The Essence of the Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment (4)

The greatest commandment is a call to love. But what is love? Where do we look for an accurate and full understanding? Should we look to what the secular culture teaches about man or what the sacred Scriptures teach about God?

The main verb in both the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) and in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees (Matt 22:37) is love (ahab in Hebrew, agape in Greek). Love is the duty required of us—both to God and to our fellow man. I have sat across from many counselees who declare (with tears in their eyes) the love that they have for their “significant other.” But as I move the conversation toward marriage and commitment, there is a hesitation. In our western culture, love is oftentimes misunderstood being reduced to a mere sentimental and self-centered, romantic feeling. This is not even remotely close to the biblical concept. If the two halves of the Shema mirror each other (which was argued in the last post: The Basis of The Greatest Commandment), then God is requiring His people to love him as he has loved them. The greatest commandment is a clarion call to reciprocate the nature and quality of God’s love. Therefore, formulating an accurate understanding of love must begin with Him. And it is there we find that love is an eternal attribute, a giving of self, and an activity.

Love Is an Eternal Attribute

God is love. This statement is true, but often misconstrued. God’s love should never be elevated above His other attributes. The perfection of simplicity prevents us from viewing God as a being composed of parts. All of His attributes are simultaneously operating at their fullest capacity. Therefore, there can be no hierarchy of attributes. God’s essence and perfections are identical. The reason Scripture often describes God with one attribute—such as love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), or holiness (Is 6:3)—is because our finite minds cannot grasp the incomprehensible. We can only focus on one at a time, so revelation graciously condescends to our level.

The quintessence of love is found in God’s Trinitarian nature. God is love precisely because he is Triune. An absolutely solitary god could not be loving because everything he did would be motivated by loneliness, weakness, or selfishness.[1] God eternally existed as three distinct Persons in unity—a pre-creation relational environment. To miss this is to miss the glory and beauty of who he is. Fred Sanders explains, “God’s way of being God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simultaneously from all eternity, perfectly complete in a triune fellowship of love.”[2] Before God was Creator and Savior, he was a Father loving his Son (Jn 17:24). Michael Reeves says, “Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all His ways are beautifully Fatherly.”[3] All that He does is motivated by self-sacrificial love rather than narcissistic authoritarianism.

 Love Is a Giving of Self

Because He is eternally and perfectly sufficient in himself, creation should be understood as an overflow of the love that already existed rather than a result of God’s need for relationship. Michael Horton explains that “Whenever God acts toward creatures, it is out of complete satisfaction that he already enjoys as the Trinity.”[4] Rather than keep the glory of his essence all for Himself, He has displayed it for all to behold. Rather than keep the beauty of relationship all for himself, he has created man with the ability to experience it with him and each other. Millard Erickson defines God’s love as “the eternal giving or sharing of himself.”[5] Similarly, Louis Berkhof defines it as His “eternal self-communication.”[6]

It would have been selfish, even cruel, to create us without revealing himself. But God’s self-disclosure is intrinsic to creation; it is built-in by divine intention. Creation is itself an act of self-manifestation. He has revealed himself in a general way and a specific way. In general, he has displayed his glory for all to see and understand  in creation (Ps 19:1; Rom 1:20). He has shared his nature in the very fabric of our souls—creating us according to His own image and likeness, thereby giving us the ability to give and receive communication which is necessary for relationships (Gen 1:28-29). In a more specific way, He has revealed himself to man through verbal communication. He has spoken to the patriarchs and the prophets. He has given us written communication through the process of inspiration. Further, he has revealed himself in his Son and given his Holy Spirit to dwell within us. All of this is the generous giving of himself.

Love Is an Activity

Divine love further expresses itself in redemptive activity toward those he has set his grace upon. Love is God’s wholehearted and affectionate, covenantal commitment to his special, chosen people. This can be seen as early as the fall. As soon as Adam and Eve fell, God pursued them and covered their nakedness and shame. He brought Noah and his family safely through the deluge of his wrath. He plucked Abram out of the world’s polytheistic system. He delivered Israel from Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, guided them by a pillar of fire and smoke, and defeated their enemies.

