This is one of several occasional essays on “Scripture Twisting.” The purpose of these very brief essays is to challenge certain popular interpretations of the Bible that really have little or no basis.
Matthew 22:39 reads simply, “A second [command] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In popular circles this verse is often paraded as a text which teaches that we are commanded to love ourselves. Thus, the implied meaning is, “You shall love your neighbor just as you are to love yourself.” Such a view seems to have come from secular psychologists (in which self-actualization is at the top of the pecking order of one’s goals). From there, it apparently made its way into Christian psychological treatises.
Our objective in this short essay is not to trace the history of this interpretation, but to argue that it is fallacious. Unpacking the meaning of the verse yields the following expanded translation: “You shall love your neighbor as you already do love yourself.” Thus, self-love is assumed in this text, not commanded.
There are two reasons for arguing that this is the meaning of the text here. First, a comparison normally sets up a standard or norm against which some position is put forth. The Greek particle wJ" is the primary means used to suggest such a comparison in the New Testament (and is used in Matt 22:39). For example, in Matt 12:13, Jesus healed a man’s hand, “making it whole, like the other one.” The whole hand was the standard against which the now healed hand was measured. In Matt 17:2, Jesus’ face “shone like (wJ") the sun.” Obviously, the sun is the standard by which the comparison is to be made. In Matt 28:4, the soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus “became like dead men” when they saw the angel. In Rom 9:27, the number of the sons of Israel is to be “like (wJ") the sands of the sea.” In 2 Tim 2:9 Paul says that he is wearing chains “like (wJ") a criminal.” First Peter 1:24 says that “all flesh is like (wJ") grass.” In all these texts (and scores of others in the NT) a comparison is made. In each one, the comparison starts with a standard or norm. But if Matt 22:39 implies two commands, then there is no standard of comparison. To argue that we should love our neighbor as much as we should love ourselves sets up no standard, no norm.
Second, and more specifically, wJ" is sometimes found following a command. When it is so, what verb is to be implied in the wJ" clause? At all times, the indicative should be read.1 That is, the comparison is not of a command to a command, but of a command to a standard that is already being followed. Note the following examples.2
In conclusion, is self-love biblical? Actually, yes. It is biblical in that it is assumed to be true (cf. Eph 5:29). But is self-love commanded? Hardly. The primary proof-text for such is Matt 22:39.3 And, as we have tried to demonstrate, that text means that self-love is assumed, not commanded. Further, there are numerous texts that suggest that our lives need to be other-directed. The plain meaning of a passage like Phil 2:3 (“regard one another as more important than yourselves”) ought to counter-balance any notion that our focus in life ought to be on self. The example of the Lord Jesus follows this programmatic statement in Phil 2:3. In vv 6-11 Jesus is seen as the supreme example of self-sacrifice. Verse 5 links Jesus’ attitude to what should be our own: “Have this mind in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” We, too, should follow the Master’s steps and direct our lives outward and upward.
Such absorption with the self is both endemic to human nature and in particular is becoming the hallmark of the West. We are propelling ourselves rapidly to narcissism and anarchy because of such attitudes. Against this, the Bible speaks plainly.
1 Not infrequently, the verb is actually stated. The indicative is the mood found. Cf. Matt 5:48 ("be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect"); 6:12 ("forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors"); 8:13; 15:28; 18:33; 27:65; Col 3:18; Rev 18:6; etc.
2 You might even want to test these examples by supplying an imperative or subjunctive in the wJ" clause. For example, in Matt 6:5, "When you pray do not be like the hypocrites should be." Obviously, this makes little sense.
3 Ephesians 5:33 has a similar construction and should be interpreted similarly. "Husbands, love your wives as yourselves" does not mean"love your wives as you should love yourselves," but "as you already do love yourselves."