By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached October 20, 1950
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." - John 13:34.
These words derive impressiveness from having been spoken immediately before the last Supper, and on the eve of the great Sacrifice: the commandment of love issued appropriately at the time of the Feast of Love, and not long before the great Act of Love. For the love of Christ was no fine saying: it cost Him His life to say these words with meaning, "As I have loved you."
There is a difficulty in the attempt to grasp the meaning of this command, arising from the fact that words change their meaning. Our Lord affixed a new significance to the word love: it had been in use, of course, before, but the new sense in which He used it made it a new word.
His law is not adequately represented by the word love, because love is, by conventional usage, appropriated to one species of human affection, which, in the commoner men, is the most selfish of all our feelings; and in the best is too exclusive and individual to represent that charity which is universal.
Nor is charity a perfect symbol of His meaning; for charity, by use, is identified with another form of love which is but a portion of it, almsgiving; and too saturated with that meaning to be entirely disengaged from it, even when we use it most accurately.
Benevolence or philanthropy, in derivation, come nearer to, the idea; but yet you feel at once that these words fall short; they are too tame and cold; too merely passive, as states of feeling rather than forms of life.
We have no sufficient word. There is therefore no help for it, but patiently to strive to master the meaning of this mighty word love, in the only light that is left us - the light of the Saviour's life: "As I have loved you:" that alone expounds it. We will dispossess our minds of all preconceived notions; remove all low associations, all partial and conventional ones. If we would understand this law, it must be ever a "new" commandment, ever receiving fresh light and meaning from His life.
Take, I. The novelty of the law - "That ye love one another."
II. The spirit or measure of it - "As I have loved you."
I. Its novelty. A "new commandment," yet that law was old. See I John 2:7, 8. It was new as an historical fact. We talk of the apostolic mission as a matter of course; we say that the apostles were ordered to go and plant churches, and so we dismiss the great fact. But we forget that the command was rather the result of a spirit working from within, than of an injunction working from without. That spirit was love.
And when that new spirit was in the world, see how straightway it created a new thing. Men before that had travelled into foreign countries: the naturalist to collect specimens; the historian to accumulate facts; the philosopher to hive up wisdom, or else he had staid in his cell or grove to paint beautiful pictures of love. But the spectacle of an Apostle Paul crossing oceans - not to conquer kingdoms - not to hive up knowledge, but to impart life - not to accumulate stores for self, but to give, and to spend himself - was new in the history of the world. The celestial fire had touched the hearts of men, and their hearts flamed; and it caught, and spread, and would not stop. On they went, that glorious band of brothers, in their strange enterprise, over oceans, and through forests, penetrating into the dungeon, and to the throne - to the hut of the savage feeding on human flesh, and to the shore lined with the skin-clad inhabitants of these far isles of Britain. Read the account given by Tertullian of the marvellous rapidity with which the Christians increased, and you are reminded of one of those vast armies of ants which moves across a country in irresistible myriads, drowned by thousands in rivers, cut off by fire, consumed by man and beast, and yet fresh hordes succeeding interminably to supply their place.
A new voice was heard: a new yearning upon earth; man pining at being severed from his brother, and longing to burst the false distinctions which had kept the best hearts from each other so long - an infant cry of life - the cry of the young Church of God. And all this from Judea - the narrowest, most bigoted, most intolerant nation on the face of the earth.
Now I say that this was historically a new thing.
2. It was new in extent. It was, in literal words, an old commandment given before both to Jew and Gentile. To the Jew, as, for instance, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord." To the Gentile, in the recognition which was so often made of the beauty of the law in its partial application, as in the case of friendship, patriotism, domestic attachment, and so on.
But the difference lay in the extent in which these words "one another" were understood. By them, or rather by "neighbor," the Jew meant his countrymen; and narrowed that down again to his friends among his countrymen - so that the well-known Rabbinical gloss upon these words, current in the days of Christ, was, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy." And what the Gentile understood by the extent of the law of love, we may learn from the well-known words of their best and wisest, who thanked heaven that he was born a man, and not a brute - a Greek, and not a barbarian: as if to be a barbarian were identical with being a brute.
Now listen to Christ's exposition of the word neighbor. "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies." And he went farther: as a specimen of a neighbor, he specially selected one of that nation whom, as a theologian and a patriot, every Jew had been taught to hate. And just as the application of electricity to the innumerable wants of human life and to new ends is reckoned a new discovery and invention of modern times (though the fact has been familiar for ages to the Indian child in the forest of the Far West, and applied by him for ages to his childish sports), so the extension of this grand principle of Love to all the possible cases of life, and to all possible persons - even though the principle was known and applied long before, in love to friends, country, and relations - is truly and properly "a new commandment," a discovery, a gospel, a revelation.
