Don’t get your commandments out of Order
There’s a big emphasis today in society and in the church about love. Who doesn’t love, love? Here’s the thing. Love is a word desperately in need of a definition. So often, even we in the church don’t have a biblically-based concept of love. Today I want us to look at what Jesus said when he was asked what the greatest commandment was in the law. In Matthew 22 we see a record of one of the experts in the Mosaic Law coming and talking to Jesus. He said,
”Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Now before we go on and see what Jesus said, it may be helpful to understand where this question was coming from. You see, the Jews had 613 commandments. They had 613 laws they had to obey. That’s just extremely burdensome. What we understand is that they’d actually divided these into heavy and light types of laws. The heavy ones are the “you really need to do these” types of laws. The light ones are “Well, if you think about it or you get to it, then focus on those.”
The law was burdensome, and it was meant to be a teacher, to tell us as people about the gravity of sin, the perfection that is God and his standard, and our inability to meet that standard. I think it did a very good job at that. But, that’s kind of what’s behind this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in all of the law.”
Here’s how Jesus replies. He says,
”Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”
This also takes us back to the Shema in Deuteronomy. He Continues,
”And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
He distilled all of the law down to these two statements. Love God and love others. Now I don’t think that order is a mistake, and I don’t think it’s just an accident when Jesus said this is the first and greatest commandment, referring to loving God.
However, in the church today, I think there’s been this tendency to flip the order of those commandments, to love your neighbor like yourself, and the second commandment is like it: love the Lord your God. We flip those things practically sometimes. Would we ever say that they should be in a different order? No, but I think the way we act sometimes betrays us.
Now, what are some examples of this? I think the whole social justice movement is a an example of this, where the mission of the church is defined more in terms of what the church is supposed to affect in a physical sense here on earth. That maybe it’s supposed to end sex trafficking. That it’s supposed to end hunger and poverty. That Jesus came to transform the world here and now through the church.
The problem is, firstly, as some have pointed out, that whenever you put another word in front of justice, like “social justice,” you’ve probably corrupted it. Justice should stand on its own. I agree with that. More than that, the mission of the church is not about transforming this world here and now. It’s not about building the kingdom of God but about God ushering in his own kingdom. The kingdom of God breaks into this world. We don’t build it in that way.
Jesus didn’t fundamentally come to end poverty, or slavery, or hunger, or things like that. Should the church care about those things? Yes, but that is not the primary job of the church. In fact, the way we show our love for God is by giving him the glory due his name and sharing about him and his glory, and what he has done in history and in our lives with other people so that they might come to worship him in the same way. This is a very practical outworking of the First Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.”
Sometimes we flip that. Instead of doing acts of mercy and kindness in the community, 1), out of love for God, and 2), as a way to open a door for the gospel, we look at those acts in the community or in the world as a primary thing. At least some people do. That is a flipping of the two greatest commandments.
I think another example can be found in our word choice and the terms we use. There has been this de-emphasis in terms of talking about sin in recent years. Jesus talked more about sin and hell than he did love and heaven. Nonetheless, it seems like the church today is shying away from sin. We seem to accidentally or implicitly be getting to the place where we’re trying to make our language more and more socially acceptable. We don’t want people to balk at the terms we use to talk with them about the gospel and about their state.
I think this is a dangerous road to go down. I do think it is important to be winsome and choose words that don’t offend more than they should. But the question is, is it the word that’s offending or what’s meant by the word? This is a very important thing for us to consider.
For instance, should someone stand on the corner and hold a sign that says “Turn or burn?” No, I don’t think that’s very effective. I think outside of the context of a conversion, or even a relationship, that type of message is going to unnecessarily offend. However, when we’re sharing the gospel with someone, if we don’t communicate to them that they have committed crimes against a sovereign God, they have been found guilty, and will be punished apart from repenting and turning from that sin and trusting in Christ, then we have compromised our message.
If we use phrases like “You’ve done things that God doesn’t like. God’s not your friend. You need to become the friend of God,” we have not accurately communicated that person’s state. We are trying to soften their condition, but their condition is a grave condition. It is a serious condition. We should communicate that with love and kindness and grace, because we used to be in that position too. The salvation we’ve been given, we did not deserve to be given any more than they do. We are all on equal footing there. Nonetheless, we need to accurately communicate a person’s situation.
That accurate communication may be viewed as intolerance. It may be an off-putting type of thing. I would actually say that if we communicate a person’s state before God to them clearly and they aren’t repulsed, then one of two things has probably happened. The first is that the Spirit is working on their heart in concert with the truth that has been shared. God is drawing that person to himself through that time and conversation.
