Matthew 22:39—Does Jesus want us to love ourself first or others?
Problem: Jesus says in Matthew that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But, if we love ourselves first, before we love our neighbor, then this would be putting self before neighbor. Is Jesus teaching that we should be selfish?
Solution: Loving others as we love ourselves can be understood in different ways, but in no way is Jesus implying that we should be selfish. The Bible condemns “lovers of themselves” (2 Tim. 3:2). It exhorts us not to consider only our own interests, but also the interest of others (Phil. 2:4). There are three ways to understand the phrase, “love others as yourself.”
First, some believe that Jesus is saying that we ought to love others as we ought to love ourselves, namely, unselfishly. This, however, seems far too subtle and dialectical for Jesus’ normally straight-forward moral assertions. It would have been more forthright to simply say do not be selfish than the tangled command of loving oneself unselfishly.
Second, Jesus could have meant that we should love others as we ought to love ourselves, namely, properly. There is a legitimate self-respect or self-love. Ephesians tells us to care for our own bodies, “for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (5:28–29). There is nothing wrong with a legitimate self-care and self-respect. The Bible condemns someone for “thinking of himself more highly than he ought,” but urges him to think “soberly” (Rom. 12:3). In this sense, Jesus may be saying love others as you ought to love yourselves.
Third, Jesus could have meant that we should love others as much as we do love ourselves. That is, He might have been saying that we should measure how we ought to love others by how we actually do love ourselves without implying that the way we love ourselves is correct. Rather, God may be simply pointing to love for self as the standard by which we should judge how much to love others. In this way, there would be an automatic check on our selfish love, since we would have to love others this much too.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.