This year, we’ve been talking about living lives of love like Jesus. The question arises: is a message of love too wishy-washy? Does an emphasis on love somehow understate the seriousness of sin? Does love need more backbone?
A good place to look for an answer is Matthew 5 - 7, when Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. Many consider the Sermon on the Mount to be a Jesus manifesto – the summation of His teaching about the Kingdom of God. Since these words come from Him – the same guy we’re supposed to be imitating in our own lives, then we should pay close attention to what He had to say. He did say that if we loved Him, we’d do what He said.
A bit of context first. The world Jesus came into was filled with traditions, rules and commandments. These were largely based upon the Scriptures cherished by the Jews. From the beginning, Jesus made it clear He was not in opposition to anything that had already been revealed by God in the Scriptures. In this famous sermon He said,
“Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (a common euphemism for the Scriptures); I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
That’s pretty clear in my opinion! But don’t stop now – keep reading, because what Jesus says next is even more compelling. Jesus goes on to seriously up the ante when it comes to keeping the law. He says it’s not enough just to keep from murdering someone – you’ve already sinned when you let your anger burn against them. It’s not enough to simply refrain from sleeping with someone other than your spouse – you’ve already sinned just by letting yourself lust after them. It’s not enough to be civil in your divorce – you’ve missed the mark if you divorce in the first place. It’s not enough to believe in justice for your enemies – you’ve fallen short when you fail to love them, even though they are your enemies. And that’s just chapter 5!
Jesus’ message of love doesn’t mean lawlessness. It doesn’t do away with law – it transforms it. Love raises the bar beyond mere obedience. Love commands a change of heart. Maybe I don’t steal from you (and so I keep the law) but that doesn’t mean that I will give you money from my own pocket so that your needs are met. Maybe I don’t kill you (and so I keep the law) but that doesn’t mean I won’t dislike you enough to refuse to raise a finger to help you when you’re in trouble. I can keep the law without loving anybody but myself. But if I love you, then I’m not likely to do any of those things that would hurt you or not be helpful to you.
To live a life of love like Jesus doesn’t mean we take sin lightly. Love makes us fight harder for our marriages. Love makes us more compassionate and generous to the poor. Love makes us stand up to injustice. Love leads us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. No other law can do that.
Maybe it’s helpful to think of Jesus’ message of love as being like a forest. The oldest part of the forest has 640 trees, planted at Sinai. After that, the Jews planted hundreds and hundreds more. There are so many trees in the forest that we can’t even begin to take care of them all! When Jesus came along he didn’t plant more trees. He told us that we were so occupied with the individual trees that we had forgotten the forest! The entire forest can be summed up in one word: love (Romans 13:9 & Galatians 5:14). When we take care of the forest, the trees take care of themselves.
If we get that, we get everything. So does love need more backbone? No – love is the backbone.