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EPISODE 75: Michael Kruger and the Importance of the Second Century

The second century was a crucial time for the Christian church. In the midst of terrible persecution, God’s people found great hope and help in the scriptures and in corporate worship of Jesus. We have much to learn from them and that time.



Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I'm your host, Randy Newman. Today, my conversation partner is Michael Kruger, the president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He's also a professor of New Testament and early Christianity there. We're going to talk about the second century and in particular a great book Michael has written about the second century, Christianity at the Crossroads. Michael, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thanks, Randy. Look forward to the conversation.

Oh, thanks so much for the time. I should tell our listeners you've really written, I think, a dozen or more books, a lot about early Christianity and its implications for today. You're written a very helpful book for college students about hanging on to their faith and remaining faithful during the college years. But I want to talk about the second century because I found your book so very encouraging, in an odd way, to hear about how difficult things were in the second century and yet then to look and see how powerfully God worked. But let's begin here: Why the second century? Why is that century so very crucial? The subtitle of your book is, “How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.” So how did it shape? Why is it so crucial?

Well, I'm glad you are encouraged by it. It is a little bit of a pedantic topic at first glance. People think, “Well, why should I care about the second century?” and to your point why do I care about the second century here as a scholar. And lots of reasons: One maybe obvious reason is a lot of my research on canon and text happens to center on the second century. So I’ve spent a lot of time in it over the years and have been fascinated with what's there and also what isn't there. It's a century we don't know a lot about, surprisingly. It’s been called the Cinderella Century in the early church. It's sort of a century that's maybe got the biggest gaps in our knowledge of what we wish we knew, and it's the earliest century to the apostles, right? The apostles are first century, so it’s the closest you get to them. It’s the closest you get to the century in which Jesus lived, but yet our sources aren't nearly as prolific as we wish they were. And on top of that—and of course this is the whole point of the book—I argue that Christianity really was at a crossroads in the second century. So many things were happening, so many decisions were taking place, that the future of the church, at least at a human level, was really determined by the direction the church would take during that crucial time. So a lot's going on in that century, and I think we have a lot to learn from it.

The area of the canon is a specialty of yours. You have a blog called Canon Fodder. If people have questions about: Why are these the books that we have in the Bible? Are the books that we have in the Bible the ones we should have in the Bible? And what about those other books that some people think should be? That’s an area that you've served the church tremendously. So I do recommend for people, if that's the question you're wondering about or you have people asking you about, Michael's work on his website, and we'll have all those links.

And it was during the second century that those decisions were being made. Let me read a part for our listener. Right at the beginning of your book, you write, “While certainly not comparable to the pressures faced by second-century Christians, the modern church is being seen more and more as a threat to the social stability of modern society, similar to the way the second-century church was viewed by the Roman elites. If nothing else, we need to learn again what it means to be the church when we lack social and political standing.” I think that's what kept striking me is, “Oh, there's quite a bit of similarity between the 21st century and the second century.” Can you say more about that?

Yeah. This was one of the things that I was struck by, is that the cultural pressures that the second-century church faced are kind of eerily similar to what we are starting to face—not fully of course—now in the modern West. And that is this idea that Christianity is seen as bizarre, superstitious, and a threat to coherent social order. So it's not even so much that people disagree with Christianity, although many do. But rather they define it as this strange superstition that probably is going to be a threat to the culture and should be snuffed out. And the century where that's probably most comparable to is the second century. Obviously, everyone knows by the time the fourth century rolls around, Christianity is now in power and has stayed in power, at least at some level, ever since. But it's really the second century where Christianity was the weakest, the most vulnerable, and probably at one level the most persecuted, you could say, by the Roman Empire, at least on various levels. And so I think there's a lesson to learn there. And when you look at the history of the church, it just…. This is a little bit of an overstatement, but I think it's still generally the case, is that the church never does better when it's in power. It seems like the more we sort of “succeed” in conquering whatever culture, world, place we’re in, things that rarely get better. In fact, I think we're at our best when we're sort of a weak minority within the culture. I think that's when we have the best light.

So I would love for us in the modern church to learn a little bit again what it's like to be a church not in power and be okay with that. And realize there's bigger things about the calling of the church than simply controlling the culture you live in.

