Love Your Neighbor
“The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39); “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9-10); “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, you are doing well” (James 2:8).
John Piper in the book Desiring God notes that the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is widely misinterpreted today in terms of self-esteem. “According to the spirit of this age, the ultimate sin is no longer the failure to honor and thank God, but the failure to esteem oneself. Self-abasement, not God-abasement, is the evil. And the cry for deliverance is not ‘O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me?” (Romans 7:24) but ‘O worthy man that I am, would that I could only see it better!’ Today the first and greatest commandment is, ‘Thou shalt love thyself’. The explanation for almost every interpersonal problem is thought to lie in someone’s low self-esteem” (p. 277). In talking to someone who has studied history he noted that books have been written regarding various cultures move toward a preoccupation with self-esteem. Many people have noted how the preaching in denominations has changed over the years and how preaching among some churches of Christ is likewise changing from Biblical sermons to presentations that are designed to make people feel good. For example, Paul’s lesson to Felix that consisted of “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25), would not be very popular in a number of churches today. In the book Ashamed of the Gospel, John F. MacArthur, Jr., notes that the denominational clergy across this land is being presently told that if they want to be successful they need to, “Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy or authoritative. Above all keep everyone entertained” (p. 45). He further notes that the mistake being made today is that people’s emotional “felt needs” are taken more seriously than the real but unfelt spiritual deficiencies that Scripture addresses. No longer are preachers trained to declare to people what God demands of them. Instead, they are counseled to find out what the people’s demands are, then do whatever is necessary to meet them. The audience is regarded as “sovereign” (p. 49). The end result of this philosophy is that more and more people-pleasers will end up filling pulpits (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Instead of viewing Jesus as commanding us to love ourselves, and this being the most important first step, rather, Jesus is simply assuming that we already love ourselves. The Holy Spirit did not entertain the thought that there could be someone who didn’t love himself, in fact, Paul noted, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29). Added to this last verse, the Bible does not repeatedly warn against a lack of self-esteem, rather, the thrust of the Bible is a warning against too much self-esteem: “I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself that he ought to think” (Romans 12:3); “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests” (Philippians 2:2-4); (James 4:3); “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble, Submit therefore to God…Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord” (James 4:6-10). To this we could add that the stress in Jesus’ teaching is not upon self-fulfillment, rather self-denial is the path to finding fulfillment in a relationship with God (Matthew 16:24-26; Luke 9:23-25; Luke 14:26).
“Love” is probably one of the most abused words in our modern vocabulary. First of all, to love God (Matthew 22:37), means to conform to His will (John 14:15), and to value His truth and a relationship with Him above all else. To love self means to place our spiritual needs ahead of all other needs (Matthew 6:33; Acts 2:40). Note this self-love does not mean being completely satisfied with oneself or feeling especially happy with oneself, rather it means desiring and seeking what is in our best spiritual interest. In like manner, loving our neighbor means placing what is truly best for them as a high priority. Thus Jesus is saying, “You shall seek the good of your neighbor, just as you naturally seek your own good”. This emphasis upon what is spiritually good is noted when Paul defines love in (1 Corinthians 13:4-8), and also in Romans 13:9-10 where loving your neighbor as yourself is equated with honoring God’s laws with respect to your neighbor. Therefore, harming a neighbor is transgressing God’s laws with respect to your neighbor and loving them means keeping God’s laws as they apply to your neighbor. True love for neighbor is always defined and regulated by the Word of God.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy (1 Peter 3:8-12). The difference between a healthy love for self or others and selfishness and sin is this: “The root of sinfulness is the desire for our own happiness apart from God” (Piper p. 281). This is the same thing as pride, which is the presumption that we can be happy without depending upon God as the source of our happiness (James 4:1-10). Note that the Holy Spirit in the previous verses does not seek a low self-esteem as the root underlying the problems of these Christians; rather He seeks selfishness (4:3) and pride (4:6). The answer for these Christians is not a series of lessons to make them feel good, but a rebuke, a need for genuine repentance (4:8-9 “let your laughter be turned into mourning”), and a serious effort to completely trust and obey God (4:10).
