Commentary on John 13:31-35
One of the stunning parts of this text is the location. This passage comes on the heels of Judas leaving the other disciples at the last supper to betray Jesus.
It is an amazing moment in the text. We know what is coming and we know where Judas is off to. We wonder what Jesus will say and/or do next. His response is to talk about the glorification that is to come (verse 31-32). This glorification will be realized in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Through these events God will be glorified in Christ. And in this moment, Jesus wants to prepare his disciples for that reality and to command them to love one another.
In other love passages, found in the NT and echoing Leviticus 19:18, we hear Jesus speak of loving the neighbor. This passage is limited in many readers’ minds. Jesus is talking specifically to those who have been with him throughout his ministry and he is asking them to love one another — each other — the inner circle of his followers (John 13:34-35). In many ways this is similar to the theme of church unity often seen in the Gospel of John. But I believe that we must hear all of what Jesus is imploring his disciples to be about in this passage.
The Love Command
The new commandment in this text — to love one another — is arguably one of the more famous statements in the biblical text (verses 34-35). Even folks who are not active participants in the institutional church know this commandment or ones similar to it. But is it new? Hardly. Loving one another is part of Jewish tradition, is present in the Greco-Roman world around them, and is seen in other religious traditions as well.
Loving those with whom we agree or are partial to is the easy part. Loving the rest of the folks we come in contact with is a much harder proposition. But this will not be news to those sitting in the pews of your church or next to you in Bible Study. It is a part of the human condition to love and to want to be loved. Reality is … it’s easier to love those who are more loving and lovable. It is said that John, in his old age, would remind those around him to love one another. When questioned why he told them this so very often, his reply would be, “Because it is what our Lord commanded. If it is all you do, then it is enough.”1
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Our world changes when justice prevails. When we love one another — no matter who they are — justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.
This text focuses on love but the justice piece for many is that all of Jesus’ disciples will be known by their love of others (verses 34-35). For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving — putting one’s love into real world activities. This new commandment comes as part of a farewell address by Jesus to his followers. And he does this with a sense of tenderness and mercy.
The address to “children” is only used here (verse 33). It is a touching reminder that the end of Jesus’ time on earth will soon come, but he does this fully aware of the dismay it will cause. He even acknowledges that the immediate impact of his glorification through death and resurrection will mean his absence from them. And into this reality he leaves them this command and tells them they will only have him for a little while longer (verse 33).
He commands the disciples to love one another, but he also reminds them that they will continue to feel his presence despite the fact that he will not be with them. They will exhibit their discipleship by doing what he commands: by loving one another as he loved them. John continues this discourse on love in John 15:1-16:4.
Here is an opportunity this week to talk about the requirement and justice of love. We so often draw lines about who we will love and who we will be tempted to cast in the role of “less loving” in our lives. This happens in the hearts and minds of both individuals — and the church. An interesting thing to note in this text is that Jesus is reminding the disciples that they will be known to others by their acts of loving (verse 35). We would do well to listen to this commandment. We also are called to love others as a mark of our own discipleship.
The way Jesus talks about loving each other is a precursor of the spread of Christianity. As he loved and that love spread within his inner circle, so too will love spread after he is gone when love is done in his name.
This act, to love others, is a distinguishing mark of the followers of Christ then and will continue to be (verses 34-35). Some would say that one of the weaknesses of the church today is the way many Christians do not embody this commandment — or the others — commanding his followers to love their neighbor.
Jesus makes plain his call to the disciples. “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples — when they see the love you have for each other” (verses 34-35).
Jesus was bold and clear then. How much clearer do we need Jesus to be for our own lives of discipleship now?
1See Jerome’s Commentary on Galatians