Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. – 1 John 2:7 ESV
John has gone out of his way to stress to his readers that they could know if their relationship with God was healthy and secure. He has stressed the need for them to understand that their right relationship with God was based on a firm belief in the deity of Jesus. He alone is the key to eternal life. And like His Father, Jesus is light and “in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV). And those that truly know God and His Son, Jesus Christ, should be marked by certain characteristics and behaviors. They should have a recognition of their sins and a willingness to confess them. They should walk in the same way in which Jesus walked – in the light. They should keep His commandments. In other words, John is not talking about a cognitive knowledge of God alone, but a practical, experiential knowledge that shows up in everyday life.
But in verse seven, John becomes even more specific, focusing in on a particular command that he feels is needed at that moment in the lives of his readers. He refers to it as both an old and a new commandment. He reminds them that they have had this commandment “from the beginning” (1 John 2:7 ESV). “The old commandment is the word that you have heard” (1 John 2:7 ESV). John is basically telling them that this is something they should already know. It was part of the original message they had heard when they came to faith in Christ. In fact, it was part of the message of Christ that had been taught to them. No doubt, they had heard the story of Jesus and His encounter with the lawyer. He had been put up by the Pharisees in an attempt by them to trick Jesus into saying something for which they could condemn Him. So the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV). And Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV). Love God. Love others. For Jesus, it was as simple as that. And now John is reminding his readers of this “old” command. He was attempting to give it new life by applying it to their immediate context. He tells his readers, “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you…” (1 John 2:8 ESV). In other words, love for God and love for others was true in Jesus’ life, but it should also be true in their lives. John remembered well the words of Jesus, having recorded them in his gospel. “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 ESV). Jesus didn’t leave the definition of love up for grabs. He didn’t open it up for interpretation or debate. He said that we were to love others in the same way that He loved us – selflessly and sacrificially.
Like John’s audience, most of us know this commandment all too well. We have heard it and, more than likely, memorized it. But do we keep it? When John writes, “we ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6 ESV), he has this commandment in mind. Jesus referred to it as the greatest commandment. To love God and to love others. Two commands, but in Jesus’ mind, they were one and the same, inseparable and indistinguishable. Which is why John could write, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20 NIV). Pretty strong words. But John isn’t done. He goes on to say, “Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15 ESV). And then he adds, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7 ESV).
Our love for God is expressed through our love for others. God’s love for us is evidenced in our capacity to love others. It is proof that we have a relationship with Him. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7 ESV). Just as God is light, God is love. It is His very essence. It is not a characteristic of God, but the very nature of God. And as His children, we are to live in the light and walk in His love. We are to spread His light and love through our lives to those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ – both locally and globally. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV). Then he goes on to tell us to have the mind of Christ. We are to share His same attitude of selflessness, sacrifice, and humble service to others. We are to walk in the same way in which He walked. We are to love as He loved. And when we do, the world will know that we are His disciples.