This Sunday, we began our mini-series on love and unity in the church by looking at Jesus’s response to a question posed by a scribe. We find the interaction in Mark 12:28-31:
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.”
In context, the religious leaders of Jesus’s day were attempting to trap Jesus with difficult questions (Mark 12:13). Their underlying intention? To arrest Jesus (Mark 12:12). So, beginning in Mark 12:14, they first ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the oppressive Roman emperor. Then, another group of religious leaders comes in and, starting in Mark 12:19, asks him a very complicated hypothetical question.
It’s in the midst of all this questioning that a seemingly teachable scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him a third question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Jesus answers with the two-fold answer already quoted above:
- He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:5—a text that was repeated twice daily by faithful Jews—to teach we are to love God, first and foremost, with total devotion by our entire being.
- He then quotes Leviticus 19:18 to teach we are also to love everyone around us.
As he does, he gives us both a command to follow and a love to reciprocate. Which leads us to the main point we looked at this Sunday: Our loving, covenant-keeping God calls his people—who are the objects of his love—to love him and to love others, as well.
When applied to the local church, which is our focus these next few weeks, we could say it this way: Our loving, faithful God calls his church—the object of his love—to love him and to love one another, as well. It’s a two-fold idea that encapsulates the whole of God’s Law. How do we relate to the covenant-keeping God as part of the covenant community? By loving God and loving one another!
But notice the order with me: First, we are to love the Lord; then, we are to love each other.
The reality is, if we are going to genuinely obey God at all, it starts with loving him first. As Christ said to his followers in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Therefore, genuine obedience to the rest of our Lord’s commands—including the command to love one another—depends on this: Loving him supremely with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our strength. In other words: Loving him with the totality of our being. This is the foundation of Christian love and unity.
But, there could be a problem with obeying out of mere obedience. Revelation 2:1-7 allows us to peek into a letter that Jesus wrote to the church in Ephesus after his ascension back to heaven. It’s interesting how he commends the church for doing great things out of obedience to him:
- Their labor within the church.
- Their faithful endurance even in persecution.
- Their righteousness.
- Their intolerance of evil and false teachers.
But then Jesus says this to them in Revelation 2:4: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
The church was doing great things! They were obeying the Lord and doing the work of the Lord, and in doing so they were edifying one another. Seemingly, there was no lack of devotion to the Lord and the church; they were united! Yet, even in all the wonderful things they were doing, Jesus had this against them: They lost their first love for him. Somewhere along the line, church life became but a habit. They lost sight of their passion for Christ. They lost sight of what motivated them in the first place, which would have been the good news of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. So, they labored for Jesus and for one another, even faithfully, but with the wrong motive.
As such, Jesus called this church in Ephesus to remember, to repent, and to do the works they did at first (Revelation 2:5):
- Remember how you served when you first believed the gospel, the good news of God’s love for you in Christ.
- Repent of doing even good things with the wrong motivation.
- Then, continue in your good works—just as you did at first—but with the right motivation: A passionate, wholehearted love for the same Lord who lovingly gave his life for you because of his desire for you to be joyfully united to him, forever.
Jesus’s “Parable of the Lost Son” illustrates this so well for us. In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy father who had two sons:
- The younger one asks for his share of the inheritance while his father was still alive, in effect wishing his father dead.
- He goes off and squanders his inheritance in reckless living.
- After he spent everything, in his lowest of lows, the son repents and returns to his father’s home, hoping his father would welcome him even as a slave.
- But the father does something amazing: In a display of great love, he runs to his son when he sees him from a distance, he embraces him and kisses him, and he welcomes his son back home, throwing a feast for him so the entire town could rejoice with him.
Yet, in the midst of a display of such great love and grace, the older son—who had remained faithful and united to his father the entire time—became angered and refused to join in the celebration of his brother’s return. His revealing words are recorded for us in Luke 15:29-30: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
We’re reminded: We can do all the right things—we can serve each other and love each other in unity—but have the wrong motive. As a church, we could lose sight of our first love, and we could become just as that older son. So, as Jesus tells the church in Ephesus, he says to us, as well: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7).
Have you lost sight of your first love?
Perhaps you could identify with the older son in the parable. Have you remained faithful, but lost the passion you had for the Lord at first? Or perhaps you could identify with the younger son. Have you left the church for a while, but you feel the Lord drawing you back to a love for him and his church?
He who has an ear let him hear: Come back to your first love of Jesus Christ. Come back to a love of the Lord that is all-encompassing. Come back to a love of the Lord that truly fills your life, including your church life. Then, allow that wholehearted love for the Lord to pour over into your love for others in the church, that we would all be genuinely united in loving service to each other.
When we do, our labor in children’s ministry, music ministry, youth ministry, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, senior citizen ministry, small group ministry, outreach—everything that we do as a church—will be motivated by a genuine love for the one who loved us first.
As a theologian once wrote: “When our love for Jesus is wrong, nothing is right. But when our love for Jesus is right, He makes everything else right.”
My dear church, let’s return to our first love. It’s the foundation for everything else that we do, including our steadfastness in loving unity to one another. And let’s return to a love for the Lord by pointing each other to the gospel and reminding each other of the great love God has for us in Christ Jesus. He spared not his Son, that we might be graciously united back to him as one united body that loves one another. And as we point each other to the gospel, let’s allow our hearts to be humble enough to allow the Spirit of God to speak to us, to change us, and to lead us in repentance back to our first love.
In your small groups this week, take a moment to discuss these questions together: Mark 12.28-31 Notes. May “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
With love for the Lord and for you,