The “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” is a word from the Latin Bible where Jesus’ new command is translated as a “new mandate“–and since he traditionally gave that mandate or command on Thursday night before he was betrayed, the Church’s celebration of the Last Supper and its related events has come to be called Maundy Thursday.
But is Jesus’ command really new? After all, the command to “love your neighbor” is mentioned in Leviticus 19–hardly new–and Jesus indirectly refers to that statement in Leviticus elsewhere when, in the Gospels, he asked to state what the greatest commandment is; he replies that we are to love God with our whole heart, and “the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”
So it isn’t new in the sense that it has never been said before. Nor is it new in that Jesus hasn’t said it before. How is it then new?
One way it is new is that Jesus uses this command from Leviticus 19 as the “second greatest commandment” and in that regard, it is to be understood as a way of thinking about “all of the commandments.” If that’s a good conclusion, then the command is “new” because it acts as a summary or a “theme” for every kind of commandment-keeping.
Another way perhaps Jesus meant this to be understood as “new” is a “new way of understanding an old commandment.” In other words, the disciples surely would have known about the command to love; but did they really understand what it meant, or how it was to be applied and lived out? In this regard, it would have a new foundation or basis.
Proof of the prevailing “misunderstanding” of the notion of ‘love for one’s neighbor’ is seen in our Lord’s teaching of the parable of the good Samaritan. The outcast and “biracial” or “impure” member of Jewish Society (the Samaritan) is the only one who truly “showed love to his neighbor” in that parable in Luke; not the Pharisee, not the teacher of the law, not the Jewish scholar or politician.
The outcast was the one who truly grasped the meaning of “love” in that story. So perhaps the disciples knew of the commandment to love their neighbor but didn’t really grasp its ultimate or deepest significance. In that sense, then, we can say that this commandment is “new”—by stating it here, in the hour of his betrayal, he is giving this old commandment a new basis or foundation.
I have four thoughts along these lines. How is this a new way of understanding an old commandment?
A. This new commandment means “doing the impossible for the undeserving”
First, “love one another” is a new commandment because it shows that love is essentially “doing the impossible for the undeserving.” Pastor/author Stephen J. Cole quotes the venerable Charles Shultz, author of the Peanuts comic strip, whose character Linus has some trouble loving people…(1)
Linus protests, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” Love in the abstract is a cinch. It’s loving those irritating people that I rub shoulders with that is not easy.
This is the kind of love that Jesus shows to us, isn’t it?
Think of the Rich Young Ruler—he had kept all the commandments his whole life, or so he thought. But when hearing the answer to Jesus’ question about “what must I do to inherit eternal life” the young man hung his head and went away unjustified, for it is “very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Peter, not a rich man by any means, heard this answer and saw that it had implications not only for the wealthy but also the working man, and cried out, “If he can’t be saved, Lord, who can?” Jesus’ reply speaks to my point this evening: “what is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Thus, the new command to love is a command that we do what is impossible for the undeserving—exactly what Jesus has done for us. By dying on the cross, Jesus solves the rich man’s problem, for in that way our Lord provides the righteousness that the rich man’s commandment keeping could never provide for him, as an imperfect, sinful human being. Of course, the Rich Man thinks by his commandment keeping he actually is deserving, but in fact, he is undeserving. The only thing he deserves is actually the opposite of what he believes he has earned for himself: not a righteous reward, but God’s just punishment.
So when John quotes Jesus in John chapter 3, that “God so loved the world by giving his only begotten son,” we realize there that He has done the impossible for the undeserving, too. Isn’t that why Jesus says to Nicodemus “you must be born again?”
This is precisely the “new way” in which we are to understand this new command. I wonder: how do you think about love? Do you think of love as doing what “you can” for the people who “deserve it”? If that’s the case, then that is surely an old way of thinking about love, and certainly not the “new command” that Jesus here speaks of.
B. This new commandment means doing what is not natural but supernatural.
A second thought in terms of how we have a new way of understanding an old commandment is related to the first: not only is this love doing the impossible for the undeserving, it is 2) dong what is not natural but supernatural.
In our flesh, we don’t love in this way—selfless, self-emptying love is not in our nature. Our nature, which the Bible calls “flesh” actually fights tooth and nail against this kind of love. Remember the first point—doing the impossible for the undeserving? Well, if this kind of love were possible you could do it in your own power, in your own natural state, in your “flesh” so to speak.
But because it is impossible for people to love this way, it must be a supernatural thing. This is why in Ezekiel, the prophet recognized that the people of God and even he himself needed divine heart surgery in order to be the people of God’s own possession. “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36).
This is the promise of the new covenant as well—I will write my laws on your heart (Jeremiah 31).
The works of the flesh are evident, the apostle Paul says, and in that list of “fleshly works,” one cannot find “love.” No; its just the opposite. Love is listed as the first of a series of nine attributes or “aspects” or fruit of the Holy Spirit. Having listed these various aspects of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul tells the reader to “walk in the Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:23).
The point is this: you can’t love like Jesus commands you to love on your own. It is a supernatural quality.
We can see this illustrated in many areas of human life. Any good drama on TV or in the theaters today will surely feature someone who has been wronged and is ignored by the authorities, and as a result has no recourse but to seek his or her own revenge or retribution. This is the way society works–you’ve heard of “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” (the Latin version of this is quid pro quo, or literally “this for that.”)
Others speak of “payback” or we simply act like this when we refuse to allow others to help us because it doesn’t meet our particular standard of what is “reasonable” or “acceptable” or “normal.” God forbid if we were actually indebted to someone else! How embarrassing!
No, this is very common in society–fleshly love–but the rare and unusual thing is when we see supernatural love being expressed like this. But be careful of counterfeits: it isn’t enough for an act of love to simply appear selfless to meet the criteria set forth in Jesus’ “new command.” It actually has to “be” selfless. Perhaps that’s why we are skeptical of other people’s motives at times. We’ve become jaded and cynical. This is not as it should be.
C. This commandment means doing what God does for you, for each other.
Third, and related to the first two points, this is new way of understanding an old commandment because it is doing what God does for you, for one another.
In other words, the reason it is supernatural (my second point) and impossible (my first point) is that it originates with God Himself. That’s the whole notion of love being a fruit of the spirit: it comes from God. It is Divine, not Human. And since Jesus was God, Jesus demonstrated this kind of love over and over again. Here’s how scholar John Stott explains it:
[This love Jesus speaks of is new] in its quality, in that His own self-sacrifice on the cross became the standard.
His own self-sacrifice becomes the standard. This is a powerful idea. This is what has been stated in the text we are studying; notice: “Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another.” (verse 34b). Likewise, in John’s first epistle, we read, “we love because he first loved us.”
Speaking of which, that letter (First John) is actually an extended commentary on this little statement of Jesus’—this new commandment is essentially unpacked and elaborated through five chapters of First John. In fact, the commandment to “love one another” appears in that epistle forty-six times. (3)
It would seem that this moment in the lives of the disciples made such an impression on John that for the “rest of John’s life he is going to be working out what he witnesses and hears here, replaying this scene over and over in his head” and working out its implications.” (4)
It is interesting to observe that nowhere else in the Bible do you find the phrase, “new commandment” except in 1 John. Here’s a brief sample of the comments in 1 John which command us to love; notice to how each one of them makes this point we’re discussing—the commandment is new in the sense that it shows us that we’re to do what God does for us, for one another—notice below the close connection between love for God and love for each other. (5)
- 1 John 2:10, “whoever loves his brother abides in the light.”
- 1 John 3:10, “by this is it evident who are the children of God and the children of the Devil.”
- 1 John 3:14, “we know we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers.”
- 1 John 3:16, “by this we know love: that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to love one another.”
- 1 John 4:7, “whoever loves is born of god and knows God…God is love.”
- 1 John 4:10, “if God so loved us we also ought to love one another….if we love one another, His love is perfected in us.”
