The Love Commandment in the New Testament– Part One

It may seem odd, but despite the prominence of commandments to love in the NT, which can also be found in the OT, there have actually not been that many scholarly monographs written on the subject. We could point to the seminal work of C. Spicq, a French scholar, whose mammoth study was finally translated into English, or the classic little book by V.P. Furnish entitled The Love Commandment in the New Testament but scholars have been surprisingly reticent to address this topic in detail, and I am not sure why.

In this post I would like to explore two of the horizontal love commandments– ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (the ‘I’ in question being Jesus). Let’s start with the observation that love is commanded. It’s not optional. It follows as well from this that the sort of love we are talking about in this post, while it certainly may involve feelings is not basically grounded or based in feelings one has for others. Feelings are notably unresponsive to attempts to command them. The sort of love Jesus has in mind then is commandable as well as commendable. It has to do with a decision of the will, resulting in loving actions. This becomes clearer in the second of the two love commands mentioned above. If the disciples of Jesus are to love one another as Jesus loves them, that necessarily entails love in action. Indeed, in the Johannine context in which that commandment was originally given it talks about Jesus loving to the uttermost, even to the point of giving his life for his disciples.

It seems clear then, that the second of these two love commands has to do with discipleship to Jesus and behavior towards fellow disciples, not generally benevolent behavior towards just anyone. It also seems that this comparison– between how a disciple should love another disciple and how Christ loves his disciples is a much stiffer, higher, more demanding love commandment than ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ where the love of self is the point of comparison.

Some modern psychological treatments of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ have not surprisingly, in a narcissistic, me first age, talked about the endorsement of self-love that seems to be implied here. The problem with that is that self-love is not commanded here, it is taken for granted as a point of comparison. And again, this is not about feelings or liking oneself. It’s about love in action.

You will no doubt remember that Jesus had a little debate with a lawyer on who counts as neighbor, leading to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus takes the question from the lawyer to be a question about limits, namely, who is not my neighbor, for example like someone who suggests that people in one’s neighborhood are one’s actual neighbors, and other folks due to lack of proximity don’t qualify. The problem with this, from a NT point of view is that Jesus gives an extreme example of neighborly behavior namely by a Samaritan to a Jew. The implication seems to be that followers of Jesus are to treat everyone else in a neighborly love. The Samaritan as example shows what love in action to any and all neighbors, looks like. The parable then in fact could be said to be an illustration of Jesus’ other horizontal love commandment– namely love thy enemy.

A few implications are worth mentioning. Nothing in what Jesus says implies that when one acts in a loving manner towards ‘the other’ whether neighbor or disciple or enemy, that this implies in any way acceptance of all their behavior. Certainly not. Christians are called to love even racists, but that in no way implies a condoning of racism.

Unfortunately, in current American discourse, the assumption is sometimes made that loving other people means leaving all moral discernment or ethical standards behind. But such a treatment of ‘the other’ would not really be loving. It would in fact be merely indulgent. The love we are talking about is not a love that accepts a person’s bad behavior, it is a love of the person themselves because they are someone whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. The love we are talking about is a holy love, a love that helps the other behave more like God desires, not less. More on this in the next post.

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  • Benjamin Marx

    Dear Dr. Withrerington III,

    My thesis at TEDS was on Rom 13:8-10, though taking a bit of a different route, one of my concerns was the lack of understanding of love.

    I utterly agree that there are moral standards to which the Bible wants our conformity. In my view, love is foundational to ethics, but it is not foundational ethics.

    May I have your permission to repost your writing on my blog (


    Benjamin Marx

    P.S.: My review of your “A Week in the Life of Corinth” just appeared at TrinJ (right after a review by Eckhard J. Schnabel…I feel honored).

  • BenW3

    Hi Benjamin: Great name! Of course you are welcome to share it on the blog. And send me the link to your review. I just finished writing A Week in the Life of Jerusalem (the week being the one in A.D. 70 when the temple went down for the count). BW3

  • Benjamin Marx

    Thank you Dr. Witherinton III,

    I do not have a link yet, but I sent you (via e-mail) a PDF offprint copy which I got from the editor.

