Just Love: The Two Greatest Commandments

The following is an article I wrote today for the Crossring Mark Marathon:

Mark 12:28-34

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Do you see yourself as a revolutionary, striding out to radically alter the world we live in? Do you see yourself as a messenger, bringing a message of hope to the world? Do you get excited about your faith? If you’re a Christian, then you should! The world may see the Christian message as dull, dry and boring. Some may see the Gospel message we proclaim as irrelevant and pointless. Many may mock us for what we believe. The truth is, though, that the Gospel, the good news, that we believe is earth-shattering. It is immensely powerful. If every Christian sought to faithfully follow the teachings of Christ as they went about their daily lives, there really would be a global revolution for peace and love, respect and kindness.

In today’s passage, we see Jesus, in a few simple words, teaching one of the most incredible messages of the entire Bible. We see here Jesus announcing a “love revolution.”

At the beginning of this passage, Jesus is asked by a scribe, an expert on the Jewish law, “which commandment is the greatest of all?” Many over the generations had found themselves tied up in knots trying to decide what the most fundamental of God’s rules is. Jesus replies with great simplicity that the most important commandment is, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus neatly wraps all of the teaching of the Old Testament, the entirety of God’s message for the world, this simple commandment: just love God. That’s it. Just love him. If you do that, then all the other laws and commandments will be fulfilled.

Of course, loving is not always that easy. If we say we love another person, we put them first in everything, we place their needs above our own, we do everything within our power to make them happy. We certainly don’t betray them, lie to them, cheat on them or neglect them. This is the same attitude we should have with our relationship with God. Do we put him first in everything, or do we neglect him? Is every fibre of our being, our soul, our mind and our strength, dedicated to loving God? Or is loving God something that we do on a Sunday morning, and then forget about the rest of the week? If we really love God, if we really do make loving him our first priority, then our relationship with him will underpin our entire lives; what we do, what we think, what we say. Every waking minute should be dedicated to displaying our love for God; listening to him, talking to him, and striving to live out his commands in our lives.

How do we do this, though? How, practically, do we show that God is our first priority? Jesus addresses this point in the next section of this passage, when he says that the second commandment is, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If the best way to serve God is to follow his commandments, we can demonstrate our love for God by loving those around us: not just our literal neighbours, those who live near us, but also our friends, our family, our work colleagues, people at our Church, people we see in the gym, people we see as we pay for our parking. In short, we show our love for God by loving all those we encounter.

Sometimes, it can be hard to love our neighbours. How do we love that irritating person in our office? How do we love the person who cuts us up whilst we’re driving? How do we show love to the person in the supermarket who grabs the last bag of Braeburns? At the most basic level we love them by liking them, by not getting irritated or angry, by seeking to serve them. Go for a coffee with that irritating guy at work. Let that driver who is trying to cut us up pull in in front of us. Offer that last bag of apples to our fellow customer. These are all small things, but if we all based our actions on loving our neighbours, if we all sought to demonstrate love in everything we did, the world would be a remarkably different place. Homes would be happier. Offices less stressful. Wars would be a thing of the past. A world in which every action taken is based on love for other people seems like a pipe dream, but as Christians, we are called to be the vanguard. Even if we are the only people in the world who live this way, we can transform it with our actions. There are two billion Christians in the world. That’s a lot of us to bring about a love revolution!

Within this verse, there’s an assumption that is often overlooked. Jesus says, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself,” the assumption being that we love ourselves. Sadly, this is not always the case. Over the last few years, I have met so many people who not only don’t love themselves, but actively hate themselves. They feel inadequate, useless, worthless. They hide themselves away, they tell themselves that they are a burden on those around them, and that no-one could possibly love them. Sometimes they cut themselves, and sometimes they even consider taking their own lives. This is one of the greatest sorrows of the world today.

Perhaps you feel this way about yourself. If you don’t, then I will guarantee that at least one of your close friends does. You’d be surprised at how many people do. The truth is, though, that God loves every single person on this planet. When he created the human race, he saw that his creation was “very good;” everything else he made he thought was simply “good.” He loves us so much that, even though throughout our history we have demonstrated hate towards him, he sent his son to die for us, for you and for me, so that we could once again be brought into his arms. God doesn’t see us as worthless, or useless, or hateful; he loves us, and that is a remarkable thing. It’s also true that, despite what we may think, there are people around us who love us passionately. Our lives have touched the lives of others more than we will ever know. We matter to our family and our friends. We have value and worth in their eyes, even if we can’t see it ourselves.

Sometimes we can get bogged down in theology. We wonder whether women should be allowed to be vicars or bishops. We struggle with how to deal with our best friend who has just come out as gay. We worry about whether we should allow a yoga class to use our Church hall. When we dwell on issues like these, being a Christian can seem really hard, if not impossible. In this section of Mark’s Gospel, however, Jesus condenses all of the teachings of the Church into just two commandments; love God, and love each other. That’s what is at the heart of our faith. Sometimes even fulfilling these commandments can seem hard, but if we all strived to live them out in the world, if we put love at the heart of our lives and everything we do, we could transform the world. If all two billion Christians sought to live out the message of this passage, we really would start a love revolution. So let’s do it!

I’d love to hear your thoughts/views on the issues raised in this article.  In order to keep comments in one place, however, please leave them over at Crossring.

