There’s a sense in which this command isn’t new, of course. The basic obligations to love God and love our neighbors were constitutive of the covenantal community from the era of the Old Testament. Consider, for instance, Leviticus 19:18, which enjoins the Israelite to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As Cornelis Vonk writes of the Torah, “It acquaints the church of today with her God, Yahweh, the Creator and Giver of life, who also has shown himself to be a Lover and Preserver of life, of genuine human life. We know that he loved life so much that he sent his own Son so that we might have life.”
So while there is continuity with the old dispensation of the covenant of grace, there is something really new about the commandment as well. Just as we refer to the era of salvation history ushered in by Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection as the “new” covenant, so this new commandment takes up the obligations of the old covenant and displays them in a new way.
The most obvious new way in which this love is displayed is in the life and work of Jesus Christ himself. This is what is “new” about the new commandment: Jesus himself is basis and the model for our love.
Over the rest of this Holy Week, consider just what that love means: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV).
But just as in the old covenant, the covenantal relationship isn’t just about God and the individual person. We are to “walk before” God, to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” But just as Jesus’ example shows us, this love must be expressed in the context of community. There must be “others” for us to love, “friends” for us to show our sacrificial love to.
This is the new community created in the new covenant of Christ’s blood, governed by the new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”