Jesus’s first command: Love God.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 October

The most important of the commands to follow.

When Moshe ben Maimon of Spain (1135–1204, also called Maimonides by westerners, Rambam by Jews) wrote the Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds,” he sorted God’s commands into a list of 613. His first command was the first of the Ten Commandments, which in Jewish reckoning is this verse:

Exodus 20.2 = Deuteronomy 5.6 KWL
“I’m your god, the LORD,
who took you out of Egypt’s land, out of the slaves’ house.”

Makes sense, right? It’s the first one the LORD declared aloud from Sinai.

But when Jesus was asked the most important of God’s commands, he listed two. Respectively, they’re Moshe ben Maimon’s fourth and 13th commands.

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes was standing there listening to the discussion.
Recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees, he asked him,
“Which command is first of all?” 29 Jesus gave this answer:
“First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You will love your Lord God with all your mind, life, intent, and strength.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

It’s kinda understandable why Moshe went with the first commandment. It is the first commandment, after all. And it identifies which God we’re to follow. We don’t follow one of the other beings which identify themselves, or which others identify for us, as God. When pagans refer to “the universe,” or nontheists mockingly refer to “the imaginary man in the sky,” we Christians reject those ideas as God. That’s not our God. Our God is the being Jesus identified as his Father; and when this being 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 really important to us humans. It’s why your typical theology book begins with nailing down which God we follow. The Father of Jesus; the God of Israel. There’s usually a bit in there about whether he exists, which is entirely unnecessary if you’ve met him (but a bothersome number of theologians aren’t actually sure they have… which is another discussion).

Of course if you ask God—as this scribe asked Jesus, God incarnate— he’s gonna say the most important command he gave is to love God. Just as he had Moses tell the Hebrews.

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.”

In Mark Jesus divided mehódekha/“your powerful[ness]” into two ideas: Dianoías/“intent,” and iskhýos/“strength.” Your mental power; your physical power. In case anybody was looking for a loophole—as we so often do—Jesus plugged it.

Commanded to love.

Plenty of people have love confused with an emotion. I dealt with that elsewhere; it’s not just an emotion. (And if you’re dealing with one of those Christians who insist, “Love isn’t an emotion at all; it’s a verb,” I would tell ’em to stop listening to DC Talk and go find a Greek lexicon. Love’s a lot of things.)

But if you’re the sort who doesn’t understand love isn’t just an emotion—like little kids who’ve had the larger culture’s really sloppy, inaccurate, vague definition of love foisted on them—they’re gonna wonder, “How can you command people to love somebody? Either they love ’em or they don’t.” Either they have the warm fuzzy feelings, or nothing’s there. What, we’ve gotta conjure them up?

No. And yes.

Go back and read the definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13.4-7. Notice the apostles defined it with verbs. Now do those verbs.

  • Love has patience? Fine; be patient with God.
  • Love behaves kindly? Fine; be kind to God.
  • Love doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion? Be that way with God. Stop freaking out at him whenever things don’t go your way.
  • Love doesn’t draw attention to how great it is? 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 doesn’t exaggerate? Right: Stop telling God you love him more than anything, when really you love your kids more. (’Cause 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. ’Cause you’re not fooling him any.
  • Love doesn’t ignore others’ considerations: Put God’s feelings first. Really first.
  • Love doesn’t provoke: Stop pissing him off by hurting others, and him, with your thoughtless, self-centered behavior!
  • Love doesn’t plot evil: 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 doesn’t delight in wrongdoing. Stop sinning.
  • Love delights 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 puts up with everything… so put up with God.
  • Puts trust in everything… so trust God.
  • Puts hope in everything… so put your hope in God.
  • Survives everything… so determine you’re sticking with God no matter what. ’Cause he’s sticking with you.
  • Love doesn’t fall down. 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 commitment we usually make to those fleeting feelings. This is a lifestyle.

Thing is, once you really practice the lifestyle, you’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 that idea—the whole “fake it till you have it” thing). Christians love our enemies all the time without feeling any affection for them. Hard to feel stuff for people who are 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 all our mind, life, and power (intent and strength). It’s 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 translated “mind” is actually leváv/kardías/“heart.” Most bibles go with “heart.” Why’d I go with “mind”? ’Cause that’s what the ancients believed about hearts.

The bible isn’t a science textbook. It got God right—getting him right is its purpose—but the rest reflects what the ancients believed, accurate or not. And the ancient Egyptians thought the brains were head-stuffing, and little else. Aristotle believed the brain’s job was only to cool the blood down. 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 a literal cardiac organ, is a synonym for “intellectual capacity.” The ancients believed we thought with our hearts… and felt with our kidneys. The heart as our emotional center is a medieval idea. Not an ancient one.

So if Jesus instructs us to love God with “all your heart,” the literal translation gives us the wrong idea. Loving someone with all our heart, in our culture, means all our emotion, and Jesus doesn’t mean that. He means all our intellect. All our mind. Everything we think. All our conscious thought… and unconscious, so time we started hunting down our knee-jerk reactions, and replaced them with love for God. Fear, bigotry, and prejudice has gotta go.

Life. Neféš/psykhís/“soul” is another one of those words which Christians apply wishy-washy definitions to. Way too many of us don’t know the difference between soul and spirit; or worse, have listened to the delusions of Christian pop psychology, and think of the soul as a slightly less selfish version of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the id. The soul is our lifeforce. It’s what God breathed into Adam at creation Ge 2.7 and turned him into “a living soul” (KJV). And when we die, it dies.

So it’s our lifeforce. Our life. Our lives are 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; and then we see the effects of these actions. The mehód/“powerful[ness].” 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, Jesus interpreted this word with two separate words:

  • Intent. This isn’t just the stuff we think about doing for God… and ultimately never do. We actually do it. Others see why we do it—others see our intent—and that has consequences.
  • Strength. Often Christians just figure iskhýos means the same as mehód—it’s another word for power. They might be right. But I would say Jesus is trying to distinguish between our not-so-visible intent, and our far-more-visible actions—and how both of ’em 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. It’s the basis of all his behavior. It’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.