Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Do You Love the Lord?

Well, do you? It’s a hugely important question. It merits serious thought.

Love for God is fundamental. Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment in the Law of Moses was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. So then, God claims the right to rule my thoughts, to control how I define and express my self, and to direct my understanding. Allowing him to exercise his rightful domain unimpeded is the first and greatest expression of love toward God.

This truth was fundamental to a right understanding of the Law, and it is fundamental to Christianity. All true goodness follows from it.

The word the Lord Jesus used for “love” in this instance was agapaō. Most Christians know that the Greek language has several different words for love, each of which describes a different aspect of it. Agape love is not a feeling but an act of the will. It treats its objects with benevolence and seeks their greatest good, even to the point of self-sacrifice. It may come as somewhat of a relief to less-emotional believers to find that loving God does not require us to gin up squishy, sentimental religious feelings toward an invisible Person. Rather, it involves thinking and responding in a loving way to God, who first loved us.*

Great Reward

Great reward is promised to all those who love God. James writes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” William MacDonald says the crown of life refers to “a fuller enjoyment of the glories of heaven”, which surely makes it well worth striving after. The other insight from this verse in James is that remaining steadfast under trial is another way we can show love to God. How we process the trials of life reveals how much we really appreciate him.

Nevertheless, Israel had great difficulty keeping this first commandment, as the whole history of the nation shows us. Perhaps they found the idea of love for an invisible God too abstract. After all, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” But you will notice that in Matthew the Lord Jesus does not leave the first and greatest commandment to stand on its own. He quickly adds, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” John would take up this theme in his first epistle. He says that anyone who says he loves God but hates his brother is deceiving himself. Love for God needs visible objects and practical ways to express itself, and God has not left us without these.

The Abstract God

The events of the first century forever did away with the excuse that God is abstract, invisible, or difficult to love. God made deity relatable to humanity when he expressed himself as one of us in the person of Christ. In his first epistle, John says of the Lord Jesus, “we have heard … we have seen with our eyes … we looked upon … [we] touched with our hands.” The reality of that humanity was witnessed; it was not mere appearance. In his gospel, John writes, “The Word became flesh.” Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Paul calls him “the image of the invisible God”. He was all that, but “made like his brothers in every respect” ... sin apart, of course.

Now, we must concede that you and I have not “seen” Jesus Christ any more than we have seen God, but others have. We have their testimony in four gospels at the beginning of the New Testament, and the explanation of what it all means in the epistles. In fact, it is fair to say that because we possess the written accounts of multiple witnesses, we are actually in a better position to examine the Lord Jesus — in all his glory and grace — than any single disciple who walked with him in those three years he ministered. After all, much of what they discovered about him came after his resurrection and ascension. He had to open their eyes to it.

So then, we have God’s own testimony about his Son by way of the pens of those carried along by God’s Holy Spirit. No man has seen God at any time, but the one who is now at the Father’s side has made him known. He made God known then in person, and he continues to do it today through his written word and through the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in the lives of his children.

Loving God is Loving Christ

This makes us extremely accountable, doesn’t it? So then, we should not be surprised to find that in the New Testament, loving God becomes synonymous with loving Christ. Paul writes, “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” and “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”

This last statement is interesting. All references to date concerning love toward God or Christ in Greek have used the word agapaō. This one is phileo, affectionate love. Again, this presents a problem for those of us who are not emotional types. We may do a little ritual self-examination and conclude that we don’t always feel toward the Lord Jesus the way we really should. My feelings of affection for him may be sub-standard, and probably are.

But is that quite what Paul means?

Two Possible Answers

A few thoughts: One, that bar is set pretty low. Paul writes, “If anyone has no love for the Lord.” Can anyone who has read the gospels, understood the offer of salvation, confessed Christ as Lord and attempted to live for him really say he feels nothing whatsoever toward him? I think not. After all, love arises out of appreciation that one has been forgiven. When we understand the magnitude of the debt we once owed, an outpouring of love is the most natural response. Even the dullest, most insensate heart produces at least a trickle of appreciation (“He who has been forgiven little, loves little”). But those who have no love for the Lord Jesus at all have no understanding of how desperately sinful all men are. They have not been saved at all.

Moreover, authentic love for the Lord Jesus shows itself through obedience to him (“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”). A Christian who is resolutely and consistently disobedient to his Lord is an utter impossibility.

A second possible answer is that phileo has multiple meanings. It’s also a love that demonstrates itself by identifying itself with the object of affection, and it is also the word for kiss. Judas identified with (and identified) the Lord Jesus by kissing him, an act of utter hypocrisy given the circumstances. The “holy kiss” commanded of Christians is a related word, philēma. So, Paul may be saying that any person who refuses to publicly identify himself with the Lord Jesus has no part with him. This is consistent with what he teaches in Romans: salvation depends on the public confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Confession is with the mouth. This is one reason water baptism for new converts is so important: it is a public declaration that I have died, been buried and have been raised again with Christ, and that I have no life apart from him.

Hard and Soft Edges

A third possible answer is that in certain contexts the writers were not using these two Greek words for love in quite the hard-edged way we often read them, but a little more freely. This often happens between individuals sufficiently familiar with a concept that they do not feel the need to qualify or clarify everything they say.

For example, when the Lord Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he uses the word agapaō. Peter responds with “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, but he substitutes the word phileo for agapaō.

Now, I suppose it’s possible Peter failed to understand what the Lord was asking him, or that he was deliberately hedging his bets — that he meant something like “Sure, Lord, I feel affection for you, but I’m not yet certain I am willing to commit to a lifetime of active love expressed in obedience.” I think that improbable; Peter was a fisherman, not a linguist, philosopher or formal theologian. More likely there was a certain amount of semantic overlap (or imprecision, if you like) in the usage of the day which would have made phileo an acceptable synonym for agapaō in this context, and perhaps even when Paul uses the word.

Feeding the Sheep

In any case, the Lord’s answer in the closing chapters of John’s gospel brings out yet another way we can express our love for Christ: by teaching and caring for our fellow believers (“feeding his sheep”). I hope we are able to do a very little of that here from time to time.

* Likewise, the reference in Matthew to loving God “with all your heart” may initially sound merely sentimental, but the Greek word for “heart” [kardia] really refers to a person’s thought life rather than his emotional state. Loving God with our hearts, then, means making an active effort to devote our thought lives to him. We show our love for God by deliberately occupying ourselves with him and by striving to think his thoughts after him.

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