THE NEW—OLD COMMANDMENT
1 John 2:7 & 8
“Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in Him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.”
In order to an understanding of these verses it is necessary to seek answers to the following questions. What is the relation between them and the context? What is the “old commandment”which is not immediately and formally defined? What is “the beginning”here referred to? Why the seeming repetition in the last two sentences of verse 7? What is the “new commandment”and how is the first clause of verse 8 to be understood, in view of the first clause of verse 7? What is meant by “which thing is true in Him and in you”?What is the precise bearing of the “because” on what precedes, in view of the remainder of the sentence? What is referred to in “the darkness is past and the true light now shineth”?Finally, why is the whole introduced by the term “Brethren”?Obviously, the interpreter and teacher is called for here.
It is a mistake, made by several of the commentators, to suppose that 1 John 2:7 begins a new division of the epistle. It does not: verses 7 to 11 are closely related to those immediately preceding. John is continuing to press for holiness of life, but passes from the general to the particular. In verses 3 to 6 the apostle had shown that the keeping of God’s commandments and following the example left His people by Christ are proofs of the genuineness of their love unto the Father and His Son, and therefore assurances for their hearts of their being and abiding in Him. Tacitly these verses contain an exhortation unto obedience to God and imitation of the perfect walk of Christ, and thus are an amplification of the opening sentence of the chapter: “these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” In what follows he had intimated what was the positive implication of that prohibition: that his design was to inculcate and promote practical piety in the lives of the saints. Verse 3 had laid the foundation in a general statement, by mentioning the keeping of God’s commandments at large; now, he singles out and dwells upon a more specific commandment, which was at once both old and new.
As to precisely what commandment John had reference to, there does not seem to us the slightest room for doubt. With the great majority of the commentators we consider it is the precept which enjoins the exercise of brotherly love that is here in view. Candlish and one or two others who were prone to strain after “originality” dissented: on the ground that such an interpretation is awkward and unnatural, it being contrary to the apostle’s usual simplicity to spend two verses in describing a commandment which he had not yet mentioned, and brings in only at verse 9. But in 1 John 3:23, John tells us we should “love one another, as He gave us commandment,” and in 1 John 4:21, “This commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” While in his second epistle he declares, “not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another” (2 John 1:5), which surely removes all uncertainty. But that which settles the matter once and for all with the writer are the words of our Lord unto His apostles, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another,” (John 13:34).
This will be the best place (though we put it last in our list of questions) to consider why our present passage is addressed “Brethren.” That is an endearing term. They had all been born again of the same Spirit, had one and the same Father, even the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and had been delivered by the same Redeemer, and were alike interested in one complete and everlasting salvation. They were bound up in the same bundle of life with Christ, and so were in the highest and truest sense His brethren (Heb. 2:11,17), and therefore brethren one of another—united to each other by the sacred tie of blood, even the blood of the Lamb. Since the apostle was about to address them more immediately on the subject of being “kindly affectioned one to another;” most appropriate was it that he should here address them as “Brethren”—thereby reminding them of the obligations involved by such a relationship. Only once more in this epistle does he employ this particular form of address, and that most significantly, when bidding them marvel not at the world’s hatred, when assuring them that love to the brethren is a proof of having passed from death unto life, and when pointing out that, if occasion required it, they were to seal their love by laying down their lives, for their brethren (1 John 3:13,14,16).
It is through our failure to examine carefully and weigh thoughtfully every detail of Scripture that we miss so many of its finer shades of beauty. Not only are we at a loss to understand much of that which passes so rapidly before our eyes, and still more so to retain it in our memories, but the minute perfections of the Word are unperceived by us. As we cannot enjoy the delicious flavor of fruit if it be eaten hurriedly, neither can we value the workmanship of the Spirit if we rapidly scan the sacred page. A pertinent illustration of this is found in the appellations employed by John when addressing his readers upon different parts of his message to them, for they are used not simply for the purpose of variety, but in strict accord with his change of subject. Thus it was most fitting that he should begin this chapter “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not,” for older Christians ought not to need such a dehortation. Equally suitable was it that now, when, for the first time, he was to write upon brotherly love, he should address them as “Brethren.”
“Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning.” Let us consider the wider bearing of this statement ere taking up its more specific reference. John was introducing no novelty or innovation of his own. He desired to make it clear that in pressing a Divine commandment he was not adopting a hitherto unheard of policy in this Christian dispensation, or following a strange procedure. He was acting in no wise inconsistently with a regime of pure grace, for grace ever works through righteousness (Rom. 5:21) and never at the expense of it (Titus 2:11-12). Privileges do not release from the discharge of duty, but impose additional obligations, or at least furnish motives thereunto. It is a serious mistake to suppose that “commandments” are out of place where love dominates (Eph. 5:24; 1 Pet. 3:6), as it is to argue that the pressing of them upon God’s people in this era is “legalistic.” Such reasonings are once and for all refuted by Christ’s words in John 15:10, “If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love; even as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love.”
