As I think about this summer blog tour theme of “Faith Unshackled”, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, “It can’t be that simple!” and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.
I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like,
“Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust “Amen!” “You are right he says!” Then he goes on to repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”. But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, “You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way of the kingdom”?! Can that be?!
Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, “We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism” and on and on.
But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, “Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God.”
That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our “right beliefs”, “sound doctrine”, etc.
Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, “What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?” If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of “loving God and loving neighbor”.
So when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.
My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.
Ryan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL, he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
- You can listen to this sermon here.
If we were writing an outline of “love commands” the New Command to “Love one another” would display as a subpoint to “The Second Command” to “Love your neighbour as yourself“. Since Jesus had already instructed his disciples to love those around them, even their enemies, why did he need to specifically tell them to “love each other“? I can think of several reasons, you may think of more… or you may disagree with mine? 🙂
First, toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps 18 & 20) we find the apostles competing for honors in Jesus’ kingdom, asking who will be the greatest. Back in John’s Gospel (13:21-30) we see that Judas has just left the Last Supper to betray Jesus. In v38 of this chapter Jesus predicts that Peter himself will deny Jesus. Then in chapter 14 Jesus predicts his departure. Jesus is leaving. He’s leaving a competitive group of guys who’ve just been betrayed by Judas, and who themselves have deserted Jesus at his death. These are the guys who’ll continue the mission of the Kingdom of God. In order to get through the tough times ahead, they’re going to need to “love each other”, just as we still need to.
Second, Jesus tells us that it’s by our mutual love that outsiders will recognise our commitment to God. He doesn’t say this when he tells us to “love our enemies“, although that’s sure to raise eyebrows. Surprisingly, people don’t see God as much when we serve our communities as they do in the way that we love each other. Perhaps we don’t recognise this point as much because we don’t love each other as strongly. Consider the example of the first church who sold their possessions to meet the needs of the poor among them. (Acts 4:32-35) What would prompt you to sell something to give to a needy brother or sister? How severe would their need have to be?
Third, Our love for each other reflects God’s love toward us. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The way we treat each other reflects the way Christ has treated us. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. With the world looking at us, the church, we have the job of modeling God’s love for His people: for all people. The more we mature in Christ, the more we understand the way he loves us, the better job we should do of loving those around us. Our love for others derives from God. Our love from God expresses itself to others.
- If you had to choose a 3rd “love command” do you have another preference? Why?
- Why do you think Jesus had to be more specific than just “love your neighbour”?
- It’s easy to say “love your spiritual family as Christ loved you”, but how do you express God’s love for you in relationships with others?
As I conclude my series from Exodus, I have a couple of goals:
- To demonstrate the continuity between the Old & New Testaments, and the continuing relevance of the Old to the church today.
- Emphasise the relationship between loving God, and obeying His rules.
Both of these points rely on reading Exodus 19 & 20 together, as I discussed in my previous post. The covenant of chapter 19 represents the culmination of God ‘courting’ the nation of Israel and here ‘marrying’ them. Israel unreservedly commits to the God who has rescued, protected, and provided for them in the preceding months. But now they are are ‘married’ God shares how Israel can express her love: how the nation can adopt the same values as Yahweh already has. So the relationship begins with love and only then moves to law.
A close examination of the Ten Words (Commandments) reveals that the first four relate to the nation’s relationship with God, while the last six establish standards for horizontal, or interpersonal, relationships. This division follows the identification of the Two Greatest Commandments identified three times by Jesus in the NT (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-31; & Lk. 10:25-28.) Love God. Love Neighbours.
The chart above illustrates that Jesus didn’t develop these Two Greatest Commands on his own. (start at the bottom left and read it clockwise) He adopted them from Jewish teachers who identified them in the OT. In Mark 12, Jesus teaches, “Love God. Love Neighbour.” But in Luke 10 we see that the Jews were already familiar with this summary. A quick survey of basic Bible reference tools quickly identifies both of these commands as simply quotes from the Pentateuch.
So these commands that Christians through the centuries have rightly quoted as divine summaries of Christian obligations, are in fact divine summaries of the Jewish Old Covenant given at Sinai. This is why in Matt. 22:40 Jesus says that All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. This doesn’t mean that the church should discard these commands as vestiges of the old covenant, but that we should reconsider the degree of continuity between the two covenants.
Having reached the top of the second column and understanding that the rest of the Law hangs on The Two Greatest Commands we see that dividing the Ten Words into vertical and horizontal commands is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. It’s also important to recognize that the Ten Words also provide context for the detailed instructions that follow in the rest of Exodus as well as Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy.
All of these laws derive from two: Love God. Love Neighbour. And all of the laws relating to loving our neighbours derive from the Greatest Commandment: Love God. This is the sequence found in chapters 19 & 20, first relationship, then law. It’s also the sequence found within the Ten Words themselves, first love God, then love neighbours.
The apostle John in His writings explicitly makes this connection. If you love me, keep my commands. John 14:15 see also Jn 14:21, 31; 15:9-15; 1 Jn 5:2-3; and 2 Jn 1:6. I believe this is another succinct summary of Exodus 19 & 20.
The relationship God intends between Himself and His people begins with God demonstrating His love for humanity. People then have the opportunity to respond to His love and commit to Him. As a consequence of that commitment, we also commit to adopt his values and to express our love in ways He finds meaningful. So we commit to keep His laws. When we try to either love God while ignoring His laws, or observe His commands with out understanding His love, we step outside of the full relationships God intends for us.
- I recently reviewed the Bible class subjects that have been taught at Lawson Road between 2004 & 2009. During those 5 years only 5 OT books had been studied compared to 16 NT books (some twice!) and numerous other topics. Are Churches of Christ the only ones who have difficulty finding value in the OT? What do you think are our barriers?
- Do you agree that it can be difficult at times to appreciate the connection between loving God and keeping His commandments? Have you seen examples of people over-emphasising one or the other?
- I’ve often heard people say, “You can’t love others unless you love yourself”, but I think these passages teach that, “You can’t love others unless you love God”. What do you think?
PS. A friend just blogged on a similar topic here.