08 November 2010

The Second Great Commandment

by Phil Johnson

This article first appeared in the July 2005 issue of Tabletalk magazine.

hen some Pharisees put Jesus to the test concerning the greatest of all God's commandments, He answered with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength."

"This is the first and great commandment," He told them. "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt. 22:38-39).

What did He mean when He said the two commandments are alike? Well, obviously, they both deal with love. The first calls for wholehearted love toward God, a love that consumes every human faculty. The second calls for charitable love toward one's neighbor—a humble, sacrificial, serving love. Jesus said all the Law and the prophets hang on those two commandments, so the entire Law is summed up in the principle of love. "Love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10). Both commandments make that point.

But there's another sense in which the second great commandment is just like the first. Loving one's neighbor is simply the natural and necessary extension of true, wholehearted love for God, because your neighbor is made in the image of God.

God's image in every person is the moral and ethical foundation for every commandment that governs how we ought to treat our fellow humans. Scripture repeatedly makes this clear. Why is murder deemed such an especially heinous sin? Because killing a fellow human being is the ultimate desecration of God's image (Gen. 9:6).

In the New Testament, James points to the image of God in men and women as an argument for allowing even our speech to be seasoned with grace and kindness. It is utterly irrational, he says, to bless God while cursing people who are made in God's own likeness (James 3:9-12).

That same principle is an effective argument against every kind of disrespect or unkindness one person might show to another. For example, to ignore the needs of suffering people is to treat the image of God in them with outright contempt. Proverbs 17:5 says, "He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker." Neglecting the needs of a person who is "hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison" is tantamount to scorning the Lord Himself. That's exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 25:44-45: "Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me."

Who is our neighbor? That's the question a lawyer asked Jesus when He affirmed the priority of the first and second commandments (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, poignantly making the point that anyone and everyone who crosses our path is our neighbor—and truly loving them as ourselves means seeking to meet whatever needs they might have.

One of Jesus' main points in that parable was this: we're not to love our own brethren and fellow believers to the exclusion of strangers and unbelievers. God's image was placed in humanity at creation, not at redemption. Although the image of God was seriously marred by Adam's fall, it was not utterly obliterated. The divine likeness is still part of fallen humanity; in fact, it is essential to the very definition of humanity. Therefore every human being, whether a derelict in the gutter or a deacon in the church, ought to be treated with dignity and compassionate love, out of respect for the image of God in him.

The restoration of God's image in fallen humanity is one of the ultimate goals of redemption, of course. God's paramount purpose for every Christian involves perfect Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). That will consummate the complete restoration and utter perfection of God's image in all believers, because Christ himself is the supreme flesh-and-blood image of God (Col. 1:15).

But if you're a believer, your conformation to Christ's likeness is gradually being accomplished even now by the process of your sanctification (2 Cor. 3:18). In the meantime, Jesus taught that one of the best ways to be like God is to love even your enemies. Not only do they bear God's image, but (more to Jesus' point) loving them is the best way for us to be like God, because God Himself loves even those who hate Him.

Of course, the prevailing rabbinical tradition in Jesus' day claimed that "enemies" are not really "neighbors." In effect, that nullified the second great commandment. It was like saying you don't really have to love anyone whom you hate. All kinds of disrespect and unkindness became impervious to the Law's correction.

Jesus confronted the error head on: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:43-45).

Your enemy is made in God's image and is therefore deserving of your respect and kindness. More important, Jesus said, if you want to be more like God—if you want the image of God to shine more visibly in your life and behavior—here's the way to do it: love even your enemies.

Remember, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). Such love, expressed even toward our enemies, is the mark of the true Christian, because it is the most vivid expression of God's image in His own people. "As He is, so are we in this world" (v. 17).

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Patience said...

Thank you for reminding us of this command Phil.

It's really easy to get complacent and spout verses without actually thinking much about them.

Loving someone isn't just about being nice when they're mean to you. It's about sacrificing your needs to help fulfill their needs. It's counter-cultural and "radical" even in for us now.

I like a good challenge and this is something everyone needs to take on board.

Robert said...


Excellent post. I think that people (myself included) often forget that if we really love God, then this should be a natural effect of that love. May we see and embrace every opportunity we have to show love to people.

Nash Equilibrium said...

How did you know that the ability to love my enemies is exactly what I'd been praying for, lately? Amazing!

Aaron said...