An Evening with Rob Bell

On Monday evening I went along to Westminster Central Hall with my wife and a couple of other people from church for “An Evening With Rob Bell.” Bell is a successful American preacher, author and film maker who has been getting a lot of press attention because of views that he apparently holds which run contrary to mainstream Christian thought. Prior to the controversy, which boiled up when Bell launched his latest book, “Love Wins,” I had not come across him before. Given the chance to hear what he had to say first hand, I thought it only right that I should listen to what he had to say before forming a judgement. I was keen to discover whether Bell is the heretic that many have portrayed him as, or if he is misunderstood.

Bell, right from the start of the evening, came across as an enthusiastic, likeable preacher. He spoke without notes, paced around the stage, spoke of his family, and made the audience laugh. The audience quickly warmed to him, and I suspect that many who had turned up to condemn Bell were thrown by just how pleasant and engaging he seemed.

Bell’s actual talk was surprisingly short and the content, for a guy many seem to have decided is the anti-Christ, was also rather orthodox. What follows is a short summary of Bell’s main points:

  • God loves everyone, everywhere;
  • God is love;
  • Jesus came to show us the love of God, so that we would show that love to others;
  • God pursues. He came among us, took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood;
  • The first question that God asked was, “where are you?” He pursues;
  • God sends the rain onto the good and the bad because be loves everyone;
  • God hasn’t given up on human history, he hasn’t given up on this world;
  • The human story began with peace – amongst ourselves, with God, with the soil;
  • The story started in a garden, and Jesus appeared after the resurrection in a garden;
  • There is a movement of the resurrected Christ who comes to each of us and teaches us;
  • Jesus came to set us free, because God loves us, so that we might take that love into a world that needs it.

So far, so uncontroversial.

The rest of the evening was dedicated to questions, from which the following points arose:

  • God doesn’t honour things that set out to be controversial. Bell didn’t set out to be controversial, but if he is, so be it;
  • In the gospels, Jesus responds three times with a straight answer. Jesus answered questions with questions and parables;
  • The Bible contains discussion. In the book of Job, lots of opinions are evident. Scripture contains exploration;
  • Every genuine question begins from a place of humility, by someone saying “I don’t know the answer.” More humility allows for more questions;
  • On the question of whether every goes to heaven: the nature of love is freedom. We can choose. We can rebel against God. God wants everyone to be saved. We see people resisting God’s pursuing love. We should leave room for people to resist or reject God;
  • On the question of what is truth: facts are nice and knowledge can be helpful but God invites us into a flesh and blood truth. Truth takes on flesh and blood and walks around the room and you can’t argue with that;
  • Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Bell holds to the singular uniqueness of Jesus;
  • Does God endlessly pursue? Is there a time when the chance for redemption runs out? Bell doesn’t know;
  • God longs for everyone to be saved. We should long for the same things God longs for;
  • Those who talk about hell after death often avoid the hells on earth;
  • What about wrath? Jesus on the cross was sufficient;
  • The power of Jesus is that God has made peace with people;
  • God is for us. Jesus is for us. We’re invited to follow him.

So, is Bell a heretic? On the basis of what I heard on Monday, I would say no. What he said was sound, thought provoking, and passionately proclaimed. I would agree with my friend Martin, who tweeted me after the event stating, “to me he doesn’t seem wrong, just not covering the full truth.” It’s that omission that causes me some concern. Bell several times dodged questions that could potentially have skewered him, particularly on the important question of who goes to heaven.

Bell places great importance on the idea of God being a God of love, and clearly he is absolutely right to make that point.  The Christian God is undeniably a God of love, a God who loves, a God who is love. This is only part of the picture we get of God in the Bible, however.  Christians also believe that God is just, and finds sin abhorrent.

Jesus has paid the penalty for our sin, and, as Bell states, that amazing action that Christ freely undertook for us is sufficient to satisfy God’s wrath.  Jesus’ death paid the price for the sin of all humanity.  Does this mean that through Jesus’ death, therefore, all humanity is saved?  Mainstream Christians would say no; all humanity can be saved, but is not saved unless there is repentance of sin. If we do not accept Jesus as our saviour, if we do not follow him and strive to live our lives according to his teaching, if we do not repent, the mainstream Christian view is that we are not saved.

Bell, in his enthusiasm for speaking of a loving God, seemed unwilling to acknowledge or even address this issue of repentance, a crucial tenet of the Christian faith. Instead he repeated the claim that the wrath of God was satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross and left it there, not addressing the issue of whether any action is required on our part to be sure of salvation. Bell seemed to acknowledge that we can reject God if we wish, but he avoided giving any view on the implications of doing so.

This, for me, was the real issue. As far as I’m concerned it is important to stress that our God is love, but it is also important to be explicit about the penalty for sinfulness, and the need to accept Jesus’ death personally. It is important to say that God loves all his people, that he wants to have a relationship with us all, that he wants us all to be saved, that we can accept or reject the cross (all of which Bell stated), BUT it is also important, crucial even, to make it clear that the ONLY way that we can be sure of our salvation is by accepting Christ’s death and resurrection personally. Failure to do so leaves us exposed to the wrath of God, and an eternity of hell, whatever you believe this to be. It is vital to be clear about this, since this is literally a life-or-death issue. If we don’t stress the implications of not repenting and turning to Christ, we are potentially leading people not to heaven but to hell. Bell is not being explicit about this, and that is what worries me.

I don’t believe that Bell is a heretic. I don’t believe that he is preaching a false gospel. I do believe, however, that by focusing so much on love, he is omitting the harsh reality of the consequences of a life lived without Christ. A speaker with such a high profile should, in my view, be clear about this. To not be clear on this point is worrying, and potentially dangerous.