3. It was new in being made the central principle of a system. Never had obedience before been trusted to a principle: it had always been hedged round by a law. The religion of Christ is not a law, but a spirit; not a creed, but a life. To the one motive of love, God has intrusted the whole work of winning the souls of His redeemed. The heart of man was made for love - pants and pines for it: only in the love of Christ, and not in restrictions, can his soul expand. Now it was reserved for One to pierce, with the glance of intuition, down into the springs of human action, and to proclaim the simplicity of its machinery. "Love," said the apostle after Him, "Love is the fulfilling of the law."
We are told that in the new commandment the old perishes: that under the law of love, man is free from the law of works. Let us see how.
Take any commandment - for example, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. I may abstain from murder and theft, deterred by law; because law has annexed to them certain penalties. But I may also rise into the spirit of charity - then I am free from the law; the law was not made for a righteous man: the law no more binds or restrains me, now that I love my neighbor, than the dike built to keep in the sea at high tide restrains it when that sea has sunk to low-water mark.
Or the seventh. You may keep that law from dread of discovery, or you may learn a higher love: and then you can not injure a human soul; you can not degrade a human spirit. Charity has made the old commandment superfluous. In the strong language of St. John, you can not sin, because you are born of God.
It was the proclamation of this, the great living principle of human obedience, not with the pedantry of a philosopher, nor the exaggeration of an orator, but in the simple reality of life, which made this commandment of Christ a new commandment.
II. The spirit or measure of the law - "as I have loved you."
Broadly, the love of Christ was the spirit of giving all He had to give. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." Christ's love was not a sentiment; it was a self-giving. To that His adversaries bore testimony: "He saved others; himself He can not save." Often as we have read these words, did it ever strike us, and if not, does it not bring a flash of surprise when we perceive it, that these words, meant as taunt, were really the noblest panegyric, a testimony higher and more adequate far than even that of the centurion? "He saved others; himself He can not save." The first clause contained the answer to the second - "Himself He cannot save!" How could He, having saved others? How can any keep what he gives? How can any live for self, when He is living for others? Unconsciously, those enemies were enunciating the very principle of Christianity, the grand law of all existence, that only by losing self you can save others; that only by giving life you can bless. Love gives itself The mother spends herself in giving life to her child; the soldier dies for his country; nay, even the artist produces nothing destined for immortality, nothing that will live, except so far as he has forgotten himself, and merged his very being in his work.
"He saved others; himself He can not save." That was the love of Christ. Now to descend to particulars.
That spirit of self-giving manifests itself in the shape of considerate kindliness. Take three cases: First, that in which he fed the people with bread. "I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat." There was a tenderness which, not absorbed in his own great designs, considered a number of small particulars of their state, imagined, provided, and this for the satisfaction of the lowest wants. Again, to the disciples: "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile." He would not overwork them in the sublimest service. He did not grudge from duty their interval of relaxation; He even tenderly enforced it. Lastly, His dying words: "Behold thy mother! Woman, behold thy son!" Short sentences. He was too exhausted to say more. But in that hour of death-torture, He could think of her desolate state when he was gone, and with delicate, thoughtful attention provide for her well-being.
There are people who would do great acts; but because they wait for great opportunities, life passes, and the acts of love are not done at all. Observe, this considerateness of Christ was shown in little things. And such are the parts of human life. Opportunities for doing greatly seldom occur; life is made up of infinitesimals. If you compute the sum of happiness in any given day, you will find that it was composed of small attentions, kind looks, which made the heart swell, and stirred into health that sour, rancid film of misanthropy which is apt to coagulate on the stream of our inward life, as surely as we live in heart apart from our fellow-creatures.
Doubtless the memory of each one of us will furnish him with the picture of some member of a family whose very presence seemed to shed happiness: a daughter, perhaps, whose light step, even in the distance, irradiated every one's countenance. What was the secret of such a one's power? what had she done? Absolutely nothing; but radiant smiles, beaming good-humor, the tact of divining what every one felt and every one wanted, told that she had got out of self and learned to think for others; so that at one time it showed itself in deprecating the quarrel which lowering brows and raised tones already showed to be impending, by sweet words; at another, by smoothing an invalid's pillow; at another, by soothing a sobbing child; at another, by humoring and softening a father who had returned weary and ill-tempered from the irritating cares of business. None but she saw those things. None but a loving heart could see them. That was the secret of her heavenly power.
