“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” – Deuteronomy 6:5
All religion is based on three essential principles: the acknowledgment of God as the object of worship, the sense of obligation to Him as evinced by a life according to His precepts, and the acceptance of a Divine revelation which makes known who and what God is and what His precepts are. These three principles are of necessity involved in every religious system. Religion cannot exist, even in name, if any of them is wanting. Each or all of them may be perverted by false doctrine and an evil life, but they must exist either in their true or in a perverted form. The savage worshiping his idol feels bound to certain duties and observances imposed upon him by oral or other tradition, which he accepts as the authoritative teaching of his deity. Even in this crude system the three essentials are to be found.
A true religion consists in the acknowledgment of the true God, a life of genuine goodness, and belief in an authentic revelation. As we look back over the history of mankind, we find that – distinct from the multitudes who worshiped idols, a court of mythical divinities, or the forces of nature – there have in every age been at least a few who worshiped one God, a God who, though invisible to bodily sight, had given them a specific revelation. In historic times, amid the spiritual darkness of the world, the Old Testament was given, which directed the thoughts of Israel to one Divine Being, the Creator and Preserver of the universe. After the coming of the Lord, the Christian Church was formed, also accepting the Hebrew Scriptures and proclaiming the worship of the same God. The Christian Gospels supplemented and confirmed the Law and the Prophets; the Old Testament was read in the light of a new interpretation, but not a word was erased. Belief in the one God, the duty of obedience to Him, and the recognition of the Bible as the express declaration of His will and law were still the three essentials of the church.
Among these three essentials that which relates to the Divine object of worship occupies the foremost place. When the lawyer asked the Lord, “Master, which is the great commandment of the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” The idea one has of God more than anything else determines his thought and his acts. He who believes in a living personal God dwells in a very different personal atmosphere from the man who recognizes only an abstract first cause. And he who believes in a personal God but thinks of Him as angry and vindictive cannot regard Him with the same feelings or maintain the same relation to the neighbor as one who is impressed above all else with the greatness of the Divine love. A life spent in terror of an arbitrary despot is quite different from the life that is made glad by the constant recognition of the Lord’s goodness. When we know the Lord as one who is very near to us, constantly caring for us and seeking to guide and to bless us, our relations to Him become most vital, and we are filled with a desire to put away all that is evil in His sight.
In the opening chapters of Genesis and in the last chapter of Revelation we are told of the “tree of life.” The “tree of life” pictures the Lord as the source of every blessing and happiness. We are told that the tree of life was “in the midst of the paradise of God,” and also that by shunning evil we may come to enjoy the fruits of that tree forever. We think of a paradise as a place of external beauty and abundant life, but the paradise of God is no mere external paradise. For even an external paradise cannot of itself bestow happiness; people can be miserable anywhere, no matter how sumptuous the living or how beautiful their surroundings, or how happy their associates may be.
The paradise of God is a state of inner beauty. And this cannot be given to us without effort on our part. So it is written, “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” Paradise as a state of life is gained only through effort. It is reached as the culmination of a pilgrimage in which difficulties are overcome. For this reason the Bible is in considerable part a narrative of wars and conflict. Eternal life is won as we overcome evil within ourselves.
War has been a conspicuous part of human history, particularly in the history of so-called Christian nations. The wars mentioned in the Bible describe the battles of right against wrong, of good against evil, which have to be fought in the human heart and mind. Men have always easily been led to fight against other men, but we should recognize that it is the unwillingness to fight against evils in our own hearts which is the real cause of these wars in the outward world. Wars must take place within or without, and if men refuse to fight against and overcome pride, ambition, the love of power, the love of conquest, and the desire to rule over rather than to serve the neighbor, these loves will continue to break out in open hostilities and wars. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
The same tree of life was in the midst of the Garden of Eden at the beginning of man’s history. The tree of life is the recognition of the Lord as love itself and life itself, the source and fountain of all love and life. Its being in the midst of the garden means that the Divine love is the central, inmost, and governing principle of all true human life. We are created to look to the Lord as a plant looks to the sun, to open all our faculties to the reception of life from the Lord. The Lord loves us. He made us to receive His love. He always has given and always will give to us all that we will receive from Him.
This law of the Divine nature is the essential law for human nature, for man was created in the image and likeness of God. As we overcome our selfish tendencies and receive His love in their place, the Lord dwells in us. He often speaks of dwelling in us, and He invites us to come to Him and to abide in Him: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.” There is no other genuine life than that of love. It exists in its fullness in the Lord. It grows in us as we learn of Him and keep His laws.
Going back to the Garden of Eden story, we see there pictured the quality and condition of life when men lived in innocence and in close dependence upon the Lord. How lovely, how intelligent, and how happy life must have been! The love and wisdom of the Lord were seen in everything. The world of nature pictured them. It can be so again, and it will be when the commandments are kept and our evils are overcome. The Word closes with John’s vision of the Holy City. In it the bright promises of the Word are gathered up. The city is said to be “the measure of a man.” The premise is not solely for the life to come, not only for heaven, but for earth. The Holy City is not merely a lovely vision; it is a definite ideal of life for us as individuals and for society, a practical plan of life, whose principles have been made known and clearly declared – the principles by which it is established in heaven, and by which it will be established upon earth.
The first of these principles is the acknowledgment of the Lord as God, and the second is the keeping of His commandments. These are the “two witnesses,” who, though overcome for a time, were restored to strength, and prevailed. We should not seek to live from any other principles or to put our reliance on any other strength.
We should see and rejoice in the progress that the world has made, but if we think that it is the result of human wisdom, we put our trust in ourselves rather than in the Lord, We are living in a materialistic age, and sometimes the future seems dark. It is dark if we have no light outside of ourselves to which we may look.
“Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” When doubts arise, we should immediately be moved to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” In all His Word and in all His works the Lord is saying to us, “Surely I come quickly.” Patiently let us wait. Earnestly let us continue to work, watching for the indications of His providence. And to the one only Lord and Savior be all the glory!