In declaring that he wrote no new commandment unto his readers, John was emulating his Master. At the beginning of His public ministry Christ had said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill,” (Matt. 5:17). It was the desire both of the supreme Teacher and of His beloved disciple to allay the prejudices of hearers and readers by preventing them from supposing they were bringing in something new. The apostle delighted to pattern himself after his Master, not only in his conduct, but also in the methods and manner of his teaching. Nor was there any need whatever for him to invent something new, for the Lord Jesus Himself had delivered all that was ever to be given as from Him: His ministers being required to teach others only those things which He had commanded them (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 2:3). What a lesson there is here for present day preachers, not to pander to those who, like the Athenians, “spent their time in nothing else, but to tell, or hear some new thing,” (Acts 17:21). Do not be ashamed to be dubbed “old-fashioned.”
J. Reynolds (in Henry’s commentary) pointed out, “The precept of love must be as old as human nature; but it might admit of divers enactments, enforcements and motives. In the state of innocence, had human nature then been propagated, men must have loved one another, as being of one blood, made to dwell on the earth as God’s offspring, and bearing His image. In the state of sin and promised recovery, they must love one another as related to God their Maker, as related to each other by blood, and as partners in the same hope. When the Hebrews were peculiarly incorporated, they must accordingly love each other as being the privileged people, whose were the covenants and the adoption, and of whose race the Messiah and Head of the Church must spring; and the law of love must be conveyed with new obligations to the new Israel of God to the Gospel-church; and so it is the old commandment or the word which the children of the Gospel-Israel had heard from the beginning.”
Though that is all doctrinally and historically true, and while the great majority of the commentators since then have, substantially, adopted this explanation of the new-old “commandment,” yet we personally consider it misses the mark exegetically, and that through failing rightly to understand what is meant in the repeated expression “from the beginning.” It should be carefully noted that the apostle did not say “an old commandment which was from the beginning,” but instead, “which ye had” and “which ye have heard from the beginning.” As we showed in our exposition of 1 John 1:1-2, this expression “the beginning” is used in the New Testament in quite a number of distinct senses, though in this epistle we regard it as having one uniform meaning, namely the beginning of this Christian era, and more particularly the commencement of our Lord’s public ministry, when He was openly revealed before the eyes of men, when it was made manifest that none other than Immanuel was tabernacling in their midst. This we are convinced is the reason why the Holy Spirit moved John to add the final clause to verse 7: to explain to us the meaning of the preceding one, and let us know he referred to the “beginning” of their saving knowledge of God, to the time of their conversion—the start of their spiritual lives.
Calvin pointed out that some explained the “old commandment” as referring back to Sinai, saying, “that Christ now proclaims no other rule of life under the Gospel than what God did formerly under the Law,” adding, “this is indeed most true, nor do I object.” Alas that so many who now call themselves or at least regard themselves as “Calvinists” do object thereto, that they emphatically deny the Moral Law is the Christian’s rule of life, and denounce subjection thereto as a species of “bondage” —a view which is not only falsified by Matthew 5:17, but the plain teaching of the epistles also (Rom. 3:31; 7:22,25; 1 Cor. 9:21). Then, with his usual perspicuity, the justly renowned reformer and expositor gave it as his opinion that John “calls it the old commandment, not because it was taught the fathers ages before, but because it had been taught them on their very entrance into the religious life. This was one of the first elements of the Gospel that they had been thus taught from the beginning; and it served much to claim their faith that it had proceeded from Christ Himself, from whom they had received the Gospel.”
With the above view we heartily concur, though we would supplement the fact that not only had Christ proclaimed this commandment (John 15:17), but had Himself perfectly exemplified the same (John 13:14-15). Now since the apostles had themselves experienced such a blessed commendation of it in their beloved Master’s treatment of them, we may be sure that they emphasized this law of fraternal benevolence wherever they ministered unto the saints. As others have pointed out, John himself here gave an instance of the same in his own example, and placed it on record: in the intimate appellation he here employed, for his “Brethren” signified that those to whom he wrote were near and dear to him, united by that bond of Christian charity unto the practice of which he was soliciting them. Thus in declaring, “I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning,” he assured them it was no novelty he was enjoining, but something they had been familiar with from the day they became Christians. Nor had this precept originated with him, for he had received it from Christ; it was thus a disclaimer that he was broaching any strange doctrine.
But to what does he refer in his “Again, a new commandment I write unto you?” Not to an entirely different one, or he had said “And yet again.” The adverb “again” intimates that the same subject was being considered, but under another aspect. In the New Testament two Greek words are used for “new:” kainos, which refers especially to quality, and “neos” which alludes principally to time—it is the former one here. One commandment is in view throughout, but considered from different angles, namely that of brotherly love—not formally named, for all his readers would know the one he referred to. The same object may be at once both old and new: old in itself, new to us. Probably the reader heard the Gospel for years, but when the Holy Spirit applied it unto his heart in power it was thoroughly new in his experience. Some have illustrated this commandment’s being both old and new by the grand Reformation- that which was proclaimed by Luther and Calvin was “old,” for it had been taught by Christ and His apostles; again it was “new,” as purged from the adulterations of Rome. A more Scriptural example is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where we hear our Lord enunciating no absolutely new law, setting up no different standard of conduct, but renewing the Decalogue, freed from the glosses and corruptions of the rabbis and Pharisees.
