After washing the feet of his disciples (including Judas), Jesus made a prediction about his betrayal in vss. 18-30, and Judas left the table to sell out his Lord.
Now we come to today’s passage, which has some of the most meaningful and heart-rending words of Jesus. But to grasp the full impact of vss. 34-35, we need to examine it somewhat dispassionately.
What does our Lord mean when he says he’s giving us a “new” command? When he was questioned earlier that very week about the greatest commandment of all, he gave the famous reply: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'" The second command is a quote from Lev. 19:18. This was nothing new to Jews who knew the Torah.
So what is Jesus talking about there? We can find a clue in the rest of the verse. It’s not the command to love others that’s new: It’s the standard that’s changed.
You see, up to that point, love for others had a high—but not impossible—standard for believers. We were supposed to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. If we see ourselves injured, we take steps to heal ourselves. If we’re hungry, we give ourselves something to eat. If we’re in some other need, we try to meet it for ourselves. And in the same way, if we someone else in need, we’re supposed to step forward and help them as best as we can. That’s the point of the story about the “Good Samaritan,” which if you’ll recall started with a question about how to love our neighbor, and whom we’re obligated to help.
And of course we have what’s known as the “Golden Rule,” which raised the standard as well. Despite what you might've heard, there are no parallels to it from other religious leaders. Others told you to not do anything that you wouldn’t want to have done to yourself. That’s nice, but that’s not good enough for Jesus. You could walk past someone who’s in need and not do them harm. No, his standard--his command--is a positive one: You need to positively do for others what you would like them to do to you.
But today's command is even tougher. No, it’s impossible. He tells us that he expects us to love one another as he has loved us. And how did he do that? By dying for us.
That’s what’s “new” about this command: Not the command to love, but the standard of the love we're supposed to show.
And just to twist the knife a little bit more, he sets this up as the sign of belonging to him. Yes, correct doctrine is extremely important. Yes, fidelity to Scripture is absolutely essential. But can I let you into a little secret? The world doesn’t care about those things. It doesn’t give a rat’s. . .you know. . .about all that.
Let’s put it this way: If you ask an average non-Christian to describe what he thinks of when he hears the word “Christian,” what would he say? “Against abortion.” “Probably Republican.” “Against gay marriage.” “Bible thumper.” Now, I’m strongly against abortion and gay marriage, and I yield to no one in the area of loving God’s word. But I keep coming back to what Jesus said: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
So how do I reconcile that verse with the fact that when the average nonbeliever thinks of Christians, the furthest thing from his mind is “Oh yeah, those are the people who love each other.” Is this a sign that’s something’s desperately wrong in Christian/Non-Christian relations? How can it not be?
Lord Jesus, what can I do to change this? How can I show your love to a dying world? Better yet, how can I better let you love the world through me?