Boy, there's a lot wrapped up in that little phrase you just threw in there, “and be okay with that,” because I think what a lot of people are realizing, a lot of Christians are realizing, “Hey, we're not in power anymore. We're not the dominant player in shaping culture, but we think we once were, not all that long ago, and so the solution is we need to get back in power. We need to get into control.” And as you say, that really hasn't worked that well in the past two thousand years.

What are some more lessons that you think… in some bizarre way, if someone from the second century who was a Christian, not even a Christian leader, a Christian layperson in the church, second century, could somehow stop in on our world, what would they want to say to us? What would they want to tell us?

Wow! So many things. It's interesting, I think…. One of the advantages of being a minority culture or a minority group in your culture, and even to some extent, an advantage of being under persecution, is it made the Christians in the second century sharper and better at formulating their Christian thinking and formulating their theology and helping better articulate what they believe to the pagan philosophies of the day. When you're in power, you don't feel the obligation to do that. When you're in power, you don't actually learn how to do that. But they were forced to learn how to do that. And I think that's a lesson that they can teach us today.

On a corollary level with that, another lesson they can teach us is, when they did talk to their culture, they were very much interested in expressing and persuading them of the truth of the one God Jesus Christ, that He was worthy of worship and that that's Who you should follow. It's interesting. They didn't so much appeal to the Roman government for political ends. They weren't trying to shape law and policy. The only times they really got involved in that was when it pertained to unjust persecution of Christians. Most of the Christians in the second century were just trying to say, “Hey! We're not a threat to you. Stop arbitrarily putting us to jail and killing us.” So it was a fairly low bar there of justice, right? So they weren't looking for special privileges. They were just looking to live peaceably in their world. And so I think there's a lesson there. The main thrust was, “Can we live at peace in this world”” and, “How could we evangelistically reach it?” And I think those are some great lessons.

All right. So we need a little bit more education here. And I think the way I want to ask the question is: So how bad was it? But how bad was—there's two ways I want to explore this. How bad was the culture? How sinful, how degrading was it? And how bad was the persecution? So let's start on the persecution front, because that can be this very broad and almost vague category for people. But what were the kinds of things Christians were experiencing?

Yeah. So there's two categories I cover in the book. What you might call political persecution, right? Which is civil, like people being thrown in jail or even killed, and then what I would call intellectual persecution or social persecution. On the former, it was rather sporadic in the second century. I certainly want to do away—and I try to do this in the book—with this idea that every Christian in every province of the empire was always at risk of getting thrown in jail. That's simply not true. For large swaths of the time, most Roman governors probably never even really noticed the Christians or cared much about them. It wasn't really till Diocletian in the third century and so forth that the persecution got really, really bad on a political civil level. That said, people were still being thrown in jail, and people were still being killed. One of our earliest examples of this is Trajan, right? Who even in the early second century is the governor of…. Sorry, not Trajan. Pliny the Younger, who’s the governor of Bithynia, writes a letter to Emperor Trajan saying, “Hey, I'm torturing Christians to try to learn what they're up to,” and so we know it was happening, but it was more sporadic.

The thing I think our culture now can relate to more, though, is the second category, which is more of an intellectual, social persecution. It wasn't so much that Christians were being always killed and thrown in prison. It was rather that they were ostracized. They were seen as a threat. They were cut out of various sectors of what you might call acceptable society. And they were seen as sort of a contagion to be squashed. And I think for a lot of Christians today, we feel that, right? And I think that's probably the comparable grounds. Obviously, at least in America, we're not being thrown in jail yet, although you can argue there's different kinds of economic persecution that are maybe starting to ramp up. So I don’t want to overplay the parallels, but I think, just on a social and intellectual level, it was a challenge, and that's probably very much parallel to what people feel today.

Yeah. All right. Now, on the other side of the coin, give us some illustrations or information about how how sinful was the culture.

