When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’
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.”
36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.”
It is the night before Jesus is crucified. The twelve apostles are eating with Jesus that most important of all meals. Jesus had just said in John 13:21, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” John was reclining next to Jesus and asked him (in verse 25), “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, probably in a low voice so that only John could hear (since when Judas left the others had no idea what was going on, verse 29) “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it” (verse 26). Then he dipped the bread and gave it to Judas. And said “What you are going to do, do quickly” (verse 27). And in verse 30 Judas leaves.
And the next thing Jesus says (verse 31) is, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” At the very moment when the final betrayal has been set in motion — at that moment Jesus says, “Now.” “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” Now. Now that the final process of being handed over to be killed is in motion, now the Son of Man, Jesus, will shine with the greatest glory. And God will shine gloriously in him.
John Felt the Amazement
Of all the disciples, only John could at this moment feel the full amazement at this. John had heard Jesus say that Judas was the one — the betrayer. At that moment he must have been utterly stunned. Judas. The one we’ve trusted with the money these three years (verse 29). Suddenly, in a flash, a whole cluster of Judas' peculiar behaviors take on a whole new meaning. So this is why he gave Mary such a hard time for anointing Jesus with expensive anointment (John 12:3–6). He wanted her to give that to Jesus, so he would have access to it.
John watches Judas leave, and he can't believe what he is watching. And while John’s mind is churning the incredible news that Judas is a betrayer, and may be doing his foul work at this very moment, he hears Jesus say, “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” And another boulder is thrown into the churning waters of his mind. Glory! Now! Judas. Betrayal. Glory. And in what must have been one of the most emotionally charged moments of John’s life, the next word he heard was, “Little children” (teknia, verse 33a).
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 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. (John 13:33–35).
Little children, I am going where you cannot come. I’m leaving you. Up till now everyone knows you are my disciples because they see you following me around Judea and Galilee. You’ve put your life on the line by just being identified with me. But now I will not be here any longer for you to follow. Following my physical presence will not be the mark of your discipleship any more. So I give you a new mark. A new commandment. Love each other. Little children.
Called "Little Children"
So here’s John with his heart bursting with conflicting emotions: Betrayal has been put in motion. The glory of God is about to be seen. Jesus is leaving them. And, in his absence, love for each other is to bind them together and bind them to him. And in a moment of conflicting and intensified emotion, Jesus reaches for a word of singular affection and calls them all “little children” (verse 33).
Does this tell us anything? I think it tells us that this moment in the life John the apostle was so profound, and so moving, and so memorable that it left its mark years later not only on the writing of this story, but on his entire first epistle (1 John). And 1 John therefore becomes our earliest and most authoritative commentary on Jesus' new commandment.
An Apostolic Commentary
Consider a few things. This word “little children” (teknia) occurs only here in the Gospel of John. There were other places it could have been used, as when Jesus called out to the disciples in John 21:5, “Children, do you have any fish?” But that’s a different word (paidia). Only here, does he call his friends “little children.”
Not only is this the only place this word is used in John. It is the only place it is used in the entire New Testament — except for one book. John’s first letter. And there it is used seven times in five chapters. Just as Jesus called his friends “little children” the word becomes John’s favorite name for his flock, “little children.” A coincidence? Perhaps.
But consider this. Nowhere else in the New Testament does the term “new commandment” occur outside this story — except in John’s first and second letter. Of all the New Testament writers only John picked up on this term.
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. (1 John 2:7–8).
So I feel constrained to believe that John was profoundly moved and shaped by this moment at the last supper. And the connections with his first letter incline me to think that the earliest and most authoritative commentary on the new commandment in John 13:34–35 is what John says about it in his first letter.
Here are two striking things about the way John handles Jesus’s new commandment.
The Love of God — Our Model
First, nowhere in any of his letters does John refer directly to the love of Jesus for his disciples. So he never says: "Love each other the way Jesus loved you." He always talks about the love of God for his children. The love of the Father. When Jesus comes into the picture, the point is: God loved us in giving Jesus for us. And when it comes to the one we should model our love on, John doesn’t say Love like Jesus. He says, Love like God:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10–11).
What are we to make of this? What I make of it is that this is exactly the way I would expect the writer of the John’s Gospel to talk. As John thought back on that moment with the betrayal in motion, the glory of God about to shine, Jesus leaving, and love binding, what overcomes him is the thought: I was leaning on the shoulder of God. God had put Judas in motion. God was about to be glorified on the cross. God told us to love each other like Jesus — that is, like God.
So in his first letter, John isn’t minimizing Jesus when he puts all the focus on the love of God in Jesus. He is maximizing Jesus. This Jesus who gave us the new commandment and told us to love each other the way he loved us — this Jesus is God incarnate. And John could not get over the truth: God was loving us there that night. God was loving us the next morning. Every act of Jesus, the Son, was an act of God the Father. John is not saying the love of Jesus is not important; he is saying the love Jesus is the love of God. So when the new commandment says, Love each other as I have loved you, it means: as God has loved you.
This Is How You'll Know
And here’s a second striking thing about the way John handles the new commandment. Jesus said in verse 35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John pondered very deeply the phrase “my disciples” and what must happen for that to be known. And what he concluded was that being a disciple means being truly born again. To be a disciple is not just to be outwardly aligned with a Christian church or a Christian movement or a Christian name, but miraculously changed by the Spirit into a person with a new heart of love for the Father and for Jesus and for his followers (and, of course, for his enemies, but John’s emphasis falls on loving fellow believers, just like Jesus did here in John 13:34 — that you love one another). And love is how you can know this has happened.
- Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
- We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. (1 John 3:14)
- By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)
- Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)
- Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.” (1 John 2:9–10).
Or as Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” All people will have good evidence that you are born of God and know God and are a child of God and are in the light and no longer in the darkness. People will know you are truly a disciple of Jesus by whether you have been given a new heart of trust in Jesus and love for his followers.
Embedded in the Call
And I don’t put the word “trust” there just because that’s right thing to do. I included it because when John thought about the new commandment he knew that the new commandment was not an isolated commandment to love, but a commandment embedded in the call of Jesus to trust him as the sin-bearing Lamb of God for everything we need. And we know that because John said in 1 John 3:23, “And this is his commandment [singular], that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
In other words, in John’s mind, Jesus’ command to believe on him, and his command to love each other are inseparable. So together he calls them one commandment: “This is his commandment [singular], that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” People won’t know you are a disciple of Jesus if you make no profession of faith in Jesus. But if you declare yourself openly to be a disciple of Jesus — your Savior, your Lord, your Treasure — then your love for others will be decisive in showing that you are real. Are you a true believer? Are you really a disciple? Is he really your treasure? Have you really been changed by Jesus? They will all know “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). So when Jesus says in John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," he meant, love confirms that your profession of faith in me is real.
What Makes This New?
Why is it that love proves discipleship? Why is it that when disciples love each other there is such good evidence that they are true disciples of Jesus? Why is this one-another-love so compelling? The answer comes when we ponder why Jesus calls this commandment new. If we see what makes the commandment new, we will see what makes it have such compelling power to prove true discipleship, true faith in Jesus.
The command to love each other is not new in and of itself. Leviticus 19:18 said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What appears to be new is the way we are to love, namely, “as Jesus has loved us.” Verse 34b: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Never before had the Son of God come into the world and laid down his life for his people. That had never happened before. This degree of greatness making this degree of sacrifice, had never happened. This is new.
So is Jesus simply saying: If you imitate this kind of sacrifice in loving each other, you will be fulfilling the newness of this commandment?
More Than Imitation
If we listen to what John says in his first letter about what makes this commandment new, we see there’s more going on than imitation. Here’s the way John puts it in 1 John 2:8:
It is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you [it’s truly new in Jesus, and it is truly new in you], because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
In other words, what makes this love new is that it is the arrival of the glory of the Lord — the Light of the world — that will one day fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. When the Messiah comes and brings his kingdom, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And Jesus is the Messiah. His coming was the dawn of the kingdom of God. He was the Light of the world. And he said (verse 31) that this night the Son of Man would be glorified and God in him. This night the light would shine most brightly when he lays down his life for his friends.
And then John says in the next verse (1 John 2:9–10), “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.” In other words, what makes the disciples’ love for each other new — and this command for it new — is that they are not just copying the light, they are in this light. They are in the love of Jesus. This is how John sees the newness of this love.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That’s what happened that night and the next morning. And John says that what makes that new — and what makes the commandment new — is this love was the arrival of the Light of God — the glory of God — at the end of the age to fill the earth. And the commandment for us to love each other just as Jesus loved, was not mainly a command for imitation, but for participation. John says, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.” When we love each other in obedience to the new commandment, we are loving each other with the love of Jesus. His love is being perfected in our love. This is not mainly imitation, but manifestation. Our lives are in Jesus, in the Light, and our love is his love.
Loving with His Love
Jesus comes back to this in John 15 and makes the meaning clear: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13). Yes. And how do we love like that? John 15:9, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”
This is our newness. This is the new commandment. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Yes. But not by copying my fruit, but by connecting to my vine. You don’t mainly imitate. You participate. Your love for each other is not a simulation of mine, but a manifestation of mine. You are the branches. I am the vine. If you abide in me, you can bear fruit, and prove to be my disciples (John 15:8). This is how all people know you are truly my disciples.
So the reason the love we have for each other shows that we are truly Jesus’ disciples, is that it is only possible because we are grafted into the life and love of Christ. We love as he loved, because we love with his love.
So, Bethlehem — “my little children!” — in these crucial days, these historic days in the life of our church, this is what Jesus is calling for among us. “Just as I have loved you, that you, Bethlehem, love one another.” Go low in foot-washing-like service to one another. Lay down your lives, your privileges, for one another. Love your brothers and sisters across all racial and ethnic lines. Love the weakest and oldest and youngest. Love the disabled. Love the lonely trouble maker. It is certain when you love that you cannot atone for anyone’s sin. But you can do something like it, because “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). How blessed the church — especially the church in transition — that loves like this!