“It means: If you are energetic in pursuing our own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are creative in pursuing your own happiness, be creative in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are persevering in pursuing your own happiness, be persevering in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. In other words, Jesus is not just saying seek for your neighbor the same things you seek for yourself; rather seek them in the same way, with the same zeal and energy and creativity and perseverance. Make the measure of your self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. Measure your pursuit of the happiness of others by the pursuit of your own. How do you pursue you own well-being? Pursue your neighbor’s well-being that way, too” (Piper p. 283).
At this point in the lesson someone may be thinking, “But if I really devote myself to pursuing my neighbor’s good, then will I have any time for myself?” This is one reason why Jesus gave a commandment before the command to love our neighbor: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The command to love neighbor is based on the first command. If we already love God, then we will not worry about such things as “what about me?” for we will already realize that everything we have belongs to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), including every blessing that we enjoy (James 1:17). Piper notes, “Love God with all your heart” means: find in God a satisfaction so full that it fills up all your heart. “Love God with all your strength” means: spare no strain or exertion. “Love God with all your mind” means: find in God the riches of knowledge and insight and wisdom that guide and satisfy all that the human mind was meant for. In other words, take all your longing for joy and hope and love and security and fulfillment and significance take all that, and focus it on God” (p. 284). What this means is that if God is already the chief focus of all our desires, then we will naturally find happiness in doing His will, including serving others. Sadly, the person who holds out fearing that serving God will result in a lack of personal fulfillment will find in this life and in the end that they missed out (Matthew 16:25 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it”).
· We need to see ourselves in our neighbors. The neighbor who is lost and needs the gospel, we were at one time in our lives (Titus 3:3 “For we also once were foolish ourselves”). We need to see ourselves as that lost neighbor who is trying to find happiness in the things of this world, who is enslaved to various lusts, who might even be antagonistic to the gospel message (1 Timothy 1:13-15). We need to reason with that neighbor as we would reason with ourselves. What would convince us? What would prick our hearts?
· We need to be involved in the lives of others and be willing to serve (Matthew 25:35-40; Galatians 6:1-2). For their have been times in our lives that the service given by others truly helped us. We need to see ourselves in others. We were that teenager who has trying to find their way through life. We were the newly married couple. We were the young frazzled couple with a new baby or young children. We were the new convert who needed friendship, counsel and instruction. In addition, we were even the straying sinner who needed correction and rebuke (James 5:19-20).
· Loving your neighbor as yourself means telling someone the truth, even if it hurts. At one time we were that neighbor who needed to be taught, corrected, instructed, and even challenged with the Scriptures (Acts 2:37; 7:51-53; 13:46; 17:22-34). There is a time when our neighbors need to be corrected when they are in error, warned when they are heading down a path that leads to destruction, and exhorted to come back to the truth. Such means taking the time out of our schedules and being willing to study the Scriptures with them, even if the study is tense or uncomfortable at times (2 Timothy 2:24-26 “that they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil”).
· Loving your neighbor means refusing to compromise when truth is on the line (Acts 15:2; Galatians 2:5 “But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you”). Such also means the willingness to speak plainly (Galatians 3:1; 4:10-11).
· It means the willingness to make sacrifices for others, even when those sacrifices are not being appreciated (2 Corinthians 12:15; 11:4).
· It also means refusing to lead my neighbor astray (Romans 13:8-10). That is, I will not tempt my neighbor I will not become a stumbling-block to them, I will not sow in their minds the seeds for wrong concepts I will not give them the impression that they can compromise with the world, love God with less than all their heart, make it to heaven without putting Him first, or please Him without obeying what He commands. I will set the best example I can (1 Timothy 4:12; Matthew 5:13-16).