Yeah. So there are so many ways to slice that up. Certainly, it was sinful, but I think the better word to say here is non-Christian. And the reason I use that term is because it wasn't just they were doing bad things, so to speak, although that happened. But they were thinking in ways that were completely out of the box than the way we would think today. And this is something that I think modern Christians probably need to take a deep breath and remember. As much as we feel persecuted by our modern world, it really doesn’t compare anything to the ancient world. in terms of both the pagan nature of the world, if I could say it like that, but also the worldviews the average person had in the second century in the Greco-Roman Empire were nothing akin to today. Even the most staunch unbeliever in the American culture today, or at least in the West, probably has a relatively Christian worldview and doesn't even know why they have it. They generally believe in morality. They believe in good and evil. They probably believe that you should help the poor and take care of the sick. They probably believe in some sort of a system of right and wrong, even though at the same time they often say they don't. And people don't realize how much in debt even non-Christians today are to the fact that Christianity had such influence in the last two thousand years.

So, if we were to go back in time to the second century, it would be shockingly hard for most people to deal with that kind of culture. And I think that is a sobering lesson that, when you think you have it hard, you just need take a deep breath and realize you really don't. And we need to realize, if the big picture is kept in mind that we’ll be fine even if we lose the so-called culture wars, which maybe we shouldn’t have been trying to win in the first place. And so I think that's one of the lessons to take away from the second century.

Yeah. Well, I know you studied under Larry Hurtado, and I've read some of his work. And I remember being struck in his work, and in yours, about how what we would see now as just horrific immorality was the norm. It was just accepted. I think it was in Hurtado’s book where he talked about how it was just the norm that, if people had babies that they didn't want, they threw them out on a trash heap and were just allowed to die. And Christians were the ones who came along and rescued these babies off of these trash heaps. Or the idea that a man could have sex with whoever he wanted, even if he was married, so he had his wife, but he also had however many concubines and even young boys. It was nauseating to read some of this. But it was a combination of this was the norm, and people just accepted it. Am I remembering this correctly? I hope I'm not distorting it.

Yeah, yeah. Well, this goes back a little bit to the prior point about, “How sinful was it?” We don't realize how radical Christianity really was in its claims. So the idea that you should be monogamous in marriage with both men and women would have been radical. And in fact, this is one of the reasons I mention in the book that I think so many women were probably attracted to the early Christian movement, because there's real dignity for women in Christianity.


The husband was expected to have the same sexual fidelity as the wife, and that was radically different from the Greco-Roman world. And this is why, when you read Paul's exhortations in 1 Corinthians 7 about how a wife has the husband's body and the husband has the wife's body, that it's both ways, would have been stunningly shocking. The thing that people don’t realize in the Western world, when they read that, they're like, “Well, yeah.” And I'm like, “No! It’s not, ‘Well, yeah,’ if you lived in the second century. It only seems natural now, but back then it wasn't natural at all.” The same with helping those who are weak and sick and generally outcasts. The idea of charity, the idea of philanthropy, the idea that you would help those who are less fortunate than you. People don’t realize that that is a fundamentally Christian idea that is the result of Christianity having the influence it did. And what you realize is that it was the Christians who were helping the people who were sick. I mentioned this in the book, too. When the plagues would ravage the major cities, the elite and the wealthy would leave, and the Christians were known for staying behind. And that is something that set them apart. So one of the things that set Christians apart was their ethics. And I think we need to realize that our sexual morality, our view of ethics generally, our care for the poor and for those who are mistreated in society is one of the ways—not the only way—one of the ways that the early Christian movement won over, if we could say it that way, the Greco-Roman world. And I think we can't forget that in the modern day.

I'm very excited to tell you about a new resource we’re working on at the C.S. Lewis Institute. It's going to be a series of relatively short articles that answer challenging questions to the Christian faith, so less than a thousand words, which is like the front and back of one piece of paper, maybe even less than that. Of questions like, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” and, “Isn’t Jesus just like all the other religious people?” and, “Aren’t all religions the same?” and the questions that people are likely to ask us if we get into some really good, deep conversations with them. And it's going to be a growing resource. There'll be a new topic and piece of paper, basically, for you to read and share with nonbelievers. So check it out. If it's not already, it will be at Or, if that's just crazy, go to and search for questions. I sure hope that'll help. Thanks.

Well, we can't forget it, but we also need to educate people about it, because I think people don't know that.

No, they don't.

And it's a great encouragement when you find out, “Oh, no. Wait a minute, these are Christian ideas. These flow from the fact that all people, men and women, are created in God's image, and marriage is holy and sacred.” But other worldviews don't have that basis, certainly not the pagan worldview of the second century.

