The Commands of Jesus

2020 Nov 8

Jesus gave some commands to Christians. What are we commanded to do by Jesus?

The most specifically clear teaching about this is in the book of John 13-15. There is one explicit command, which is to “Love each other as I have loved you.” The first mention best captures Jesus’ thesis because it also partly explains the reason for the command.

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." ‭‭John‬ ‭13:34-35‬ ‭NIV

Those who follow this command, and have this characteristic will be identified with Jesus.


This identification has multiple implications.

  • It is clear from what he is saying that non-Christians will be able to identify those who are Christians because of this.
  • Significantly however, Christians themselves will be able to identify fellow Christians by the evidence that comes from obeying this command.
  • And also significantly, Christians themselves will be able to know with confidence that they are disciples of Jesus because this evidence is in their own lives.

This is the most important command of Jesus. Nothing else compares. This command is explicitly repeated two more times in the same narrative so that it cannot be avoided or misunderstood.

"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command." ‭‭John‬ ‭15:9-14‬ ‭NIV

"This is my command: Love each other." ‭‭John‬ ‭15:17‬ ‭NIV

Jesus explains more about the command in a prayer a bit later. He gave the command because God is love, and God exists in relationship, and this internal relationship is based on love. Only then when we have love like that of Jesus can we be in relationship with God.

"Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."‭‭John‬ ‭17:25-26‬ ‭NIV

There are other statements given as imperatives in this section, but they are clearly secondary to the explicitly highlighted central command of Jesus. Primarily they exist as encouragements to the disciples.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me." John‬ ‭14:1‬ ‭NIV

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." ‭‭John‬ ‭14:27‬ ‭NIV

"If you love me, keep my commands." ‭‭John‬ ‭14:15‬ ‭NIV

Jesus mentions keeping "commands" (plural), but this section only had one explicit command repeated three times. Because of the context, I think the plural corresponds to the repeated statement of the one command.

However, some think that this plural means there are other commands elsewhere that Jesus is including by this reference. Certainly there are other imperatives that Jesus did state. However this is the only time he gave his disciples a literal command, and he never tells them "you shall" or "you shall not". Jesus did give a few "must"s.

"Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭20:26-28‬ ‭NIV

"Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." ‭‭Mark‬ ‭9:35‬ ‭NIV

"So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them." ‭‭Luke‬ ‭17:3-4‬ ‭NIV

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭16:24‬ ‭NIV

Every one of these "you must" statements (and some others like it) are simply examples of following the one command of Jesus (to love each other like Jesus loved us). So it still is just the one command of Jesus.

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Now, in Jesus’ time the Jewish people had an existing body of law. Some of these laws clearly were given by direct command of God to Israelites as part of his covenant with them. Did Jesus require that Christians were obligated to these laws as well? In the Sermon on the Mount, he talked about this:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:17-20‬ ‭NIV

Jesus came to fulfill the law. Did Jesus accomplish what he came to do? Of course he did, and so fulfillment of the law has been accomplished. It is done. note

We believe this to be true because we believe that Jesus is God and therefore he has the power and authority to accomplish what he intends to do and has promised to do.

Will we be able to fulfill the law as well? No. We are incapable to fulfill the law (as clearly argued by Paul), therefore that idea is foolish. Jesus cannot be requiring us to do that.

Did the Pharisees and the teachers of the law gain righteousness by following the law? They certainly were good followers of law. It is very unlikely that we could do better at it than they did. However, Jesus says that they did not gain righteousness acceptable to God from it. Therefore he is saying that the existing law is insufficient for righteousness.

Jesus is talking here about commands to be followed - but which ones? In the context of this talk, he mentions a number of existing laws. However immediately then, he replaces them with imperatives that were much more difficult to do than the existing law. In this Sermon on the Mount, he talks about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye for eye, and love for enemies. In each case Jesus turns the law into hearsay and specifies behavior which supersedes the law. Therefore, the vs 19 which talks about practicing and teaching commands is not referring to the old law. Instead in the context, Jesus is talking about his new imperatives.

(It is amazing in this section that Jesus does not even honor the old commands with language showing that he considers that they still are commands to be followed. He says, “you have heard that it was said“. It is obvious that he was talking about existing law; the command about murder is even one of the 10 Commandments. However, the language of Jesus does not teach that the old laws are commands of his, and they do not indicate that he wants us to continue to take them as laws that we are required to follow.)

So in this section, Jesus actively replaced the law. If we were to take this as new commands of law, it would literally mean we no longer follow the old law. This is repudiation of the existing law. This means by Jesus’ explicit teaching, the written OT law does not apply to us any more.

If you were thinking that Jesus was promoting law, then he took an impossible existing standard and raised the bar to make new law that is even more impossible to obey. What kind of teaching is this? We already knew we could not keep the law. Why does Jesus give us a more difficult law to even better ensure that we will fail to keep it?

The answer is that Jesus was replacing the old law, yes. However, he was not replacing it with new law. He will later give the new command to “love each other”, and this one command does cover all. However, this cannot be new law because love simply cannot be compelled. Law can compel behavior, but love is not a behavior. Love is a value, and law cannot make you love.

