What’s love got to do with it?
Dear Ms. Turner, if you’re still curious, the answer is everything.
Not long ago, I conducted an informal survey where I asked Bible readers to summarize the book of 1 John. The most common response was “God is love” or something similar to it (1Jn 4:8). “It’s about love,” they said. “John is the apostle of love.” I won’t disagree with them. John specializes in the topic as perhaps no other author of Scripture does, yet he is by no means alone in insisting that love is the most important commandment God has given us.
As the last-living apostle implores believers to love one another, he admits, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning” (1Jn 2:7). I assume he means from the beginning of their life in Christ when they first believed in Jesus, the true light, to become children of God (Jn 1:12; 9). Then again, it’s possible he means from the beginning of time itself. After all, this commandment is quite old.
When God gave his many rules and statutes to Israel as they wandered the desert for forty years, Moses seems to summarize it all with this:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Please don’t overlook the direct connection Moses makes between loving God and cherishing his word. The two can’t be separated as John already made clear, saying, “Whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected” (1Jn 2:5). If you love the LORD your God, you will keep his commandments, speaking of them often, teaching them to your children, and meditating on them from sunrise to sundown no matter where you go (Dt 6:5; 1Jn 2:3; Dt 6:7).
Just as old as the command to love the LORD your God is the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18). These concepts are also inseparable as demonstrated by Christ when speaking to one of the Jewish lawyers in his day:
A lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:35-38)
Perhaps he could have stopped there. What more does one need to know? If we love God, following every last commandment should be a given. Yet he added, quoting from the book of Leviticus, “And a second commandment is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:39-40).
Evidently, loving people isn’t always instinctive in those who claim to love God. Some of us think we can faithfully serve the Lord with no regard for fellow man. The Pharisees did. While they patted themselves on the back for tithing mint and dill and cumin, they simultaneously neglected the weightier matters of the law such as justice and mercy (Mt 23:23). Never mind the poor and downtrodden. We’re giving our ten percent in the temple. God is surely pleased with us.
Sadly, we have to be reminded that loving God requires loving people. The latter half of the Decalogue demands it. Maybe you think you’ve mastered not having other gods before YHWH or making a carved image to bow down and serve, but what about honoring your father and your mother or bearing false witness against your neighbor? (Ex 20:3-5; 12; 16). According to both Jesus and Paul, the one who loves another has fulfilled the law and not until then (Ro 13:9). According to John, whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (1Jn 2:9).
John proposed a practical test for Christians in the previous passage which he, then, narrows down to something more specific. Before, he spoke of plural commandments, God’s collective rules for us (1Jn 2:3). By keeping them, we may know that we are in Christ (1Jn 2:5). Now, he speaks of a singular commandment, our highest moral duty of all besides loving God, encompassing no less than six of the Ten Commandments (1Jn 2:7). “Whoever loves his brother,” he writes, “abides in the light” (1Jn 2:10).
Anyone seeking confidence in his or her salvation, not to mention the joy that comes with it, can’t afford to minimize the significance of love (1Jn 1:4). Of all the commandments in Scripture, none is greater than love as Paul so eloquently expresses:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, presumably for the cause of Christ, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Paul concludes his message by writing, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: but the greatest of these is love” (1Co 13:13). Any questions?
Maybe Paul uses a hint of hyperbole—how can one have true faith and hope without love?—but his point is undeniable. Equipped with an impressive knowledge of God’s law, he understands the supremacy of love. Everything contained in the Law and the Prophets can be summarized by one two-part command: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:40; 37; 39). Follow that command and you’ll keep every individual piece of God’s law without fail.
It makes sense, then, that John would hone his focus here to that age-old commandment (1Jn 2:7). If you find yourself wanting to ask the apostle, “Which commandments must I keep to know I am saved?” he answers, “Start with the old commandment which I know you have heard. Not only was it the foundation of the Mosaic law, but it also forms the very heart of the gospel.”
What is the gospel but the good news of God’s love for sinners? When a Christian preaches the gospel, he declares as boldly as he knows how, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Jn 3:16; Ro 5:8). The word which every believer has heard, whether he’s familiar with the commandments of the Old Testament or not, is none other than the story of God expressing his everlasting love through the atoning sacrifice of his Son (1Jn 2:7; Jer 31:3).
If you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you … have life in his name, the commandment to love your brother is an old one (Jn 20:31; 1Jn 2:7). You already know to love even your enemies because you are a child of your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:44-45). Not only have you heard about his love and personally experienced it, but his love has also been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Ro 5:5). Every genuine Christian knows the love of God.
