1 John 2:7-11
Brothers, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning…
It is scarcely too much of a paradox to say that new knowledge is for the most part a discovery of old truth; we talk in popular language of the discovery of electricity, but the electric power lurked in those same substances since the world began; we talk with delight of the wonderful discoveries made by the spectroscope, but after all those colours were in the sunlight, those elements in the starlight, long before; we discover the marvellous power of steam, but many an earthquake and volcano might have told us something of the power of steam centuries ago; "no new law I write," the steam engine, the electric current, the light seem to say as they pass on their rapid flight, but "an old law" which ye had from the beginning. And yet as we watch them at work it is a new one; the steam engine is changing the course of commerce and the face of society; the electric current puts a girdle round the world; we know something of the stars and the sun now we never knew before; our ignorance, "our darkness is passing away, and the true light is beginning to shine." Can we wonder, then, when we turn from the physical to the moral world, the same truth holds good? But our paradox carries us further than this; it is not only true that new knowledge is often only a discovery of old truth, but surely it is also true that not infrequently progress in the world's best life is only made by the rediscovery of old knowledge. What are we doing in sculpture, except trying to discover how to reach the perfect outline of the Greeks? In painting we still study the old masters; and old inscriptions are showing us how much the ancients knew which we thought once we were discovering for the first time. So also in the moral and religious sphere, what have all the great Christian movements been except re-proclamations of forgotten truths? The Wesleyan movement was but the re-proclamation of the necessity of conversion; the so called Oxford movement was but the calling emphatic attention to the neglected Sacraments; and this at least can be said of the Salvation Army, that it does remind us in the midst of our culture and education of the fact of perishing souls. What, then, is the upshot of all this? First, that we should expect to find God's final word for the world no new one; we should expect to find His great revelation something which focussed into a new force the scattered rays of old truth; and secondly, we should expect to find that in course of time, from human frailty, fragments even of this great revelation should be forgotten, and that consequently, welling forward, as it were, from its central depths, would have from time to time to shine the forgotten truth.
I. NOW THE GREAT COMMANDMENT, EVER OLD AND EVER NEW, IS THE LAW OF LOVE.
1. "Is it true to history"; is it true that Christianity gathers together and focuses scattered rays of old truth? In dealing with sceptics it is often found that if a saying of our Lord's can be shown to distantly resemble the saying of some philosopher centuries ago, if the teaching of , or of Seneca, or of can be quoted as anticipations or echoes of the Sermon on the Mount or the letters of St. Paul, if sentences of the Lord's Prayer can be shown to be embedded in Jewish liturgies, therefore it is supposed that a damaging blow has been dealt to His uniqueness and originality. Why! on the contrary we glory in it; we trace in it the action of the Incarnate Word before He is Incarnate; we see Him immanent in the world from the beginning, teaching, controlling, guiding: it is the very thing we are looking for to confirm our faith; and if one thing more than another could be discovered to send home this teaching of brotherhood into our hearts, it is to find that it is no new commandment He gave us when Be came in the flesh, but an old one He had given us from the beginning.
2. "It is true to human nature." "A planet in our system," says Bishop Barry, "has three influences playing upon it — it has first its own centrifugal force which bears it on its way, and which if left unbalanced would carry it forward in a straight line; it has on it next the great central influence of the sun, and thirdly it has on it the influence of the other planets," and he goes on to remind us of the remarkable fact that the planet Neptune was discovered not at first by immediate observation, but by the effect which it had, though unseen, on the orbit of another planet. Now with that picture before us it is not difficult to see that Christianity recognises self. "Not afraid of the shallow taunt of selfishness it tells man plainly that his own personality is a treasure committed to his charge, and that he simply fulfils a law of his being in educating it to perfection, and therefore to happiness in this world and the world beyond the grave." In other words, we are called by Christianity to self-sacrifice, but we must have a self to sacrifice. A question was asked the other day after an address to some Oxford undergraduates which goes to the root of the matter. Was it wrong to educate a taste for art? was it wrong to go to Venice in the vacation? or to buy a beautiful picture for one's room? The sincerity of the question was beyond dispute. Putting aside all obvious cautions about extravagance or over-indulgence of taste or cases where, on account of the present distress, it becomes right to waive our rights, as a broad principle, is self-development right or wrong? And we may surely venture most emphatically to answer that it is a duty; that balanced duly by the other influences, the instinct of self-development — the centrifugal force of the planet — must have its place; that it is a short-sighted policy even looked at from the point of view of the human race to crush individuality; that mind and powers developed will have more to give, not less, in the days to come; and that we shall be untrue to history and human nature if we ignore the last revelation we have received — worked out too by human sacrifice and human effort — of personal and individual freedom, for which martyrs have fought and died. But does this contradict or interfere with the law of love? Not for a moment, if we remember whose we are and whom we serve.
