This should trigger discussion in your small group: What does it mean to love God?
I mean, it might be important if Jesus placed it in the top two: love God + love people.
What comes to mind? Worship songs? A visitor might draw that conclusion, based on the effort churches devote to music.
But loving a sovereign isn’t just singing his praises. To love Christ as God’s anointed leader is to recognize his authority over us. The opposite of loving God would be declaring our autonomy, refusing his direction. We love God as we engage in the community that exists in his anointed (in Christ), with the Spirit’s power at work among us.
Our problem is that the English word love is so broad it’s almost meaningless. We use love to describe soldiers at war (sacrificial love), erotic pleasure (making love), charitable acts (loving the poor), familial greetings (love and best wishes), and minor preferences (I love jazz).
The word love often expresses my feelings. I love getting likes on Social media. I love how you make me feel. I love the dance vibe. I love feeling God’s presence in worship. Maybe our church music makes me feel good about God?
But that isn’t what loving God means in Scripture. Jesus expressed his deepest love for the Father the day he was crucified. It didn’t feel good.
So what does loving God mean?
The Law and the Gospels
The language of loving God turns up first in the Jewish creedal prayer called the Shema:
Deuteronomy 6 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. (NIV)
So, loving God means obeying his commandments? That sounds weird to Christians who think of the gospel as the opposite of the Law. Yet loving God is consistently about obeying in Deuteronomy (see 10:12; 11:1, 22; 19:9; 30:6, 10, 20).
And when Jesus spoke of loving God, he quoted Deuteronomy (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30-33; Luke 10:27). The context was commandments, and loving God meant obeying God. For Jesus personally, to “love the Father” meant to “do exactly what the Father has commanded” (John 14:31).
We find this puzzling because we’re not thinking of God as our king.
An unfolding kingdom
If God is king, his subjects love him by doing as he says. To love the king is to live as the kind of kingdom that reflects the king’s character. The people who honour the king with their obedience are those who love him. Regal obedience is love for the king.
When God rescued Jacob’s descendants from human rule and established them as the first nation under divine rule, they responded to his commands by agreeing to be his covenant people. Loving God (Deuteronomy 6) is responding to his foundational commands (Deuteronomy 5).
Three Psalms develop this notion of loving God:
- Psalm 18 begins with King David declaring his devotion to the ultimate ruler as the source of his power: “I love you, Lord, my strength” (18:1). This sustains David and his people, so the Psalm concludes by declaring God’s unwavering devotion to David, his “unfailing love to his anointed” (18:50). David’s love for God is his commitment to God’s committed love to David.
- Psalm 31:23 calls for the same response from God’s people. To “love the Lord” is to be “faithful” to him, to be “true to him.” To refuse to love the Lord is to be “proud,” unsubmitted to the heavenly king’s authority, in opposition to the heavenly king.
- Psalm 91:14 belongs to the period when the Davidic kingship had fallen apart, when Israel had ceased to exist as a nation. Nevertheless, God promised to rescue those who “love me,” i.e. the people who “acknowledge my name.” Loving God is recognizing his kingship, the authority of his name.
Truth is, the Psalms and the Prophets speak much more about God’s unfailing love for his people than they do about us loving him. So how will God’s kingship over the earth be restored when people have gone their own way and don’t recognize his authority over us?
That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus is God’s love for us: for God so loved the world that he gave us his Son, rescuing all who trust him to lead us. Jesus reconciles because he is both God’s love for us and our love for God. He was one of us, loving the Father by doing as he commanded — the king fulfilling the law for his people. In Jesus’ own person, God’s love for humanity and humanity’s love for God came together.
As the world is restored into God’s kingship, love for God is realized. To those who recognize his kingship (love him), God holds out the hope of a world regenerated as his kingdom.
This kingdom theme underpins the New Testament depiction of what it means to love God:
- James 2:5 declares that God’s reign comes to those who recognize his kingship. It is those who richly trust Christ’s leadership (“rich in faith”) receive “the kingdom he promised to those who love”
- James 1:12 calls us to persevere through the troubles of a world that doesn’t yet recognize Christ’s reign, because his kingship will come: we will “receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love”
- Romans 8:28 says “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” since the restoration of the world under his anointed is the purpose for which he called us.
- 1 Corinthians 2:9 exults in the hope of what the world will be when it recognizes Christ as king: “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ — the things God has prepared for those who love”
- 1 Corinthians 8:3 declares that those who recognize God as our sovereign (in contrast to the idols of this world) will receive God’s recognition: “Whoever loves God is known by God.”
- 1 John 4:20 insists that we don’t love God if we don’t love each other. Our claim to love God is fake news if we do not obey his “command,” his regal decree that we love one another. Our king is not asking us to do anything he has not already done for us: “We love because he first loved us” (verse 19, previously explained in verses 9-12).
In every case, love for God has to do with recognizing his authority as king. To love God is to recognize his sovereignty over us, to live as the kind of community he desires.
The unfailing love of the heavenly king towards his earthly realm is what guarantees our future, a world rescued from war and violence, every form of power-grabbing that is inconsistent with loving our heavenly sovereign.
The heavenly sovereign showed his love for us by sending his one and only Son, the Prince of Heaven, into the rebellious world, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9). Our love for God is therefore a response to his love for us: we love because he first loved us (4:19). That’s why loving God is expressed by living as his kingdom, by loving one another (4:20).
Loving God is recognizing his regal authority, giving allegiance to the one he anointed to lead us, Christ Jesus our Lord.
Wondering how to locate verses on loving God? In Logos 8, the Clause search finds verses where “God” is the object of a verb that has the sense “to love.” The search string is:
verb-sense:to love (care) AND object:God
This search returns 16 verses from the OT, and 16 from the NT:
- Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12; 11:13, 11:22; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20; Joshua 22:5; 23:11; 1 Kings 3:3; Psalms 18:2; 31:24; 31:24; 91:14; Isaiah 56:6.
- Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30, 33; Luke 10:27; John 14:31; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 2:9; 8:3; James 1:12; 2:5; 1 John 4:10, 20 (x2), 21; 5:1; 5:2.