(1) Introduction

According to Mark, the Pharisee posing the question, "What is the greatest commandment in the Law," is more sympathetic to Jesus than most of his kind. Sometimes, when there is a get together of former Brockley cricketers, there will be a discussion on who is the best cricketer to play for the club. It is not a judgement easily made. The Pharisees interest was the Law, not cricket, and so they were inclined to idly speculate which of the innumerable Laws was the greatest. Some thought it was the law regarding the Sabbath; others the regulations concerning sin offerings; even a few the rules about phylacteries - the little boxes containing a few verses of Scripture worn on the forehead or wrist.

Jesus does not duck the question he is asked. He quotes two brief laws that he affirms sum up all that is written in the Law and the Prophets:

Dt6v5: "Love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind." (Mark adds, 'strength.')

Lev19v18: "Love your neighbour as yourself."

(2) What is love.

This seems an obvious question with which to start in so far as so much depends upon it. Yet, very few Bible teachers or preachers take the trouble to provide a convincing definition. Julian Baggini, a philosopher, provides the best definition that I could find: Love is a passionate commitment that we nurture and develop. It is more than just a powerful feeling. Without commitment it is mere infatuation. Without passion it is mere dedication. Without nurturing even the best can wither and die.

I will bear this definition in mind as I explore Jesus' reply to the Pharisee.

(3) We are to love God with all our heart.

The heart is the seat of our emotions. The commandment is telling us that we should feel great love for God.

Some argue that it is futile urging people to feel love for God. It isn't something that you can conjure up. You either have it or you don't. Now this might be true of the natural loves: eros, affection and friendship. It would be pointless me telling a beautiful, youthful lady to fall in love with me. However hard she tried the lovely young thing would not succeed.

Now although this is true, passion for God may result from experience. I list below some experiences that should stir up feelings for God. Consider:

(a) His creation. Surely the stupendous variety and beauty of God's creation should arouse feelings of admiration, delight, wonder and awe. This was certainly true of the psalmists. See Ps5v3to5, Ps95v1to7 and Ps104. Just a few verses from Ps104 as an example:

How many are your works O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number - living things both large and small. vs24and25.

Today many folk, even non-Christians, identify with the hymn, 'All things bright and beautiful' and such verses as:

          Each little flower that opens,
          Each little bird that sings,
          He made their glowing colours,
          He made their tiny wings.

Keila Ochoa wrote a lovely appreciation of the humming bird in the Daily Bread for December 30th 2017. In Portuguese its name means, 'flower kisser,' in Spanish, 'flying jewels,' and, best of all, in Mexican Zapotec, 'what remains in the eye.' In other words, 'once seen - never forgotten.' It is a wonder of the world - a masterpiece of God's creation - designed to arouse in us feelings of awe.

(b) His provision may arouse in us feelings of intense gratitude. This happened early in the history of mankind. Abel offered to God fat portions from some of the first born of his flock. Gen4v4. The Psalmists also celebrate God's provision for his people. We closely identify with the sentiments of David: The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want. Ps23. Christians sing the hymns based on this lovely psalm with passionate devotion.

(c) His deliverance should stimulate an outpouring of joy. This was true after the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh through the Red Sea. Moses and Miriam led the singing: "The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God and I will praise him, my father's God and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Ex15v2and3.

Christians sing with joy of their salvation. It is impossible to sing Charles Wesley's great hymn, 'And can it be,' without passion.

          No condemnation now I dread;
          Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
          Alive in Him, my living Head,
          And clothed in righteousness divine,
          Bold I approach the eternal throne,
          And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.

(d) His protection should kindle a great confidence in God's abiding presence. The patriarch Joseph was aware that God had protected him in Egypt and brought him to a place of influence so that he could be the saviour of his family. See Gen50v15to21.

Psalm 121 is lovely celebration of God's protection - a protection that arouses feelings of intense gratitude:"I lift up my eyes to the hills - where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."

It is just so good to sing a hymn like this:

          Father in high heaven dwelling,
          May our evening song be telling
          Of Thy mercy large and free:
          Through the day Thy love hath fed us,
          Through the day Thy care hath led us,
          With divinest charity.

There is no doubt that man's experience should result in a passionate commitment - a commitment expressed in sacrifice, praise and worship.

(4) We are to love God with all our soul

The soul, or life, has to do with how we behave. Our behaviour will be informed by the passionate commitment to God born of experience. We shall be committed to God's values - values that he has revealed in his word. The Jews before Christ had a clear statement of what God expected in his Law. The Ten Commandments were given to be lived by. Obedience to these Commandments was a measure of a person's commitment to God - a commitment born of a heartfelt experience of God's goodness.

Jesus, God's living Word, brought the Law to completion. He gave us a marvellous, concise description of the sort of person God wants us to be. The Beatitudes are a statement of the Kingdom values to which we should be passionately committed.

I believe my expositions on the Beatitudes are among the best I have written for this website. See: Series on the Beatitudes.

Our motivation for living in the way Jesus desires should come from our experience of receiving forgiveness of sin, new life and a new family through faith in Jesus' sacrificial work at Calvary.

(5) We are to love God with all our mind and strength.

Julian Biggini wrote that unless passionate commitment is nurtured and developed it is likely to wither and die. This is true of any passionate commitment. When I began my teaching career I was very, very committed to my subject, Geography. For the first 20 years in the profession I maintained my knowledge and widened my experience by teaching A Level Geography and organising field trips to different parts of the UK. Choosing somewhere different to go each year necessitated considerable research and was a means of expanding my knowledge and widening my experience. During the sixteen years of retirement I haven't nurtured or developed the subject I was once passionately committed to. My love for Geography has diminished.

At Christmas I continue to keep in contact with a few pupils who were strongly attached to me as a teacher. I have been corresponding with some for 20, 30, even 40 years. But sadly each year the list of devotees grows shorter. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. All my old pupils have in my absence is my annual Christmas letter. Eventually this is not enough.

So, how can we maintain and nurture our love for God and make sure it does not diminish? We do so by involving our minds in the following ways:

(a) Praying to God. If we stop praying our love for God will undoubtedly wane.

(b) Studying the Scriptures. This involves more than just reading the Bible. We ought to make use of popular commentaries on God's word such as those written by William Barclay or Warren Wiersbe.

(c) Meeting with our fellow Christian for Sunday worship or midweek Bible studies. It is good to discuss what the leader of a Bible study says.

(d) Reading devotional literature like the biographies of notable Christians.

(e) Singing hymns and taking note of the words we sing. This is one of my greatest weaknesses. I sing without taking in the sentiments expressed. So, sadly, hymn singing does me little good.

If we love God with all our strength then we shall put our heart and soul into these activities. We shan't be half-hearted, lackadaisical or dismissive about them.

I hope I have been able to show that love for God:

* Starts with our experience and the feeling for him this engenders.

* Develops as we demonstrate our commitment by acting in ways that please God.

* Is maintained as we chat, think and sing about him.

(6) We are to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Jesus does not tell us to love our neighbour as our wife, our baby boy or a friend. We cannot summon or work up the same sort of love for our neighbour as we have for our wife, our child or our friend. The natural loves - like affection for a pretty little granddaughter - just happen quite apart from the will. People 'fall in love' without even trying! We are not friends with everyone but only those with whom we have a lot in common.

Jesus taught that we should love those in need as we love ourselves. Love for ourselves involves desiring our own highest good. These are the sorts of things we desire for ourselves:

(a) Encouragement and appreciation when we have done something worthwhile. Over the Christmas period in 2017 I worked very hard to prepare a Christmas Day address for our morning service. One Boxing Day I prepared a very nice lunch of the finest ingredients for three old colleagues. I was showered with compliments and thanks for my efforts. I would have been disappointed if no-one had commented on my efforts. It is a sad fact that some Christians are very loath to show appreciation or to give credit where credit is due. They might say to themselves, "I'm not going to feed his conceit." They needn't worry about this! I know from my experience as a teacher that encouragement does far more good than harm.

(b) Kindness and understanding when we are experiencing difficulties, set-backs and sorrow. We may need a listening ear, a few words of sympathy or someone to share our sorrow. Jesus would have been helped if the three disciples with him in the Garden of Gethsemane had kept awake and shared his distress.

I know of Christians who won't visit someone who is terminally ill because they want to remember the sick person as they were when well. They just don't want to feel bad.

(c) Practical help in time of trouble. This is what the man who fell foul of robbers on the Jericho to Jerusalem road needed and what the Good Samaritan provided. See my exposition on the Good Samaritan. None of us forget the Good Samaritans who help us with the problems of life. Mr Albert White changed my life when he bought me an asthma inhaler - I could breathe again!

(d) Good advice when in error or struggling with failure. A batsman new to the Brockley Cricket pitch might well experience a series of low scores. I could offer good advice. Batsmen need to play straight and off the front foot at Brockley because the ball keeps low.

Priscilla and Aquila were able to give the eloquent preacher, Apollos, good advice on the work of the Holy Spirit. See exposition on Acts18v24to28.

(e) Forgiveness and a second chance. There are some lovely passages in the Bible about forgiveness. Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into Egypt. The father in Jesus' parable forgave his prodigal son. Barnabas forgave John Mark for returning early from the first missionary campaign with Paul. He wanted John to come along on a second missionary enterprise. He saw the need to give John a second chance - whereas Paul thought it inadvisable. See exposition on Acts15v22to39.

I have suffered from not being given a second chance as a preacher. I have preached in several churches just the once. Someone hasn't liked what I have said, or the way I said it, complained and got me banned!

(f) The truth to be told about us. None of us like our reputation to be trashed out of malice, envy or jealousy. It is not for nothing that the 10th commandment is: 'Thou shalt not covet.' Covetousness leads to men and women of worth being misrepresented. The worst case occurred at the trial of Jesus where evil men were bribed to speak ill of him. Other examples occur in the Bible. Miriam and Aaron were unjustly critical of their brother, Moses. David's older brother, Eliab, was not slow in making disparaging remarks about his more talented sibling when he turned up on the battle field.

Simon, my former pastor, said to me once, "Well, we have got on well together, John. It's surprising really. Before I became pastor at Brockley someone said, 'You'll have no trouble with the folk at Brockley. You just need to watch that John Reed.'" It is a good thing I never knew the name of the person who misrepresented me! My father was a Baptist pastor and I would be the last person to make life difficult for someone in that office.

(g) People to be patient with us. We need people to persevere with us when we make mistakes. I can remember playing cricket with a chap who couldn't catch. If the ball was hit in the air anywhere near Henry off our opening bowler, the latter would fall on his knees and stretch out his arms to heaven as if in prayer. This did not build Henry's confidence. Better by far if our opening bowler had taken Henry to one side for some catching practice.

We do not find it hard to love ourselves. We know how to do it. We have plenty of practice doing it. We are used to doing it. We just have to transfer the love we are so familiar with to others.