When we talk about love, some describe it humorously as Judith Viorst did in a 1975 Redbook article,
“Infatuation is when you think he’s as sexy as Robert Redford, as smart as Henry Kissinger, as noble as Ralph Nader, as funny as Woody Allen, and as athletic as Jimmy Conners. Love is when you realize that he’s as sexy as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Ralph Nader, as athletic as Henry Kissinger and nothing like Robert Redford – but you’ll take him anyway.”
Others, like Dr. Seuss describe love in terms of magic, “You know you’re in love when you don’t want to fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” Then there are the romantics, like Antoine de Saint- Exupérya who wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
But as humorous, magical or romantic as those descriptions are, what does the Bible say about love? Today’s passage defines love, not in terms of humor, or magic or romance, but in terms of complete and total devotion. Here’s how this story plays out, in my mind: a gentleman is walking through the temple one day after worshipping and, on his way out he happens to hear how Jesus has just responded to some difficult questions about taxes, marriage and the resurrection. And sensing that Jesus is wise and educated, he poses his own question, “of all the commandments, which is the greatest” (Mk 12:28).
In the Jewish mind, this was an important question. Here’s why: A Jew had 613 commandments to choose from for answering this most important question. 365 of those commandments were negative prohibitions – do not do ABC! – one negative command for each day of the year. But there were also 248 positive commandments – do xyz! – one positive command for each bone and major organ in the human body according to Jewish custom. The point being, every day of the year a faithful worshipper of God must refrain from something and during the year he must also put his entire body to work for the glory of God. So, of these dos and don’ts, the question naturally arose, which is the most important to do or not to do so that all the rest of them are naturally fulfilled?
Personally, I am glad that I didn’t have to answer that question. I am sure that I would have gotten it wrong and put the emphasis on some point of the law which was not necessary and from which everything else didn’t naturally flow. But Jesus had an answer ready. Here is what he said, “The most important one is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29-31).
Jesus’ answer is drawn from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. By declaring that the greatest commandment is framed by the words, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mk 12:29), Jesus is declaring that a person must recognize who God is before God can be loved. He isn’t the god of some distant people or nation. He isn’t a Hindu god, or Mayan god or some other god. He is Israel’s God. He is the personal God who rescued and redeemed Israel. And he is one. He isn’t one among many. He is the one God – a unified, singular God who has no equals. Until one knows God as the personal God who saves his covenant people it will never be possible to truly love God.
Now assuming you know God as your savior, as the one who rescues and redeems you from your sin, the question naturally becomes, “How am I to love God?” The answer is simple: Love God with everything you have. Love him with your heart. Love him with your mind. Love him with your soul. Love him with your strength. A lot has been written about loving God with all we are, and people have spent a lot of pen and ink trying to dissect humanity into these four categories – heart, soul, mind, and body. But I don’t think that was Jesus’ intention in speaking this way. I think he wanted his audience to understand that loving God is a complete and total affair. Loving God affects the things we desire and long for. Loving God affects the way we feel, even the things we hope and dream about. Loving God affects our mind and the things we think about, the way we perceive the world, our understanding of right and wrong and finally loving God should affect the way we live. All of our bodily strength should be expended in our love of God. To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is a fancy way of saying we must love God with everything we have. We must be devotees of the Lord, groupies if you will, totally in love with the only true personal God who rescued and redeemed us from slavery. That is what Jesus is saying. The greatest command is to be devoted to or dedicated to God in every area of our life.
To drop any of these pieces from our life is to fail to love God with everything. Bruce Lee actually gives a pretty decent definition of love.
“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”
This is but another way of describing what loving God completely entails. A deep unquenchable fire burning in our life that affects every thing it comes in contact with. No part of the coal is cool; it is all hot. So how can we love God this way? How can we love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength so that we are deep burning and unquenchable? I propose that just as in a marriage, where our understanding of a person increases and our actions are shaped by that understanding, so also with loving God. We must grow in our knowledge of his ways and desires communicating with him through the Word and prayer and we must put what we learn in that relationship into daily practice. As John says, “This is love, that we walk in obedience to his commands (2John 6).”
If we want to be a people completely devoted to God we must be a people learning about God, studying his word, understanding his purposes, penetratingly grasping the whole counsel of God and then living it out. So why does so much of the church appear to be more like a smoldering fire after a torrential rain instead of a deep burning, unquenchable fire? Well, in 1949, Robert James McCracken, wrote a short two page essay on loving God with our Minds in which I think he correctly pinpointed the problem:
“Many men today are dissatisfied with their religion. They have good reason to be dissatisfied with it. It is substantially the religion of their boyhood. It consists for the most part of memories of what they were taught at Sunday School [or catechism]. They are competent at business, wide awake as to what is happening in the world, conscientious and forward-looking in their citizenship. They have moved on in their knowledge of other subjects – politics, history, science, music – but in their knowledge of Christianity they have stood still…They read magazines and books in plenty but none, or next to none, that have to do specifically with Christianity. They do not give themselves a chance to know what it is about or what it has to offer…God wants men’s heads as well as their hearts. To think and to think hard is a religious duty.”2
Paul prays for the Philippians, that [their] love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (Phil 1:9).
