What’s so great about the greatest commandment? Was Jesus’ answer really that profound? Of all the commandments in the Old Testament, why did Jesus point to that one? What role does this command have in helping us understand the whole story of the Bible?
If you were to take your smart phone, open up the camera, then zoom in on your pants and let it focus, you would be surprised how clearly you could see the intricate detail of the fabric. But, what kind of person would do something as absurd as that? Well, I did. And those are my work-issued pants in the background of the picture above. Woven fabric has two systems of threads. The threads that run lengthwise are called the warp. The threads that run perpendicular to those are called the woof. This pattern found in a snapshot of my pants consistently runs throughout the whole.
When a Pharisee asked what the greatest commandment was, he was seeking Jesus’ opinion regarding a highly debated topic among the experts of the Law (Matt 22:25-40; Mk 12:28-34). Mark implies that this Pharisee’s intentions were more pure than those of his constituents (Mk 12:28, 32, 34). Throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees and Sadducees often attempted to publicly discredit Jesus by trapping him in a complex question. This never worked out. In fact, it always backfired on them. Jesus, being cunning as a serpent and gentle as a dove, always provided a thoughtful answer which was not only accurate and enlightening, but piercing to the heart. He often exposed their prideful, self-righteous, man-made religion for what it was—a system which elevated self and oppressed others. Jesus warned against both of these pitfalls in the following verses with his warning against pompous teachers of the law (Mk 12:38-40) and the story of the poverty-stricken widow (Mk 12:41-44). Both loving God to the neglect of others (e.g., ivory tower religiosity) and loving others to the neglect of God (e.g., secular social justice) fall short of the greatest commandment.
The legalism that pervaded Judaism in Jesus’ day completely missed the point of the Old Testament. It made Judaism into a man-centered religion. The Law was never meant to be a means of earning God’s favor or a yoke of oppression forced on others. No one can come to God on his own. God’s favor cannot be bought, earned, worked for, or deserved. It is something He freely bestows according to the kind intentions of his will which he purposed in himself (Eph 1:9). The Old Testament was a book which emphasized God’s grace and man’s faith. Of course the Law regulated life in God’s holy presence, but this standard of holiness served to show men just how far they fell short of it. It was meant to show them how desperately they needed to depend on God’s grace to save them from their sin. This was the whole point of the sacrificial system—to constantly remind them of their depravity and inability. John Sailhamer writes, “The purpose of the Pentateuch is not to teach a life of obedience to the law given to Moses at Sinai, but to be narrative admonition to be like Abraham, who did not live under the law and yet fulfilled the law through a life of faith.”
What made Jesus’ answer so profound was not only that it reoriented the religious leader’s thoughts back toward God, but it was a concise, comprehensive, consistent, convicting, and constructive answer.
Oftentimes Jesus would teach and answer questions with a parable or a lengthy sermon. But in response to this question, he gave a direct and concise answer. When someone gives a concise answer to a complicated question, two things are clear: 1) they already have a deep understanding of the topic, and 2) they are providing you with the central, cohesive element of the topic—the linchpin. Jesus explained, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:40). Without being simplistic or reductionistic, like a keystone, this command is the apex of God’s revelation. It locks all other pieces into position and reveals their ultimate meaning and purpose.
The man who asked the question was probably expecting Jesus to answer with one of the Ten Commandments. Rather than simply giving one, Jesus gave a two-part answer which incorporated all of them. The Ten Commandments clearly break into two parts. The first four commands delineate man’s responsibility to God (vertical). The last six delineate man’s responsibility to his fellow man (horizontal). God’s design in creation and redemption was to produce a people who would reflect his glory and lavish his quality of love on one another. In his treatise, “The End for Which God Created the World,” Jonathon Edwards establishes from the Scriptures that man’s chief end—to glorify God—corresponds with God’s chief end in creation—to glorify Himself. This command summarizes the point of every other command, imperative, principle, and piece of wisdom in the rest of the Scriptures.
Jesus did not give a new command. He did not reinvent Judaism. He did not reinterpret the Scriptures. Rather, his answer was consistent both with God’s plan in the Old and the New Covenant (OT and NT). His answer did not contradict any inspired revelation up to that point in time or any to be progressively revealed. This great command is compatible with the first command in the garden, God’s call to Abram, the Ten Commandments, his requirement for kings, Solomon’s wisdom, Jesus’ life and teaching, Paul’s admonitions, and life in the future kingdom. Various views of the Law—such as legalism and antinomianism—are inconsistent with the grand redemptive story. We were never meant to define ourselves by our relation to the Law, but by our relation to the Law-Giver—who fulfilled the Law for us, secured our justification, and modeled for us how to live.
This answer, as mentioned above, was piercing to the heart. If Jesus had given one of the Ten Commandments, there may have been some individuals, like the rich young ruler (Matt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30), who could claim perfection in that one area. But Jesus gave an all-inclusive command guaranteed to humble even the most sacrosanct, self-righteous holy-roller. No one can claim absolute perfection. When the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery and asked Jesus what they should do, he said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7). One by one, all of them walked away. This is what the greatest command does. There is a paradox here. Only Jesus can and has fulfilled this command. It is to be our greatest aim, but no one will perfectly fulfill it in this life. It is guaranteed to bring conviction to every individual at every point in his life, whether he has been regenerated for 50 days or 50 years.
Let’s be honest. When we think of a command, we typically think of a prohibition: “You shall not . . .” What is so captivating about the greatest commandment is that it is positive. Nobody likes the guy who always communicates what he is against, but doesn’t know what he is for. Nobody likes simple negative criticism. We want constructive criticism. Criticism we can work with. Criticism that builds up rather than tears down. Criticism that moves us forward rather than simply stops us in our tracks. In his answer, Jesus provides us with something to pursue, rather than something to simply discontinue.
Just as the picture above is snapshot consistent with the whole, so Jesus’s answer is the point of the whole forest and each individual tree. The Bible can be daunting. It is easy to get lost in its arduous twists and turns and its eclectic literary corpus, not to mention the complicated relationship between the Law and Gospel. But Jesus, the master teacher, has provided us with the key to understanding it all. This profound answer by Jesus significantly informs our biblical, systematic, and practical theology. The greatest commandment truly is the warp and woof, the very fabric of the Christian life.
In honor of my site’s name, Maximum Mandatum, I will be doing a series entitled “Understanding the Greatest Commandment.” Some of the topics I plan on discussing in their relation to this command are:
- The Basis—Theology Proper
- The Essence—Love
- Image of God—Anthropology
- The Fall—Hamartiology
- The Abrahamic Covenant
- The Mosaic Covenant
- The Davidic Covenant
- The Josianic Reformation
- The New Covenant
- The Life of Jesus—Christology
- The Church—Ecclesiology
- The Kingdom—Eschatology
My goal is to help you gain a deeper understanding of the greatest commandment and the metanarrative of Scripture. Just as a keystone simultaneously holds the arch together and is upheld by the others stones, the greatest commandment augments our understanding of the Scriptures while the Scriptures augment our understanding of the greatest commandment. The above list is simply my guide. Don’t expect me to stick to it rigidly. I may add a few posts in the middle or at the end on specific issues that might arise which are worthy of further investigation. To better understand the name of this site and my love for the greatest commandment, check out my former post What’s In A Name? My Intentions for This Blog.
 John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 14.