This weekend was full: I was asked to be the Sunday speaker at a church missions conference. My assigned text? Matthew 22:37-39,
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: Your shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The decision by church leaders to focus here surprised me. I would have expected to develop the standard text for missions conferences—28:18-29—that begins, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” Yet I was delighted by their selection because the text gives church missions a proper motivational basis: love.
An MA student, Jonathan M, whose research thesis I supervised about a decade ago made the same connection. He examined the proper motivation for missions: Is it driven by duty? Or birthed out of love? His answer was that Christian mission begins in God’s heart, in the love that pours out of the Triune communion.
I didn’t have Jonathan’s thesis with me but the central premise was strong and easy to recall: much of modern missions is defined by duty, but the truly biblical basis for missions is in the divine love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
And we must not to stop there. In the very next verse we find Christ’s elaboration of his Father’s purpose for humanity: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God’s plan, then, was formed upon these foundations: 1. His love. 2. His willingness, in that love, to give up his Son. 3. His ambition in this love to save people from the throes of spiritual and, eventually, physical death. And, 4. To bring into the Triune life all who respond to this love, since his life, alone, is eternal.
What holds people back from receiving this overflow of God’s love is another love: [T]he light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their works were evil” (3:19). God’s mission is to bring us to the Son yet most people prefer to love their independence from God. This independence is also a separation from his eternal life. It is to live in “darkness.” This desire for darkness, then, serves as their own exercise of self-judgment.
All that seems to be clear enough. Once it’s boiled down the problem Jesus raises here is that people don’t really like God! That’s not to say they don’t like what God offers—all his good gifts that come with the creation—but God, himself, leaves them cold. His moral light is too bright for those whose deeds are cheap and shabby; or, as in the case of men like Nicodemus (his immediate audience), whose deeds are meant for human glory but are not aligned with God’s glory [see both John 5 and 12 on this].
So the moral barrier for the disaffected non-believer is immense and only the Father is able to draw anyone out of stubborn disaffection and into a love for the Son. Yet today he is pleased to use us who already love the Son as his agents. I’m afraid, though, that the church, herself, has also built a needless barrier by sometimes turning this mission of love into a grinding duty.
How so? I believe that the language of “commandment” in Matthew 22, and elsewhere, causes many people to miss that this calling is birthed in the love we have just seen. This because we tend to link commandments to our willpower. So that the “greatest command” is read as “our greatest task.” And with that we can slip into sending out moralists to warn the world of their duty to obey God. In the moralist framework it’s not that obedience saves the missionary’s target audience, but—given the focus on our own willpower—obedience signifies that they are probably saved.
But are they truly saved if they fail to reciprocate God’s self-sacrificing, affective love? How many of the Pharisees were, in fact, outstanding commandment-specialists, yet without love? Isn’t the call to an affective love the point of 1 John 4—that God’s love for us first captures us and then spills out as a love for others? And that our love for God and for neighbor signals our genuine participation on his life of love—a life overflowing from the Triune, relational one, of whom John says, “God is love”?
How, then, does “command” undermine the meaning of love for some? By a widespread Stoic bias that treats commands as ultimately located in our will; with our will then seen as the overseer of our unreliable affections. When this tradition is in play, the command-keeping Stoics will take a text like John 14:21—”Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me”—to turn Christ into a moralist, and love into a task. And with such a defective version of Christ comes a sense that spirituality is formed in duties rather than in desires; from our self-moved will and not our Christ-moved affections.
The portrayal of God’s mission in John 3 helps us to get it right. And in Matthew’s gospel—where we started—we find that the Triune initiative is also located in God’s love. In Christ’s baptism, the Spirit descends on the Son and the Father proclaims, “this is my beloved Son”. So, too, on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (chapters 3 & 17). The Father offers his love by sending us his Son whom he loves and whom he calls us to love, with him. So it is that in Matthew 28, the so-called great commission is expressed in the context of the Trinity—”in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The word “command”, then, must be read as a feature of God’s love. The command is no different from a marriage counselor’s call to a husband whose heart has gone cold: “Love your wife!” The call is to revive that which has been buried in the debris of false loves. In Matthew 22 Christ is calling us to respond to the Spirit’s work as he breathes new life into the spiritual corpse left by Adam’s fall. The Lover calls out to us to love in return.
Implicit in all this is that our freedom is located not in our “free will” but in our “free hearts”—hearts that abandoned God as we, in Adam, became lovers of self rather than lovers of God. It was displayed in Adam’s newfound self-awareness as a man “naked” before God—when he had once, in love, been unselfconscious before God.
God will never force us to love him. But he calls us to the love we were first made for. For those of us who have heard God’s heart, our deepest desire is to share that love with others: this is a proper basis for Christian mission, something God’s heart supports.
Thanks for this post, Ron. What you describe here is yet another of my previously-held perspectives that has changed as a result of the Bible read-through! I’ve passed this post on to the leader of the mission team with which my daughter will be, Lord willing, heading to Kenya again this year, as well as some others in missions leadership. Thanks for the encouragement.