Introduction: Love and Live in the Light
There is a direct link between last week's text and today's text. Last week in 2:4 John said, "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." Today in 2:9 John says, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light."
In other words last week John spoke of obedience to the commandments in general as the way we test ourselves. This week he speaks of obedience to the love commandment in particular as the way we test ourselves.
Today's text falls into two halves. In the first half verses 7 and 8 tell us what specific commandment John thinks we should use in testing the reality of our new birth. And in the second half verses 9–11 describe the way that test would be carried out in two cases. One case (verses 9 and 11) amounts to a warning—professing Christians who hate are doomed in the dark! The other case (verse 10) amounts to a promise—people who love live in the light, that is, they are truly born again.
So the overall point of the passage (verses 7–11) is that we should keep the commandment of love and so confirm our standing in the light of God. John's burden is still the same as in 2:3, "By this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments." He wants to give assurance to the obedient who should have it and take it away from the disobedient who shouldn't have it. So in verses 7–11 he lays down the love commandment as the specific test of obedience. The test is virtually the same as 3:14, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." Love is the living evidence of new birth and eternal life.
Now what we should do as we stand before a portion of God's Word like this is make every effort to think God's thoughts after him. If we can make progress in thinking about reality the way God does, then our will and our desires will not be conformed to the world but to God. We will love what he loves and do what he does. And our light will so shine before men that they will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven.
Take heed, then, how you hear: to him who has will more be given, but from him who has not even what he thinks he has will be taken away (Luke 8:18).
I. Verses 7 and 8: Four Questions
First, let's ask four questions concerning verses 7 and 8.
- What is the commandment referred to in both verses?
- In what sense is it old?
- In what sense is it new?
- Why does John go out of his way to stress its oldness and newness?
1. What is the commandment referred to in both verses?
Verse 7 begins, "Beloved I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment." And verse 8 says, "Yet I am writing you a new commandment." What is the commandment?
The fact that John begins to talk about love and hate in verses 9–11 suggests that the commandment in view in verses 7 and 8 is the love commandment from John 13:34 where Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."
But the unmistakable evidence that this is the case, and that John is talking about one commandment and not two, is 2 John 5. There he quotes the "new commandment" and says it's not new: "And now I beg you, 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." The language is very much like verse 7 of our text, but here in 2 John 5 the commandment is quoted. So we know that the commandment of 1 John 2:7–8, which in some sense is new and old, is the commandment of love which Jesus gave to his disciples, namely, "Love one another as I have loved you."
2. In what sense is this commandment old?
Verse 7 stresses the oldness of the commandment. "Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard."
John says that the commandment of love is old in the sense that you have had it "from the beginning". From the beginning of what? The next phrase says, "The old commandment is the word which you have heard." So "the beginning" in view is the beginning of their Christian life when they first heard the word. This is confirmed in 2:24, "If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son." So they have had this love commandment from the beginning when they first began to hear the word.
John means for this to be very encouraging. He is not writing to load any new duty on the believers. He has nothing new to say. It's the same old "word" they received when they first heard the gospel. It was part of the foundational gospel message. It is not stage two. It is not a counsel of perfection for monks and nuns. The commandment of love "is the word which you have heard."
It is part of what John meant in 1:3, "What we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you." And 1:5, "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light." In other words, the commandment that believers must love one another was part of the original gospel message. It is so clearly implied in the basic truth that "God is light" that that John can simply say at the end of verse 7, "The old commandment is the word which you heard."
Or as he says just as plainly in 3:11, "This is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another."
This is a very remarkable rebuke to typical gospel preaching and witnessing today. For John, the commandment of love belongs to what people should hear from the beginning! It is not an optional stage two in Christian growth. What people should hear when the gospel is preached is that Christ died for sinners and God offers forgiveness and hope and life-changing power to all who will trust in him. The gospel contains not only the commandment to trust Jesus, but also the commandment, in the power of that trust, to be changed into a loving person.
So John says, "When I require of you that you must obey the commandment to love in order to maintain assurance (2:3–4), I am not requiring anything new." It is an old commandment. It is part of the word which you heard from the beginning."
3. In what sense is the commandment new?
Verse 8 stresses, however, that the commandment of love is new: "Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining."
Focus for a moment on the word "already." The true light is already shining. What does that mean? It must mean that a light that was expected sometime in the distant future is no longer merely a hope. It has already begun to shine.
If we asked John what this distant hope was, he would, no doubt, point to the Old Testament promise and quote a text like Isaiah 60:19–20,
The sun shall be no more your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
The Old Testament looked forward to a day when all would be light. No more sin. No more misery. All would be righteousness and joy in the light of God.
Now John says that the true light is already shining. Now don't take this out of context. Notice that John connects this with the phrase just before it. Let's paraphrase verse 8 to make the connections plain: "I am writing a new commandment of love to you; and the reality of this love is coming true in him (that is, Jesus) and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining." Or if we say it in reverse: "Since the true light is already shining, the result is that the love commandment has come true in Christ and is coming true in you."