    Thanks! I am looking forward to your new book!

    in Christ,

  • Craig Bennett

    Hi Ben. My very first blog post (on word press) was on the power of love. While I would say its more devotional than it is scholarly – I believe I tapped into something that I haven’t heard nor read in any commentary as yet. (Which I know can be treading on dangerous ground, if you believe you have an original idea.) Thoughts?

  • James Mace

    Dear Ben, I am one of those doing for my doctoral thesis at St. Andrews and Kent a
    significant study on the Second Great Commandment in the NT. So please endure my offering the informed and potentially helpfully constructive opinion that you are missing some very important elements that misdirect much in your understanding.

    For one thing, the definition of “neighbour” in Lev 19:17-18 (and therefore in, e.g., Luke 10:27, 29, 36) is most clearly “fellow Israelite,” so the commands you address, the love of neighbour and the love of fellow Christian, are two ways of commanding that the same people be loved.

    Furthermore, even the enemies to be loved in the Lukan context (6:27, 35) are clearly seen in the surrounding co-text (e.g., ca. Luke 6:22-42) to also be fellow Israelites, who are persecuting the godly just like Israel has done since ancient days (Luke 6:23b, 26b). The loving acts particularly enumerated are OT commands on how to treat fellow Israelites (all said to be summed up in Lev 19:18).

    Thus Jesus in the Loyal Samaritan parable actually answers in one fell swoop both questions of the nomikos, i.e., whom must the self-justifying, wrongly exclusivist Judaean love as a fellow Israelite (Luke 10:29) in order to enter into the messianic restoration of all Israel (10:25). The Judaean comes to recognize the covenantally loyal Samaritan as the Israelite that he is (10:37, using a Greek technical phrase for covenant faithfulness).

    And the list goes on and on. After a decade of prayerful research, I am seeing the Second Great Commandment ever more clearly coming into focus as specific love for fellow Christians. Only out of that Gal 6:10 ecclesiology comes greater love for non-covenanters.

  • BenW3

    HI James we will have to disagree on this one at several points. First of all ‘the stranger in the land’ or the ger is clearly included within the definition of neighbor in Leviticus, so that all Israelite dog won’t hunt. Secondly, you seem to be forgetting that neither the Gospel of Mark nor the Gospel of John are written to predominantly Jewish audiences. To the contrary, both Gospels keep having to explain Jewish terms, ideas, locales, etc. So it’s clear enough that the Gospel writers themselves would not agree with an insider only interpretation. Finally, Samaritans were consider not Jews at all. Indeed, Jesus makes a clear distinction between Jews and Samaritans even in terms of how and where they worship and whether they even know the God they are worshiping. So, again, an Israelite only or insider only interpretation, whether the insider is a Jew or a Christian doesn’t deal with the present contexts of what is said in the Gospels…. Blessings on your research, BW3

  • David

    Dr. Ben, We should always remember that Jesus also warned the Disciples that if they love their bretheren only they are no better off than the Pharisee. That love is of limited virture and value. The over riding point in the love commandments seems to be that there are to be no limitations to Chrisitan love – whether we try to limit that love to our geographically-close neighbours; or our religiously-close fellow Christian disciples; or even our racially-close ethnic bretheren

  • James Mace

    Thanks for the reply, and I’ve heard similar objections from many others, but they are unwarranted, a-contextual, logically unnecessary misinterpretations and sometimes not even actually substantive assumptions.

    First and very far from “clearly,” simply loving the ger of Lev 19:34 “like yourself” does not make them a “neighbour” of 19:18, so that universalization won’t hunt. The ger is never termed a neighbour but is always clearly held distinct. Furthermore, the ger was not simply any old stranger but had to conform to specific covenantal proscriptions and prescriptions. They seem to have originated in the mixed multitude that followed along with Israel on the Exodus. They were clearly regulated in Torah within the covenant framework, but you do not reflect knowledge of that in seeming to make them just any old human being that happens to be around. (To the very great contrary, they are more akin to the proselyte than to a non-covenanter, and Cornelius is likely a NT analogue.)

