Is there a central duty of the Christian life? In my post, The Heart of the Father, I asked whether there was some quality of God that is preponderant or basic or perhaps even motivates all of God’s other character attributes. My answer was that the central attribute of God is love. But what then about the Christian who wishes to follow God? In the same way that there is a particular attribute of God that is more fundamental than the others, there is also a duty of the Christian life that is more fundamental than the others. According to Jesus, there are two commandments that are the most important and that motivate all the other injunctions in the Old Testament (Matthew 22:34):
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
All your mind, soul and strength…
Now these commandments might seem rather simple at first, but as soon as we consider them more deeply, some difficulties arise. What does the first commandment mean? What does it mean to love someone with all your heart, mind, soul and strength? Does loving God with all your mind and strength mean only thinking about God, never taking your mind off God and his commandments? Does loving God with all your heart mean that you can only feel and will when directly thinking and acting for God? This is clearly an implausible interpretation and probably not what Jesus meant to say. Rather, I believe the commandment means that God is to inhabit first priority in all these areas, in the areas of heart, mind, soul and strength. We should give the first and the best to God in all these areas. We should prioritize the interests of God above everything else, above our own interests and above the interests of our family. Loving God with all your mind, for example, will mean not leaning on your own understanding and believing and thinking merely what seems to be right and true to you, but what God says is right and true. This communicates then a posture of utter submission. But what does it mean to prioritize God, to love God? How do we do that? Jesus also gives us the answer to that question (John 14:21):
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
So the way we love God is obedience to his commands. The first and greatest commandment is for God to have first priority in every single aspect and facet of our lives. Jesus’s teaching shows us that for God to have first priority in every facet or practice of our lives, is for us to prioritize God’s commandments above any other impetus or motivation we might have. That is what it means to obey the first and greatest commandment. But what does God command, apart from the command to take his commandments more seriously than everything else? That leads us to the second commandment: Love your neighbour as yourself.
Who is my Neighbour?
What does this commandment mean? What does “my neighbour” mean? I’ve read that atheists have argued that “neighbour” here refers only to fellow Jews. However, Jesus explicitly comments in the gospels about who we should consider our neighbour. The relevant passage can be found in Luke 10:29:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is significant, because Jesus illustrates the Parable of the Good Samaritan with a Gentile. Samaritans were considered heretics by the Jews of that time and Jesus himself believed their theology was completely incorrect (John 4:22). The Samaritans were also Gentiles. So the Samaritans didn’t qualify as Jews at all. They weren’t Jewish in a theological or nationalistic sense. Yet, Jesus picks a Samaritan to illustrate the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. It is also significant that the man in the parable who was attacked is not identified as being a Jew or a Gentile, which strongly implies that it doesn’t matter who the person in distress is, only that they are in distress.
What does it mean to love your neighbour?
The basic commandment is just to treat the interests and the lives of your fellow human beings as being as important as your own interests and life. The commandment itself resists a reduction to legalistic formula, because there are so many ways to obey it and so many ways to disobey it. A lot of the moral teaching of the Bible consists of ways to love your neighbour as yourself. This includes, for example, the following laws from Leviticus, conveniently summarized by Derwin L Grey on a Christianity Today blog:
Live generously towards the poor and alien (Lev. 19:9–10).
Do not steal from anyone (Lev. 19:11).
Do not be deceptive in dealings with people (Lev. 19:11).
Do not oppress, rob, or exploit the poor by paying unfair wages (Lev. 19:13).
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14).
Do not be partial to the poor or show favor to the great but judge honestly (Lev. 19:15).
Do not commit financial fraud. The word slander in Hebrew is rakhil, and it may be related to the term rokheleth, meaning merchant. (Lev. 19:16).
Do not hate your brother (Lev. 19:17).
Do not seek revenge or hold a grudge but extend forgiveness (Lev. 19:18).
Other ways to ensure that you love your neighbour well is not to judge them (Matthew 7:1), not jumping to conclusions about their motivations and intentions, not being quick to assume they are doing or intending wrong, but giving them the benefit of the doubt. This also includes not showing favouritism (James 2), not reviling others, not committing adultery ( 1 Corinthians 6:9), not coveting the possessions or spouse of your neighbour (Matthew 5:27, Deuteronomy 5:21), being gentle, kind, forgiving, showing hospitality, being self-controlled, being patient, (Galatians 5:22) not being envious, not being a drunkard, not being sexually immoral, not giving in to fits of anger, not showing rivalry, not being quarrelsome ( or having a tendency to be critical about things) (Galatians 5:19), having respect for people’s customs, conventions and expectations, insofar as they don’t contradict with God’s commandments (Romans 12:17, Romans 14:15), not grumbling and arguing (Philippians 2:14), not being greedy ( Galatians 3:5), rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). This is just a sample of some important ways to love your neighbour as yourself, but by no means an exhaustive list.