I try to remember that my enemies generally are not Christians and therefore, are on their way to hell. Furthermore, I don't deserve heaven any more than they do and its only by God's good grace that I am saved. At that point my hate moves to compassion and a desire to share the gospel with them.

CGrim said...

Sir Aaron - agreed! I have very few "enemies" (more like rivals), usually because of my own pride rather than any real hostility. However, you're right that they're almost always non-Christians and if we take a humble perspective, we can see them with compassion, not prideful judgment.

I've also found it helpful to imagine what they would be like as passionate, spirit-filled brothers standing by my side in the service of Christ, for the glory of God. This makes it easy to love them, and to interact with them in a loving way that will hopefully draw them nearer, rather than a condescending way that will push them away.

Nash Equilibrium said...

The "enemies" I struggle to love are mostly liberal Christians. My struggle is twofold: First, I don't want to love them, but recently have come under the conviction that I am wrong not to.Second, I struggle with how I love them without aiding their goals that I don't agree with. Not easy.

kateg said...

I’ve been reading Metaxis’ bio of Bonhoeffer. Even the Confessing church wavered in its opposition to Hitler by appealing to the two kingdoms, to Romans 13 and to loving your enemies. And while the church turned the other cheek and Christ Himself was made a mockery, millions were killed and millions more were ruined by the reich with only half-hearted scoldings by the church, who did not want to burn any bridges. Firstly, I think we have to assume we are to have no enemies but those who are Christ’s enemies. But how does this work out? Christ has given His disciples the authority to call out evil as evil. When God’s love for our enemy, the unrepentant perpetrator, meets God’s love for the victim, the downtrodden, whose voice is lost, where should we be?

Nash Equilibrium said...

I think I understand your question, which is a good one - but what's your answer?

Michael said...

"Of course, the prevailing rabbinical tradition in Jesus' day claimed that "enemies" are not really "neighbors." In effect, that nullified the second great commandment. It was like saying you don't really have to love anyone whom you hate. All kinds of disrespect and unkindness became impervious to the Law's correction."
That's not a complete review of Talmudic teaching. And makes it possible to invoke a Blood Libel. If Jews ignored loving a neighbor (which I'm sure happened) how is that any different than actual Christian behavior over 2000 years? I understand that Christians contrast Christ's teaching with Rabbinic Judaism because that was Jesus's modus operandi, but Christian history demonstrates the same human inability to follow this particular moral teaching as much as anyone.

Aaron said...

Kateg: Jesus' entire sermon was based on interpersonal relationships. So was Jesus' parable to the lawyer for that matter. Christians have often taken love your neighbor to its extreme and advocated pacifism. Loving your enemy doesn't mean to allow them to continue doing evil acts to others.

Take this verse from the same sermon as "turn the other cheek": "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

Does that mean anybody, anytime until you have nothing left? Obviously not. Jesus was contradicting the commonly held notion at the time that a person could hold a grudge against one's personal enemy and retaliate in kind.

Stefan Ewing said...

Although we have sometimes taken "turn the other cheek" too far, it's so easy to err the other way, too.

Six of ten commandments say that we, as natural-born sinners, are going to have trouble with the implications of Leviticus 19:18, not to mention the rest of the Pentateuch as it expands on this.

There are some mornings I drive to work, and I'm getting into Matthew 5:22 territory within a few minutes—and that's just a trivial, obvious example.

Stefan Ewing said...


That is true. In Matthew 5:43, Jesus Christ only says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'" without attribution, but the implication that it was a bit of folk wisdom.

Certainly, His teaching there is emblematic of His teaching elsewhere in the Gospels: standing conventional religiosity on its head and radically reorienting it from man-centeredness to God-centeredness (culminating in the Cross).

In that sense, His words to His audience then are just as valid to us (including Christians) today, since we too are so susceptible to fall into the trap of conventional religiosity, and revert from God-centeredness to man-centeredness.

Stefan Ewing said...

...And it's because of this "human inability to follow this particular moral teaching"—and all other moral teachings—perfectly, that we are all desperately in need of God's grace and mercy, His forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ; not so that we can become perfect in this life, but so that we can begin to learn to serve God not out of duty or obligation, but out of love and humility.

Michael said...

Ok, Stefan. Thanks.

Stefan Ewing said...

Sir Aaron:

That was a helpful answer (3 p.m.). Thanks for that.

