Love thy neighbour
Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-46
What’s the law all about? A supposed expert in the law asked Jesus that very question. Jesus boiled it all down to ‘love’. He quoted from two places in the Old Testament:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it,“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Leviticus 19:18) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
Here are six observations.
1. Jesus homes in on a part of the Bible we rarely study. For Him the very essence of the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the whole Old Testament), is contained in Leviticus 19! What we often skim over as irrelevant, Jesus highlights. Let’s value every word of Scripture.
2. “Love thy neighbour” shows that we can’t play off law and love against each other. The law is not simply about harsh externals moved by the will. The law describes the life of love. Its very heart is love.
When people say “Let’s not be legalistic, let’s remember to love” they commit a triple-error. Firstly, this entreaty is itself a law! Secondly, the law is already calling us to love. But most crucially of all, such thinking makes us believe we’re avoiding legalism simply by talking about love. In reality, the most legalistic preaching in the world is preaching that simply commands my affections. Being told to work up external acts is bad enough. Being ordered to whip up internal emotions is impossible.
The difference between the law and the good news of Jesus is not that law is about dry duty and Jesus is about heart-felt affections. They are both about love. It’s just that the law only describes the life of love. The good news of Jesus, when trusted, actually produces it.
3. When the law says “Love thy neighbour as thy self” – ‘loving self’ is not the command, it’s the assumption. God knows we love ourselves. We naturally spend vast tracts of time, money and energy on ourselves (even when we claim to be hating ourselves). The LORD says, “Spend that time, money and energy on others.”
This law is not an excuse to spend more time focussing on me. Very often I’ve heard Leviticus 19 as the launching pad for this grievous error: “How can I love my neighbour without first loving myself.” And off they go, taking leave to dive into the deep, dark waters of “Lake Me.” That is the last thing the law is urging me to do.
It’s true that we can’t love others without another love coming first. But that initial love is not self-love, but divine: “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) That is the love that must come first. And then we love others.
As Martin Luther would say, we are to live far above ourselves in God by faith, and far beneath ourselves in our neighbour by love. In this way we are turned outwards from ourselves. The last thing we should do is turn in on ourselves.
“Love thy neighbour” is actually about being self-forgetful. It’s about refusing to shut ourselves off from others. It means extending our self-preserving impulse to those around us so that we treat them as our very selves. I no longer treat you as an outsider because I’ve turned to you entirely. I don’t even love you as you any more, I love you as myself!
4. Jesus was only asked to highlight the greatest commandment in the law (Matthew 22:36). But it He can’t limit Himself to “Love God.” “Love God” must spill over into “Love thy neighbour.” This is because of the nature of God. As we’ll see…
5. Once we see this summary of the law, it’s plain to see how Jesus fulfils the law. Jesus is the One who loves God and loves His neighbour. From all eternity that has been His life. He has always loved His Father and His Neighbour (the Spirit). In fact, each of the three Persons live this other-centred life. They are completely turned out from themselves.
Since Israel is God’s son (Exodus 4:22), it’s no wonder that they are given Christ’s life to live. The Good Life does not consist in random hoops for humanity to jump through. The Good Life is the loving life of the Son of God. It is described in the law, lived out in His flesh, then given to us by the Spirit.
6. Because the law is a description of Christ’s life, let’s be astonished at His love. Leviticus 19 begins with these words:
Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
The holy life of Leviticus 19 is the LORD’s life. The LORD loves us as Himself. He is turned outwards to His beloved to spread His love.
And who could doubt this when we look to Jesus. There He is on the cross, offering Himself utterly to the Father. And there He is, offering Himself utterly to us. At the cross, we have seen the love described in the law. But more than that. We’ve been its recipients.
To experience His love is to be released into His kind of life. When we see Christ’s love we find ourselves loving our neighbour. And such love, as Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
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