    Second, the point you make about audience is unclear as to how it relates to the definition of “neighbour” (which is what I think you are addressing when you mention “an insider only interpretation”?) unless perhaps one first assumes that “neighbour” is now universalized, not the OT scope of covenant member. That may be circular reasoning. But at any rate the connection you make is unclear and does not strengthen your argument.

    Third, you seem to follow a long line of imprecise terminology in equating the term “Jew” with “Israelite” without remainder. That thinking seems to have bought into the 5-4th-cent. B.C. Judaean polemic that says that only a certain subset of Judaean Israelites are Israel now, and there are no other Israelites (the returning Golah hierarchy tended to even exclude the Judaeans who had remained in the land and not gone into Exile). But Samaritans agree with you that they are not Judaeans (or “Jews”) and have never claimed to be; they are northern Israelites (e.g., Ephraim / Joseph), not southern Judaean Israelites. They name themselves Shomronim, the “Keepers” of Torah (and even the Mishnah admits their greater scrupulousness of observance above Judaeans). But since the 19th century A.D., even modern Jews (Pharisaic Rabbinists) have accepted Samaritanism as a form of Judaism (as much as that is disliked by Samaritan Israelites), and now the Israeli law of Alia / Return includes Samaritans, modern genetics confirms their Israelitism, etc. God knew that, and Jesus knew that, and the Samaritans are recognized as covenant members in Luke-Acts.

    Thanks for the feedback, and I did tell you that I had considered all these things very deeply. Yet is is possible you can come up with a strong objection or one I have never yet considered. However, all the ones you seem to think strong above are really not after in-depth examination.

    I come back to you with a similar claim that you make against my view: that your view of the Second Great Commandment “doesn’t deal with the present contexts of what is said in the Gospels” (which also matches the intra-ecclesial scope given in every single reference to Lev 19:18 in the rest of the NT pericopae in which it is used, cohering with other love commands not overtly linked with Lev 19:18).

  • BenW3

    James…. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that the definition of neighbor held by the lawyer will not do. I worry that it sounds like you are defending the lawyer’s view! I hope not. Jesus’ point is that we should be a neighbor to anyone and everyone, including even those that we have an natural animus against. The word ‘neighbor’ is not a code word for Israelite in Leviticus. Thus the ‘ger’ can certainly be one’s neighbor since he lives within the land and next to Israelites even while he remains a stranger in the land… in other words ethnic differences remain. But ‘neighbor’ is not about ethnicity, its about behavior and how one is to treat the other. BW3

  • James Mace

    No, I agree with Jesus that the lawyer’s view (as the lawyer admitted in 10:37) was wrong and that loyal Samaritans should be considered as fellow Israelite neighbours.

    Jesus’ point is not to change the Torah but to reinforce it against the wrongfully exclusivist Judaean hierarchy’s restrictions (which also added others besides Samaritan Israelites to the list of the wrongfully excluded).

    You know that any word must be defined by the usage within the sentence and larger context. Lev 19:17-18 is a couplet (concluded with “I am Yahweh”) that uses synonymous parallelism to triangulate in on the specific meaning that “neighbour” in Lev 19:18 can only mean fellow covenanter. And this meaning was correctly recognized by centuries of interpreters. If we follow the Gospels’ texts, we see that Jesus does not dispute the OT definition but in Luke 10 corrects the wrongful limitation of it as per the categories of Judaean hierarchical piety which the lawyer / nomikos sough to justify. The burden of proof is on those who without warrant cling to tradition that universalizes “neighbour” out of its Torah meaning based solely on misinterpretation of the Samaritan parable.

    Again, when we go with the text we see no such equation between ‘ger’ and ‘neighbour’ as you so confidently assert is possible (because it really is not possible). Likewise, the insistence that anyone who is outside the covenant is a ‘neighbour’ is not an evidence.

    Now of course the ‘gerim’ and all nations can be fully incorporated into Israel’s covenant (even since Acts 8, 10 and beyond), so it is not about ethnicity now. But one must not confuse the condition of post-atonement, post-resurrection, post-ascension current reality with Jesus’ mission solely to Israel as recorded in the Gospels. I hope nobody I know continues to make that mistake–to interpret Jesus out of the covenant Israelite context which we are presented with in the Gospels.

    Whew! Well, I find this discussion very stimulating, and I pray you take it in the spirit of agape, brother! Love you, Ben! (Gotta go get dinner out of the oven.)

  • James Mace

    Indeed, we are not to limit love, but we are to recognize that the Second Great Commandment is about a special kind of love, love for fellow covenant members, that is of higher priority than other loves for non-covenant members, etc.

    Paul reflected this in Galatians 6:10, where the adverb ‘malista’ is used, indicating that love specifically for fellow Christians is of higher priority: “especially, of first concern, above all, most important, etc.”

    There is widely practiced false piety and incorrect exegesis to insist that there is no special status for intra-ecclesial love. It destroys our centripetal evangelistic attraction (cf. John 17:21), which is likely the primary means of global transformation (following the OT concepts of drawing the nations to Jerusalem, Jesus’ light that attracts, etc.).

  • Merv Olsen

    Dr Ben

    I’m surprised you haven’t come across the monumental work by the late Anglican scholar Dr Leon Morris of Australia …Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible (1981)

    “Leon Morris, with his usual breadth and precision, has given us another of his thorough biblical studies, this time on the theme of love, human and divine. Concise yet complete, studded with a galaxy of fine quotations, written in sprightly style, this book leads us through most everything important the Bible tells us about the wonder and power of love.” – Lewis Smedes

    “With his usual vigorous scholarship and careful attention to the text, Leon Morris here presents a highly rewarding study of the biblical idea of love as set forth in both testaments. He provides an invaluable guide for the student who would explore this central theme of the Bible and a vast repertoire for the minister seeking to instruct his congregation in the nature of divine and human love.” – Kenneth Kantzer;

    “There are few concepts more frequently misunderstood than the Biblical concept of love. Dr. Morris’s work is the most comprehensive and lucid
    treatment of this concept I’ve ever seen. It is a must for our times.” – R.
    C. Sproul.

  • BenW3

    Hi Merv: Honestly, I had forgotten about that book. If memory serves however, he narrows the meaning of who we are obligated to love too much. BW3

  • BenW3

    James I don’t think anyone disagrees with the notion that believers should love their fellow believers, just as Jesus says the disciples should love his fellow disciples. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether there is a wider scope to the word neighbor than to say Israelite, and yes there is… both in the OT and even more so in the NT. It is also a mistake to assume the new covenant is simply a renewal or an extension of the Mosaic covenant, especially when it comes to issues like this. As for Gal. 6.10 it has to do with virtue ethics, doing good, not with love per se, though of course love is presupposed. BW3

  • Michael Fox

    Dr. Ben, thank you for opening up this discussion.

    I believe the two greatest commands to be at “the heart” of spiritual formation, as they move our relationship with God from the place of self-consumed fear occupied by indentured slaves to the place of self-deferred love occupied by adopted children. Our attitude toward self, from my vantage point, is why fear and love cannot dwell together in the same house: fear is entirely selfish and love is entirely selfless.

    And, now a curiosity. . .I understand there is no precise equal in the New Testament Greek to the Old Testament Hebrew’s lovely concept of “chesed.” “Agape” would, of course, at least contend for that honor. And doesn’t agape, at least in terms of scope, magnify the concept of chesed by extending its obligation beyond covenant partners–even to our enemies? Isn’t that at the very core of Jesus’ expressive love?

    The qualities of chesed are profoundly beautiful, but when they are extended by the unfettered reach of agape, they are worthy of awe.

    With gratitude, Michael.

  • BenW3

    Hi Michael: Chesed, in the old KJV tradition was translated loving kindness, but that is disputed these days. Some want to translate it covenant love and loyalty. As for agape, it occurs in the LXX, but not really in secular Greek literature before the time of the NT. It is not clear to me that the Hebrew and Greek terms should be seen as synonyms, in fact I think it’s unlikely. Take for example a text like John 21 where Jesus asks Peter about agape, but he responds with philia. There is a distinction being made here, and philia would seem to be nearer to chesed, it appears to me, except in the case of Yahweh it would mean paternal love presumably BW3

  • Michael Fox

    Thank you for your reply!