Yeah. It was a harsh, brutal world. If you got sick, you didn't have the medical care, and you didn't have the infrastructure where someone was going to be able to give you Medicare or Medicaid or you go to the ER or there's some sort of social program to take care of you on food stamps. People don't realize that, in the ancient world, when you were in trouble, that was it, which is why so much exhortation is given in the Bible to taking care of orphans and widows, because there were no government programs to do it, and nobody cared if you died. And so it's definitively a Christian idea.

Man! Well, as you come to the conclusion of your book, you talk about three primary lessons, I think, that we should learn from the second century. The very first one we've already talked about a bit, that we need to learn about what it means to be a prophetic voice in the midst of a hostile culture, of speaking out when we don't have the natural affirmed platforms. But the second lesson—and you spend quite a bit of time in here. You write, “As we look at the second century, we are reminded again that Christianity at its core is a bookish religion.” What do you mean by that? And how do we need to learn that again?

Yeah. When you journey through the second century, the thing I enjoyed most about writing this book is all the ways that Christianity shocked the world around it, and we mentioned several already. One was its ethics. And there are several we haven't mentioned. Like we haven't really talked about its monotheism yet as another way it shocked the world around it. But this is yet another way that Christianity shocked the world around it. And that is that they were bookish in their religious practice. Now, of course, there are other people in the ancient world that were bookish, but they weren't religious bookish. They were philosopher bookish. And so this was very confusing to people. The only other group that really did this was Judaism. And of course, Judaism was seen as its own thing, separate from everyone else. And they weren't really intermingling so much with the broader Greco-Roman world because they were really made up of Gentiles. But that's not true for Christians.

Christians were very Gentile, and a lot of them were converting out of the Greco-Roman world, and consequently, suddenly, they're faced with a religion that, at its core, is built around text, books that claim to be speaking from God. And so this would have been completely bizarre, which is why, for most people in the ancient world, they saw Christianity more like a philosophy than a religion. It didn't fit their categories. Religion wasn't bookish. Religion was ritual. And the other thing about religion, as I hinted at a minute ago, is that religion wasn't exclusive. But Christianity was both bookish and exclusive, and so it was both perplexing for Romans, also infuriating for Romans, especially the latter, the exclusive nature of it. So yeah. And this gets back to my issue with canon and texts, and I think the early church valued these books, centered themselves on these books, and we obviously have to continue to do that if we’re going to keep that heritage alive.

I smiled when I saw that sentence about a bookish religion. But again, we've just taken it for granted, but no, that was rather unusual to be that insistent on, “No, this book, these texts are sacred, and we need to read them and study them and investigate them, discuss them.” Again, we've just come to take them for granted. Or worse. I think, in some today, there's a disdain for that. “Oh, don't be so academic or theological.”

No. That’s exactly right. There's sort of this anti-intellectual strain in some quarters today. Back in the early church, obviously there were plenty of people who were not scholars, but at least they were committed to the fundamental value of text driving it. And a close corollary to that, which I think I mention in the book briefly, is it wasn’t just that they were bookish, but they cared about doctrine. They cared about truth. In other words, Christians felt like you could be right about what you thought about God or wrong about what you thought about God, and in an ancient Roman world, since religions weren't really competing with each other in any sort of meaningful way, there wasn't a right way or a wrong way. There was just your way, or the particular religion’s way in your province, or maybe your ancestors’ religion, and you just did it. You didn't think of this as the correct way in the way we do now. And so the idea that religion is not only bookish but doctrinally guided, that you care about getting that correct, would have been also strange. That’s something philosophers did. They sat around and debated truths. Religion didn't. And again, in the ancient world, those things were seen as entirely different.

Hmm. Well, let's go back a little bit. You just said that the Christian belief in monotheism was shocking or radical. Say some more about that. How was that?

Yeah. When you think about Christian persecution, there is this perplexing dimension to it, that if someone sits down and really studies the time period, they might be confused by. In other words, one might wonder, “Why does the average Roman citizen even care what Christians believe? Why are they so upset with them?” Think about it. You have a pluralistic, polytheistic society with a whole pantheon of gods. And along comes Christianity, and why not just leave them alone? What is it about Christianity that stirred up the ire of the Greco-Roman people and the governing officials. And it’s not enough to say that they were weird. And by the way, Christians were weird. You could argue Christians today are still weird, in some good ways and maybe in some bad ways. So they were weird in the sense that they didn’t fit in with their ethics and some other things, but that wasn’t the reason they were hated. The reason they were hated is because they would not pay homage to the Roman gods. They would not pay homage to the Roman deities, including the emperor himself.

