A Royal Law of Love

Many religious people embrace the idea of loving others as themselves but remain blissfully unaware of how the Bible defines love. As a result, they do not understand the necessity of putting into practice the biblical principles that determine the success or failure of their relationships.

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John:4:7-8).

Jesus Christ founded the Christian faith on the principle of love—Christians wholeheartedly loving God and each other. John, one of Christ's disciples and closest friends, penned these words near the end of his life: "And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (1 John:4:16, emphasis added throughout unless otherwise noted).

But what is love?

Ask your friends to explain it to you. See whether they all portray it the same way. Will they describe it as a feeling? Or will they define it as deeply caring for others but leave you to figure out what "caring" means? How many will equate love with some form of sexual attraction?

It quickly becomes clear that the word love doesn't always mean the same thing. One person may say, "I love ice cream," simply meaning he enjoys it. Another will say, "Oh, I love your outfit," meaning she admires—or desires—the clothing you are wearing.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could use a consistent definition of love, especially when we are speaking about the love God has for us and the love we should have for each other?

Sadly, such consistency is lacking in the world. Most people will acknowledge that love, or at least some degree of respect, is essential for personal relationships. A great deal of caution is in order as we consider the definitions of love. Some are so vague they excuse almost any type of behavior. At times, love is merely a code word to encourage the acceptance of unconventional, destructive patterns of conduct.

Many religious people embrace the idea of loving others as themselves but remain blissfully unaware of how the Bible defines love. As a result, they do not understand the necessity of putting into practice the biblical principles that determine the success or failure of their relationships.

The Ten Commandments define love

For love to be meaningful it must be accurately defined and understood. That is the purpose of God's law, especially the Ten Commandments.

Do you know the ultimate purpose of God's law? Jesus Christ defined the purpose of God's law as teaching us how to apply the two great principles of loving God and loving each other. He made this clear when someone asked Him, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" How did Jesus respond? "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matthew:22:35-40).

With our explosive increase in knowledge, why is it that so few understand this fundamental biblical truth? Why can't everyone grasp that "all the Law and the Prophets," those scriptures we know as the Old Testament, first teach us the right way to love, then vividly depict the problems and penalties that arise from a lack of love? Why do so many people believe that godly love is taught only in the New Testament?

Love in the Old Testament

Love is the centerpiece of all the Scriptures, of both the Old and the New Testaments. Amazingly to most people, it is in the Old Testament that we first find the instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus:19:18).

It is there also that Moses wrote, "And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy:10:12-13).

Every commandment of God is for our good. Did you notice in the preceding passage that obeying God's commandments and practicing love are irrevocably linked together in God's eyes? This is because the commandments define the love that is the foundation for all godly relationships.

Love simply summarizes the intent of the Ten Commandments. Paul wrote: "The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Romans:13:9, New Revised Standard Version).

God's love for mankind

From the beginning, God's interaction with human beings has been motivated by His love for us. As Jesus said: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John:3:16-17).

God wants us all to live forever—to attain eternal life. But first we must learn how to get along with each other, how to love one another. That is why love is so important.

Peace and harmony are impossible without respect and love. If God were to grant us eternal life without teaching us how to love each other, He would be committing us to live forever in confusion and chaos.

God will not allow the present resentments, jealousies, hostilities and selfish desires of human nature to carry forward into eternity. We must learn the real meaning of love or we cannot receive eternal life. "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren," wrote the apostle John. "He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John:3:14-15).

So we come again to the question: What is love? John gives us the answer. "This is love, that we walk according to His commandments . . ." (2 John:1:6).

The apostle Paul tells us that "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans:13:10, King James Version).

Another biblical writer, James, shows us clearly that God's royal law of love specifically includes the Ten Commandments. "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said [in the Ten Commandments], 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law" (James:2:8-11).

What is sin?

Notice how the Bible defines sin: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (1 John:3:4). Or, as the King James Version puts it, "sin is the transgression of the law." According to the Bible, sin is simply breaking any of God's commandments.

How does sin affect one's relationship with Jesus Christ? "But you know that [Jesus Christ] appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him" (1 John:3:5-6, New International Version).

Sobering statements, indeed.

John continues, "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother" (verse 10, NIV).

How do we know that we know God and can have a right relationship with Him? "The man who says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (1 John:2:4-6, NIV).

How did Jesus walk? He told us, "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" (John:15:10).

"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say" (John:12:49-50, NIV).

