John (Part 50): New Command (ch 13)
Giving the sop was a mark of special favor, which makes this scene so striking in its contrast. Just as in the foot-washing example, Jesus acted in care for even the one who, certainly by this time, he knows would betray him. The contrast is striking because we don’t expect Jesus to act in favor of one who Jesus knows would never come to him in faith. It’s picture argues vehemently against a limited atonement. Spurgeon said, “We dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew never could be saved.” Yet in this prefiguring example of Christ’s atonement, Jesus acts in love toward one “whom God foreknew never could be saved.”
Matthew and Mark show less presentation of the sop. There Jesus announced that the betrayer would be the one who reaches into the sop dish with him. The accounts do not conflict. Reaching in together with Jesus handing Judas the sop is a natural activity and does not strain either account.
But an interesting question is whether Judas understood the handing of the sop to be the identification of him as traitor. Had he heard John’s whispered question to Jesus? Had Jesus whispered his answer back to John or said it loudly enough for Judas, presumably at his left side, to hear it? Although the text doesn’t say, I think we see some hint that Judas did, in fact, realize the significance of the act. As he received the sop, Jesus told him, “What you’re doing, do quickly.” Judas does not question what Jesus means. He does not try to deny that he had any evil intention. (It had been that very day that Judas had earlier gone to see the priests and strike a bargain for his betrayal. And we learn in Mark 14:11 that Judas was actively looking for opportunity to betray him.) Therefore, as Jesus told him to act quickly (Greek actually intends “more quickly”), Judas didn’t question but rather seemed to understand exactly to what Jesus referred. And he did, then, get up, leave the supper, and head straight for the high priest to carry out the betrayal.
The identification scene ends with John’s comment, “And it was night.” The comment is meant as a double entendre. The blackness of evil overshadowed. This reminds us of the earlier scene in John 6 when the crowd that ate the multiplied loaves and fish wanted to make Jesus king. No doubt the disciples had also been eager for this to happen. But Jesus turned them down, dismissing them to go pray. Not understanding, the disciples seem to leave in anger as John told us there, “Darkness had already set in” (John 6:17b).
The rest of the chapter can be grouped together as a mini-series and contrast from current condition to the righteous result of Jesus’s work. It begins with Jesus’s mention of the glory exchanged with God at that very moment. God was glorified in him by his obedient, trusting encouragement to Judas to act on the betrayal. God was glorified because God’s truth, goodness, and beauty was made manifest in the activity for the Zion purpose. Jesus was glorified because his own truth, goodness, and beauty was made manifest in the activity as well. But note that the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus was not something different from that of God. Jesus is the perfect covenant keeper in that he, as image bearer, reflects the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. And therefore, the wording of one being glorified in the other and the other in the one is not simply a confusing jumbling of ideas. It all settles on acting in righteousness (faithfulness to the covenant) according to the covenant conditions: God provides and image bearers trust. God presents his truth, goodness, and beauty, and the image bearer reflects it. God communicates his truth, goodness, and beauty through love, and the image bearer communicates through reflection also in love.
And Jesus wants his disciples to share this same exchange of glory. So Jesus gives them a new commandment: love one another. But how is this commandment new? We may unthinkingly decide that the OT carries duty and law while the NT shows love and care, and conclude then that is how the command is new. But God’s command hasn’t changed. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We may then think that it is new for Jesus—that he as yet had not told his disciples to act in this way. But we heard Jesus insist to the lawyer that the greatest command was to love God, and a second was like it: to love others. Jesus went on to say that all the Law and the prophets depend on these two commands. So it is not a new instruction from Jesus.
Many commentators explain that the newness is in how they were to love in following Jesus’s example. After all, in its entirety, verse 34 says, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” But that explanation leans more to the newness associated with the response in love rather than in the command. Surely in commanding love in the OT, God had not meant for them to love only a little bit, but now in the NT, he gave them a new commandment to love more fully.
We must recognize the OT command in its context. All the Law—all OT commands—had two purposes. One was to show what true Covenant-of-Life relationship looks like. It was symbolic or figurative. We see much of that pointed out to us in Hebrews. The other purpose was to make the Jews realize that they could not attain that pure relationship because they constantly failed in keeping the Law. Paul mentions this aspect as he describes the Law as a taskmaster or guardian in Galatians. But Christ’s command is not given in the context of the OT commands for those OT purposes. Christ’s new command is new because it comes with new purpose.
Think of it this way. God created image bearers for his purpose of everlasting love relationship. It was in that context that he made his Covenant of Life with Adam, providing Adam with life in exchange for Adam’s trust in him as the life-giving provider. Adam broke that Covenant of Life and therefore inherited death—separation from God. And all Adam’s offspring, then, came from that same line of broken relationship with God.
Some people say that God, being God, could have left it that way, deciding in his sovereignty to abandon this creation. But that idea ignores what God has told us about himself in his Word. God—being God—acts according to his essential nature. God, being God, would act in truth, goodness, and beauty communicated in love. Therefore, God, being God, would not abandon his creation but rather pursue them in love to redeem to realize his purpose of everlasting love relationship. That is what it means for God to be God!
Therefore, God established a redemption plan for his fallen image bearers that moved through a series of covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic) to be fulfilled in Jesus—who was of the image-bearing humanity, but also directly from God. Coming from God, he began in perfect righteous relationship, not inheriting the broken relationship from Adam. As a second Adam, in right relationship with God, he gave that righteous life for those who, by faith, would die to Adam’s heritage (through Jesus’s death) and be born again into Jesus’s life. This new life is the New Covenant. The covenant is new because the old covenant through Adam has been replaced by this new covenant through Christ. The laws of Moses were associated with the old covenant through Adam. With the New Covenant through Christ we now receive a new command—the command to love one another.
Under our heritage in Adam, we had rules to live by, that were based in love but for the purpose of symbolizing and pointing to that which we could not do for ourselves since we were of a broken relationship from God. But the New Covenant—one with unbroken relationship in God through Jesus—we have no list of rules save one—to love. In loving God and loving others, the Holy Spirit guides our hearts toward all the relational strengthening activity that the old Law pointed to.