Selected highlights from this sermon.
In Mark 12, Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But how can we ever live up to this?
We must feel deeply about God. We must love what He loves and detest what He detests. We need to make God the priority in our lives, putting Him above all other competition for our attention and affections.
We need to cry out to God, asking that He will expose the idols in our lives and help us to rid ourselves of those idols. Why? We want nothing standing between us and our love for Him.
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As you know, it is my responsibility to prepare about 60 or 70 new sermons every year, and it is a responsibility that I accept very gladly. But I have to tell you honestly that this past week has been one of the most difficult for me specifically because of the topic that I have chosen to speak on.
As you know, this is the last in a series of messages on stewardship, and last week I spoke on the topic of Christ, the Lord of Our Finances. And today I want to speak on the topic of Christ, the Lord of Our Affections. And the text that I chose is one that I have never preached on before – “Thou shall love the Lord our God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, and thy neighbor as thyself.”
When I chose that text I thought to myself, “That’s an easy one to preach on.” But the more I began to think about it the more I agonized within my spirit, almost to the point of saying, “I’m going to preach a different message.” But I chose to stick with it. But let me explain why it is that this text caused me such emotional convulsion.
First of all, it is because I thought to myself, “This is an awesome passage of Scripture. Who in the world could love the Lord his God with all of his might, with all of his strength, and with all of his heart? That seems like an impossible dream,” and I thought to myself, “I’d like to be able to love God like that.” But I looked within my heart and I saw coldness and indifference and I thought, “Who could love God with such passion?” It seemed impossible.
There’s a second difficulty that I had with it, and that is I thought, “Who can love an invisible being like that?” Now if the text told me to love my wife with all my heart, mind and soul, it may be difficult, not because my wife is difficult to love, but because by nature I’m selfish. It may be difficult but it would be manageable. At least I could begin to work on that kind of love. Indeed the Bible says that we should love our wives as Christ loved the Church, and that comes close to what God demands. But how do we love an invisible being – the greatness and the grandeur of God? I don’t know about you but I often think about God, and I always think of His greatness and the fact that we know that the universe is multiplied billions of light years, and we know that God is bigger than that. I’m so overwhelmed by Him. I say, “How can I love a being I’ve never seen, and a being that is that great? How can I love Him with such intensity and passion?”
And there’s a third struggle that I had. I thought to myself, “If I ever loved God like that would I have time for anything else?” I mean can you imagine it – loving God with all your heart and mind and soul? There are other things in life that we should be doing. But then I came back to the text and I remembered that this is the first and the foremost commandment. The first commandment is not, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not lie.” The first commandment is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.”
Today I feel something like a person who is learning to do high jump. He can only do four feet, but the bar is 20 feet and he’s supposed to try. There is a part of me that says it’s impossible, but there’s another part of me that says, “Oh God, I wish I would love you like that.” I think of David who said, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
There’s a part of me like there’s a part of you that says, “Oh I wish I could love God like that,” so I speak today as a fellow struggler, and I ask you to turn with me in your Bibles to Mark 12.
It says in Mark 12:28-29, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another (Isn’t it nice to know that people actually argued in those days too?), and seeing that He answered them well, asked Him (asked Christ), ‘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.”’” If you know anything about Judaism, you know that this is the shema because the word shema means hear, and it is frequently said in Hebrew - Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheim, Adonai Echad. Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.
I looked in the commentaries and they just had brief comments on this verse. Many of them said that what Jesus really meant was just to love Him a whole lot and we shouldn’t make a distinction between the heart, the mind and the soul. But on the other hand, as I think about it, I’d like to do just that to try to understand the depth of the love that we should have for God. So, first of all, notice that Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” That means that we should feel deeply about God.
Now I want you to notice that I did not say that we should necessarily feel God. That could be dangerous. God may give us His peace. He may give us His rest and a sense of His presence, but actually there are times when we need to believe that God is with us even when we don’t feel Him because we assume that by faith. And so I’m not talking so much about feeling God, as I am talking about feeling deeply about God, for example, about God’s reputation in the world. You know, of course, that God’s reputation is always intact because He is a being of integrity and greatness, but on the other hand, many people in the world make up their mind about God based on the way in which we act. So when we hear of hypocrisy, and when we hear of ministers falling into sin, our first thought should not just be for them, but we should to think to ourselves, “What does this do for God?”
