God is love, but what is love? (Que the music)

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I recently came across a cartoon with a quote about something Jesus might have said to people. “The difference between you and me is that you use scripture to define love, I use love to define scripture.” You can view it here!

It sounds amazing because the focus of love is our culture’s top attribute. Love, in our culture, seems to focus on both how we not only treat someone but also accepting their choices. Even further, our culture says we should encourage the choices people make for themselves and it’s not enough to disagree with them we need to agree with them because real love does not make any judgements.

That is what this cartoon seems to communicate; Jesus doesn’t judge anyone’s use of love because love is undefinable and therefore open for us as people to interpretation. Therefore when it comes to God’s word, we can use this pre-determined definition of love to determine how we read scripture.

The go to response to justify this is, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b & 16b, NIV). 

The main problem is this, what is Jesus’ definition of love apart from scripture?

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I have several responses to this line of thinking that I need to break it down into two major areas. One is the use of scripture and the other is the use of scripture. This may sound like complete sarcasm, which it is in part, but it is also about how we use scripture and how we do not use scripture, which is two sides of the same coin.

Here is what I mean. If there is something outside of scripture that is of higher value, then scripture is no longer our highest form of authority for truth.  In our efforts to seek truth as human beings, we can look to a myriad of areas in history and life. We can look at other religions, we can look at the humanities both philosophy and ethics.  We can look to science or humanism.  Truth is something that people have whether they accept it or not, the question is who is right? Who has the true version of truth?

Every major world religion claims to have the only form of truth that is acceptable to their deity. It isn’t arrogant for a Christian to quote Jesus when he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV). Christians proclaim that the only truth we hold to, is that which is espoused by this one claim that Jesus has all of our answers.

That is all based on what is written down in scripture, not based on our current understanding or defining of truth from any other area of life.

Here is how we use scripture, understand what God intended the human author to write and convey to the audience. Then decide if we are that audience and can receive that same application. If there is something that appears to be culturally specific, which requires a whole other process, there will always be a principle that can be found to apply to us today, if we are the intended audience. If there is no application there is something we can learn about the Triune God’s character and/or behavior.

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Here is how we do not use scripture: “If it is not in the Bible, then we can do whatever we want on the matter.” Where the Bible seems silent on an issue, then there will always be a principle that can apply to today. The Bible is never silent on depraved human ideals, sin is nothing new to the biblical authors and therefore the cross-cultural and time period principle can be found, we just have to correctly identify it.

Here is the misunderstanding of the cartoon. It seems to imply that Jesus is using love to interpret scripture, as if love is a greater ideal than scripture itself. Is there is something that can be known about love outside of scripture? If Jesus uses love to interpret scripture, He must be consistent with the biblical teaching of love to do that. Jesus must use scripture to interpret scripture, and in fact He does. All of Jesus’ answers as found in direct responses to people or in parables, can be traced back to the Old Testament. Even his actions that seem new, He says are to fulfill the prophecies, as found in the Old Testament, about him. 

What is the biblical understanding of love that Jesus would use to interpret scripture? Jesus was asked, what is the greatest commandment? In all four Gospels (Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28 and John 13:31-35) we find Jesus defining the commandments as loving God and loving others as we love ourselves.  He tells us we should love, now what is his understanding of love?

Jesus is quoting from several places in the Old Testament.  Two examples are: Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18. Love is an action that is displayed with our heart, mind, soul and strength. Love is a response to doing what God has asked us to do based off of his commandments which are an overflow of who He is as God.  The reality is that we misunderstand 1 John 4:8 by saying God is our understanding of love, which is what is implied when people use this verse to justify sinful behaviors. John talks about love in one primary way, an act of obedience.

“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God[a] is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6, NIV).

“The use of love requires that we understand how Jesus would define love and that comes from scripture.”

All this to say, Jesus cannot use love to interpret scripture if it is not found in scripture, because He would be contradicting himself and would not be God. The use of love requires that we understand how Jesus would define love and that comes from scripture. What scripture tells us about Jesus’ life, we should follow. If we think Jesus is silent on an issue then we need to look harder and find the principles within the Jewish and Greek cultural contexts the biblical authors were writing in.

In Truth & Love,
Matthew J. Diaz

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Looking forward to your addition to this dialogue.