In 1966, Peter Scholtes, published the hymn, They’ll know we are Christians by our Love. (This song can also be found under an alternate title, We are One in the Spirit.) It’s said that Scholtes took inspiration for the chorus’ lyric in light of John 13:34-35, and as he reflected over an expression that tradition holds was frequently used by those outside the Church body, in speaking about Christians of the early Church. That expression—which has been repeated for centuries—is: “Behold, how they love one another.”
In the early Church, the believers’ love for one another, and for others, was so authentic and so obvious that even those outside the Church took notice and were amazed by the loving-kindness of first and second-century Christians.
“Behold, how they love another!” The origin of this phrase is generally attributed to Aristides the Athenian (or maybe as a reaction to Aristides’ description of Christians). Aristides was an early second-century Greek Christian and philosopher who presented a letter of defense to the reigning Caesar (Emperor), Hadrian. This letter was entitled, The Apology of Aristides, and delivered to Emperor Hadrian circa 124-133 AD.
Aristides’ letter and its content apparently became well-known outside of the Emperor’s household and staff; as it is mentioned in historical writings by Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (aka. Saint Jerome), and other ancient writers. This suggests the Emperor was so impressed with Aristides’ writing that he didn’t discard it but, instead, released the letter for public viewing.
In reading translations of The Apology of Aristides we don’t find the precise phrase, “Behold, how they love one another.” Yet, that deduction certainly seems fitting from Aristides’ description of the early Church.
Aristides did write, “and they love one another,” about the early Christians. Yet, that single cause, by itself, isn’t what stands out. Aristides wrote about how Christians conducted themselves, and how deeply they cared for others. After reading what Aristides wrote, most would likely marvel at the example of these Christians.
From a world-view, these Christians must’ve been seemed “peculiar.” Not in a negative sense, but in the genuineness and graciousness of their love. That type of love is so rarely seen, it would seem peculiar. These Christians’ love was so clearly demonstrated in actions, that the sincerity of their heart was undeniable. Further, as outsiders considered the expressions of love shown by these Christians, they consequently had to consider the source of that love—who is Jesus Christ. These Christians lived, what Jesus commanded, “Love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-45 KJV).
In the Book of Acts, Luke wrote about the early first-century Church, “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
In Aristides’ writings describing early second-century Christians, he gives firsthand observation and testimony about how Christians had continued to demonstrate great devotedness and selflessness towards others.
Below is an excerpt from, The Apology of Aristides, as translated by D. M. Kay, taken from the Syriac version.
XV: But the Christians, O King, while they went about and made search, have found the truth; and as we learned from their writings, they have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations. For they know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion, from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure. And their oppressors they appease (lit: comfort) and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest; and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a recompense to come in the other world. Further, if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And further if they see that any one of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom.
XVI. Such, O King, is the commandment of the law of the Christians, and such is their manner of life. As men who know God, they ask from Him petitions which are fitting for Him to grant and for them to receive. And thus they employ their whole lifetime. And since they know the loving-kindnesses of God toward them, behold! for their sake the glorious things which are in the world flow forth to view. And verily, they are those who found the truth when they went about and made search for it; and from what we considered, we learned that they alone come near to a knowledge of the truth. And they do not proclaim in the ears of the multitude the kind deeds they do, but are careful that no one should notice them; and they conceal their giving just as he who finds a treasure and conceals it. And they strive to be righteous as those who expect to behold their Messiah, and to receive from Him with great glory the promises made concerning them. And as for their words and their precepts, O King, and their glorying in their worship, and the hope of earning according to the work of each one of them their recompense which they look for in another world,-you may learn about these from their writings. It is enough for us to have shortly informed your Majesty concerning the conduct and the truth of the Christians. For great indeed, and wonderful is their doctrine to him who will search into it and reflect upon it. And verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine (lit: “a divine admixture”) in the midst of them.
Wow! What a testimony of the Church!
Still, as believers, we would be negligent to only read about the early Church and marvel at their love without also making a self-examination. As we consider how these Christians loved one another, their example should make an impact on our hearts and lives today.
It ought to still be said of followers of Christ, “Behold, how they love one another! “For, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
**The full text of The Apology of Aristides contains even more treasures. If you would like to read further, you can find a full translation at either of these links: