What is the Greatest Commandment?

A lawyer once asked Jesus which was the great Commandment in the law. (Matthew 22:35-40) Was the response from Jesus two new laws to replace the ten that God personally wrote in stone or abolish just one that so many seem to think is a burden or legalism?

This lawyer was a Pharisee by sect and when it came to their observance of the law, the Pharisees were an extremely proud and meticulous people that made sure they avoided the possibility of violating even one of the Commandments. They not only knew the Decalogue but they also knew all the laws in the Pentateuch which was a total of 613 by traditional count. The Pharisees however had lost sight of what was really important which was loving God with all their heart, soul and mind. Without that love for God, the external observance of the Commandments becomes worthless, empty and legalism.

Some Christians try to do the right thing because they think God will punish them if they don't. While the Word does say God chastens every child he loves, (Hebrews 12:5-7) this is the wrong motive for obeying our Heavenly Father. This is the type of obedience a slave gives.

Other Christians make the effort to do what is right because they believe they will be blessed for doing so. This is effectively like obeying God because He is paying them to do so. Their relationship with God resembles more that of a servant than a member of His family. It is better than not obeying God at all but falls a long way short of the intimate love relationship God desires to have with us. To love God supremely begins with the heart and by being cleansed on the inside first.

Jesus explains this really well in Matthew 23:25-28 saying, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 You blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Jesus' Great Commandment

The Great or Greatest Bible CommandmentsJesus said that to love God supremely is the first and greatest Commandment. (Matthew 22:38) It is first and greatest in that it represents the heartbeat of every one of the Commandments. But while it is the first Commandment, it is not the only one as Jesus quoting from the second of the Ten Commandments also said, “If you love me, keep my Commandments.John 14:15. He did not say, “If you obey me, then you will love me.” Obedience does not lead to love but love does lead to obedience. The more we know God the more we love him, and the more we love him the more it becomes a delight to serve him and do his will. So if we truly love God, we will keep all the other Commandments as well as the greatest which comprises them all.

So does loving God with all your heart, soul and mind change or abolish any of the Ten Commandments? Not at all. So what is actually taking place in this passage?

It comes about as a result of a lawyer attempting to outsmart Jesus. This does not mean that this so called lawyer practiced law but was one who was learned or skilled in the law of Moses. Mark calls him one of the scribes, which means the same thing.

We see in verse 34 that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, so this lawyer now makes an attempt to trap Jesus by asking Him which is the most important Commandment. Jesus cleverly responds by quoting the Old Testament as He quite frequently does. Here is the full passage in contention.

Matthew 22:34-40But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great Commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.

So Jesus summed up the law by breaking it into the following two groups.

  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (first four laws)
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (last six laws)

Since the first four Commandments relate to loving God with all our heart, soul and mind, then they are about our duty and love to God. But that leads to the question; if the first four Commandments are about our love for God then why have so many discarded the fourth Commandment that also defines our love and duty to our Heavenly Father?

So when Jesus said “all the law hang on these two Commandments,” He did not mean some of it as in nine Commandments or none of it as in zero Commandments. When Jesus said all the law, that is exactly what He meant!

As noted earlier, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. So what was Jesus quoting and when was this first quoted and did it apply to every one of the Ten Commandments then?

The two verses Jesus quoted are listed below and note that Deuteronomy 6:5 is seventeen verses right after the second reading of the Decalogue. So did all the law hang on these two Commandments in the Old Testament? There can be no doubt since Deuteronomy 6:5 immediately follows the second reading of the law. So what Moses is actually saying in Deuteronomy 6:5 is that to love God with all your heart, soul and might is to keep all of what had just been read in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. That is, if we love God supremely, we will keep all the law being all Ten Commandments that had just been read. Deuteronomy means the second reading of the law. God first personally spoke these Ten great laws as found in Exodus 20:2-17 while everyone trembled in fear as God's voice thundered from the mountain top, and Moses did the second reading of the law which is found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and thus Deuteronomy 6:5 is just seventeen verses after Deuteronomy 5:21. See also the list of the Ten Commandments.

Did you note that all Ten are love for God? The fourth being the Sabbath is also about loving God because Deuteronomy 6:5 says that loving God with all your heart, soul and might is to keep each and every one of the Ten Commandments that had just been read. So in no way does loving God supremely change one single law God wrote in stone.

So what does this all mean? All the law which includes the Sabbath hung on these two great laws in the Old Testament which no one can dispute, and while Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, He still says all the law hangs on these two Commandments. So what has changed? Absolutely nothing! All ten remain totally unchanged just as Jesus promised they would in Matthew 5:17-19. See also misunderstandings in Jesus fulfilling the law.

Second Greatest Commandment

So Jesus explains that the first is to love God supremely, “And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbour as thyself.Matthew 22:39. The connection in the following passage is very explicit, “We love him, because he first loved us. 20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.1 John 4:19-21. It is our love for God that also empowers us to love other people.

Paul also clarifies in the following passage that the two greatest Commandments are just a means of summarizing the law. Note that Paul specifically refers to the phrase loving your neighbour as yourself as a “saying” that covers all the Commandments. Romans 13:9-10For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

If you love God with all your heart and soul you are obeying all the law and especially the first four Commandments, which includes the fourth as proven by Deuteronomy 6:5 which was spoken right after the Decalogue was given the second time. And if you love your neighbour as yourself you will be obeying the last six. Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law and if you love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbour as yourself, then you will be obeying all Ten Commandments.