(1Jo 2:3-8 ESV) 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
This is an important turning point in the book. We have to get this passage right or we get the whole book wrong. The question is: what are “his commandments”? And parallel to that is: what is “his word”? And parallel to that is: what is the “way in which he walked”? These are all parallel.
There are two approaches to interpretation that I’ve seen:
* “Commandments” is every command in the New Testament, together with every inference and every binding example. At last count, the number is well above 613.
* “Commandments” includes only those commands coming from the lips of Jesus intended to be perpetually applicable. That simplifies things quite a bit, but is still troublingly legalistic.
* “Commandments” is ironic and refers to but one commandment. If you search for “commandment” in 1 John, you only find one —
(1Jo 3:23 ESV) And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
(1Jo 4:21 ESV) And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
I’m firmly convinced as that “commandments” refers solely to faith in Jesus and love for others — as troubling as this will be to some. But this is how John writes. Consider —
(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In 1 John 2:7, John refers to a command that is both old and new. All commentators agree that this is what he is referring. The command to love our neighbors is as old as Leviticus, but Jesus radically reshapes the command by referring to his own love: “as I have loved you.” “Love” is therefore defined in terms of Jesus and his sacrifice. This is love of divine intensity.
(John 15:10-14 ESV) 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
In the same discourse, Jesus tells his disciples to “keep my commandments,” but he immediately issues but one commandment: “love one another.” He then reiterates the importance of doing as commanded.
It’s clear that Jesus is speaking in ironic tones. If you love Jesus, you’ll keep all his commandments, however many there will be — but there is but one: love one another.
We see the same ironic expression in —
(2Jo 1:4-6 ESV) 4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. 5 And now I ask you, dear lady–not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning–that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.
John flips back and forth between singular and plural. The commandments are but one commandment.
Now, in support of this radical interpretation, I offer the following additional evidence —
(Rom 13:8-10 ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Rom 13:9 NAS) For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
Paul also sees multiple commandments contained within the single commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” [I insert the NAS because it picks up the “if” in “if there is any other commandment” — emphasizing that whatever you think might be a commandment is tested by this test.
(Gal 5:13-14 ESV) 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, some get this a little backwards and take this to me: all commandments are acts of love. That’s not what the text says (although true, I’m sure). The point being made is that if it’s not about love for our neighbors, it’s not a commandment. If it’s not summed up in “love your neighbor” or “love one another,” it’s not a command.
This seems too good to be true until we recognize that God means it — God means that we really are supposed to love as Jesus loved — even to the point of crucifixion. Suddenly, we realize that this isn’t all that easy! I’d rather find my way to heaven by following a bunch of rules about how to worship!
We love our rules, and one reason we love them is that they are easy. It’s easy to sing a cappella every single church service until Jesus returns. Many have accomplished that task perfectly. But we struggle to love even our own children as Jesus loves us. That’s hard. And therefore that’s comforting and comfortable. When the standard becomes Jesus, we are forced to rely on the mercy of our Advocate for salvation and not our perfection — and then in gratitude seek to do better tomorrow than we did today. Love — real, Jesus-like love — is hard.
(1Jo 2:3 ESV) And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.
With that understanding, v. 3 makes much better sense. If we love as Jesus loved, then we know that we know Jesus. “Walk a mile in my moccasins.” Walk as Jesus walked, and then you’ll know Jesus as you never knew him before.
(1Jo 2:4 ESV) Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,
This is true in principle, of course, but the ultimate test, as John will eventually explain, is whether the person claiming to know Jesus loves as Jesus loves. If not, the truth — the gospel — is not in him. You see, the gospel is not just “Jesus is the Son of God” but also “and I will follow him to the cross.” The gospel calls us to live as Jesus lived and thus to love as Jesus loved.
(1Jo 2:5 ESV) but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:
“Keeps his word” means, of course, to love as Jesus loved. Then the love of God is perfected –that is, fulfilled, brought to completeness. “Perfected” in the Greek is not about being flawless but being complete or fulfilled. The idea is that God loves us and therefore expects us to be love others. (Remember the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant.) If God’s love doesn’t result in our loving others, God has failed in his purposes.
And if we love others, “we are in him.” Remember this? “In him there is no darkness at all.” Do you want to walk in the light? Love one another.
(1Jo 2:6 ESV) whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
John now reemphasizes the necessity for orthopraxy (right living). Orthodoxy (right doctrine) isn’t enough. You have to walk the walk.
(1Jo 2:7 ESV) Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard.
John now broadly hints at the meaning of the “commandment” and also tells us that the “word” in v. 4 (“keeps his word”) is the commandment as well. To keep God’s word is to love as Jesus loved. To keep God’s commandments is to love as Jesus loved.
(1Jo 2:8 ESV) At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
This commandment is “true in him and in you” because love is true in Jesus and in John’s readers. The love of God, fulfilled in Christian love, is bringing God’s light to the world and dispelling the darkness!