The following is a sermon preached at Sunnyside Baptist Church on Sunday morning, September 28, 2008:
Scripture is abundantly clear that “salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). God is a holy and righteous God… and we aren’t. He is morally perfect… and we aren’t. He never sins… and yet rarely does a moment go by when we don’t sin. And this means we are in trouble, because sin is detestable to God. It is an abomination to Him… meaning it smells bad. He is angry with human beings because of our sin. But because of His great love which He had for the world, God sent His only Son, Jesus, who lived the perfect life we could never live, earning the reward of heaven for us… and who died for our sin upon the cross… who was buried and rose again the third day so that we could have victory over sin and death and hell.
God did all the work to save us. To receive this free give, God expects us to repent of our sins and trust in the work which God has done for us in Jesus in order to receive this salvation.
Have you done this? Then you are a Christian. You have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. You have entered into a new relationship with God through Jesus… but now what? What does God expect of us in the Christian life?
Last week, we looked at the first responsibility in the Christian life which is to love God with all that we are. Today we will look at a second responsibility of our relationship with God… and it involves the way in which we love others.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 22:34-40…
Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV) – 34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In context, this event takes place near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and a lawyer… an expert in the Law from among the Pharisees… has come to Jesus in an effort to trick Him by asking what he thinks is an unanswerable question, “What is the most important commandment?” The rabbis in the first century argued about this and couldn’t seem to come to a consensus. But Jesus is not stumped. And in answering this question, Jesus tells us the two most important responsibilities in the Christian life.
As we saw last week, Jesus makes it abundantly clear here that the great and foremost… or first… commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and (as recorded in Mark 12:30) with all our strength. This comes first. This must precede everything else in the Christian life. If we get this wrong, then we will get everything else wrong.
Why is that? Why must love for God come first? Because this provides the motivation for everything else in the Christian life. When we love Him… when we feel a deep-seated, all-encompassing passion for God… we are drawn nearer and nearer to Him and we express this inward affection toward God in our outward actions. Loving God with all that we are means that we will willingly do all that we possibly can to nurture and strengthen this relationship. We will be drawn into conformity with His will. What is important to God will become more and more important to us as we come to love Him more and more. As our love for God deepens, we will seek to do that which strengthens our relationship with Him and reject anything which could harm this relationship.
We see this all the time in our earthly relationships. For example, I love my wife dearly. She is more important to me than anyone else on this planet. Because of this, I greatly enjoy spending time with her. I’m not required to spend time with her. I want to spend time with her. I don’t want to do anything which might hurt our relationship. If I love her… if I truly love her… then I will live my life in such a way that our relationship is nurtured. For example, I will not commit adultery, because the fleeting pleasures of sin do not compare with the ongoing relationship I have with the woman I love. Now I don’t always do everything perfect in my relationship with my wife… just ask her… she’ll tell you… but my love for her should lead me to want to live my life in such a way that our relationship grows stronger. Love drives us to do that which will build up the relationship and it drives us to avoid those things which will tear down the relationship.
The same is true with loving God. If we love Him with all that we are… if He is the most important Person to us in all the universe… then we will naturally seek to draw nearer to Him. We will want to do that which strengthens our relationship with Him. The Christian life is not intended to be a list of do’s and don’t’s… it is a love relationship with our Creator God. When we love Him passionately, then we instinctually do that which pleases Him and avoid that which hinders our relationship with Him. We don’t do this perfectly, but our love for Him will drive us to do that which is pleasing to Him.
This is why loving God with our whole being is the first commandment. It must precede everything else, because it provides the motivation for everything else God expects of us in the Christian life.
The first commandment also provides us with an understanding of the other responsibilities which God has laid upon us. Notice how Jesus says that the second commandment is “like it” (ὅμοιος.) The second commandment is similar to the first. They are not exactly the same, but they are alike.
How are these two commands similar? They both involve love… which we defined last week as an affection which leads us to take action on behalf of another. Both of these commands require us to have love for others and do something about it. Both of these commands require us to feel affection for another and take action on their behalf.
