The words from this storied hymn were originally penned as a poem by one William Ralph Featherston in the 1860’s. If you think you’ve heard of him, you’re wrong. It is possible that you might be familiar with A.J. Gordon, the man who put the words to music. He was the founder of Gordon College, and then later Gordon-Conwell Seminary. One of the many books he wrote sits on a shelf to my left as I write these words in my office. Mr. Featherston, however, wrote no books and did not found any prestigious institutions. He crafted the poem sometime before the end of his sixteenth year and did not live long enough to see his twenty-eighth. Aside from the fact that his short life is associated with the Montreal area, there is no other historical data about this soul. And yet here we are, over one-hundred and fifty years later singing the words of this obscure young man.
The reason I even bring up the hymn’s authorship is because its background mirrors its meaning. Whether in life or in death or in the resurrection to come, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-9). And it is love for Jesus that will be the only true standard to assess the meaning of our lives. In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul said, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is be to accursed.” Our outward ministry may impact many, our business endeavors may be prosperous, but when we stand before the Lord, the only commodity that will matter will be genuine love. Many eloquent preachers have come and gone in North America, but we aren’t talking about their sermons today. It is a simple poem of love from a little-known man that still has our attention. Jesus Himself affirmed the centrality and priority of love when challenged by a scribe in the final week before the crucifixion:
And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,and with all your mind.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment.Matthew 22:37-38
The night before His brutal trial of scourging and death, Jesus ended His prayer for the disciples with a cry that the very love of the Father would be imparted to the hearts of His followers. In other words, He asked that we would reciprocate His love for us with a miraculous, divinely originating love for Him!
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”John 17:25-26
It is easy for us to nod heartily in response to these words. Yet, is it real? Do we actually prioritize cultivating love for Jesus in our hearts above everything else? How often, if ever, have we asked the Father of Glory to fill us with the very love that He has for the Son of God? In our preaching, our worship-leading, and our discipleship, do we treasure authentic love for God or that which is popular and efficient? Does the first and greatest commandment have the first place in our lives?
It seems as though somehow a miracle occurred and the answer to that final question was a resounding “yes!” in the life of a young man named William Ralph Featherston. May it be a little truer of us today as we sing the words of his poem these many years later.