'If you love me you will attend to my commandments.'
One of the reasons I’m interested in translating from the bible is that, on occasion, the standard bible versions of well-known verses can send people off on the wrong track and potentially get them into a muddle. I experienced a real example of this recently when attending a Christian retreat day. A lady quoted Jesus as saying, 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments', which is normal rendering of his words at this point. She went on to quote the commandments that Jesus said were the greatest: 'love your neighbour', and 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind'. Do I love God with all my heart and soul and mind? she asked. It was clear from the way she spoke that she felt she didn’t measure up to this and that Jesus words raised a dark question in her mind as to whether she could be counted amongst those who love him. One could respond to anyone worried by such a question that, if we took Jesus' words in that way, the same awkward question could be asked of most, if not all, professing Christians. The irony is that it is the Christians who are most conscientious in their faith and their regard for Scripture who are most liable to be plagued by such thoughts. For such people, it is hardly a comfort for to read Jesus’ words a little later (as the NIV has it), 'he who has my commandments and obeys them, he is the one who loves me', as if to say, 'he, and no one else!' This line of thinking misses the spirit of Jesus’ words as, I think, does the normal translation. Yes, you could say that keeping his commandments is technically speaking a correct way to translate the Greek word used here, 'tereo'. The trouble with that is, if you use the word 'keep' with the word 'commandments', people will take you to be referring to the obeying of commandments. Those bible versions that don’t translate as, “keep my commandments”, say instead, “obey my commandments”. Whereas Jesus’ words here are more about keeping with his commandments. He is talking about keeping his commandments in mind, sticking with them, not letting go of them and that’s not to do with achieving a high enough score of successes over failures in obeying them. It’s much more to do with where we are in our hearts and what we are seeking after. It is about whether we want to go on a journey where, in attending to his commandments, we commit ourselves to discovering what they are all about; it’s about whether we want to keep on with learning how to keep them, even in all our weakness, mistakes and failures.
When we bear this is mind it is easier to understand why the bible can, at times, give what looks like a remarkably charitable assessment of some prominent figures, given their evident mistakes and misdemeanours. Abraham is commended by God for his faithfulness to all God’s requirements, commands, statutes and directions. This is the man who hid the truth about Sarah being his wife and then watched on passively as she was taken in as another man’s wife; this is the man who agreed to sleeping with his wife’s slave girl, using her as a surrogate mother to produce a baby for his childless wife – the result of which was, unsurprisingly, an unhappy mess. King David is called a man after God’s own heart. He is said to have done what is right in the sight of the Lord, except in the matter of Bathsheba. Yet, when we dig into the account of his life, we find there were other things he got wrong. Some of the things he did in succumbing to the pressure of circumstances were dodgy to say the least! Job is commended by God as the epitome of righteousness and held up in the New Testament as an example of perseverance. Indeed he did persevere in a kind of way, but not without a lot of angry mouthing-off to God.
Yet Abraham’s faith was undimmed to the end, David never lost his desire for God and his purposes, even after his grievous errors, and, after listening to God, Job came through his darkness and disillusionment to a new experience of peace and blessing. God’s ability to overlook the ignorance and failures of such people shows us that he is far more concerned with what we are seeking after, the overall direction we are travelling and the underlying desire of our hearts, than anything else. It brings to mind John’s words in his first letter, where he talks about how we can set our hearts at rest when they make us feel condemned because God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. John may well be remembering Peter’s words to Jesus after he had been confronted over his betrayal of Jesus on three occasions, 'Lord, thou knowest all things' - as if to say, 'Lord you know me through and through, and you knew that exactly how I would mess up when I boasted that I would never fail you; but you also know already that I am still committed to you.'
And so I would translate Jesus words a little further on in that chapter, 'The one who has my commandments in mind, and attends to them, this is some one who loves me.'
If you are some one who gets worried about whether you are doing the right thing, don’t be discouraged by thoughts of your ignorance and weakness or situations when you have got it wrong. Your anxiety is an indication that you are someone who cares about what Jesus wants – and this is some one who loves him.