If loving God is about having a devoted relationship with him, and if a relationship implies a growing understanding of the other person, then the Christian must be a thoughtful, reflective, scripture saturated, Biblical witness growing in his or her understanding of God’s ways and purposes in the world. We must be a people growing in our love of God by the use of our minds. We must read serious Christian literature. We must study theology at home. We must fill the Sunday school hour when the church is offering instruction. We must teach others what we are learning. All of this is part of loving God. And as we love God with our minds, our hearts and our desires will be transformed. As the Roman Epistle declares, Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).
And when our minds are transformed, then the way we live, the feelings we have, the desires we dream about, the way we use our bodies and the way we treat others will be changed. And that is why loving others, flows from a complete devotion to God. We will love others, because God loves them. Just as God (Titus 2:14) who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good, so also he gave himself for others to redeem them as well.
When we love God completely, we will lose ourselves. We will lose our selfishness. We will lose our sense of entitlement and we will be able to become servants of others as our lord became a servant to us, washing our feet. As humans we have a natural (though sinful) bent toward self-preservation, self-promotion and self-fulfillment. Jesus is declaring that as lovers of God we are to love others with these same foci. We must be about their preservation, their promotion, and their fulfillment. As Robert Heinlein wrote, “Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
John Piper in a sermon from 1995 declared these words about loving others as yourself,
“As you long for food when you are hungry, so long to feed your neighbor when he is hungry. As you long for nice clothes for yourself, so long for nice clothes for your neighbor. As you work for a comfortable place to live, so desire a comfortable place to live for your neighbor. As you seek to be safe and secure from calamity and violence, so seek comfort and security for your neighbor. As you seek friends for yourself, so be a friend to your neighbor. As you want your life to count and be significant, so desire that same significance for your neighbor. As you work to make good grades yourself, so work to help your neighbor make good grades. As you like to be welcomed into strange company, so welcome your neighbor into strange company. As you would that men would do to you, do so to them.3
These are the greatest commands – Loving God in absolute devotion, and seeking the best for others and though we try to love this way, and try we must, for this is God’s command, we often fail. But there is One who was able to Love God and neighbor in such a completely devoted manner. There is only one who overcame the human propensity to be selfish. And his name is Jesus Christ, God’s son incarnate, God become flesh. He is the only one who has ever kept these two great commands. He alone has loved God with his mind, understanding perfectly the Word of God and being able to apply it masterfully to life. He knew when to rebuke and when to grant grace. He understood when to teach and what to say and how to say it in order to bring God glory and to bring humanity face to face with her sinful rebellion. He was fully devoted to the Lord God in worship, understanding that true worship is worship in spirit and truth.
And he loved humanity, undeserving as it was, giving his life for our ransom and granting us reason upon reason to love him in return. As (1John 4:9-10) This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Loving God and others is sacrificial by definition. To love God requires that we offer up ourselves as living sacrifices, laying down our desires and intentions in order to seeks God’s. But God by far, made the greater sacrifice in loving us and teaching us to love – he offered up his son. Jesus’ love for God the Father and for you and I broke down the dividing walls of hostility. He gave of his very life, his body, his desires, his plans in order to see the Father’s desires and plans brought to fruition, and to see our greatest preservation, promotion and fulfillment accomplished. He gave of his heart saying not my will but yours be done as he went to the cross. He held nothing back from his devotion to God and neighbor. And so he commands us to Love. Love completely, love sacrificially, Love as one who has taken up their cross, denied themselves and who dotingly is following their savior!
People of God, Go out in the knowledge that God loves you and has devoted his entire being to seeking your best interest, therefore you can Love God and Love others.
1 Craig Evans, Word Biblical Commentary v.34B on this passage, “Jesus besting temple authorities within the temple precincts themselves. Why, even one of their own had to admit that there were principles that took precedence over the temple cultus. For a community rejected by the cultus, and therefore rejected by the synagogue of the Diaspora, the scribe’s assertion would be reassuring and of some apologetic value” (p. 261-2)
2 Robert James McCracken, “Let us Love God with Our Minds” in Theology Today v.5 no.4, Jan 1, 1949, pg. 472-3 (p.473).
3 (John Piper, May 7, 1995, preached Love your neighbor as yourself, part 2 at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/love-your-neighbor-as-yourself-part-2)
a These words were translated from French into English by Lewis Galantière. From Exupery’s 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars.