How important is the first command?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.Matthew 22:37-38
It is so important that you cannot feed the flock of Jesus properly without love for Him. Jesus makes this point with Peter in John 21:15-17, saying,
Peter, do you love me?
Why is loving God required in order to feed His sheep? Because if you do not love God, you have nothing worth feeding them.
Let me qualify this statement. You do have something to give. You have love for self. You have self-righteousness. You have the law. But this is like feeding your child scraps from the garbage pail.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear to Peter and to us that without love for Him we are not qualified to feed His flock. Shocking? Does the Word of God return void even if preached without love? Wouldn’t something be better than nothing? Who is truly qualified by this standard?
No one is qualified by God’s standard of love. This is illustrated in the play on words in Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Jesus used the Greek word agape, and Peter used the word phileo. Both of these words mean love. But agape love is sacrificial love. Phileo love is brotherly love. Peter, like most of us, had not yet arrived to the perfect love of God. He did love God, but not with the pure perfection of agape love.
The lesson here is that love for God, imperfect, inadequate, and insufficient as it might be, is Christ’s number one qualifying criterion for discipling others. Jesus repeated His question three times, “Peter, do you love me?” The third time Jesus used the word phileo. It was enough to begin with. It was love. And starting with phileo, Peter matured to love Jesus with agape.
So much of Christian leadership, pastoral training, Bible college training, etc., emphasizes love for study and love for God’s Word. Is there something wrong with loving to study? A love for God’s Word? Of course not! But love for these things or anything else without a love for God is an egregious error.
Revelation 2:1-7 indicates this. The church at Ephesus loved righteousness. Specifically, they loved the righteousness described in God’s Word. They had no toleration for license and carnality. They were the Pharisees of Christianity. They loved the law more than the Lawgiver.
This church hated the Nicolaitans, who epitomized the other extreme, namely, their love for immoral license and carnality. They called themselves Christians and undoubtedly justified their liberty because they were liberated in Christ. The members of the church at Ephesus were commended for their stance against these carnal Nicolaitans. But despite this commendation, they were still wrong.
The license of the Nicolaitans is wrong, but so is the legalism of Christian Pharisaism. Let me define some terms so you know what I mean. Legalism is the idea of using the Law to please God for the reward of salvation. Christian Pharisaism uses the Law to please God for fellowship. The balance between the two is true liberty.
The difference between these three (Legalism, Christian Pharisaism, true liberty ) can be illustrated by what each of these would say about how to pray. God says we should pray.
The Pharisee says, “Daniel prayed three times a day on his knees with a window open facing eastward. That is how I do it, and you should too. It is the right way, and I have been blessed by it. If you don’t do it my way, you are in sin.”
License says, “It doesn’t matter if you pray. You can do whatever you want.”
True liberty says, “I will obey God and pray to Him with liberty to pray as it blesses me and God most, whether on my knees, on my face, on my back, on my feet, or on my hands. The important thing is that God told me to pray, and that I will do.”
For the Ephesians, failure to love God, in spite of their love for God’s Word and righteousness, was so egregious to God that He threatened to remove their lampstand. In other words, because they left their first love, they were unworthy to be called by His name and to represent Him. Do you love God?