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New Commandment

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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NEW COMMANDMENT.—The definition of the Christian law of love as a ‘new commandment’ is peculiar to the Johannine writings (John 13:34; John 15:12, 1 John 2:7-8, 2 John 1:5). In the Fourth Gospel the Supper is regarded as the prototype of the Agape rather than of the Eucharist, and the institution of the ‘new covenant’ gives place to that of the ‘new commandment’ of brotherly love. The commandment, like the covenant, is inaugurated by a symbolical act, the washing of the disciples’ feet.

In the Synoptic Gospels our Lord repeatedly insists on love for one’s neighbour as the paramount ethical duty (cf. Matthew 5:43-48, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:30-37); He contrasts this new conception of the Moral Law with the rule that held good ‘in old time’ (Matthew 5:43-44). The words in the Fourth Gospel thus sum up with an exquisite simplicity the authentic substance of the social teaching of Jesus. At the same time there are elements in the Johannine idea which differentiate it from the apparent parallels in the Synoptics.

(1) Jesus in His teaching, as given in the Synoptics, does not impose His ethic under the form of ‘commandment.’ Accepting the moral code of the Decalogue as Divinely given, He contents Himself with ‘fulfilling’ it by a deeper and more inward interpretation. The effect of His ‘fulfilment’ is indeed to replace the ancient Law by a new one, but in this Christian law the idea of commandment is altogether transcended. It is a ‘law of liberty,’ which the enlightened conscience originates for itself. The Fourth Gospel reverts to the idea of ‘commandment’—of a moral law enforced from without. Jesus as the Son of God has power to impose a new law, equally binding with that of the Decalogue; and it is henceforth valid in virtue of His authority.

(2) The divergence from the Synoptics is still more marked in regard to the scope of the ‘new commandment.’ The love which it requires is the φιλαδελφία that found expression in the Agape; not love to one’s neighbour in the universal sense, but love of Christians to one another. Here more signally than elsewhere the Fourth Evangelist betrays the influence of the later Church-idea which had narrowed the original intention of the teaching of Christ. A sharp distinction had grown up between the community of believers and the ‘world,’ and the duty of Christians was primarily, if not exclusively, to their brethren. The passage in the Fourth Gospel already contemplates a time when mutual love within the Church was the γνώρισμα τῶν Χριστιανῶν (John 13:35, cf. Tert. Apol. 39). There is no indication of a wider demand, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The commandment is expressly called a new one, although in its Synoptic form it appears as a direct quotation from the ancient Law (Matthew 22:39 || Mark 12:31 = Leviticus 19:18). The newness has been explained in various ways. (a) According to the Greek commentators (Cyril, Theod. [Note: Theodotion.] Mops. etc.) it consists in the higher degree of love implied in καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς—not ‘as thyself, but ‘more than thyself’ with the self-forgetting love of Christ. This, however, overstrains the meaning of καθώς, which says nothing of the quality of Christ’s love, but states the simple fact of His example. (b) Several modern commentators (e.g. Meyer, Godet, Bugge) have still sought the explanation in the words ‘as I have loved you.’ The love of Christ experienced by the believer is to be the motive power to a new and higher kind of love. Our love to one another is henceforth to be Christian love—not grounded in a mere natural instinct, but in an inward fellowship with Christ. This idea is certainly present in the Gospel, and in the Epistle it comes to definite expression. ‘Hereby we know love, because he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16). The love required in Christians is the greater love which was revealed for the first time in the Cross of Christ. This, however, does not seem to be the idea involved in the ‘new commandment.’ The newness is ascribed to the commandment itself, not to the motive or the quality of the love enjoined in it. (c) An attractive explanation is that suggested by Olshausen. The commandment of love is new in the sense that it is for ever fresh, always renewing itself. Such a meaning seems to be plainly implied in the beautiful antithesis in the Epistle (1 John 2:7-8), ‘I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment. Again, a new commandment I write unto you.’ This passage, however, is a kind of poetical expansion of the idea of a ‘new commandment,’ and cannot be construed as an exegesis. (d) The simplest and most natural explanation is that Christ has in effect established a new morality by His insistence on love as the fulfilment of the Law. In outward form the demand was an old one, and this is acknowledged in the Synoptic parallels by the quotation from Leviticus. But the place assigned to it by Jesus as the sum of the Law, the sovereign principle of the moral life, invests it with a new significance. The ancient morality is superseded by the Christian law of love. The words in the Fourth Gospel thus give expression to the truth which had emerged ever more clearly in the course of later reflexion,—that the teaching of Jesus, based as it was on the religion of the OT, was something radically new. The Law had been not only fulfilled but abrogated. In its place there was a new commandment, a new determining principle for the moral life.

As indicated above, the definition of the Christian ethic as a ‘new commandment’ is in one respect inadequate, and even involves a self-contradiction. The true originality of the moral demand of Jesus consisted in its breaking away from the idea of outward requirement. The Law imposed from without was replaced by the inward spirit of faith and love and obedience. In the Fourth Gospel we have probably the earliest phase of the reaction which ended in the formulation of Christianity as nova lex. The development of the Church as an institution was accompanied by a certain externalizing of moral and religious ideas, while at the same time the influence of the OT favoured the relapse into a modified legalism. Thus where St. Paul, in full accordance with the Synoptics, demanded a new spirit (cf. Romans 12:2, Galatians 5:16), the later Church was satisfied with obedience to a ‘new law.’ The Fourth Gospel appears to mark the transition between these two conceptions of Christian morality. The true character of the ‘commandment’ is still safeguarded by the profound religious spirit of the Gospel, but the idea of outward ordinance has begun to re-establish itself. In a subsequent age, which had drifted out of sympathy with the original teaching of Jesus, the ‘new commandment’ became literally the nova lex.

Literature.—The Comm. on John 13:34 f., 15:12, e.g, Holtzmann, Hdcom. (1893); Godet (English translation 1892); Oscar Holtzmann (1887); Bugge (Germ. translation 1894); Loisy, Le Quatrième. Évangile (1903); J. Réville, Le Quatrieme Évangile, 245 f. (1901); cf. also H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theol. i. 494 f., ii. 344 f., 389 f. (1897); Stevens, Johannine Theol. 266 f. (1900); R. F. Horton, The Commandments of Jesus, 319; F. W. Robertson, Ser. i. 234; T. T. Carter, Spirit of Watchfulness, 206.

E. F. Scott.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'New Commandment'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​n/new-commandment.html. 1906-1918.
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