At the same time, this old commandment is also new for us (1Jn 2:8; 7). John isn’t contradicting himself, of course. He does not say it’s new in the timeline of history, that is, kairos. It is new according to our understanding. It is kainos, that is, new in character. We now have a complete picture of what it means to love others because we have seen the true light, which gives light to everyone (Jn 1:9). We know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and are, therefore, filled with the fullness of God as never before (Eph 3:19). Through Jesus, we have witnessed perfect love (1Jn 4:18).
The newness of the commandment to love others is evident in him, our Lord and Savior (1Jn 2:8). Despite being enemies … to God, Christ emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Ro 5:10; Php 2:7). And being found in human form, he humbled himself even further by becoming obedient to the point of death for our sake, a people who despised and rejected God (Php 2:8). His love proved overwhelmingly selfless, unmatched by anyone who has ever lived.
In the gospel, the old becomes new. Jesus fulfills the ancient Law, not to mention the words of the Prophets (Mt 5:17). He demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control with absolute perfection (Gal 5:22-23). People may have possessed God’s law thousands of years before Christ was born, but no one could understand it with the degree of clarity provided by the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). Only after seeing his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth, could we truly comprehend what the Old Testament said about love so long ago.
For the record, this same love is now in every believer. “It is in him and in you,” John writes, “because the darkness of Satan’s reign on earth is passing away and the true light of Christ is already shining” (1Jn 2:8). The evil desires of the world are dying as the world itself draws its final breaths (1Jn 2:17). The light shines in the current darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (Jn 1:5). It shone first from Jesus and now from his disciples—”the light of the world,” he calls them (Mt 5:14)—to whom he implores, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
Paul tells God’s chosen ones to put on … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12). “Above all these,” he says, “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). As God’s holy and beloved children, we are to wrap ourselves in garments of peace, the kind of peace Christ wore from birth through his death on a cross. After all, God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Ro 8:29).
While Jesus was still on the earth, the world was struggling to grasp who he is and what he was doing. Those who met him knew the connection he consistently made between himself and salvation. “Teacher,” one lawyer asked him, “what shall I shall do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25).
“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Christ asked (Lk 10:26).
The lawyer was wise enough to answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). No one had to tell him which is the great commandment in the Law or help him see the association between loving God and loving people (Mt 22:36). Evidently, he already knew.
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this, and you will live” (Lk 10:28). I don’t believe he was suggesting the man could love his way into heaven, but a person in route for heaven will exhibit certain characteristics. Above all else, he’ll be known by his love since that is what binds everything together (Col 3:14). All the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled when we love the Lord and love our neighbor (Mt 22:40; 37; 39).
The lawyer wasn’t satisfied by Christ’s answer. Though he knew the law of God quite well it would seem, he did what we’re all prone to do. We search for exceptions to the rules. More than a few times, I’ve preached a sermon only to have congregants approach me later, hoping I will draw a clear line between right and wrong so they know just how far they can step before sinning. If, say, I’ve preached on the dangers of alcohol, someone will ask, “How many drinks are too many?”
As for the lawyer, he asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). How many drinks are too many? Is speeding on the highway a sin? Must I continue to forgive someone if he’s wronged me multiple times? These kind of questions represent little more than a desire to justify ourselves when we should be asking, “What would Jesus do?” Better yet, at least in terms of our relationships with other people, we should ask, “What has Jesus done for us?”
Christ proceeded to tell the lawyer a controversial parable to illustrate just how far we should extend our love for others. When a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead, a priest and a Levite both go out of their way to avoid him, passing by on the other side of the road (Lk 10:30-32). But a Samaritan, a person whom the Jews historically despised and thought of as a worthless human being, came to the injured man and had compassion on him (Lk 10:33).
“He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'” (Luke 10:34-35)
The good-for-nothing Samaritan sacrificed his supplies, time, effort, and money to care for a stranger, presumably a Jew, in need. “Which of these three, the priest, Levite, or Samaritan,” Jesus asked the lawyer, “proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Lk 10:36).
The answer was obvious. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer said (Lk 10:37).
I imagine John standing nearby, listening to the conversation intently. There was no mistaking the direct connection between eternal life and our willingness to love. If the apostle didn’t get the message then, he certainly got it later as he spent his final night with Christ before the Lord’s arrest and crucifixion.
The evening had been troubling to say the least. What should have been a pleasant celebration of the Passover became a dispute among the disciples over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest (Lk 22:24). Even after Jesus humbled them by washing their feet, the blows kept coming (Jn 13:5). Namely, Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me” (Jn13:21). The apostles turned very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” (Mt 26:22).
With a dark cloud already hovering over the group, Jesus delivered yet more disturbing news. He said, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, but where I am going you cannot come” (Jn 13:33). Their Shepherd was leaving them. What are we going to do now? they must have thought.
