27 October 2022

Jesus’s top command: Love God.

Deuteronomy 6.4-5.

The reason people say the LORD has 613 commands in the bible, is ’cause Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon counted them. Just went through the bible, plucked out all the commands God gave to Moses (and a few he gave to Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel), combined all the repeated ones, came up with 613, and compiled them in his Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds.”

If you haven’t heard of Rabbi Moshe, he’s a big deal in rabbinic Judaism. Jews often refer to him by Rambam (or “the Rambam,” in case you confuse him with another Rambam—it’s an acronym, RMBM, with vowels thrown in so you can pronounce it). Western philosophy courses tend to call him by the Latin version of his name, Moses Maimonides. He lived in Spain in 1135-1204.

Rabbi Moshe also listed the commands in order of importance. To his mind, the most important was the first of the 10 commandments, and while Christians think it’s “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Ex 20.3 Jews figure it’s actually this one:

Exodus 20.2 NKJV
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

No really; it’s a command. It identifies which God we’re to follow. There are plenty of other beings which identify themselves, or which others identify for us, as God. Plenty of pagans will talk about how “the universe” is pointing them a certain direction, or wants ’em to do something. But for us monotheists, the universe isn’t God; it’s one of God’s creations. For us Christians, God is the being Jesus identified as his Father—and when this being first identified himself, it was as YHWH/“the LORD,” Ex 3.14-15 the name he permanently chose for himself. He’s the God who rescued the Hebrews from Egypt. That God is our God.

Identifying which God is our God, is actually vitally important. It’s why theology books tend to begin by nailing down which God we follow: The Father of Jesus and the God of Israel. (There’s usually a bit in there about whether God exists and how we know this… which is entirely unnecessary when you’ve met him. But a bothersome number of theologians aren’t sure they have… which is a whole other discussion.)

Okay, so that’s Rabbi Moshe’s number one command. It’s a good one. But now let’s ask God himself—or more specifically God incarnate, our Lord, Christ Jesus.

Mark 12.28-31 NKJV
28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?”
29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. 30 And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Dt 6.4-5 This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Lv 19.18 There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus identifies the most important command as what Jews call the שֵׁמַע/šemá or Shema, the “declaration” of faith. They repeat this verse to publicly declare the LORD is their God.

Deuteronomy 6.4-5 NKJV
4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

The first part of this passage actually does the same thing as Rabbi Moshe’s number one verse: It identifies which God we follow, and that’d be the LORD. And the LORD is our one and only lord. We’re monotheists; we don’t follow multiple gods. (And Jesus isn’t another god; he’s the same God.)

More than that, we’re commanded to love the LORD. Moses said it’s with all our heart, soul, and might; Jesus expanded “strength” into “mind” and “strength,” lest people think strength was only a mental or physical exercise. It’s both. In case anyone was looking for a loophole, as people so often do, Jesus plugged it.

Getting commanded to love.

Love is lots of things. It is of course an emotion, but not just an emotion. And if you’re one of those Christians who insist, “Love is a verb, so it’s not an emotion”—again, love is lots of things. Stop listening to old DC talk songs instead of looking it up in a Greek lexicon. Be more than two-dimensional, wouldya?

But back to the folks who only define love as an emotion—like little kids who’ve had the larger culture’s sloppy, inaccurate, vague definition of love foisted on them. Such people are gonna wonder, “How can you command someone to love somebody else? Either they love ’em or they don’t.” Either you have the warm fuzzy feelings or nothing’s there. What, we’ve gotta conjure up those feelings?

No. And yes.

You are in control of your emotions. Or should be. If you’re not, start working on it! You decide where your affections are gonna lie; you decide what you’re gonna esteem and what you won’t. You decide whether to try to love God or not.

And emotions tend to follow the actions. So when you read the apostles’ definition of love in the scriptures—

1 Corinthians 13.4-7 NKJV
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

—notice it’s defined with verbs. Now do those verbs.

  • Love has patience? Fine; be patient with God.
  • Love is kind? Fine; be kind to God.
  • Love doesn’t envy? Be that way with God. Don’t covet his power and authority. Stop seizing the reins whenever you don’t like where he’s going.
  • Love doesn’t parade itself? Right: Stop making such a big deal about the fact you love God, and just love him. Don’t be all talk. Prove it.
  • Love isn’t puffed up? Right: Stop telling God you love him more than anything, when really you love your kids more, and you’d ditch Christianity in a heartbeat if God let anything happen to your kids. Stop telling God he’s the most important thing in your life, when obviously your phone is. Stop saying God’s your first priority, when you put sleep before Sunday morning worship services. Stop lying to yourself and others. You’re certainly not fooling God any.
  • Love doesn’t behave rudely: Put God’s feelings first. Really first.
  • Love doesn’t seek its own: Don’t priortize your definition of love over God. True, God is love, and God and love are kinda interchangeable… but too many people define love very differently than God does, and think if it’s love as they define it, it’s God. As a result they distort God.
  • Love isn’t provoked: Stop pissing God off by hurting others, and him, with your thoughtless, self-centered behavior!
  • Love thinks no evil: Stop sinning. Quit looking for loopholes. Or the bare minimum of what you’ve gotta do in order to still call yourself Christian. Or what you can get away with.
  • Love does not rejoice in iniquity: Stop vicariously enjoying it whenever other people are cruel.
  • Love rejoices in truth. Pursue truth. Not convenient beliefs; not sayings which really appeal to you, or make you feel good. Some truths are that way, but some truths are tough. Pursue all truth.
  • Love bears all things… so put up with God.
  • Believes all things… so trust God.
  • Hopes all things… so put your hope in God.
  • Endures all things… so determine you’re sticking with God no matter what. ’Cause he’s sticking with you.
  • Love doesn’t fall down. 1Co 13.8 And to be fair, we do. A lot. But when we do, remember: God’s given us grace. Pick yourself up and try again. 1Jn 2.1

Obviously this is way more than a warm fuzzy feeling… and all the fleeting commitments we usually make to those fleeting feelings. This is a lifestyle.

