Doug Mahone at Coffee Swirls had an interesting question asked of him by a friend, which relates to the Mark 12:28-30 passage where Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all? “Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The argument traditionally has been that out of our love for God comes our love for our neighbor and not the other way around. Doug’s friend wanted to know if evidence of a reversal, of putting the love of neighbor ahead of the love of God, was what was going on at seeker churches.
My thoughts regarding seeker centered churches has brought me to the point of wondering if a theological shift stemming from Arminianism has affected a greater cultural emphasis on the 2nd command as the greater of the Two Greatest Commands. We are more concerned about people than God and this subtle shift, nearly impossible to condemn, is both confusing and dangerous.
While that question was interesting and well deserving of investigation, what really sparked my interest was a comment on the passage in John 21 where Jesus quizzes Peter on his love for him. The commenter, Forrest Kaiser, said:
If we love God first, we have no choice but to love like He did. If we first love others, the choice is always ours; God becomes a result, not a cause.
I found that a truly significant insight. But what really turned me on was what happened when I reexamined the John passage in the light of this discussion. I have inserted the two Greek words for love where they are used in the text so you can see the difference.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love [agape] me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love [philios] you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love [agape] me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [philios] you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love [philios] me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love [philios] me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love [philios] you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-18)
Over the history of the Church, commentators have gone back and forth on the significance of John’s choice of words, with the current majority opinion being that they are probably just synonyms. I am sorry but I have to disagree. I have touched on the distinction between these words before and once before addressed it at length (Lent: Day Thirty). However, I never addressed it in this context and along with Forrest, I believe it is a perfect fit to the question at hand.
Keeping Mark’s passage in mind, let’s look at Jesus’ statement to Peter. Our Lord starts out by asking Peter “do you truly love me more than these”. I take the “more than these” to be his fellow disciples who are with them at the moment. In essence, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him as the first and greatest commandment demands: first and foremost, even over his brethren. I believe that Jesus uses the agape form here to emphasize that point. He asks Peter if he is willing to sacrifice himself (the root meaning of agape) for Jesus more than he is willing to sacrifice himself for the other disciples, again from my perspective, the essence of the first and greatest commandment. The question is when push comes to shove is God, the Son of God, first, before any other, even before yourself? If not, how can you then say you have loved (agape) God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”?
Paul prayed a significant prayer for the Philippians in relation to love. In Philippians 1:9-11 Paul prays:
And this I pray: that your love [agape] may abound yet more and more and extend to its fullest development in knowledge and all keen insight [that your love may display itself in greater depth of acquaintance and more comprehensive discernment], So that you may surely learn to sense what is vital, and approve and prize what is excellent and of real value [recognizing the highest and the best, and distinguishing the moral differences], and that you may be untainted and pure and unerring and blameless [so that with hearts sincere and certain and unsullied, you may approach] the day of Christ [not stumbling nor causing others to stumble]. May you abound in and be filled with the fruits of righteousness (of right standing with God and right doing) which come through Jesus Christ (the Anointed One), to the honor and praise of God [[b]that His glory may be both manifested and recognized]. Amplified
Paul argues that exercising love requires knowledge and comprehensive discernment. He tells the Philippians that they have to get their priorities straight.
One of those priorities is not having a divided loyalty, being double-minded. When all of our love flows out from our foundational love of God then everything we are and do is consistent. However, if our love subtly shifts to our neighbor, as Doug’s friend suggests has happened, then everything is malfunctioning and unbalanced and we are in essence split, suffering from double-mindedness.
If I am correct in my understanding of this issue then the only way we can properly love anyone or anything else is when we first deal with, commit to, and nurture our love of God. That is single-mindedness. Without that foundation, all other attempts at love are doomed to eventual failure, doomed to drive us away from God. That includes such things as love for our spouses, children, friends, country, job, sports team, or whatever. Loving them all depends on our adequately loving God.
No wonder one commonality among the saints throughout the history of the Church was that they started their day with God, in prayer and adoration. By beginning their day with the love of God, they were then ready to move out into the world and love their fellow man, in both word and deed. I believe we need to take that insight to heart and remember that in everything we do, we first begin by setting right our love of God.
Therefore, I pray that God so blesses you with an enduring love for him and so fills your heart with a longing for his presence that loving him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength will be the most natural thing you do during your day.
Update: I noticed after rereading this post that I left the Jesus/Peter dialog incomplete. Let me try to bring closure to the point I wanted to make. I feel that when Peter responded to Jesus’ request for agape with philios, he was saying to Jesus that he loved him like a brother, one of the brethren. At this point in Peter’s life, he cannot see his error. Jesus is asking him to love him as God, first and foremost, but Peter doesn’t get it. There may be many reasons. He may not have completely dealt with Jesus’ divinity, he may not realize the significance of the demand, he may still be recovering from the denial, still fresh in his mind. You must also remember that he like his brethren had not yet received the Holy Spirit, the one who would guide them into all truth. For now, Jesus accepts Peter’s philios, him loving him as one of the brethren, for now. Peter would come to learn the distinction. At the end of his life, he refused to be crucified right side up, feeling he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Instead, Peter was crucified up side down.
Do you agape me Peter–Yes Lord, I agape you with all my heart.
Appreciate the work you put into this. I have a question that came up at a bible study this week. Is the love and worship we put forth in our day, or night, conscious or subconscious? I thought this a good inquiry. When we choose, is that putting the neighbor first because of the human interference or is our choice of God? Can God love through us, subconsciously? In other words, are we aware? Can we even know when we are loving God first? Knowledge of God is what deepens my faith…George Washington prayed for two hours, at least, per day, with Bible opened.
This opens us up for the Spirit to move but then what? Choices always haunt us.
I am not sure how to answer this except to say that biblically speaking God says what we say and do is the evidence of what is in our heart, or the area beneath our consciousness. To love God first we act that out by responding to what Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” One of those is to love our neighbor as ourself. We demonstrate our love for God by loving our neighbor, but it didn’t start there.
However, I have met many people over the years who in many and righteous ways “love their neighbor” but they reject God entirely and consider themselves ethical athiests. Their loving their neighbor did not lead them to God.
On the other hand, it is impossible to really love God and not love your neighbor as John points out in his epistle.