  • James Mace

    Chesedh is trans. as ἔλεος in the LXX (cf. Jer 39:18 [32:18 MT]; Hos 6:6, paired with love; Mic 6:8; Zech 7:9, etc.) and is present twice in Luke-Acts particularly re covenant loyalty using the specialized Semitistic Greek phrase, ποιεῖν ἔλεος μετά. It first appears in Luke 1:72 and then later in the Loyal Samaritan parable (Luke 10:37a) describing the Samaritan, which indicates a specifically covenantally faithful sphere of activity.

  • BenW3

    Indeed, and ‘eleos’ means neither love nor loyalty, it means mercy, and lots of fine qualities are paired with love, including of course mercy. Mercy indeed implies a judge who has a law to deal with, and is lenient. It is indeed a forensic term and has to do with covenant or covenant law. Eleos is not however the word for love! And when the King James translators translated hesed as loving kindness… the emphasis was on kindness or mercy… having mercy on someone and so being kind. So it is very debatable that hesed means love or covenant love.

    Blessings, Ben W.

  • James Mace

    I agree it is not a meaning of ‘love’ and that the tradition coming through KJV etc. is misleading. However, it seems you may have a one-dimensional view of eleos that does not comprehend the data, e.g., the way that humans practice eleos toward other covenant partners does not seem best understood within the ‘judge’ category you describe.

    Even such a case as Luke 1:72 where God is being faithful to the ancient covenant promises does not best equate with judicial functioning alone. The human descriptions like the ones I gave in Hosea and Micah describe purely human actions toward other covenant members that do not seem judicial at all, do they?

    And so the common element in eleos by both God and human agents is that they are acting toward human covenant members on the basis of prior covenant structures, i.e., faithfulness or loyalty to the covenant rather than mere forensic or juridical function.

    If you are interested in seeing more about the ποιεῖν ἔλεος μετά phrase as a Semitism referring to observing covenant faithfulness rather than to practicing general ethical mercy or compassion, cf., e.g., BDF, §206; BDAG, 636; Marshall, ‘Luke,’ 450; Strauss, ‘Davidic Messiah,’ 101; Fitzmyer, ‘Luke,’ 888, etc.

  • Lois Tverberg

    Regarding the comments about “chesed” here – I would think since Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18, which uses “ahavah,” that’s the word for “love” that we should be spending most time discussing, rather than “chesed” or the Greek of the NT. I agree that “chesed” is wonderful, but it isn’t that pertinent here.

    Nevertheless, following up on “chesed,” Ben, it seems like there are many places in the Hebrew Bible where “chesed” is not about mercy and has no forensic or judicial overtones. For instance, Hos. 6:4, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love (chesed) is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” Or Psalm 63:3: “Because your love (chesed) is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” Or Prov. 31:26 – “She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction (a “torah” of “chesed”) is on her tongue.”

    Is there something I’m missing here? Just wondering.

  • James Mace

    The larger issue is that we do not better obey the command the love our fellow Christians. I’m surprised you don’t see that the more immediate question is not what the full semantic range of the word “neighbour”
    is; the question is what Lev 19:18 means and what specific meaning is
    given in that specific verse in defining what the Second Great
    Commandment is. To attribute another meaning to “neighbour” in Lev 19:18 than what is exegetically legitimate is to what I object.

    object to undiscerning lack of appreciation of the context of Lev 19:18
    and how we are to understand how the term “neighbour” is used in that
    particular verse in defining the Second Great Commandment (not the Red
    Herring of the entire semantic range of “neighbour” in contexts other
    than Lev 19:18). Surely you see the difference?

    Thus, should one
    strongly desire to change the definition of neighbour in the Second
    Great Commandment, one has the burden of proof to find biblical warrant
    (and it seems to be lacking). Thus “neighbour” as re the Second Great
    Commandment of Lev 19:18 is not universalized in the NT as you want to
    believe (not even in Rom 13:9, as Barth conceded, reversing his initial
    reactionary revulsion).

    In addition to restoring emphasis on love for fellow Christians, recognizing this prevents abuse of the
    scriptural law for socio-political agendas of which you are aware (e.g.,
    like the abuse of Matt 25:40 universalized to all outside the covenant
    context, which some today are twisting to support socialist
    redistributionist schemes).