What Jesus Taught About Loving God Above All
Have you ever wondering what you are supposed to be about as a Christian? Have you ever been confused as to what you should be doing or not doing?
What is a Christian’s Greatest Duty?
If we were to ask that question in churches across America, what kind of answers would we get?
- In some places, we might hear “minister to the poor”
- In others, it might be “work to resolve social issue like racial injustice” or “end abortion” – both great evils in our society.
- Some might say a Christian’s main duty is to “preach the gospel” or maybe just “live moral lives”
But are any of those things the essence of the Christian life?
Are they what is most important and most fundamental to our Christian behavior and purpose?
Are they essential to our pursuit to become more like Christ?
For much of my own Christian life I have searched the Scriptures to find the answer to this question. I have heard many exhortations from many sermons about what we are to be about as Christians.
- We need to fight sin
- We need to read our Bibles
- We need to lead our families well
- We need to witness to our communities
- We need to support missions
- We need to pray more
- And on and on
And all those things are true. All those things are rooted in Scripture. But are they the main thing?
I think we need to go straight to the source, our highest authority, and ask, “How would Jesus answer that question – What is a Christian’s greatest duty?”
In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus tells us something so profound and so crucial to the Christian life that I have been shocked that I haven’t heard it taught more often over the 24 years I have been a Christian and faithfully attending church. Out of the hundreds of sermons I have heard, this topic has been addressed far too little.
What Jesus says here is of such high importance that it needs to shape our day to day living, it needs to be taught over and over, and it needs to shape the trajectory of our churches and our ministries.
In fact, to continue ignoring, either intentionally or unintentionally, what he says here, will have profound negative consequences for us as individuals and for us as believing communities.
What Jesus Teaches About Loving God
Hopefully by the time you are doing reading this article, you will understand that I am not exaggerating. Hopefully you will come to see is the following:
Loving God is of the highest importance for our Christian life
Take a look at this passage for yourself:
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
– Matthew 22:34–40
The context of this passage is the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment who are being exposed for their religious hypocrisy and have fallen under God’s judgment.
As part of this conflict, a Jewish legal expert, a lawyer, is sent to ask Jesus a question -“Which is the great commandment in the law?”
The nature of the question is essentially “Which law is most important in relationship to all others?” The intent of the question was designed to trick Jesus into giving an answer that could be used to harm Him.
If Jesus answered unsatisfactorily his reply could be used to show he misinterpreted God’s law which would erode his support with the crowds and give the Pharisees an opportunity to reestablish their authority or provide them an excuse to have him arrested.
Not only does Jesus avoid the trap, he gives an answer that does several things:
- His answer tells us what God’s highest ethical priority is for His people
- His answer exposes the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders
- And it helps us as readers reorient our Christian life to make sure we don’t fail like so many of the Jews at the time.
Matthew 22:37–40 — And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Notice four things about Jesus’ answer:
- First – Jesus reveals that there is indeed a “greatest commandment,” one that stands above all the rest and is “first in importance.” Trying to prioritize the laws was not something Jesus was prohibiting. There is priority of importance in God’s law.
- Second – The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. To love God with one’s whole being is the most important commandment. Jesus is quoting this command from Deuteronomy 6:5 which we will talk about in a bit.
- Third – Interestingly, Jesus gives a second commandment – thought it isn’t the “greatest” or “first in importance,” it is similar and connected to the command to love God – it is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
- Fourth – Jesus says the entirety of the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.
Perhaps Jesus’ choice of “greatest commandment” here is a surprise to you. If you were to answer the lawyer’s question, which might you have chosen?
- Maybe you might have picked 1 Cor. 10:31 – “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”
- Or maybe you might have picked the first of the 10 commandments from Ex. 20:3 – “You shall have no other gods before me.”
- Or maybe a command to worship God, or serve him, or something like that.
But Jesus teaches us the command to love God is the first and most important.
Why Loving God Should Be Our Highest Priority
Why is the Commandment to Love God so Important?
This is a trickier question because Jesus doesn’t explain why he chooses this particular commandment. But he does give a hint – he says that all the Law and Prophets “hang on,” or are dependent on, these commandments to love. So I think in order to understand why loving God is so important, this hint is a good place to start.
In order to understand why all the rest of the Law and Prophets hang on these commandments, we must first understand what love is, which is not easy thing to explain but I will try. I did an in depth study of the concept of love for my Master’s Thesis and I found that it was much more difficult to define than I was expecting. But I will summarize quickly a few key aspects of what I learned.
