has much to say about love, even defining it for us. Rather than impatient, love is patient. Rather than hateful, love is kind. Rather than lusting after what others have or bragging about what we have, love neither envies nor boasts. Rather than think too highly of self or demeaning others who disagree with us, love is not arrogant or rude. While our flesh encourages us to fight for our rights, love does not insist on its own way. Our emotions may vacillate from peak to valley, but love is never irritable. We may resent God’s blessings upon others, but love is not resentful. While we may believe the end justifies the means, love doesn’t ever rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. While it is hard to believe considering all of the difficulties of this life, love really does bear all things. It believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The issues of today that consume so much of our attention will pass away but love never ends (1 Cor. 13:4-8). And of the three Christian virtues so essential to our life in Christ, faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13).
Given the importance of love, as it is defined in Scripture, it should not surprise us to see it commanded and specified tangibly for God’s covenant people. For example, under the Old Covenant and within the context of the theocracy of Israel, God commanded love to be shown in very practical ways. When reaping the harvest, the edges of the field were to be left. Vineyards were not to be picked bare. In tangible acts of love, grain and grapes were left for the poor and the sojourner (Lev. 19:9-10).
Similarly, ethical conduct was considered showing love to others. Not stealing, dealing honestly, telling the truth, seeking the common good, paying a fair wage, helping the disabled, remaining impartial in disputes, and not slandering were all considered acts of love (Lev. 19:11-16). But it was not merely outward acts of love. The heart attitude mattered too, summarized in the commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
It should not surprise us then that love was central to Jesus’ ministry. As God is love (1 John 4:8), Jesus is love in the flesh. In word and deed, Jesus revealed love. When asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus answered with two imperatives of love: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” perfectly summarizing the two tables of the Decalogue (Matt. 22:36-39).
Jesus spoke, served, lived out the love of God, and his disciples were witnesses of it. But shortly before his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” A “new commandment”? Had God not commanded love before? Was love not imperative among God’s covenant people under the Old Covenant? What does Jesus mean by “A new commandment I give to you…”?
A Commandment to Love
In studying this passage, some have concluded that Jesus’ “new commandment” is defined by the distinction between love for “neighbor” and love for “one another” as Christians. There is validity to this interpretation, but I think there is more to it. The key is in considering Jesus’ simile: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” What is the significance of this statement?
Consider the expression that God frequently uses for his love of his covenant people. For example, in repeated succession the psalmist leads Israel in singing: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever’” (Ps. 118:2-4). The intentionally repeated praise emphasizes the nature of God’s “steadfast love” for his covenant people.
The Hebrew word translated “steadfast love” is hesed. Depending on the context the word may also be translated as “kindness,” but the key to understanding its meaning is in the difference between a stranger and a loved one. Hesed is never used to describe kindness or love shown to some unknown person. It is a relational love and covenantal in concept. As one commentator puts it, “Hesed is enduring covenant loyalty and love. It refers to an unwavering commitment and often is used of God’s permanent, unchanging love…”
Understanding this, now consider Jesus and his “new commandment.” He is the embodiment of hesed, steadfast love. He is also the fulfillment of God’s Law. Therefore, the newness of his commandment is in the revelation of God’s steadfast love in the Son of God and the like-kind love among his covenant people. Just as God has steadfast love for us, so we are to have steadfast love for one another: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Or, if I may summarize, we who have received the love of God in Christ are commanded to love as Christ in the church. We are a community in love.
A Community in Love
The greatest expression of God’s love for us is the atoning sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. In fact, foreshadowing this expression of love, Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And indeed he did. The cross of Christ, so to speak, manifests the love of God: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NET). It is a specific, relational, covenantal love, a steadfast love for us.
It is then this love that we are to have in the church. We are a family defined by love, a community in love. What does this love in the church look like? The Apostle Paul provides the metaphorical example of marriage:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Eph. 5:25–30, emphasis added).
According to this example, love in the church is to be sacrificial, sanctifying, and selfless.
In the church we are to love one another sacrificially. John considered this to be an essential characteristic of the church: “We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:16 NET). Such sacrificial love requires eliminating the man-made conflicts that affect our love for one another, for in Christ we have been reconciled to God “in one body” (Eph. 2:16). In their brilliant booklet titled How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli write, “Jesus did not design our churches to be a national or ethnic or class gathering of a political party. Rather, he designed them to be gatherings of his followers from every tribe and tongue and nation. Your church and ours are communities of former enemies learning to love one another.” This is not to say such love comes easy, but it is always intentional. It is in Christ’s church that we learn to love one another sacrificially like Christ.
Secondly, in the church we are to love one another sanctifyingly. You and I are to love one another enough to encourage our spiritual maturity. The writer of Hebrews writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). Such love requires faithful and diligent investment on your part. On this point, J.C. Ryle adds that we should regard one another as family “and delight to do anything to promote [one another’s] happiness. We should abhor the idea of envy, malice, and jealousy towards a member of Christ, and regard it as a downright sin.” In loving one another like Christ, you can’t be an “arm-chair” church member. You must engage physically, mentally, emotionally, and of course spiritually. And you must love in a way that fans the flame of Christlikeness, because it is in Christ’s church that we learn to love one another sanctifyingly like Christ.
Thirdly, in the church we are to love one another selflessly. Paul told the Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil. 2:3 NET). Consider that your fellow-church members are some of the most important people in your life. Your concern for them is greater than your concern for yourself. Love for one another transcends all of the worldly concerns that can divide us. Again, Leeman and Naselli write, “The local church is where enemy tribes start beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It’s where black and white, rich and poor, young and old, educated and un-educated, American and Chinese, sanitation worker and senator, unite.” It is in Christ’s church that we learn to love one another selflessly like Christ.
But this God-glorifying and Christ-exalting sacrificial, sanctifying, and selfless love in the church is not only edifying, it is confessing of whose we are. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our love for one another is a confession of love.
A Confession of Love
It is one thing to enjoy Christlike love in the church, but it is another to realize that how we love one another is telling. The world is watching. Before he died, R.C. Sproul wrote these convicting words: “We’re living in a time of crisis. Many Christians are decrying the decadence of American culture and complaining about the government and its value system, I understand that, but if we want to be concerned for our nation and culture, our priority must be the renewal of the church. We are the light of the world.” R.C. was right! Revival will not come from the President or Congress. It will not come through a surging stock market or a cure for COVID. No, the love of Christ shines through his church.
If we are truly concerned about our neighbor, we will start by loving our brother. John writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). It is this defining virtue that J.C. Ryle says is “not merely a notion in our heads, but a practice in our lives.” It is as practical as the commandments in Leviticus and as beautiful as the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. And when we as the church love one another as Christ loved us, that love shines through to the world, awaiting a fitting response. May the world watch and see and say: “Certainly these are the followers of Christ, they have been with Jesus.”
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli, How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 27-28.
 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On John (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 3:31.
 Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli, How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 28-29.
 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On John (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 3:31.
 Matthew Henry, Commentary On the Whole Bible: Genesis to Revelation, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1960), 1588.