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11. Lateral Love

– Chapter 11 –

Lateral Love

What do we mean by “lateral love”? The word “lateral” can be a noun or an adjective. As an adjective it has to do with the side­ward direction. In medicine, a lateral disease is one that affects one side or both sides of the body. In mechanics, a lateral force is one that acts at right angles to the direction of motion.

Similarly, lateral love is a love that is expressed in the horiz­ontal direction, that is, among human beings. For the purposes of this book, it is specifically the brethrenly love among God’s people. It is dis­tinct from, yet related to, the vertical love between God and His people.

In the Bible, lateral love is not a minor topic but the high point of total commitment to God. Lateral love also happens to be that aspect of com­mitment that presents the greatest prac­tical difficulties to most Christ­ians. In Part Two of the present book, we now expound lateral love in five simple chapters.

The Kingdom of God

In discussing lateral love, we first need to realize that the kingdom of God is a central element in Jesus’ teaching. This can be confirmed by looking up a Bible concordance or doing a computer search in a Bible program.

In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom is usually called “the king­dom of heaven”; in the other gospels, it is called “the kingdom of God” and never “the kingdom of heaven”.[1] There is no diff­erence in meaning between king­dom of God and kingdom of heaven (in fact the two refer to the same thing in Mt.19:23-24).

The kingdom of God means less a political or theopolitical entity, and more God’s rule and reign. The kingdom of God is God’s king­ship, God’s rule, and God’s government in the lives of His people.[2]

Kingdom, kingship, rule, government — these words convey law and com­mands. In a kingdom or government, there is law, and law ex­presses itself in com­mands (cf. “the rule of law”). Contrary to what many Christ­ians think, the New Testament has not abolished law and commands. Al­though we have fin­ished with the Old Testa­ment law, it doesn’t mean that there is no more law. That is because we now come under a new law: the spiritual law.

Only one command

In fact the spiritual law was already present in the Old Covenant but is now given as a new command (1 John 2:7-8, NASB):

Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old com­mandment which you have had from the begin­ning; the old command­ment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new command­ment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the dark­ness is passing away and the true Light is already shining.

John’s repeated mention of a new command or command­ment mir­rors Jesus’ use of “command” to refer to one specific com­mand: love one anot­her. If you look up a concord­ance, you would see that when Jesus speaks of “command” in terms of the spiritual law, it refers to the com­mand to love.[3] In John’s writ­ings, the command to love is the central element of the new coven­ant.

Something important and astonishing emerges from the fact that in the new covenant, one command sums up the king­dom of God. If we live under God’s kingship, there is only one fundament­al requirement for us to obey: love one another. As we shall see, this com­mand brings in other aspects of the spiritual life such as self-denial or over­coming the flesh and its resistance to the command of love.

The kingdom of God, I repeat, has only one funda­mental com­mand: love one another. The Jews have counted 613 commands in the Hebrew Bible, with the Ten Commandments elaborated into many individual commands. But in the New Testament, the law is summed up in one command. This com­mand is so fundamental that anyone who fails to live by it thereby de­clares that he or she is not living under God’s king­ship and is not in God’s kingdom. To acknow­ledge God as King in your life and therefore to have a place in His kingdom on earth (which in the present age exists as the church), you must live by this com­mand. It is not something optional.

We must not allow the familiarity of the words “love one another” blind us to their importance. It is Satan’s tac­tic to make us tired of hear­ing familiar words such as “love one another” or “commit to God”. Some­one once told me, “The church is always talking about commit­ment and commit­ment, and I am sick of it.” If you are tired of the word commit­ment, you have already fallen into Satan’s trap.

Three interconnected elements: kingdom, the Spirit, love

The Bible provides an unbro­ken link between the king­dom of God and the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God). Where the Spirit is, there is the king­dom. Where there is not the Spirit, there is not the king­dom. Jesus brings this out when he says, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt.12:28). Paul expresses this from a different angle: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drink­ing, but righteous­ness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom.14:17).

The link extends to a third element: Where the Spirit is, there is love. Hence there is a scriptural con­nection between three things: God’s king­dom, God’s Spirit, and God’s love in us. The connect­ion between the last two is seen in Rom.5:5 (God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit) and Gal.5:22 (the fruit of the Spirit is love).