People are going to degrade God and His people because of what has happened. We should be protective of the Almighty. We should also feel deeply about sin, not just because it ruins people (and it does) but because it hurts God. God has feelings too. Remember that!
In the Old Testament there’s a very interesting story of Joseph who was tempted by Potiphar’s wife. The text says that day after day she kept saying to him, “Lie with me, come to bed with me.” And Joseph kept refusing, and then you know the rest of the story, how she actually caught him and he left his coat in her hands, and he fled out the door. But you know Joseph could have rationalized that relationship. He could have said to himself, “Nobody is going to find out. If they do find out, we can come to the situation armed with a pack of lies so that we can cover our sins. We can handle the consequences. If I feel guilty I know that God is going to forgive me because what is His mercy and grace all about if He can’t forgive that?” And he could have rationalized it, but there is one thing that Joseph could not rationalize. He said to that woman, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph said, “I know that this sin will grieve God, and I’m concerned about what God thinks about this sin,” and that was Joseph’s first thought. And that’s one thing that he could not explain away or rationalize.
I need to ask you something today, even as I ask myself this question. Do God’s feelings on a matter affect the way we think? Do you realize that the Bible speaks about grieving the Holy Spirit because of sin in our hearts? And what we should say is, “Oh God, I feel so deeply about the way You feel about things in the world. I love You so much that my first thought is, ‘What do You think about this?’”
Let me ask you another question. What is idolatry? Idolatry is nothing more than me feeling more deeply about some person or some set of circumstances or some problem than I feel about God, because the text says I should love the Lord my God with all my heart, with depth and intensity. And there should be no rival. There should be no possibility that God feels as if He is in competition, because He is number one, and nobody is anywhere near second place.
Now secondly, Jesus said not only that we should feel deeply, but also He said that you should love Him with all of your soul. As I thought about that I was reminded that the soul, psychologically speaking, is usually thought of as the area of the will. So what Christ is saying is that we ought to love God by making choices in His favor. In your outline you will notice I say that we should choose decisively.
Let me ask you something. How do we prove our love one for another? Is it not the willingness to make sacrifices one for another? You know talk is cheap. We can all say that we love one another, that we love this person or that person, but the real issue is how do we react when we need to sacrifice in their behalf and make a tough choice in their favor?
One day God came to a man by the name of Abraham and He said, “Abraham, I want you to take your son to Mount Moriah.” Abraham might have said, “Well, excuse me, Lord, but I’ve got two sons.” The Lord says, “No, I don’t even regard Ishmael. I don’t even count Ishmael. I want your son, your only son, your precious son, Isaac.” And then the Lord says, “Abraham, I want you to take him to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him there for a sacrifice on one of the mountains that I will show you.”
I can’t prove it from Scripture, but I don’t think Abraham even told Sarah where he was going because she may not have let him. But here he is. He takes Isaac and they begin that three-day journey to Mount Moriah, which very probably is the very place where the Dome of the Rock is built today in the city of Jerusalem because Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah. But they come there and they trudge up that mountain together and finally Abraham is willing to tie his boy to the altar and to take a knife to his son. And you know the rest of the story. An Angel of the Lord intervened, but here’s the point. Was there any doubt in anybody’s mind after that incident that Abraham loved God? Is there anybody who says, “I’m not sure whether Abraham really had God as first in his life or not.” Of course we would not even think of questioning Abraham’s love because you see what God wanted to do was to make sure that this precious son had not taken first place in Abraham’s heart. So God says, “Abraham, kill your boy,” and he was willing to do it.
I need to ask you a question today. Is there any person, is there any relationship, and is there any circumstance or desire or ambition in your heart and mine that is more important to us than God? When all of the desires that we have scream “yes,” are we willing to say “no” to those things because first and foremost we value God? We say, “God, my relationship with You is so important. What You think is so important that I will choose for You, no matter what.” Because what is idolatry? Idolatry is nothing more than being unwilling to make a tough choice for God. Idolatry is saying no to God. It is saying that there is something in my life that is more important than the will and the purpose of God, and I will hang on to that thing, and I will keep it and I will not submit to the Almighty. That’s idolatry.
Now thirdly notice that Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind.” May I remind you of something, namely that God has given us minds that we can think, and the grandest thoughts that we will ever have, the grandest thoughts that we should ever have should be thoughts about God. As I say, I think about God’s relationship to the world a great deal, and the more I know God the more mystery I find. Maybe one of the reasons why God has allowed so much mystery to be in His person, that He has not seen fit to reveal to us in the Bible, is because He wants us to never run out of ideas thinking about it.
