“Love the Lord:” But what does that really mean?

By | "Training for Godliness" podcast, Audio, Christianity | No Comments
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Most people familiar with the teachings of Jesus can tell you what he considered to be “the greatest commandment.” They may not know exactly where it is, but somewhere in the Bible, Jesus tells us that “You shall love the Lord,” is the most important thing, and that a close second is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as a result, there are a lot of people have developed an idea that serving God and following Jesus involves having some sort of emotional attachment to Jesus.

Does godly love mean “getting along?”

We can look at it like the way we love our parents: “I love my mom and dad, but that doesn’t mean I have to do whatever they say! I’m a grown-up now, and can make my own rules and decisions, and their job as parent is to accept all those decisions, and my job is to love them even when they say things I don’t like or act in ways that I don’t agree with.”

By that standard, love is basically being able to ignore all our differences and care about each other. That sounds great, and on some level there’s some truth to that.

But there’s a lot more to what Jesus is saying there, and sometimes we miss what Jesus is really calling us to do.

Loving God “with all my heart”

Jesus says in Mark 12:28: “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.” That’s not an empty expression; it’s not hyperbole.

I might tell someone “I love you with all my heart,” but when it comes to making decisions in my life, my first thought is still about what I want to do. What’s in my best interest? After all, that’s what we’re taught in our culture: “Take care of yourself. Don’t give up your dreams or ideals or desires for anyone! Be true to yourself.”

The problem is that Jesus is saying the exact opposite of that. If I love the Lord with all my heart, that leaves no room for any love that is going to contradict a love of God.

Loving with all my strength means that my energies and efforts are reserved for activities that reflect a love for God – and I don’ have strength left for anything else.

And in Matthew’s account, we read an additional statement that Jesus makes: “on these two commandments (loving God, loving neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets.” That means that everything God commands you to do first into these two categories.

Love of God leads to love of good

It doesn’t mean that the other laws God gives us are unimportant, or even less important – they’re not optional for us so long as we maintain an emotional attachment to God. They are the tools God gives us to exemplify our love for God.

Do I truly love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength? Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Not “If you love me, you’ll think of me fondly while you go about living the life you choose and ignoring all the things I’ve told you to do.”

Godly love is a love that is defined by God, not by us. And the love that God requires from us is a love that compels us to not only embrace God, but to embrace everything God is – including his character, his nature, his will. We love what He loves, and we love HOW he loves.

Loving God requires a choice!

In Romans 12:9, Paul makes a pretty important statement about what true godly love requires. He says “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Those aren’t separate thoughts. Paul is saying that true love, love that comes from God, calls for us to make some choices in our lives. If I love God, I will love the things of God – things I know that God approves.

That means that I not only have to have a knowledge of what God loves – not the things I think God SHOULD love, but what His word actually teaches us that He loves – but I need to love those things too. I should desire to fill my life with good things, not continuing to cling to the sinful activities of the world that we know God hates.

So does that mean that God doesn’t love sinners? Of course not! God commended his love to us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us! That’s what Paul writes in the same book, Romans 5:8.

But God doesn’t love in the same way that we describe love in our culture. God’s love didn’t allow him to simply overlook sin, to say “You live your best life, do whatever makes you happiest, whatever you enjoy, and I’m going to accept that and let you come live with me in my kingdom.”

How much do I REALLY love God?

God’s love compelled him to reach out to humanity, his creation, and provide a way for us to be with Him – if that’s really what we want. But we have to ask ourselves the question: Is my love for God genuine? Do I REALLY love God?

Because if I love God, I want to be LIKE God. I want to be around things that reflect the character of God. I want to live the way God wants me to live – not out of the sense of some moral code, but rather a wish to be everything God wants me to be, knowing that every command He gives, every instruction for my life, is designed to bring me closer to Him, so that when this life is over, I can spend eternity in the presence of the God I truly love.

So let’s love the Lord, not in some nebulous, meaningless way, but with a love that seeks to know God in all his virtue, righteousness, justice and mercy, and carry that grace with us in everything we do. That’s the whole point behind the idea of training for godliness.

What tithing teaches us (It’s not what you think!)

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I was asked recently to talk about the concept of tithing – a subject near and dear to the heart of every churchgoer who sees a collection plate pass down the aisle, hears a preacher talk about how putting a tenth in the plate is their obligation to God, and how it’s a free-will offering, “but you’d better put a tenth of what you made this week in there!”

I think the message of giving may have become a little muddled somewhere along the way.

The truth is that the contribution that churches collected in the first century was very different from that of the idea of tithing, which we read about in the Old Testament. In fact, I would argue that the two are not even related. The Christian “tithe” is never actually commanded in scripture!