In Genesis, the word for love (ahab) is used in the context of familial relationships. Then in Exodus Moses was told to say to Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, my firstborn. Let my son go that he may serve me” (Ex 4:22-23). God bore his people on eagles’ wings and brought them to himself (Ex 19:4). Deuteronomy 4:37 says, “Because he loved your fathers, therefore he chose their descendants after them. And he personally brought you from Egypt with his great power.” When his people failed to serve him in the Promised Land, he provided atonement in his Son. This was the apex of God’s loving activity. When the Old Testament speaks of God’s love, it refers back to his personal, redemptive activity on behalf of his people. Similarly, when the New Testament speaks of God’s love, it refers back to His provision of redemption through the self-giving, self-sacrificial death of his Son.


The eternal perfection of divine love, as well as its demonstration in space and time, undergirds and expands our understanding of love. Being completely satisfied in himself, he stands in need of nothing, but he has graciously given us the capability to to know, experience, feel, and give love. Further, he has shown us how to love in a tangible way. He has shown us that far from a self-centered feeling, love is an active and selfless giving of our entire being—a loyal commitment of ourself to another. We are to follow His example and give ourselves wholly to his glory and to our neighbor’s well-being.

We belong to him because of creation and redemption. We are twice His. We give ourselves to God’s glory because that is precisely what we created for. We serve him because that is precisely what we were redeemed for. God’s redemptive activity for us should be reciprocated by our obedient activity toward him. That our love is to be an activity is proven by the fact that the Scriptures consistently link loving God with keeping His commands and walking in his ways.[7] Just as he is wholly committed to our good, we are to be wholly committed to his glory.

Because of the image of God in all men, we are called to love our neighbor more than ourselves. Love is entirely excellent thoughts, words, and deeds directed toward the well-being of another that come at a high cost to self. The extent of your love can easily be measured by the extent to which you are willing to suffer for another. This was exemplified most clearly by Christ on the cross.

Ultimately, it is impossible for us to perfectly mirror the nature and quality of God’s love. He loves infinitely and we are finite. This is why the New Covenant was necessary. This why the Spirit was given to us—to unite us to the finished work of Christ and to assist us in our duty. This is why we are in need of future glorification—we are imperfect. All we can do in the present is depend upon God’s ordinary means of grace—Scripture, prayer, and fellowship—and follow Christ’s example. He loved his Father and was committed to His glory. He was self-giving in constant prayer. He loved and served others self-sacrificially. He is our Great High Priest who intercedes for us when we fall short of this command.

J. I. Packer has written, “For the Christian today, as for the Jews at Sinai, law-keeping is not an attempt to win God’s admiration and put him in our debt, but the form and substance of grateful, personal response to his love.”[8] Our life is one of worshipful gratitude, not work-based performance. We love Him because of who He is and what He’s done. We love because the quality of His love compels us to reciprocate it. Doing something imperfectly should not hinder us from pursuing it. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” You will never fulfill this command perfectly, but you should be excelling in your pursuit of it day by day. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

[1] Michael Reeves, “The Four Biggest Mistakes That Evangeicals Are Making Today,” YouTube. Online Video Clip,

[2] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 62.

[3] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 23.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 267.

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2006), 318.

[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 71.

[7] Ex 20:6; Deut 5;10; 7:9; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:16; Josh 22:5; Neh 1:5; Dan 9:4; Jn 14:15, 21, 31; 1 Jn 5:3.

[8] J. I. Packer, Keeping the 10 Commandments (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 31.

One thought on “The Essence of the Greatest Commandment

  1. Shane Haffey December 18, 2017 / 11:13 am

    Very well said and in full agreement. Only might humbly add that divine love is extended by an accompanying spirit of benevolence. Certainly love requires yet a pattern of emotionless sacrifice can only lead to dry, dutiful relating. Paul tells the Philippians, “God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Similarly with the Thessalonians he expresses his love in emotive filled language “So, being affectionately desirous of you..” Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and “loved” Him, no doubt with deep affection and concern for his well being. As redeemed image bearers the nature of divine love will accompany good will toward men. I for one need to be reminded of this.

    Liked by 1 person

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