From this connection of thought we can learn that the glory of the light of God includes love. In 1:5 John says that God is light and in him is no darkness. In 2:8 he says that this true light is already shining in the world. And where do we see it? We see it in love—namely, the love which has come true in Jesus and in his transformed people. The light of God is the light of love.
John says, "God is light" (1:5). Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). And he said, "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). John said, "God is love" (4:7). Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). And he said, "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).
The beam of light that shines out from God through Jesus and through us into the world is the beam of love. One day this light will cover this earth like the water covers the sea. But for now it has already begun to shine in Jesus and in those "who walked the way he walked" (2:6). To the degree that the gospel makes headway in the world and transforms people into those who love like Jesus, to that degree the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
So the reason the commandment of love is called new in verse 8 is that it is a commandment to be the new light of the world. When John says that the light which was hoped for in the distant future of the kingdom of God is already shining, he means that it is NEW. It came first in Jesus. And now John commands that it come in the life of every believer.
Picture a sunrise. The Day of light is going to dawn over the whole world. The first rays of that light are the love of God in Jesus Christ. The glorious kingdom of God peeked over the horizon, and one beam of light shot into the darkness—Jesus of Nazareth. He formed a church and said, "You are the light of the world." Or to put it in other words, he said, "Love one another as I have loved you." The love commandment is new because it is a commandment to become mirrors of the new age, which is shining over the horizon in the love of Jesus Christ.
4. Why does John stress the oldness and newness of the love commandment?
I think he stresses its oldness (in verse 7) to distinguish his teaching from the new teachings of the false prophets. The group that had left the church (2:19) were evidently dissatisfied with John's old message. They had some new things to say about sinlessness (1:8, 10) and assurance (2:3–4) and about the incarnation (4:2). According to 2 John 9 they "went forward and did not abide in the doctrine of Christ." They were "progressive" in the worst sense of the word. John's admonition to the church, on the other hand, was to let the original message abide in them (2:24).
So he stressed that the new commandment of love was the same old new commandment which they had heard from the beginning. It was part of his original presentation of the gospel, not some later adjustment.
The reason John goes on to stress the newness of the commandment (in verse 8) is that if the church doesn't understand how the commandment of love relates to the newness of the light that has come in Christ, they will be no more successful at keeping it than the Old Testament saints were. In fact, they will turn it into legalism the same way Israel turned the law into legalism.
It would be so easy for someone to twist John's teaching into legalism. Legalism is the view that by performing certain acts we earn or deserve or come to merit the reward of eternal life. John writes verse 8 in such a way that the love commandment cannot be put in the service of legalism.
"I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining."
In other words, when the new commandment of love comes true in Jesus and in you, it is because the true light is already shining. So our love cannot earn God's light; it is God's light. Love comes true in you because the true light is already shining—shining in you.
Love can't earn the light of the kingdom. It is the light of the kingdom—already shining! (2:8)
Love can't merit eternal life. It is eternal life—already present! (3:14)
Our love can't deserve God's love. It is God's love—being perfected in us! (4:12)
Put together two verses: 5:11 and 3:14. In 5:11 John says, "This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life." Eternal life is a gift that God already gave us. Then in 3:14 John says, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." In other words love is the evidence of eternal life in us, and eternal life in us is a gift of God. Therefore in no way can we think of our obedience to the commandment of love as earning or meriting or deserving life. It is life. It is light. It is God within us.
That's why John stresses the newness of the love commandment. When we obey it, we give evidence that a new light and a new life has come into our hearts. Or we could change the image slightly (to prepare the way for verses 9–11) and say that when we obey the love commandment, we give evidence that we have been transferred into a new sphere of life and light (as 3:14 and Colossians 1:13 say).
II. Verses 9–11: Applying the Test of Love
Verses 9–11 apply the test of the love commandment in two cases: a person who loves and a person who hates. John doesn't seem to recognize any middle ground. Like Jesus in Mark 4:4—he comes into the synagogue, stands by the man with the withered hand, and says to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" He offers the Pharisees no place to stand between saving and killing. If you don't want to save, you are in the class with killers. And John would say, "If you don't want to love, you are in the class with haters."
The application of the test of love in 2:9–11 is basically the same as the application of the test of walking in the light in 1:6–7 and the application of the test of obeying God's commandments in 2:4–5.
So we can be content to simply read it, keeping in mind what we learned from verrses 7 and 8.
He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Hate is the evidence of blindness to the light of God. Love is the evidence that sight has been given to the blind. This is the miracle of the new birth. This is the true light that is already shining. This is the fountain of love in every believer.
There is much, much more to say about love in 1 John and at Bethlehem. So let us continue to study and pray together. But for today let us rejoice in the amazing grace of God that though we were once blind and in the darkness, now we see and walk in the light.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.