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“How should I treat my brother?” The common Christian answer to this classic question is “Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.” Or we might say, “God commands us to love one another.” And while these are useful guidelines to have in mind, in real life, we often need more specific instruction. What exactly does loving your brother look like? What if you currently hate him because of something he did to you? While Christians often talk as if love and forgiveness are qualities that we can just pluck off a shelf whenever we feel like it, in real life, we often find ourselves at a total loss when it comes to the resources we need to treat others as we’d want to be treated. So then what?
Whenever we find ourselves feeling stumped about how to relate to a created being, we need to realize that there is a far more important issue at hand. How we’ve treated our Gods is what we’re going to be judged by in eternity. This is all we’re going to be judged by. So when we’re trying to figure out the right course of action, we need to turn the focus off of what our brother may or may not want, and onto what God wants.
This world is filled with humans in need, but God does not want you personally to attend to every single one of them. Throughout your life, you will meet many humans who have some kind of beef with you, but that doesn’t mean God wants you to make pacifying them your top priority. God is supposed to come first. But what exactly does this mean?
It’s important to understand that the Church as a whole and the New Testament apostles promote a priority system which is totally different than what God wants from you. To understand how this works out, let’s use a metaphor.
Picture yourself standing at the finish line of a cross country race. The runners in the race are working their way through several miles of various kinds of terrain, and now you’re waiting to see who will come in first. Finally, one runner comes into view. As he approaches the finish line, you’re looking behind him to see who is on his tail, but there is no one. The runner passes the finish line, everyone cheers for him, and then you all stand around for a good half hour until finally a second runner comes into view. Think about what an enormous lead the first runner had on the second for there to be such a large gap of time between them. When God says He wants to be first in your life, this is the kind of first He’s talking about. He means way out in front. He means that He wants to be so much more important to you than anyone else that your second love in life is like a tiny speck on the horizon. This doesn’t mean you don’t really love your spouse and kids. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your family or friends. But it does mean that you’re supposed to be loving God exponentially more than you do humans. Your relationship with God is supposed to be considered critical, whereas your relationships with humans should all be viewed as expendable. Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t form strong emotional ties with people. But when your priorities are the way God wants them to be, then should you ever find yourself forced to choose between pleasing God and pleasing people, there’s simply no question in your mind about who you’re going to side with. When God is the right kind of first, we will sacrifice everything for His sake, because pleasing Him is the goal which our lives revolve around. When God is the right kind of first, His approval is what we live for, and what He wants defines what we want.
But this isn’t how you’re taught to think at Church. Try quoting Jesus’ statement from Matthew 22:37 to a Christian by saying: “Jesus said that the first and greatest command was to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.’” Then watch how quickly they rush to say, “Yes, and He also said that to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ was just as important.” This is how the Church teaches Christians to think: that people are just as important as God. Well this is certainly not what our Gods teach, yet we are in such a rush to elevate people, that we fiddle with the language in our Bibles to make it sound like Jesus really promoted the absurd notion that we should give creature and Creator the same status in our minds. Let’s do a little translation comparison to see how this works out.
First, let’s start with the question that Jesus was asked. A Jewish religious leader who was considered an expert in the Torah asked Jesus:
“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” (Mt. 22:36)
The man is asking Jesus for the single most important command that Yahweh ever gave in the Torah. This is the same as asking what Yahweh’s top priority for humans is. Jesus answers the question like this:
Jesus said to him, “Love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. (Mt. 22:37-38)
Jesus says this command is the greatest and most important. The man asked for one law, and Jesus gave him one law. And notice the extreme language being used: Yahweh commanded His followers to love Him with all of their hearts, all of their souls, and all of their minds. All doesn’t leave room for anything to be left out. This is a call to obsess over the concept of pleasing God. Jesus makes it clear that this command is higher than all others by saying it is the greatest and most important. God is supposed to come first in your life—totally first, not in some tie.
Now let’s talk about languages. Here in Matthew, we’re dealing with documents that were written in an outdated form of Greek. No one today speaks the same Greek that was being spoken 2,000 years ago because all languages are in a constant state of flux. Here is where many Christian scholars will try to sound smart by waving strange words in your face and acting like they’ve got some deep understanding that you don’t have. Well, that’s ridiculous. You have all of the intelligence you need to make a wise decision about how the next part of Jesus’ statement should be translated. So let’s walk you through it.
Jesus said to him, “Love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Mt. 22:37-40, HCSB)
Here’s how the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this verse. Let’s now compare this to the New Living Translation:
Jesus replied, “‘You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22:37-40, NLT)
Now wait a second—there is an enormous difference between the concepts of “like” and “equally important.” Like simply means sharing some degree of similarity, but that similarity could be very minor. We could say an orange is like a watermelon because both are fruits. And while this would be a true statement, it’s also understood that oranges and watermelons greatly differ in size, flavor, texture, taste, and nutritional value. But if we say that an orange is exactly like a watermelon, well that’s an obvious lie.
Between the HCSB and the NLT, someone is lying to us about what Jesus actually said. The HCSB has Him saying that the second command to love people is like or similar to the command to love God. Well, sure, we can see similarities. Both are commands about love and about doing something that doesn’t come naturally to us. Yet we also see vast differences, because one command is about God while the other is about humans.
But the NLT tells us that Jesus said the second command was equally important to the command to love Yahweh. In other words, Yahweh is telling us to view loving Him—our glorious uncreated Creator—as being of equal importance as loving mere created specks. Does this sound right to you? This is where you need to be talking to your Gods directly and asking Them which of these two translations is more accurate.
To properly translate any verse in the Bible into modern day English, you can’t just look at a single word. You have to look at who is talking, what is being discussed, and then you have to have some clue about who your Gods are and what Their priorities are. As you compare various English translations of the same passage of Scripture, you’ll discover that differences abound. Every translator brings his or her own biases to the task. Instead of sincerely asking God to guide their work, many are just forcing verses to say what they want to be true, regardless of how absurd the end result is.
So now let’s talk about the Greek. The word in our Matthew passage that is being disagreed about is a Greek word (homoios) which has several possible meanings. This is how it works in languages: words have to multitask if we’re going to be able to communicate with each other. English speakers say “I love chocolate, I love God, and I love my spouse.” Even though we’re using the same word, we understand that that word is conveying different ideas or connotations depending on the context in which we’re using it. Context matters. You can’t just yank one word out of a sentence and hope to understand it. When an American says “That’s cool,” are they expressing admiration for something or talking about the weather? You don’t know until you hear what else they said.
So in Matthew 22:39, we come across a Greek word which can be translated to mean like, similar, resembling, or the same as. It’s a busy little word, and to figure out how it should be translated in Matthew 22:39, we have to look at the context. Jesus has just said that the greatest command in the Torah is to love Yahweh with all that we are. Now He says that Yahweh also commanded people to love one another. Jesus then uses a word to describe how similar these two commands are to each other. So what did He say? Did He say, “These commands are like each other”—meaning they have some aspects in common while still being quite different, or did He say “These two commands are exactly the same in importance”? Ask God for yourself. Which emphasis is He indicating to be the right one? Which translation does He say best reflects the priorities that God wants you to have? Does He want you to view the created as being just as important as your glorious Creators? When a conflict arises and you have to choose between pleasing God or pleasing people, is He going to shrug and say, “Well, gee, people are just as important as I am, so I guess you should just roll the dice and decide which of us you’re going to prioritize in this moment”? Does this sound right to you?
You can’t afford to be in a muddle about the difference between God and people. How you rank these two groups will define how you approach all of life. It will also have an enormous impact on how you are judged in eternity. You see, God is not in a muddle about this concept. He has very strong opinions about what your priorities should be, and His opinions will be what you are judged by. If you go through life treating people as important as your Gods when They wanted you to treat Them as vastly more important than people, how do you think that’s going to work out for you in eternity? Do you think They’re just going to shrug and say, “It’s all good that you treated Us like mere created beings?” Not hardly. Their standards are what you will be judged by, so you need to be seriously seeking Their wisdom on the topic of who They want you to prioritize in life.
HOW THE CHURCH LEADS YOU ASTRAY
Let’s go back to our race metaphor. There you are, standing at the finish line, waiting to see who is going to come in first. Suddenly two runners come into view and they are totally tied with each other. They cross the finish line at the exact same second and there is a tie for first place. This is how the folks at the NLT are teaching you to view God and people when they translate Jesus as saying that loving people is just as important as loving God. You’re not used to thinking of Bible translators as trying to shape your personal theology, yet this is exactly what they do, and there are some very shady games being played with the biblical text in an effort to push Christians down certain theological roads.
Now let’s put you back at that finish line. This time when the first two runners come into view, you see that there is some distance between them. Not much, but when they cross the finish line, there’s no question about who was first and who was second. In this third scenario, the first runner represents other people, while the second represents your Gods. This is the other priority system that the Church tries to shove on you: she tells you to put people just a little bit ahead of God in importance. When you’re urged to blindly trust your pastor and discouraged from seeking God directly, this third priority system is being promoted. When you’re taught that it’s wrong for you to ever question what the human authors of the Bible say, you’re being taught to put people before God. Why on earth shouldn’t you question what people say? Why are you being taught to feel guilty, sinful, stupid, embarrassed, or bad for trying to seek God directly for wisdom in life? Since when do your own Creators tell you not to talk to Them? They don’t. Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit welcome you to Them with open arms and They encourage you to come to Them about anything and everything. But if you really became confident in doing this, you would stop feeling dependent on human beings to guide you in life. And when you no longer feel dependent, you’re much slower to give away your labor and money just because some human wants you to. You stop succumbing to peer pressure and you stop accepting that some ministry effort is a good idea just because a bunch of people say it is.
This is how your Gods want you to live: fully depending on Them to guide you in life. But this is not what you’re going to be taught to do by most leaders in the Church. In the Church, you’ll be taught to either put God and people on an equal level or to elevate people as more important than God. Oh, sure, Christian leaders say a lot of God honoring things with their lips, but when it comes down to what they actually teach you to believe and how they pressure you to behave, you can see a clear reversal in priorities.
HOW TO TREAT YOUR BROTHER
So now that we’ve discussed all of that, let’s get back to our original question: “How should I treat my brother?” Once you understand that God wants your first priority in life to be pleasing Him, you need to realize that He is the only One who can answer this question. In life, God is going to intentionally have you cross paths with countless other humans and how He wants you treat each one will vary depending on the specific circumstances. Sometimes God will tell you to be merciful. Other times He’ll tell you to be generous. Other times He’ll tell you to draw boundaries. Sometimes He’ll tell you to separate yourself from someone and totally cut ties because the two of you are not having a good influence on each other. Other times He’ll tell you to reach out to some total stranger with a sincere offer of friendship. There isn’t just one kind of “brother.” People need different kinds of treatment at different times in life. You aren’t wise, and you’re not an expert on human beings. God is both of these things, which is why you need to be looking to Him for guidance in your personal relationships. And when He gives you some specific leading, your motivation for obeying Him should be to demonstrate your love for Him because God comes first.
We don’t love people for people’s sake. We love people because God loves them and we want to honor Him by aligning with His view of the creatures He has made. People are precious because God says they are, and He is the One who defines the value of all things. Pleasing God is supposed to be the motivation which drives everything that we do in life. It should never just be about pleasing people, because people are not first: God is first. We should be viewing God as so superior to all created things that His opinion is the only one that matters. Once we have our priorities right, we simply don’t need to stress over how we ought to treat other people. Once we are focusing on God as we should, He will make His will clear to us when there is some specific thing that He wants us to do. For the Christian, trying to focus on the dual goals of loving God and loving people is actually not the right way to go about things. The far better method is to obsess over loving God. If you take this approach, you will find that loving people becomes a shockingly easy and simple affair. It’s by taking our focus off of people and obsessing over pleasing our Creators that we end up thriving in all areas.
Applying 1 Corinthians 13: A Love that Misses the Mark
Yearning for More Spiritual Fruits: Wrong Focus, Wrong Priorities