Alfred Place Baptist Church

12:28-34 The Most Important Commandments (i)

Mark 12:28-34 “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’ ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”

Representatives of various groups came to the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, during the last days of his life, when he was there in the temple and they tested him with their questions. We can thank God that this happened because Jesus’ answers have been to the enrichment of the church ever since. It was God in his providence who caused this particular teacher of the law to come and hear the Lord dealing with the other three groups. We are told that as he listened he thought, “What good answers Jesus gives!” (v.28), and so, though he was all alone, he felt encouraged to approach Jesus and bring a question that was troubling him.

One of the reasons that these question and answer sessions were orchestrated by God was for our sake today. There was going to be a congregation in Wales almost 2,000 years later who would need to listen to Jesus’ answers and really think about them. God was going to bring great good out of these pettifogging men who fell on our Lord trying to trap him with their questions. We can all receive enormous help from the answers Christ gave. Some of you may actually receive salvation – may it be so. Those critics of Christ didn’t plan it like that; little did they think that their scorn of the Saviour was going to bring good to the whole church for centuries. Let’s be encouraged by that fact; God makes the wrath of men to praise him. Out of those sinners – who would have eaten Jesus up and spat him out their mouths – actually came food for the church.

So Mark tells us that listening to Jesus was this individual who was a teacher of the law. These men were the experts in studying the Torah. They were not ‘Temple men’ like the Sadducees. They were men of the Word, the people who’d started synagogues after the Exile, and they had three titles; they became known as ‘scribes’ because they preserved the law by writing out copies of the rulings of the ancient rabbis; secondly, they were called ‘teachers of the law’ because they gathered around them boys and young men in rabbinical schools instructing them in the law, also lecturing in the courts of the Temple; and thirdly they were called ‘lawyers’ because they were the men who passed judgment on disputes in the nation.

1. WHAT THE GREATEST COMMANDMENTS ARE.

One of these men approaches Jesus, and he was not antagonistic like the others. At the end of his encounter with Christ he is commended. For the first time since Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem a solitary person is talking to him rather than a group of men. He asked the Saviour this genuine question, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (v.28). The rabbis claimed that there were actually 615 commandments in the Torah which consisted of 365 ‘Thou shalt not’s’ and 248 ‘Thou shalt’s.’ But there was other categories into which they divided the law, ‘heavy’ commandments and ‘light’ commandments.

Which commandment was the most important of all? I don’t think that that is a sinful question. There are sinful questions, for example, “How little need I believe in order to be a Christian?” We refuse to answer that because it shows a wrong attitude. There are many gripping questions to ask God, and this is one that the scribe brought to Jesus; we wish we had the privilege he had. Here is another question which we’d like to have brought (and you can think of your own), “What is the most important attribute of God?” His holiness? His power? His triune nature? His love? His grace? If the scribe had asked Jesus that question what a fascinating answer we’d have heard, but as a lawyer his interest was in the commandments of God.

The Bible has some lists of important commandments and virtues. Preeminently there are the ten commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Then in Psalm 15 where eleven virtues are listed; “Psalm 15, a psalm of David. LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbour no wrong, and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man, but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury, and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.” Those are important virtues.

Or again in Isaiah 33:15 and 16 the prophet lists his top six, “He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil – this is the man who will dwell on the heights.” Again, the prophet Micah lists three in Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Again, the prophet Isaiah mentions two in Isaiah 56:1, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand .'” Or the prophet Habakkuk emphasises just one in his prophecy, chapter 2, verse 4, “but the righteous will live by his faith.” These are good Old Testament summaries of godly living, but what was Jesus Christ’s answer to the question as to the greatest of all commandments? It was nothing like them; I suppose they were not theocentric enough. “‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these'” (vv. 29-31).

The problem for us is that these words have become so familiar to us; they have lost the revolutionary impact they had on this scribe and on the apostles too as they were listening in. There must have been a sharp intake of breath as they heard Jesus’ words; “Where does he get it from? Isn’t that amazing?” they thought to themselves.

There are certain places in the Old Testament where God urged the people to love him, and then in other places God had also exhorted them to love one another, but never in human history, before the Lord Christ gave this answer, were these two commandments combined in this way and magnified and exalted by the Son of God. Jesus is not quoting a verse from the Old Testament. He is legislating concerning the greatest commandment on the basis of his own independent authority. No other rabbi had ever said that the centre and sum of the whole law was to love God with all your being and to love your neighbour as you loved yourself. This man was the first man in the world to hear these two commandments brought together like this.

