The Great Commandment: Loving God

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 22:34-40

What is the single most important thing to do in life? Someone came to Jesus one day and asked that very question. Let’s listen to his answer.

The noted evangelical writer and leader Charles Colson begins his book Loving God with two quotations. The first one is from the movie star and New Age devotee Shirley MacLaine, offering her philosophy of life and love in a newspaper interview:

The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself . . . the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself . . . . When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you’ve been and where you’re going . . . what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself. . . . The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity.

Shirley MacLaine

1982 interview in The Washington Post

The second quotation is in a very different vein from a very different kind of person. It was written by the great 17th century French scientist and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.

Two very different statements, two philosophies of life, two ideas about where to find love and real satisfaction. One counsels self-love, even self-absorption. The other urges us to look outside ourselves for the only objects worthy of our love and attention. Which one is right?


To answer that, let’s listen to a third opinion, on love and life, that of Jesus Christ.

One day as he was nearing the end of his time on earth Jesus was approached by a Jewish religious leader.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40, niv

Jesus is approached by a hostile interrogator, a Pharisee who was also an expert in the Jewish religious law. This man has a question for him. “Teacher,” he asks, “which is the most important commandment of God? In their intense study of the Bible the Pharisees had tabulated no less than 613 distinct commandments from God’s law, so it’s no wonder they were interested in identifying some priorities. This Pharisee, however, was not a sincere truth seeker. His real motive in bringing his question was to test Jesus, perhaps to embarrass him by forcing him to come up with a quick answer on the spot. Or maybe the Pharisee was hoping he could lure Jesus into offending people by offering an answer they disagreed with. But he asks a good question, nevertheless. The man’s motive may have been false, his tone might have been insincere – he wasn’t really interested in learning from Jesus – but his question is still important.

To ask, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” is really to ask, “How does God most want me to live? What’s the one thing he wants me to remember? What action does he want me to make my highest priority?” All of which is the same as asking, “What is the single most important thing in the world for me to do?”

Well, what is the most important thing in the world to do? Listen again to Jesus’ answer: Love God, and love your neighbor too. That’s the main thing, that’s the first thing – in fact, that’s the only thing. Christians call it the Great Commandment. It sums up God’s entire law. In fact, this is not just a summary of the law, it’s the whole law. Love is all there is to the law of God. We tend to think of God’s law as a long string of prohibitions and rules, a sort of super-sized “to do” list, accompanied by an equally long and detailed “don’t do” list. That’s understandable. There’s no getting around it: there are numerous commandments in the Bible. But what Jesus helps us to understand by articulating this Great Commandment is that all the various lesser commands are really just principles that help to define love on a practical level, that is, on the level of day-to-day living.

Consider the Ten Commandments, for instance. The first four of them amplify what it means to truly love God. So if we love God we will put him first in our life, above any other allegiance or relationship; we will have no other gods before him, as the first commandment says. And we will reject all forms of idolatry; we will refuse to worship substitutes like possessions, images or ideologies of our own making. Loving God also means showing reverence for his sacred name and honor. It means setting the Lord’s Day apart for worship, in order to better serve him and work to advance his cause throughout the world.

The other six commandments help to define in concrete terms how we must love our neighbor in practice. Love is more than just a feeling. It has to do with how we act. Not only are harmful actions forbidden by God’s law: things like lying, stealing, adultery, murder and the like. The Bible constantly makes it clear that positive acts of service are also required of us. If we are truly going to love our neighbors, it’s not enough that we merely avoid doing them obvious harm. We must also try to do good to them and help them whenever we can.


So there are two parts to Jesus’ great commandment and they both center on love: love for God and love for our neighbor. The two go together; as Jesus once said in another context, “What God has joined, let no one separate.” The Bible teaches that neither of these commands by itself is enough. To claim that we love God while hating other people is just plain hypocrisy. According to the apostle John, doing that makes you a liar (1 John 4:19-21). But on the other hand, trying to love other people without first loving God is a futile effort at best. Because only when we have been transformed by God’s grace, when his love has redirected our hearts from being self-centered to being others-centered, only when God’s Spirit lives in us inspiring and empowering us, will we be able to live for others in the same way that Jesus did. So both parts of Jesus’ Great Commandment belong together, neither one separated from the other.

