"God's Law of Love"
Romans 13:8 - 10
(Delivered Sunday, September 17, 2000 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
Did you hear about the lawyer who questioned Jesus as an expert witness? Now; I know what you're thinking. You think I'm telling a joke; ... but I'm not. It really happened!
You see, the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day were jealous of the favor that He had with the people; and they were trying to get Him into a situation that would cause Him to fall out of favor with them. The way they sought to do this was by trapping Him into controversial debates. They were asking Him questions about divisive issues, and trying to force Him to "pick sides" between opposing groups. But, of course, it never worked. For example, they asked Him whether or not it was right for the Jewish people to pay taxes to Caesar. If He said that it was right, He'd alienate the Jews; but if He said that it wasn't right, He'd speak against the Roman government. His answer was brilliant. He held up a coin with Caesar's inscription on it and saying that they should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's (Matt. 22:15-22).
That attempt failing, they then tried to trap Him into questions about the resurrection. They were trying to put Him at odds with either the Sadducees (who denied the resurrection) or the Pharisees (who affirmed it). He answered by pointing to the teaching in the Scriptures, where the doctrine of the resurrection was unmistakably affirmed (vv. 23-33); and thus silencing both groups.
All their efforts to trap Him failed; and all that they ended up doing was to cause the people to marvel even more at His teaching and wisdom.
At that point, a lawyer arose. Lawyers in those days were not what we tend to think of today -- legal professionals with business suits and briefcases. A "lawyer" was a scholar who served the Jewish community by studying, interpreting and applying the Law of God in the Scriptures to daily Jewish life. This particular lawyer was seeking to test Jesus too. He waited for the right moment, caught Jesus' attention, and asked, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" (Matthew 22:36).
This was a subject of controversy among the scholars of that day; and I don't doubt that many of these experts in the Law debated the question between themselves often -- nor would I doubt that their disagreement became rather heated at times. After thinking about it, I'm sure you too would agree that it's a very good question: Which of the commandments and ordinances of God is the most important? Which is the primary commandment? Which of them is the one commandment that would summarize them all, and bring them all together under one common principle? Which is the one commandment that would express the sort of behavior God requires of us?
As always, Jesus' answer was profound. The commandment that He said was the chief one was the one found in Deuteronomy 6:5. "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind'" This is the first and great commandment" (Matthew 22:37-38).
Jesus answered the lawyer's question skillfully and irrefutably. But then, He did something unexpected. The lawyer only asked for the "great commandment"; but Jesus went further on, past that question, to say, "And the second is like it". He quoted another Old Testament command, this time from Leviticus 19:18: "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (vv. 39-40).
Jesus did several things with this amazing answer. (1) He affirmed which commandment, out of all the commandments of God, was the "great commandment", (2) He went past the lawyer's question to affirm which of the commandments was the "second great commandment", (3) He bound these two great commandments together under a common principle by saying that the second was "like" the first, and (4) He affirmed that these two commandments -- and the principle that bound them together -- serves as the summarization of the whole principle of ethics in the Old Testament scriptures -- which He called "the Law and the Prophets".
And what was that common principle that bounds them both together, and that thus served as the unifying principle of biblical ethics? It's the principle of "love" -- love first for God, measured by the standard of one's whole being; and love second for other people, measured by the standard of the love one has for one's own self.
* * * * * * * * * *
Think about God's Ten Commandments for a moment. Scholars divide the Ten Commandments into two categories -- often called "the two tables of the Law". The first four commandments govern our relationship with God Himself, and teach that we're to (1) worship no other god than the one true God, (2) never create and idol or image and worship it in God's place, (3) treat His name with respect and not use it vainly, and (4) remember the special day He set aside for us to rest and worship Him. Jesus, in His confrontation with this lawyer, said that all these commandments are summed up in the single principle: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. If you act toward God out of love for Him with all you are and have, you wont break any of those commandments in your conduct toward Him. Or, put another way, if you keep all those commandments faithfully, you will be loving God with all your heart, soul and mind.