All of the above is implied by regarding the interests and the lives of others as being as important as your own interests and your own life. But also, an even greater love is to regard the interests and lives of others as having priority over your own (John 15:13).
The Priority of Love
The central duty of the Christian life is to do works of love. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will find this over and over again: not merely the command to love but to do so as the priority. Love is emphasized above the other virtues. Galatians 5:14 declares, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” 1 John 2:10 says “Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.” This is quite a radical thing to say. If you love others properly, there is nothing in you to make you stumble. This is not to say that the other virtues are unimportant, but they are not as important. Often, the other virtues are just ways of obeying the command to love your neighbour. This is important to realize, because one of the primary traps of the Christian life is to lose sight of what Jesus regards as the most important way to love God (loving others). One way that people lose sight of this commandment is to focus on the “don’ts” of Christianity. Now I’m not saying the don’ts are unimportant. They are very important. If you’re not obeying the don’ts, you are probably not obeying the commandment to love your neighbour either. And if you’re not obeying the don’ts, as Paul tells us, you will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9). But having the don’ts is not enough. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition of true Christian character. It is possible to have the don’ts and yet to lack real goodwill. Focusing on the don’ts and neglecting the great “do” of the New Testament, to love your neighbour, is to seriously and fatally miss the point of the Christian life. In Matthew 12:43, we read the following:
When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.
The basic point of this story is that you can be behaviourally reformed without being good. You can be “decent” by the measure of conventional morality and yet fall short of true goodness. As other commentators noted, this fits in with Jesus’s condemnation of the Pharisees as having outward righteousness but not inward righteousness. The outward righteousness corresponds with the house that is “swept clean” and “put in order”. But the inherent evil of the house or the human heart to which it corresponds is shown by the fact that the demon still regards the house as “his”; as the place he feels at home in. How is it that you are behaviourally reformed, and yet fail to be good? It is possible that one way in which one’s righteousness fails to be inward is by a focus on the don’ts of Christianity.
William Barclay interprets this the following way. “What did Jesus mean by this weird story? He meant that it is no good cleansing a man of evil things without putting good things in their place. It is not possible to leave a man’s heart or mind empty. We must go on to put the good things in or the evil things will come back with more force than ever. Jesus was thinking of the Pharisees. All their religion was built on the commandments which start, “Thou shalt not…” It was a religion of not doing things…We must not merely hate evil; we must love goodness.” The morality that focuses only on what you cannot do only accomplishes a setting of the stage for something else. If you have the don’ts, you have the outline of the Christian life; you have its skeleton. But now you have to fill that outline. You have to put some flesh and blood and sinews on that skeleton. You have to fill it with the great “do” of the New Testament: to love others. You must go beyond simply “technically” doing everything correct by following the letter. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). There is a brand of religiosity that is perfectionistic about obeying dont’s but seems to pay no attention to “do’s”. Not only that, this brand of religiosity makes rules to help keep rules. The effect is a Christianity which busies itself more and more with rules that have less and less to do with the core of Christian morality. As a result of its perfectionism, it becomes obsessed with minutiae, and minutiae of minutiae, quarreling about doubtful things. It dances on the outskirts of real Christianity and moves further outward all the time. As we saw, the commandment to love your neighbour is central but legalists don’t like it, because it is not a simple rule with a simple accomplishment. There is always more that can be done. It doesn’t really stroke your ego to obey it and cannot be clearly broken up into neat little rules that you can follow. Any list of such rules can never be exhaustive. It can never capture the essence of the commandment, because I think those whose righteousness is merely outward cannot obey it.
Another way in which Christians get sidetracked from the primary way to love God ( loving others) is by getting inordinately focused on sacramental and “spiritual” activities. These activities include having a regular “quiet time” to pray and read the Bible, going to church, and so on. All of these are good things and should not be neglected, but they are not the heart of Christianity; they are not the primary way to love God. To focus on them while neglecting the command to love others is once again to end up with nothing. But doesn’t the first greatest commandment say to love God? Isn’t prayer and going to church and tithing and so on ways to love God? Of course they are, and they should not be neglected. But they are not to be the priority. There are a couple of ways in which the Bible teaches us that what we might call spiritual and sacramental activities are not the most important way to love God. Near the beginning of the book of Isaiah, we read the following:
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
A similar idea is expressed in Amos 5:21:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
In other words, here God is rejecting the practice of “spiritual” and “sacramental” activities, which he himself has commanded they do, because they have not obeyed other (presumably more important) commands (to plead the case of the widow, to defend the oppressed, to take up the cause of the fatherless etc.). In other words, their spiritual activities, their prayers, their sacrifices, and assemblies were rejected because they didn’t love their neighbour. It follows that loving your neighbour then is paramount. These “spiritual activities”, the Christian analogue of which is quiet times, Bible studies, Church meetings etc, are a secondary concern . Our focus and priority must be on loving our neighbour properly. Therefore, the primary way to love God is not through quiet times and church meetings and fasting, but through loving your neighbour as yourself, and as Jesus has loved you.
