To the Heart
Let’s get to the heart of the matter: What does God really want out of us? Are there clear statements in Scripture that hit the bull’s eye of God’s expectations for us as individuals? There certainly are, and many of them, but centuries of religious obfuscation, traditions, incense, stained glass, and theological fog blowers have all but hidden them. Getting to the heart of God’s desire for us is probably our most important responsibility.
The other day I opened the box of a simple electronic device I’d purchased. There was an abundance of printed material I was expected to read. I waded through page after page of disclaimers and warnings—all the usual boilerplate stuff to ward off lawsuits—anxious to find the simple instructions on how to make this gadget do the job. Finally, many pages later, I get to the heart of the matter, which is all I wanted from the start. I didn’t really care reading about all the manufacturer’s worries, warnings, requirements and CYA stuff, I just wanted to get the thing to work properly.
People seeking to learn more of God and answer questions about their eternal future usually link up with a ministry or church for help and guidance. Sometimes they receive good help, but often they find themselves simply enmeshed in the business of church and religion. Their original seeking after the big questions is assumed to be met by involvement in the social life and work of a particular religious group. The new member learns the doctrines and expectations of the group, assuming these are all biblical and God-generated, and settles into the business of being a Christian, as he has learned in church. I must wonder, how many church goers have really gotten to the heart of the matter . . . biblically? How many have become lost in religious “paperwork,” paging through company (church) material fully content that the preacher will tell them what it all means and what God expects of them.
Should the basis for your eternal future be subcontracted out to a preacher or religious group? It’s not critical that a religious leader knows what God requires, it’s critical that you and I know for ourselves. Let’s not get lost in religious do’s and do not’s, ancient church creeds, and denominational expectations; let’s get to the point of what God wants of us, which may not be the same thing.
I bring no new doctrine or hidden passage just discovered. God has from the beginning put what is most important in his dynamic relationship with us squarely in front of our eyes. He has made it number one, served it up first and foremost. Why then has it been so difficult for people to focus on what is number one? Our Creator laments,
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:8).
Man’s religious inclination easily leads him to do sacrifice and offerings. They are external and religious and the thought is that they should make God happy and merit his blessings. Yet God has never sought religious performance as an end, whether law obedience, liturgical rites, or good works. He has always laid claim to the whole man, to personal commitment, to interior conversion.
Knowledge of Yahweh and mercy invite a profoundly inward fellowship of love and trust with Him, which then determines life in its totality. This is possible to the man who is ready for interior conversion; it has nothing to do with indulging oneself in pious feelings and “being religious.”
The prophet Micah confirms that Yahweh is not thrilled by offerings of thousands of rams and rivers of oil. These are to be but symbols of an inward offering of ones’ heart and soul to God. Typically, people miss the point and do the easy thing and ignore the real thing.
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does Yahweh require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
To act (man must act in response to God’s love) justly means to practice righteousness personally and toward others. To love mercy describes a core virtue of personality/character that is akin to God’s nature. Mercy (Hebrew, hesed) is a powerful word with a complex of meanings including kindness and contains an element of reciprocity—if you receive it you must show it in return, much like the principle of forgiveness. To walk humbly with your God is to walk/live circumspectly, or wisely, being careful to follow His will. Life is a walk with God that involves knowing him and willingly surrendering one’s will to a relationship of love and trust.
First is First
The first and greatest commandment is such because God declared it so. It is not hidden but brightly lighted like a giant blinking neon sign on the highest building in town. It reads:
Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut 6:5).
It is prefaced with the powerful command to sit up and hear this!
Hear (Heb. Shema), O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.
When Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment he did not stutter or ponder for an answer. He spoke directly using the wording from Deuteronomy:
“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” (Mark 12:29-30).
The King James Version (and many others) rightly employ the legal idiom “Thou shalt” in the first commandment to love God to drive home the basic claim of God which is greater than all law. It emphasizes in a way impossible to ignore that God’s aim is to influence the will and decision of the individual person. God is after the center of our being. He established Torah as a practical guide for the man who wishes to set God up as the supreme director of his whole being.