In Jesus Christ's own words, "abiding in"—or maintaining the practice of—godly love is accomplished by keeping the commandments of God. His example teaches us that obedience and godly love are inseparable. Sin is simply violating love by transgressing the commandments of God. Sin is lawlessness—neglecting or refusing to be bound by God's rules that define true, godly love.

Law and liberty

God does not give us the liberty to behave any way we please. Though the Bible portrays God's law as a law of liberty, it plainly defines liberty as freedom from sin and its devastating consequences, not freedom to satiate selfish desires.

Our sins inflict upon us horrible penalties. Decrying the sinfulness of mankind, Paul wrote, "Destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known" (Romans:3:16-17). He compares the effects of sin to slavery—the opposite of liberty. "When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!" (Romans:6:20-21, NIV).

Sin, the transgression of God's law, not only enslaves us but, if continued, makes it impossible for us to receive eternal life (Matthew:19:17). That is why James tells us, "So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty" (James:2:12). God's commandments set the fundamental standard by which He will judge us.

Only when we repent, by ceasing to transgress God's law, can we be liberated from sin's consequences through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, which alone can cleanse us from our sins (Acts:2:38; 1 John:1:7). Paul explains that this true freedom from the bondage of sin is available only to those who sincerely obey God's instruction. "But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered" (Romans:6:17).

John ties it all together, explaining that obeying God's commandments is putting into practice the love of God. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John:5:3). Instead of being an encumbrance, the commandments of God light the path to godly love and liberty. This truth is poignantly illustrated in Psalm:119:98-105: "You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word. I have not departed from Your judgments, for You Yourself have taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."

No wonder Jesus reminded us, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" (Matthew:4:4, quoting Deuteronomy:8:3).

The Ten Commandments are the backbone of all the inspired words of God. Paul tells us, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything" (1 Corinthians:7:19, NRSV).

A guide to conduct

If you think of the Bible as a guidebook for human behavior, the Ten Commandments serve as the main headings in its table of contents. By themselves, the commandments do not tell the whole story, but they clearly summarize it.

Jesus said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew:5:17). By "fulfill," He meant that His teachings would fill out or expand the application of the commandments of God. The Greek word pleroo, which is translated "fulfill," means "to make full, to fill to the full" ( Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words , 1985, "Fill"). Other appropriate phrases for pleroo in this context are "to fill to the brim," "to level up," "to make replete."

Jesus Christ emphasized to His disciples that His mission and purpose was to add to or fill to the full the intended meaning of the Ten Commandments—not to annul or take away from them. To make this point, in this same passage He affirms some specific commandments and then greatly expands their application.

He first focuses on the commandment forbidding murder. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (verses 21-22).

Jesus Christ showed that the principle embodied in this commandment goes far beyond the taking of human life. It includes the destructive effects of anger and bitterness. Christ explained that condemning and hating someone in our hearts could prevent us from inheriting eternal life. In other words, Jesus showed that His teachings amplify and explain the required behavior summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Relationships and the Ten Commandments

When Jesus explained that everything written in "the Law and the Prophets" falls under the two major headings of love for God and love for neighbor, He was emphasizing the importance of relationships (Matthew:22:35-40). He was telling us that every command of God defines an aspect of the exemplary relationships we should have with each other or with Him.

When we look closely at the Ten Commandments, we see that the first four define how to relate to God—how to show proper love and respect for our Maker. The other six define the essentials for right relationships with each other. This is fundamental to understanding God's laws and their importance.

They are not mere regulations or rituals. Those who cast them in this light misunderstand God's intent and purpose in giving us His law.

God plainly tells us that all of His commandments are for our good. They have a purpose. They are to be a blessing and benefit to humankind. They define the relationships that produce respect, cooperation and stability within any society that fully understands and applies them.

The purpose of this booklet is to help you more fully understand and apply the Ten Commandments. Too many people see them merely as a list of don'ts and fail to grasp their real purpose. We hope this booklet will inspire you to so appreciate the wisdom of God that you will look to His commandments as your standard for behavior. This is the example set for us by Jesus Christ (John:15:10; 1 Peter:2:21; 1 John:2:6).

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Can you find a proven source for lasting standards and values? God revealed the heart of His standards--the Ten Commandments--long ago at Mount Sinai. But what sets them apart from man-made rules and guidelines? What do they reveal about nature of God Himself. In this booklet you'll discover the answers to these questions and more.

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Can you find a proven source for lasting standards and values? God revealed the heart of His standards--the Ten Commandments--long ago at Mount Sinai. But what sets them apart from man-made rules and guidelines? What do they reveal about nature of God Himself. In this booklet you'll discover the answers to these questions and more.

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