The other possibility is that we didn’t share it well enough. If you tell someone that God is fundamentally set against them in their current state because of their sin, because of what amounts to treason in the eyes of the king of the universe, they will most likely be offended. There is the possibility that could just be apathetic or not think God exists. But to many people, telling them they’re wrong, is offensive. Our goal should not to be offend unnecessarily, but the gospel is offensive. It’s a stumbling block, or foolishness depending on what someone’s preconceived notions are.
We need to understand that we should not put the Second Commandment in front of the First when it comes to how we communicate. We shouldn’t prioritize a person’s feelings over the truth of the gospel. We should never compromise on loving God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and strength, which looks like accurately communicating his gospel for his purposes.
God is also glorified in the punishing of sinners who do not repent when he sentences them to punishment in hell. He’s equally glorified in that as he is in salvation. This is the argument in Romans 9 that Paul puts forth. That is hard for us to understand. Our goal should not be for people to get punished in hell by any means. However, we must accurately communicate their state and not compromise on word choice out of a care for not offending the person at the expense of offending God by not communicating the gospel out of compromise.
The third and last example we’ll look at is that of tolerance. Now we talked about tolerance some last week, and we’ve talked about it quite a bit recently. I think it’s helpful to look at some examples of things that have happened in the recent past. The mainline church’s acceptance of homosexuality has been couched in terms of love, love for neighbor. Or even as Rob Bell said (not that he’s a mainline Protestant), “same-sex marriage and homosexual loving relationships are good because it increases the amount of love in the world.”
I don’t think there’s any biblical definition of love that a homosexual couple meet in their “love” for each other, but nonetheless, this is the argument that when love is distilled to happiness or a feeling, then it’s easy to make the argument that we should compromise on other things out of love for our neighbor, that they come to have a greater sense of happiness or people exhibiting what looks like care for them.
The question is, even if this were an accurate definition of love (which it’s not), does this show love for God? If we compromise on what the Bible says, the Bible being God’s revelation to us, his direct communication to us, if we compromise on that out of love for neighbor, then we have effectively gotten our greatest commandments out of order. We have read them in reverse. We’ve put neighbor and man above God, and this should never be. The king never takes kindly to being placed second. That is why Jesus puts that greatest commandment first: the loving of God.
I think this is important for us to understand. When it comes to how we will make a decision, how we will act in a circumstances, will we prioritize this person or will we prioritize God? We need to remember to choose God. Now sometimes that’s difficult (in addition to sounding kind of trite and “Sunday school.”)
It’s a difficult choice to prioritize the unseen God who we’ve never had a physical encounter with over the person in front of you, in a hypothetical situation. But we must. We must let scripture define how we see reality, that God is no less real because we can’t see him, and that his word is just as binding on us as anything that we could hold in our hand or experience. We must love God before we consider what it looks like to love other people.
There are a few little clarifying points I want to make. The first is I do not think there is ever a conflict between the First and the Second Commandment. I do not think that anything done out of love for neighbor, that’s actually love for neighbor, will conflict with loving God. I only think we have a so-called problem there when we have bad definitions of what it looks like to love God or what it looks like to love our neighbor. In some ways the title of this episode, “Don’t Get Your Commandments Out of Order”, isn’t actually possible. I only think it’s even a consideration because of the bad definitions that we often have in mind of those terms. I don’t think there can be a conflict there.
In fact, I think that the Second Commandment, the “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment, is just a part of the greatest commandment: to love God with your whole heart. Because if you love God like the Bible says we should, then that means that we care about the things he cares about. That would mean caring about his creation, which would be our neighbor. It would mean caring about the people who bear his image: also our neighbor.
Everything really flows from the first and the greatest commandment, and the Second Commandment is a part of that. Now, it is helpful sometimes to think about those as separate things. Because God is a being and our neighbor is a different being. However, let’s not, 1), use a bad definition or concept of love. 2), let’s not get those commandments out of order based on a bad concept of love. Let’s not prioritize sentimentality or how someone feels over what love would dictate we do. There are many things in life that are uncomfortable, that we do not like in the moment, and yet are loving.
For instance, a parent disciplining a child. If you ask that child if that feels loving, they’re going to say no. However, objectively, was that an act of love? Yes. This simple example shows us that love cannot simply be a feeling. It can’t just be an action that someone appreciates. There’s an objective quality to real love, and it’s not based in how we feel about it. It is not subjective.
In wrapping this up, I want to end with 1 John 4:10, which says,
”Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.
When we were in rebellion against the king – and it was rebellion, let’s not once again compromise on our terms – he sovereignly acted to save us. He owed us nothing. We owed him everything, and yet he gave everything for us.
That is love. That is what should compel our love for him as an act of choice. Because that same God who saved us cares about people, we should care about people too. Fundamentally and primarily, we should care about getting them to come to give glory and honor to God, because he is the only one who is due that. The very reason we were created was to give him glory and honor. Consider what it looks like to love God, it looks like glorifying him and enjoying him and sharing him with others.