Toward the end of his life, John – who traveled with Jesus for years and became one of his closest companions – wrote a letter to some friends. One part has been often used out of context to place a burden on people that John never taught anywhere else and likely never meant to convey.
It has to do with belonging to Jesus:
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:3-6.)
The words “keep his commands” have been mistaken to require that Christians have to keep the Old Testament laws since that’s what Jesus did perfectly, without fail, without sin. Yet that’s not at all what the passage means, as its context dictates a completely different understanding of the commands of Jesus as John had learned them from Jesus himself.
There is a way to understand, from the context of John’s writings, the command of Jesus, though. It is found in God’s love.
The Law of Love
John went on to tell his readers:
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. … Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. (1 John 2:7, 9.)
He’s stating the command in the negative at first: don’t hate others. Later in the letter he turns to positive renditions of this command.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18.)
It is this love in action that shows God’s love to the world.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12.)
Some people go back to the part where John said “I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning” to suggest he is talking about the Old Testament laws and commands. That doesn’t work in the context of John’s writings. It doesn’t even work in the context of that one passage John wrote.
When he assures them it’s not a new command but an old one, he clearly points them not to the Old Testament writings but to what these believers had from the beginning. And then John goes on (as you have seen in these passages) to remind them of the command they received from the beginning: love people because God loves you.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. … We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:16, 19-21.)
Why does he emphasize this? Because it’s the same command John received directly from Jesus decades before.
Going Back to Jesus
Jesus, in his last night with his followers before he was arrested, put on trial, and executed on the cross, told them how to live after he was gone.
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.)
John was there.
He heard this as a very young man and taught it to others as a very old man.
Jesus did not say that everyone would know you follow Jesus if you add loving people to your efforts to follow Old Testament laws. He said they will know you belong to him if you love others. And that’s what John said in his letters to his own friends decades later.
You might read 1 John and point out places where he gave examples of falling short, sinning against others in ways that violate concepts found in the Old Testament. Yet if you consider those parts of the letter carefully, you see that they are each examples of treating others poorly, that is, failing to love them. The command underlying each of those instances is still the command to love others because God loves you.
Jesus made the same point when an expert in religious law questioned him on obeying commandments.
One of them, 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.)
If you are loving God and loving others, you need not concern yourself with rules and regulations. And if you are not loving God and loving others, no amount of rule following will help you.
This is the context in which John wrote this letter to his friends, and 1 John 2:3-6 is about love and not law.