I like what Jonathan Edwards says. He says that he believes that in heaven all of us are going to continue to expand our knowledge of God, and that throughout all of eternity our ideas of God shall continue to be increased. I like that. All of eternity we’re going to know more about Him, but we should get started on this side of eternity. And how do we do that? How do we use our minds for God? It is through meditation in His Word where He leads us into the very depths of the knowledge of Him.
“I will extol Thee, my God and King, and I will bless Thy name forever and ever. Everyday will I praise Thee and bless Thy name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise Thy works to another and declare Thy mighty acts.” And on and on the Psalmist goes extolling the wonder of God.
Now I must ask you again. What is idolatry? Idolatry is when I reserve greater and more magnificent thoughts for other people or for my career, or for a situation than I reserve for God. That’s idolatry. To think small thoughts about God and big thoughts about ourselves or what we hope to accomplish in life is idolatry. We have allowed something else to capture our minds and our imagination other than Almighty God, and the Bible says, “Thou shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind.”
Finally Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your strength.” I’m astounded that Jesus adds that. Strength means that we are committing ourselves with blood, sweat and tears toward a very specific goal. That’s what it means to exert strength, and Jesus is saying that your strength shouldn’t just be reserved for the normal things that we think take energy, such as the pursuit of our work, our careers, and pressures of life. Jesus is saying you should take your strength and channel it very decisively into being sure that God is number one on your list of things and beings to pursue.
Remember it says in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God, for those who come to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him out. I want you to know that you may not accomplish anything in this world that other people are going to recognize, but if you and I are willing to seek God out, we will have accomplished something that is very special and precious to His own heart.
I have sometimes prayed, and I am sure you have as well, “Oh God, I pray that I may know You as well as it is possible for a human being to know You on planet earth.” For that knowledge I trust that I will be willing to give anything up. I think of Augustine who said, “Oh God, Thou has said that we see cannot Thee and live. Oh God, may I die that I might see Thee.” Augustine could not wait to get to heaven that he might know God better and that he might see Him.
Now let me ask you, “What is idolatry?” Idolatry is when I pursue something other than God with more strength and more energy and more determination than I pursue the knowledge of Almighty God. That’s idolatry because I have set up some other standard, some other desire that is greater than my desire to know the living God. Let me ask you this: What is your plan to know God better? How many biographies do you plan to read this year of men and women who have walked with God, who give us insight into what they have learned? How many verses do you plan to memorize? What is your plan in terms of reading the Bible? What are you doing so that this great gap that is within us, this great desire for God, is being fueled and is being fanned, and is being nurtured and strengthened until you say that you are consumed with the desire to know the Almighty, and nothing else really matters?
Other things matter, but they don’t really matter. That’s why I found it so difficult to prepare this message because as I look at the text I see that what Jesus is saying is that our love for God should be all-consuming.
What would be true if we loved God with all our heart and mind and soul? First of all we would love what God loves, wouldn’t we? He loves the people of the world. We would love people. He loves His Word. He says that He has magnified His Word even above His name. And we love His Word. We would love righteousness. We would love God’s ways. And we would love God because may I say it? God loves Himself. He does! He would not expect us to love Him if He did not love Himself. He has a right to because He is the source of all beauty, of all goodness, or all wonder, of all majesty, and therefore He invites us to come and to share in that love, and on our part, our worship. So we would love God and we would love what God loves.
It dawned on me that we would hate whatever God hates. I took a concordance yesterday and looked up all the passages of Scripture to indicate what God hates. And the list is far too long for me to even begin to give it to you. For example, it says in Psalm 97:10 that God hates evil. It says also in Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is to hate evil. God talks about hating even the doers of iniquity.
Now it says in Hebrews 1 regarding Christ, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness beyond Your companions.” God says, “Because Jesus loved what I loved, and hates what I hate, He’s going to be glad and He’s going to be blessed.” But I look into my own heart and oftentimes I see myself loving what God hates and hating what God loves. That’s why the transformation of heart and mind that must be made within us is a work of the Holy Spirit of God.