Any legalistic misunderstanding of the command to love God is countered by the great biblical stress laid on the demonstration of God’s love for man. God chose to love man before man loved God. He chose individuals as his beloved and chose an enslaved nation to be his people before they responded with righteous actions. He gave tiny Israel his Torah as a token of their special position of favor. To obey the law thus is man’s response of love to Yahweh’s act of election.
The demands of God—his Torah which is the path of Godly living—can never be considered as something foreign to man’s love for God. That is why Jesus was able to use the same form of words, “Thou shalt,” to express the ultimate decision demanded of him (and us) by God. The second greatest commandment echoes the all-embracing concept of love: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev 19:18).
These love commands, framed in legal phraseology, should rid us of the idea of law as a rigid definition of limits upon social relations. Instead, law (Torah, God’s instructions) has the role of a guide, giving detailed, concrete directions for a far higher level of moral life rising to the level of the very heart of God. There has been a perverting of law into an external legalism, a practice the prophets of God attacked. The law, according to Scripture, is to be understood as the application and practice in real-life situations of the primary command of love.
The heart of the matter is the motivation of love; the path that love takes is defined by Torah. God wants you to share his heart of love and by your freewill and decisions lived by his righteous standards.
To God’s Heart
My favorite passages of Scripture are the ones where God’s heart is described, sometimes in his own words. Why favorites? Clearly my future is in his hands and my hope rests in him. It is critical that I know what he is like, what is his heart and attitude toward me. God leaves us without doubt in this matter.
This is what Yahweh says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understand and knows me, that I am Yahweh, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares Yahweh (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Here God tells us that the greatest achievement worth boasting about in one’s entire life should be knowing and understanding God. In this God reveals his heart which governs all he does; a heart motivated by kindness, justice, and righteousness. He delights in these virtues of character and wants them to be internalized by his sons and daughters made in his image.
I’ve composed a little mantra that I say to myself to help keep my focus for life. It goes like this:
To know God is to love him. To love him is to desire to become like him.
Our efforts should be toward knowing God and understanding how we can become in his image.
Some are surprised that the OT contains spiritual, moral, social, and ethical commands and not just external, legalistic rules. They shouldn’t be for the NT is inspired by the same Spirit of God that worked with people in the OT.
This is what Yahweh Almighty says: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor, in your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zechariah 7:9-10).
True religion has always been a heart religion. Jesus chastised the religious hypocrites for complying with the niggling details of certain aspects of the law but missing its heart and purpose—like fussing over how to fold the napkins but never serving the meal. He said,
“You have neglected the more important matters of the law [Torah]—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
God’s intent from the get-go has been to give his image-bearers his heart, his character, his love. But for that to happen his son and his daughter must want it to happen as a matter of decision and will. God will then fashion and form in them his character. This is a miracle and the most important work on God’s agenda. He expresses it in “New Covenant” terminology.
Then the nations will know that I am Yahweh, declares the Sovereign Lord when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws…you will be my people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:23, 26-28).
God’s intent for Israel, besides their conversion, was to be his example to the world of how a righteous people should live before their God—a light to the world. Well, for the most part they disappointed God and didn’t live up to their calling. But the plan of God is still on track and will in the end flourish. Why? Because it is right, good, and God and his Son are working it.
“The time is coming,” declares Yahweh, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…. This is the covenant I will make … I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34).
We may be on the brink of that new age, but as a world, we are not there yet. However, as individuals we can be there! It remains God’s plan to use his sons and daughters, who have experienced interior conversion and who manifest his Divine Nature, to lead the world to him. In this mission we follow the example of God’s firstborn, Jesus, by turning the hearts of men toward God.
In this we must first understand for ourselves the basic desire and demand of the Divine Will is the surrender of the whole person to God. This is the counsel of the love of God who has ordered all things for the sake of his people’s salvation and eternal fellowship with him. God accepts no keeping of the commandment just for the commandment’s sake, desiring rather to see in each fulfillment of the law the living effect of a single-minded profession of love for God and neighbor.
