Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law.
All About Love
This is SUCH an echo of Jesus’ own words about the greatest commandment in the Law …
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34–40).
See the similarities? Jesus says, all the law and the prophets hang on the commandments to love. Paul says that the commandments … whatever they may be, are summed up in the command, to love.
I had a conversation this week about how preachers often focus in on just one word in a passage and miss the message from the rest of the passage, but since our understanding of this word is crucial to our understanding of not only this passage, but also our understanding of the New Testament and the gospel itself, it is worth doing a word study for at least part of this morning. So, I’ll first talk about love generally, give us an overview of what the New Testament means when it talks about love, and then look at how Paul uses it here.
We’ll start in Galatians 5, and note that love is described as a fruit of the Spirit.But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22,23).
It is important that we note that love is not a spiritual gift, but it IS critical and foundational to the gifts and to how we use them. In Romans 12, the context of Spiritual gifts is love: Romans 12:9–10, Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. We talked about that just a couple of weeks ago. 1 Corinthians 13, the passage that is read out frequently at weddings, which follows the Corinthian list of the spiritual gifts, describes love as the most excellent way. I’ll be reading it later. The context of the gift list in Ephesians 4 is this: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love ( Ephesians 4:1–2). We can’t, we must not neglect the importance of living out our faith in love.
Some foundations …
Using a single word to distinguish one kind of “love” from another is problematic, increasingly so in today’s culture. Our understanding of what we mean when we use the word love comes from both our experience of it, and the context of the words, the sentences we are saying. When people who we are talking to have different understanding and experience, they may not hear what we are intending to say. This can lead to both hurt and misunderstanding. Let’s not forget that words don’t just have definitions, they have uses as well.
There is also a range of understanding the English word love has which makes it vulnerable to people who will use the equivocation to bully people into agreement about things. Equivocation what happens when a particular word has multiple senses or understandings and it is not clear which is intended, either because of ambiguity in communication, or because of deliberate intent. At its most basic level, it can result in misunderstanding, but often the ambiguity in meaning is deliberately leveraged within an argument. The word, ‘Love’ has a really broad range of meaning, I love my family : I Love my wife : Married people ‘make love’ : I hate vegetables, but I love chocolate : I love playing the guitar : I love God – I love all of you! And you know exactly what the differences are in meaning when I say those things. We all know that the word love has a different understanding in the different statements. So, for example, equivocation happens when someone promotes homosexual behaviour and justifies it saying ‘love is love’, or they’ll say ‘you’re being unloving if you disagree with me’. Both of those statements use equivocation by playing on the ambiguity in common usage of the word to accuse people of motivations they just don’t possess., and/or to bully them into agreeing with an ideology which is clearly opposed to biblical values.
Fortunately, God did not leave the word ‘love’ as an ambiguous concept for us to figure out. By observing the Bible verses about love, we learn more about what love is. In the language the NT was written (Greek), there were different words for love, each of which had a different meaning and was used for a different reason ….
The 4 Greek words are: Phileo / Eros / Storge & Agape.
I am tackling Eros first because although the NT was written in Greek, it doesn’t use the word Eros at all. BUT it is important to define it because of the most obvious meaning of the word. Eros is physical love, love of chocolate is eros, because its focus is physical. Eros, however, is most closely associated with sex – so the physical side of making love is eros. However, the word that is translated in our modern translations when talking about sexuality is not Eros. Godly sexual activity is generally described as ‘knowing’ someone. The Bible refers to ungodly sexuality with the Greek word porneia. The OT was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, so a Greek word wouldn’t be found in it anyway. However, it was translated into Greek in the 3rd century by 70 Greek scholars (so it is known as the Septuagint or LXX). This Greek translation of the OT does not use eros either – not even in the Song of Solomon (the most obvious place).
The fundamental characteristic of Eros is that it tends to look to its own satisfaction – it is generally unconcerned with the other, but looks for its own fulfilment. The basic idea of this love is self-satisfaction, even when it is directed towards another, it actually has self in mind. Saying, ‘I love you because you complete me’ is rooted in me, not in you. It is essentially selfish. Furthermore, if we love something or someone simply because of a characteristic in it or them pleases us, when that characteristic disappears, then the reason for the love does too. The result being, ‘I don’t love you any more’. Eros love is therefore fickle, and selfish.
The next three words DO appear in the NT, but with differing frequency.
Phileo means friend, and Friendship love is love that tends towards those who are like us. This love does responds to kindness, appreciation and love and it can and often does return it. It involves giving as well as receiving.
Although phileo looks to our happiness rather than my happiness. It can however, when it is greatly strained, collapse in a crisis.
Phileo is never given as a command to love God, but it is used in warnings about not loving him: If anyone does not love (φιλέω) the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord! (1 Corinthians 16:22). It might seem odd to use the friendship love to describe our relationship with God, until we remember what Jesus says in John 15:14–15 You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. The greek word translated friends? philos (φιλος). We ARE God’s friends, because He calls us His friends, but our Christian love for God and for one another is far more than a friendship love.
Storge is in a similar category to phileo, though rather than friendship love, it is familial love, it expresses the relationship of a mother, or father, to their children. It is complete love, it is one which gives, and one which is born of the intimate relationship we have in family.
This is rare in the Bible, and in the two occasions where it does appear it is also in the negative as ‘heartless’, and ‘without love’.
The most common word in the Bible which translated as love is the Greek word Agape. It is very much heart of the Biblical word for and understanding of love, and it is the love which we understand most easily as the love of God. It is best described in the relationship between the Heavenly Father and his Son.