Thirdly, if we really loved God we would love our neighbor as ourselves, and that’s what Jesus said the second commandment is. And it flows so naturally out of the first. The second is this. “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” You know there’s a verse in 1 John (4:20) that says these words. It says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ (And I suppose if I asked today for a show of hands of how many of you love God, I hope that most of you would raise your hands,) and hates his brother, he is a liar (and the truth is not in you); for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?” And some of you here today are struggling with your love for God, and the reason that you are struggling is because you do not love your brothers and your sisters. You retain that root of bitterness that’s always getting in the way of your love for Almighty God.
Let me give you a couple of statements to think about as we talk about the bottom line here. How do we go about learning to love God as we should? First of all, we must honor Christ because the Bible says, “He who honors Me honors the Father. If you dishonor Me You dishonor the Father.” There may be some of you here today who need to believe on Jesus as your Savior. You need to come with yourself just as you are with your sins, with your questions, and you need to come and believe on Him because the first step to a loving God is to appreciate what Jesus did for us on the cross and to receive His gift of eternal life. But having done that, then we begin to love. “We love Him,” the Bible says, “because He first loved us.”
I think of the little girl, Martha, four years old with one little doll in one arm, and another doll in the other arm, holding them tightly and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, I love them and I love them and I love them but they never love me back.” Is that the way we are? God loves us and He loves us and He loves us, and so often we never love Him back.
I know there are those of you who say, “Oh, but I don’t know that He loves me because He has dealt severely with me.” Recently I’ve been studying the life of Joseph and I wonder if you remember the story of how Joseph bound Simeon, one of his brothers, before the other brothers in their presence, and they didn’t know that Joseph was their brother. I’m assuming here that you know the story. But it’s interesting that Joseph turned aside and went into a room to cry, and then he wept, and after he dried his tears, he came out and he bound Simeon before their eyes and spoke harshly with them.
I wonder if that’s the way God sometimes does with us. Sometimes we see the harshness of God. He takes people from us. There are accidents. There are circumstances that make it appear as if God is harsh, but I wonder if we could see the other side to God – the grief, the pain, the tears of Christ. God does love you and we should love Him back.
Secondly, we must be willing to ask God to take all of those idols that are in our lives and demolish them. I think it would be helpful if all of us took 15 or 20 minutes (or maybe an hour) of our lives and said, “God, what is it that is standing between you and me? Why is it that I do not love you?” And you’d find all kinds of things in your life, as I find frequently in my own - all kinds of false competing loves where I am not loving the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul at all. I’m loving all kinds of other things and ignoring God.
The dearest idols I have known,
Whate’er those idols be,
May they be torn from the throne,
That I might worship only Thee.
Are you willing today to give up your idols? What is it that stands in relationship to you? What sin do you need to get rid of? I spoke about making a decisive choice. When it comes to sin it is best to put it away quickly and finally. Somewhere I read that if you are going to jump across a chasm it is much better to do it in one long jump than in two short ones. And when we put sin away – when we put those idols away - let’s do it decisively and with conviction. Are we allowing God to do that in our lives, to submit to Him, to give Him all the idols and then to receive in simple faith the filling of the Holy Spirit so that we might not be double-minded but single-minded, and to say with the Apostle Paul, “This one thing I do, forgetting the things that are behind, reaching forth for the things that are before I press toward the mark to know God and to love Him supremely?”
There was an artist by the name of Gustave Doré who had painted a picture of Jesus Christ. And an admirer came into the studio and noticed that the picture of Jesus was very well done. They were admiring the features of our Lord. And this admirer said to the painter, “You must love Christ.” “Yes,” he said, “I do but you know if I loved Him more I could paint Him better.”
I hope that in your heart today you are resounding with me in saying, “Oh that we loved Him more that we might represent Him better.”
“Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart (Where is your heart today?), with all your soul (Where is your soul today?), with all of your mind (Where is your mind today?), and with all of your strength (What is it that you are pursuing?). Anything less is idolatry, and when we love Him more we can paint Him better.
Join me as we pray together.
Our Father today we thank you for the priceless privilege of knowing and loving You. And yet, Father, we confess that in our hearts there are all kinds of issues that we find so hard to deal with. We ask today that You might come and meet us. As You pass by every person in this auditorium and walk down the aisles, would You do in our hearts whatever needs to be done so that we might in a better way fulfill the first and greatest commandment. Bring sins to our mind; bring false desires to our mind and relationships that are wrong. And whatever it is, we pray today, Father, that Your Holy Spirit will free us so that we might be able to love You more. Be gracious to us, Lord, and hear our prayers. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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