Do we Christians shortchange God's prime directive?...

Love the Lord Your God:
the Neglected Commandment

The need to 'love your neighbor' is universally recognized by Christians and, indeed, by most major religions. But what about 'the great commandment'? Why is it almost universally neglected?

Which of the instructions of Jesus is almost universally ignored by Christians? What is the neglected teaching which Jesus exalted even above love for neighbor? Has it significance for Christians today?

Jesus was once confronted by a religious leader intent on trapping him. What, he wanted to know, was Jesus' opinion of the "great commandment of the Law"? The reply - surely of great significance for those who wish to follow his teachings in our day - revealingly linked the two concepts of law and love.

So - what was the reply that sent those hard-nosed Pharisees scurrying for cover? Jesus answered them: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The whole law of Moses and all the prophets depend on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:34-40).

His words are applauded by every Christian. But how many really understand his answer? More importantly - how many of his professed followers do what he said?

Weigh carefully your reply to these questions. For Jesus elsewhere warned his hearers: "These people, says God, honor me with their words but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me because they teach man-made rules [traditions] as though they were God's laws! You put aside God's command and obey the teachings of men. You have a clever way of rejecting God's law in order to uphold your own teaching ... the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God" (Mark 7:5-9). The Pharisees - among the religious leaders of the day - had so distorted the plain words of God that they were neglecting its central message.

How To Show Love
Many Christians dedicate their lives to serving those around them. Long hours are freely devoted to helping needy children, the elderly, the disadvantaged, the handicapped. They visit and comfort the sick, give to and take part in disaster relief. They occupy their time, often at great personal expense, in a variety of charitable activities.

And isn't this central to Christianity? The New Testament brims with the need for such concern. But are you clearly a Christian by carrying out such activities?

There's an aspect of love for neighbor, however, that escapes the notice of many Christians. What does it really mean to 'love your neighbor'? Merely good works? Can we decide - or does the Bible define it for us?

In his letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul makes clear the substance of how to love neighbor. He wrote: "Be under obligation to no-one - the only obligation is to love one another. Whoever has done this has obeyed the law. The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not desire what belongs to someone else' - all these, and any other besides, are summed up in the one command, 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself'. If you love someone you will never do him wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law" (Romans 13:8-12).

James, too, says much the same (James 2:8-12) and John writes: "For our love for God means that we obey his commandments" (I John 5:3).

In essence, what these eminent first Christians said was, "To love your neighbor you observe the last six of the Ten Commandments".

Christianity was not for them a sentimental and superficial rag-bag of emotion and pleasant neighborly thoughts. Nor, as Paul points out in the 'love chapter', is it merely self-sacrifice: "I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned [i.e., martyrdom] - but if I have no love this does me no good" (1 Corinthians 13:3).

Notice that we are fully and carefully instructed in the Scriptures as to how we are to live the godly life. It isn't left to whim but spelled out for us time and time again.

This concept of the relationship of law and love is clear, too, in the Old Testament. For example, speaking to Moses, God said: "Do not take revenge on anyone or continue to hate him, but love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord, Obey my commands" (Leviticus 19:18f).

Christian love, in other words, is the way of life God designated for all to live. It's a way as old as mankind. The apostle John wrote: "The message you heard from the very beginning is this: we must love one another. We must not be like Cain..." (I John 3:11). Cain was, of course, the first recorded natural born man!

Love The Lord
What, then, of 'the great command'? Do the Scriptures - our guide to holy living - similarly define this, as it does for 'love your neighbor'?

Recall that Jesus answered the lawyer's question: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [quoting Leviticus 19:17-18]. This is the greatest and most important commandment" (Matthew 22:37-38). What did Jesus mean, 'Love the Lord'?

It's a common expression among Christians. The question, 'Do you love the Lord?' is frequently asked of passers-by. For most who pose the question it is 'code' for "Have you accepted Jesus into your heart as Savior?" And it's usually asked in good faith from a genuine desire to see the person 'converted'.

But is this really what Jesus means?

We've seen what he means by the second commandment which, he said, 'is like it' (v.39). It refers to the second group within the Ten Commandments - to relationships with family, neighbor, fellow-citizens generally. It spells out how we love neighbor.

Similarly, with the command to 'love the Lord your God' which Jesus says is the prime command. It is the great, the magnificent command - even more important than our relations with our fellows. And it isn't left to our imagination, our human devising, as to how to observe it!

For this great command from the Creator defines how we should relate to God. In our observance, says Jesus, we must exert every fibre of our being - "with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind". And his definition is summed up in the first four of the Ten Commandments. Let's look at the background of these four.

Religion of Egypt
The covenant between God and the nation of Israel - her constitution in a sense - is prefaced by the words: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt' (Exodus 20:2). This is no casual throw-away sound-bite! It is a point of contrast. For the life-style God wanted from His new nation was totally opposed to the way they had lived and worshipped for a couple of centuries in Egypt.

This isn't the place to examine in detail the wretchedness of the religion of Egypt. But notice God's own judgment of it. Referring to His witness to Israel in Egypt, God said: "I told them to throw away the disgusting idols they loved and not to make themselves unclean with the false gods of Egypt" (Ezekiel 20:7). Ever after, Egypt was typical of sin and all that's evil.

The First Command
So, the very first command is that Israel renounce the multiple gods of Egypt: "Worship no God but me" (v.3). On the eve of their entry into the land of promise, Moses recited these laws to the nation. He told them, "Israel, remember this! The Lord, and the Lord alone, is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Never forget these commands I'm giving you today" (Deuteronomy 6:4-6).

