Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, May 20

Loving God, Others, and Ourselves

I received two questions a while back and I thought I would answer them.

The first was that the comment that there is no imperative in the Greatest Commandment, just a future. “You shall love (ἀγαπήσεις) the Lord  your God with all  your heart, with all your soul, and with all  your mind.” (Matt 22:37). So how could this be a command, other than the previous question uses the word “commandment.” “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment (ἐντολὴ) in the law?”

First of all, if all you had was ἐντολή, that would be enough. One person asks about a commandment; the answer is the commandment. Remember that language is nuanced, and there are many ways to say the same thing. YOu don't have to use an imperative to state a commandment.

Secondly, a common use of the future in Greek (and in English) is to state a command. So the future ἐντολή is a future indicative used as an imperative, as shown by the context.

If you want more context, go to the Hebrew that is being cited, the Shema. Moses writes, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love ( וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ ) the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command ( מְצַוְּךָ֛ ) you today shall be on your heart” (Deut 6:4-6, ESV). Clearly a command. In fact, in the LXX the translator uses ἀγαπήσεις (“you shall love”) and ἐντέλλομαί (“I command”).

The second question as to do with the next sentence, Matt 22:38. “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν).” The question is whether an imperatival idea could be connected with the “as yourself.” Something like, “you must love yourself, so you can also love your neighbor.”

From a strictly grammatical point of view, the answer is not immediately apparent since the second half of the verse appears to be presuming a verb that Jesus leaves out. Does Jesus mean, “Love you neighbor in the same way that you must love yourself? Or does Jesus mean, “Love you neighbor in the same way that you do love yourself?

Having said that, I would be shocked if Jesus were commanding us to love ourselves. I would think that he is presuming this to be true. I am not a counselor and so I don’t have any training in this whole issue of whether, for example, a highly dysfunctional person does or does not love himself.

But if I were to argue grammatically, I would go to the meaning of the conjunction ὡς. BDAG cites these three meanings first:

  • a comparative particle, marking the manner in which someth. proceeds, as, like
  • a conjunction marking a point of comparison, as
  • a marker introducing the perspective from which a pers., thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role, as

There is nothing in ὡς to suggest anything other than a comparison of our love for ourselves with our love for ourself. It also fits into the OT context of the verse being cited (Leviticus 19:18). There would have to be some major contextual clue that Jesus were commanding self-love, an idea that as far as I can recollect does not occur in the Bible.

With this understanding, the omited verb would be ἀγαπᾷς.


"a common use of the future in Greek (and in English) is to state a command" Common in Greek? This was a good prod to get some references down from the bookshelf. Moule, Idiom book, p. 178 says: "x. Commands and Prohibitions expressed by the Future Indicative. This is a normal Hebrew construction, and is familiar to readers of the N.T. because of quotations from the LXX such as Luke iv. 8 . . . The negative is οὐ (naturally enough since the verb is in the Indicative -- although the fact that the Hebrew has a special negative particle for such cases might have given rise to a Semitic μή with the Indicative in Prohibitions): Luke iv. 12 . . . It is worth noting, however, that the Hebraic idiom is not always retained, even in similar contexts: Luke xviii. 20, etc." But is it common outside the LXX and NT? BDF s. 362 notes: "The future indicative is employed to render the categorical injunctions and prohibitions (negative oὐ) in the legal language of the OT (not entirely so in classical . . .), without thereby greatly influencing the rest of NT usage." The next paragraph has the interesting note that these forms seem to appear more frequently in Matthew than in the other gospels, and that there is manuscript variation between future and imperative forms. For prohibitions with oὐ μή, see s. 365, which makes a similar point. Wallace p. 569 cites BDF but goes further to suggest that the use of a future as an imperative is emphatic, even in LXX quotations.  Hmm, given its origins in a normal Hebrew form and the manuscript variations between future and imperative, I'm not convinced. The only Attic grammar I have is Smyth, who in s. 1917 calls this the "jussive future" and gives a couple of examples, but makes no comment on the frequency of its use. This is all a long way of saying that although it is admirable to use context to determine the meaning of ἀγαπήσεις, in this case the use of the future does seem to be stylized. This matters for someone (like me) who wants not only to master grammar, but style, and to be able to answer "why"-type questions about the use of particular forms. The "normal" way of expressing a (positive) command in Greek is to use an imperative form; future forms are used in these verses because they are LXX quotations, and they are in the future in the LXX because they are translations of the Hebrew perfect with waw-prefix as used to express generic commands.  

Style isses can difficult, but I would becareful to dismiss evidence from Dan Wallace. You will need a very clear, grammatical reason. Any language uses multiple ways to say the same thing, sometime in a synonymous way, somethimes in other ways. Certainly in English the imperative and future indicative have very little difference and both convey a significant amount of command. And the evidence of the future used imperativally is similarly extremely strong for NT Greek