The coming of the light changes everything. Did you see the sunrise this morning? Even if you didn’t, it changed your life. The coming of the light transforms the whole world, including you and me. As the sun rises each day, we are infused (barring sickness or early alarm clocks) with new vision and energy, stirred to move with purpose and life.
The same is true of the spiritual dimensions of our beings. The coming of the Light changes everything.
The apostle and author John (assuming, with reason, that the two are the same person) liked to talk about light and darkness. He is the one, for instance, that noticed that Nicodemus visited Jesus in the dark while the Samaritan woman visited him in the light of the noonday sun. Guess who possessed spiritual sight?
One place where light makes all the difference is 1 John 2:7-11:
7 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. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
This passage is full of short, simple words. Even the Greek is among the simplest in the NT. But, as is typical with John, easy words bear weighty thoughts.
I see at least three basic themes in these verses:
- A commandment to love one’s brother
- A contrast between light and darkness
- An apparent contradiction between “old” and “new”
Let’s start with the apparent contradiction first.
How can the command to love our brother be both old and new?
Some try to solve this dilemma in part by noting that the Greek word for “new” in verse 8 is καινὴν, not νέος. The latter often means new in time (i.e., recent), while the former can sometimes mean new in quality (i.e., unusual or superior). Thus we could perhaps theoretically translate verse 8 like this: “At the same time, it is a fresh commandment that I am writing to you.” This would remove the tension between “old” and “new,” for an “old” commandment could still be a “fresh,” or perhaps even “better” one. One commentator suggests it is like a familiar symphony being performed anew by skilled musicians, or a familiar dish of food prepared by a culinary wizard.1
But, however true such images are, this solution doesn’t work on a linguistic basis. Why? Because the same word καινὴν is also found, negatively, in verse 7: “I am writing you no new commandment.” Unless John changes the meaning of καινὴν from one verse to the next (which is entirely possible but which then overturns the distinction between καινὴν and νέος), he is still apparently contradicting himself.
The simple English word “new” is a good translation. And the word clearly includes a chronological dimension, for “old” is amplified by the phrase “from the beginning.” So we must not try to hide the appearance of contradiction: John is saying that the commandment to love is both old (known from the beginning) and, in some other and more recent sense, new.
(John, with his black-and-white language, is full of such apparent contradictions, prompting us to puzzle profitably over his words as over cunning proverbs.)
So, how is the love commandment old?
One possible answer is to note that the command to love our brother has existed since the oldest parts of Scripture. Jesus summarized the OT law with two great commandments:
“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. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39)
In doing so, Jesus cited two OT texts:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, …but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:17-18)
So the love commandment is as old because it is older than the Bible itself.
But John likely had something else in mind when he called the love commandment “old.” The commandment was old to John’s readers because they “had [it] from the beginning” (2:7). “From the beginning” is a phrase that John uses in multiple ways, but here it seems to refer to time when his readers first heard the gospel message:
Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)
And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)
Isn’t this true with us, too? I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know I was supposed to love my brother. Can you? “Love one another” is very old command—so old, in fact that we sometimes forget that it is also new.
So, how is the love commandment new?
Here we are reminded of the words of Jesus—as recorded by John:
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. (John 13:34)
What did Jesus mean when he called this commandment “new”? I think the answer lies in the phrase “just as I have loved you.” Jesus provided us a new example of love, an example that renews the old commandment by giving us a picture of what our love should look like.
John says much the same thing in his first letter:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)
Jesus’ example demonstrates a new magnitude of love:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)
In fact, Jesus’ love extended not only to his friends, but to his enemies—an almost unheard of thing, as Paul notes:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-8)
Jesus’ coming also provides a new power for us to love. John is the apostle of new birth. He is the one who records Jesus’ words, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He said that all who received Jesus were given the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13). And in his first letter he says that being born of God gives us power to keep God’s commandments, including the command to love one another:
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments... And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world… (1 John 5:2-4)
Being born of God gives us power to love. So does abiding in Christ, another theme emphasized by John. At the end of the famous passage about bearing fruit by abiding in the Vine, John records these words from Jesus:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (from John 15:12-17)
Abiding in Christ, therefore, empowers us to bear the fruit of mutual love.
I have suggested three ways (there are surely more) in which the love commandment can properly be called new:
- Jesus provided a new example of love.
- Jesus’ example demonstrated a new magnitude of love.
- Jesus’ coming gives us new power to love.
John pictures all this newness by talking about light.
Listen again to the verse where John first calls the love commandment “new”:
At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)
There are grammatical challenges in interpreting this verse. (In the Greek, “which” is a neuter pronoun while “commandment” is female, so the relationship between clauses is debated.)
But the basic ideas seem clear: The love commandment is “true”—realized or actualized—in both Jesus and in those who belong to him. And it is realized because “the darkness is dissipating and the true light already shines.”2 The coming of the light actualizes the commandment, thus making it new.
This language of light links back to the foundational theological thesis statement for whole letter:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
How did John know that God is light? Because Jesus, God in the flesh, had come into the world. John is a first-person witness to the word/Word of life (1 John 1:1). The incarnation of the Word is the theme of the opening verses of John’s letter (1 John 1:1-4), and also of the prologue of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9)
As John’s poetic prologue continues, the identity of the “true light” becomes clear: It is Jesus.
“The true light.” This is the same phrase that John uses in our original passage: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Jesus, God in the flesh, is “already shining”!
Putting it all together, here is what John is saying: The coming of Jesus, the light of the world (cf. John 8:12), makes the commandment true and thus new.
There is much more to see about the nature of light and darkness in John’s writings. Light suggests divine revelation, human exposure, honesty, spiritual sight, and holiness. Light exposes our hearts (John 3:19-21; John 9:39-41) and will transform us into “sons of light” if we believe in it (John 12:35-36).
We have enough light to ask ourselves some questions:
Am I loving my brother in a way that demonstrates that the Light has come into the world? Or am I still living as if the world is abandoned in darkness?
Can others see, by the way I love, that I have been transformed by the Light?
Am I imitating Jesus’ new example of love? Does my love mirror his new magnitude of love, or is it no bigger than the love of non-Christians around me? Am I experiencing new power to love? (Or is there little evidence that I am abiding in Christ or even born again?)
In sum, is the command to love my brother a new commandment for me? Or is it just an old, powerless, forgettable and forgotten one?
I’ve tried in this post to express the love command in something of its end-of-the-age freshness. I have also tried to demonstrate some techniques of good exegesis:
- Identifying and focusing on key words and themes.
- Tracing these key words and themes beyond the immediate text, giving priority to (a) the rest of the same book of the Bible and then (b) to other books by the same author, without importing meanings from more distant contexts.
- Teasing out apparent contradictions, without denying anything Scripture affirms.
- Looking for how Christ, the ultimate subject of Scripture, is key to the meaning of the text.
Now it is your turn. What insights do you think John intended to communicate? How has the coming of the Light changed the way you love your brother? Share your thoughts in the comments below.