3. But is it practicable? Does the law work? And it is a relief to turn away from general principles to reporting of the thing in action; after all, "the only true gospel is the gospel of life." Now in obedience to the law of love a certain number of the sons of the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford come each year to live in the centre of East London; they do it simply and naturally; they make no parade of virtue in doing it; their labour is a labour of love. What is the effect? Does it destroy self? By God's blessing it helps to destroy selfishness, but not self; it develops self; it transfigures self. It makes men of them; the calls upon their judgment, the claims upon their sympathy, the education of their powers of government, insensibly and slowly make character; they lose their lives only to find them. Has it any effect on their belief in God? We know the dreamy haze in which many of us leave the University: "is the old gospel true after all," we ask ourselves, "or have we lost it among the maze of modern speculations?" What effect upon this haze has obedience to the law of love? It gives a man back his faith in God; the darkness passes away and the true light begins to shine; and he finds by practical experience the truth of the old saying, "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" And if it ennobles self and clears the vision of God, what has it to say to man? It wins man; man is unable to resist it; it makes him believe in a brotherhood of which he has heard but never seen before; this is a music he can understand.
II. This brings us to the second thing we might expect to find; we saw that WE MIGHT EXPECT TO FIND FROM TIME TO TIME FORGOTTEN DEPTHS OF EVEN A FINAL REVELATION SWELLING FORWARD INTO THE LIGHT OF DAY. So weak is human nature, so small its capacity to hold infinite truth, that it has from time to time to relearn piecemeal the faith once delivered to the saints; just as clouds keep gathering round the sun, and then being dispersed, so the darkness of prejudice and selfishness keeps gathering round the sun of revelation; again and again that darkness has to be dispersed, and the true light again and again to shine. Now as we look out upon the world, it is perfectly certain that something has begun to shine which was not there before. Ask people who have been abroad for fifteen or twenty years, and then come back to England, and they will tell you that they are perfectly astonished at what they see. But these things, they will tell you, are but symptoms of an inner change; they find the whole tone different; they find the old class feeling vanishing; they find the heart of one half of the world has begun to go out towards the other. What is the meaning of it? It fronts us, it judges us, it is a fact; and the question is this, Is it to be sneered down as a passing whim or is it part of the life of God? And in upholding that it is part of the life of God which has again found its way through the mists of human selfishness, we may take our stand on three grounds.
1. It was time for it to come; we had learnt the last lesson, we understand the freedom of the individual.
2. It is too strong to be a whim; the true diamond and the diamond of paste are like enough to look at, but you can cut with the one and not the other; this diamond cuts.
3. The colour of the light bears witness to its source; we all may mistake many things at times and many colours, but when we see it in action there is no mistaking the white light of love. And so, in conclusion, we have to ask ourselves, What is to be our attitude towards this brightening light?
(1) And first, surely at any rate, not an attitude of opposition; the most cautious of us can hardly refuse to accede to the counsel of the cautious Gamaliel.
(2) But secondly, the very words of Gamaliel show us that we cannot stop there; if it is of God, and we as Christians are fellow workers with God, then God expects us, He must expect us to help it on.
(A. F. W. Ingram, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.