The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday contains a well-known saying of Jesus: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35).
The command to “love one another” is a striking element in this Gospel. Unlike what we find in the Synoptic Gospels, in this Gospel there is very little in the way of explicit ethical instruction in John’s Gospel. The focus is much more on the revelatory task that Jesus undertakes, as “the one who comes from heaven” (3:31; 6:38) to declare “the truth” (8:45; 14:6; 18:37), to “speak plainly of the Father” (16:25), to “make known everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15), to glorify the Father (17:1–5).
His task is to teach the people (7:14–16; 8:2) and so he is regularly addressed as Teacher (1:38; 3:2; 8:4; 11:28; 13:13–14; 20:16). Indeed, in this Gospel, Jesus is no less than the authoritative teacher, revealing God to those who have already been chosen (13:18; 15:19).
Consequently, the basic position with regard to ethics is that those who know Jesus, will do as God wills (13:35; 14:7). As for those who do not know him, they are condemned to the darkness (3:19; 12:35). As a result, there is no urgency about instructing believers how to behave; for they will surely know what to do.
Rather than providing believers with guidelines and resources for living faithfully in the world, the Johannine Jesus assures his followers, “I have chosen you out of the world” (15:19).
Following Jesus is not a pathway to faithful living in the world, but rather a journey towards the cosmic Christ, who leads believers into mystical unity with God.
Nevertheless there are some pointers, in this Gospel, to what is required of believers. The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform various actions, including those which subsequently became sacramental (communion, Luke 22:19; baptism, Matt 28:19).
In John’s Gospel, at his last meal, Jesus commands his disciples to wash one another’s feet, following his own example (John 13:14–15). The ethics of the Johannine Jesus are summed up in similar fashion: “just as I have loved you, so you should love one another” (13:34b). This “new commandment” sits at the centre of this Gospel (13:34–35; 15:12–17) and will inspire subsequent literature in the Johannine tradition (1 Jn 2:7–11; 3:11, 23; 4:7–11, 16–21; 5:3; 2 Jn 5–6).
Yet in contrast to the scriptural commands to love God and neighbour, cited by the Synoptic Jesus (Mark 12:28–31) and Paul (Rom 13:8–10), the command of the Johannine Jesus focuses on love of God and love of “one another”. It is limited to those within the faith community, and does not include “neighbours” (let alone love of “enemies”, as in Luke 6:27).
Another Synoptic instruction which is echoed in this Gospel is the command to serve, but once again with a narrower scope. Jesus instructs his disciples to follow his example and serve one another (Mark 10:42–45; Luke 22:24–27), but the Johannine Jesus exhorts them simply to serve him (John 12:26). Later, he informs them that they are no longer to be called servants, but friends, for they know all that God intends them to know (15:15). Even this ethical category is now obsolete.
In John’s Gospel, there appears to be little need for specific instruction about particular ethical situations, such as we find in the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and the teachings of the Synoptic Jesus (Matt 5–7; Luke 6; and so on). Rather, belief in Jesus brings with it an inherent sense of what must be done for the good.
This is expounded, not through ethical instructions, but by means of images which offer glimpses into how the central quality of love is made possible. In the image of the vine and the branches (15:1–11), Jesus portrays the foundations of ethical awareness; because believers abide in the Son, he is then able to bear fruit in their lives and “become my disciples” (15:8). So, love is made possible for those who believe, because they abide in the love of Jesus (15:10).
Employing another image, Jesus declares that he comes as “the light of the world” (9:5), inviting those who believe in him to follow the light (8:12), walk in the light (11:9–10), and thus become “children of light” (12:36).
A third image with potential for much ethical exposition is the statement by Jesus that “I am the way” (14:5). This image has been developed in other New Testament books, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in this direction. However, the Johannine Jesus appears to see “the way” simply as the way to intimacy with God (14:6–7).
Each of these images provides a sense of certainty for the believer—who abides in Jesus, who walks in his light, who follows his way—without having to spell out particular attitudes or behaviours which must be followed. In the end, the Jesus of this Gospel invites his followers to walk into unity with him, and thus unity with the Father. Right behaviour, it is assumed, will simply follow on.