Easter 5C (28 April 2013)



  • Acts 11:1-18 & Psalm 148
  • Revelation 21:1-6
  • John 13:31-35

Introduction: The New (and greatest?) Commandment

This week’s Gospel includes the most familiar version of the so-called “new commandment” that is widely seen as a hallmark of Christian character and community:

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35]

The New Commandment in the New Testament

If this command had the significance within early Christianity that so many people attribute to it in contemporary Christianity, we might expect to find it given some prominence in the NT writings. We might anticipate finding it among the sayings of Jesus that enjoy multiple independent attestation. We should find it being promulgated by Paul, whether or not it is identified as a saying “from the Lord.” And it should be found in other parts of the NT, including a document such as James with its focus on practical wisdom for holiness in everyday life.

The saying is not listed as a separate item in John Dominic Crossan, Sayings Parallels A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986). In the historical Jesus inventory developed by Crossan, and which forms the basis of the Jesus Database, the saying of Jesus known as the “New Commandment” is subsumed within the larger literary unit of Jesus’ Last Supper discourse, extending from John 13:31 to John 17:26: 363 Jesus Supper Discourse

In the database generated by the Jesus Seminar , co-chaired by John Dominic Crossan and Robert W. Funk, the extended discourse at the Last Supper is broken into smaller units and this saying is listed as item 271 “New Commandment.”

At first glance, this saying would certainly seem to meet the test of multiple and independent attestation.

Stratum One: 30-60 CE

In the traditions that can reasonably be dated prior to the Jewish war with Rome (66-73 CE), we find the following examples:

Gospel of Thomas

Jesus said, “Love your friends like your own soul,
protect them like the pupil of your eye.” [GThom 25]


9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10 and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, [1Thess 4:9-10]

9 Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
10 love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor. [Rom 1:29-10]

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. [Rom 13:8-10]

Stratum Two: 60-80 CE

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there is nothing from the synoptic tradition (Matthew, Mark & Luke), nor from the Deutero-Pauline tradition (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) that seems to relate to this tradition, unless the tradition of Jesus teaching a two fold summary of the Law — 201 The Chief Commandment — is understood as related in some way to this tradition:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. [Mark 12:28-34 = Matt 22:34-40,46b = Luke 10:25-28]

Stratum Three: 80-120 CE

The tradition that knows of this instruction as a “commandment” from the Lord Jesus is found only in the Johannine writings, all of which date to the decades either side of the turn of the century:

34 I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35]

12 “This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.
13 No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15 I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.
16 You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
[John 15:12-17]

10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way
all who do not do what is right are not from God,
nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,
that we should love one another.
12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.
14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.
Whoever does not love abides in death.
15 All who hate a brother or sister are murderers,
and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us
–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. [1John 3:10-24]

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. [1John 4:7-21]

But now, dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. [2John 1:5]

The following instruction found in 1 Peter can also be dated to this period, 80-120 CE:

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth
so that you have genuine mutual love,
love one another deeply from the heart. [1Peter 1:22]

The following non-canonical examples from around the perimeter of the NT also come from this period:

Therefore let us love one another, that we all may enter into the kingdom of God. [2Clem. 9:6]

Let all, therefore, accept the same attitude as God and respect one another, and let no one regard his neighbor in merely human terms but in Jesus Christ love one another always. Let there be nothing among you which is capable of dividing you, but be united with the bishop and with those who lead, as an example and a lesson of incorruptibility. [Ignatius, Mag. 6:2]

Farewell in Jesus Christ. Be subject to the bishop as to the commandment, and likewise to the presbytery. And love one another, each one of you, with an undivided heart. [Ignatius, Tral. 13:2]

Stratum Four: 120-150 CE

Oddly, none of the Christian texts—such as Luke-Acts or the Pastorals—that might be dated to the fourth stratum make use of this tradition.

The Love Commandment in Second Temple Jewish Writings

While not frequently attested outside the New Testament, we do find the idea of an exhortation to mutual love between siblings as a familiar element in the “testament/farewell discourse” genre. As the dying patriarch gives his final admonitions and blessings, one of the themes is to exhort his children to love one another:

Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs

In consideration you also ought to have no malice, my children, and love one another, and do not consider evil against his brother. [Zebul. 8:5]

And now, my children, each one love his brother, and put away hatred from your hearts, love one another in deed, and in word, and in the intention of the soul. [Gad 6:1]

Therefore love one another from the heart; and if a man sin against you, speak peacefully to him, and in your soul hold no bitterness; and if he repent and confess, forgive him. [Gad 6:3]

