Jesus linked the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” to one of the foundational statements of the Old Testament (cf. Matt. 22:37–40; Mark 12:28–31). Found in Deuteronomy 6:4–5, this call to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” became the central confessional statement of Judaism. Such a command was a common feature of treaty language in the ancient Near East. In the context of Deuteronomy it was a call to respond to God’s covenant faithfulness with love and obedience.
Viewed through this lens, the love that Jesus commands of His disciples is answering love. It is the reply of the heart to the experience of God’s grace. Love is listed among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. It is also described as something that is mediated to the believer by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The relationship between these two aspects of our Christian experience creates a kind of “call and response,” in which God’s love prompts us to love Him in return and to love those whom God loves. God’s love is both the source and the motive for the love we show to our neighbor. We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). But we also love others because God loves them. Love for God and hatred of one’s neighbor are incompatible. Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).
The obligation to love God with our entire being, and the companion obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves, define the ethical boundaries of the Christian life. Every decision we make should be shaped by these complementary responsibilities. How do my actions reflect love for God as He defines love? How do they demonstrate God’s love for my neighbor?
Biblical love, then, is not mere sentimentality. It is more than a choice. Ultimately, it must be a work of grace. “One cannot ‘love’ someone simply at command or forgive him or have respect for the life and property of another (to name only a few of the things that are mentioned in the commandments) simply because one is commanded to do so,” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “I can do all this only if I stand in the discipleship of this Lord and see the world, my country, my neighbor through his eyes.” Answering love is much more a way of seeing than it is a way of feeling.
FOR FURTHER READING
To learn practical ways you can fulfill Christ’s command to love God and love others read The Great Commandment Principle by David Ferguson (Tyndale).