But although these commands are similar, they are also different in two distinct ways.
First… the object of love is different. The first commandment involves love for God and the second involves love for our neighbor.
The second way in which these differ is to the extent to which this love is to be expressed. We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. We are to love God with all that we are as a human being. But we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
So, with this said, we are going to look at two things in this message: What does it mean to love someone “as we love ourselves”? And who is our neighbor?
The second commandment is like it… “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love someone as ourselves?
Let me start out by telling you what it does not mean. Some preachers in recent years have taken this to be a command to love ourselves. We hear it said all the time… if you don’t love yourself, then how can you ever love anyone else? That is not at all what Jesus is saying here. He is not commanding us to love ourselves, He assumes that we already love ourselves, because we all do. In fact, Scripture never commands us to love ourselves. When love of self is specifically mentioned (as in II Timothy 3:2), it is always mentioned as a negative trait. We don’t need to be told to love ourselves… we all love ourselves. Probably more than we should. We are all inherently selfish and self-serving. Scripture says that naturally we all seek our own wants and needs over the wants and needs of others (James 4:1-2, Rom 3:10-18.) Loving ourselves comes naturally and that is not hard to prove. For example, why are people trampled to death in fleeing from burning buildings? Because we love ourselves and we strive to flee impending doom. We all seek to provide for our own needs (even if it is at someone else’s expense.) Even suicide is ultimately an act of self-love. It is seeking an end to our own life despite the ramifications on the world around us. It is desiring an end to our own suffering and not caring how that affects others.
We all love ourselves… every one of us. This isn’t something that we need to work at. It comes naturally. This is not to say that loving ourselves is always bad. I just think it is important for us to note that this is not the command here. Loving ourselves is not something we need to strive for. This is something we already do.
So think with me for a moment. Remember… biblically, love is more than a feeling. It is an affection which leads to action on behalf of another. So, if we love ourselves, then how do we express that love for ourselves? What do we do as a result of our love for ourselves? Let me suggest three ways in which we express love for ourselves:
1) We look out for ourselves.
We take care of ourselves. We see to it that we get enough food to eat. We make sure that we stay warm at night. We can’t always do this as much as we would like… sometimes we can’t provide for ourselves, but we certainly try to take care of ourselves.
2) We value ourselves.
None of us have a perfect self-image, but all people who are fairly emotionally healthy tend to see themselves as people of worth. We recognize that we have value in and of ourselves. Often we fall into sin here and begin to think that we are actually more important in the scope of the universe than we actually are. But no one who is healthy thinks they are truly and utterly worthless. Even when we do things that we shouldn’t do… even when we fall on hard times… even when we make the worst of mistakes… we still believe that we have value. We still recognize that we have some significance in the universe.
3) We want what is best for ourselves.
We never hope that things will go badly for us… do we? We never think, “Gee, I hope I don’t get that raise at work.” Or, “I really wish I would get audited by the IRS this year.” Instead, we seek our own joy and happiness. No one consciously goes looking for their own unhappiness. Sometimes we unintentionally sabotage ourselves in our pursuit of joy, but no healthy person intentionally goes out of their way to pursue what makes us unhappy. Ultimately, loving ourselves means wanting what is best for ourselves.
There are probably many other ways in which we could describe what Jesus means by loving ourselves. But let’s just take these for a moment and plug them back into the context of Matthew 22:39. Jesus says that we are to love our neighbor “as ourselves.” We are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We are to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.
This means that part of loving our neighbor as ourselves is to look out for their needs. We must provide for their needs. This doesn’t just mean just hoping things work out for people. It means taking action to provide for their needs. When we are hungry, we feed ourselves… if we can… because we love ourselves. When we are cold, we warm ourselves… if we can… because we love ourselves. If we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, then we will do the same for them. We will look out for their needs. We will feed them when they are hungry. We will clothe them when they are naked. We will provide for their needs to the best of our ability. Now, we can’t always meet everyone’s needs… just as we cannot always meet our own needs… but we should demonstrate the same commitment to meeting the needs of others as we do for ourselves.
