(Jn. 14:15; c.f. 15:10) Why does Jesus use the term “commandments” here?

CLAIM: Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). Jesus refers to his “commands” (Jn. 14:21; 15:10; 15:12, 14, 17) throughout this section of Scripture. Why does Christ speak of his love in such impersonal terms as “keeping commandments”?

RESPONSE: Translators repeatedly use highly impersonal and almost military language for God’s teaching and instructions. This places an impersonal chill on the moral imperatives that Jesus gave to us. For instance, imagine if you told your spouse or friend that you had some “commands” for her to follow, while borrowing your car? This militaristic language just wouldn’t fit the context. But consider John 15:14, where Jesus says, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” This language doesn’t seem to fit with a close personal relationship.

We have no problem with God issuing commands to us. Bible teachers frequently say that the Ten Commandments were not the Ten Suggestions, and we certainly agree with this. God is sovereign, and he has the authority to issue divine moral imperatives. But is this really the usage Christ had in mind in this passage about his close personal friendship with us (Jn. 15:15)? We think not.

The term “commands” (entolas) is “‘to give a commission or direction’ in general, and not specifically in the religious sense.”[1] In extra-biblical Greek, he writes that the term has the sense of “pedagogic instruction” or a “commission.” In John’s gospel, the “commands” (entolas) are “not merely to be understood as obeying a series of ethical precepts or rules of morality.”[2] Instead, these would include his “words” (Jn. 14:23-24), and all of his teachings (Jn. 8:31; 12:47, 50). Hence, Borchert writes, “Obeying Jesus’ commands in effect means to copy the example of Jesus.”[3]

In our estimation, modern translators err in translating this word as “commands” in this section. Why not simply translate it as “teaching” or “instructions”? This would convey the meaning of the word, while also keeping the conception of having a personal relationship with Christ.

For further reading, see my colleague Dennis McCallum’s article “Legalism in Translation.”

[1] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed., 2:545-546 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976).

[2] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 121.

[3] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 122.