Though Christ would tell them about the Spirit’s arrival and ability to guide as well as comfort them in his absence, his first inclination was to teach them about love:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Like John, Jesus refers to this commandment as kainos, an old rule made fresh, pointing his disciples to himself. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also are to love one another” (Jn 13:34). They had never witnessed love to the fullness they would see the very next day as their Savior voluntarily submitted himself to the wrath of man and, more importantly, God. Old Testament commandments and New Testament parables about love are one thing. To see perfect love with your own eyes is another (1Jn 4:18).
How can a Christian possibly avoid the call to love others? We are saved by love. God is love (1Jn 4:8). The gospel is the story of the greatest love ever known. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Ro 5:5). Furthermore, only if we have love for one another, will people know that we are Christ’s disciples (Jn 13:35). As his followers, we must follow his example of selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love, which he gave, by the way, while we were still his enemies (Ro 5:8).
Without Jesus in the flesh leading his church, he knew how necessary love would become, and John didn’t miss the point. While God gives his redeemed people new hearts, causing them to walk in his statutes and … obey his rules, love encompasses all of his commandments (Eze 36:27). Our love, especially our love for the family of God, distinguishes us from everyone else in the world. It is the most telling mark of a sincere believer. And without it, the church fractures and falls apart. Love, more than even theological beliefs, is the glue holding us together.
So whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (1Jn 2:9). He walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1Jn 2:11). Whatever claim he makes to the contrary, he doesn’t know Christ as the true light if his general course of behavior is characterized by hatred for the church (Jn 1:9). He’s nothing more than a blind man groping around in the dark.
On the other hand, whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling (1Jn 2:10). As John Calvin wrote:
The love of God teaches us to love men, and we also in reality prove our love to God by loving men at his command. However this may be, it remains always certain that love is the rule of life.
Of all the fruit a Christian will bear, love is the greatest. God pours through his people what began in him. In turn, we become increasingly like Christ, which is the purpose of salvation after all. Read Romans 8:29 again. Meanwhile, we are keeping every other godly commandment because to love is to fulfill the law. There will be no cause for stumbling since love lights our path to righteousness (1Jn 2:10). Learn to love God and you’ll inevitably keep the first half of the Decalogue. Learn to love people and you’ll keep the rest.
Ultimately, this old but new commandment provides the most concise practical test for believers (1Jn 2:7-8). If you want to know whether you abide in the light of God, who is light, or have fellowship with him, examine your heart, not to mention your actions for the presence of love (1Jn 2:10; 1:5-6). It should be evident.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to:
Draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day of Christ’s second coming drawing near. (Hebrews 10:22-25)
Even as an introvert, I’ll never understand the professing Christian who wants nothing to do with the church. He’s a walking contradiction. As he sits at home alone praying, reading the Bible, and perhaps listening to sermons online, he claims he doesn’t need organized religion, yet he hopes to join the multitude of God’s people in heaven one day. He wants to spend an eternity worshiping with the very people he avoids during his brief life on earth.
I’ll leave you to make sense of that.
I’ve known many others who intentionally join a massive church for pretty much the same reason. They aren’t foolish enough to deny our need to draw near and meet together, but a large crowd allows them to slip in and out undetected (Heb 10:22; 25). There’s little accountability, and no one will probably notice they are doing nothing to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24). Maybe we can’t call that hate for our brothers and sisters in Christ, but I wouldn’t consider it love either.
Keep in mind, indifference can be more dangerous than blatant evil. As Jesus told the church in Laodicea, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm … I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:14-16).
When Jesus’s biological mother and … brothers once came looking for him, he was surrounded by a crowd of his disciples (Mk 3:31-32). A messenger managed to get close enough to say to him, “Your mother and brothers are outside, seeking you.”
Casually glancing around at the people, Christ responded, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:34-35).
I have no doubt John was among them. In his effort to offer believers an assurance of salvation, he learned firsthand from Jesus that a born-again Christian will pass three basic tests.
First, he will believe we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1Jn 2:1). Later in this epistle, John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1Jn 5:1). The first test is theological.
Second, as a general rule, he will keep God’s commandments (1Jn 2:3). Whoever says “I know Christ” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn 2:4). The second test is moral and practical.
Third, he will love his brother (1Jn 2:10). Not only does he think of himself as a member of God’s family, whom Jesus says will do the will of God, but he’ll also love his fellow brothers and sisters (Mk 3:35). He’ll desire not only Christ, but also his family in Christ. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light. The third test is also moral and practical. Or maybe we could describe it as relational.
In short, your hope of reaching heaven one day will be weak at best if you don’t love God, his word, and his people. If, on the other hand, you want your joy to be complete and to confidently know that you have eternal life, you will join your spiritual, eternal family in worshiping and serving God (1Jn 1:4; 5:13). You will live with them in intimate fellowship (1Jn 1:3). You will join them as you do the work of ministry together, building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12-13).