One of the main things that have divided churches for hundreds of years is the subject of “change.” Many things play into this sort of division such as what is actually changing, the pace of the change, who is on either side of the change, and so on. Usually, it comes down to one side wanting to progress or evolve and the other wanting to stay the same or even go back to the way things used to be. John understood this.
We mentioned in the first post of this series that when Jesus came on the scene, God was doing something new and unexpected. Everything changes through Jesus, and the world is in the process of becoming new. This is a primary reason why John was writing this letter in the first place: to remind his readers to keep walking in this light. However, walking in the light can be hard if we are resistant to change.
In 1 John 2:3-11, John mentions what it looks like to “keep God’s commandments”:
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
I don’t know about you, but my mind immediately drifts, specifically, to the Ten Commandments when I hear the word “commandments” at all. My mind also drifts to terms such as “law” or something like that, which Paul has already told us we are supposedly free from (Romans 8:2). Even earlier in the letter, if you remember, John tells us we’ve all been forgiven, and the light has come. So, why this talk of commandments that we have to obey? Doesn’t Jesus free us from those? Yes, but we might be looking at the point in which John is trying to get across in the wrong way with that question…
A couple of things are important to mention in regards to these verses.
1. The commandments are summed up with love
First off, a word about the Ten Commandments or the other commandments from the Old Testament… Often I hear people defend their authenticity as a Christian by saying they “follow the Ten Commandments.” That’s great, but doesn’t Jesus free us from the law? Aren’t those and all the other commandments rendered void by what Jesus did? Yes. However, the Ten Commandments weren’t designed as rules to keep or a checklist for faith. Instead, they were intended as a guideline to what a genuine, human life should look like and how we should treat one another. Jesus didn’t just render those useless; instead, he built on what they were trying to do.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, this is what he said,
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
So, when John is talking about “keeping commandments,” he’s not talking about a condition for knowing God, but rather a sign of knowing God. In other words, you don’t have to keep these commandments to know God; instead, you know God, and the commandments come naturally. It’s not merely what you know, but how you act on what you know. That’s the commands that have been there from the beginning, and they are shown by the way in which we treat one another.
2. Jesus brings love in a new way
That leads to, secondly, the change. What has changed? What is this new command John mentions? In his Gospel, John recalls Jesus saying this,
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another (John 13:34).
You might be wondering what the difference is, here between the greatest commandments and this “new” command Jesus gives. Jesus summed up the commands of the law and prophets as love. So, why is this command to love one another new, too? It is new not because it didn’t exist before, but because it is a command from Jesus, himself and it was given to his disciples, specifically. It’s like an old commandment put in a new way. Paul will say elsewhere, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus was enacting the “old” commandments on the disciples but was also showing them a new way to carry those commandments out through one another and the people they encountered. In so doing, they became new persons in and of themselves as Jesus changed them.
So, love is not merely a command of old that has to be obeyed or followed; it is a command that becomes new each time it is enacted. As Jesus gave the command, so we are to carry it out anew each day to everyone we encounter. That is a change worth embracing, and it doesn’t involve division or compromise, it requires unity and perhaps even sacrifice for the well being of someone else. That’s what it means to walk in the light continually.