This link between love and the Holy Spirit indicates that loving the neighbor is achieved not by human effort but by the Spirit’s work in our hearts that empowers us to love as God loves. We know from experience that we cannot love our neigh­bor in our own strength, but it is possible by God’s transforming work. God’s project in the present age — that of establish­ing His king­dom on earth — is realized by the Spirit’s work in us, creating a new commun­ity of God’s people among whom there is love.

The connection between these three things — God’s king­dom, God’s Spirit, God’s love — gives us a grand vision of the church. When we fulfill lateral love, there will be a com­munity of such beauty that the world will marvel that God’s people can love each other with the love of Christ.

In the church — which in the present age is the earthly manifestation of God’s kingdom — spirituality is measured by one criterion: lateral love. According to Scripture, spirituality is gauged by whether one has self-giving love and not by things such as the power to do miracles, for miracles do not necess­arily prove submission to God’s king­dom. Many will plead, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, and perform many miracles in your name?” but the Lord will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Mt.7:22-23). They are rejected as evildoers for failing to do God’s will (v.21), including the command of lateral love.

No shortcut to spirituality

To repeat: In the New Testament, spirituality is gauged by only one thing: lateral love. Jesus speaks of lateral love when he says, “This I com­mand you, that you love one another” (Jn.15:17). It is even made the basis of our friend­ship with Jesus: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (v.14).

Many Christians use other criteria such as the speak­ing in tongues to gauge spirituality. They equate speaking in tongues with spiritual­ity, but we must not fall for this nonsense. I have had to tell people who spoke in tongues that in their particular cases, they were unregenerate. Initially they were shocked but later realized that I was right.

I once watched a television report about some churches in southern United States that gauge spirituality by the ability to handle venom­ous snakes. They base this on Mark 16:18, “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and if they should drink deadly poison, they will not be harmed”. The documentary shows people holding deadly snakes, even two or three at a time. In the past ten years, two persons among them had died from snake bites. One of them, a relative of a person who is still attending the church, was bitten by a copperhead; he died a slow and agonizing death over a period of 11 hours because he didn’t allow the doctors to give him an anti­serum. He said it was God’s will for him to be bitten and therefore God’s will for him to die.

The documentary shows a man consuming strychnine, a dangerous alkaloid used in rat poison. He drank a cup of water laced with an amount of strychnine that was, according to the document­ary, enough to kill several adults. A scientist took some of the powder to a laborat­ory for analysis and confirmed that it was strychnine. Yet the one who drank the water wasn’t harmed. So he must be spiritual, right? Well it proves not­hing of the sort.

I stress again that in Scripture, spirituality is not gauged by things such as handling venomous snakes. In fact this is con­trary to script­ural prac­tice. When Paul was gathering firewood, a snake came out and bit him in the hand (Acts 28:3-6). The onlookers were expecting him to die but he shook off the snake and wasn’t harmed. The key differ­ence is that Paul wasn’t look­ing for a snake to handle. Similarly, Mark 16:18 is not telling us to look for poison to drink, but that if you should some­how con­sume poison, God can protect you from its harmful effects.

Lateral love: Jonathan and David

The self-giving love between Jonathan and David is some­thing that the church has admired through the ages. The pure and beautiful relation­ship between them is not meant to be a one-of-a-kind rarity but a model for the New Testament church:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan be­came one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. (1Sam.18:1, NIV)

How did Jonathan love David? As himself. This brings to mind Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn.15:12) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39). The words “as yourself” in the latter verse are ex­plained by “as I have loved you” in the former.

The command is not just to love the neighbor but the neighbor as your­self. It is to love the neighbor as your own soul, just as Jonathan loved David as his own soul. We see this again in 1Sam.18:3: “Jonathan made a covenant with David be­cause he loved him as him­self”. He was ful­filling the great command of love.

We will look into as yourself in the next chapter, but it is already clear that as yourself is exemplified in the love between Jonathan and David. Its importance is seen in the fact that the story of their relat­ion­ship takes up four chapters (18,19,20,23) in First Samuel.