- 1 John 4:21, “whoever loves God ought to love his brother.”
These verses make the point that “this idea of love permeated John’s being/mind.”
D. The new commandment means doing what glorifies God and not what is for your own benefit.
Finally the new way of understanding an old commandment puts a focus squarely on God (as we have seen so far) and the ultimate conclusion is who gets the glory from your acts of love? Is it something that Glorifies God or simply glorifies or advances your own agenda or fame or reputation? This is a strong theme in the passage which was read; listen again:
Now is the son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him. if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and glorify him at once (John 13:31-32, ESV)
This idea of glorifying God and not oneself was hard for the disciples—who were often caught in debates about “who is the greatest.” At one point, Jesus would reply, “the Kings of the Gentiles lord it over one another…but not so among you; for the greatest shall be your servant…and the last shall be first.”
John the Baptist got this principle when he said of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” That same phrase can be said of our relationships with one another; too often we try to get in front of each other, not physically but mentally, relationally, emotionally, and in our hearts. But this is not the new commandment of Jesus.
The apostle Paul got this, understood this—in 1 Corinthians 13 he says, “the greatest of these is love…” when he described the way love behaves or acts—it behaves with patience, acts without jealousy, conducts itself without envy, and behaves without keeping a record of wrongs, etc.
A similar thought is found in Romans 12, where Paul says “do not be haughty in mind but associate with the lowly.” And then, “do not take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God.” (Rom. 12:21)
Thus, when we do what glorifies God, we realize that what Jesus called the summary of the whole law (love for God, love for one another) is a focus or a theme for our whole lives.
Speaking of glorifying God, it is important that we realize as we consider what glorifies God that not all “love” is meant to be warm and fuzzy. Sometimes love must be “tough” as Jim Dobson put it in his famous book on parenting from the 70s and 80s, “Love Must Be Tough.”
To illustrate this contrast, notice that if you mention the word “love,” people will normally think of something in the spectrum of “being nice.” They picture a loving person as always being nice and sweet towards everyone. Such a person would never confront sin or error. He would never get angry about evil or say anything that might upset someone. Here’s how one pastor put it: (6)
…if you are at all familiar with the four gospels, you will immediately see that by this cultural definition, Jesus was not a loving man! Jesus loved the Jewish religious leaders when He said to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:15). He loved Peter when He said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan” (Matt. 16:23). He loved the multitude when He said to them, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matt. 17:17). The apostle Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit, whose first fruit is love, when he said to Elymas, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” Then, he struck him blind (see Acts 13:9-11).
That doesn’t mean we get to walk around cursing people and chalking it up to our desire to “glorify God.” But it does mean that we must recognize that the Bible is the standard by which we must ultimately measure what is “loving” and what is not; what honors God and what does not.
There’s a vivid poem I found in preparation for this essay which I think helpfully illustrates the quality of this new commandment by asking the question “who is in need of God’s redeeming love”? (7)
Who is in need of God’s redeeming love?
The person whose mind cannot function normally, or the person whose mind is closed and refuses to seek the wisdom of God?
The person who talks to “make believe” people, or the person who cannot permit himself to have an imagination?
The person who is alone and crying for someone to come and visit her, or the person who refuses to give her neighbor a helping hand?
The person who cannot get help on his own, or the person who believes that he has to take care of himself?
The person who has depression and cannot get out of the bed in the morning, or the person who is so busy that she does not have much time for sleep?
The person who attempts death by suicide, or the person who ignores talk about suicide?
The person who is anxious and cannot make a decision, or the person who makes a decision that is harmful to others?
The truth of the matter is we are all in need of God’s redeeming love. We should remember that.
Some action items you should take in light of this essay; consider…
- Asking yourself if you see yourself as being loved by God in the way I have been explaining here in this essay; do you realize God has done the impossible for you, someone who is undeserving?
- If you’re struggling to love someone in your life, ask yourself: are you trying to show human love to them or divine love? Perhaps it is because you know God wants you to show divine love but you’re trying to do it in your own strength—not by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the expression of the Spirit in your life.
