Love: The First and Greatest Commandment

LOVE. WE HEAR THAT word hundreds of times a week. Most of us take the word love seriously. Waiting, as it were, for what feels like the right time, to say “I love you” to a new lover in our lives. Comedians spoof those who are quick to blurt it out on a first date, along with How many children do you want? Me, I’d like five! When a new puppy eats our favorite sneaker, we say, “You’re lucky I love you!” We “love” pizza and wings, ribeye steaks on the grill, hot apple pie, a favorite Eagles song, our home town. We love our children. Our “best bud” from college. We love films like American Graffiti and The Terminator. We love “to cook,” or “to read books.” We might even love our jobs. Then, we’re told as believers in Christ to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. We’re told the gravity of this love: this is the great and first commandment.

“And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets'” (Matt. 22:37-40, ESV).

But “all” is such a huge word. A footnote in the ESV Study Bible says to love with all of one’s “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” does not represent rigid compartments of human existence, but rather together refer to the whole person (1). This command originates in Deuteronomy 6:5 and encapsulates the idea that total devotion to God includes a duty to also obey the rest of His commandments (see Matt. 5:16-20). How is any of this even possible? Who can “obey the rest” of God’s commandments? All of the rest of God’s commandments? I cannot. Even with a change of heart and a desire to serve and to obey, to be a new creation in Christ, I cannot. Human nature will not allow for flawless performance of any set of rules or laws. Our will tends to get in the way of God’s will. Our ego says we can figure things out with our human intellect. Our shame says we’ll come back to God after we’re better. But we never get better. Not on our own.

Heart Knowledge

The lion’s share of what I “know” about Scripture, about God and His plan for redemption, is still in my head. I say this because I don’t always live as if I am redeemed and set free. On good days this is not an issue. I seem more “willing” to obey or feel like one of the saints. But on other days, not so much. If “worldview” is not just a set of basic concepts for living, but an orientation of the heart, as described by James Sire (2), then it is not effective to simply “believe” in Christian principles in our mind. Moreover, it is in our heart that we ask What do I believe to be true? Why do I believe it to be true? How does this apply to my everyday life? How does God expect me to act? We all ask the same four great questions: What is the origin of our universe? What is the purpose of our existence? How do we determine morality? What is our destiny when we die? To examine our worldview, we must look at the presuppositions, convictions and values from which we try to understand and make sense of life and the world around us. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet clarify this even further, stating, “A worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions” (3). It is a mindset and a will set.

For any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own—why it is ours and why in the light of so many options we think it is true.

Surely, worldview is settled in the heart. We are told to love the Lord God with all our heart. But what happens if we know about God, or Jesus, or Christian doctrine for that matter, but such knowledge resides in our mind as “information” or data rather than in our heart? Can we demonstrate a Christian worldview without having Christ in our heart, where our worldview lives and breathes? And if Christ is in our mind but not in our heart, what does our worldview look like? Are we truly Christian? Is this why the Bible says Christians are known by their deeds? Acts 11:20-26 describes the ministry of the early disciples: they preached the Lord Jesus; the hand of the Lord was upon them; they exuded the grace of God; they were faithful to the Lord; they were steadfast in their purpose; they were full of the Holy Spirit; and because of them a great many were “added to the Lord.” They were first called Christians in Antioch as a result of their ministry (Acts 11:26). They were “in the way of Christ.” A “nominal” Christian is not Christian. He or she is not a “follower” of Christ. In such instance, Christianity is merely a religion.

A Living Theology

I like the concept, “A speaking God needs a hearing church.” This dovetails nicely with the principle that ours must be a living theology. Augustine of Hippo taught, “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt” (4). How can we teach what we do not understand and which we do not live? In this same vein, Hart calls Christian theology “faith thinking” (5). This is what is required for integrating Christianity into our larger picture of the world and our place in it. I believe apologetics involves bearing faithful and articulate witness to the source of our life and our hope (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Hart says, “The fact that we believe… implies, of course, an initial degree of understanding, however partial. After all, we could not properly be said to believe something of which we had no conception, something of which we could make no sense whatever” (6). And so Christian faith is driven by a desire to know more of that which is its source and raison d’être. But we must rail against a doctrinaire attitude. Hart says, “A theology of relevance to the society within which it is forged will of necessity be one which speaks the language of that society… we have to meet people and to address them where they are” (7).

A “living” theology is not one of detachment. Rather, it must be paired with spirituality, for our spiritual life is now, not some day in the great beyond. Granted, it is not easy to speak frankly about heaven and hell, sin and damnation, or to claim that Christ is the only way of salvation available to man. I believe the only way to avoid the strong dichotomies of theological detachment is to see all and do all through the eyes of love. We do not share Christ as the way to salvation for the sake of being elitist or narrow-minded, but to share the unmatched love and mercy of God. Growing in true knowledge of God changes our view of everything else. Kapic writes, “It is not that we lose sight of all except God, but rather that we view everything in light of God and through the story of his creation and redemption” (8). We begin to live the fundamental edict that all men are created equal by God, and that God desires all men to be saved. Life and theology must be inseparable. Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation” (9). We learn Christian doctrine to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully with others.