First-degree relationships, not second-degree

The New Testament speaks of love within the church that is charact­er­ized by first-degree relationships, not second-degree relation­ships. What do I mean by this? A first-degree relation­ship is the closest possi­ble family relationship such as the parent-child relationship or the sib­ling relation­ship. On the other hand, the relationship between cousins is second or third degree, depending on relational distance. In the New Testament, there are no aunts, uncles, cousins, but there are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers:

Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and with all propriety, the younger women as sisters. (1Tim. 5:1-2, HCSB)

Paul speaks of first-degree relationships in the church, not second-degree. Does it mean that we start calling everyone Mother or Father and so on? Even if we are not ready for that, in our hearts we can still regard an older person as our mother or father, bridging any distance that may come between us.

I was amused when someone once told me he had a problem with an elder­ly woman who wanted him to call her “mother”. The reason was that she was like a mother to his wife. Not a biolo­gical mother but more like a godmot­her, actually closer than a god­mother. After the couple got mar­ried, the elderly woman wanted the husband to address her as mother. He refused and she was upset.

When he talked to me about it, I said, “Why not call her mother?” He said, “What!?” I said, “What’s the problem? By all means call her mother. Isn’t it good to have more than one mother?” He was stunned but said “okay.”

In Mt.19:27, Peter asks the Lord Jesus, “We have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?” Jesus says that those who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, and land, will “receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (v.29). In applying the hundred­fold increase to brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, Jesus is talking about the church family and not one’s biolog­ical family. In Mt.12:48 Jesus asks, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He is not referring specifically to his mother Mary, for he goes on to say, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”.

Obstacles to lateral love

In the command of lateral love we see a beautiful picture of the church in which there are the closest possible relationships. All this is achieved by the power of the Spirit and the purity of a holy life.

Yet we set up obstacles to lateral love. We even use religious duty as an excuse, similar to what we see in the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk.10:25-37). Jesus gives this parable in answer to a scribe’s question, “And who is my neigh­bor?”

In the parable, a man is attacked by robbers and left for dead on the road to Jericho. Along comes a priest, then a Levite, both of whom walk past the injured man without helping him. They even walk on the other side of the road to keep their distance from him. These religious leaders have relig­ious duties to perform for God, and this prevents them from loving the neighbor. For if they stop to help the dy­ing man, and if it turns out that he is dead, they would become unclean and therefore unable to per­form their religious duties to God.

They are prevented from helping the man because of the way they apply the law on touching a corpse (Lev.21:1,11; Num. 19:11-13). The fear is that if the man is dead, then by touching him they would be­come cere­monially defiled. A priest who is defiled cannot serve in the temple, and the same for the Levite, so they don’t want to take a risk in checking if the man is still alive. The fear of being defiled by a corpse prevents them from loving the neighbor.

But loving God and loving the neighbor cannot be separated. The priest and the Levite don’t see the unity of the two commands, so they disregard the second in order to fulfill the first in terms of religious duty.

Christians similarly use Christian reasons for not loving the neigh­bor. For example, the allegiance to a certain doctrine, as they under­stand it, prevents them from fellowship­ping with other Christians. We say that so-and-so is a Catholic or holds to a doctrine we don’t agree with, so we erect barriers.

The word “heretic” is thrown around freely in the church today. There is a book with the interesting title, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christian­ity, by David W. Bercot. This book says it is usually those who hold the right doctrines who are called heretics whereas those who hold the wrong doctrines are the ones who, sometimes out of insecurity, label others as heretics.

Our guiding principle ought to be the biblical truth and not the de­fense of a doctrine or theology. If you have the truth, I will submit to it. But you will have to prove your position from Scripture and be willing to subject it to cross-examination for the sake of arriving at the truth.

Love attests that we are his disciples

There is only one way for people to know that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our preaching, Bible know­ledge, or good deeds done out of uncer­tain motives, but by our love for one another.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35, ESV, italics added)

In the italicized sentence, the absolute standard established in the first half (“just as I have loved you”) sets the absol­ute standard for the second half (“you also are to love one another”). 1John 3:16 makes this concrete: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers”.

The supreme example of this is seen in Jesus Christ, the good shep­herd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). But the hired hand abandons the sheep when he sees a wolf coming because he is concerned about his own wages and safety. He would never put his life on the line whereas the good shepherd who dies for the sheep will regard nothing as too precious for him to give up for the sake of their safety. Church leaders too must be ready to lay down their lives for the brothers and sisters.

