The Heart of the Law

According to rabbinical Judaism, there are 613 mitzvoh, or commandments, in the Torah, the five books of Moses. The commandments are divided into two categories: 365 negative and 248 positive. With so many dos and don’ts, it’s virtually impossible to know them all, and completely impossible to obey them all.

Thankfully, the New Testament gives us the key that enables us to understand God’s law in a manageable way and to obey it in a realistic way. When asked “which is the great commandment in the Law,” Jesus replied,

 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. 22:37-40).

Our first responsibility, then, is to love God. If you’re not sure exactly what that looks like, then consider that our love for God is expressed and demonstrated by loving others. And that, my friends, is spelled out very clearly throughout the New Testament.

Let’s begin with the book of James, which is a very practical guide about how to live out our faith. In our Bible study of James*, the memory verse for chapter 2 is verse 8:

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

This verse is central to chapter 2, and indeed to the entire book of James. Fulfilling the royal law means loving your neighbor. James is quoting from the Old Testament, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17). Micah echoes the simplicity of this command:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

Walking with God means exercising justice, kindness, and humility.

On many occasions and in many ways, Jesus reiterates the principle of loving one another as the foundation of following Him. In the Sermon on the Mount, He extends the law of loving our neighbor to loving even our enemies:

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…. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).

Loving people who love you back is no big deal—even pagans do that much. What really sets us apart as children of our heavenly Father is loving our enemies. Why? Because God loves His enemies, so when we do the same, we are becoming like Him:

 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same…. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:27-37).

The Golden Rule is in the Luke 6 passage above and also in Matthew 7:12, where Jesus emphasizes that following it is the way to fulfill the Law:

 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

As Jesus’ ministry was drawing to a close, He wanted to be sure His disciples understood the paramount importance of loving one another as a reflection and demonstration of His 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” (Jn. 13:34).

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).

I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:26).

The epistle writers have loads of instructions about how to love one another. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul gives some 30 ways to show genuine love:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves…. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In Romans 13 Paul emphasizes that love is the fulfillment of the law:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).

The whole of chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is a description of love, the quality that is greater even than faith or hope. And the prison epistles keep reiterating that love is the fulfillment of the law and a reflection of the character of God in Jesus Christ:

Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall loveyour neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14).

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:32).

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph. 5:1-2).

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:9-11).

You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator…. Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3:9-14).

If you need more specifics about how to love your neighbor, consider the rest of the “one another” passages in the epistles. Here are some more of the dozens of verses that tell us how to treat one another:

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you (Rom. 15:7).
Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Be patient, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21)
In humility consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3)
Encourage one another (1 Th. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13, 10:25).
Build one another up (I Th. 5:11)
Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (1 Th. 5:15)
Spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
Pray for one another (Js. 5:16).
Live in harmony with one another (I Pet. 3:8)
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (I Pet. 4:9).
Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another (I Pet. 5:5)

In chapter 3 of his first epistle, John says that the one who does not love his brother is not a child of God (v. 10). Chapter 4 is all about love; in verses 7-21 alone, the word love appears 27 times:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love…. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:7-8, 11, 21).

Looking at all these verses might seem as overwhelming as the 613 commands in the Torah. But when you boil it all down to love, it becomes simple. Not easy to do—obedience can be really hard—and not always easy to figure out, but at least we have one key principle through which to evaluate all our actions. So try putting your decisions to the love test: Are they reflections of the love of Jesus? The more our new self is renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator, the more our actions will pass the test and the more these actions will become part of our character.

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*Engaging God’s Word: James, Community Bible Study, 2014, p. 25.

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