The Second Command
Nor - the second commandment - was the one and only God to be worshipped with any form of engraved or carved image - as were the Egyptian gods. Said the Creator: "Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals "

God - the awesome Creator and our loving Father - is very jealous as to the way He is to be worshipped!

In Egypt the descendants of Jacob had bowed low before carved and molded images. And they even reverted to the worship of a gold calf after their deliverance from slavery (Exodus 32).

The Egyptians were in the vanguard of those nations who "...professing themselves to be wise, they are fools; instead of worshipping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles... They exchange the truth about God for a lie" (Romans 1:22-25).

Vain Worship :The Third Command
Do You take God's name in vain? Most who give the commandments any thought at all assume this refers only to "cussin' and swearin"'! Most Christians have eliminated this practice. And rightly so.

But there's a deeper meaning here. The eminent Dean Stanley has clarified the original text: "You shall not bring the holy name to anything that is vain". Don't, in other words, bring false, useless, evil, unscriptural practices into the worship of God. Ancient Israel had to learn this lesson the hard way.

On the eve of their entrance to Canaan, God strongly warned the Israelites about this very matter of undivided and pure worship. He said: "Do not worship the Lord your God in the way that these people worship their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:4). He concludes: "Make sure that you don't follow their religious practices because that would be fatal. Don't try to find out how they worship their gods, so that you can worship in the same way. Do not worship the Lord your God in the way they worship their gods, for in their worship they do all the disgusting things that the Lord hates" (v.30f). As to little children, God repeats this same message time and time again!

In summary He adds: "Do everything that I have commanded you; do not add anything to it or take anything from it' (v.32).

Indeed so jealous is God for His own prescribed form of worship that He ordered Israel to execute any prophet or miracle-worker who sought to introduce alternative ways of worship, and to destroy whole towns involved in such worship (ch. 13).

Israel's Experience
But the nation of Israel was deaf to centuries of warning!

Their historian chronicled their sin of alternative worship: "They worshipped other gods, followed the [religious] customs of the people whom the Lord had driven out, and adopted customs introduced by the kings of Israel" (2 Kings 17:8). And, "They refused to obey his instructions, they did not keep the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and they disregarded his warnings. They worshipped worthless idols and became worthless themselves, and they followed the customs of surrounding nations, disobeying the Lord's command not to imitate them" (v. 15).

The result? Israel - for the very reason of unauthorized worship - was ejected from the golden land given them in trust. They "...worshipped the stars and served the god Baal.... They consulted mediums and fortune-tellers, and devoted themselves to doing what is wrong in the Lord's sight, and so aroused his anger. The Lord rejected all the Israelites, punishing them and handing them over to cruel enemies until at last he had banished them from his sight" (vv. 16-20).

Such is the jealousy with which God guards "the great command" concerning His worship! Nothing short of the worship He had established - the way outlined in the first four commandments and elsewhere amplified (e.g., Leviticus 23) - is acceptable to Him.

The Fourth Command
But there's a further aspect of the great command which completes the way in which God is to be worshipped. The fourth commandment states in essence, "observe the Sabbath and keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). The Sabbath - the seventh day of the week, our Saturday - recalls both the creation of man and the universe, and also Israel's rest from the physical and spiritual slavery they experienced in Egypt.

Here's a day introduced to our first parents within hours of their creation. A day noted week by week by the special action of God during the Exodus from Egypt. A day written into the national constitution of Israel, the people of God. A day for which many gave their lives. And a day on which the New Testament Church of God regularly met for divine worship, instruction and fellowship. [Request the title: Why Do You Observe Sunday?]

Here is the real 'Lord's Day'!

Christianity Today
Yet in our age, with the world teetering on the brink of eternity, almost the whole of Christendom worships God on another day. They have, too, joined themselves to 'the days of Baal', assembling on festivals which are, root and branch, derived from the very practices that so outraged God. And these days - 'holy' days that are in God's eyes worthless [Mark 7:7] - are called by God's name, in direct rebellion against the third commandment. Only a small percentage of Christians observe the three annual seasons of worship enjoined by God.

Jesus pinpointed the first four of the ten commandments as the greatest, the most important, of the commandments. The way of true love for God is marked out by His form of worship coupled with service to fellow man.

Despite the words of Jesus, most Christians - just like the rebellious people of God anciently - have fondly embraced a false way to worship God. Others note the paganism that shrouds Christianity and, wrongly, reject any prescribed worship.

How Do We Worship?
So, what form does our own worship take? Does it reflect the instruction enjoined by Scripture? Or, like the Pharisees of old, is our religious worship mere human tradition? And thus vain, useless, unheard by our God and our Savior? Fortunately for most of us, "the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:" (Acts 17:30). "The Lord ... is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9).

In the context of the annual memorial of the suffering and death of Jesus, the apostle Paul urged his readers to "flee from idolatry" (I Corinthians 10:14 KJV). And later "...while you were still heathen you were led astray in many ways to the worship of lifeless idols" (12:2). But now his readers had changed! They were observing God's Festivals (I Cor. 5:6-8)!

Paul's Christian lifestyle was geared to the way of worship revealed in the Holy Scriptures - i.e., our Old Testament. These are the only Scriptures the first Christians had for the basis of their faith. Such, too, was the lifestyle of all Christians in those first decades of the Christian faith.

Nothing in the New Testament revelation neutralizes, negates or radically changes 'the faith once delivered'.

The way of love remains enshrined in that greatest of all codes, the Ten Commandments. And any changes, any substitution, any practice that adds to or takes from the form of worship that God has revealed directly transgresses the letter and the spirit of what Jesus termed 'the greatest and most important commandment'.

To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.

For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 13, November/December 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.

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