On at least one occasion, Jesus was asked by the religious leaders of his day, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (see Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34–40; Luke 10:25–28)
By Jesus’ response, he links two essential commands together. He emphasizes the preeminent command to love God with everything and above everything, and then he tethers this all-surpassing love to the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. He even goes so far as to say that this second command is like the first. Essentially, Jesus is teaching that you and I cannot love God (who we cannot see) without loving our neighbor (who we can see). Loving people cannot be considered as mere consequence to our love for God. Loving people is the necessary evidence of our love for God.
Building from that love of neighbor, the New Testament ups the ante when those neighbors are brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus gave his disciples a “new commandment.” He told them to “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
How is this commandment new? Hasn’t Jesus been teaching love of neighbor? Yes, but this command is new in at least two significant ways.
First, this love is not general but specific, directed toward his followers. Second, this love is not natural but heavenly, the standard is not how we love ourselves, but “as he has loved us.”
While we offer unconditional and demonstrable love to our neighbors (anyone who is near), there is a special, elevated, familial, determined, and sacrificial love that we offer to other believers. Paul echoes this idea when he commands the saints in Galatia to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10, emphasis added) Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by the love we have for one another (John 13:35).
I have always found it curious that Jesus did not say that the world would know we belong to Jesus because of how we love them. Instead, God has chosen to display himself to the world through his people. Believers should possess for one another such a unique, supernatural, and puzzling love that the when the world sees the church, they see Jesus.
Consider the numerous “one another” commands in Scripture. Believers are told to “love one another” at least 15 times in the New Testament. Peter even calls for Christ’s followers to “love one another deeply, from the heart.” (I Peter 3:8) Paul says, “Make your love increase and overflow for each other.” (I Thessalonians 3:12)
What does this love look like? Consider these instructions: “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50); “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10); “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10); “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13); “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); “Be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2); “In humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); “Pray for each other” (James 5:16); and “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Colossians 3:13).
These commands are wonderful and tangible ways we can show our love for all people – and we should seek to do just that. But consider to whom these commands are directed, especially this one: Let us also consider this one: “Live in harmony with one another” (I Peter 3:8).
This is how brothers and sisters in Christ are to dwell together and live life alongside one another in the local church. There is no other context in which we can display God’s love in the manner and to the magnitude that he intends.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that a believer cannot know or express the love of God outside the local church – of course you can! You just cannot do it as well.
I am not saying you cannot be a believer without being a faithful member of a local church. Sure, it’s possible, but no believer can reach maturity in Christ apart from their union to other believers in the local church (Ephesians 4:11-16).
When we pick and choose those with whom we fellowship, and when we make our participation in the local church dependent on our opinions, our beliefs, and our preferences, we are not loving any differently than the world loves (Luke 6:32).
A conditional kind of love is natural, normal, weak, and it doesn’t impress anyone. It certainly does not cause unbelievers to take notice and stand in awe of God. Rather, it hides his wisdom, obscures his love, diminishes his word, and it leaves his people immature. It is no wonder why the church struggles to be effective — we have made faith and worship a consumer product, contingent on our personal tastes.
But imagine with me, a people who faithfully gather and supernaturally love and diligently labor for the gospel. And imagine what it means for the gospel of Christ to be the glue that binds a church together. Imagine how they would tenaciously love and serve one another. Individuals with various backgrounds, different socio-economic standings, different races, different passions, different opinions, different politics, and different preferences would become “one body and one Spirit… called to the one hope that belongs to [our] call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4–6)
Now THAT would be something to see! THAT would be worth pursuing. THAT would glorify God. Every believer should be a member of a local church where we can pursue this kind of love together.
If there is anything else I do to help you along this journey, please reach out in the comment section or at firstname.lastname@example.org.