You in God’s History
You have a history; God has a history. God’s is the history of his actions that tell us about him that he is both Creator and Redeemer. We know him by his fruits, by what he has done through his mighty works. In this we can trust him that he has the power to give us eternal life and the loving heart to want to do so.
God is not static but is active and engaged in bringing about his Grand Plan, of which you and I are somehow a part. Somewhere we fit. Right now we are living and sharing God’s life. Before we were born we didn’t share life with God and after we are dead we will be part of God’s history, safely waiting to be made live again.
I find it helpful to see that we are part of God’s life and for a brief span of human existence we share his history. God is not actively thinking about or working with Abraham or David or Peter for they are dead—“sleeping” being the term Paul uses for their awakening is pending. Jesus said that God is not the God of the dead but the living[i]. He was discussing the resurrection and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are clearly dead in human reality, but not in God’s reality. For he has already promised them eternal life and so in God’s reality, which is the only reality that ultimately matters, these patriarchs are alive forever more; they just need to be awakened by a resurrection. These patriarchs all entered the life of God almost four millennia ago and are part of God’s history then just as you and I are presently. In fact, God welcomes being identified with his past servants as he expressed to Moses in the burning bush:
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
God has a history and the most important aspects of it involve his beloved servants. Peter updates God’s time line of history by the event of Jesus’ resurrection to eternal life.
“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus…[and] raised him from the dead.”[ii]
God is not outside space (creation, location) and time as some philosophers postulate. They think that a dynamic God active in time and space somehow limits or diminishes him. Well, maybe their metaphysical image of God is diminished, but I suggest they have an erroneous image. God is time, that is, time is nothing more than the ongoing life of God against which all events are measured and have their place. He inhabits space which he made and starts the clock of man’s involvement in his life/time with seven numbered days in Genesis the first chapter. Time is not a limiting factor to God, his life is what gives time relevance and upon which are marked the events of his history with man.
Scripture represents God as having a history. The literal truth of Scripture’s representation of God pictures him having a history of dealings here below. An historical God is a real God, not of myth, but of fact and history. The Bible represents God as having a history of action, knowledge and response. To these we can place dates: Creation, flood, calling of Abraham, deliverance from Egypt, David’s kingdom, national captivities to Assyria and Babylon, the birth and ministry of Jesus, the acts of the apostles—the effects of their ministry continuing to the present. You and I enter God’s life when we are born; we join his time line for a brief 40, 60, 80, or a few more years. It is precious time in God’s ongoing life that we must not squander.
During this short life we have the privilege of coming to know him and becoming like him in his righteous character and heart of love. This should be our number one focus for life…which is why God identified it as the First Commandment.
Why shouldn’t we put ourselves, mentally and emotionally, in God’s history? He is alive and active now and is after you…all of you. This is our time. This is our day of salvation. This is our wondrous opportunity to fulfill the First Commandment, to get to the heart of the matter, to answer the big question of why we exist and what God wants out of us. He wants to add your name to that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Becoming One with God
Jesus prayed to his “Holy Father” that his disciples would come to have the same relationship he enjoyed with his Father. That, of course, would mean that they have come to love God with all their mind, heart, and strength.
I pray for them, I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given, for they are yours. …So that they may be one as we are one. …I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you loved me.”[iii]
What should Christians unite around? If not the First Commandment, then what? Sects, cults, denominations, independent groups will never unite around a list of doctrines or practices, however good and noble they may be. History should teach us that. However, at the heart of things we all stand as individuals before God’s face. He reveals to us that he expects us to become like him, to take on his Divine Nature[iv], to live the First and Greatest Commandment.
From his walk with his first son and daughter in Eden, to his walk with you, to his walk with redeemed mankind in New Jerusalem, he has always desired the same thing.
“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).
The heart of the matter is to make God the exalted master and Father of your life, to become like him in loving character and action. In short: the divine-human relationship means the surrender of the whole man which is so perfectly described in the Greatest Commandment. Let the Godly life start there.