But think also of those remaining six commandments. They govern our relationship with other people, and teach that we're (5) to honor our fathers and mothers, (6) to hold precious the life of another person and not murder them, (7) to respect the principle of marriage, and not have sexual relations with someone we're not married to, (8) to respect the property of others and not take what belongs to them, (9) to value the truth and not to lie about other people, and (10) to be content with what God has given us and to not even want what belongs to someone else. Jesus is saying that all these remaining commandments are, likewise, summed up in the second greatest single principle: Love your neighbor as yourself. If I truly love my father and mother, I will honor them and never speak against them or fail to show the utmost care, affection and respect for them. If I truly love another person -- even an enemy -- I'll neither seek to end his life or hurt him in any way. If I truly love another person, I'll never seek to use them sexually to gratify my own lusts, nor will I ever seek to violate the sanctity of my marital vows or those of others. If I truly love someone, I'll never take what belongs to them or show disrespect for their property. If I truly love someone, I'll never deceive them or try to cause others to believe what is untrue about them. If I truly love someone, I'll not even want what belongs to them. I'll be happy that they have what they have; and not wish that I had it instead.
Can you see in all this how "love" is the common thread that runs through God's commandments to us? -- first, a love for God with our whole being, and then a love for others as intense and unqualified as the love we have for our own selves?
This brings us to Paul's instruction in Romans 13:8-10; where he tells his readers:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled  the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall notcommit murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall notcovet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely,"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; thereforelove is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).
* * * * * * * * * *
There are certain passages that, at first, seem to need very little in the way of explanation. On the surface, this would appear to be one of them. Hardly anyone, I suspect, would disagree with the idea that the great principle of Christian behavior is love.
But its precisely because Paul's words seem so obvious, and so universally acceptable, that a particular word of caution is in order. Many people would be quick to say, "I agree with Paul: Love for my neighbor is the commandment that fulfills the law." But many would make the mistake of elevating that commandment to the point of making it the 'great commandment'. But the fact is that this commandment isn't the 'great commandment'. It's the second greatest. Deceitful and harmful philosophies are developed through the error of making the 'second great' commandment into the 'first'.
The fact is that Jesus Himself said that to love one's neighbor as one's self not the first great commandment. It takes the "back seat" position to another commandment. And if we try to keep the second great commandment (to love our neighbor as ourself) without obeying the first great commandment (to love God with all our heart, soul and mind), we will not be fulfilling the requirements of God's law. In fact, some people try to keep the second commandment with an attitude of rebellion toward the first. Such people say in their hearts, "I'll love others. I'll even love them selflessly. But I will not give all I am and have to God. I'll keep my own heart, soul and mind to myself, thank you." That sort of adherence to the second great commandment is not obedience to the commandment of God at all; nor is it real love -- in spite of what such people think.
Perhaps you remember that awful passage -- certainly one that's on my list of some of the most frightening passages in the Bible -- in which Jesus Himself says,
Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' (Matthew 7:21-22).
Certainly, the actions of the people in Jesus' parable were -- to their own minds, at least -- acts of love. But in the end, Jesus' verdict was that they weren't acts of love at all. Quite the opposite, they were acts of lawlessness.
Can you see from this that to concentrate solely on doing good works of "love" toward others is not enough? Each one of us must begin with a love toward God that is fervent -- with all our heart, soul and mind. That love for God must be all-encompassing, and it must be primary -- even before love for others. And this is only possible for us, first, by agreeing with God's verdict that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness of our sinful rebellion against Him; second, by accepting the payment He Himself has made for our sins through the death of Jesus on the Cross; and third, by inviting Him to take complete lordship over every aspect of our life.
God's love is "tough love". He is too holy to accept "good deeds" that flow from a heart that is sinful, prideful and rebellious toward Him. It's this total, humble, all-consuming love for Him that must come before a love for others. Otherwise, in God's eyes, it's not really love.
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul's words cannot be appreciated or rightly understood in isolation from the first great commandment. But having established that the first commandment to which we owe our obedience is that of loving God with all our heart, soul and mind, we're now ready to look Romans 13:8-10. There, we find Paul's instruction that we fulfill the requirements of God's commandments through showing active love toward others.
Notice that ...
1. WE'RE COMMANDED TO LOVE OTHERS (v. 8a).
Paul says: "Owe no one anything except to love one another ..."
