A new commandment I give to you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
The commandment of love issued appropriately at the Feast of Love, and not long before the great Act of Love. For the love of Christ was no fine saying; it cost Him His life to say these words. It is difficult to grasp the meaning of this command, arising from the fact that words change their meaning. Love is, by conventional usage, appropriated to one species of human affection, which, in the commoner men, is most selfish. Nor is charity a perfect symbol of His meaning; for that is now identified with almsgiving. Benevolence or philanthropy, in derivation, come nearer to the idea; but yet you feel at once that these words are too tame and cold. We have no sufficient word. "As I have loved you:" that alone expounds it. Take —
I. THE NOVELTY of the law —
1. As a historical fact. Men before that had travelled, but the spectacle of a Paul crossing oceans not to conquer kingdoms, to hive up knowledge, to accumulate stores for self, but to give and to spend himself — was new in the history of the world. The celestial fire had touched the hearts of men and their hearts flamed; and it caught, and spread, and would not stop. Read the account given by of the marvellous rapidity with which the Christians increased, and you are reminded of one of those vast armies of ants which move across a country in irresistible myriads, drowned by thousands in rivers, cut off by fire, consumed by men and beast, and yet fresh hordes succeeding interminably to supply their place. A new voice was heard; man longing to burst the false distinctions which had kept the best hearts from each other so long. And all this from Judaea — the narrowest, most intolerant nation on the face of the earth.
2. In extent. It was in literal words, an old Commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." But the difference lay in extent in which the words were understood. By "neighbour," the Jew meant his countrymen; so that the rabbinical gloss was, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy." And what the Gentile understood by the extent of the law of love, we may learn from their best and wisest, who thanked heaven that he was born a man, and not a brute — a Greek, and not a barbarian. But Christ said, "Love your enemies." And as a specimen of a neighbour he specially selected one of that nation whom every Jew had been taught to hate. And just as the application of electricity to the innumerable wants of human life and to new ends is reckoned a new discovery (though the fact has been familiar to the Indian child and applied for ages to his childish sports), so the extension of this grand principle of Love to all the possible cases and persons — even though the principle was applied long before in love to friends, country, and relations — is truly and properly "a new commandment."
3. In being made the central principle of a system. Never had obedience before been trusted to a principle, it had always been hedged round by a law. Now it was reserved for One to pierce down into the springs of human action, and to proclaim the simplicity of its machinery. "Love," said the apostle after Him — "Love is the fulfilling of the law." I may abstain from murder and theft, deterred by law and its penalties. But I may also rise into the Spirit of Charity; then I am free from the law; the law no more binds me, now that I love my neighbour, than the dyke built to keep in the sea at high tide restrains it when that sea has sunk to low watermark.
II. THE SPIRIT OR MEASURE of the law — "As I have loved you." Broadly, the love of Christ was the spirit of giving all He had to give — "Greater love hath no man than this," etc. "He saved others; Himself He cannot save." These words, meant as taunt, were really the noblest panegyric. How could He, having saved others? How can any keep what he gives? Love gives itself. The mother spends herself in giving life to her child; the soldier dies for him country; nay, even the artist produces nothing that will live, except so far as he has merged his very being in his work. That spirit of self-giving manifests itself in —
1. Considerate kindness. Take three cases.
(1) When He fed the people with bread, there was a tenderness which, not absorbed in His own great designs, provided for the satisfaction of the lowest wants.
(2) "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile." He did not grudge from duty the interval of relaxation.
(3) "Woman, behold thy son!" In that hour of death torture, He could think of her desolate state when He was gone, and with delicate, thoughtful attention provide for her well-being. There are people who would do great acts; but because they wait for great opportunities, life passes and the acts of love are not done at all. Observe, this considerateness of Christ was shown in little things. And life is made up of infinitesimals. And these trifles prepared for larger deeds. The one who will be found in trial capable of great acts of love is ever the one who is always doing considerate small ones.
2. It was never foiled by the unworthiness of those on whom it had once been bestowed. There was everything to shake His trust in humanity. As we mix in life there comes disappointment, and the danger is a reaction of desolating and universal mistrust. The only preservation from this withering of the heart is love. The strength of affection is a proof, not of the worthiness of the object, but of the largeness of the soul which loves. The might of a river depends not on the quality of the soil through which it passes, but on the inexhaustibleness and depth of the spring from which it proceeds. The greater minds cleave to the smaller with more force than the other to it. Love trusts on — expects better things. And more, it is this trusting love that makes men what they are trusted to be, so realizing itself. When the crews of the fleet of Britain knew that they were expected to do their duty, they did their duty. And it is on this principle that Christ wins the hearts of His redeemed. He trusted the doubting Thomas; and Thomas arose with a faith worthy "of his Lord and his God." He would not suffer even the lie of Peter to shake His conviction that Peter might love him yet; and Peter answered nobly to that sublime forgiveness. Therefore, come what may, hold fast to love. Learn not to love merely, but to love as He loved.
(F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.