Now it is obvious that one of the things that the Lord is doing in giving this response is to further undermine the significance of the temple. Do you see that? It is not in men being meticulous in keeping rituals and performing sacrifices that obedience to the greatest commandments of God is displayed. These words of Jesus continue to give impact to the new covenant movement heading away from Jerusalem and Judea and even Samaria. The gospel is on the move; it is going out to all men in the nations of the world. Loving the God and Father of the Lord Jesus and loving your fellow men is a message of centrifugal energy going out and out of this tiny temple and into the mainstream of history and to the uttermost ends of the earth. A stream was beginning to flow from Jerusalem that day which would still be flowing in Wales 2000 years later. Don’t you see how this teacher of the law immediately picks this up. He cries, “Well said, teacher. To love God and man like that is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v.33).

Notice how the Lord Christ gives a twofold answer. The primary commandment is to love God, but if you absolutise you can distort; it can lead to religious hedonism; but neither is the great command exclusively in loving man, for that will lead to humanism. The greatest command is twofold, both to love God, and also to love your own neighbour, but in that order of priority. That is the good life; that is man’s chief end. This reply gives me a clue as to how Jesus might have answered my question, “What is the greatest attribute of God?” He might have replied definitively, “God is light” because John in his first epistle says that that is the message he had heard from Jesus and had given to his hearers, but then Jesus would have immediately added, “But God is also love,” and left us with that grander picture of the incarnate God. So the scribe asked the Lord what was the greatest commandment and that is how Jesus answered him. To break these commandments is the greatest sin. Today we will look at the first of the commandments to love God with all our being.

2. THE GREATEST OF ALL BEINGS IS GOD.

“Define God!” a smart-alecky student said to me grinning when I was taking a mission to Bangor University in North Wales. “God is a Spirit infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth,” I replied. He stopped grinning and slowly nodded his head. He didn’t know that it was the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s fourth answer that I was quoting to him. When Heiro the king of Syracuse asked Simonides the court philosopher, “What is God?” the man asked for a day to think about it, and then for two days, and then, two days later, for four days, and so on and on, constantly doubling the days he needed before giving Heiro an answer. He told the king that the more he thought of God the more unknown God was. But can any man by searching find God? No, he can’t. God has made himself known to us in creation and conscience, but especially by the prophets and in these last days by his Son.

So I don’t have to try to prove the existence of God to you because everyone of you is made in the image of God and you all have a sense of the Lord the mighty Creator. I live in order to know this God better and to preach him to you as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; this one true and living God has made himself known to us in the Bible. The supreme proof for the existence of God is the Lord Jesus Christ. God is because Jesus is. Let me say this, that if ever you begin to think you are losing touch with God, that he seems be getting rather remote, then Christologise your view of God. I’m saying to you to remember that one who said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” We know God supremely because of what we know of Jesus, and my heaviest obligation is never to stop crying to you, “Behold your God!”

David Wells the professor of theology at Gordon Divinity School has a friend who is a fellow theologian. The man said to him, “I never hear sermon about God.” What an indictment on the Christian church. Here is the most fascinating and glorious being of all and people are being starved of hearing about him, given instead ‘How to . . .’ sermons. What an infinity there is in the thought of God! What beauty there is in the idea of the true and living God. My greatest challenge is to magnify God in your hearing so that he seems more immense than ever before. I have to elevate him so that he is high and lifted up. The grandest thought your minds can entertain is the thought of God, and the weightiest word in your language or any language, must be the word for God. That your idea of God should correspond as nearly as possible to the true identity of God is immensely important. I was once witnessing to a girl and she pointed out a beautiful tree to me and said, “That is God to me. That is how I think of God.” That is what she said. But does the willow answer her when she speaks? Does it tell her how much it loves her? Does she long to live always beside it and lie in its bosom for ever and ever?

There is scarcely any error in belief or any failure in living that can’t be traced to imperfect thoughts about God. Low views of God destroy the faith. Once we give the wrong answer to the question, “What is God like?” then we are like a man driving a car very correctly but on the wrong side of a motorway. It doesn’t matter how carefully the man is keeping the speed limit, and smoothly changes gears or operates the brakes and lights and windscreen wiper, he is going the wrong way; he is facing all the oncoming traffic and death is before him.

Let me remind you of a couple of truth about this God whom we are to love with all our beings:

i] How immeasurably great is his love.