The apostle had, in the former verse, explained what he meant by the old commandment, declaring it to be the very same as they had been taught and had received “from the beginning” —that which respected brotherly love, as the verses which follow prove. As S.E. Pierce well expressed it, “It was the old commandment in the same sense as when we read of the old covenant and the new. There ever was but one and the same everlasting covenant: yet the different administrations thereof have been such as to give the denominations of the old and new covenant thereto.” That analogy is both pertinent and illuminating. It is on the basis of the everlasting covenant of grace made by God with Christ, that His elect were saved during the former economy (2 Sam. 23:5) and that they are so now (Heb. 13:21), yet different privileges have been enjoyed by and different duties required from them under Judaism and Christianity. Likewise as our Lord’s commandment to His disciples to love one another required the names of old and new—from the distinct periods of His delivering it unto them—so also it is invested with higher privileges, enforced by superior motives, and contains different enactments from the former.
Some commandments are old in the sense of being antiquated, like the ceremonial laws of Judaism; others are new absolutely, as the Christian ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Some are both old and new, as those given at Sinai, renewed by Christ and His disciples. At the beginning of His ministry Christ enforced the Decalogue, the sum of which is loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. At the close He said to His disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.” The Law required that I love my neighbor, which was a natural relationship; but the Gospel requires me to love my “brethren” in Christ, which is a spiritual relationship. The Law required me to love my neighbor as myself: to be as zealous in protecting his interests and forwarding his welfare as I am my own; Christ commands us “That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12)—with a fervent, sacrificial and enduring love. His words in John 13:34, “as I have loved you,” are to be interpreted in the light of their context (vv. 14 & 15) where we behold the incarnate Son of God performing a slave’s part, washing the feet of His disciples. His was a self-renouncing, self-denying love which shrank not from the meanest office.
Several broad hints have been given above, but we must now furnish a more definite and fuller answer to the question, Why is the old commandment of verse 7 called a new one in verse 8? The terms are used relatively and not absolutely: the old commandment is now considered in a new light and is to be laid hold of with a new vigor. Love for the brethren is now urged on grounds on which it was not under the Mosaic economy. First and foremost, from the example supplied by Christ. He not only expressly ratified the original precept, but had given a pattern of charity such as had never been seen in this world before. In Him it was supremely and sublimely personified. The Lord Jesus displayed a love which was superior to all the faults and failings of its objects, a love which never varied or cooled, which deemed no service too menial and no sacrifice too great. It was new then not in its substance, but in the form given to it by the Redeemer. Perfectly exemplified by Him, it shone with additional luster and appeared with new beauty. Thus we see how intimately this linked with verse 6: in exhorting Christians to walk as their Master walked, the apostle singled out one particular feature thereof—how He conducted Himself toward His brethren.
So far is Christianity from rendering the exercise of love and the performance of good works needless, it imposes additional obligations unto the same, and at the same time furnishes new incentives thereto. “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples,” said Christ, “if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). And as the example of Christ so plainly exhibited, love is very much more than a nebulous ideal or flowery expression, being an intensely practical thing; more than a beautiful sentiment, namely a mighty force and impelling dynamic. The followers of Christ are required to love one another for His sake, as bearing His image, and as imitating the copy He set before them of compassionate, patient, disinterested affection. They are to have a genuine regard to each other’s interests and comforts; a sympathy with their sorrows and a part in their joys. They are to delight in one another’s company, to live in peace and harmony, to bear and forbear with each other’s frailties. They are to unite together in prayer and worship, to bear each other’s burdens, to spare no pains in seeking to build them up in faith and holiness. This new commandment is to be kept for ever fresh in the hearts and minds of the saints.
But there are many other respects in which the old commandment is now a new one. It is given to a new society or corporation, the Christian, “brotherhood” (1 Pet. 2:17). It has received a new exemplification in the Head of that corporation, being abundantly and perfectly realized in Him who “loved the Church and gave Himself for it.” It is addressed unto those who are new creatures in Christ Jesus, and therefore are they to love one another for His sake. Thus it is kept from a new principle or nature, received at regeneration. It has come to them with a new power: under the old covenant it was inscribed upon tables of stone, but the Spirit writes it on the hearts of those who are under the new covenant, and it was for this reason that Paul said to the saints, “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). It is invested with new force, even the mediatorial authority of Christ, who, after His resurrection from the dead, was given all power in heaven and in earth, and “gave commandments unto the apostles” (Acts 1:2). It is to be obeyed in a new manner, according to its multiform application in the precepts found in the Epistles, which are given for the directing of brotherly love.