I love movies. Ever since I can remember from the first time I watched a movie I was fascinated.
An old professor once taught me that you can't understand the New Testament until you understand the Old Testament.
I love movies. Ever since I can remember from the first time I watched a movie I was fascinated. One of the first movies I can remember was one named The Flame and the Arrow. We kids got into the movie for one penny. We sat in the “gods” section of the theater, which was high up and alongside the screen at a 90-degree angle. After the movie, and on our way home we could buy one penny’s worth of chips from the local fish-and-chip shop.
Now, that tells you I’m not a teenager! We lived in a safe society where everyone knew everyone else, and the local owner of the fish-and-chip shop knew who we kids were. We were local kids from poor families who had little, and he kindly kept the price of a small bag of chips below market value when the price of potatoes went up. He knew we had only one penny.
Shortly after World War II ceased, money became a little more available, and we would go down to the “Flea Pit.” That was our name for the movie theatre that was old and run down. We could go in and out whether the movie had started or not. I clearly remember one time entering half way through the movie and had to sit over until it started again to see the beginning.
There are disadvantages to this approach! You don’t know the plot or the people who may be the “goodies” or the “baddies.” You don’t know what they had done. You have no idea of who’s who or what’s what, and this isn’t a good place to be for clarity or understanding about what’s going on in the story line.
An old professor once taught me that you can’t understand the New Testament (NT) until you understand the Old Testament (OT). Some decades went by before I fully comprehended the importance of his point.
I would like to explore this idea of having an understanding about a topic that begins at a specific time in history—in the middle of the movie, so to speak—that gives us an incomplete picture of that topic. To illustrate the point, I will explore the biblical concept of the word “love.”
There is one excellent example in the NT that I believe will clarify this whole concept and approach. That is the discussion between the scribe and Jesus about the greatest commandment of all. There are three renderings of this episode in the gospels (Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 10). I recommend a review of all three to obtain a synoptic or general overview.
Remember: The Gospels were written in the first century A.D. The entire cultural fabric of the early NT Church was “Jewish.” Its understanding of God’s way of life was Torah-based, i.e. based in the teachings and instructions of the Lord.
Now let us look at the example in Mark and the conversation between one scribe and Jesus. Briefly speaking, a scribe posed a trick question to Jesus: “What commandment is the foremost of all?” (Mark 12:28, NASB). Obviously, there were numerous commandments contained in the “Torah,” as well as many man-made rules in addition. This question was designed to place Jesus in the position of making a judgment that would create a discussion with foreseeable, negative consequences.
Jesus answered by citing, “The first of all commandments is to ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord [YHWH] our God is one’” (verse 29). This was followed with the two great principles of: love God, and love neighbor (verses 30-31). The scribe’s answer in verses 32-33 was said to be a wise answer by Jesus.
By only reading the account in the NT we are “entering into the middle of the movie,” so to speak. Why? Because we’ve got to understand the religious context of what “love” meant to that scribe and those reading this account in the first century. And that requires reading the original statements and their context in the OT. As mentioned before, the NT was not yet written when the scribe confronted Jesus with his question.
Going back to the original sources in the OT gives us the full background and understanding to this summary statement in the NT, which is about love. So what did love mean to the Hebrews?
Love Your Neighbor
We find the “love your neighbor” phrase in Leviticus 19:18. The time was soon after the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. God is concrete in His instructions as to how we love our neighbor. It is based in our behavior. A full reading of this chapter reveals that in verses 9-18, God gives us many specific, concrete, objective behaviors that each reflects love for our neighbor.
When we read all of these verses in context (9-18), loving our neighbor really does come down to what we do to each other and how we treat each other. It is a summary statement just as Jesus used it. And it’s based on action. These actions determine our care for our fellow man.
Historically it is clear that Israel did not demonstrate the behaviors that led them to love their neighbor. In short, they were rebellious and stubborn and tempted God 10 times, finally refusing to go into the Promised Land (Numbers 14:22-29). They simply did not trust and obey the Lord God! So He allowed them to wander for 40 years in the wilderness and die off, preventing them from entering the Promised Land.