Isaiah and Amos’s rebuke is reemphasized in the New Testament, in both the teachings of Jesus and that of Paul.
In Matthew 9:3, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In Matthew 12:7 Jesus again quotes this passage. Interestingly, here Jesus says that it was a result of the Pharisees not understanding this passage that they have condemned his disciples for gathering food on the Sabbath. In one of his woes to the Pharisees, Jesus includes this rebuke ( in Matthew 23:23):
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Here Jesus is explicitly saying that their priorities are wrong. They have prioritized certain “spiritual” or “sacramental” activities and neglected the “weightier matters.” They have neglected things which deserved priority over the “spiritual activities” that they were more concerned with. It is possible that some liberal interpreters neglect the last part of this passage: “without neglecting the former.” The “spiritual activities” are not bad. They are good and to fail to do them is to disobey God, but they are not the focus and priority of the life lived in submission to God.
Again, in Matthew 7:21:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Jesus is here once again emphasizing the emptiness of certain sacramental and spiritual activities without obeying the “weightier matters.” It is clearly not a bad thing to heal the sick and cast out demons, because Jesus himself did these things and commanded his disciples to do them. But still, the evildoers of the passage are missing the crucial ingredient. Since only those who do the will of the Father enter the Kingdom of Heaven, this means that these people who cast out demons and healed the sick did not do the will of the Father.
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul gives his famous sermon on love which is (unfortunately) always associated with weddings. While it certainly applies to romantic relationships, its original intention is much broader.
Throughout 1 Corinthians 13, Paul affirms the priority of love over other “spiritual activities” that we’ve been talking about, and even twice affirms its priority over faith (once in verse 2 and again in verse 13). Yes, Paul, the apostle who is famous for emphasizing the importance of faith, said that if you have faith that can move mountains but don’t have love, then you are nothing.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
In Galatians 5:6, Paul sums up Christianity as follows:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
James, similarly, sums up a “pure and faultless” Christianity as follows:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
So this is a theme that runs right through the Bible, from the Hebrew Prophets to Jesus himself, to the apostles.
How do we obey?
It is important to remember as we obey Jesus’s commands that we must not conceive of it as being in our own strength. We are saved and sanctified through the mercy of God as a result of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. If we lose sight of this, our obedience will be tainted as a result and, in my experience, it becomes harder and harder to obey God. We must never think ourselves saved by our efforts, but remember that it is not merely God’s work to save us but also God’s work that we have a will to obey him and are successful to any degree in obeying him. Secondly, it is important to keep our eyes on the reward. Some people like to think that moral actions should be done entirely without thought of reward, otherwise they aren’t moral. The reality is that everybody is motivated by some reward-punishment complex when they behave morally. That is why the writers of the New Testament are not shy about reminding us that our suffering is not even worth being compared to the “glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Any suffering we encounter here is merely a “light momentary affliction” which will prepare us for an “eternal weight of glory” ( 2 Corinthians 4:7).
Jesus himself was motivated by reward when he endured the Cross. We read in Hebrews 12:2 ( emphasis added):
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
We must remember that we are not citizens of the world, but citizens of heaven who are sojourners and aliens in the world (1 Peter 2:11). It is tempting to forget heaven, because it only becomes a full reality at our death, which we all think is a long way off. First, it may not be a long way off. Second, 60 years is a blink of an eye compared to eternity. So fix your eyes on eternity, your true home, and let the current darkened world and the spiritual forces that rule it fade into the background. Whenever obedience becomes difficult, think about the perfect joy that will be yours in heaven and even the rewards God gives to us on earth as a result of obedience. Also, whenever we know that obedience will require us to sacrifice some thing that we think will bring us happiness, there is often the subtle assumption that this thing is the only thing that will give us happiness. Any other source of joy fades into the background and seems gray and unexciting. You must teach yourself to repudiate this way of thinking. You must know that your mind is ripping it out of proportion. There are always still other things to enjoy, especially once you have gotten used to foregoing that sinful thing you crave.
 William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) p. 196