- If you are averse to conflict and find yourself always trying to be “nice” you need to perhaps check and see if your definition of “love” is more from culture and the world, or is it truly your desire and attempt to glorify God? If you’ve fallen into a worldly expression of love, you must repent and lovingly and humbly, but nevertheless boldly and truthfully confront the person in your life who’s doing wrong.
- Finally, consider asking yourself who in your life is in need of God’s redeeming love? The poem I read earlier was in honor of, and out of respect for people who struggle with mental illness, but it does apply to so many people in our lives. Perhaps it is someone you’ve been neglecting, or ignoring, or angry with. Perhaps it is yourself, in that you need to more deeply grasp the wonderful riches of God’s grace in your life. Perhaps it is pride.
May God help you and all of us to love as Jesus commands. May we truly have his new way of understanding a very old commandment.
(originally given at our church as a devotion from John 13:34, on the occasion of a Maundy Thursday Feast, Thursday evening, April 13, 2017)
photo credit: The World, by CRG-Free at deviant art: http://www.deviantart.com/art/The-World-577185511. Permission given to use photo here as a blog by a pastor for a non-profit (church): “you can use this image for commercial work aslong as you are a charity or the money goes to charity.”
(1) Stephen J. Cole comments on this text of Scripture here: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-7-old-new-commandment-1-john-27-11
(2) Stephen J. Cole (cited above). The full quote from Stott is helpful: John Stott (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 93) suggests four ways that this old commandment became new when Jesus issued it. “First, it was new in its emphasis, in that Jesus brought it together with the command to love God as the summation of the entire Law. Second, it was new in its quality, in that His own self-sacrifice on the cross became the standard. Third, it was new in its extent, in that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus extended the definition of neighbor to go beyond race or religion. Anyone in need who crosses our path is our neighbor. He said that we should love even our enemies. Finally, it was new in the disciples’ continuing apprehension of it. The love of Jesus on the cross is inexhaustible. We can never plumb its depths. And so as we grow in our understanding of His great love, we will grow in our apprehension of how we must love one another. So Jesus’ command is both old and new.”
(3) A statistic cited by a sermon on this text by Pastor Joel Brooks. Audio found on the web here: https://rccbirmingham.org/sermons/2016/03/13/give-new-commandment
(4) Joel brooks (previously cited)
(5) Verses are paraphrased, from listening to Pastor Brooks’ sermon. However, I do wish to make the point that Pastor Brooks follows a well-worn path when he concludes from Jesus’ statement: “the way people will “know” that we are His disciples is by our love for one another,” that we are not to focus on certain activities or behavior, as being outside the scope of this command. Pastor Brooks says: “Notice he does not say “all people will know we are disciples by our great acts of faith, the miracles we perform, or the doctrine we hold, or by our conservative moral values, or that we gather for Sunday for worship and prayer.” He doesn’t even say that they will know you are my disciples because you profess love to me, but that you love one another.” The fallacy here is that somehow “doctrine is unloving,” or that “miracle working is unloving” or that “professing love to God is necessarily exclusive of loving other people.” Those are all logical fallacies and while it makes for an easy application to a congregation, is not what this text is actually saying.
(6) Stephen J. Cole (previously cited)
(7) From the web-newsletter for a presbyterian church in Kansas, asking the question who needs God’s love? The poem is intended to highlight the need for awareness of mental illness. As I try to grasp this thought, here’s what I take from the poem: the “new” commandment is that this kind of command is that we do something that others cannot do for themselves; like Christ did something for us that we could not do for ourselves—his love redeemed us when we could not obey, and did not obey, and then could not and would not redeem ourselves. Therefore, if we have a misunderstanding of the character of this love, we won’t then be showing this love to others in our lives. But if we grasp the “new way of understanding an old commandment” (the theme of my essay) we will. See the original reference here: http://www.hadavar.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/A-New-Commandment-I-Give-To-You-final-version-9-2012-lg.pdf