I’ll never forget reading a commentary on Deuteronomy 6:4, the opening verse of what the Jewish people call the great “Shema.” It reads like this in my Bible: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The commentary said that the word “one” could also be translated “first”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is first.”
The next verse goes on to say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, He didn’t name one of the big 10. He quoted this verse in Deuteronomy 6:5. How can we love God with our whole being unless we put Him first?
The Bible Project gives an excellent explanation of these verses. You can look it up at this URL:
https://bibleproject.com/blog/what-is-the-shema/ (Watch and read! The 2 are different.)
In their article, they state: “[T]he Shema isn’t trying to make a philosophical statement about God’s essence or being (that God is “one”). Rather, the Shema is a pledge of allegiance to the Lord God of Israel that excludes allegiance to any other gods.”
A pledge of allegiance. To us in America, a pledge of allegiance can seem rather bland. Who of us didn’t grow up reciting the American pledge of allegiance by rote? It didn’t really change our lives, though it served as a reminder of our national loyalty. Understanding the word “Shema”—the word translated “Hear” or “Listen”—is key. Here’s what The Bible Project says:
The opening line “Listen, O Israel” does not simply mean to let the sound waves enter your ears. Rather, the word “listen” here means allow the words to sink in, provide understanding, and generate a response. In other words, in Hebrew, “hearing” and “doing” are basically the same thing, but what is Israel to do in response to hearing that the Lord alone is their God? “Love the Lord your God.” In context, love isn’t simply the warm, fuzzy, emotional energy we feel when we like someone. In the Bible, love is action. You love someone when you act in loyalty and faithfulness. And so for Israel, to love meant faithful obedience to the terms of their covenant relationship. . . Obedience to these laws was never about legalism or trying to earn God’s favor. Obedience in the Old Testament is about love and listening. If an Israelite loves God, it will make it easier to listen and absorb his teachings and guidance. This is why the words “listen” and “love” are so tightly connected and repeated through these opening speeches of Deuteronomy.
“Love is action.” Love means putting that person (or thing) first in your life. Throughout the New Testament we see this definition of love explained several times over. In Romans 12:10 where Paul tells us to show brotherly love and kindly affection toward one another, he says, “In honor giving preference to one another.” In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul stated this idea even more strongly. After exhorting us to have love for one another—the same love that Christ had for us—he tells us what that means, what that love should look like: “In lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Putting others above or ahead of ourselves? This is not at all natural, especially in our day and age where we are constantly bombarded with messages to look out for #1—ourselves. That worldly message is all upside-down. God’s Kingdom teaches us to live right-side up, or in Bible language, “upright.”
So love, whether to God or to others or to things, means putting Him, or putting them, first. Here’s my paraphrased translation of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Listen carefully, you who call yourselves followers of Jesus Christ, let this sink in: the Lord our God, the Lord is FIRST.”
We have a neighbor who has made this the creed of his life: “No Bible, no breakfast.” He won’t allow himself to satisfy his physical need for food until he has first satisfied his spiritual need for God and His life-giving wisdom. This is one way he makes sure he is putting God first in his life.
A couple years ago I read a book in which the author very transparently confesses that the first thing he did each morning, even before he got out of bed, was to look at his phone and scroll through messages and posts. His cell phone and his clients had become his god. How did he come to this realization? Early one morning he was awakened by the cries of his young son. Rather than going to check on him and see what was wrong, he immediately picked up his phone and started scrolling. When his senses finally awakened to the increasing intensity of his child’s cries, the realization struck him full force: he cared more for his phone than for his child. He had made his phone his #1, his first thing. Consequently, he made a commitment to himself. He would not pick up his phone until he had first spent time with God. In the words of my neighbor, “No Bible, no phone.”
Why do I say “No Bible”? Because the Bible is the way we hear from God. When I talk about Bible reading, I don't just mean a cursory reading to check off a daily duty. I mean to interact with God's Word. We come to the Bible to listen to God. We read to learn what obedience to God looks like. We open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so He can convict us and instruct us and correct us and transform us. This is how we learn to love God with our whole being. Again quoting The Bible Project: “Moses clearly believes that loyalty, obedience, and love to their one true God is the only way to life. One of the greatest threats to Israel’s future was dividing their allegiance between many gods.” What is your “first thing”?
How do we put God first unless we make some practical real-time commitments that reflect the first place He deserves in our hearts? Of necessity, we make commitments to ensure our priorities stay in place. For me, it means “No Bible, no other reading”— whether it’s an article on the computer or some other book (no matter how great or spiritual it may be) or email or magazines, etc.—Bible first because I want God to be first in my life.
What if all believers in Jesus Christ made a commitment to put Him first in their lives? We might even turn the world upside-down.
“Listen carefully, you who call yourselves followers of Jesus Christ, let this sink in: the Lord
our God, the Lord is FIRST.”