A Leviticus account of rebuke and love.
The book of Leviticus contains instruction for the priests and people of Israel, so that they might be holy and live in the presence of God. For some contemporary readers, Leviticus 19:17-18 seems to contain a conflict between the commands to “rebuke your neighbour” and to “love your neighbour as yourself.”
The verse reads:
17 ‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart;
you may certainly rebuke your neighbour,
but you are not to incur sin because of him.
18 You shall not take vengeance,
nor hold any grudge against the sons of your people,
but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord. [NASB]
This conflict, however, is only seeming. Rebuke, when done out of love, is a loving act, restoring the offender back into relation with God and the community as a whole. In fact, to fail to rebuke can lead the offended party to sin by committing hateful acts against the offender.
Leviticus is the third book of the Pentateuch, containing laws particular to attaining and maintaining holiness. The God of Israel is maximally holy, and all that is impure in His presence is destroyed. This means that the Israelites had to practice holiness in order to come into God’s presence and offer sacrifices, which were necessary for atonement and thanksgiving (Lv. 19:2).
Holiness was more than just moral excellence, but was the practice of imitating God’s goodness in all aspects of life.
For some readers, the command to both rebuke and love one’s neighbour are juxtaposed — making judgements, and confronting someone about their wrongdoing, does not seem to be very loving behaviour. This seems to be a very common belief today. Our culture worships an idol of comfort, and far too many Christians are complacent and worried about offending the ‘followers of comfort.’
However, it is a non-issue historically. In fact, the two commands enlighten one another and indicate exactly what each requires in order for the people of God to best imitate God’s holiness.
It is first helpful to notice the parallels in these verses. Both verses contain a prohibition (to not hate/take vengeance), remedy (rebuke/love your neighbour), and rationale (incur no sin/‘I am the Lord’ i.e., be holy). It is the remedy commands that some readers struggle to reconcile. It is proper then to analyse the remedies in light of their prohibitions and rationale.
The prohibition of hate in the heart (v. 17) seems to focus on one’s thoughts and feelings toward another. Instead of hating your fellow Israelite when they trespass you, you are commanded to rebuke them — this term יָכַח (yakach) can also be understood in the sense of being “set right.” In Scripture, reproof is often associated with wisdom (e.g., Pr. 9:8; 10:17), referring to judgement, reasoning, and correction.
The antithesis to hate in the heart is rebuke in the open (i.e., Pr. 27:5). Rebuke removes possible misunderstandings, dispels hate, and opens up an opportunity for communion between the offender and the offended — grievances can be resolved, and the offender can be corrected (that is, be put back on the path to holiness).
The rationale given for this command is the avoidance of sinning out of hatred. Hatred can lead to sins varying from anger to murder. This was the case for Absalom, who would eventually have Amnon murdered, after avoiding him and repressing his anger for two years (2 Sm. 13).
One might easily argue that even just the failure to reprove is a sin in itself, as was the (similar) case for “the watchman” of Ezekiel 33, who would bear the punishment of the wicked if he failed to warn them of their wickedness (Ez. 33:8). Rebuking the neighbour is proper, but hating the neighbour is a sin. Interestingly, at Qumran, reproof was not only a moral duty, but a cardinal requirement.
The prohibition against taking vengeance and grudge-nursing (v. 18) functions also as a prohibition of actions and thoughts that result from hatred. Even if the offender does not respond appropriately to reproof, hatred is forbidden. It is for God to distribute justice (De. 32:35a), for only He has the wisdom, power, and authority to do so.
On the matter of how one ought to reprove, this prohibition indicates that to rebuke in anger, or in front of others, is an act of vengeance, and is therefore a sin. Similarly, to refuse to rebuke may be an act of grudge-nursing. The remedy command is to love, referring not just to an emotion, but actions also. The term אַהַב (ahab) is “love” in the sense of affection, reaching out, and befriending. Inner and outer love was a prerequisite for holiness.
It is a matter of debate as to whether the following כָּמ֑וֹךָ (kemo) modifies “love” and should be translated as “as yourself” — meaning that as one seeks to provide for their own needs, one must seek to provide for the needs for their neighbour. On the other hand, should it modify “your neighbour” and be translated as “as a man like yourself,” the command is that one must love their fellow Israelite because he is made in God’s image and is in a covenant with Him, just as he is also. [Along a similar vein, Gn. 5:1 has often been regarded as the great principle of the Torah — though some have regarded Lv. 19:18 as such.]
Particularly suited to the latter translation, the rationale for the command to love is the fact that God is holy — “I am the Lord.” The Israelite is called to love his fellow covenant people. In light of this, one must graciously rebuke his neighbour out of love for him, so that he might be holy. The command to rebuke is therefore a call to speak truth in love (as would be later articulated in Ep. 4:15). [Note that the use of verse 18 to interpret verse 17 is proper, as it was and is commonplace for biblical laws to be interpreted with regard to the love command.]