Now you might think, “Well, why doesn’t the society just say, ‘Well, okay. Fine. We’ll just leave you alone.’” Because the society believed that if you don't pay homage to the Roman gods, then they wouldn't bless Rome, and so by not paying homage to the Roman gods, Christians were blamed for putting Rome at risk. They were going to basically put Rome in danger of incurring the displeasure of the gods. And this became so pointed that, after a while, when bad things started happening to Rome, they started blaming the Christians for it.


Because the Christians weren't paying homage.


In fact, Tertullian, in one of his Apologies, has this famous saying, where he's like, “You can't blame us for every… every time there's a flood, it’s not our fault. Every time there's a drought, it's not our fault. Every time we lose a battle, it's not our fault. You can't blame us for everything.” And you could see what's going on behind the scenes. Basically, because Christians were not paying homage, they were seen as against Rome. In fact, one of the phrases one of the people used to describe Christians is it calls Christians haters of humanity. This is an interesting phrase. Haters of humanity, that they despise human beings because they put human beings at risk by not participating in the Roman cult. And so effectively it was Christian monotheism that was the biggest trigger for its persecution. And I think we can all see that today that's not changed. Two thousand years later, it's the same problem.

Yeah. Yeah, having an exclusive religion has always caused trouble for Christians. It caused trouble for Jewish people, too, because in the same way, they believe there's one God, and they weren't going to get on board to worship all the other gods.

So here's the thing though, that's interesting: That’s true. Jews obviously were monotheistic, but they got what you could call a pass. And the reason they got a pass, generally speaking, is because the Roman world viewed them as a separate nation. They were seen as ethnically and nationally distinct. So they were sort of viewed as a separate people. And therefore they were given an allowance, if you will, for their monotheism, as just, “Okay, we’ll let you do it.” But this is exactly where Christians were the problem. They weren't “over there.” They were “in here.” They were mixed in with the Roman people. And that's the trigger. And so it's interesting. You could say, “Well, weren't Jews monotheistic? Why didn't they get creamed for this?” And that's why. It was the Gentile, all inclusiveness of Christianity, combined with this monotheism that was the real factor.

Yeah. It’s the exclusivity and the inclusivity-

That’s right. That’s exactly right.

… that was getting the Christians in trouble. So for Jewish people, it was like, “Oh, that's their religion because that's their ethnicity, that's them, and they're not trying to spread it outside their ethnic group.” So Christians said, “No. The belief in God is really exclusive. We’re not going to believe in all these other gods,” but they were inclusive in the sense that, “No, all people need to believe this, whether they're Jewish, Gentile, whatever nation they're from, whatever….” Their nationality is almost irrelevant because Jesus is the Savior for all people, for Jew and Gentile, no matter who they are. So their inclusivity, “Everybody is included in this need for salvation and the offer for salvation,” and their exclusivity, both gets them in trouble, and still that is for us today, because people say, “Why don't you guys just stay in your… not just in your lane, you know, stay in your corner.” “You want to practice your Christianity? Fine. Keep it to yourself.” And the essence of Christianity is, “No. It’s not meant to be kept to ourselves. It's for every nation, every tribe, and every tongue.

No. That’s exactly right, and I've actually, in prior lectures, used that same dichotomy. It's exclusive in the right ways and inclusive in the right ways. And by the way, you can be exclusive in the wrong ways and inclusive in the wrong ways, right? And so, Christianity could be—if it wasn't construed properly—we could be wrongly exclusive and then wrongly inclusive. But we’ve got to get it right. We're exclusive in terms of monotheism. We’re inclusive in terms of socioeconomic and demographic diversity.

And so one of the things I tell my students is that, if you're interested in diversity, then you should be a Christian, because Christians were the most diverse religion in the ancient world. And it wasn't just ethnic. It didn't just cut across ethnic lines. It cut across gender lines. And it also cut across socioeconomic lines, which actually was a big deal for religion in the ancient world. The idea that lots of religions were exclusive belief to particular genders and even particular classes. And Christianity was troubling to the Roman world because it was generally for everyone. And people from every group were converting. And that's actually one of the complaints that Pliny makes, is that… “It’s affecting everybody!” he says. He says, “It’s affecting rich and poor, slave and free, male, female, women and children. What are we going to do with this thing?” And that was a fascinating insight into what was happening.

So again, I think it's so helpful and encouraging for us today to learn this history. If nothing else, there's a sense of, “Oh, we've been here before,” or more importantly, “God has been involved in His people in these very same kinds of struggles and things.”

Let me go after one last thing, because again toward the end of your book, you say there are three crucial, the most important, lessons. We’ve touched on being the prophetic voice when you're not in power. The second is that we're a bookish religion. But then you say third and finally, “When we look to the second century, we are reminded afresh that early Christians, regardless of the exterior pressures and challenges, were always keen to keep the focus on one simple thing, worshiping Jesus.” Expand on that for us, please, a little bit.

Yeah. Well, tied into that is a little bit of the monotheism speech we just got finished with, which is, when Christians worship Jesus, they worship only Jesus. So that's part of it. But the other thing, I think, that it’s important to realize is that the Christian life in the ancient world, as complicated and difficult as it was living in a pagan society, also was amazingly simple. They kept the main thing the main thing And I have a whole chapter in the book, that readers will discover if they get a copy, on early Christian worship. And we discover, in the second century, that we have a number of testimonies to what early Christians did and what the worship services looked like and their gatherings together. And it looks remarkably similar to what we do today. Justin Martyr's testimony is one of the main ones, where he says, “Yeah, every Sunday, early in the morning, we gather together, and we read the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, including the Gospels, and then we have someone stand up, and they speak and preach from that and teach us from that. And we sing hymns to Jesus, as unto God, and then we have baptism and the Lord's supper.” And when all the dust settles on that you're like, “Wow! It sounds like things haven't really changed much in two thousand years,” and I think that's exactly the point. Is that that is the main thing. Not that they didn't care about what the society was doing in some ways, not that they didn't care about what the Emperor was doing, but their main thing was to try to live peaceably and to worship Jesus. And I think one could rightly say that that is the main thing to do, and it certainly still is the main thing to do now.

Yeah. It is indeed the main thing. It's also a transformative thing.


I think, when we worship Jesus, when we go back to the basics of the gospel of, “I'm a sinner who needs a Savior, and God has sent His Son to save people like me.” That can transform us, to make us more patient, more gracious, more kind to the world around us that's growing more and more hostile towards us. As the world gets more antagonistic, hostile, intolerant toward us, it’s easy to respond in kind. It's easy to become sarcastic at the least or hateful at the worst. But if we come back to the worship of Jesus, we remind ourselves of the gospel, then, “Oh. Look at how gracious God has been to me. As I gather to worship, I look around, lots of people worshiping, but every single person here that is a Christian is here because God rescued them.” And that brings a softness and a tenderness, a gentleness that is so desperately needed. And so I really appreciated that, that we're looking at the second century, and there's this and there’s this, but there's tremendous worship and tremendous coming together to celebrate and to sing songs of joy, and that's so desperately needed always, every single minute and every single day.

Yeah. Another way to say it is that, if you're focused on worship as the main thing and how that changes you, then the main focus is, “How can I be more like Christ?” And the main focus isn't how I can change everybody out there.


I'm not suggesting there’s not a time and a place to speak to broader cultural trends. There are times for that. But I think the main focus of Christians is, start with me. How do I need to change? How do I need to grow and be different? It's not that different than what every parent tells their child. “You worry about you, not everybody else.” It’s a little bit like that. We just need to focus on Christ and let Him change us and make us who He wants us to be.

Hmm. Well, I think that's a good place for us to bring this to a close. We could talk so much more. I really do hope our listeners will value the importance of studying church history and really look about the second century and take a look at your book and allow it to inform but also deeply encourage. So, Michael, thank you for the time to be on the podcast. To our listeners, please check out the show notes. We'll have a bunch of different links there. Also visit our website,, a source of lots and lots of resources that we pray will help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

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