God is love! The thought has to fill every part of our lives; our hearts and souls and minds and spirits and affections are all to be flooded and washed to their recesses with this truth. The greatness of the love of God; the immeasurable greatness of the love of God. Think of it, for example, merely from the perspective of the people of God who today in their millions are meeting in congregations large and small all over the world. God loves them all as he has through all the countless generations that are now past. God loves his people, each and every one of them, from the least to the greatest. He so loves them that he has given his Son for them all in order to save them. How vast the love of God if it embraces such multitudes of men and women, as many as the sands on the seashore, and that he didn’t spare his Son that they might all live.

In love God has taken them aboard, that is, he has taken responsibility for their salvation, that is, for justifying them, and providing for them, and sanctifying them, and defending them, and preserving them, and glorifying them all. God has made a commitment to save not a little remnant but an innumerable multitude, and he loves them; he knows their names, and he cares about them. They all matter to him so much. He won’t rest until they are all with him. I may be a very ordinary Christian, a very immature believer, a very untalented person but God is my Husband; he loves me with a husband’s love. He says to me, “I shall use my God-ness for you. All my God-ness is yours. All my wealth if yours – the wealth of my attributes and functions and prerogatives – all of it is yours – it’s at your disposal. All I am is yours because I love you.” That is the commitment of God. Each of us has God’s undivided attention. He is for each one of us in the splendour of his resources. More than the love for his wife of the best husband in the world; more than the best mother loves her child is God’s love for us. He cares for me with a perfect love as though I were the only man on the planet. It is as if he were Robinson Crusoe and I were Man Friday; just the two of us with God loving me purely and fervently. Wonderful things in the Bible I see; this is the dearest that Jesus loves me. He loved me like this before I was born. When his Son was hanging in darkness on the cross then I was there too on his heart and mind. “I’m determined to give Geoff Thomas eternal blessedness,” – that is what he was thinking on Golgotha – the cross was all about me.

“My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity will not erase.
Impressed on his heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace.” (Augustus Toplady, 1740-1778)

He loved me and gave himself for me. Surely that is an end to all my sulking and sadness.

Here is a Lord passionately devoted to his people; he is committed to every one of them. Remember in Ephesians 5 we find the marvellous picture of Christ’s love for the church, and we are told that he nourishes and cherishes his people, and that is what the Lord’s love accomplishes. There is a marriage contract between him and them so that at every point of their lives, in all the activities of their youth as in all the weakness of old age his love is always regulating the relationship. He is bestowing his love upon them exceedingly abundantly above what they ask or even dream of. It’s that love which caused him to give himself for his people. It is the gift of Christ that is the measure of God’s love more so than the vast numbers of the saved. God’s love didn’t spare his only Son in his determination to save these people. Christ’s sublime sacrifice shows the lengths to which the love of God will go to have them with him for ever. We have no other experience of such a love. Our own souls are strangers to such generosity and commitment. There is nothing in human history that is comparable to the love of God. I cannot say, “Let me illustrate this by this example in nature, or this example in human history, or in the life of the angels in heaven.” The love of God is singular; it is like nothing at all. And so God is set before us as immeasurable and incomprehensible in his affection.

ii] How unimaginably vast is his mercy.

People today take the forgiveness of God for granted as though it were the most predictable of all the divine attributes, but in the Bible the mercy of God is breathtaking. That God should deal with sinners in a way that’s so different from what you’d expect – men who’ve caused such tremendous offense – is miraculous. There were times when the Old Testament church would shake their heads in wonder and say, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins.” You think of the experience of King David. We find his conscience burdened with the enormity of his own guilt. His desire has got a man’s wife pregnant, and David has arranged for that man to be killed. It was an action of total carnality, utter cruelty, terrible selfishness that would stop at nothing to get what he lusted for. Yet David dares to go to God and to ask God for forgiveness. Many are too proud to ask, and many wouldn’t forgive would they? They’d scorn a pardon as a mark of weakness. If a man had been hauled before David and found guilty of such reprehensible conduct would this king sitting on his throne of judgment have shown him mercy? But David is saying to God, “Don’t let the way I’ve behaved . . . don’t let that determine how you are going to deal with me. Please don’t let that conduct fix your attitude and relationship to me.” David is so conscious on the one hand of what his sickening behaviour merits, and yet on the other hand David is praying that God, because of his mercy, can deal with him in a way that isn’t determined by what he deserves.