Given what has been discussed above, it should be apparent that the commands to rebuke and love are harmonious. The conflict only exists in the eyes of those who believe love is relative, or that love can only truly manifest itself through supportive and affirming behaviours. Today, the popular sense is that loving one’s neighbour requires a full acceptance of who they are (that is, not judging them) — that we ought to avoid those convicting and uncomfortable conversations, because we should never “impose” morals on another person.
Readers must keep in mind that ancient Israel was essentially theocratic — their practices, laws, and governing systems were divinely inspired. There is no instance (at least not in the modern sense) of one Israelite “imposing” their morals upon another. All members of this society were motivated to strive for holiness, so that they might live in the presence of God and be blessed by Him. Their morals were grounded in God’s standard.
In this setting, rebuke can be regarded as an accountability tool, as well as a means of restoring the offender to communion with God and his Israelite neighbour. This, surely, when done with gentle kindness and genuine concern, was a necessary and loving act. Israelites were called to reflect God’s holiness by loving and caring for the needs, holiness, and spiritual/moral state of their neighbours.
One must also note that God, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is recorded as rebuking and punishing Israel, so that they might return to Him and restore the covenant relationship (e.g., Judges; Pr. 3:12; the prophets). Should one then propose that His behaviour here conflicts with His loving nature — or that He is somehow behaving irrationally? It would be highly controversial to propose so.
Stages of Fraternal Correction
Jesus affirmed this union of rebuke and love in both word and deed.
As recorded in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus commands His followers to rebuke each other lovingly. So as not to embarrass the offender, the offended should confront him privately — not gossip about him to others. If the rebuke proves ineffective, one is to bring witnesses to rebuke him again. Further still, if the offender remains unrepentant, the matter is brought to the church community. If the offender still refuses to heed the rebuke, he is to be cut off from the community — he can no longer be considered a Christ-follower.
Like the desire for holiness in ancient Israel, Jesus is concerned for the holiness of His church and the righteousness of its members. The rebuke is borne from a heart of love for the neighbour and the community as a whole. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus describes a close relationship between rebuke and forgiveness. A person may not hold a grudge, but must forgive his neighbour when he repents of his wrongdoing.
Some readers will improperly take Jesus’ command not to judge (Mt. 7:1) apart from the verses that follow. This, however, is not a call to never rebuke one’s neighbour, but is a call to abandon hypocrisy. Those who rebuke should not themselves reject rebuke. One should not correct another’s error until he recognises his own personal failings.
Israel Ba’al Shem Tov rephrases the love command as follows: “Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so we should love our fellows despite the faults we see in them.” A reader might identify a separation between the act and the person — the believer is commanded to rebuke the sinful action out of love for the person, who is created in God’s image, and expect the same.
As it was for ancient Israel, the command to rebuke is aimed particularly at those within the community, toward other members. The command to love, however, seems to be applied universally (Mt. 5:44; 22:29), and just as with Leviticus 19:18, Jesus teaches that love implies deeds (Mt. 7:12). Christians are called to rebuke and, in particular, to rebuke one another — but we are called to love all people.
Jesus also embodied the command to rebuke and love through His actions. For example, Jesus loved the adulterous woman when He prevented her from being stoned and rebuked her when He told her to “sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). Similarly, when He healed an infirm man and commanded him to stop sinning (Jn. 5:1-15).
God’s Kingdom Come
Rebuke, when done in a loving manner and with a loving heart, is a tool of love. In fact, in the New Testament, the most common Greek verb for “rebuke” is ἐπιτιμαω, which is an amalgamation of ἐπι, “on” (move/place/locate on/in, in the time of, on the basis of), and τιμαω, “I honour, value.” Ἐπιτιμαω, therefore, means literally “to place honour.” It’s restorative. Jesus’ ministry, as the Messiah, was to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which was holy. He loved people, and so He taught, rebuked, and died for them, so that they might be regarded as holy and enter (i.e., be restored into) the Kingdom.
In Leviticus, rebuke and love are regarded as necessary for the holiness of oneself and one’s neighbour. Out of loving concern for their fellow Israelites’ moral purity, as well as their own, God’s people were commanded to rebuke their neighbour, directing them back into communion with God and the community. Likewise, Christ rebuked those He deeply loved so that they might become holy.
Earlier, when I spoke of the ‘followers of comfort,’ I was not only referring to non-believers. Many Christians have slipped into the cult of comfort. They refuse to be a light toward each other, let alone the world — but we are called to be salt, not sugar. We are called to walk amongst wolves, not to walk on eggshells. We are called to transform, not conform. Avoiding discomfort is a secular etiquette.
Do not put eternal souls in peril for the sake of temporal unity. If you love your neighbour, rebuke him.
cf. The Walk. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko.