Rev Dr Stephen Lee
Lam Ko Kit Tak Professor of Biblical Studies
Rethinking the command to “love one another”
The command to “love one another” is one that is familiar to us. At the end of the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus said to the eleven disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." (John 13:34) To truly understand the words of Jesus, we must carefully consider three related issues, as follows.
How can love be a command? Dog owners know they need to train their dogs to follow simple commands such as “stay,” “sit” and “heel.” They would not, however, command their dogs to do impossible tasks, such as “sign” or “write.” A command assumes that the recipient knows how to carry it out or else it becomes meaningless. The Lord prayed that we his disciples “may be one” (John 17:11, 21-23). But to us he gave a direct command to “love one another,” as that is what we are capable of doing.
If we already know how to love one another, why would the Lord give such a command? The answer is simple. The Lord had to command us because though we know we should, we are not willing to do it. We sometimes watch a TV drama episode portraying disciplinary forces at work. When a superior says, “This is an order”, subordinates would immediately intone, “Yes, sir/madam.” This is the only correct response in that situation; there is no room for negotiation. Likewise, when we receive a command from our Lord, we can only respond by obeying, and not evading our responsibility or making excuses.
Not only did the Lord command his disciples to love one another, he emphasized that it was a new commandment. If it was a new commandment, there must be an old one. What then is the old commandment? Has it been replaced and is no longer important?
The gospels record Jesus being asked the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” and adding to it, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), pointing out clearly that “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Why was it that in answer to the question about the greatest commandment, the Lord replied with two commandments?
Although John did not include this dialogue in the gospel, in 1 John he provided a relevant and in-depth exposition of it: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (4:19-21) Here, John clarified two facts. First, it is not enough just to say you love God; you are telling a lie if you do not love others. And in John’s theological viewpoint, Satan is “the father of lies.” (John 8:44). In other words, the command to love God and love others are the two sides of the same coin – they are mutually concurrent; one does not exist without the other. Second, when John stated, “He has given us this command,” he was obviously referring to these two commandments in the Pentateuch, two old commandments that all along must be obeyed by God’s people. “Old” means “original”. As the Lord taught, “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law.” (Matthew 5:18)
In light of our understanding of this old commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, we may then ask, “So what’s new about the new commandment to love one another?”
Notice that there is a second part to the new commandment. The Lord Jesus continued, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” How did the Lord show his love for us? The answer is obvious. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16) So, is loving one another the same as laying down our lives for one another?
The practical examples John went on to give had nothing to do with laying down our lives. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) To love with actions and in truth requires us only to share our material possessions with our brothers in need; we do not have to sacrifice our lives, or else we can carry out the command to love one another only once in our lives. This is unlikely to be what the “new” commandment means.
From the perspective of mercy and sharing, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is in essence closely related to the command that we should love one another. Unfortunately, this perspective is seldom adopted in the discussion of this parable.
In this parable, the Lord invites the righteous to enter his kingdom. He explains the criterion for the invitation thus: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) Perplexed, the righteous reply: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you?” The Lord’s answer brings out the primary point of this parable: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Who is the least of these brothers and sisters? Who else, if not the most insignificant one? Yet, there is no need for us to find this person out, because so long as what is done for the least is done for the Lord, we do not need to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) When Jesus commands us to love one another, he is telling us to have mercy on whoever that we see is in need (10:37), whether it be a compatriot (a Jew) or an enemy (a Samaritan). When we express love in this way to our brother or sister “whom [we] have seen,” we show that we truly love “God, whom [we] have not seen.”
So loving one another is not restricted to those who are in our own circle. Jesus said to the disciples, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
A similar discussion on the topic can be found in the traditional Confucian literature, the Analects. When asked, “Can we requite enmity with kindness?”, Confucius replied, “How, then, shall we requite kindness?” This means if you are kind to one who is unkind to you, then how do you repay one who is kind to you? Confucius advocated requiting kindness with kindness, but not hostility with kindness. In other words, suffice it if I do not repay hostility with unkindness; I only repay kindness with kindness.
Perhaps we may find Confucius’ teaching reasonable. We are, however, disciples of Jesus, not of Confucius. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.” (Luke 6:32-33)
How does the Lord’s command differ from Confucius’ precept? Confucius told his followers to first make out how others treat them before they decide how to treat those people. Our Lord, however, teaches that we do not need to focus on what kind of people they are or what they have done to us: “But love your enemies, do good to them... Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (6:35) Our focus is not on others, but on our Heavenly Father: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (6:36)
”We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
The command that we love one another is one that all who follow Jesus must obey. This command originated from the teaching in the Pentateuch. “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” – this is how we live out our faith in our life circumstances. This is also a new commandment. It does not require us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, but to imitate Christ and our Heavenly Father, and be merciful to whoever that is in need, including even our enemies who curse or mistreat us.
Extract from Our Vision: Christian's Commitment to Hong Kong (in Chinese), ed. Taosheng Publisher, Hong Kong: Taosheng Publisher, 2017, pp. 57-64.