Over the years, as I've grown in my faith, I've wondered what Jesus meant by "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" as recorded in John 14:15. It sounds simple enough. Obey me, you idiot! How could he have said it any plainer?
Pardon the crassness, but I fear the church has come to this. We gloss over easily the words of scripture as if the meaning is simple, but it very often isn't. And when we fail to explore the varied nuances of even the simplest texts, we do not do our faith justice, nor do we honor our Lord. Yet, this is precisely what Christians have done in Bible studies, sermons, Sunday school lessons, and personal devotions, for many decades. I'm guilty of it myself.
This verse is often taught that Christians ought to strive to keep the Mosaic law and let's just just leave it at that. But I won't leave it there because I believe that kind of thinking has led to legalism at scale. What then does it really mean?
How Romans 8:7 Informs Us Of A Different Law
Shortly after my spiritual rebirthing experience, I undertook a personal study of the Bible book by book, letter by letter. I'm not talking about Bible study groups or Sunday school lessons. I mean I, alone, without the assistance of guidance of a human mentor, began to read the books of the New Testament one at a time, from beginning to end.
I did this because I had never done that before. I was raised by a group of people who jumped from verse to verse and used those verses to proof-text the points they wanted to make about obedience, faith, and other spiritual themes. No one had ever encouraged me to read any book of the Bible from beginning to end as if it was a single unit of its own. Yet, that's how the Bible was written.
Two books, in particular, (rather, letters) caught my imagination. The epistle to the Ephesians was one of them, and the other was the epistle to the Romans.
In Romans, I learned the the Apostle Paul, the letter's author, had a systematic way of thinking about God's law, sin, His grace, and our relationship with Jesus Christ. Romans 8 appealed to my imagination, my spirit, and filled a big gaping hole in my understanding of God's grace. The first 11 verses read like this:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin. He thus condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind of the flesh is hostile to God: It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are controlled not by the flesh, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, who lives in you.
Right from verse 1, Paul delivers a grand indictment against any effort to live righteously by the dictates of God's law. The word "therefore" in verse 1 signals a continuation of what came before, in Chapter 7. He ends that chapter with a discussion on his personal struggles with sin. Central to that theme is verse 18 where he says,
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
In other words, he knows the law is good because God administered it, but he finds that he cannot himself keep the law. It's impossible because sin in living in his bones. I've found, through my own personal experience, that can't keep the law either. And in Chapter 8, Paul turns his attention to the loophole that W.C. Fields one quipped he was looking for. Of course, Fields was an atheist and not interested in Jesus Christ, so he was looking for a different loophole, but God's loophole is plain and clear in Romans 8:1. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Paul goes on to talk about the "law of Spirit and life" setting us from from the "law of sin and death". So, what are these two laws?
Paul explains that the law of sin and death is delivered through the Mosaic law. In verse 7, he says, "the mind of the flesh is hostile to God: It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so." Earlier, in Romans 3:20, Paul states that no one will be justified by works of the law because the law's only purpose was to bring about knowledge of sin. Yet, many Christians continue to work for their salvation, either to gain it or keep it, despite the futility of that exercise.
Having already lay the groundwork that the Mosaic law was powerless to fix the sin problem, Paul, in Romans 8, explains that Christ fixed the problem by his death. Living by the dictates of the law is carnal thinking, which leads to spiritual death. Since the mind is hostile to God and unable to submit to the law (verse 7), it is impossible to please God by attempting to do so. That is the law of sin and death.
By contrast, the law of the Spirit of life is allowing Christ's righteousness to live through us. Rather than attempting to obey every commandment God has given in both testaments, the Christian's moral obligation is simply to give it all to Jesus.
What Then Should We Make of Keeping the Commandments?
When Jesus appeared on the scene, the Jews had already proven that the law couldn't save them. Israel was a wreck. God's chosen nation, they hardly looked like a nation. In fact, they were subjects to the Roman empire and their expectation of the coming Messiah was that he would be a warrior who'd come and lead them to political freedom. Well, that didn't happen.
Jesus showed up and said,
If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
Note the rhetorical structure of the sentence. Keeping the commandments is contingent upon loving Him. But does He mean by keeping?
According to Strong's Concordance, the Greek word for the phrase "you will keep" is téreó. Literally, it means "to watch over" or "to guard." There's nothing about it that suggests obedience, which is very often what teachers turn this verse into. However, in usage, the word could, in certain contexts, be used to convey observing, as one might observe a holiday tradition. In that context, "keep" might mean obey.
Okay, so maybe it does mean to "obey all of the Lord's commandments? But what does he mean by "My commandments"? I believe there are three ways this could be looked at with regard to who our Lord is.
As the fullness of God in the flesh, could He really mean that we show our love for Him by obeying his every command?
As the Jewish Messiah, might our Lord have been referring only to the commandments he gave to his disciples when he walked the earth; and, if so, what are those commandments?
As the founder of His ekklésia, could he have been referring to the keeping of the law of the Spirit of life?
Of course, all of this hinges on that word "love". Agapaó.
"If you love me," he said, then "you will keep My commandments." That is, if we esteem Him for who He is, we will demonstrate that pleasure of His company by keeping His commandments. The idea here is not that we will strive for salvation, work to keep it or maintain it, or to even seek His approval by adhering to some strict moral code. Rather, the focus is on how we will conduct ourselves if we love Him.
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the same word used in that context is the Greek word used to refer to Jesus Himself in John 1:1.
The Apostle John could rightly be called the Apostle Love. His gospel as well as his three epistles have love as a major theme. 1 John 5:3 says,
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.
2 John 1:6 tells us that walking in His commandments is a demonstration of love.
This is the very commandment you have heard from the beginning, that you must walk in love.
Indeed. 1 John 4:8 drives this point home.
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
If God is love, then it makes sense that we should walk in love. Perhaps the commandments we are to keep are those that point us the way to love? Love for what? Well, how about God and our neighbor? Jesus Himself distilled the entirety of the law and the prophets these two commandments, both the flip side of the same coin.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)
The Apostle Paul, who wasn't claiming to be superior to Christ but who boasted in Christ more than in himself, distilled them into a single commandment, in two different places:
Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love. For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
We can see then that Jesus' exhortation to "keep" His commandments is nothing more than loving one's neighbor as we would love ourselves. This love should extend to all of our neighbors and not a select few. Not just those who look like us or think like us. It includes that atheist, the Buddhist, and the Muslim as well as the gay couple, the transgendered, and the abortionist. Why then does much of the church's rhetoric concerning those outside our fellowship sound so much like hate, or at the very least, derision?
One caveat: To love one's neighbor does not mean that one accepts or endorses all that they stand for or believe all that they believe. It does, however, mean that treating them differently than we'd have them treat us were we in similar circumstances should be the very thing we'd stray from, not run toward. In light of our current historical and cultural context (speaking to Americans), I fear that the church's social standing is flailing because we have failed to keep our Lord's commandments, and as I watch the rise of Christian nationalism, I fear that this failure will only grow more pronounced.
What are you doing today to demonstrate your love for Jesus?
Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.
First published by Author Allen Taylor at Paragraph. Image from Pexels.