Please know this: I am not “like Christ” in everything I do. Often, I make decisions “in the flesh.” Honestly, I thought it would be easier to love others, to withhold judgment, to not harbor anger or resentment, to be honest about my motives and actions, once I “became a Christian.” You can imagine the rude awakening! None of us simply “become” like Christ because we recite a prayer, renounce our sinful lives, and rely upon the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for redemption. I raised the question during one of my master’s degree classes whether the the act of Christ dying on the cross is what “saves” us from sin? What I meant is this: Don’t we have to respond to the act of Christ dying on the cross in order for it to have any effect? Scripture does not tell us that the mere fact of Jesus’ death is what saves us. If that were true, all would be saved! Rather, it is our choice to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to identify with His atoning death for our sins that saves us. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). We cannot “behave” our way into heaven.

There is no real life, no “life that is truly life,” no “more and better life than you ever imagined,” no “the way, the truth and the life” outside of Jesus. Certainly no “Life-charged life.” [I]f we want to know Jesus, if we want to immerse ourselves in the richness of the Jesus life, then we must become life-long students and lovers of the Scriptures—Derek Maul. *

Jesus loves the Father. He was sent to do the Father’s will. When the Pharisees berated Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, He said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). He added, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel” (John 5:19-20). Jesus later said, “…but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Before His ascension, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

The love I speak of is far from typical. Paul defines it for us in 1 Corinthians 13. One of my favorite translations is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies” (10). The Greek word for “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agapē—unconditional Christ-like love that transcends all other forms. It is the love that motivated Christ to submit Himself to crucifixion. He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

Love spurred Jesus on, healing, teaching, setting captives free, raising the dead, casting demons from the bodies of the tormented. It is through love that we are expected to do as Jesus commands. Without love, it is impossible to serve Christ. To be “in the way” of Christ is to put oneself second. We show God’s love by listening to others; by being generous with our time and our assets; by encouraging others rather than putting them down; by performing acts of kindness; by being a prayer warrior, interceding on behalf of those in distress. When we love as Christ loves, we do so without regard to what it might cost us. Kristi Walker writes, “Jesus is the reason we even know what love is. In laying down His life for us, He taught us everything we need to know about true love. Love is self-sacrificing, generous, unending, not a temporary feeling or attraction. Because of God’s love for the world, we know love is also undeserving and often unreciprocated” (11).

Love God; Love Your Neighbor

Jesus told us to love God with all our being! But what does that look like? Spiritual love is not self-love, but self-sacrificing love. John writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). The cost of our adoption is immeasurable. He reminds us, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (v. 14). Then, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (v. 16). We are not to love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth. As Jesus prepared to leave the disciples and return to the Father, He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Which commandments? All of them? The “original” ten? The 613 total commandments established by the Jewish priesthood? No, that would be impossible. The Law was given not to control our behavior, but to show our need for a Savior. Jesus did not abolish the Law when He came; rather, He fulfilled the Law (see Matt. 5:17).

To love God is to seek His will. James tells us, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Some translations call this our reasonable service. Although I like the second wording, I appreciate the ESV translation that our reasonable service equals “spiritual worship.” David Jeremiah writes, “To be a living sacrifice seems an oxymoron because sacrifices are usually dead. So how are Christians supposed to be living sacrifices? With sacrificial service, or worship, that is reasonable for someone who is genuinely grateful for what they have received from God” (12). Paul notes in Romans 12:2 that we are made ready for service through transformation: being changed from the inside out. This change necessarily involves a change of heart. You may recall our worldview is settled in our heart. Zacharias said, “…that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).

John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Henry writes, “The Spirit of God is the Spirit of love. He that does not love the image of God in his people has no saving knowledge of God” (13)(italics mine). To love your neighbor as yourself is to recognize him or her as a child of God. God loves them enough to have sacrificed His Son on the cross in a brutal death as a propitiation for their sins. Christ laid down His life to save all from the wages of sin. He wishes that no one should perish (see 2 Pet. 3:9)—neighbors, friends, loved ones, even our enemies. We must love others through action: putting their needs first as we would want others to do for us; forgiving them as we are forgiven; causing them no harm; sharing with them the same love Christ has shown us. Henry reminds us, “For it is God’s nature to be kind, and to give happiness. The law of God is love. The provision of the gospel, for the forgiveness of sin, and the salvation of sinners, consistently with God’s glory and justice, shows that God is love” (14).

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology


(1) EVS Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1870.
(2) James Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2015), 14.
(3) W. Gary Phillips, William E. Brown, and John Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd. ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 2008), 8.
(4) Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book One, II2 —IV4 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 2008), 8.
(5) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 1.
(6) Ibid., 3.
(7) Ibid., 5.
(8) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.
(9) Martin Luther, in Kapic, Ibid., 41.
(10) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 1683-84.
(11) Kristi Walker, “What is Love?” (Aug. 15, 2019). URL:
(12) Dr. David Jeremiah, The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Franklin, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013), 1561.
(13) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1250.
(14) Ibid., 1250.

* Please visit Derek Maul’s website at for many great thoughts and studies and for information on books he has published.

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