Many people have taught from this verse that we, as Christians, are never to take out a loan or a mortgage. We are never, such people say, to be in a position of "owing" something to someone else.
I certainly agree with the idea that we're to enter into indebtedness with great caution. We're not to leave debts outstanding, nor are we to borrow money without the full intention of paying it back in a timely manner, and in the way that we've agreed. (I knew an advertising salesman in Seattle -- a professing Christian -- that left a lot of unpaid debts in his wake. When he was finally confronted by some of his creditors, he arrogantly told them, "Hey ... God has forgiven me; and so should you." Well; as you might expect, his creditors of course didn't 'forgive' him -- and I had real doubts that God had forgiven Him either. This is the sort of "debt" that is always wrong and always to be repented of.)
But I believe it would be taking this verse out of its context if we were to make it into a prohibition against taking out loans altogether. I don't believe that's what Paul is talking about at all. Look at what Paul said prior to this verse. He had just gotten through giving a detailed explanation of how we, as Christians, are obliged to be subject to our government. He says, in verse 7, "Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor." And so, Paul's meaning in verse 8 is that we're not to fail to render what is due to anyone we're obligated to. It may be money. It may be respect. It may be obedience. It may be service. But whatever it is, we're to be sure that we keep our moral, ethical and material obligations paid up.
Another way to say this is that we're to "keep in the black" in all our dealings and relationships with other people. All -- with one exception, of course. We're never to consider that we've fulfilled our obligation to love our neighbor. That is something that the older theologians called a debitum immortale -- "and unending debt." It's the kind of debt in which the more of it you pay off, the more of it you realize that you owe.
Perhaps this sounds a little corny; but our attitude is to continually be somewhat like that represented on the familiar bumper-sticker: "I owe; I owe; so off to love I go ..."
* * * * * * * * * *
So far, many people would agree -- even if in only a 'pious' sort of way -- with Paul's instruction to owe the ongoing debt of 'love' to others. But someone might respond by asking, "Describe the sort of love you're talking about. Just what does it mean to act in love toward someone else? What is this 'love' supposed to look like?" Until we define what 'love' means, we'd never know what it is we're supposed to 'owe' to others. And so, secondly, we see that ...
2. LOVE IS DEFINED AS KEEPING GOD'S COMMANDMENTS (v. 8b-9).
Several years ago, a professor of social ethics named Joseph Fletcher developed a system of ethics that, according to him, was based on the principle of love. You might have heard of his famous book. It was titled Situational Ethics: The New Morality; and it had a tremendous effect on people during the closing half of the last century. It advocated a system of ethics that many people -- including many professing Christians -- embraced as their own. And yet, in the end, it advocated a system of ethics that was harmful to people's souls and utterly contrary to God's expressed will.
Fletcher, who was a professor of Social Ethics in an Episcopal seminary, taught that when it came to making ethical decisions, "the ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else". That final clause, "nothing else", is what made Fletcher's "ruling norm" so dangerous. He taught that the principle of love "replaces" the principle of God's commandments for the Christian. In other words, he made "love" and "God's commandments" into two mutually exclusive principles -- with "love" being given the position of superiority.
Furthermore, he taught that if our objective is to show love to someone, then "the end justifies the means." In other words, The Ten Commandments may be set aside if they conflict with the greater objective of showing love. Fletcher actually believed that, in certain cases, murder, adultery, lying, stealing ... literally any act could, in the end, be justifiable if it was done in love. How you defined "love" all depended on the situation (and hence the name, "situational ethics").
What Fletcher did, then, was sever "love" from the defining principles of God's commandments. And then, once he "replaced" God's commandments with "love", he was left without any sure way to say what love would "look like" in the different situations people found themselves. To merely say that "it all depended on the situation" left the question unanswered. The pursuit of "love" becomes as uncertain and as relative as if a man had carved a compass on the prow of his row-boat and rowed "north" with all his might. It wouldn't matter how hard "north" the man rowed if "north" was never objectively defined; and it wouldn't matter how "loving" we felt if love was never objectively defined either.