Tithing is introduced in Genesis 18, when Abraham had just won a great battle and collected spoils, a tenth of which he gave to Melchizedek, a priest of God. Jacob made a promise to do the same thing for God in Genesis 28. This was a common practice in that region; apparently the concept of giving a tenth  of your possessions as gratitude to a deity was present in Egypt, Syria and other neighboring countries as well at that time.

The law of Moses is the first place where we read God’s people ever being commanded to tithe. But it bears little or no resemblance to what we see in many churches today, where the “pastor” commands you to record your income (and sometimes report it to him) and meticulously give one-tenth of it to him every week for whatever he chooses to do with it.

Here’s how tithing worked in the law:

  • There were two different tithes authorized in the law (some argue that they are the same tithe and that the procedure simply changed over time.) Neither of them happened on a weekly basis; the first happened annually (Deuteronomy 14:22), and the second took place every three years (Deuteronomy 26:12).
  • Tithing was given specifically for the purpose of supporting the tribe of Levi, which was designated to serve the Lord in His religious services. The Levites were not given an inheritance in the land of Canaan, and were expected to devote their lives in service to God (Numbers 18:21-24) rather than in activities like farming or shepherding. As a result, they needed a source of sustenance, and the other 11 tribes were expected to provide that (Nehemiah 10:35-39).
  • Tithing was to take place in a specific, designated city (Deuteronomy 14:23), where Levites were available to accept the tithe.
  • The annual tithe was actually a tithe to be shared between the one who tithed and the Levite who resided in your area, “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” and “rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:23, 26).
  • Tithing was not monetary; it was composed of seed, wine, oil, livestock and other goods. The exception to this was when the designated city was too far for a family to transport all the goods that they had set aside (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). In that case, they were allowed to sell those goods for money, which they could then carry with them to the tithing location (v. 24-26).
  • The third-year tithe was to be given to the Levites as well, but with the specification that it also be given to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow. We read about the storehouses where these offerings were kept and distributed in Nehemiah 10:38.

Tithing was not the only avenue of giving to God. There were also vow offerings and “freewill” (spontaneous offerings made at the discretion of the one who wishes to give). But as you may have noticed in Deuteronomy 12, they are mentioned along with tithes as offerings to be consumed in a specific place by the one doing the offering, along with family and those in need, for the purpose of rejoicing in God’s blessings before the Lord.

If that doesn’t sound like what we do on Sundays today, it’s because it’s not what we do on Sundays today.

And as I’ve written before, the law of Moses was given only to Israel. It was not bound on the Gentiles of that day unless they happened to be living among the Hebrews, and it was taken out of the way by Christ and is no longer in effect.

But the law is recorded “for our learning” (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:6), and we know that there is a pattern of physical things in the Old Testament that point to spiritual truths today (Hebrews 8:5). And there are some important concepts that come out of the passages about tithing in the Old Testament.

When you give something to God, it’s holy

Even when tithes or other offerings were given back to the people to consume, it was at God’s discretion (Numbers 18:24)—they were still God’s! A priest who was unclean could not partake of a sacrifice (Lev. 22:3-4), and no one who was unauthorized could ever do so without causing the nation “to bear iniquity and guilt by eating their holy things: for I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (v. 16).

The joyful partaking of those gifts was to be combined with a recognition of the holiness of God and His commandments:

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year … then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. — Deuteronomy 26:12-15

God doesn’t take from us so we will have less

The pattern is repeated over and over: when God required the people to give an offering that was not related to atonement for sin, the people shared in the offering. All three major feast days—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths—involved sacrifices and freewill offerings (apart from tithes) that were to be eaten by the one offering the sacrifice along with his family and those others who had need, in a specific place, to remember specific blessings from God (Deuteronomy 16:9-17). It was for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating what God had given them.

When freewill offerings were required that were not for the people’s consumption, they were for specific needs in the work and worship of God. The first freewill offering of the people of Israel was in the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35:

Moses said to all the congregation, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution. … v.20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. … v. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. — Exodus 35:4-29

The pattern is repeated in the institution of the temple tax for the restoration of the temple by Joash (2 Kings 12:9). It’s that tax which prompted the widow in Mark 12:42 to offer her two coins, which Jesus said were “more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It’s clear that the Levites of that day had begun abusing those funds (John 2:13-16), which sadly is another pattern that seems to be repeated in scripture (I Samuel 2:12-17, Ezekiel 22:26). But that didn’t negate that the offering was authorized by God and given from a desire to please and serve Him.

Regardless, God did not collect money or goods from His people simply to take things from them. It was done for the purposes of filling a need in the work of God’s service.

