“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
Bible Gateway, one of the top Bible websites, used its tracking data to compile a list of the 100 most read Bible verses. Sitting at number one is John 3:16, which should surprise no one who remembers watching televised football games in years long past. Was there ever a touchdown scored or field goal made where there wasn’t some lone soul in an end zone seat holding up a sign with that verse? I don’t watch football much anymore, but when I do I haven’t noticed the signs. Perhaps this has to do with camera angles or increased security in stadiums, or perhaps it’s simply a form of evangelism that has lost its cachet. But even without weekend football, there is surely no verse more familiar to Christians than John 3:16.
Reading down the list, I was fascinated that the vast majority of the top 100 are “comfort” verses – those that assure us of God’s great care and love for us. For example, the four verses rounding out the top five are: Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you …”); Romans 8:28 (“in all things God works for the good of those who love him …”); Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through him who gives me strength”); and Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created …”). All of which are wonderful verses of consolation and encouragement.
In contrast however, only a scant few of the 100 are “holiness” verses – those that speak about our response to God’s commands. Verses about the way we are to love and serve God are almost completely absent from the list. For example, the seminal verse about how we are to love God, spoken by Jesus, Matthew 22:37 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”), was at number 95! Think about that for a moment. The commandment that Jesus called the first and greatest – to love God with our entire being – barely made the list of most read verses in the Bible. Wow. And other similarly foundational verses did not even make the list – verses such as John 14:15 (“If you love me, keep my commands”); 1 John 4:20 (“Whoever does not love their brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen”); Matthew 4:17 (“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”); and Matthew 16:24 (“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”). And amazingly, not one of the Beatitudes or ethical commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made the list. Not a single one! Although Matthew 6:33 (“seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness …”) did clock in at number 34, virtually none of the ethical commands of Jesus recorded anywhere in the gospels are among the top 100 verses.
I recognize there are limits of inferring too much from a list of most read Bible verses, but website search data is at least an objective measure of Bible interest. I also don’t want to suggest that comfort verses are unimportant. I personally held tightly to Proverbs 3:5-6 (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart …”) when I was recovering from open-heart surgery five years ago. [Incidentally, these two verses are numbers 6 and 7 on Bible Gateway’s list.] Still, ours is an ethical faith, which means that we are called to live a certain kind of life – a life that is framed around the greatest commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Even though Bible verses that speak about God’s love and care for us are part of the warp and woof of our faith, what does it say about a faith journey based primarily on receiving love from God rather giving love to God?
Here is a link to the 100 most read verses in the event you want to study it for yourself (https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2009/05/the-100-most-read-bible-verses-at-biblegatewaycom/). As far as I can find, not one of Jesus’ commands about the following are on the list: repentance, reconciliation, purity, honesty, going the second mile, loving enemies, humility, charitable judgments, doing unto others, obedience, honoring parents, denying oneself, not coveting, forgiving, honoring marriage, serving, caring for the poor, loving neighbors, and being born again.
It seems to me that this is a consequential matter for any Christian who believes Paul when he says to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Romans 12:2). For surely we know that what we allow our minds to dwell upon necessarily shapes the way in which we live out our faith. The secular world clearly understands the power of ideas and images to influence our actions. After all, what is advertising other than placing ideas in our minds to sway our buying habits? Paul, of course, had quite different ideas and images in mind when he instructed the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (Colossians 3:16) If we are not meditating upon the word of Christ, and particularly the ethical commands of Christ, it is unlikely that we will pursue or consistently live them out. For it is only by pursuing Jesus’ commands that we love God.
Jesus makes this clear when he ties our love for God with obedience to his commands, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15) The Apostle John says the same thing when he writes, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.” (1 John 5:3) This means that we love God (or not) through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. When I asked a number of Christian friends what loving God meant to them, a common response was going to a worship service on Sunday. This can certainly be an important spiritual discipline. In fact, one of the “three essentials” that our church promotes is “Worship,” which is framed as “Loving God back.” And perhaps attending a worship service is a way of loving God. But it is not the primary way because even a worship service is subordinate to our obedience to Christ. This is why Jesus places reconciliation with a brother or sister above worship (Matthew 5:23-24). Furthermore, it is hard to see how we are loving God during a worship service if our minds are wandering or harboring angry or lustful thoughts. God wants our worship, but more than that he wants our hearts. In his words, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Isaiah 29:13) Indeed, Jesus himself applied this verse against the Pharisees when they said that worship offerings “devoted to God” took precedence over the command to honor one’s parents. (see Matthew 15:3-9)
Every day we are confronted with scores of moral choices. Choices we decide by the thoughts that fill our minds, the words that come out of our mouths, and the actions we take with our bodies. Who among us today will not decide between thoughts that are critical or charitable; lustful or pure; angry or forgiving? Who of us won’t choose between words that are dishonest or truthful; dispiriting or encouraging; mean or kind? And who of us won’t be faced with actions that involve cutting corners or going the extra mile; taking or giving; holding back or serving others? I know that I encounter choices like these all the time. The point of all of this is that when we pursue the thoughts, words, and deeds that are aligned with God’s word, we are loving God. When we choose those that are not, we are not loving God.
There is an obvious reason why the top 100 verses are mostly comfort verses – we live in unsettled times and people are desperate for security and peace. Our country is more divided than ever, mistrust and hatred seem to be on the rise, and fear abounds. But this is not a new phenomenon. In 1863, in the midst of a great Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned the words of the poem Christmas Bells, which were later put into the song I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. These resonate still today, “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!’” Indeed, even at the time of Jesus, hatred abounded as the despot king Herod ordered the slaughter of male children under two. (see Matthew 2:16-18).
God’s heart has always been to comfort the weary and brokenhearted – a pursuit that he calls us to join. And herein I believe is why obedience to his ethical commands is the only way we can love God. When we speak and act according to God’s word, other people feel God’s love. It is the principal way he loves them. Indeed, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, his answer didn’t end with “Love the Lord …” He continued, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:39) Loving God and loving others – according to Jesus, the one is just like the other – the two are inseparable. God would have us love him through our love for others. In this way, our thoughts, our words, and our actions become the arms of God’s love and the instruments of his peace.