Once we really practice the lifestyle, we’re gonna find those loving emotions about God come naturally. No, it’s not because we do love in order to feel love, as some Christians put it (and there’s a bothersome degree of hypocrisy in this idea—the whole “fake it till you make it” thing). Christians love our enemies all the time without feeling any affection for them. It’s hard to feel stuff for people when they’re so awful to us. But God’s definitely no enemy. He loves us, so it’s easy to feel affection for him. The affection doesn’t come from our acts. It comes from spending time on, and therefore with, God. He’s easy to love.

Love with all your being.

The level of commitment we apply towards loving God, is why Moses, and later Jesus, said we’ve gotta do this with everything we have. My translation now:

Deuteronomy 6.4-5 KWL
4 “Listen, Israel: Our god is the LORD.
The LORD is One.
5 Love your LORD God with all your mind,
all your life, and all your power.”

This love is gonna take our whole being. No part of our lives is to be lived in a way which doesn’t show God love.

MIND. The word I translate “mind” is actually לֵבָב/leváv (Greek, καρδίας/kardías) “heart.” Most bibles translate it literally, “heart.” So why’d I go with “mind”? ’Cause I’m translating it idea-for-idea. When the ancients spoke of hearts, it meant what you think with.

The ancients didn’t know we think with the brain. The Egyptians thought the brains were mere head-stuffing, and little else. Aristotle believed the brain’s job was only to cool the blood. Wasn’t till the late first century that Galen of Pergamon figured out the brain controlled muscles—but he made no further guesses about higher brain functions, like thought or intellect. Thus “heart” in scripture, when it’s not referring to the literal cardiac organ, is a synonym for “intellectual capacity.” The ancients believed we think with our hearts, and feel emotion with our kidneys. The heart as our emotional center is a medieval idea, not an ancient one.

And the bible reflects the ancient idea. It’s not a science textbook! It gets God right. But the rest reflects what the ancients believed, accurate or not. God condescended to the ancients’ level, same as he condescends to our level; he doesn’t require his people to know science before he can show us grace. So when the Law and Jesus instruct us to love God “with all your heart,” the literal translation might give us the wrong idea: We’ll think it means love him with all our emotion.

And Jesus doesn’t mean that. He means our intellect. All our mind. Everything we think. All our conscious thought… and unconscious, so it’s about time we started hunting down our knee-jerk reactions, and replace them with love for God. Fear, bigotry, and prejudice has gotta go.

LIFE. Another one of those words to which Christians apply wishy-washy definitions is נֶפֶשׁ/néfeš (Greek, ψυχή/psykhí), “soul.” Way too many of us don’t know what a soul is, and think it’s interchangeable with our spirit. Worse, we might’ve listened to Christian pop psychology, and think the soul is a slightly less selfish version of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the id.

Nope. The soul’s our lifeforce, and néfeš is interchangeably translated both “soul” and “life.” Pr 12.10 It’s what God breathed into the first human at creation Ge 2.7 thus turning him into “a living soul” (KJV) —and when we die, the soul dies too. We get a new one at our resurrection.

So our lives have to be dedicated to God’s love. We don’t just love God intellectually; we love him with our actions. After all, faith without works is dead, Jm 2.17 and love without works is just as phony.

POWER. When Moses articulated this command, he was kinda working from the inside out. There’s the stuff in our heads. From this, comes the actions we take. Then we see the effects of these actions—the מְאֹד/mehód (Greek, δύναμις/dýnamis), the “power.” The repercussions of our decisions. The people I influence by what I do and say. The people at your command. That’s power.

I mean, we regularly point out actions have consequences. And our loving actions towards God oughta produce some loving consequences.

As I said earlier, Jesus divided “power” into two separate words in Mark 12.30—“mind” and “strength” in the KJV. I prefer to translate ’em “intent” and “strength.”

INTENT (διανοίας/dianías). This isn’t any random stuff in our mind; this is the stuff we decide to do for God. Assuming we ever actually do it. Jesus expects we should—and others will see us in action, realize why we do it, and be affected one way or another because of it.

STRENGTH (ἰσχύος/iskhýos). Often Christians figure this means the same thing as mehód, “power.” And yeah, dýnamis and iskhýs are usually synonyms. But I’d say Jesus is trying to distinguish between our not-so-visible intentions, and our far-more-visible actions. Both should influence others.

Either way, it’s not enough to just approve of God, or like him, or agree Jesus is Lord but otherwise ignore him. We have to purpose to follow him, and do so with all our being.

Love is central to God’s character. He is love; 1Jn 4.8, 16 it defines him. Love’s the basis of all his behavior. Love’s the first of the Spirit’s fruit which oughta come out of us, considering how important it is to God. Jesus even used love to define us as Christians. Jn 13.35 So it stands to reason love is the first command. And the second.

So, this being the case… how’re we doing?

Do we love God with all our being? Or were we just hoping to avoid hell, and playing along because passive approval is easier than active love? How much of our being is actually going into obeying this command?

’Cause really, if we follow it—and the one to love our neighbors—there’s not a lot of effort we have to put into any of the other commands. Mt 12.30 Love takes care of the rest.