Living Below with Saints I Know

The Second Great Commandment in the Epistles

5 min

Genuine Christian love requires that we be filled with God’s Spirit. When we live in the flesh, conflicts and hurts can damage our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a church ditty that rings lamentably true for so many people:

To live above with saints I love, O that will be glory!
But to live below with saints I know, now that’s another story!

But what is the real problem? Are Christians really that bad? Or do our own attitudes of pride, selfishness, envy, and bitterness hinder us from loving our brother as we ought to love him? In the epistle of I John, the aged disciple has something very striking to say: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20).

When our Lord Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 as the two great commandments, He intertwined our love for God and our love for our brother. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39). In the articles of this month, we have seen in the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels how our love for God is linked inextricably to our love for our fellow man.

The Apostle John emphasized this connection very clearly throughout his first epistle. In Chapter 2, John wrote: “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes” (I John 2:9–11).

In Chapter 3, he wrote again of the importance of loving our brothers in Christ: “For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (I John 3:11–12).

A few verses later, John went so far as to make a man’s love for his brethren a test of true discipleship. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:14–15).

The apostle continued, explaining how our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is enabled by God’s love for us. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I John 3:16). John wrote of God’s great love in another “chapter 3, verse 16” where Jesus Himself said “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.”

The love of the Father toward us was manifested in action. He loved and therefore He gave. So also our love toward our brothers and sisters should be manifested in action. “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (I John 3:17–18).

John continued this very same important theme in the next chapter of his epistle: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (I John 4:7–9).

The apostle was making his appeal from the basis of God’s nature as well as God’s action. Love is Who He is (nature). And love is what He does (action). “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (I John 4:10–11). We also ought to be characterized by love both in our nature (because of Christ in us) and in our actions.

As John the Apostle wrote these words, he was no doubt remembering the unforgettable night in the Upper Room with the Lord Jesus. On that night, Jesus interrupted the Passover meal to stoop down and wash the feet of His disciples. Washing the feet of guests was normally the work of a servant. By laying aside His garments and girding Himself with a towel and then washing the dirty feet of His disciples, Jesus gave them a memorable, striking example of humble love for His brethren: “So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:12–14).

In this same discussion, Jesus gave His disciples a command that the Apostle John never forgot; in fact, he passed it along to us in his epistle: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). This is not a new command in the sense that the Old Testament commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But it is new, fresh, and living in the same sense that Jesus was about to declare in the observance of the Lord’s Supper that the cup was the “new testament” of His blood. The blood of Jesus was a new and perfect blood sacrifice. So also the love of Jesus was a new and perfect love.

No longer do we merely love our neighbor “as ourselves”; we now love our brother “as I [Jesus] have loved you”! This new standard of love was to define the New Testament church in the days beyond the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus into His Father’s glory.

Jesus told His disciples, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Recalling these words that had pierced his heart and mind, John the Apostle wrote the words with which this article began: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20).

Our Lord Jesus is now seated at God the Father’s right hand. If a dying, hate-filled world is to see an example of a living, loving servant, it must be seen in each of us as ambassadors of Christ. (See II Corinthians 5:20.) Jesus left us an example that we should follow in His steps. (See I Peter 2:21.)

What is the visible, distinguishing mark of a disciple of Christ? It is brotherly love—a sacrificial, humble love. It is love not merely in word but also in deed and in truth.

The final days and hours of a year are a good time to honestly evaluate our own hearts and lives. Have you loved your brother as you ought? Is there a brother in Christ against whom you are holding a grudge? Have you offended anyone and failed to ask forgiveness and seek restoration? If so, take the step of humility and restore. Do this before a new year dawns!

May God give us all the grace in the coming year to love as Jesus loved, to serve as Jesus served, and to give as Jesus gave. May we look for practical ways that we can demonstrate daily the love of Christ toward our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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