Call you those things homely trifles, too homely for a sermon? By reference to the character of Christ, they rise into something quite sublime. For that is loving as He loved. And remark, too, these trifles prepared for larger deeds. The one who will be found in trial capable of great acts of love, is ever the one who is always doing considerate small ones. The soul which poured itself out to death upon the cross for the human race, was the Spirit of Him who thought of the wants of the people, contrived for the rest of the disciples, and was thoughtful for a mother.
Once again - it was a love never foiled by the unworthiness of those on whom it had been once bestowed. It was a love which faults, desertion, denial, unfaithfulness could not chill, even though they wrung His heart. He bad chosen and He trusted. Even in ordinary manhood, that is a finely-tempered heart, one of no ordinary mould, which can say, "It ever was my way, and shall be still, when I do trust a man, to trust him wholly."
And yet there was every thing to shake His trust in humanity. The Pharisees called him Good Master, and were circumventing Him all the while. The people shouted hosannas, and three days afterwards were shrieking for His blood. One disciple who had dipped in the same dish, and been trusted with His inmost counsels, deceived and betrayed Him; another was ashamed of Him; three fell asleep while He was preparing for death; all forsook Him. Yet nothing is more surprising than that unshaken, I had well-nigh said obstinate, trust with which He clung to His hopes of our nature, and believed in the face of demonstration.
As we mix in life, there comes, especially to sensitive natures, a temptation to distrust. In young life we throw ourselves with unbounded and glorious confidence on such as we think well of - an error soon corrected: for we soon find out - too soon - that men and women are not what they seem. Then comes disappointment; and the danger is a reaction of desolating and universal mistrust. For if we look on the doings of man with a merely worldly eye, and pierce below the surface of character, we are apt to feel bitter scorn and disgust for our fellow-creatures. We have lived to see human hollowness; the ashes of the Dead Sea shore; the falseness of what seemed so fair; the mouldering beneath the whited sepulchre: and no wonder if we are tempted to think "friendship all a cheat - smiles hypocrisy - words deceit;" and they who are what is called knowing in life contract by degrees, as the result of their experience, a hollow distrust of men, and learn to sneer at apparently good motives - that demoniacal sneer which we have seen, ay, perhaps felt, curling the lip at times, "Doth Job serve God for naught ?"
The only preservation from this withering of the heart is love. Love is its own perennial fount of strength. The strength of affection is a proof not of the worthiness of the object, but of the largeness of the soul which loves. Love descends, not ascends. The might of a river depends not on the quality of the soil through which it passes, but on the inexhaustibleness and depth of the spring from which it proceeds. The greater mind cleaves to the smaller with more force than the other to it. A parent loves the child more than the child the parent; and partly because the parent's heart is larger, not because the child is worthier. The Saviour loved His disciples infinitely more than His disciples loved Him, because His heart was infinitely larger. Love trusts on - ever hopes and expects better things; and this, a trust springing from itself and out of its own deeps alone.
And more than this. It is this trusting love that makes men what they are trusted to be - so realizing itself. Would you make men trustworthy? Trust them. Would you make them true? Believe them. This was the real force of that sublime battle-cry which no Englishman bears without emotion. When the crews of the fleet of Britain knew that they were expected to do their duty, they did their duty. They felt, in that spirit-stirring sentence, that they were trusted; and the simultaneous cheer that rose from every ship was a forerunner of victory - the battle was half-won already. They went to serve a country which expected from them great things, and they did great things. Those pregnant words raised an enthusiasm for the chieftain who had thrown himself upon his men in trust, which a double line of hostile ships could not appall, nor decks drenched in blood extinguish.
And it is on this principle that Christ wins the hearts of His redeemed. He trusted the doubting Thomas, and Thomas arose with a faith worthy "of his Lord and his God." He would not suffer even the lie of Peter to shake His conviction that Peter might love him yet, and Peter answered nobly to that sublime forgiveness. His last prayer was in extenuation and hope for the race who had rejected Him, and the kingdoms of the world are become His own. He has loved us, God knows why - I do not - and we, all unworthy though we be, respond faintly to that love, and try to be what He would have us.
Therefore come what may, hold fast to love. Though men should rend your heart, let them not embitter or harden it. We win by tenderness, we conquer by forgiveness. Oh, strive to enter into something of that large celestial charity which is meek, enduring, unretaliating, and which even the overbearing world can not withstand forever. Learn the new commandment of the Son of God. Not to love merely, but to love as He loved. Go forth in this spirit to your lifeduties: go forth, children of the Cross, to carry every thing before you, and win victories for God by the conquering power of a love like His.