Instead of writing to a specific congregation as Paul did, the Apostle John writes to the entire church. In his first letter, he addresses Christian love. This form of love is profoundly spiritual and likely radical in the first century.John sees in the message of Jesus a ministry of love and he completely understands the teachings of theChrist based solely in love.John has the mission of assuring that those who have become followers of Jesus understand Jesus’ message. For example, in the First Letter of John he writes,
The emotion of love is expressed other ancient texts, therefore, John is not writing about something people did not understand. Certainly, the ancients loved. Parents loved their children and vice-versa. Men and women loved each other both passionately and platonically. Nevertheless, the love John addresses is unconditional love.
Although the Apostle speaks of and encourages love within the community of believers, his emphasis is on the love of God. He instructs us over the millennia that those who love God first will love others. In loving others, the lover sees the loving spirit in the other.John is reiterating the words of Jesus,
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15:9-12).
Jesus speaks in terms of commandments or teachings. This is a language his followers understand and can relate his words to those brought down from the mountain by Moses(as written in the Torah). The law, as the scribes and teachers of the Jewish people codify it has become the central part of faith for those who hold to an orthodox view of the Mosaic teachings. Jesus knows the law, but more important, he knows its purpose. When challenged by some Pharisees to tell them what of the Ten Commandments are most important Jesus replies,
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
In this reply, he is using words from the Books of Leviticus instructing the Hebrews to love their neighbors (19:18) and Deuteronomy instructing the people to love God (6:5). In other words, the concept of Divine love is not new to the disciples, nor is it new to the Pharisees. The entire Hebrew Scripture teaches that God is love and that humanity in turn is to love God. From that, unconditional love comes; the love people are to have for one another.
Let us for a moment consider the construction of the commandments Moses carried down from the mountain to the Hebrew people. The first four commandments are about loving God.
- Love God and reject all other things we turn into gods.
- Make no image of God; that is, avoid idolatry. In addition, we are to avoid idolizing those material things we may adore–often adoring them above God.
- Flippant or unworthy use of the name of God is unworthy of people who love God.
- If God has taken time from labor to rest, the people of God are to do the same. In other words, we are to imitate the Divine.
The second part deals with human interaction.
- Love and respect our parents, or heritage.
- Love human life.
- Respect the right for others to have and hold property
- Respect and protect the personal space and person of others.
This ultimately means loving your neighbor as yourself.
Societal rules and legal conditions exist in order for humanity to live peaceably in community. Law and social mores were in place long before Moses climbed the mountain to bring down the “Ten Teachings” to the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. The basic difference in the Mosaic teachings from other ancient rules seems to be that the element of Divine love. This love now is essential to human life and extends into treating others, as each also wants to be treated. However, the teachings became a basis for cold legalism rather than for teaching love of God and love of neighbor, much less love for one’s own being as a creature of God.
Jesus revises the Mosaic standard by teaching that there is a better, or as the Apostle Paul writes, “A more excellent way,” to deal with each other. That better way begins with knowing that God is the very essence of love and our first attention is to that love in order for humanity to begin to have respect for its own existence.
What is love?
We can define it in Greek terms as familial, passionate, platonic, communal, and unconditional. The Greeks of the ancient world had words helping them describe the love parents and children have for one another—filial. Husbands and wives can be passionate and affectionate—erotic and platonic. The Greeks had a word to describe the love they had for extended family, clan, tribe, community, state, and nation; this form of love in ancient Greek is storgé love. Their word for uncoditional love is agape.
All that is helpful, but those concepts and terms are classifications only. The question remains, what is love?
The Apostle Paul defines Christian love precisely without using categories or legal terms. He defines love in terms of behavior. Almost everyone knows of his descriptive outline of love:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).
Paul continues instructing that all the things we think are important will someday end only love prevails.
The expressions of love, regardless of their categories, are in the end the behaviors demonstrated by Christ Jesus and expressed by the Apostles John and Paul. Therefore, if we say to a person, “I tell you this because I love you…” be wary that your words reflect behavior.
Ultimately, Jesus invites the world into a sphere of faith based in hope of the resurrection, but more important, Jesus invites us into a world based in love; an unconditional love for God, others, and self. This love never ends.