A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” His answer? “‘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’” (Matthew 22:36–39).
Many people claim to love God, and the majority are probably sincere in that belief, but do they pass the biblical test? John, the Apostle of love, tells us, "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him" (1 John 2:3–5). The New Bible Commentary Revised comments on these verses: "Next comes a test by which men can know whether, in spite of their failures, they are in a right relationship with God, and walking in fellowship with Him. The test is whether they keep His commandments."
John continues a few chapters later, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). How many swallow the line that it is burdensome to keep God's commandments? That is what I was told when I was coming to the knowledge of the truth.
Everything begins with our relationship with our Creator. Unless that is right, we cannot fulfill the second of the great commandments (James 2:10). John also reveals that no one who hates his brother loves God. "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also" (1 John 4:20–21).
It is evident that loving God and loving our neighbor fit together. We cannot do one without doing the other. We do not love God if we do not love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor with godly love unless we have God's love in us through the power of His Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).
Who Is Your Neighbor?
This brings us to a vital question: How much love do we have for our neighbor?
Love is more than an emotion. Godly love requires action! Yet, some members do all they can to avoid their earthly neighbors. Perhaps you have heard one of these justifications: "Familiarity breeds contempt, so I keep my distance." "We are to come out of this world and my neighbors are in this world." "I don't want to have to deal with questions about Christmas or the Sabbath." Some churches go so far as to command their members not to fellowship with those outside of their organizations! How misguided! How sad!
It is true that we should prioritize helping those who are spiritually like-minded. "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). We all have limited time and resources, and yes, our first concern is to those of the household of faith, but the Bible tells us to "do good to all," and there are numerous admonitions in Scripture to care for outsiders.
One of the most well-known parables is that of the Good Samaritan. Jesus gave it in response to a self-justifying lawyer who asked, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). The parable is so well recognized that it requires little rehearsing. Jesus used it to demonstrate that our self-assumed status is not what matters. Rather, how we treat others is what matters. We read how a priest and a Levite passed by a man robbed and beaten by thieves, but a Samaritan, one despised by the Jews, went out of his way to give aid (vv. 30–35). Concluding the parable, Jesus asked the lawyer, "So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" And the lawyer replied, "He who showed mercy on him" (vv. 36–37).
We ought to be the best neighbors in our communities, helping where needed. Does this mean we should volunteer our time at "skid row" food kitchens? No one can deny that a warm meal is a service to a hungry person, but we need to make sure our heads work with our hearts. Such programs may make us feel good, as though we are doing something significant, but is there any lasting benefit? Have we done anything to help anyone off skid row and into a more productive life? Are we even capable of doing such a thing at this time? Is this how we should spend our energy and resources? Each of us must evaluate our own circumstances and opportunities.
Consider whether there are better ways to help. Are there closer neighbors? Checking on an elderly neighbor, mowing her lawn or shoveling his snow, may be of genuine benefit to someone who has a need and who may live as close as next door. Cooking a meal for a sick neighbor may also be appropriate. Watching over someone's home while he is on vacation and walking and feeding his dog may be much appreciated. Of course, this requires knowing our neighbors well enough to understand their needs, and well enough to be trusted by them. These may seem small deeds, but they can be meaningful.
My wife and I have some very good neighbors where we live. Two of them have stepped up to mow our lawn when we were out of town for a week. One traded out his vehicle and gave me a spare tire that fit mine. When I thanked him for mowing our lawn, or offered to pay for the tire, his reply was, "What are neighbors for?" Do we have the same attitude?
Love Made Visible
On the night of Jesus' last Passover, He instructed His disciples—and those of us who follow in their footsteps—in the importance of expressing love by observable actions. "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). How can anyone know that we "have love for one another" unless they observe acts of love? But this brings up another question. Did Jesus not tell us not to let our charitable deeds be shown? "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1).
The key is in the final phrase of the sentence: "to be seen by them." In other words, "showing off" should not be the motivation for our good deeds. Calling up the television station to let them know you have organized a work party in a flood zone is not the thing to do. This happens all too often during natural disasters, as I have seen firsthand. So, it is a delicate balance. Or is it?
Jesus tells us that when He returns He is going to separate individuals as a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. He will invite the sheep into His kingdom, because "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me" (Matthew 25:35–36). The righteous then protest, "Lord, when did we see You" in these conditions? He replies, "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (v. 40). The reverse is then recounted in verses 41–46.
One very hot day this summer when my wife and I had been doing yard work, our clothes were soaked with sweat and Carol was spent. It was then that a neighbor lady brought a couple bottles of cold water over to us. We took a break, the three of us enjoyed each other's company, Carol and I were refreshed, and then we finished the job. This lady was an example of a good neighbor!
One may counter that the actions described in Matthew 25 only apply to "My brethren" and not to the world as a whole. The point is that we, as the household of God, should not consider our good deeds extraordinary. We should not think, "I'm really doing a great thing by this deed." We should make it "second nature" to do right because it is right.
Living the Way
True Christianity is a way of life (Acts 18:25; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). That way encompasses many things. In the context of these references to "the way," the most obvious application is that those walking in it were followers of Jesus Christ, their Savior. They understood Him as the Messiah who came to die on our behalf, but also understood that He is coming again. Keeping the Sabbath and Holy Days would not have differentiated them from millions of Jews living in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries in the first century. "The way" goes beyond those observances.
That way was and is different in many respects, and one is how we treat our neighbors (John 13:34–35). We are to do what Christ commanded and walk as He walked (Luke 6:46; 1 John 2:6). He expects a higher standard under the New Covenant. We are not only to love our neighbor, but even our enemies, and that love is expressed in what we do. "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you… for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" (Matthew 5:44–46; see also Luke 6:27–36). Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).
During my first few years in the ministry, we visited many "GOTO's," people who had requested a visit or wanted to know about baptism or attending services. Street numbers are not always easy to read, but there was a common denominator when looking for a home: We could look for the most run-down property on the block! Yes, this is an exaggeration, but it was not a rare occurrence. The Apostle Paul would understand this (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). Yes, God calls the weak of the world, but nowhere does it say that we are to remain the weak.
The world often judges by outward appearance, and let us be honest: We often do the same. Is this not what James warned us against in James 2:1–9? Does this mean that our outward appearance is not important? Is it not being a good neighbor to take care of our property and so lift the value of our neighborhood? Did not God command Adam "to tend and keep" the garden (Genesis 2:15)?
Being a good neighbor involves many things, far more than this article can list, but with a little thought, we can all come up with ways to show genuine concern for those around us. Practiced thoughts and actions eventually become part of our character—again, "second nature," as we often say. Godly character is expressed in the two great commandments. And who knows what long-term good may come from your example (1 Corinthians 7:16; Ecclesiastes 11:5–6)?
Our best friends and greatest service efforts ought to be among the family of God, but there are also plenty of opportunities to serve our closest neighbors: the homes around us, co-workers on the job, classmates, and let us not forget those who share our abode. Let us not forget Jesus' admonition, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).