At its essence, love relates to the most important parts of the interior life of man. It speaks to our desires (or what we want and desire to possess for ourselves), affections (what we like and gravitate toward, our feelings toward things), love involves our motives (or why we do what we do), it involves what we value (or what we believe is most important), and it influences our actions.
That isn’t a very precise definition of love but it at least hopefully gives you a better idea of what it is and how much what we love influences us.
So considering all those facets of love, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that what we love tells a lot about us. If you can examine the hidden thoughts, motives, desires, and feelings of a person, you can learn a lot about that person can’t you?
Unfortunately we can’t see into the interior life of a person, these things are hidden from us. But God can see them, and he values these things about us a great deal.
This is why Jesus is constantly condemning the Jewish religious establishment for their hypocrisy. On the outside, the part that people can see, the Jewish religious leaders may seem very impressive to the average Jew. But Jesus is constantly telling the people not to be fooled by what they see and what they hear! On the inside, the Jewish religious leaders are morally bankrupt and don’t love God.
Its why in the next chapter, Matthew 23, in the seven woes Jesus levels against the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says:
- Matthew 23:5 – Don’t do what the Scribes and Pharisees do because (v.5) “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Jesus knows what their interior motives are, and they are evil. Why? They don’t do their religious deeds because they love God, they do it because they love the praise of men. Their motives are selfish.
- Matthew 23:6 – Jesus says they “love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogue.” What do they love? They love to be honored in front of people. Again, selfish motives and desires drive these people. In contrast, Jesus says that his disciples must not be this way but instead be humble servants.
- Matthew 23:23 – Jesus condemns the Scribes and Pharisees for tithing herbs and spices and neglecting the more important parts of the law like justice and mercy and faithfulness.
Think about that – they are fine tithing trivial things derived from garden plants but they have no interest in really important things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness – which are all aspects of God’s character by the way.
The Scribes and Pharisees are interested in performing religious works but not doing the things are in accordance with God’s character. What does that tell you about their hearts for God?
In Matthew 23:25, Jesus condemns the religious leaders for trying to make their exterior selves look nice but when in reality they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Jesus knows their hearts and reminds people what God really cares about.
Because Jesus is God and he knows what is going on inside of people, he uses a very shocking metaphor to describe the Jewish religious establishment in Matthew 23:27 – The religious leaders’ hypocrisy is so bad that Jesus says they are “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and uncleanness.”
And finally, at the end of the seven woes, Jesus gives this summary of them in 23:28 – “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Jesus described the Jewish religious leaders as “lawless”?
That’s because they were. On the outside they looked like they were great champions of God’s law. But Jesus says it is all false and that at the core of their being, they are “lawless.” Why? Because they are missing the core of what God’s law is all about.
Here is the point – God cares about the hearts of His people, He always has.
In the Old Testament, the Law was never merely a set of external rules and regulations to follow to earn God’s favor. The Law was always meant to be an expression of the heart – a heart of love for God and a heart of love for others.
Think about the 10 commandments for instance. The first four are related to what loving God looks like: having no other gods but him (or put another way, loving no other gods but him), not misrepresenting God by making an image, not misusing God’s name, and honoring His Sabbath days.
The next 6 laws relate to loving one’s neighbor – not murdering, not committing adultery, not coveting, honoring parents and so on.
All the rest of the laws in the Old Testament can be interpreted the same way, as expressions of what it tangibly looks like to love God and other people.
This is the essence of what the Apostle Paul is saying in Romans 13:8-10:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.“
– Romans 13:8–10
“Love fulfills the law” – what Paul is getting at is that all those interpersonal commands in the 10 commandments are really describing what love looks like. If you love someone, you won’t commit adultery, you won’t steal, you won’t covet, etc. And Paul says this same idea applies to “any other commandment.”
God cares about what we love and how we live out that love in our lives. The Old Testament laws regulating interpersonal behavior were all about helping God’s people love one another.
But as important as it was to love your neighbor as yourself, loving God was still more important.
It is why pious Jews would recite Deuteronomy 6:5 twice a day, the command Jesus says is the greatest and first.
Take a minute and read that command in context starting at Deuteronomy 6:4 where Moses is addressing the Israelites:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
– Deuteronomy 6:4–9
The command to love God was to be constantly on the hearts of the Israelites. They were to teach it to their children, talk of it all the time, think about it when they walk, when they lie down to sleep and when they get up. It was to be written in important places as a constant reminder of its great priority.
Why? Because loving God is the most important thing we can do.
- God is the greatest good. There is nothing worth loving more than him.
- God is worthy of all our love and affection. He should be of the greatest value in our hearts.
- Love for God should also be the primary motive behind all our religious activity.
- Why should we go to church on Sunday? – It should be because we love God and want to worship him, hear from his word, and love the people he loves.
