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You shall love

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

By Joe Stringer

Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like unto it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

Love: all encompassing, all consuming. We thirst and hunger for it, every one of us. Love demands its toll, making us whole or tearing us apart. How do we live without it? We do not. We try to deny its power. We cannot. Something or someone will command our mind and heart and strength, even if it is merely our deepest self — staring into the mirror. In some way, every one of us loves.

If love is universal, why do we need these commandments from Jesus? We need them to help us focus upon how to love, for just like every other aspect of our being, we have polluted our love with our own self-focused satisfactions and desires. What Jesus defines for us in those four sentences is the essence and the heart of real love.

“You shall love …” So Jesus replied to the Pharisee and so he speaks to us. Before we can hear the truth of his words, we must first ask, “What does Jesus mean by ‘love’?” Jesus’ love reflects the deep relationship He has with the Father. Every prayer, action and purpose rely upon the Father’s will for Him. The Father’s love seeks only the best for His creatures and for His Son; so also for Jesus, love is seeking the good of others. This love is not a feeling, nor does it simply give in to the desires of the other person. It seeks what is objectively good, what is the fulfillment of His will for us. “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

“You shall love …” In four sentences, Jesus provides the most radical and greatest statement on law and ethics we shall ever hear. Within them, we perceive our proper relationship to God, the meaning and purpose of law, and the ethical standards of how we are to treat others. All law and ethics are compressed, solidified and clarified in just three words: “You shall love.”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Why? Why do we need God to love our neighbor? Can an unbeliever not love others? Why is loving God of such importance?

The command to love God places our focus and our purpose above ourselves. It creates an obligation to a truth that lies outside our own minds. This is true even with gods other than Jehovah, whether mythical Greek or Norse gods, the many gods of Hinduism or the god of the Muslim faith. We look outward to discern the reasons for our existence and the basis for our obligations to others.

It is only the God of the Bible who calls us into a relationship of love, for God is Love. He came down to become a man, to die on a cross for our sins and, in rising, bring us into communion with Him. Our love for others begins with a recognition that the standard of good is found in the God who first loved us.

“The second is like unto it.” This sentence points to the relationship between the two commandments. One cannot exist without the other. If we are to love the Lord, we must also love our neighbor. Time and again the apostles said so in their letters to the churches. John states it bluntly: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as importantly, we cannot properly love our neighbor without loving God. Our Christian understanding of love is a reflection of God’s love for us. Jesus tells us: “Love your enemy” and “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” “For even the son of man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” This final sentence tells us that these two commandments are the foundation of all law and ethics: They hold the essential purpose of law — not only the Hebrew law but every law. The Ten Commandments are simply a guide to how we carry out the greatest commandments. The 613 laws of the Israelites delve into even greater detail. But these laws of Israel are not the only ones that reflect the command of Jesus, “You shall love.” If we consider the implications of law, we will realize that every single law is about love in some manner: either love of God and neighbor — or love of race, country, culture or self. For example, under the laws of slavery, the owner of slaves loves himself and the opinion of others above the reality of his slaves’ humanity.

“… and the prophets …” Do the prophets not call Israel (and us) to return to walk in the law? They remind us of our failings in dealing with God and with others. Their domain is ethics, calling us to live not just to the letter but to the spirit of the law. The perfect practice of ethics and the fulfillment of all law are tied up within these two commandments.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If we take the example of Jesus’ words alone, they speak to our hearts about a deeper love than we could imagine. However, we have an even greater witness to the nature of God’s love: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection form a testament to how our God loves and calls us to love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believe in him may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is how we are to love one another, in actions to build up our neighbor in sacrificial love as we love ourselves. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

“You shall love.” What greater command could we conceive? Our human view of law relies on the constricting limits of what we must not do, how we must not harm our neighbor. Our ethics create complicated systems that remind us of our obligations to our neighbor. Jesus lifts us into an entirely new understanding that demonstrates how we are to love God, and that reveals our joy in discovering the wonder of our neighbor. May we love as He loves us.

Joseph Stringer writes and speaks on Christian issues in culture in the hope that we may realize transformation in our lives. He prays that all who hear him or read his works might see through them to the One who has chosen us for life. You may reach him at

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