The new command: Stay in the light!

by K.W. Leslie, 20 June

1 John 2.7-11.

In John’s gospel, Jesus gave his students a new command. The way he talked about it, kinda suggests it’s not just a personal directive from their rabbi, nor a commentary on the bible’s commands like he did with the Sermon on the Mount. This is a new command, meant to be added to the other commands, and followed just as intently.

John 13.34-35 KWL
34 “I give you a new command: You should love one another!
Same as I love you, you all should love one another.
35 This is how everyone will come to realize you’re my students:
When you have love for one another.”

Like all the other things Jesus teaches, Christians have sought any loophole possible for not obeying this one. Usually by claiming those other Christians aren’t real Christians. They have (slightly) different doctrines, do their rituals all wrong, revere other Christian teachers than we do, focus way too much on practices which make us uncomfortable, or play way-too-different worship music. They sin (as if we don’t). They have different politics. They’re too young or too old, too formal or informal, too white or brown (although let’s pretend that last thing isn’t really our hangup; let’s pretend it’s politics again). Pick your favorite excuse.

Anyway. In today’s discussion on 1 John, we got John writing about a new command, and a number of commentators have decided John’s actually writing about the new command; Jesus’s new command. About loving one another.

A few assumptions are part ’n parcel of this interpretation:

  • The author of this letter, and the gospel, are the same John.
  • The readers of this letter, read that gospel, and know “new command” refers to that new command.
  • Because John would never issue a new command on his own. Because he’s not God, of course. Neither are the other apostles. Their writings aren’t commands; they’re just instructions. Although… haven’t Christians historically followed the apostles’ instructions kinda like they are commands?…

Me, I’d say unless John explicitly says he means that new command, it’s not appropriate to leap to such a conclusion. Better to read the letter in the context of itself. What’d John just write about in his previous chapter? God being light; us living in his light. So when John goes back to writing about light and darkness, that’s what we oughta pay attention to: The stuff he just wrote. Why is it Christians regularly seem to totally forget basic reading comprehension when it comes to bible study?

Oh right; our tendency to chop the bible up into little segments and study ’em one soundbite at a time. Kinda like I’m doing in this series. But regardless: These aren’t self-contained soundbites! They’re part of a whole. Read the whole. Study the whole. And don’t lose sight of the whole when you expound on it… even if us commentators sometimes (or pretty darned often) slip up and do exactly that.

On to today’s soundbite:

1 John 2.7-11 KWL
7 Dear Christians, I write you not a new command, but an old command
which you’ve had since the beginning; the old command is the message you heard.
8 Yet I do write you a new command, true for one and all:
The darkness is going away, and the true light is shining already.
9 One who says they’re in the light while hating their fellow Christian:
They’re in the darkness even now.
10 One who loves their fellow Christian lives in the light,
and isn’t triggered by them.
11 One who hates their fellow Christian is in the darkness, walking in the darkness,
and doesn’t know where they’re going for the darkness blinds their eyes.

The purpose of John’s letter is to keep his students away from sin. 1Jn 2.1 And how we go about doing that is we stay in the light which God is. This is the new command.

It’s not, as John pointed out, all that new. Every Christian’s heard it, in one form or another. Follow Jesus. Walk like he did. Teach everybody what he taught. Mt 28.20 “What would Jesus do?” like the T-shirts say. The assumption one usually makes when they embrace a guru, is the goal of being just like that guru. The term “Christian” itself means “little Christ,” or Christ-follower. Does this really need to be spelled out?

And then again it is a new command. Following Moses’s teachings didn’t mean people wanted to be just like Moses. The scriptures actually record Moses’s screw-ups as much as his accomplishments. So you don’t follow Moses; you follow the Law. Whereas in being Christian, we do follow Jesus. We obey his commands too, but Jesus personifies his own commands to a degree Moses never personified the Law (and frankly never could). Following Jesus is following his commands. Following him is a command in itself.

So while it’s not new, it kinda is. There’s never been a guru we could follow to the level we follow Jesus. And frankly, if we’re not willing to follow Jesus to that level, we suck as Christians.

The point of following Jesus, as stated in verse 8, isn’t because “the darkness is past,” as the KJV puts it: Παράγεται/parághete is a present-tense verb, so the darkness is currently passing. It’s not gone yet. When we follow Jesus and walk in the light, we’re helping to drive darkness out. The more of us that are in the light, the fewer places there are for dark to be. Christianity spreads, darkness recedes. And on New Earth, darkness will be utterly gone.

Hatred means you’re not in the light.

I get why commentators mix this “new command” mixed up with Jesus’s command to love one another. Loving one another is integral to living in the light. Note verses 9-11, where John straight-up wrote if you hate one another, you’re not in the light. The commands are very closely connected.

John literally used the word ἀδελφὸν/adelfón, “sibling,” but the general idea is siblings in Christ, sisters and brothers whom God adopted as his children. And if we hate these fellow Christians, either because we haven’t worked out our disagreements, or because of idle prejudices and assumptions made about different denominations, we’re in the wrong. It violates Jesus’s command to love one another. It means we’re still in the darkness, no matter what we claim.

This can be a hard principle for some Christians to follow. For many, partisanship trumps Christianity. Many’s the time I’ve heard a Christian just rip on a politician… who happened to be a fellow Christian. “Hey,” I’d point out, “you know she’s Christian?” In response I’d get a blank or shocked stare… followed by a sputtered diatribe about how anybody who thinks as she does, votes as she does, or is in the party she’s in, can’t possibly be a real Christian. And I shouldn’t be such a sucker that I believe their professions of faith.

Meanwhile I’m being shouted at by someone who’s not acting all that Christlike right now, so it’s pretty clear what John meant by being blinded by the darkness.

Now yes, we Christians are allowed to judge one another, provided we do it fairly, mercifully, in love, and with the goals of building one another up and restoring relationships. So it’s fully within my rights and duties as a Christian to critique a fellow Christian’s manner of following Jesus. If they’re doing it wrong, I can say so—just as if I’m doing it wrong, they can say so. But in none of this judgment are any of us allowed to hate the person we’re critiquing. Not ever.

Were I to hate the other Christians: All the building up, the fairness, the rightness, the mercy, the love, would be gone. ’Cause the judgment wouldn’t be about love and restored relationships. It’s about anger, envy, vengefulness, and damage. I’d be in the pitch-black dark.

Even if they’re horribly sinning, I shouldn’t be triggered by them. The word σκάνδαλον/skándalon was used to translate the Old Testament word מִכְשׁוֹל/mikhšól, “rock one trips over,” which is why it’s so often interpreted “stumbling block” (KJV “there is none occasion of stumbling in him”). But properly a skándalon is the trigger of an animal trap; the part of the mousetrap where you put the peanut butter. “Stumbling” implies they move you to sin, but “triggering” makes it quite obvious how they do that: We get angry, then use the anger to justify everything evil we do from then on. But God wants his kids to control our emotions way better than that.

When we behave this way, we’ve no clue how destructive and hurtful we’re being. We’re in the dark, remember? Properly the light drives out sin, not people. Yet we drive away the fellow Christians we hate, and we offend all the pagans watching from the outside, who rightly respond “If that’s how Christians behave, I want nothing to do with it.” So much for spreading the light.

If we’re angry, we must work it out. If we hate, rebuke the haters. Otherwise we Christians are to love one another, period. No exceptions.