Jesus was tested with the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” It is well known that the Lord’s answer was “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In his pastoral epistle to the churches in Galatia, the Apostle Paul says, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here he focuses on the second greatest command as the summation of the law as it concerns our relationships with one another.
Later in the letter, in the context of encouraging the loving, gentle-spirited restoration of a brother entrapped in sin or perhaps some unintentional error, Paul instructs, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in so doing you fulfill the law of Christ.” While contemplating this passage, I began to wonder if the law which he said was summed up in “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the same law to which he was referring when he spoke of the “law of Christ.” I suspect that it is not.
I am reminded of what Jesus said to His disciples recorded in John 13, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This is not a reference to the commands which Jesus elsewhere had declared were a summation of all the Old Testament law. This is a “new command.” Perhaps this is what Paul was speaking of when he wrote about fulfilling the law of Christ.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Love one another as Christ has loved you.
Do you notice that when you place them alongside one another like this, it becomes obvious that these are not the same? Love your neighbor is, as Christ said and Paul affirmed, the summation of the Law. This command is still binding and beneficial as Paul says in Galatians 5, and James wrote about in James 2. But what becomes clear, from Jesus’ instruction to His disciples and Paul’s exhortation to the Galatian saints, is that believers are held to another law in relationship to one another: the new command given by Jesus, the law of Christ, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is not enough for relationships between believers. We are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us. This love is illustrated in Christ’s sacrifice for us and clearly instructed in passages like Ephesians 5:1, 2; 1 Peter 1:22 & 4:8-10; and 1 John 4:7-11. The standard of measurement for this love is not self-love, but self-sacrifice. According to Paul’s instruction in Galatians 6, it is put into action by bearing the burdens of others, even the burden of their sin. Christ bore the burden of our sin for the purpose of propitiation. In the Body of Christ, we are called to bear the burden of one another’s sin for the purpose of restoration. In doing this, we fulfill the law of Christ.
Bearing the burden of another’s sin for the purpose of restoration certainly must refer to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, where we go to our brother, of whose sin we have been made aware, to show him his fault. Jesus instructs that “if he listens, you have won your brother.” Winning your brother means that the broken relationship is restored, but that does not depend simply upon the offender’s repentance. It also implies that the forgiveness of the offender by those who have been offended must be full and whole-hearted.
When we show mercy to those who have sinned or become entangled in some unintentional error, by going to them in love and a sincere spirit of forgiveness seeking to restore them gently, we lighten the burden of their sin. We bear some of that burden ourselves by addressing their sin as the Lord instructs in Matthew 18:21-35, with mercy and forgiveness instead of judgment. And we are strongly enjoined not to add to their burden by being vengeful (Rom. 12:19-21) or unforgiving (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Now, in His teaching recorded in Matthew 18, the Lord allows for times when a person fails to “listen” and continues in unrepentant sin. Yet, even then, His plan calls for more people to bear the burden of that brother’s sin by going to him together, first as a small group, then as a church, with the same gentle-spirited, restorative aim. Finally, when the person persists in unrepentance, and the church is to treat him as they would a “pagan or a tax collector,” even then we are guided by how Jesus’ treated “sinners and tax collectors” in Matthew 9. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
I must admit, this is not how I am inclined to interact with those I know who have sinned. It is also not how I have observed churches to carry out “church discipline.” But I am convinced that these passages of Scripture reveal the spirit which should guide our hearts, thinking, and our actions in relationship to those of our brothers who have sinned against us individually or amongst us as a body of believers.
Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth and in his first letter to Timothy contain more insights about the application of these truths to specific circumstances with which the church may be confronted. But I believe that a careful examination of these passages reveals that Paul taught the same principles and exhorted the same spirit as we find in the example and teaching of our Lord.
Jesus called His disciples to obedience to a “new command.” His requirement is that we love one another as He has loved us. He said that our Gospel testimony depends upon it. “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”