Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
The question, Matthew tells us, was designed to “test” Jesus (35). It's a question that the Pharisees had debated amongst themselves for years. The Pharisees had identified several different passages they believed summed up the entire bible and various experts among them fought about which one was the greatest. They may have hoped to stump Jesus, get him to stumble over the scriptures, not have a ready passage in mind, or to say something that would reveal an ignorance of the sophisticated sort of theological debates that Pharisees had.
No stuttering, no hesitation. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, you can look it up on your own if you like, as the greatest law.
Jesus is the Word of God. All scripture originated with him, it is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). So when the One who inspired every single word in every single book of the bible identifies one command as the Greatest its a good idea to perk up and attend to what it means.
On the surface the command seems rather easy: Love God.
I do that. I have great affection for God.
I was in a debate with an Episcopal Priest who said the Great Commandment means that as long as you love God you can do anything you want; that Jesus replaced all commands with the Great command and if you follow it then you don't have to worry about following the rest.
In a way he was right. If you love God you can do whatever you want without breaking a command...but he was not right in the way he thought. The Greek word is used for love in this text is "Agape." Most of you know what agape is, but for those of you who don't, let's talk about it.
Most of us use the word love when we are talking about the way we feel about something or someone. We fall in “love”. We “love” friends. We “love” family. We “love” ice cream. We “love” movies. We use “love” in many ways but when we do we're almost always referring to our feelings about something or someone.
Agape does not refer to our feelings. To have agape means to will and act self-sacrificially toward another. If you have agape for someone you see that person's good, welfare, as having priority over your own. Agape may come with affection, but affection is not necessary to it. You can agape someone you don't like. You can, as Jesus commands earlier in Matthew's Gospel, agape your enemies. You can “act” sacrificially toward someone for whom you feel hatred. You can act with agape in every relationship.
When you get married, for example, and you promise to love your spouse, you are not promising to feel love for that person until death do you part. No one can promise to feel a certain way. You promise to agape; to set your wife or husband above yourself and to act in their best interest, even if it means your own sacrifice. Imagine a marriage where that is true.
You can feel agape, but you can't “just” feel agape. Agape requires action. So, from a biblical perspective, the husband who says “I love you” but never spends time with his wife or pitches in around the house or takes interest in what his kids are up to, may feel affection for his wife but he does not love her.
And likewise, the woman who says, “I love you” to her husband but spends time belittling him to her friends, disrespecting him, dishonoring him, undercutting his decisions at home, doing nothing to help make his life a little less stressful does not love, agape, her husband even though she may feel great affection for him. Agape is a love that is defined by action and is manifested in works.
Agape is the love that Jesus says we must have for God, a love that sets him above all things, not just in our affections, but in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Every faculty, every fiber of our being, is to be turned toward God in agape love. We are to will to please him in our hearts and that desire is to bear itself out in such a way that it shapes and defines everything we think, do and say.
And in this way that priest I debated was right. If you love God you can do anything you want. But if you love God you will only want to do what pleases him. Far from erasing the rest of the bible, to Agape God means to treasure his Word and seek with all your might to follow the commands that are there because his word is his self-revelation. He tells us what pleases and displeases him. You cannot agape God without seeking to do those things he desires.
Jesus said precisely this in John 14:16 “If you love me, you'll keep my commands” because obedience to God means making God's will your will and setting those other things you love including yourself beneath your love for him. Agape conforms all things to the will of God and what cannot be conformed or reformed, whatever interferes with holiness, obedience, and his call in your life, you'll want none of it. Instead, you will want him, you will seek him, you will hunger and thirst for his presence and delight in his law, he will be your pearl of great price for which you will be willing to sell everything you have.
When he's on the way to Jerusalem and the crowds have thinned and his disciples think they're going to the glorious crowning of Jesus as victorious messiah, he turns to them and says, if you would be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up your cross (Matt 16:24). We're not going to a coronation but to a crucifixion. If you love me you will follow. He meets a rich man (Matt 19) who asks “what must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven?” who says, “I've kept all of the commandments since I've been a boy.” Jesus looks at him and loves him and says, give away everything you have and come follow me. Your money is your idol, give it up. He was saying to the man, “Love me with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength, and you will have eternal life.” What did the man do? He turns away. He cannot do it.
This is a hard teaching isn't it? It makes me wilt. I can't do it. If to agape God with all my heart, soul and mind, means that God must always be first in my life, and if that is what is required to have eternal life, then I don't know about you, but I'm with the rich man. I'm doomed. I can't do it. I can't even do it for a moment. I don't love God like that. I wish I did, but I don't. I want to but I'm powerless.
It is at this point that we come to the sharp end of the law. You read the psalms, psalm 119 for example, and the psalmist speaks about his love for God's law, that it is sweet as honey, a light to his feet, finer than the finest wine, but when I contemplate this greatest commandment, the one that sums up all the others, I'm overwhelmed with the sense of my own inadequacy. I despair.
But then I remember Romans 3:20.Turn there with me: “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
We're fallen people. God did not give us the ten-commandments in the Garden of Eden because we did not need a law there. We were naturally good. God revealed his law when we fell and he did first of all says Paul, so that we would see who we are and what we need. The law is given first not because God thinks we can meet the bar but because God knows we can't but he also knows that if he doesn't show us we can't we'll think we can. And if we think we can, we'll go through our whole life satisfied that there’s nothing wrong and that while we might have our moods every once in a while, we’re basically decent people and surely God will be pleased with us…and if we think that, we'll never do the one thing we must all do to escape standing before his judgment seat immersed in our sins, which is to repent and fall down and surrender our lives to Christ because Christ did what we cannot do. He, and he alone, fulfills the law. He is righteous, without sin. He loves his Father with his heart, mind and soul and strength.
And when you and I turn to him, despairing of our own ability to do what he commands, he loves you, he agapes you--not just as his creature as before, but as his son or daughter--he takes the burden of your sins off your shoulders.
Turn quickly to 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin [Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean? Does Jesus become a sinner in his nature and being for us? No. Jesus is the unblemished Lamb. But on the cross the Father set our sins on the Son. He imputed our sins to Christ and Christ died in our place to pay the eternal consequence for them so that when anyone commits his or her life to Jesus Christ, Paul says, his sins are transferred to Christ and Christ's righteousness, in the same manner, is transferred to the one who believes.
Does that mean that a Christian becomes righteous? Yes, in the same way that Jesus becomes sin. While Jesus is perfectly righteous he is considered a sinner, credited with out sins by the Father and in the same way, God sets Christ's righteousness on all those who believe. He imputes it, so that while we sin, we are considered by God...we are credited with keeping the entire law. I cannot love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul, and all my mind, but Jesus can and Jesus did and he did it for me and he did it for you.
The Law of God then, and this Greatest Law especially, is given first to cause you to despair of your own goodness and ability to please God, and then to drive you to Christ and once you are in Christ, you are free from the consequences of sin.
And when you see that, when come to that point, the bitterness of the Law is removed. The sting is taken away. The law no longer stands over you pronouncing your guilt. It becomes beautiful to the eyes. It is a light to your feet and a lamp to your path, sweet as honey from a honeycomb.
And, moreover, Someone comes to live in you Who gives you the power to do what you could not do before. But we will speak of that next Sunday.