A later conversation of Jesus showed his rationale toward the new command he would give:

"… an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”" ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭22:35-40‬ ‭NIV

In the Mark account of this, the questioner agreed with Jesus that his answer was correct. (So note that even expert law-driven religious Jews clearly agreed with Jesus on this specific point.)

If you go back then to the sermon on the mount and look at the new standard that Jesus was setting, in each case he was looking not for compliance to a law. Instead, he was looking for behaviors driven by love. Jesus was not making new law; he was showing that he wanted behaviors that would be motivated by love.

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Some say that when Jesus said “I have not come to abolish [the law]” that he meant that we also must follow the law. Doesn’t it also say that failing one point of law makes you a lawbreaker? note That would mean we are literally responsible then to all the law: we cannot pick and choose. However, this view is a terrible error because if that were true then we are lawbreakers if we do not stone people who commit adultery.

James says this in James 2:10. However, his argument actually is that the law of love (to your neighbor) is the law to be obeyed, not the rest of the OT law. This law is the royal law, the perfect law that gives freedom (James 1 & 2).

Note also that in Gal 5:2, Paul does argue that if you sign up to the law, then you are responsible to the whole thing without picking and choosing.

(Note that according to John 8, the leaders of the day considered that the woman who had been caught in adultery should have been killed by stoning. However, Jesus did not comply with this clearly-stated law. Therefore, Jesus already had set aside the Jewish law for his new law of love.)

Others say that we are just to follow the moral laws in the OT. This idea then means that we would pick and choose which laws to obey. However, this also is a fail because moral and civil law is not differentiated. Another big problem is that we are immoral sinners and are incompetent to distinguish which of the laws of God is what he morally wanted. Didn’t Jesus say that those who would set aside commands would be the least in his kingdom? Where have we as humans been given the authority to choose which individual Jewish laws are the ones which are no longer required? This would be a crazy prideful grab of power from God. This partial following of law is again an error.

The clear teaching of Jesus however goes back to the one command he has given us: to love each other. Add in Jesus’ teaching also on the greatest commandment, and nothing more is needed. It is a serious mistake to add in law to this.

Paul completely teaches the same thing. In fact, he says that love entirely fulfills the law (Romans‬ ‭13:8-10‬, Galatians‬ ‭5:13-14). Why then would you need law? He argues strenuously against Judaizers - those that were teaching gentile Christians that they must additionally follow Jewish law. Whole books in our bible were specifically written to make correction about this one point. Jesus did not command us to follow the Jewish law, so we then are not to put ourselves under this law.

The commands of Jesus are repeated statements to love each other. That, with his teaching on the greatest commandment, makes a completed plan for not just moral living, but for righteous living. There is no other law or commands in Christianity.

 

Cautions about law

The big problem with law is the OT Mosaic law. No gentiles have ever been under the jurisdiction of this law. Even Jews in the day of Jesus would agree that gentiles outside of Judaism were not under Mosiac law. As Christians, we are not in Judaism and so this point is still true to this day. I have also argued that all Christians (even Jewish Christians) are not under the OT law. It is profound ignorance and misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching to think otherwise.

Those that pick out some of the OT Mosaic laws and teach that other Christians are required to obey them are actually working against the teachings of Jesus. This is great trouble for Christianity.

 

Be careful to not confuse allowances in the OT law with command. Jesus clearly taught that some prescription in the OT was not in the moral law of God. An example:

"“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭19:7-8‬ ‭NIV

The original principle was that marriage was intended to last. This moral law was known long before laws were given to the Israelites. When this moral law was violated in divorce, then a civil law was made to protect the disadvantaged woman. The law required the man to document that the woman was no longer bound to him, and so was legally free to remarry.

  • Notice that Jesus distinguished between law that came from God and law that came from man. (He said that this additional law came from Moses.)
  • This was civil case law made because people were violating God’s moral law.
  • Notice that if you were to follow the command of love, both the moral and civil aspects of this law would be covered. Nothing else is needed.

 

The religious people of Jesus’ day played their laws against each other to be able to justify what they wanted to do. They did this in spite of God’s moral law. Jesus didn’t even dignify these rules of theirs as being called law; he said they were just human tradition and not God’s law.

"So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”" ‭‭Mark‬ ‭7:5-13‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Jesus could see who had produced these rules and when they had appeared. He said they were not from God even though the religious leaders considered them to be legit. Jesus was able to distinguish what was going on by application of the first principle of love. He obviously expected them (and us) to be able to distinguish this difference correctly in the same way.

If application of love enables us to distinguish between apparent conflicts of law, then love clearly is superior to law. Love enables us to judge law and to set aside unjust law. Law then cannot give us insight that is missing from love or that is superior to love. Law adds nothing to love.

 

Jesus said the law wasn’t good enough. Law is insufficiently good because law primarily exists to restrict bad behavior. However, God is good and has a goal for us to be good as well. Lack of bad behavior does not make someone good. God is good because of his internal motivating values, the primary of which is love. We also can be good if we have the same value. This is impossible by our own strength. It is possible only by faith in God to give us strength to be like him and follow his command to love.

 


The ideas on this page are based on the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.

20201108 updated 20210102   © 2021 Larry Grove