- Why should we read the Bible? – To hear the words of the one we love.
- Why should we pray? – To talk to the one we love.
- Why should we serve? – Because we love the one who loved us and gave his life for us and we want to be a part of his work on this earth. It should be our greatest privilege to serve the one we love.
When we don’t do these things out of a heart of love, we risk becoming just like the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, and elders of the Jews.
Examples of the High Priority of Love in the Bible
This is really the heart behind Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 where the apostle tells us that if we don’t have love, we don’t gain anything at all by our religious activity and sacrifice.
And really this was the message of the Prophets in the Old Testament – to remind the Israelites of how they had broken God’s law not just externally, but from the heart.
Its why God commanded the prophet Hosea to marry an adulterous woman. It was a picture of what Israel had done to God – they abandoned their first love and run off after other lovers.
That’s why Jesus says the Prophets depend on this command to love God and others – it was at the heart of their message.
And really nothing has changed. God still requires love from His people today. Just listen to Jesus’ words to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-5:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
– Revelation 2:1–3
Now if we stopped reading there we might think, wow, the Ephesian church is doing really well. But let’s keep reading:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
– Revelation 2:4-5
The Ephesians have lost their first love. And the situation is so serious that if they do not repent, Jesus will remove their lampstand – basically they are going to lose their church. Their church will die out and cease to be a faithful witness for Christ. That is how serious it is to lose your first love.
So what about you – how is your love for God?
- When you examine your own heart, what do you value the most? What is most important to you in life?
- What do you desire most? Is it God? Or is your heart consumed with the desire for other things that crowd out and distract you from a love for God?
- Why do you go to church? What is your reason for being here this morning?
- Why do you read your Bible? Why do you not read your Bible?
- Why do you pray? Why do you not pray?
My purpose in asking these questions is not to discourage you but to try and help you build an awareness of the condition of your own heart.
- It’s so easy for us to forget what Christianity is all about isn’t it? With all the busyness, with the obligations in life, all the worries, all the marketing messages we are bombarded with, all the ungodly pursuits the world is filled with – to forget what really matters.
- It is easy to forget our purpose as Christians. We forget that God saves us to be in a loving relationship with Him, to be a part of His family, and to be with Him for eternity.
- Our love for Him is to radiate outward and to show the unbelievers in our lives that we love something else and that our hearts are not to be consumed with a love for the world.
- We are all in the same boat. If we are honest about these soul penetrating questions, we all fall so incredibly short of loving God the way we should. But the point isn’t to get discouraged and give up, the point is to improve and reorient our lives around the great priority to love God.
So how do we do that?
How to Grow in Loving God
If we want to know how to love God better, we can spend all our time looking at ourselves. But we shouldn’t do that. Why? Because people aren’t the source of love, God is.
“God is love” 1 John tells us. He is the source of love. And if we want to know what love looks like, and if we want the power to love more, we must look to him.
My first suggestion in how to grow in loving God is this:
Grow in Your Understanding of How Much God Loves You
“We love because he first loved us.”
– 1 John 4:19
Our love must be inspired by, empowered by, and modeled after, God’s love for us.
How has God loved us?
In Scripture, the death of Christ for us is the supreme example of God’s love for us. To understand better why it is the supreme example, we can reflect on the high cost of Christ’s death and our low status as fallen humans.
- Reflect on the High cost – God the Father gave up something of highest worth for us, His only beloved Son. And the Son gave up the glories of heaven and the honor due him on this earth to be rejected, despised, shamed, tortured, and killed by his own people.
- Reflect on low our status – Jesus didn’t die for worthy people, he died for children of wrath, dead in trespasses and sins, blinded by Satan, and worthy of eternal punishment. Those are the kind of people he chose to love and have mercy upon and die for.
Grow in Your Understanding of the Benefits of Christ’s Death For You
Eternal forgiveness of sins – have you ever contemplated what that really means? Every single sin nailed to the cross, cast in the depths of the sea, forgotten by the Father, covered by the blood of the Son of God. All those in Christ will never experience the punishment they should experience but receive blessing upon blessing upon blessing instead.
Continual access to God – You can only pray, you can only worship because of the access to God that Jesus’ death has provided for you.
He has loved us with a love that we can never lose – Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not any sin you commit, not any circumstance, nothing will ever separate you from the love God has for you. His love for you is secured in Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
We have all experienced what it is like not to have the love of the people we want to have love us. And we have experienced the painful feelings of rejection that go along with it. In Christ, you will never experience that rejection. His love for you will remain forever.
How else has God loved us?
