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The Fundamental Command: Love One Another

To answer the question, What does God want of us? on John's terms, we also have to answer the question, What do we owe each other? Although response to God is a personal matter, it is not merely a private or internal matter. Jesus made this explicit in talking about the obligation of love that we owe to each other in obedience to his command. Jesus does not require from us what he does not already manifest in his own person and life. In fact his sacrificial death both provides the example of love as well as creates the community in which we are to love one another.The New Command (2:7-8)

When John writes that one should walk as Jesus did (2:6), he goes on quickly to remind his readers that this is not a new commandment suddenly being imposed upon them. He is alluding to Jesus' command that the disciples are to "love each other as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12; compare 13:34). He also calls to mind the statement, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). It was Jesus who gave the command to love--but it was also Jesus who lived it out to the full in giving his life for "his own" (Jn 13:1). Years later when the author reminded his community of this command it was no longer new, but familiar and hence old, committed to them since the beginning. The command to love was part of that message you have heard.

What made the command new when Jesus gave it was not its content. The Old Testament contains the command to love one's neighbor (Lev 19:18), and Jesus quotes it in some of the Gospels (Mt 19:19; 22:39; Lk 10:27). Neither does Jesus have in mind a new kind of love or a new expression of love. The God whom Jesus knows and proclaims is a God of love (Jn 3:16).

But the command to love one another can be called new for two reasons: First, it points to a new example of love, that of Jesus' own life. We see his love most fully manifested in his death on the cross (compare Jn 13:1; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:9-10). Second, Jesus' death creates the new fellow ship in which obedience to his command is possible. Jesus' death is the act by which all God's people can be gathered together (Jn 10:16; 11:51-52; 12:24). The command to love was given and modeled by Jesus, and now it is to be put into action by the believing community (2:8). Through their love for one another they testify that the light brought into the world by Jesus' life continues to shine.

To use an analogy, the Christian community is the school in which we learn to love. Like great musicians who practice tedious drills for long hours, Christians practice their scales at home in order to sing in public. In the community love is commanded and modeled, and here is where it must be lived out and practiced. This does not mean that love is limited to the boundaries of the community. But if the community does not live by the model and teaching of its founder, Jesus, how can it expect others to do so or to hear its call to join with them?The Incompatibility of Love and Hate (2:9-11)

In fact, writes John, just as it is impossible to live simultaneously in two spheres--the sphere of light and the sphere of darkness--it is also impossible to live in the community and yet hate a fellow member of that community. Hate and love are incompatible; they repel each other like oil and water.

To be sure, hate is a strong term. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that Christians who know the Johannine tradition of Jesus' com mand to love each other are openly advocating and practicing hatred for other Christians. That would be far too easy a target, and it is doubtful that the Elder would even need to refute such a position. Rather the hatred in this context refers to the actions of those who have left the church. John reminds his readers of the long-standing command to love each other, and asks whether those who have disrupted the fellowship are displaying obedience to that command. Hatred may not be a feeling, sentiment or emotion, as if those who are spoken of as hating their fellow Christians necessarily despise or detest them. But for John, their secession and disruption of the community is an action that speaks for itself.

Hatred is the opposite of the unity with each other that Jesus com manded. (For similar uses of the word hate, see Lk 14:26 and Rom 12:9.) Those who have turned away from other Christians show themselves to be dwelling in darkness. They can scarcely be said to know God, who is light. Thus, contrary to their claims that they know that they are on the path that leads to God, they walk around in the darkness; [they do] not know where [they are] going, because the darkness has blinded [them]. In short, John is not so much concerned with how we "feel" about other Christians as he is with our intentions and actions to live in peace and harmony together. From such concrete actions, the sentiment of love may often spring. But unless our claims to love one another issue in concrete actions, then the claim to love each other--and to love God--rings false.

We must guard against a serious misinterpretation of verse 10 at this point. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light can be construed to mean that anyone who genuinely loves others is in fact walking in God's light. But that view misses two important items: First, it takes into ac count only one of the epistle's "tests of life." Confession of Christ pro vides another important boundary of the realm of light (2:22-23; 4:2; 5:5-8). Second, it fails to consider adequately the historical situation of the epistles. Against the backdrop of a specific problem and situation the epistle reminds its readers of the long-standing command to love each other. The statement whoever loves appears, on the surface, to mean "any one at all who loves." But the whoever should be taken in a more limited way. It refers to "the one of these two groups," and has in view specif ically those loyal to the Elder, as over against the secessionists. In other words, John asks who truly manifests the love for their brothers and sisters that Jesus commanded, those who have left the fellowship or those who have remained?

Precisely their failure to interpret the command to love one's fellow Christian against the specific historical setting of these epistles has led some commentators to assert that the Johannine community knows nothing of love for the world outside or for the unbeliever. But John does not say that we are not to love those outside the bounds of the Christian fellowship. Loving each other within the church and loving those outside the church are not mutually exclusive, even if the former is strongly emphasized in the Johannine epistles (Grayston 1984:65-66; compare Bultmann 1973:26 n. 9; Marshall 1978:132). We owe a special obligation of love to those within the Christian fellowship. This is in keeping with New Testament thought generally (1 Thess 3:12; 5:15; Gal 6:10). If it is stressed in 1 John, it is due to the situation of the times, as well as to the Christian community's peculiar obligation to manifest God's love to each other--and so extend the love of God to the world.

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