The Two Greatest Commandments

by J. Randal Matheny, editor
biblelove.jpgJesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:29-31 NET
When Jesus declared, in conversation with a scribe, the two greatest commandments in Scripture, he provided us with great insight into the heart of God and the new covenant.
#1. Hierarchy of the Commandments
Though no hierarchy exists among members of the body of Christ, some commandments of God are more important than others. These two are more basic, more sweeping in their range than any other.
Paul can also talk about the “greater gifts” and urges the Corinthians to seek, more than tongues, the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1 NET). The discussion of gifts is also crowned by a discussion of love (chap. 13) and the next chapter equates the power of edification as the measure of what makes a gift great in the church.
Likewise, since “God is love,” we should not be surprised that love for him and for one’s neighbor should top the list of the commandments (1 John 4:16).
#2. History of the Commandments
The Bible is not a lawbook or manual, but a history of God’s salvation. Jesus took these two commandments from different books of the Old Testament.
The first one the Jews recited twice daily. Edersheim mentions that the “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 was written on “little parchment rolls specially for the use of children.”/1
The second one was buried in the book of Leviticus (19:18), among rules about harvest gleanings and holding grudges.
Jesus joined them together as the ultimate expression of man’s spiritual and ethical obligation.
Neither the Old or New Testament are law books. They contain a story, many stories, and the standard for our behavior is tied to the main character in that story — God himself.
This two-item list also was not placed on tablets of stone nor on a billboard to flash at passers-by. They make up part of a conversation between Jesus and a scribe.
We enter that coversation when we listen and laud, like the scribe, the wisdom and truth of the Lord.
#3. Harmony of the Commandments
It’s clear these two commandments were meant for the new covenant as well. When the scribe praised Jesus for citing them and developed his thought a bit, Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
End of argument, end of story.
But what didn’t end was the place in God’s plan for commandments.
New Testament grace didn’t extinguish the need for old-time obedience.
Commandments are such a part of the new covenant that Peter tags the Christian faith as “holy commandment” (2 Peter 2:21).
The Two Biggies
As the two greatest commandments, this passage and the parallel passages in Matthew (22:34-40) and Luke (10:25-37) deserve our keenest study, as well as the Old Testament texts from which they were quoted.
And, as the gospel of Luke reminds us, not only our study, but our practice.
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1/ Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Life, chapter 7.

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