Collections should be with purpose, not for the sake of collecting

Why does God love a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)? Because a cheerful giver knows that what he is giving to the Lord is a result of God’s blessings, and that it is being used to continue to bless God’s people whether through benevolent works or through the supporting of the gospel (v. 12-14). Just as the Hebrews were to rejoice in their offerings, we ought to be rejoicing in the knowledge that whatever we give to the Lord’s work is going to fulfilling His will, which is our primary concern as Christians in this life (Philippians 2:13)!

If our church is collecting funds and just sitting on them with no plan or purpose, we’re not doing what God has commanded. That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t have a treasury (what was the temple storehouse if not a treasury?); it is to say that God’s treasury is dedicated to God’s work. We don’t collect funds and decide later what to do with them; the scriptural purpose is to identify a need and collect the assets to address that need.

God expects for us to support His workers

One of the central points of the law of Moses is that serving God is serious work, and needs to be done with the utmost care, humility and reverence. So much so, that it required an entire tribe of people fully devoted to that work, so that the rest of the nation could worship God “and not die” (Numbers 18:22).

Paul uses this parallel in discussing the authority to financially support ministers of the gospel, so that they don’t have to be “entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Timothy 2:4). It’s worth noting that he doesn’t appeal to the law as the authority, but rather as a confirmation of the principle put forth in a direct command from God to the apostles and the church:

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. – 1Co 9:8-14

If we’re focused on the amount that we have to give, then we’re missing the point. Tithing is no longer in place; it has been taken out of the way by removal of the law (Colossians 2:14, Ephesians 2:15) and removal of the need for which it was instituted. What remains is a freewill offering (2 Corinthians 8:8, 9:7), given to fulfill specific needs of benevolence (8:4) or the gospel ministry (Philippians 4:18). It’s certainly not so the the preacher can drive to his Bible classes in a Mercedes!

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath,” Paul writes in Colossians 2:16. The same could be said of giving. Our giving is a demonstration of love—as is our lack of giving! But it’s between God and ourselves. So let’s make sure to judge ourselves wisely and honestly (1 Corinthians 11:30), and then give to God what He deserves for His work and His glory.

Knowing Jesus: Jesus loved as he taught others

By | Christianity, Knowing Jesus | No Comments

As we go through this series, there will no doubt be some overlap in some of the things we’ll talk about. That’s OK — some things are worth re-emphasizing. And there are some elements so integral to Jesus’ character that they influence everything about his life.

Jesus’ love for people is one of those things.

Jesus reflected God’s character of love

One of the primary missions that Jesus had in this world was that he revealed the Father to us. When Thomas asked Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus responded “he that has seen me has seen the Father.” Even the holiest of men throughout history had not seen God; Moses, despite talking to God as he would a friend, only saw God in a carefully controlled, indirect way, in which a portion of God’s glory was revealed.

So when Jesus came to this earth, man was able for the first time to truly see God. Not in the sense that people ought to see a woefully imperfect reflection of God in our actions. We saw how God reacted, how God felt about people, how God viewed sin and sinners, how God viewed worship. We saw a perfect reflection of what God expects out of His creation, because Jesus lived up to everything that he taught.

So it’s not surprising, given what scripture says about God, that one of if not the most defining characteristic of Jesus was love.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

Jesus loved just as he taught

Jesus loved people. He had a passion for teaching and revealing spiritual truths to anyone who would listen, and he felt compassion for the weaknesses and pains that men and women go through every day. And yes, he loved his enemies, too. Just like he taught us!

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:44-48

As always, all of Jesus’ efforts were focused on directing men toward God: love your enemies because God loves them too, and God blesses indiscriminately. And above all, Jesus wanted us to be like the Father that he loved.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2

Jesus loved in deed more than in word

Jesus didn’t seem to spend a lot of time telling those around him how much he loved people. And it’s actually surprising to go back and count the number of times that Jesus teaches about love in the gospels. Hint: it’s not nearly as often as you’d think. While Jesus does have plenty to say about the importance of love, he taught love primarily in the way that he acted toward people. We see Christ’s life, and we see what love looks like.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. — 1 John 3:16-18

We’ll talk about specific aspects of this topic in future weeks: what did Jesus’ love look like? How did Jesus express love toward different types and classes of people? Jesus had special relationships just like we do. He saw things in people that moved him to an even greater love and appreciation, just like we do. But the central figure in all of this is what that love motivated Jesus to do.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. — John 15:12-14

Jesus gave us an example of what Godly love is. And our own love ought to reflect that of Christ. We love God because of who He is. “We love Him because He first loved us.” And we love others whether they love us or not – even those who are not lovable.

Can people see the love of Christ in us? Not the love of Christ as the world may choose to define it, but the love of Christ that Jesus demonstrated every day in all facets of his life.

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