CGrim said...

kateg: Are you suggesting that Romans 13 wasn't relevant to Bonhoeffer's situation? I must heartily disagree. This is something I've really chewed on lately, and I can't come to any other conclusion except that Bonhoeffer acted sinfully. (And I suspect I'm probably in the minority here.)

Now, I'm no pacifist. I believe Jesus told the disciples to carry swords so that they wouldn't be defenseless, and I believe we may use force to defend ourselves, our families, or other innocents being unjustly attacked.

Yes, we absolutely have a duty to defend the innocent from their oppressor, and even in the rare circumstance where that may necessitate the use of force, very rarely does it require killing the oppressor (although it may, in rare circumstances, such as a suicide bomber with his finger on the trigger, etc).

Nevertheless, I'm become persuaded (and Bonhoeffer seems to have acknowledged this himself) that he acted sinfully in participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler. God, in his wisdom, placed Hitler in that position of governing authority (for some reason we may not understand until eternity). If we think this is a scandalous statement, then we come close to denying God's sovereignty. Compare Romans 9:17 where God says the same thing about appointing Pharaoh, who also ordered mass murder against the same people group.

I'm persuaded, based on Romans 13 and a few other relevant passages, that God does not give us permission to rebel against divinely-instituted governmental authority, no matter how evil they are. (There may be room, however, for a lower authority to rebel against a higher authority, such as when the American colonial authorities declared independence from the authority of the British Empire.)

I've heard the argument that the Nazi regime was no longer a legitimate authority, but I don't see much Biblical evidence for that. It certainly wasn't any less legitimate than Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, Nero, Queen Mary I, etc. I suspect this line of argument descends more from Enlightenment-era "social contract" theory than any sound Biblical reasoning.

God says that it's HIS prerogative to judge rulers when they act evilly, not ours. The Israelites in Egypt didn't have permission to assassinate Pharaoh, the exiles in Babylon didn't have permission to assassinate Nebuchadnezzar, the 1st-century Christians didn't have permission to assassinate Nero, we don't have permission to murder those who "make a mockery" of Christ, and unborn children can be defended without killing abortion doctors.

By taking justice into our own hands, we are demonstrating that we don't trust God to execute it. Hitler's evil did not exceed God's justice. Hitler's evil did not escape God's sovereignty. Compared to Satan, the most evil despots of the world are boy scouts, and just as Satan will inevitably be held to account, so will they.

In the case of the holocaust, the higher authorities, even if they were the ones ordering the genocide, were not the ones carrying it out. Their subordinates did not have to follow the abominable orders. And yet they did. If Christians are permitted to use force to defend the innocent, it would most likely be to resist the evil individuals pulling the trigger or opening the gas vents, not against the evil bureaucrats or the fuhrer hundreds of miles away.

In the end, by the grace of God, Bonhoeffer was prevented from having murder on his hands. Nevertheless, he was still executed for his role, which is certainly in line with what the Bible warns will happen (Rom 13:2)

Phil, if this is hijacking the meta, feel free to delete this post. :)

Doug said...

Matt 25: 40 and 45 both refer to believers. "the least of them" and "the least of these".

Matt 25:34-46 is how believers evidence their faith by the way they treat believers and how unbelievers evidence their unbelief by how they do not treat believers.

I'm a little sensitive to the Social Gospel since I was saved out of it. Careful use of scripture to teach the true gospel from the false social gospel is everything these days.

I appreciated your post on the subject. We all need to be reminded regularly that are enemies are to be loved.

donsands said...

Excellent re-post. The truth is the same isn't it, it's eternally true.

I have some enemies, or people that don't like me, I guess is a better way of saying it.

But how about being a Christian in Indonesia, or North Korea. They have to love people that hate them because they are a Christian, and even may want to kill them, or imprision them.

And with loving our neighbors, and enemies we can also be angry, if our anger is righteous. Be angry and sin not.

Bottom line is always, "But for the grace of God, there go I."

Nash Equilibrium said...

I tend to think Bonhoffer's sin was the pacifist phase of his life, rather than the phase of his life when he realized he had a duty to do something to protect innocent victims who were being murdered.
If he sinned, it was because he acted in a conspiracy or as an individual, and not under the authority of a God-established, Romans 13 government that was fighting Hitler.
Pacifism says "By my inaction, I will let the most evil among us, rule." Is that loving your neighbor who is being murdered? I can't see that.