Therefore remove hatred from your souls, and love one another with uprightness of heart. [Gad 7:7]

Do you also, therefore love one another, and with long-suffering hide you one another’s faults. [Joseph 17:2]


This ancient expansion of the Genesis story includes the following suggestion from Rebekka to Isaac:

Rebekka asked Isaac, in (his) old age, to exhort Esau and Jacob to love one another. [Jub. 35:9]

And] he replied, “I will do what [you ask me; I will not refuse your request.” (Jubilees 35:20) So she] said, “I
[would ask of you that on the day I die, you bring me and bury me next to Sarah, your father’s mother, and that you]
[and Ja]cob love one an[other and not seek one another’s harm, but rather love each other. Then you will prosper,] [Jubilees 35:19-20 = 4Q223_224 f2ii:16-18]

Reflections on the New Commandment

On the basis of these citations, it is reasonable to conclude that the virtue of mutual affection and practical care for one another was a primary virtue in the early Christian movement. While the ethic of mutual love was especially typical of the Johannine community (that had apparently just experienced a major internal schism), it is also found in the much earlier Pauline texts as well as in such diverse traditions as 1Peter and the Gospel of Thomas.

In most of these cases, the ethic is seen as primitive and is attributed to the teaching of Jesus himself. However, this may also be a Christian adaption of the contemporary Jewish traditions which imagined patriarchs such as Isaac and Jacob exhorting their sons to “love one another” as part of their farewell discourses.

Surprisingly, the love ethic is not attested in the Saying Gospel Q or in the wider Synoptic tradition, even though the (more) radical instruction to love one’s enemies is found in those traditions.

The silence of the wider Jesus tradition, and the special attraction of the love ethic for the internal cohesion of the post-Easter Christian community, sharpens the historical question concerning the attribution of this saying to Jesus.

In The Five Gospels (1993:450), Funk and Hoover observe in passing that the new commandment directing love for one another within the fold of the Church represents a significant retreat from the radical call to love our enemies, or even the obligation to love one’s neighbors. This brief observation challenges the self-serving fascination that many contemporary Christians have with this “new commandment.” It is a most agreeable doctrine to be urged to love ourselves, and to take care of our own! A call to be there for others — not just our neighbors but even our enemies — is much more challenging.

It is possible to see the focus on strong mutual affection as an expression of the way that the early Christian communities functioned as alternative kinship groups for isolated and marginalized individuals who found salvation in the fellowship of the Kingdom communities centered around Jesus. As children of the divine Abba, and as sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, these congregations functioned as fictive households that protected and sustained their members.

In some contemporary Christian communities we can observe similar dynamics at play. Those who belong have a strong sense of having left behind a former life and been drawn into the common life of a new community where they find forgiveness and affirmation, healing and purpose. The positive dimensions of that experience can be celebrated in the reiteration of the “new commandment.” Indeed, the presence of authentic mutual love is often seen as a powerful witness to others of the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in that community: “see how these Christians love one another.”

The suspicion remains, however, that what we have here is the Christian adaptation of the ancient and widely attested ethic of friendship between equals. This possibility seems even more likely when it is noted that the only element of Jesus’ “new commandment” that can be traced to the pre-Gospel tradition (John 15:13) seems to be a well-known aphorism from the ancient world:

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [John 15:13]

Of a noble man it can be truly said that
he does everything for the sake of his friends and his fatherland,
and, if need be, even dies for them.
[Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics IX 8.9]

The adoption and adaptation of this ancient virtue by the 1C Christian communities may have been culturally appropriate. It was also a strategy that served them well as they negotiated the transition from a religious renewal movement centered around the ministry of itinerant prophets (in the time of Jesus and the earliest Q communities in Galilee) to a self-conscious alternative society within the Roman Empire over the course of a hundred years.

However, we might ask whether our most urgent need is encouragement to focus on our internal life as a religious community. Would the “better way” be to look beyond our own comfort zones in order to see how best to reshape our relations with those neighbors who find us quaintly eccentric (if mostly harmless souls), as well as those who actively seek our harm?

The NT reading for this Sunday is Rev 21;1-6, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth becoming a reality in human experience. That wider vision may reset the old/new commandment in a positive framework. Who are the ones we are called to love without limit? Is our love for one another only to extend as far as those who belong to our own congregation? Our own denomination? Our own school of thought within the Church? Christians alone? Jews and Christians? Muslims as well? Buddhists? Hindus? New Age gurus?

Can we imagine any limit to God’s generosity?

Would the Jesus who taught his followers to love even their enemies, and to pray for those who mistreated them, be satisfied with a love ethic that recognized any boundaries?

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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