A NEW COMMANDMENT John 13
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are My disciples if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).Love isn’t an option. It’s a commandment, and the mark of Christ’s new community.
Jesus shared a final meal with His disciples, at which He washed their feet (13:1–11). He required His disciples to follow His example of humble service (vv. 12–17). Jesus predicted His betrayal, and Judas left (vv. 18–30). Christ then gave His “new commandment” to love one another (vv. 31–35), and predicted Peter’s betrayal (vv. 36–38).
Understanding the Text
“He now showed them the full extent of His love” John 13:1. This chapter begins John’s treatment of Christ’s final hours before His crucifixion. In one sense, it is the journey Jesus now took to the cross that unveiled the “full extent” of His love. But probably John has in mind here what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper. The act of foot-washing related in this chapter, Christ’s teaching on the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14; 16), His revelation of a Vine/branches relationship with Him (John 15), and His prayer for our sanctification (John 17), all uniquely unveil the extent of Christ’s love in the great salvation His death has won for us. This first-century basin features a raised footrest in the center. A guest placed his foot on the rest, as a slave poured water on it to wash away the dust of travel. The task was assigned to the lowest menial. That Jesus, their Lord and Master, should stoop to wash the disciples’ feet, was a stunning example of humility (13:4–5). “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power” John 13:2–5. John added, Jesus knew that “He had come from God and was returning to God.” And then John inserts a strange little word: “so.” “So” Jesus got up, wrapped a towel around His waist, poured water in a basin, and began to wash His disciples’ feet. Why the “so”? Because only a person who is truly secure in his identity can afford to take the role of a servant. Jesus knew who He was. He was the Son of God, and He could not be diminished by humbling Himself to serve His disciples. It’s true for us today too. In the world people struggle to gain every social advantage, and to appear great. Insecure and aware of their vulnerability, they prop themselves up by pride of accomplishment. Many Christians are like this—competing with others to appear important. But the Christian who realizes the significance of his sonship, and of being deeply loved by God, will have none of the insecurity that generates competition. You and I can stoop to serve others. The humblest of roles cannot diminish us. “You shall never wash my feet” John 13:6–11. Peter was shocked by the inappropriateness of it. The One he called Lord, serving him! It just wasn’t right. Peter should serve Jesus, not the other way around. John pointed out that Peter did not understand the symbolism of the act, or its power as an example of servanthood. Jesus must “wash” His followers, not just to make them socially acceptable, but to make them acceptable for the kingdom of God. Many have suggested that here the “bath” (v. 10) represents the total cleansing of a person from sin that takes place when we put our trust in Jesus as Saviour. Foot-washing represents the cleansing of sins that we commit as believers—sins analogous to the dust a person would pick up after bathing, while walking home through a dusty Judean street. We have been washed clean by faith in Jesus. But we stand in continual need of cleansing from the sins we still commit. “You also should wash one another’s feet” John 13:12–17. Luke 22:24 tells us that as the disciples entered the room where the Last Supper was to be held, they were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This bit of background from Luke helps us sense the significance of Jesus’ question, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” If Jesus, their Lord and Master, could stoop to serve, the disciples should not compete for greatness, but rather concentrate on servanthood. “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done for you.” In a few Christian traditions literal foot-washing is practiced. But Christ’s concern is not for the act, but for the attitude it displays. Humility and servanthood are necessary elements of Christian discipleship. If we are followers of Jesus, we must certainly follow this example. “Jesus was troubled in spirit” John 13:18–30. It would be wrong to suppose that Jesus did not love Judas. The psalm Jesus quoted (v. 18) was a psalm of David, that laments the defection of a friend. A similar lament is found in Psalm 55:12–14, which captures the pain of a friend’s betrayal: If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion and close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God. If you have been abandoned by a friend, or betrayed by someone you loved, never doubt for a moment that Jesus understands. “As soon as Judas took the bread Satan entered into him” John 13:27. The phrase does not mean that Satan took control of Judas against his will. Just the opposite! When Jesus offered Judas a bit of bread with meat from the main dish on it, Judas knew without a doubt that Christ knew Judas intended to betray Him. The other disciples did not understand, but Judas did. This was the crucial moment. No one knew but Jesus. At that moment Judas could have changed his mind. Instead he took the morsel that Christ held out to him, in effect announcing his intent to complete his bargain with the priests. It was when Judas made his irrevocable commitment that “Satan entered him.” In deciding to abandon Christ, Judas had opened wide the door of his personality to the control of an evil, spiritual force. No one who makes such an irrevocable commitment against Christ finds freedom. He or she has simply exchanged submission to good for submission to evil. Submission to God for submission to Satan. And eternal life for eternal damnation. “And it was night” John 13:30. Perhaps as Judas opened the door and went out John caught a glimpse of Jerusalem, lying in the deep shadows of Palestine’s sudden nightfall. All we know is that darkness closes in at this point—and that a dark, somber hue colors the subsequent events that lead inexorably to the cross. The pale of night now lies over Jerusalem, and will not be dispelled until Resurrection Day. “I will lay down my life for You” John 13:36–38. Peter must have been a comfort to Jesus. Judas plotted to betray Him. But faithful Peter, ever eager and willing, truly was committed to his Lord. Even though Jesus knew that before many hours passed Peter would deny Him, Peter’s love still must have been a comfort. It’s hard for us to realize that the people who love us are often as weak as well-intentioned Peter. People who love us don’t want to hurt us, any more than we want to hurt them. But we human beings are so weak. I suspect that this is what we are to learn from Peter’s betrayal. Each of us is weak. And motives, while important, are no guarantee that we will not fall. How good to know that Jesus understands our weakness, and accepts us anyway. How necessary that we understand each other’s weaknesses, and be ready to forgive.
So What’s New?(John 13:31–35)
That’s the problem with Jesus’ “new commandment.” Love? What’s new about that? The other Gospel writers inform us that Jesus identified love as the greatest of the Old Testament’s commands: Love God with all your heart, He’d said, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 19:19; 22:37–39; Mark 12:30–33; Luke 10:27). Whatever we can say about love, we can’t say it’s “new.” Love for God and others is woven into the whole of the Old Testament revelation! The answer lies in the Greek word here, kainen. It does not imply “recent,” or even “different.” What it suggests is that there is something fresh and new in the love that Jesus commanded. And, looking closely at the text, we can see what that is! First, the freshness is found in the new relationships Jesus creates (John 13:34). The Old Testament said, “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus was about to establish a new community, in which believers will be brothers and sisters—family, not merely neighbors. Love takes on fresh new meaning in the intimacy possible for members of the family of God. Second, the freshness is found in the new standard Jesus applies. The Old Testament said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to love “as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Just as Jesus’ love was self-sacrificial, and put our benefit before His own well-being, so we now have the opportunity to express, and receive, truly selfless love. The next verse adds one more dimension to the love Jesus commanded. There is a fresh, new impact on the world, worked by Jesus’ kind of love. “All men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” The most compelling evidence we can present of the reality of Jesus Christ is our love for one another. When Christians love one another as Jesus loves us, all do know that we follow Him, and that He lives.
Love isn’t Jesus’ “new suggestion.” It is His “new commandment.”
“People don’t go where the action is, they go where the love is.”—Jess Moody