The Greatest Command
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 22:37a He said to him, “Love the Lord your God. . .”
I am glad the questioner asked this question. We needed to hear Jesus’ answer. In His reply, He again did what He loved to do. He quoted the Bible.
“Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength”. These verses, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, are called the Shema, meaning “Listen”, which is the first word of this passage. Faithful Jews quoted the Shema twice daily in their devotions. Jesus left no doubt as to what was most important.
“Your God” pile-drives Jesus’ message home. Luther said the essence of Christianity was its personal possessive pronouns. We are to love God as if He were ours, for He is. The interaction is personal, one on one, close-by communication, face to face inside. God is not indifferent as to how we feel about Him. He is a loving Father who wants His children’s love in return. Since this is vitally important to God, it should be vitally important to us.
Matt. 22:37b “. . .with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all
The thrice repeated “all” stresses a vital truth. For God, we are to use everything we are and have to the full. All our faculties, everything in us, must be enlisted in loving God. Our love for Him is to be undivided. To love God halfheartedly is not to love at all. Jesus is Lord of all or not Lord at all.
God wants us to love Him fervently. Few conditions are more painful to envision than duty done without love. Better to be overly excited than to have “the belt of ice forever round the heart” (Melvill). Deeds driven by fear are selfish, done to protect our own selves. Deeds impelled by conscience are arduous, extra hard to do. Fervent love for God makes obeying His laws easier, and intensifies flames of holiness. (Holiness matters most.)
It can be hard to make precise distinctions between “heart, soul, and mind”, yet Jesus obviously intended for each of the three to convey subtle nuances that help drive His point home. Thus we will try to analyze each.
Jesus commanded us to love God with all our “heart”. To the ancients, the heart was the piston driving our innermost machine, the center of devotion and emotions. To do our outward deeds right, we have to begin with our inside being right. A force deep within has to drive us forward.
Love is vital at the beginning and end of Christian service. Love is to be the impelling source of our deeds, and deeds are the proof of our love.
Jesus commanded us to love God with all our “soul”. This is our essence. We do not have a soul; we are a soul. Life itself must be obsessed with love for God. Our fixation should be to live with Him and for Him.
This condition entails an abiding rest in Him. He must be our very breath and life. If necessary, we must be willing to give up our life for Him.
We were created to love God. He left a God-shaped hole in us that has to be occupied with something. Only by filling it with Him do our souls find rest. Augustine said our hearts are restless till they find rest in God. If we love God we are content in the Beloved. We will do this forever in Heaven, the land of perfect love. Thus, loving Him with our soul previews Heaven.
Jesus commanded us to love God with all our “mind”. Lay your mind on the altar. Pray our thoughts will focus on, and float toward, Jesus. We should naturally think of Him in moments of rest, relaxation, and reflection.
When we become Christ-followers, we do not leave our brains at the door. With the mind, we accept truths God has revealed to us, and fear no intellectual challenge. We can defend our faith from any position, any discipline presented to us: social, historical, philosophical, anthropological, archaeological, etc. Our reasoning and understanding are confident in Him.
On a side note, in Mark 12:30 Jesus commanded us to love God with all our “strength”. All our energy should be His. Never hesitate or be afraid to work hard for the Master, even to the point of exhaustion when needed.
Matt. 22:38 This is the greatest and most important commandment.
The leaders quibbled over a list of 613 laws. Whatever command Jesus might have chosen would have angered any who disagreed with Him.
Jesus rose above their nitpicking. Rather than emphasize, as they often did, the negative, with what we should not do that we do, Jesus emphasized the positive, what we ought to do that we have not done (Phillips).
Jesus did not set mechanical rules, and pit one of the 613 laws against another. Rather than list their relative importance, He brought them together in one package, making the greatest command the hinge, the glue for all 613.
The command to love God is all-inclusive, all encompassing, wider than all other laws. As our highest duty, it contains the essence of holiness.
Let me illustrate this with sunflowers. What is most important law in a sunflower: doing photosynthesis, making buds, or producing flowers? Since a plant cannot exist without any one of the three, they are equally important.
If we have to determine importance, we must find something above these laws, something that makes them all possible. This is the role the sun fulfills. Sunflowers survive due to the sun. They lean toward it throughout the day because if they are doing photosynthesis, making buds, or producing flowers, in it all, the sun plays a part. What the sun is to flowers we must let love to God be for us. It must prompt and guide all we think and do.
If we start with listing items on a scale of varied importance, we can conveniently leave some things out. When we make a priority list such as God, family, church, job, school, hobbies, we tend to think of God less at each successive level. Life becomes too segmented when we do this.
For instance, some deem it important to worship God on Sunday, but not Monday to Saturday. Some faithfully minister in a church service, but not at home or work. Some do mission only on a mission trip, forgetting we are to be missionaries wherever we are. We have split personalities. Paul, pressing toward the goal of pleasing God, said, “One thing I do” (Phil. 3:13).
Rather than give us a list, Jesus taught us to begin with having God at the center of everything. Putting God at the center forces us to be mindful of Him at all times, to think of Him in everything we do. If God is at the center of our every thought and deed, He holds preeminent sway in all things.
On a personal note, I am glad to have a laser-focus to help me live the Christian life. I cannot master every detail of obedience to 613 laws—I can certainly learn principles and parameters from all of them—but here in what Jesus said I find a place to focus, to measure everything by. All my life is to be lived with reference to Him, in an atmosphere of what He wants of me.