The next example, to love God, was the first of the two “love commands.” We find this in Deuteronomy 6 in the famous Shema. Before we discuss this, it is important to know that Deuteronomy was written about 40 years after the “love your neighbor” principle in the Book of Leviticus, which is why I discussed that first. Only two individuals survived the wilderness wanderings, Joshua and Caleb (see Numbers 14).
Further, the title Deuteronomy means “second law,” meaning a repetition of the law. Moses wrote this to the people just prior to them entering the Promised Land. The first nine verses of chapter six places the responsibility on Israel to hear, shema, which also by default means to obey. But obey what? God’s statutes, commandments and judgments (verses 1-2). The responsibility to teach loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might to the nation and individually to your entire family in daily living is given and summarized a little later with, “Man shall not live by bread alone: but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The scribe understood all this background and context in the conversation with Jesus. In turn, Jesus concluded with an incredible response saying, “You are nor far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
This remarkable statement by Jesus indicates in the light of the two principles in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6 what our actions, our behavior and our deeds should be in order to demonstrate love! It is not our emotions!
This is an astounding truth. We have been inundated with the notion from every conceivable source of entertainment and literature that love is an emotion! This is because we enter in the middle of the movie! Where did we get that idea, when Scripture clearly says love is action, or behaviorally based?
The idea of emotion being love comes from ancient Greek thought and philosophy. By accepting this, we enter into the movie in the middle, and that voids the original biblical understanding of love. Why? Because we have been taught that love is viewed from an emotional basis only. The inheritance we have from the Greek language places love solely in the emotional domain. Note the three Greek words used to describe love as emotion. Philia, brotherly love, Éros, erotic love and Agápe, godly or committed love.
These are all emotionally based.
The Greek culture taught that emotion is sought first and after that comes commitment. This love is seen and demonstrated by attraction, feelings and emotion and not necessarily in behavior. The need to sustain emotion was necessary or the relationship failed. When emotions change in a relationship due to behavior, emotion can quickly turn into hate, which is the other side of the emotional “coin”!
To comprehend this, consider the horrible high divorce rate in the Western world today.
At this point, it is critical to understand that the Hebrew perspective of love is based in behavior and obedience, not in emotion. The Hebrew verb ahab or love is based in the idea of preferring or choosing. This is not an emotional concept. Jesus said, “If you love [ ahab ] Me, [you will] keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Reworded, “If you prefer (love) or have chosen (love) Me you will do what I say.” Obedient, objective behavior as described in God’s laws is necessary in order to demonstrate godly love in our lives.
The Hebrew concept of love is entirely the opposite to the Greek concept in which emotion comes first then commitment. The Hebrew thinking is that emotion is the outcome or result of behavior.
Loving God and one’s neighbor are actions based in behavior and deeds. Obeying Godly principles of behavior in our relationships are the motivators that stimulate emotions and commitment. These feelings and passions are the outcomes of our good actions. Viewed from a verb perspective, our actions speak louder than words.
The emotions of caring come from doing what God determines is good and right objectively. There is no difference or discrimination in living God’s way in its application to others, whoever they are! The story of the good Samaritan demonstrates this clearly. The Samaritan, despised by the Jews because of his ethnic background, helped a man beaten and stripped of his clothes by thieves. Two “good religious men,” a Levite and a priest, passed by, doing nothing. The despised Samaritan had compassion and mercy—emotions that emanated from behavior and helping the victim.
If we view things from the middle of the movie by only basing our understanding on our inherited Western thought, the result is that we sever the teaching of the Old Testament from the shortened statements recorded between Jesus and the scribe. When we read the Greek meanings of the word “love” in English, we are two full steps away from the original intent of the Hebrew concept of love, which is preferring and choosing God’s ways.
When I think back to, “You can’t understand the New Testament without understanding the Old,” I think the old professor was right. We must go back to the original Hebrew definitions from the beginning about love to truly understand loving our God and our neighbor. Only then can we place the conversation between Jesus and the scribe in its full historic and cultural context to comprehend what it means to be “not far from the Kingdom of God.”