The Greatest Commandment

“And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us” (I Jn 3:23).  This, in my opinion, is the greatest commandment in the New Testament.  Believe in Jesus and love one another.  Accept Christ and love one another.  Embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ and love one another.  Or said another way, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).  Faith and love summarize the two part aspect of the greatest commandment in the New Testament.

Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need for faith to enter His kingdom, to join His family.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (Jn 5:24).  “They said therefore to Jesus, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’  Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (Jn 6:28-29).  “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son, and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:40).  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (Jn 6:47).  Faith equals belief and gaining eternal life is synonymous with entering the kingdom of God.

Jesus introduced the second part of the greatest commandment in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This commandment may seem commonplace to us, but it was radically different and incredibly new to Jesus’ disciples.  They were used to the Old Testament consequence method of eye-for-an-eye where good people are blessed and bad people are punished.  But Jesus has been building up to something completely new as He has been introducing in various ways the idea that, in His kingdom, his citizen’s basic stance toward one another is love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

We have a hint of this in the conversation between Jesus and Peter in Matthew, chapter 18.  Peter, apparently beginning to embrace this idea of love and forgiveness, asks Jesus if this love should extend so far as to forgive his brother seven times.  Now, because we know the rest of the story, we think Peter was being a bit stingy at seven.  But think of Peter’s background in the Old Testament consequence model and we see that Peter’s offer to forgive seven times is actually quite generous in context.  Of course, Jesus blows Peter’s attempt at generous forgiveness out of the water by recommending unlimited forgiveness toward our brother in light of God’s great forgiveness of us (Mt 18:21-35).

The reason I bring this story up is because Peter did eventually fully grasp the love and forgiveness message of Christ.  He would later write, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (I Pet 4:8).  Love one another; its part of the greatest commandment in the New Testament.  And we will continue on this path to explore what love looks like when “kept fervent.”

God is Love

Any discussion about love in the body of Christ, the church, must begin with God Himself, the author of love.  Love is not only the invention of God, but it is the very essence of God.  Love isn’t something God does; it is who He is.  “God is love” is a prevalent theme (I Jn 4:7 e.g.) throughout His revelation.  And this love, at the center of who God is, is the driver in His relationship with us.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down His life for His friends” (Jn 15:13).  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5).  “Grace to you and peace…from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev 1:4-5).

God’s love has rescued us.  And that rescue is firm.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Just as it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35-39).

The Measure of a Healthy Church

One of the significant measures of a healthy church in the New Testament is love for one another.  Many times the apostle Paul commends churches for their love.  To the church at Thessalonica, he writes, “We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess 1:2-3) and, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows even greater” (II Thess 1:3).

To the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote, “For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you” (Eph 1:15-16).  And finally, to the church at Colossae, “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints” (Col 1:3-4).

On the flip side, in Paul’s first letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, he again thanks God for them (I Cor 1:4), but does not refer to the quality of their faith, hope, or love.  Why the omission?  Because these qualities are not visible in the Corinthian church; a church marked by selfishness and division.  In fact, the topic of love is not addressed until chapter 13 where it is presented as something they are missing; the solution to their carnality, not a description of their current state.  It is interesting that Paul acknowledges the Corinthian’s superior speech, knowledge, and giftedness (I Cor 1:5-7) and then holds these up as useless without love.

Now, if love for one another is the measuring stick for a healthy church, what kind of scale do we use to measure our results?  After all, love is a difficult thing to measure.  And if love for one another is so crucial to our community health, what steps can we take to put it into practice?  In what kind of environment will love flourish?  All questions we will take up in due time.

Where is the Love?

In her book, Walking Away from Faith, professor Ruth Tucker identifies five broad categories of reasons for people losing faith.  They are:

  • Scientific and philosophical issues, particularly evolution and naturalism.
  • Biblical perplexities and higher criticism.
  • Disappointment with God regarding personal and wide-scale suffering.
  • Hypocrisy and lack of caring among leaders in the church.
  • Lifestyle and perspective, including homosexuality, feminism, secularism, and pluralism.

We have slowly been working our way through this list looking at biblical answers to these faith challenges.  On point one, we emphasized the unnecessary box we place our students in regarding the creation/evolution debate.  God is the author of all science and is not surprised or taken out of the picture by new discoveries, even in the field of old earth geology.  Does that mean God has nothing to say to us in Genesis chapter 1?  Heavens no!  Genesis 1 emphatically teaches that God created the world from nothing.  This point was very important to Moses’ audience at the time since they were surrounded by cultures that worshiped the creation – sun, moon, stars, animals, etc. – not the Creator God.

We continued through the list by showing that we often compound the challenge of biblical perplexities by insisting on rigid theological boundaries that are not that clear in Scripture.  In doing so, we remove the appropriate mystery of the Sovereign God and in its place set up confusion around apparently contradicting scriptures.  We also add to the perplexity challenge our young people face when we fail to teach them all that changed between the old and new covenants.

On point three, we emphasized the work of Satan, God’s arch-enemy, in perpetuating the flow of evil and suffering in this world.  The New Testament makes clear that while not God’s equal, Satan has been given rule, for a time, over our present world.  But Satan has a flesh and blood enemy opposing his rule, and that is us; Christ’s body on earth.  Jesus enlists us to join Him in “destroying the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8).

We now arrive at today’s topic, point four, “hypocrisy and lack of caring among leaders in the church.”  Throughout these discussions I have tried to highlight the critical part our attitude plays in delivering these answers to our young people.  How we answer these challenges to faith – with love, humility, grace, and truth – can be just as important as the answers themselves.  Our attitude, as church leaders at all levels, is exactly under scrutiny in point four.

But I would like to broaden our discussion to more than just church leaders as I believe hypocrisy and lack of caring is a church-wide problem.  And, in my opinion, it all comes down to a fundamental lack of love.  We have elevated programs over relationships.  We have elevated knowledge over love.  We have elevated a preferred personality over the diversity of the body as God formed it.  We have elevated numbers over depth.  We have elevated leadership by the professional class unconnected to the body.  We have elevated things we can measure:  attendance, budgets, small group participation, number of staff, etc. over things we can’t measure:  faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

The only theme more prevalent throughout the New Testament than the provisions of the New Covenant is the theme of love.  From Matthew to Revelation, love is the heartbeat of the New Covenant message.  A heartbeat we will investigate over the next several posts.