Surely all of us today with our own pasts, carrying our own files, our lives before God so indelible, so irrecoverable, so irremediable, we’re crying, “Is there any hope at all for us?” Think of the prodigal son finding every door closed to him, and considering again the door of his father’s love, and slowly turning his back on the pigs and setting off home to cast himself on his father’s pity – the man he’s treated so shabbily. Yet his father runs to embrace him before he gets to the farm gate, weeping because his boy has come home. There is joy and renewed status and the robe and sandals and ring of sonship restored. The past is all forgiven; his son was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found. That is the mercy of God. Peter is restored to preach – “Feed my sheep, Peter.” Saul of Tarsus the torturer made a missionary.

I ask you, what is the thing that matters, that really matters in life? What is supremely important, that I can give my loyalty to it and pursue it all my life? “God!” the Bible says. The living God of the Bible, so loving, and so merciful. How precious is God to me! Today, are we all seeing him in that way? This is the most important and the sublimest thing that surrounds us anywhere in the whole universe, the mercy of God. That is what we single out as the most important reality in our world, not our spouses and not our families. There is nothing, not a single thing so precious to me as the love of God. It is immeasurable.

We go to him because his word tells us that men may come to him; bad people may come; prodigals may come. Sinners Jesus will accept. Christ receiveth sinful men! We have heard of God’s love and mercy, that he doesn’t deal with men as they deserve, and we go to him. The world is full of people who let you down. This town is full of broken relationships and broken promises. The weeping is about abandonment and loneliness, broken reeds and broken hearts. But we’ve heard that God never abandons; he never lets people down; he never breaks his promises. God forgives sinners, even the worst; he’s forgiven the very worst one. He does more for people than they could imagine. He doesn’t turn them away. He doesn’t command them, “Squeeze a few more tears out of your heart before you come to me.” We come to him as ordinary people – no one more ordinary – because he says we may come and put our trust under the shadow of his wing.

David came and said to God, “Lord, today, the only thing that I can say about my life . . . my yesterdays . . . last weekend . . . last month . . . last year . . . all I can say about it all is, ‘Please cover it.’ I never want it mentioned. Never talk to me about it again. Don’t bring it back to haunt me. I couldn’t bear it if you did. I want it left in the depths and remembered no more.” David comes to God and he asks God to do that because of God’s mercy. You’re aware that it’s a sad world, and a very empty world, more empty than many of you know, but out there, objective, and real, and pulsating with life, almighty and sovereign, there is the only God there is, and you might think, “What augustness, how wholly other he is, what majesty, what righteousness. He designed and created this inconceivably vast universe. He made the galaxy, the eye, the brain, the atom, and he is light, and he speaks with such awesome holiness in his law and to our consciences.” All that is true, but out there I tell you is a Being so tender, a heart so loyal, so generous and forgiving that the person in the world today whose life is in the biggest shambles imaginable, may go to this God and cast himself on his love and mercy, and ask him to forgive him and bless him, and God will be loyal to every word he has spoken, every promise he has made, and loyal to what his Son has done in becoming the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

I have a great problem, and that is the problem that I speak to such an odd group of people, a people who give me the impression that they’re trying to make themselves different and special so that God will show them mercy. You don’t want to come to God ordinary. You want to come to God erect, standing, head held high. But everyone I’ve known who comes to God comes kneeling. They come to God feeling very unqualified and unprepared, wishing they were more sincere, with more conviction, and more hunger and thirst for righteousness. They come to God feeling terribly unprepared, but many of you are odd because you are trying to prepare yourselves first. You won’t come ordinary. You wont come just as you are without one plea.

There are other very odd people who also listen to me, and they are afraid of being ‘saved’. They are afraid of a fit of emotion. They are afraid of religious embarrassment. They are more afraid of making fools of themselves because of Jesus than afraid of missing the Christmas Ball at the University, because they imagine being converted means no more dances, and that worries them far more than losing out on the love of God and a lost eternity. So they do all they can to avoid being forgiven. They wont go to God and say, “O God my life needs your mercy. My life with its appalling emptiness needs your love, but I’m a very ordinary person, and that’s how I’ve got to come to you. If I tarry till I’m better I will never come at all, so here I am. You must deal with me, and please deal with me in pity.”

