Loving Obedience

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

“When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.Leviticus 19:1-8 ESV

Chapter 19 serves as a summary statement for the entire book, reminding the people of Israel that they serve a holy God who expects those who bear His name to live holy lives. Their undeserved status as His chosen people came with conditions. They would continue to enjoy the blessings of His presence and power but only if they lived in keeping with His law. But God desired more than rote adherence to a set of commands. He wanted their obedience to be motivated by love – for Him and for one another. Moses later reiterated God’s laws to the people of Israel, just before they attempted to enter the land of Canaan, and he emphasized the need for love to permeate all their actions and attitudes.

“These are the commands, decrees, and regulations that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you. You must obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy, and you and your children and grandchildren must fear the Lord your God as long as you live. If you obey all his decrees and commands, you will enjoy a long life. Listen closely, Israel, and be careful to obey. Then all will go well with you, and you will have many children in the land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. – Deuteronomy 6:1-6 NLT

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees and asked to name the greatest commandment, He didn’t turn to Exodus 20, where the Decalogue is outlined. Instead, He quoted from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

The first commandment in the Decalogue simply states, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). There is no mention of love on the part of the worshiper. But God does go on to emphasize His own love for the people of Israel.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. – Exodus 20:5-6 ESV

Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand that obedience alone was not enough. If their adherence to God’s commands was not motivated by love, it was little more than wasted energy. It was duty without desire. That’s why Jesus went on to tell His own disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV).

Love must come first. Without love, any attempts to obey the will of God will come across as empty and lifeless. The apostle Paul emphasized the futility of pious acts performed without love.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NLT

Doing things that appear to be godly but without a love for God ends up being pointless and ineffectual. They earn no brownie points with God. He is not impressed by our outward displays of righteousness. He looks at the heart to see if the actions we perform are motivated by love and a sincere desire to honor and please Him.

To this command, Jesus added a second one that He lifted directly from chapter 19 of Leviticus.

A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

Jesus points out that love for God is incomplete if it is not accompanied by a love for others. And to make His point, He borrows from Leviticus 19:17-19.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 19:17-18 ESV

Love for God and love for others are inextricably linked. They are inseparable and cannot exist apart from one another. The apostle John emphasized this point in his first letter.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 ESV

And John went on to stress the symbiotic relationship between love for God and love for others.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:20-21 ESV

This seems to be the point behind chapter 19 of Leviticus. In this passage, God repeats a handful of His laws but does so in order to emphasize the need for behavior that reflects a heart of love. He expects His people to live holy lives because He is a holy God. And, as John pointed out, because God is love, His people should reflect that same kind of love for Him and for another. A failure or refusal to love is the greatest example of disobedience to the will of God. Ritualistic adherence to a set of laws, codes, or regulations is not what God is looking for. He desires a wholehearted commitment to living and loving in such a way that His children properly reflect His character to the lost world around them.

Jesus would pick up on this divine desire for love among the people of God when He told His disciples, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35 NLT).

He shared this “new” commandment on the night He was to be betrayed by Judas. Knowing that His days on earth were quickly coming to an end, Jesus emphasized the one thing His disciples would need if they were to carry on His mission in His absence. They were going to need a special kind of love to survive the dark and difficult days ahead. He was calling them to emulate the same kind of selfless, sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love that He was about to demonstrate with His death on the cross.

Jesus would go on to repeat this new command to His disciples, adding a special note of emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the kind of love He had in mind.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” – John 15:12-14 ESV

In Leviticus 19, God is communicating the very same idea. He is calling His people to a life of selfless sacrifice and wholehearted obedience that reflects their love for Him as well as their love for one another. 

In verses 5-8, God emphasizes the peace offering because it was the final sacrifice offered to God and was intended to symbolize that the worshiper was in right standing with Him. An individual who offered the peace offering was claiming to be at peace with God. He had followed the prescribed sacrificial rituals and received forgiveness and atonement for his sins. This final offering was an expression of gratitude for having had his relationship with God restored. But God stressed the need for this final sacrifice to be done properly. There was a meal that accompanied the sacrifice and it was required that the worshiper eat the meal within the timelines prescribed by God. This was a fellowship meal, signifying that the worshiper had been fully restored and was welcome to eat in the presence of God Almighty. To partake of the meal in an improper way or to skip it altogether would be an expression of ingratitude and a lack of love for God.

This meal was meant to be shared with family and friends. So, if someone violated God’s law by serving the meal after God’s prescribed deadline, he risked defiling all those who joined him at the table. And they, like him, would suffer the consequences of their actions.

“…everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 19:8 ESV

There could be no greater demonstration of a lack of love for others. To willingly include your family and friends in your disobedience to God, without their knowledge or consent, would be unloving and unfathomable. Who would dare to do such a thing?  The answer is simple: Anyone who does not love God. And an individual’s lack of love for God stems from a failure to understand His love for them. The whole sacrificial system was meant to be a visual and visceral demonstration of God’s great love. He had provided a way for sinful men and women to be made right with Him. He loved them enough to make atonement and restoration possible. And they were to recognize that love and return it in the form of willful obedience to His commands and selfless acts of benevolence toward one another.

The apostle Paul concluded his great “love chapter” with the following summary statement: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV). Love is eternal because it is from God. And God expects His children to demonstrate that love in practical and personal ways – both now and for eternity.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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