If we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves then we must see our neighbors as people of value. Regardless of the mistakes they have made… regardless of where they are in life… regardless of their needs… we should see them as people of worth… made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) and crowned by Him with glory and honor (Ps 8:1). Even if they don’t look like it or act like it or smell like it. We should treat them as people of dignity and worth.
If we are going to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves then we should want the best for them. Love demands that we seek the joy and happiness of our neighbor…after all… that is how we love ourselves. We should not simply provide for the basic needs of others, we should seek the very best for them, because that is how we love ourselves
Do you see the radical nature of this command?
This runs contradictory to our very nature. We naturally want what is best for us and we don’t want to be bothered by others.
This runs contradictory to our culture. We live in a culture which is very selfish. We are conditioned to always ask the question “What’s in it for me?” We are constantly told to “look out for Number 1”! We are being told all the time that we need to work hard to love ourselves. But the problem is, most of us are working so hard at loving ourselves that we never have the time or energy or interest in loving others.
Does the thought of loving others this way make you feel uncomfortable? It does me. This is devastating to my self-righteousness, because I know that I don’t do this well. I don’t even come close. I fail here all the time… and I don’t like that. Naturally… in my sinfulness… I want to find a way to wiggle out of this command. Surely God doesn’t expect me to love everyone like this? If I can only narrow the field so that my “neighbor” is simply my family and closest friends, then maybe I can get close to meeting this expectation. So the question arises… who is my neighbor???
Jesus is quoting from Leviticus 19:18 here, which reads…
Leviticus 19:18 (ESV) – 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Notice that “neighbor” is in parallel with “the sons of your own people”… meaning fellow Jews. And this is the way in which most Jewish rabbis would have taken this command. They would say that this is a command to love those among the people of God. Therefore, if we were to apply this thinking to our modern context, then this would be a command to love within the Body of Christ. This is, of course, true and commanded by God, although, as we will see weeks to come, the love we are commanded to have for one another is something different than what we see here. But Jesus is saying something much more than simply love the people of God. The term translated “neighbor” is the Greek term πλησίον, which literally refers to something or someone which is near to you. Literally, Jesus is saying that we are to love anyone who crosses our path with this type of love. Not just our family. Not just our friends. Not just the people of God, but anyone who crosses our path.
Sometimes this is harder than others. We tend to be drawn to some people more than others. Let’s face it… some people are easier to love than others. None of us have to stir ourselves up to act in love toward our children and grandchildren. But what about the homeless guy down the street? Or the boss who treated you real bad? Or your former spouse? These are people who cross our paths, therefore they are our neighbors. Jesus says that we have to love them as much as we love ourselves.
Jesus makes this abundantly clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. We all know the story right? A Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is mugged and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite… the religious elite of Israel… both passed by and saw him lying there, but they had more important things to do and they left him there for dead. But along came a Samaritan… an enemy of the Jewish people… and when he saw this man who crossed his path, he felt compassion for him. And, despite their cultural differences… despite their ethnic animosity… he stopped and took care of him. He bandaged his wounds and put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him and paid for him to stay at the inn even after he had to leave.
Do you remember Jesus’ point in telling the parable? It was an effort to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29.) He was refuting an effort to wiggle out of this command. His answer was that our neighbor is more than our friends and family… more than the person who is like us… our neighbor is anyone and everyone God sovereignly brings across our path, even if they are people we find personally distasteful.
The point Jesus seems to be trying to make is that rather than spending our time trying to identify whether or not God intends for us to love this person in front of us, we are to concern ourselves with being a loving person to all those God puts in our path… whether we find ourselves naturally drawn to this person or whether we find them distasteful. We are to love all those God brings into our lives to the same degree that we love ourselves.
When I come to this passage of Scripture and I see that I am commanded to “love my neighbor as myself”, I want to find a loophole. I don’t do this well. None of us do. I fail at this. All of us fail at this.
That is why we need a Savior. Jesus died for all our sins… including the sin of not loving others as much as we love ourselves. When we come to passages of Scripture like this, we should not only see what God expects of us, but we should see how much we fall short of the glory of God. And this should drive us to the cross.
