“Love, the Greatest Commandment”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons

This year, our congregational theme has been “Living for Jesus”.  As a result, much of our preaching and teaching has been focused on the Lord.  I think that’s extremely valuable and important.  After all, how can we live for Jesus if we don’t know who Jesus is? 

This morning, though, I’d like to take a slightly different tack.  I want to focus on the “living” part rather than the “Jesus” part.  We can’t live for Jesus without knowing who Jesus is, but we can’t live for Him if we don’t know what His expectations are for us either.

As Clay observed last week, though, meeting those expectations can’t merely be a matter of outward form.  The Pharisees were masters of check-the-box religion, but the Lord condemned them harshly because of their inward failings.  They were willing to offer God 10 percent even of the herbs from their gardens, but what God really wanted was 100 percent of their hearts.

The same is true for us today.  If our religion doesn’t come from the heart, it’s worthless.  I’d like to preach this morning, then, in response to another one of those sermon requests.  Let’s spend some time contemplating love, the greatest commandment.

We need to begin this study by defining WHAT LOVE IS.  In this regard, consider Paul’s words in Romans 13:8-10.  To some, it might seem surprising that we need to begin this study with a definition.  After all, even small children know what love is and tell their mothers “I love you!”, right? 

The thing is, though, that our definitions of love don’t necessarily line up with God’s definition.  God is love, and He never is deceived about what truly is loving.  That’s not true for us, though.  We are prone to being deceived by others and even deceiving ourselves.  As a result, we may sincerely believe that our conduct is loving when in God’s eyes, it isn’t loving at all.  Indeed, people have done great evil in the name of loving God and loving their neighbor.

We think we know what love is, but we don’t.  In order to help us, then, God gave us His definition of love.  That’s really what the Bible is.  Every commandment in the law of Christ is an expression of love, either for God or for our neighbor. 

Sometimes, people get this wrong.  They say, “My heart is filled with love, so getting all those tiny things right in God’s law doesn’t matter.”  That’s exactly backwards.  Our hearts are not so good that we get to sit in judgment on the word of God and decide which parts are important for us to keep.  Instead, we must allow God’s word to sit in judgment on our hearts, to highlight all the places where we fall short of His perfect love. 

Indeed, the more difficult, even outrageous, we find God’s commandments, the more important this becomes.  I know people who have serious problems with the Bible’s condemnation of the practice of homosexuality.  However, their outrage doesn’t highlight a problem with the Bible.  It highlights a problem with them.  God’s word is perfect.  We aren’t.  We need to be humble before it and live accordingly.

Second, we must understand WHY LOVE MATTERS.  Here, let’s consider the encounter between Jesus and the scribe in Matthew 22:34-40.  A lot of the time, we think that calling love the greatest commandment was a new teaching from Jesus.  It wasn’t.  In fact, whenever we see somebody in the gospels asking Jesus what the greatest commandment is, it’s because they know the right answer and are checking to see whether He does.  

Jesus calling love the greatest commandment in v. 38, then, isn’t the new, intriguing part.  Instead, it is when He reveals in v. 40 that all the Law and the Prophets depend on love.  Some translations here say that on love hang all the Law and the Prophets, and I think that highlights the function that love serves. 

Imagine, then, that love is like a peg or a hook on a wall, and you’ve got a bunch of things hanging from that peg—depending from it, if you will.  If you remove that hook, if you take out that peg, all of those things are going to fall to the floor in a heap. 

If you take the animating principle of love out of God’s law, the same thing is going to happen.  Yes, every commandment was handed down to us as part of God’s definition of love, but it is equally important that we use those commandments as ways to express our love for God and others.   If we forget about love, our failure will ruin our obedience.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to the Pharisees.  They thought they were keeping the Law, but they forgot about love, and as a result, rather than expressing love, their selective Law-keeping expressed self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and hard-hearted contempt for others.  The same thing can happen to us.  A Christian without love is nothing more than a Pharisee.

Finally, let’s examine WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE.  Look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  This is a familiar passage.  Clay read it during his sermon last week.  It’s commonly used during weddings.  Everybody thinks it’s so poetic and beautiful and heartwarming and all the rest of that stuff.  The thing is, though, that we only can take it so lightly when we don’t think about what it’s actually saying and how it applies to us.  Once we start thinking that way, rather than being beautiful and heartwarming, this is a text that becomes painful and humbling.

To illustrate this, let’s spend a few moments considering the coronavirus edition of 1 Corinthians 13.  Over the past six weeks or so, many of us have found ourselves spending more time with our families—our loved ones—than we ever have before.  During that time, how have we honored God’s ideal of love?

Love is patient.  Over the past six weeks, have we always been patient, even when one of our kids wakes up on the mouthy side of the bed one morning?  Love is kind.  Have we always been kind to our spouses, even when we’ve been tripping over each other for the past six weeks? 

Love is not arrogant.  Have we been arrogant?  Have we demanded things from our families that we have no right to expect?  Love is not rude.  Are we ever rude to our loved ones?  Love is not self-seeking.  Do we ever, just for the tiniest little moment, get fed up with serving our families and start wondering when someone is going to do for us instead?

Love is not irritable.  Are we?  Do we sometimes wake up on the wrong side of the bed ourselves and make sure everybody knows about it?  Love does not keep a record of wrongs.  Do we?  Have we spent our quarantine making a little list of everybody’s shortcomings and failings, until finally we blow our stack about them?

I could go on, but I think that makes my point.  Is there any Christian here who is willing to testify that they’ve been perfectly loving during isolation?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t make that claim.  When it comes to love, all of us have got a lot of repenting to do, and a long way to go before we become like Jesus.