Think about all the ways God provides for your needs every day – food, shelter, clothing, family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. Go through your house and look at all your stuff. Let each item be a source of thankfulness to God for going above and beyond in meeting your needs.
Reflect often on all the other ways God has been good to you:
- Being born in a country with so many freedoms and opportunities, access to jobs, a comparatively high standard of living compared with the rest of the world, peace, so many benefits.
- Think also about the people that God has brought into your life that have blessed you.
- Think of the beauty of creation you get to enjoy.
- There are so many other ways God has been good to us and has shown us His love that we often miss and don’t even stop to think about.
Reflect often on God’s love for you – both in the death of Christ and in everything else. That is how we start understanding what love really is.
Read the Bible With the Purpose of Knowing and Loving God Better
There are lots of reasons why we read the Bible but I think this one should be at the top.
This is something I am doing. Instead of doing my daily Bible reading and not having a clear purpose in my head for why I am doing it (other than it is good somehow), I decided to start journaling through my daily Bible reading and noting significant things I learn about God.
It’s amazing what we miss when we read the Bible, things our eyes just skip over and we don’t think about. This method helps me especially look for what I can learn about God and his goodness to help me love and appreciate him more.
Serve With the Motive of Loving God
Serving others can feel like a burden sometimes but it doesn’t need to be. We should always serve first with the motive of loving God.
This article was originally a sermon I prepared. I remember that it was a struggle to put together. It was hard. Frankly there were other things I wanted to do with my time. But as I reflected on the content of the sermon, God helped me remember why I am doing it. Jesus told Peter – “If you love me, feed my sheep.” (John 21:17) That’s what every teacher of the Bible should be doing, feeding God’s sheep as an act of love to Jesus. It’s true of any act of service you do for God’s people. Do it out of love for the one that loved you.
Avoid Loving Things That Compete With Your Love for God
This is a choice, a practice, a discipline, and a crying out to God to change our hearts.
There are many things that compete with our love for God but here are two:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
– Matthew 6:24
More people ruin themselves and the people around them by loving money and possessions. Forget chasing those things. Love God instead. He is far more valuable.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
– 1 John 2:15
“The world” in this verse is the sinful and rebellious aspects of humanity that want nothing to do with God. We can’t love things that are diametrically opposed to God and love God and the same time. Therefore, Christians need to repent of loving things that are inherently sinful (i.e. pornography, gossiping about other people, stealing, abusing drugs or alcohol, etc.).
Christians too often let loves for things that are inherently sinful steal away their love for God. Evaluate yourself with honesty. What are you currently loving that is sinful? Work on repenting of those things and praying for God to change you so that a genuine love for Him replaces those sinful loves.
Make All Other Loves Secondary to Loving God
In City of God, the great Christian theologian Augustine talked about rightly ordering our love. His meaning was there is a priority in what we should love.
Doesn’t God want me to love my family? Yes, but He wants you to love Him more than them. Doesn’t God want me to love my neighbor? Yes, but He wants you to love Him more than them.
Isn’t that selfish of God? No, it isn’t and here’s why.
As you love God more, you will be able to love your family, and everyone else, better. God is the source of love. Love is His very nature. Loving God changes you to become more like Him and able to better imitate His love. Then, your improved ability to love will flow out to everyone else around you. I think that is why Jesus connected love of neighbor and love for God. There is a relationship there. Love God more and everyone around you benefits.
Obey God’s Commands With the Motive of Love for Him
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
Think about your own relationships. If you ask someone to do something for you, would you rather have them do it while despising you or do it out of love for you? Same with God.
Obedience is important to God. But as we have seen, we must obey because we love and not let other reasons creep in such as religious pride that can stifle our love.
Still feeling discouraged with yourself? Has God’s word showed you the deficiencies in your own heart in loving Him? Well, here is some good news:
- Confess your sin and receive the Lord’s forgiveness. Unload the burden and discouragement of failure onto him. Realize that He loves you in spite of your deficient love for Him.
- Reflect on God’s love for you, especially through the death of Jesus Christ who bought your forgiveness with an extremely high cost. Let that be your comfort and encouragement. Even when we fail, we can still use it as an opportunity to learn more about God’s love for us.
- We will never have perfect love for God and others in this life but we can improve and we can continually refocus our Christian life on loving God as our highest pursuit.
Never forget the high priority of loving God in your pursuit of Christian growth. You can never become like Christ without it.
The most important relationship in your life is your relationship with God. No other relationship comes close. Grow in knowing and loving Him.
R.C. Sproul explains how the mind is corrupted by sin and the priority of loving God with the mind must first start with a new spirit. Then he explains the connection between loving God with knowing and worshiping Him.
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