What does Jesus, as portrayed by the Johannine author, mean in our text by the word “commandment”? We who live with a post-Reformation Protestant mindset in the West jump immediately to the idea of a “law” to be obeyed. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments, for example, as laws God’s people must keep in order to demonstrate their worthiness for a relationship with God. We tend to think, then, that such “laws” are bad since they are the scaffolding upon which we seek to build our works-righteousness.
That’s not a helpful or accurate understanding of the nature of the Ten Commandments. Nor is it a faithful exegesis of Paul’s arguments about the righteousness of God in Romans, Galatians, and elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. Mostly, this understanding of the nature of a “commandment” is yet another way to make Christians look good by making Jews look bad. That’s a post-Reformation Protestant sin for which we in that camp need to offer ongoing repentance and repair.
Thus, that’s not what “commandment” means here in John 13 and elsewhere in the Johannine account. But what, then, is the meaning of the term? Let’s look at the narrative logic of our text for some help in answering that question.
The disciple community is cracking under the strain of events and the threat of destruction. Judas has left to put in motion the end game which will bring the movement to a head or put it out of its misery for good. Jesus declares that this action has launched the “glorification of the Son of Man” and the “glorification” of God through the Son. In John, this glorification is the whole complex of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. This glorification means that Jesus is leaving the disciples to go where they cannot come.
Since Jesus is leaving to accomplish his glorification, he leaves the disciples with a “new commandment” to guide and form them in his absence. This is the commandment for the disciples to love one another just as Jesus has loved them. This isn’t a way to demonstrate their perfection or worthiness. Instead, I would suggest that Jesus leaves the disciples with a “community rule” to form them as a fellowship and to guide them in their ongoing life together in and for the world.
Dirk van der Merwe tracks the vocabulary of obedience in his recent paper. He writes that in the Johannine account, the disciples (and we who benefit from the testimony of the disciples) learn the meaning of “obedience” through the example of Jesus. Jesus tells them this explicitly in John 13:15. Anyone who wants to know God, van der Merwe continues, must obey God. In the Johannine account, he argues, the essence of that obedience is to love like Jesus loves.
The typical words for “obey” and “obedience” in New Testament Greek show up only rarely in the Johannine account. Instead, the word most often translated with some form of obey is the verb tereo. This verb to keep or observe as well as secondarily to obey. It has more the sense of maintaining a practice than obeying a law. If the new commandment in John 13 is really a community rule, then this vocabulary makes eminent sense. As Jesus goes to be with the Father, he leaves a rule to form and maintain the disciple community.
Van der Merwe writes that “in the Gospel of John, love is primarily understood as a bond of commitment.” It is more than a feeling, instead this love is actions based on that bond of commitment. “Because of his commitment to the world,” van der Merwe continues, “God has sent the Son, whom [God] loves, to communicate [God’s] love to a world, alienated from its Creator.” This reminds me that any message about God’s love based on the Johannine account must always be anchored, in one way or another, to the fundamental description of that love in John 3:16.
It’s important to remember at this point the proper translation and understanding of John 3:16. That passage is not about the amount or degree of God’s love for the cosmos. Rather, that verse offers a description of the method or means of God’s love for the cosmos. If love is an action in response to a bond of commitment, then God sends the Son into the world as that action – not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through the Son.
This new commandment of love for the brother or sister is discussed in 1 John 2:7-17. Scholars debate the relationship between the Gospel of John and this first letter, arguing over which document came “first.” It makes some sense to me that the letter precedes the gospel chronologically and gives us some framework for understanding that’s at stake in the gospel. At least some in the Johannine community seem to be separating their love for the Father from their love (or the lack thereof) for the members of the disciple community.
The discussion continues in 1 John 3. “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning,” the writer declares, “that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11, NRSV). The counter-example of this love is the hatred that Cain has for Abel, enacted in fratricide. “We know that we have passed from death to life,” the writer continues, because we love one another” (1 John 3:14a, NRSV). But some in the community are not living out that new commandment, since they refuse to help other community members by sharing their resources with those in need (see 1 John 3:17).
“Love from the Father is fundamental for God’s children,” van der Merwe notes, “because they are requested to share their love with others…After communicating to his followers, the Father’s love,” van der Merwe continues, “Jesus called them to love one another.” The shape of the community between the Father and Jesus will also be the shape of the community between the disciples. “Little children,” the writer of First John urges, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
Loving one another will be the rule that forms the disciples as community and the behavior that identifies them to the world. This behavior is most clearly modeled in the foot washing, the “example” that Jesus gives for how this community rule is to be implemented and imitated over and over in the life of the disciple community.
The word for “example” really translates best as a “type” or “pattern” or “model.” I think that the Johannine author sees this example as a kind of recursive model that produces deeper intimacy with the Father through Jesus and deeper intimacy within the disciple community. I don’t think that Jesus means we should spend all of our time washing one another’s feet, although that might be a good start. Instead, the community will be formed and deepened each time disciples act according to this pattern of behavior.
For the Johannine author and community, the recurrent application of this rule for life together will deepen and expand the community and each disciple’s relationship with Jesus and with one another. In a real sense, doing will lead to believing rather than the other way around. That’s contrary to modern ways of imaging the relationship between belief and action. We’d like to belief ourselves into acting, rather than acting ourselves into believing. But that’s not the rule described here in the Johannine account.
Van der Merwe outlines the “rewards of being obedient” as described in the Johannine account. I would use the word “result,” perhaps, rather than “reward,” since the latter term always has something of the sense of merit associated with it. Instead, the Johannine author expects that keeping the community rule will have certain desirable outcomes for the disciples. Those outcomes would include experiencing the presence of Jesus and God in the lives of believers, becoming friends of Jesus, being honored and glorified by God, and honoring and glorifying God in return.
These outcomes of living the community rule are listed as well in 1 John 3. Even when we disciples are convicted by our own conscience that we have not loved as we ought, God is greater than our own self-condemnation. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, the writer told us in the first chapter of the letter. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “Because if our hearts do not condemn us,” we read in 1 John 3:21-22 (NRSV), “we have boldness before God; and we receive from [God] whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
The fourth chapter of First John expands further on the meaning and outcomes of this community rule. Everyone who loves (according to this rule) is born of God and knows God. God’s love is the root of our love, and we love in response to that gracious gift. Loving one another as God loves us is the way to see God in our lives and our communities, and to have that love made complete in us. This is the work of the Spirit who testifies to God’s love and causes us to abide in God.
The bottom line in chapter four takes us back to the importance of this community rule. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21, NRSV). This is the “one simple rule” for life with God in Christ, embodied in life with the community of faith.
References and Resources
Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525. van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia, 43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.
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