by Randy Fox
This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Following a battery of questions designed to entrap the Lord, one of the scribes asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28). The Lord quoted two Old Testament passages, one from Deuteronomy (6:4, 5) and the other from Leviticus (19:18) when He said that the greatest command is to love the Lord your God and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Of the 613 commandments in the OT (according to the rabbis), Christ picked the two commandments that contained the word “love.” When explaining the law, the Lord spoke in terms of love. Jesus is not claiming that love and law are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, He shows that love and law are inseparable in His kingdom. The command to love does not negate all other laws but rather explains and provides the reason to keep them. The command to love is the most basic feature of all the commandments in the Bible. All law “hangs” (Matt. 22:40) on the commandment to love, as it is the basic law of His kingdom. Any believer who forgets the most basic law of Christ’s kingdom will soon find himself at odds with the Word of God. Love is the most basic feature of all God’s laws.
A basic law expresses the paramount concern behind more specific laws. In California, like other states, we have traffic laws that are very specific regarding moving vehicles. There are specific rules for stopping, right of way, speed limits, etc. Many of these laws are posted on signs, and all are found in the motor vehicle code book. There is, however, the basic traffic law that trumps all other laws. The basic traffic law is “never drive faster than is safe.” Failure to heed this basic law can prove disastrous. For example, driving the posted speed limit in a dense fog or with children playing on the streets could result in a disaster. Though the specific law allowed you to go a certain speed, it would be foolish to insist on doing so. Should an accident occur, you could not claim innocence just because you were keeping the posted speed limit. The basic traffic law is always in force, and it was violated. There is more to govern the velocity of the vehicle you drive than just the speed limit on street signs. Everything gives way to the basic traffic law. And in a similar fashion an individual Christian who tries to operate without the “basic law of love” endangers himself and others as well.
One church that failed to practice these first commandments was the church at Corinth. They really didn’t understand what it meant to love, so Paul had to give them a lengthy explanation in 1 Corinthians 13. It is here we see what an unloving church (or Christian for that matter) really looks like. While one might expect a loveless church to be preoccupied with external rules, that is not the case here. Their lack of love was characterized by laxity rather than strictness. Among other problems in the church Paul spends two chapters dealing with friction caused by eating food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8, 9). While Paul acknowledges there is a lack of specific revelation regarding this matter, he steers them back to the basic commandments to love God (1 Cor. 10:31) and to love your brother (1 Cor. 8:13; 10:33). Their problem was not a lack of knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1) but a lack of love. Love manifests itself with a willingness to deny ourselves for the sakes of others (1 Cor. 9:24). While the Corinthians claimed they were not violating any written laws and were thus at liberty to do what they wanted, they refused to consider the basic law of Christ’s kingdom. The basic commandments to love God and your neighbor apply to every situation.
The actions and decisions of a Christian who refuses to consider the basic law of love become very self-centered. Without love as the determining factor, right or wrong degenerates into a matter of “how I feel about it” or “what I want.” Justification for worldly practices is often defended by a lack of specific commandments in Scripture. The refusal to obey the basic law to love God and love others is often the root of the problem. Without obedience to the basic commandment, Christianity is not only unattractive, it is detrimental to the cause of Christ. In those areas where we may lack specific commandments, we still have the opportunity to obey the Lord by keeping the basic commandment to love. Rather than trying to excuse ourselves in the name of Christian liberty, it may be best to deny ourselves in the name of Christian love. There are times when the only way to resolve a matter is to lay down the law of love.
Randy Fox has been pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Orange County, California, for twenty-five years. He also pastors Fellowship Baptist Church on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.