God doesn't leave us to drift on the waves of relativism, however. He objectively defines "love" for us as the keeping of His own commandments toward others. He says, in Romans 13:8-9 that we're to owe nothing to anyone except to love one another ...
For the commandments, "you shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus Himself defined love in this way. He told His disciples, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15); and later, He told them, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10). The apostle John says, in 1 John 5:2-3, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome."
And so, no matter what else anyone says about "love"; the moment we cease to keep God's commandments toward one another, we've ceased to "love" one another. Love is objectively defined as the keeping of God's commandments toward others.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes, selfish motives are disguised as "love" -- and I suspect this is really what's behind the whole "situational" definition of "love". Once someone has rejected the biblical definition of love as the keeping of our Creator's commandments toward one another, we can literally "redefine" love to mean anything we want it to mean. We can have sexual relations with someone outside of marriage; and we can easily justify it by saying, "We felt so in love with each other" (instead of being honest and simply saying, "We felt so in lust for each other's bodies"), We can put an unwanted child to death through abortion; or terminate the life of an elderly or sick family member; and we can easily justify it by saying, "It was the loving thing to do" (instead of, "It was the easiest thing to do"). We can lie to one another, or covet what belongs to others, or sever ourselves from our family responsibilities or legal obligations, or break any of God's commandments toward one another -- causing unspeakable harm to other people -- and we can easily justify it by saying, "I did it out of love" (instead of, "I did it out of selfish motives").
Once we separate the idea of "love" from the objective plumb line of "keeping God's commandments toward one another," we can literally call anything we want to do "love toward others". But in the end, all that it really works out to be is "love for self". We just end up twisting Jesus' words around; and we make the great commandment to be "Love yourself, as though you were loving your neighbor."
* * * * * * * * * *
The command of God is that we love our neighbor "as ourselves." That sort of standard objectifies the definition of love, doesn't it? Wouldn't you want others to keep God's commandments toward you? Wouldn't you expect your spouse to be faithful to you, and honor his or her marriage vows to you -- from the heart as well as in actions? Wouldn't you expect others to preserve and protect your life, and respect your right to live and feel safe? Wouldn't you expect others to honor the truth when it comes to you, and not to spread lies and false information about you? Wouldn't you expect others to be content with what they possessed and not drool over your possessions?
Someone once said that love toward others is best defined by how I want others to treat me. And how we would want others to treat us is best described by God's commandments. Jesus Himself said, "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12).
God made people and wisely designed their capacity to have and enjoy relationships with each other. Who better, then, to define what "love" between people means than the Manufacturer? He knows what's best for us. His commandments aren't given to us to ruin our pleasures; rather, they're given to protect us and preserve us for the greatest pleasures possible. His commandments are for our good; and so, the most loving thing we can do toward each other, is to keep God's commandments for each other's good.
* * * * * * * * * *
And so, we see that we're commanded to love others; and we see that what it means to show love to others is defined by God's commandments. And now, finally, look what when we love each other through the keeping God's commandments toward one another ...
3. WE FULFILL THE REQUIREMENTS OF GOD'S COMMANDMENTS THROUGH ACTIVE LOVE (v. 10).
Paul says, in verse 10, "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." God's last six commandments keep us from harming one another; and so, when we love one another in the way He defines -- that is, through keeping the law toward one another -- we do each other no harm.
In another famous passage, when Paul described someone who truly loves, he described someone who is truly harmless toward others. He said,
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
That passage is not only a beautiful description of the way genuine love does no harm to others; it's also a beautiful description of the way love is the keeping of God's commands toward others as well.
There's a story told about the Apostle John. When he was very old -- so old and feeble, in fact, that he could no longer walk -- he was carried before the assembled believers in church, spread out his hands, and repeated again and again this simple admonition: "Love one another -- Love one another -- Love one another." When asked why he kept repeating that same word of exhortation over and over, he said, "Because there is nothing else: attain that, and you have enough."
May God help us to keep on paying the ongoing debt of love we owe toward each other -- and to those outside the community of faith. And may God keep us from making up a definition of love that suits our own selfish interests. Rather, may He help us to "love" each other through the keeping of His commandments toward one another.
Missed a message? Check the Archives!
Copyright © 2003 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights ReservedPrintable Version
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436