But I also want to consider each of those two parts in more detail, beginning today with the command to love God. How can we love God with all our heart, soul and mind? What does that mean? The short answer is that it means loving God with everything we are and have. We have to love God entirely, with our whole life, with all of ourselves, the same way that God loves us. As the song says, “He gave his life, what more could he give? Oh, how he loves you and me.”

But let me expand on this command just a bit. First of all, let’s look at what loving God with all our heart means. The heart, in the biblical sense of that term, refers not so much to the seat of our emotions as to the center of our personality. Your heart is your essential nature, the real you. Loving God “with all your heart” could also be thought of as loving God “with a whole heart,” that is, undividedly. Too often we exhibit a sort of spiritual schizophrenia, a dual personality. Part of us wants to be a Christian, but part of us also wants to be at home with and in the world. We love so many different things, we desire so many contrary experiences, we pursue so many conflicting goals. We love God, but we also love money too much – and all the comforts and pleasures money can buy. We love God, but we also love success and happiness as the world defines those things. We love God, but we also love our own egos, and the rush we get from power or fame. Divided hearts love contradictory things. Lives with divided allegiance send out conflicting messages, like a provocatively dressed woman wearing a cross around her neck. And that’s not good.

Next, think about loving God with all our soul. The word “soul” is used in many different senses in the Bible. It can refer simply to the whole person, or it can mean our inward being, the part of us that survives death. Here I think Jesus uses it to indicate the part of us that decides and chooses, in other words, our will. When Jesus urges us to love God with our whole soul, he is reminding us of the importance of obedience. Loving God in this way means choosing to pursue one thing above all alternatives: to do the will of God. Love, as we all know, is more than just feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes. It is good that we should be passionate about God, that we should desire him as the deer longs for flowing streams. But ultimately our feelings of love for God are meaningless unless they issue in acts of obedience to God. If we love God with all our soul we will commit ourselves to nothing less than doing God’s will every moment of every day. And that’s not easy.

Finally, consider what it means to love God with all our mind. At the very least, it suggests to us that we need to care about ideas. We must be willing to wrestle thoughtfully with complex issues and hard questions. While it is certainly better to be a humble, obedient believer than to be a great thinker who leads a bad life, that doesn’t mean we can dispense with the duty of striving to be thinking Christians. If we’re ever tempted to belittle advanced study, if we think we can ignore what contemporary academics is saying and “just believe in the Bible,” if we are not interested in things like politics, culture or the arts because we’re just following Jesus, then his command to love God with all our mind ought to make us think differently. We don’t all need to become professional theologians but we do need to recognize the importance of working seriously and systematically to understand both God and our world. We should be able to respond intelligently to the ideas of those who do not share our commitment to biblical truth. It is increasingly difficult to love God with our mind in a culture that teaches us to think as if there is no God. But that makes it all the more imperative to follow Jesus’ great commandment.

Loving God in all these ways is neither easy nor simplistic, but it is crucial. Even more than that, it’s a wonderful privilege. Don’t think of it just as some sort of duty or burdensome obligation. Think of it like this: the God of the whole universe loves you, and he wants nothing more than for you to love him in return. He has made it possible for you to do exactly that. He has come into our world, sending his Son Jesus Christ to live and die on our behalf, so that we could be forgiven, cleansed, and restored in love to him. What could be better than that?

A lot of voices in our culture are telling us that the most important thing in the world is to love ourselves. We’re constantly being urged to join the likes of Shirley MacLaine in that “most pleasurable” of journeys into and through our own egos. But I think I’ll pass on that invitation. I don’t need or want any more encouragement to love myself. I want to know how to love God. What I really desire is to escape from myself and my clamoring ego and offer my life in loving service to God through Jesus Christ. I’m convinced that this is the journey that leads to true meaning, fulfillment and, yes, pleasure. Won’t you join me?