Jesus used this when he prayed, in John 17:27, we read, I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and I myself may be in them. The Father has Agape for his son. It is also the love that we read being described in the verse: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). God loves the world with the same feelings he has for his own Son! – He loves us as he loves Christ!!
Agape is described so very eloquently by Paul in probably the most well-known passage about love, found in 1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love..
Note true love has both positive (love does this), and negative (love does not do this) attributes. So for example, Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Loving someone fully includes resisting evil for others, and helping them resist it in themselves.
So, back to Paul’s instruction, Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law
The word that is translated love in this passage is the last one I’ve just explained. Agape. It’s not friendship or familial love that Paul is talking about. It certainly isn’t physical love, it is the giving, self-sacrificing love of God that we are called to love one another with. Supremely, it is modelled by our Lord. Jesus.
I’ve already noted this, but it bears saying again. We cannot fail to notice the similarities between what Paul says here and how Jesus describes it as the greatest commandment. The point both Jesus and Paul make is that the bedrock of the law is love. All the commandments (in fact all the laws in the Old Testament) are predicated on love. That is what Jesus means when he says All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments— the commandments He said were the greatest and second greatest of them all (that’s the commandments to love God and to love our neighbour). Jesus then reestablishes and reinforces this in John 13:34,35 and describes a new commandment—to love one another. In Mark 6:27, we are commanded by Jesus to love our enemies. So, the NT calls us to love …
- Our neighbour
- One another
- Our enemies
In fact, John writes that if we do not love, then God is not in us, Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).
Back to Paul’s use of the commandments to illustrate his point. What does love look like? At its core, Paul has already described it, he says that it is seen when we obey the commandments, and Paul very much illustrates the outworking of that love, he says if we love others we have fulfilled the Law …
- You shall not commit adultery (no 6, Exodus 20:13)
- You shall not murder (no7, Exodus 20:14)
- You shall not steal (no 8, Exodus 20:15)
- You shall not covet (no 10, Exodus 20:17)
Paul also does a ‘catch all’ comment at the end by saying, and whatever other command there may be.
Note the extent that love impacts our lives, as evidenced by the connection to the commandments.
- Committing adultery speaks not only to our sexual purity (one man, one woman, one marriage, one lifetime), adultery speaks to our character. Marriage is a covenant promise made where we make a promise and whether we keep that promise is not dependent on our spouse, it is internal to us. We cannot hope to keep that promise if our love for our spouse is not grounded in the agape love of God. Loving others includes respect for and commitment to our own relationships, and also to recognising and honouring the relationships of others.
- Murder sits at the extreme end of our lack of respect for the value of another human being. The reason murder is wrong is down to Genesis 1:27. People are inherently valuable because they are made in the image of God. Our love for them shows our recognition of that value. In fact (as Jesus said in the sermon on the mount), even our thoughts betray our love or lack of it (anyone who gets angry with his brother is guilty of murder).
- Stealing show that we do not love people enough to respect their property. We do not steal from people we love. It’s as simple as that. Interestingly, Jesus gives us a course of action to follow when someone steals from us. We are called to love those who hate us, are we not? What does he say they’re outworking of that love looks like when someone doesn’t love us enough to respect our property? The response to someone not respecting our property is not revenge, it’s generosity. It’s not biblical, but one of the main thread running through the story Les Misérables (by Victor Hugo), is the thief, who steals from a bishop. When he’s caught, taken back to the bishop, the bishop’s response is NOT to press for justice. He actually pretends that he has given the silverware to Valjean and presses him to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them. This act of kindness transforms Valjean. Our love for people is shown in how we see them as superior in value to stuff.
- Finally, Paul talks about coveting. Coveting is an attitude, it comes from measuring ourselves up against what someone else has, and it gives birth to most, if not all, of the other sins against the person. Covet someone’s wife, and you are on the first rung to adultery, covet someone’s possessions, and you’ve opened up the door to theft and so on. I believe that a vast percentage of the problems in the world today would be swept away if people were content with their own lot, with what God has given them, and less bothered about other people and what they have. ‘Equity’ is grounded in comparison—the ‘I want what you’ve got’ culture is rooted and grounded in covetousness and gives birth to dissatisfaction and conflict between factions. People more frequently justify asking for wage increases by comparison with others than by arguing they are worth the extra. When we have the love of God in us, when we understand the incomparable riches we have in Christ, when we appreciate the many and varied gifts God has given us, we have no desire to look around at others and compare ourselves with them (why would I want what you’ve got, when God has given me so many riches of my own?). We do not envy what others have, we don’t desire it, and we keep the commandment ‘do not covet’, not by trying, but because we don’t even think about it.
I remember one of my previous pastors saying that we have no obligation to keep ANY of the OT laws (including the commandments), because they are part of the Old Covenant and therefore not binding on Christians, that to attempt to keep the laws means that we are trying to become righteous by our deeds and not by our faith. The thing to remember is this: When we are truly living as Christians, we don’t have to even try. We have absolute freedom to live however we want to, all we have to do is live our lives with God’s perfect love in our hearts towards God, one another, our neighbours and our enemies, and we don’t have to worry about the law. Our love for God and for others will drive our actions, and will mean we are naturally keeping the OT laws anyway.
So if you’re thinking about how you relate to, or how you treat people, you do not need to ask yourself whether you are obeying the law, the only question you need to ask is, ‘does God’s love direct my life?’ ‘Am I acting in a way which shows God’s love to people’ or ‘is my heart filled with God’s love for them?’. In a sense, crass though the phrase is, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is a very good question to ask oneself. But only ask it of yourself, don’t impose it on others, leave the Holy Spirit to do that!