The teacher-disciple relation­ship is characterized by absol­ute com­mitment as seen in Paul’s care for the church: “I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus” (2Tim.2:10). Paul also says, “Death works in us, but life in you” (2Cor.4:12). This self-giving love is also intended for the mar­riage com­mit­ment, for husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph.5:25).

Loving God is loving your neighbor as yourself

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1Jn.4:20, ESV)

In the past I have said lightheartedly — yet also seriously — that it is easy to love God be­cause we don’t see Him, but hard to love the bro­thers and sisters precisely be­cause we see their faults. It’s easier to love some­one you don’t see because you can idealize him or her. It’s like hearing a warm and tender voice on a radio program that makes you imag­ine a nice and beau­tiful person. But when you get to see him or her in person, you may be in for a shock. You idealize those you don’t see but it is hard to love your roommate whose faults are displayed right before your eyes.

In the verse just quoted, John is not playing around with words or pla­t­itudes. If you don’t love your brother, the fact is that you don’t love God. Any love for God with no correspond­ing love for His people is a fictional and idealized love that is unacceptable to God. To prove my love for Him, God requires me to love my brothers and sisters.

There are two fundamental reasons for this. The first is based on the fact of God’s creation, for your brother or sister was created in the image of God. But today many Christians believe that God’s image in man has been destroyed. If that were so, we would have lost one major reason for practicing lateral love. But in the Bible, God’s image in man has not been destroyed. Note the present tense in “he is the image and glory of God” (1Cor.11:7; also Gen.9:6). Because a brother is in God’s image, you are to love him despite his faults. You do this for God’s sake because this bro­ther bears God’s image even if the image may ap­pear marred or im­per­fect to you. You look beyond the imperfection and see a certain beauty in the person.

The other reason for lateral love is the redempt­ion by which we have been incorporated into the body of Christ. Your brother or sister, des­pite his or her faults, is a member of the body of Christ. You cannot love Christ without loving the members of his body. Any love for Christ that does not have a love for his body is fictional and idealized.

Every metaphor of the church in the New Testament is a picture of mutual commitment. In the metaphor of the church as a body, there are no second-degree but only first-degree relationships. The only way to have second-degree relation­ships is to have a different body from the body of Christ. Another picture of the church is that of an army in which every sold­ier is committed to his fellow soldiers, for they need one another to sur­vive. A soldier who goes off by himself will become an easy target for sniper fire. His survival depends on his belonging to an army whose members are com­mitted to one another.

Sin destroys lateral commitment

Finally, sin is fundamentally a violation of your relationship with your neighbor, whether it is a sexual sin or a material sin such as stealing. Sin always causes spiritual injury to our neigh­bor. Even the sin of idol­atry — which we usually regard as something done to God and not the neighbor — causes spiritual harm to your neighbor because your idola­try may stumble him.

But the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law (Rom.13:8). Paul doesn’t mention the first commandment but only the second as being sufficient for fulfilling the law. The first and second commands are insepar­able; in ful­filling the second, you have fulfilled the first.

What will happen when there is no more lateral love in the church? There will be nothing left but an organization with a set of doctrines. Nothing of value will remain in the church when there is no Jonathan-David kind of love.

[1] Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” 32 times and “kingdom of God” 4 times (or 5 times, cf., manuscript variation in 6:33). By contrast, the rest of the New Testament uses “kingdom of God” 62 times and never “kingdom of heaven”. The 62 occur­rences are distributed as follows: Mark 14x, Luke 32x, John 2x, Acts 6x, Paul’s letters 8x. These numbers do not include the shorter term “the kingdom” which is found in phrases such as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt.4:23) or “the sons of the kingdom” (8:12).

[2] The Greek word for “kingdom” (basileia) has the primary meaning of the king­ship and royal rule of a king rather than the territory he rules over, though the latter sense is not excluded. The BDAG Greek-English lexicon gives two main defin­itions of this word: “(1) the act of ruling; a. kingship, royal power, royal rule; b. the royal reign; (2) ter­ritory ruled by a king, kingdom.” The sense of territory is listed as the second rather than the first definition, but more telling is the fact that BDAG gives ten times as many biblical and extra-biblical citations for the first defin­ition (kingship and royal rule) than for the second definition (a king’s territory).

[3] In the NT, “command” is used in one of two senses, either the OT com­mand­ments or the new law in God’s kingdom summed up in love.


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