For a long time an old set of Bible encyclopedias sat on the bookshelf down in the den of my parent’s house. They were like part of the furniture, untouched and all but unnoticed. A couple of times as a bored teen, I opened them. They were illustrated with dramatic paintings—strange stuff to me. Flipping through those pages was like fast-forwarding through a Lord of the Rings video.
Someone rode up to heaven in a flaming chariot. A buff man strangled a lion. A boy killed a giant with a rock. A huge fish swallowed somebody and then coughed him up. An angel got into a wrestling match with a guy. Three fellows were thrown into a pit of fire and survived it without being burned.
Years later I decided the Bible might actually be worth reading. But I can’t say my comprehension necessarily got better when I finally cracked it open. I picked the most challenging plan for a novice Bible reader, the one that starts from the beginning and goes chapter by chapter, in order, as it marches all the way to the other side.
At first the colorful stories of creation, Noah’s ark and Moses parting the Red Sea held my attention, but three-quarters of the way through Exodus (only the second book of sixty-six), the narrative seemed to bog down in too many details about tent building, killing and cooking animals, and sundry items I could not see the sense in exploring.
Still, what was a good-hearted unsupervised guy to do, but try to obey what he read? So I did and it was a discombobulated mess. I patched together poorly understood thoughts and plenty of wrongly applied precepts. Wove together Old and New covenants as though there were no differences between them. The result was a religious life for me that looked like an old Volkswagen Beetle with tail fins and fog lights duct taped onto it. The whole thing didn’t flow right.
Needless to say, my “new life” collapsed under its own weight after a few weeks. The last straw came one night after a twenty-four hour fast and Sabbath—a couple of things I had read about, interpreted poorly, and also added to my tool belt. Bored and starving, I counted down the last ten minutes of Sunday. At exactly twelve-oh-one, I tore into a box of dehydrated apricots that had been sitting in my room and completely devoured it. (Don’t ever splurge that way on food products with laxative-like properties. I won’t furnish any details, just trust me on that one.)
Afterwards the thought started sneaking up on me that I was not cut out to be religious. I couldn’t figure what went where, how to do it, or why. The more of the Bible I read, the worse the tangle became.
The Old Testament especially, is not an easy book. No one will deny the complexity of it—the precepts and judgments that act as its backbone, cryptic prophecies, mysterious sayings, genealogies, histories, and laws that number in the hundreds. At first glance the whole thing is like a city road map, filled with streets as haphazard and numerous as a pile of angel hair pasta.
Even the ancient Jews who received it tended to navigate it poorly. Academics among them actually found it a popular endeavor to hunt for the overriding concern of those thirty-nine books. Could the commandments of God be ranked in order of importance? All believed it so. Many tried. Only one succeeded.
The Bible records the moment when someone challenged Jesus to do it. A scribe asked Him, “Which is the first [preeminent] commandment of all?” (Mk. 12:28). That’s an amazingly difficult question because it asks for an on-the-spot reduction of the Old Testament down to one sentence. In effect it was asking Jesus to locate Main Street among all the thousands of thoroughfares and service roads. The Gospel of Matthew adds that this question was a test (22:35).
If Jesus were the Messiah, He would be able to answer with authority. The mark of a true master is his ability to simplify his field to the point even a child can understand it. That means compacting everything into one bullet point, whether plasma television repair, microbiology, calculus, Federal tax codes or, as in this case, the most profound of all—the oracles of God.
Jesus did it. He identified the single overriding command that sums up all the others, that furnishes the “why” of it all—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:29). Not missing a beat, he added the unavoidable attachment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30).
Two thousand long years have passed since that answer was given, but the importance of it hasn’t dimmed a bit. Today Christians find themselves afloat on a sea of issues. Along with the Great Commandment’s call for a love relationship with God, and the way to enter it through faith in Christ, we’ve accumulated extras galore. If you get tired of working up a sweat over any of them, then there are debates about end time prophecies, spiritual gifts, politics, ways of doing church, and modes of baptism.
If you want to know which is the right form of worship, I can slip you a phone number to call, and the person who answers will give you a righteous thrashing if you happen to be on the wrong side of the debate. Those of us who survive the holy headlocks, noogies, wedgies, pepper bellies, and Indian burns we give each other, can fall into some serious disillusionment.
After getting up off the floor and slicking your hair back, it’s a great time to ask Jesus this question again: “What is the first commandment of all?”
Without this type of re-orientation, believers have an amazing ability to seize upon a favorite street or alley and turn it into the whole road map. Like magic, Cranberry Court becomes the whole city of Columbus. I can’t tell you the sheer number of times I’ve met other Christians and in the first five minutes learned about every non-essential of the faith they held. Unfortunately, I’ve also shown off my share of wallet photo dogmatics as well.
It’s not that personal convictions are unimportant. There’s nothing evil about smaller doctrinal distinctions. Ways. Methods. They’re all valuable.
They’re just not first.
We should always put first things first. It saves us from unnecessary fighting. It keeps us from becoming too small.
Love God with everything you’ve got. Love people like you do yourself.
It’s hard to get lost on that road.