In Matthew’s gospel, we read that one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, confronted Jesus with a question in order to put Jesus to the test. He asked: “ ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he 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. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets’ ” (Matt. 22:36–40). Jesus’ response is one of the most foundational teachings in all of sacred Scripture, as it summarizes for us the entirety of the law of God and what our duty is toward God and man. Jesus’ response is astonishingly simple and profoundly comprehensive in all it entails. Upon hearing Jesus’ teaching about loving the Lord with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves, we are left feeling like complete failures, for none of us loves the Lord or our neighbor as we should. Yet our ultimate hope is not in our own love but in the love of God for us and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit in us. It is only when we are empowered by God’s love that we are able to begin to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves (1 John 4:7–8).
If we truly love God, we will love our neighbor.
Although we often hear about loving God, we don’t as often hear about loving our neighbor. And while we can certainly distinguish between these commandments, we cannot ultimately separate them, for we cannot claim to love God while at the same time hating our neighbor. If we truly love God, we will love our neighbor. What’s more, those who attempt to narrowly restrict the identity of who our neighbor is must remember that Jesus also said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called not only to love our neighbor but to love our enemies, and sometimes they are one and the same. Just as our love for one another demonstrates that we are disciples of Christ (John 13:35), our love for our enemies demonstrates that we are sons of our Father. If we belong to the Lord, we will love the Lord, because He first loved us—enabling us to love Him and our neighbor to such a degree that we would pray for and speak the truth in love to our neighbor. We love our neighbor in the hope that he might know the truth of God and, by His grace, turn to the Lord in faith, believing the gospel as the Spirit enables him to love the Lord and his neighbor, even sinful, albeit justified, neighbors like us.
Dr. Burk Parsons is editor of Tabletalk magazine and serves as senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla. He is editor of Assured by God: Living in the Fullness of God’s Grace. He is on Twitter at @BurkParsons.