When evangelical Christians think about God’s purpose for the church and for their lives, they often think almost entirely in terms of evangelism. Growing in personal integrity and holiness of life also fits in, but sharing the Gospel is frequently seen as the single most important thing we can do for God and for our neighbor.
While I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of evangelism, it is only part of God’s purpose for us. If we want a comprehensive picture of God’s intentions for us in this world, we need to think in terms of three interrelated callings: the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the Cultural Mandate. Of those three, the Great Commandment is central, and the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate flow from it and feed into each other.
The Great Commandment
The Great Commandment is the starting point for our obedience to God. The Great Commandment is found in Matt. 22:35-40:
And one of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “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.”
It is easy to miss the point of Jesus’ teaching here. The commandment to love God was part of the first and most important paragraph of the shema, the prayer that observant Jews said at least twice each day. Every Jew knew this commandment and how important it was. Jesus’ answer was thus a matter of pointing out the obvious.
Jesus’ citation of the shema was not particularly surprising, but his follow up statement set him well apart from the other rabbis of his day. He tells the Pharisee that the second, related commandment came from Lev. 19:18, which includes the words “love your neighbor as yourself.” Up to this point in time, no rabbi had commented on the commandment to love your neighbor—while the verse was not ignored, neither was it highlighted. In view of the importance of the shema and the obscurity of Lev. 19:18, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus wanted to put the focus on love of neighbor—that was the new teaching and the surprise in this encounter.
This is reinforced by Luke 10:25-37. In this passage, which may report an event that occurred after the one recounted in Matthew, an expert in the Law followed Jesus’ lead by citing the two Great Commandments as the summary of the Law. Jesus agreed with him, but then the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was. In other words, the lawyer thought he was doing well enough with the command to love God; it’s sufficiently abstract as to be impossible to measure. The lawyer was more concerned about his obedience to the command to love his neighbor, so he was looking for a loophole to justify himself. Jesus responded by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan and telling him to act as the Samaritan did. In other words, Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question about what he needed to do to attain eternal life focused far more on loving his neighbor than the shema.
The centrality of loving our neighbor is also found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Surprisingly enough for someone with a background as a Pharisee, he summarizes the Law not with the shema but with the command to love your neighbor. For example, Rom. 13:9 tells us: 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.” Similarly, Gal. 5:14 says: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And even though Paul emphasizes faith as the vehicle through which God’s grace comes to us for salvation, he also tells us that love—which in context points toward love of neighbor—is greater than faith (1 Cor. 13:13).
This is not to say that love of God isn’t important—far from it! But it does highlight the very deep connection between loving God and loving our neighbor. Human beings are made in the image of God, and as a result our attitude toward our neighbor reveals our attitude toward God. This means that we can only love God if we also love our neighbor. The Apostle John tells us 1 John 4:20: If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Again, loving God is abstract, and we can easily deceive ourselves or others about it. How we treat our neighbor, though, is much more concrete, especially when love is understood correctly.
The Definition of Love
People generally turn to 1 Cor. 13 for a description of love, but I personally think you will find a more robust definition in 1 John 3:11-18:
“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
This passage highlights the fact that for John, there are only two choices. We either love or hate. There is no middle ground. And the reason is simple: love is not about our feelings or attitudes, it’s about our actions. To determine if we love, all we need to do is to look at our response to people in need around us. If we help them, we love them; if we don’t, we hate them and according to John are no different from murderers.
Another way of putting this is that love pursues our neighbor’s good. At its most basic level, this means caring for their physical needs. Again, as John points out, … “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17)” Jesus himself tells us that he will judge our attitude toward him by how we deal with the needs of those around us:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:31-46)”
So it is critical that we care for our neighbor’s physical needs. But at the same time, if we have a proper biblical worldview, we will understand that this world is a testing ground preparing us for eternity. This means this world is important, but is not ultimately important. So if we are seeking our neighbors’ highest good, we have to meet their needs in this world but also help them prepare for the next. And that brings us to the Great Commission, the subject of our next article.