This is the God whose Son is Jesus Christ, the God we stand before in our need today. This is the God of whom Jesus spoke and he said the greatest commandment was love him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

3. THOSE WHO HAVE COME TO THIS GREAT GOD WILL LOVE HIM.

You cannot love someone you don’t know, someone you’ve never met, someone you refuse to come to, someone you keep out of your life. There were twenty years during which time I never loved my wife. I confess that to you all here and now. I did not love her at all for twenty years. Not an ounce of love did I have for h er. Not an atom, and the reason for that was that I’d never met her. How can you love someone you’ve never heard of? She lived far away from me and our paths never crossed. I was totally loveless towards her. If someone had come to me and announced a name and address and commanded me to love this woman I’d have said, “No. That is only a name on a piece of paper. I don’t even know if she really exists.” We must know someone if we are to love them. We must know about their character, and their personality. We must know that they are lovable. Think of the people who fall in love through writing to one another on the Internet. They are drawn together through their self-disclosures. They tell another person about themselves, what they believe in, what their hopes and longings and plans are. They disclose their personalities. They share their lives with another and a growing affection develops. They want to meet this person; they want to talk to them on the phone, to hear their voice; they want to see a picture of this person. This is what God has done through his Son Jesus Christ and through his Word. Through the Christ of the Scriptures we can love God.

The people of Athens had erected an altar to the unknown god. Did they love this god? No they couldn’t love him. God must be known in order to be loved, but when you discover the true and living God then to know him is to love him. That is why I have spent my time with you today reminding you about him, the vastness of his love, God’s measureless mercy to all ordinary people who cast themselves upon him. How can you not love him? What flaw have you found in him? Tell us; we need to know. What has he failed to do for you? Tell us. There are spots on the sun, tell us of the spots you have found in him. What has spoiled him in your eyes? Why can’t you love my Jesus? Where has he let you down? How is he a failure? Where isn’t he nice? We believe that he is altogether lovely. We believe it is a sin not to admire him. More, not to love him. More, not to worship him. More, not to fall at his feet as though dead!

Think of the other religion in Britain today, the great rival to Jesus Christ, Sport, that huge idol and millions bowing before it. How it captivates and enthralls, and it does so because its participants care about sport to an utterly obsessive degree. Nasser Hussein, the former cricket captain of England has written his autobiography, “Playing With Fire.” He talks of the hold cricket had over him: ‘There was never the old chant you hear in schools like ‘it’s only a game; it doesn’t matter; it’s about taking part; it’s about enjoying it.’ It was about life and death.” Hussein lived for cricket and what did that obsession do for him? He says, “By the time I had resigned from international cricket I’d driven myself into the ground. I was suffering from symptoms of depression and irritable bowel syndrome and no aspect of my life remained untouched by it.” That’s what it cost to get his team to play better cricket. Such dedication is what the spectators want. They want sport to hurt. They insist that it hurts. They want great joy in victory; ergo, they insist on great anguish in defeat. They demand cruelty. They demand that their athletic heroes martyr themselves before their Idol Sport, then they sneer because they imagine he really exists.

I have told you of the living God, of his love and mercy and this must be the only fitting response, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” There is no other adequate reaction other than an all consuming love. It has to be an affectionate love, with all the heart. It must be a a sincere love, with all the soul. It must be an intelligent love, with all the mind. It must be an energetic love, with all the strength. It is an all-consuming love. What would you think of a bride standing here in the front on her wedding day whom I asked if she would take this man to be her lawful wedded husband, and she replied, “I will take his car, and his house, and his bank account, and credit card, and business.” She would be saying that she was prepared to take some of his things but not the whole man, not himself. Or if there were a groom standing here and I asked him if he would take this woman to be his lawfully wedded wife, and he said, “I’ll take her body and her inheritance,” then he would be saying no to the women herself, and yes to some of hers.

You would all reject such a marriage. But here is God, the mighty God of love and mercy and I am looking for a bride for him. Will you go with this man, Christ Jesus? Do you love him? You say, “I admire him.” It is not enough if you are to be his bride. Do you love him? “I love much about him.” It is not enough; do you love the whole Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, divine and human, two natures in one person, who has these three offices of prophet and priest and king? How do you love him? “I love him quite a lot” It is not enough. If you know that as a priest he died on Golgotha under the anathema of God when in your place condemned he stood then loving him quite a lot won’t do. Or when as your king he protects you, and provides for you and supplies all your need and makes all things work together for your good, then how can you say that you love him ‘quite a lot’? It is not enough. Or when as your teacher he explains how you may be saved by coming to him, and how you can have eternal life, and what is a life that glorifies and enjoys God, and what is the good life, and what lies after death, and what heaven is like – all the answers he gives utterly infallibly, and yet you say you love him ‘quite a lot’? It is not enough.

