I’ve said before that the whole of Scripture is about one thing—love. But God defines this agape love as other-centered and self-giving. It literally means “good will,” which is where we get the word “benevolence” (from the Latin bene volentem: to use our volition, or will, for the benefit of another). This is another reason Jesus’ Kingdom is so subversive.
The culture we live in rarely sees love this way. To quote the Righteous Brothers classic song, when we’ve “lost that loving feeling,” we look elsewhere in search of this romanticized illusion, swooning and swaying under the mercurial moonlight of what John Piper perceptively called emotional existentialism.
I grew up in the well-meaning but misguided 60’s generation that boldly proclaimed peace and love, but only produced brokenness and disillusionment. The “If it feels good, do it” freedom we sought after only brought us into further bondage.
Jesus defined the greatest demonstration of love as laying your life down for another (John 15:13). He summed up “all the Law and Prophets” (meaning, the Old Testament) as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving others as ourselves (Matt.22:37-40).
This is the same overarching message throughout the New Testament, starting with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is what “loving your neighbor as yourself” looks like in everyday life.
This is why Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it:
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. (Matt.5:17 *)
But this statement is widely misunderstood and misapplied. Read out of its context, we’ll focus on what we’re not to do, on sin-management, turning our freedom in Christ into an absurd “whack-a-mole” journey of frustration, trying to obey all the jots and tittles.
That isn’t what Jesus meant at all! His teaching reveals what He meant: everything that “the Law and the Prophets” was all about is fulfilled when we let Love work in us. And love is a Person (1 John 4:8). Paul and the New Testament writers affirmed this ne plus ultra understanding:
10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom.13:10 *)
If you get this one point, congratulations, you get the whole Bible! You get God and you begin to get what it looks like to actually follow Jesus.
Dealing with our relational dysfunction
Last time, I said that the rest of chapter five (vs.21-48) is where Jesus takes us below the surface-level “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” probing the depths of our “iceberg” with surgical precision, marking out the six underlying negative issues that shipwreck relationships and keep us from “loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
These six relational root issues are as follows:
- Anger – vs. 21-26
- Sexual attraction (lust) – vs. 27-30
- Marital dissatisfaction – vs. 31-32
- Influence through manipulation (vows) – vs. 33-37
- Revenge – vs. 38-42
- Hating our enemies – vs. 43-48
Put another way, it’s not possible to walk in other-centered love while embracing these negative relational issues. These, and those mentioned in chapter six and seven, are the areas where we will certainly do “harm to our neighbor.” This is why the Sermon on the Mount is so important in following Jesus.
The escalation of self-interest and fear
What we need to see in Jesus’ short statements about these six areas is what it looks like when we move away from agape love toward self-interest and fear in relational conflict.
For instance, why does Jesus equate anger with murder?
What He’s brilliantly revealing is the trajectory of dysfunctional relational behavior as it relates to unrestrained anger. Anger leads to contempt, which leads to malice, which can ultimately lead to murder. Each step involves a progressive degrading of a human life made in God’s image and who has infinite value to Him (John 3:16). It’s an evil escalation toward the total devaluation of another human life to the point where one actually feels justified in destroying it. They make me so angry…I want to see them dead! Do you see the deceptively evil nature of this yet? Of course, this “murder” doesn’t have to be literal to be of the same spirit.
Here’s a diagram I have used to illustrate this trajectory:
To be clear, getting angry is not sinful; staying angry is, and when we do, we give Satan permission to wreak havoc in our lives (Eph.4:26-27). It’s not only an insidious demonic deception, but we’re ignoring the warning signs the Spirit is trying to give us about us. Sustained anger reveals our hidden self-righteousness.
As Dallas Willard says, “Find a person who has embraced anger, and you find a person with a wounded ego.” (The Divine Conspiracy). The solution to anger is to let Jesus under our “iceberg,” to do surgery on our heart and make us a whole human being again. We ignore this to our own peril.
We can also see the same type of trajectory with lust and adultery (Matt.5:27-32). Like the trajectory from anger to murder, each step in cultivating lust is an escalation toward the degradation of a human life and away from agape love. Its evil fruit includes sexual harassment, pornography, sexual assault, rape, even rape-murder.
Wrongful sex and violence are the two main contributors to all societal upheaval, are they not?
To be continued…