Maybe you are here today and you have never trusted in Jesus Christ to save you from your sin. Then I would point you to this passage of Scripture and I would say, “Do you love your neighbor? Do you love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? Do you succeed in loving all those who cross your path as much as you love yourself all the time?” If the answer is no, then you are a sinner and the consequence for that sin is death. Not just physical death, but spiritual death and separation from God for all eternity in hell. That is what all of us deserve, because none of us succeed in this. Not me. Not you. None of us. We are all sinners.
But Jesus bore the punishment we deserve for our sin when He died on the cross. And He rose from the grave victorious over death and hell on the third day. And God promises us that if we repent of our sin and begin trusting in Jesus to save us from our sin, then we can be forgiven and God will freely give us eternal life.
Have you repented of your sin? Are you trusting in Jesus to save you from your sin?
Maybe you are a Christian here today. You have repented of your sins and you are trusting in Jesus to save you in the Day of Judgment. Then this is what God expects of you. He expects us to love those He brings across our paths as much as we love ourselves. This isn’t easy. We won’t do it perfectly. But we must strive for this. Why? Because this is pleasing to God… and we love Him… and we want to nurture our relationship with Him by striving to be and do all that He expects of us.
How do we do this? How can we grow in love for our neighbors? It is not easy, but let me offer a few suggestions for how to apply this to our lives…
First… we must all work on our love relationship with God above all else. Everything else flows from this. If we don’t love God, then we can’t love our neighbor. Loving God with our whole being results in a softening and changing of our affections toward others.
Therefore, if you want to love others as God expects us to, then strive to know Him more. Seek Him in His Word. Spend time alone with God in prayer. Spend time in fellowship with other Christians and come to know Him more and more. Meditate on the love of God for you. Never forget how God has loved you… a detestable sinner… at great cost to Himself. Remind yourself every day what Jesus has done to save you. As we grow in our affection for God, we will begin to reflect His character more and more in our lives and we will love those around us as God demands of us.
Secondly… we need to learn to recognize our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am so self-absorbed that I don’t even notice those who are in need all around me. Sadly… to my shame… sometimes I do see them, but like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, I ignore them out of my own selfishness.
Think about all the of people God brings into our lives…friends… family members… coworkers… people in your neighborhood… people at church… the guy down at the ball field… the waitress at the restaurant… the guy who bags your groceries. How many are there? Too many to count.
The fact that God brings them across our path makes them our neighbor. We can’t meet all the needs of every person we encounter, but we must love them to the best of our ability.
I would urge you to take notice of the people God brings across your paths. Be on the lookout for them. Begin to think about them as your neighbor… as someone God has brought into your life so that you could show His love to them.
Third… draw near to those God brings near to us. It is hard to love someone we don’t really know. We can show mercy to people in need that we don’t know, but it is hard to really love them as much as we love ourselves. To do that, we must get to know them.
Spend time with the people God sovereignly brings across your path. Get to know them on a personal level. Know their wounds… know their needs… learn about them so you can care for them. We won’t really be able to love those we don’t draw near to.
Fourth… be a neighbor to those God brings across your path. Reach out and meet their needs. Take action on their behalf. Do something for them. I know this gets messy. I know that it will cost you… your time… your money… your energy… your hobbies and entertainment. It will cost you… perhaps dearly. But ask yourself this, “How can I pour my life into theirs?”
This isn’t easy, but if we are Christians, then we don’t have a choice. This is not an optional part of the Christian life, this is the second responsibility which God demands of His people. This is a command from the sovereign God of the universe to all of His people of all time.
Finally… when we fall short of this expectation which God has laid upon us, we need to come back to the gospel and confess our sin before God and turn away from our unloving attitudes and trust in Jesus to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all our unrighteousness. The Christian life is not about being perfect. It is about loving God and loving others and trusting in Jesus to save us when we fall short.
I urge you… as a Christian… to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. This is the great and foremost commandment. Then love the people around you… as much as you love yourself. On these two commandments hang all the expectations of God for us in the Christian life.