Love so amazing, so divine demands your soul, your life, your all. You cannot love God moderately. The only fitting response to this prophet and priest and king is to love him with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all our strength. You have to present your bodies as living sacrifices to him. Take all of me, you say to the Lord. You understand from all I’ve been saying to you that that is not the condition in which you come to him. You come to him ordinary! Just as you are, as a sinner who needs mercy. But all who’ve truly come to him and received his grace immediately love him and grow in loving the Lord more and more, not just a bit of him, not just for what they can get from him, not just giving him a part of their lives and keeping all the rest to themselves, but loving him with every part of their beings. And when they fail to do this, as we all do, yet still this is what we desire to do.

“Lord it is my chief complaint that my love is cold and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore; O for grace to love Thee more” (William Cowper, 17731-1800).

They would love him with every fibre of their beings. They would love God purely and passionately and totally and exhaustively and comprehensively, with him as their magnificent obsession. They would look at him and sigh, “What beauty . . . what magnificence . . . what purity . . . what power . . . what splendour . . . what life . . .what a God. There is none like thee; glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders. Behold, thou art fair my love; behold thou art fair . . . there is no spot in thee . . . my beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand .. . yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved and this is my friend; he is as fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.”

Do you love the beloved God in any way like that? Do you love money? Do you love this present world? Don’t you love God? You remember when Christ met with Peter who had denied him three times and even with curses. How did Jesus restore him? What counselling did he use? Did he posture, “Do you realise what you’ve done? All I’ve done for you . . . these wonderful three years I’ve given you, to end it in this way? How wretched of you! How could you treat me like this? Is that all I meant to you? One little woman starts to talk to you and you’re a changed man! Are you sorry for what you’ve done?” No. It wasn’t that, was it? It wasn’t like that at all. How many stormy marriages have ended because that’s the only way a heart without grace knows how to act? “How could you treat me like that?”

How different if the wronged person simply asks the guilty person just one question, “Do you love me?” “Yes. You know that I love you.” “Well the children need to be fed and put to bed.” Then there’s an attempt to apologise with a lump in your throat for the fall, and the hurt done and all the wretchedness, but it’s all brushed aside. “Do you love me?” That is the crucial thing. Then there is hope; there is the basis of reconciliation; there is the possibility of new life.

The living God wants to know if you love him. It is an extraordinary question. He needs nothing. He doesn’t need your love. He remains the most lovable Being in the universe whether you love him or not. Yet he asks if you love him. He asks in order that you begin to love him.

There was a man once travelling to Bath, and sitting opposite him there was a mother and a little girl. He talked to the little girl and told her stories and showed her his penknife, how it opened and closed. He even sang to her, and she loved her new companion. As they pulled into Bath and ready to leave the little girl looked up at him and said, “Do you love Jesus?” He didn’t understand her at first, and she repeated the question just as artlessly as the first time, “Do you love Jesus?” He stammered and blushed and said good-bye to her and her mother, but he couldn’t forget the question; “Do you love Jesus?” He went to bed that night and that question didn’t go away, “Do you love Jesus?” When he woke up the next morning it was still there. He once said it aloud when another member of his family was in the room. “Pardon?” they said. “Oh, I was . . . talking to a family as I travelled here . . . there was a little girl . . . and she asked me whether I . . . loved Jesus. Rather sweet.” The question was planted by the Spirit in his heart and it put down its roots. It demanded an answer.

Five years later he was walking through a part of Bath he rarely visited and he bumped into a lady coming out of her house. He recognised her as the mother of the little girl. “Hello!” he said to her warmly, “I don’t suppose you remember me. About five years ago I travelled in the same carriage as you and your daughter.” “I remember it well,” she said, “come in.” So he went into her house. “Do you remember that your daughter asked me a question as we were getting out of the carriage?” “I do indeed.” “How is she? Can I see her?” he asked. The woman looked away. Tears were in her eyes. “I’m sorry . . .” he said. “She is in heaven,” the mother said, “but come with me to her room.” She took him to her room and there were her Bible, and her dolls, and prize books, and some toys. “That’s all that’s left of my sweet Lettie,” her mother said. “No,” said the man quite vehemently. “That is not all that is left of her. I am left. I am left. I owe her my soul. I was an unbeliever when she asked me that question. I loved the world and I lived badly, but she asked me that question and I never could forget it, and since that time I have changed. I am not the man I was. I am now God’s. I can answer the question now. Don’t say that all of Lettie is gone.”

Now I say to you, to everyone here, “Do you love Jesus? Do you love God? Do you love him wholeheartedly and unreservedly, and will you go on loving him for ever and ever?” Then the greatest commandment of all you are fulfilling by God’s grace.

7th November 2004 GEOFF THOMAS