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The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22:34-40(KJV)

But when the Pharisees heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I. The Ten Commandments

Also known as the "Decalogue", the Ten Commandments are listed in the biblical books of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and are important and central in Jewish and Christian teaching and worship. A number of other religions also recognize these as basic rules for all mankind, but some groups number or interpret them differently.

The lawyer (Mark calls him a scribe) didn't ask which was the first commandment. That would have been a no-brainer. The first of the ten is Thou shalt have none other gods before me.

The King James Bible says "the great commandment" but this can be misleading. Are other commandments inferior? The word translated "great" is the Greek megas, which means "weighty" or "important." The context would indicate "more important than the others." In Mark's gospel, the questioner uses the word protos which also gives the idea of priority.

Jesus answered, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The questioner replied, "well said!" (Mark 12:32). The Sadducees, Pharisees, Scribes, Priests and Rabbis may have agreed with Christ's answer, but their problem was disobedience, not ignorance.

The Jewish leaders were familiar with thousands of laws or commandments, many of which were of their own invention. Probably no two leaders of the Jews could agree about which commandment was most important. They all had their favorites and some played them out like cards in a game of Poker; it all depended on what the other person played.

II. The "Greatest" Commandment

Jesus knew the Ten Commandments, but he also knew how the Old Testament prophets interpreted and taught them. And he was well aware of the Jew's propensity for creating new commandments. I found over 30 places in the O.T. where prophets expounded upon and explained the schema. This was what Jewish leaders called the greatest commandment. Following are just ten of those references:

1.) Deuteronomy 4:29 But if from thence thou shalt seek the LORD thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.

2.) Deuteronomy 6:5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

3.) Deuteronomy 10:12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul,

4.) Deuteronomy 11:13b … hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

5.) Deuteronomy 26:16 This day the LORD thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments: thou shalt therefore keep and do them with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.

6.) Deuteronomy 30:2 And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.

7.) Deuteronomy30:10 If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if thou turn unto the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.

8.) Joshua_22:5 But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the LORD charged you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

9. 2) Kings 23:3 And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant.

10.) 2 Chronicles 15:12 And they entered into a covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul.

III. "Double Whammy" Reply

The Lord not only told the scribe and others listening which was the greatest commandment, but he named another commandment, which he said was equal to the first! That second commandment was and still is referred to as "the Golden Rule." Before we look closer at the Golden Rule, I want to give some background information.

Most Jews and Christians are familiar with the Golden Rule, but few are familiar with its origin. First of all, the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. Nor is it given any special attention in the Old Testament. In fact, it seems to be hidden away in Leviticus 19 where few would discover it.

Leviticus 19 begins, "And the LORD spake…"
In verse 2, God commands Moses to share his words with the entire congregation of Israel.

Verse 3 commands the people to honor their parents and keep the Lord's Sabbath.

Verse 4 warns about making and worshipping idols.

Verses 5 - 8 have to do with sacrifices and warn of the death penalty for those who disregard these instructions.

In verse 8, right after declaring the death penalty for not following instructions, are those five famous words: "Love Your Neighbor as Yourself." They seem to be tacked onto verse eight without much thought.

Verses 9 - 36 continue with various rules, commands and warnings that seem rather trivial or routine. Let me share a few of these with you:

When you reap a harvest on your property, leave some gleanings for the poor. The same goes for your vineyard. Leave some for the poor and strangers (travelers).

Don't steal, cheat or lie to each other.

Don't swear falsely, or profane the name of God.

Don't defraud or rob your neighbor. Pay your hired hands immediately.

Don't curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in the path of a blind person.

Be fair in your judgments and don't show disrespect for the poor or give advantage to the influential.

Don't gossip, show animosity against your neighbor or wish evil upon him. Don't hate your brother. Don't hold grudges against others but – here it is again in verse 18: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

Don't let your cattle cross-breed. Don't sow different kinds of seed in the same field or make garments of linen mixed with wool.

Sexual relations with servants is forbidden.

Landowners are instructed not to eat fruit from trees until the fifth year.

All are forbidden to eat meat with the blood.

Sorcery, enchantment and observing stars is forbidden.

Don't trim the corners of your hair or beard. Tattoos and cutting of the flesh are also forbidden.

Encouraging a daughter to prostitution is forbidden.

All are commanded to keep the Sabbath and respect the sanctuary.

Wizardry and spiritism are forbidden.

We should respect the elderly and fear God.

Don't mistreat strangers, but love them as yourself (there it is a third time!).

Don't cheat but have accurate balances, weights and measures.

Finally, in verse 37: "Therefore shall ye observe all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: I am the LORD."

The Jews accredited the “golden rule” to Rabbi Hillel, Grandfather of Gamaliel, who taught the Apostle Paul. Hillel was recognized as the greatest Rabbi who ever lived until his grandson Gamaliel was given that recognition.

Many Christians think the Golden Rule originated with Jesus. But both our Lord and Hillel were referring to this obscure command hidden away, yet mentioned three times in Leviticus 19.

Hillel’s Golden Rule was in the negative form, “Do not do unto another that which you would not want done to you.” Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which reflects the original text in Leviticus 19.

IV. A Closer Look at the Golden Rule

The Apostle James called the golden rule the “royal law” and declared that it is basically a good rule, but then he revealed the down side: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin (James 2::8. 9). The Apostle Paul taught similarly in Galatians 5:14-16, For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

So we see that the Golden Rule has its problems. We read in the news about distraught mothers who kill their own children before committing suicide. They love their children as themselves. A drug addict once told me that he would share his last fix of heroin with a friend in need. Many marriages are dissolved on grounds of incompatibility even though both partners attempt to live by the golden rule. They love each other as they love themselves. You have perhaps heard the saying, “Marriage is a matter of give and take.” If it is only that, it may be doomed. A healthy marriage involves giving and receiving, but never “taking.” If one partner gives more than the other, there may be problems, but love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8; Proverbs 10:12). Loving your neighbor as self is a fleshly thing, but we are to love each other with a godly love. Agape love gives, expecting nothing in return.

In John 13:34, Jesus gave the “golden rule” a powerful new twist: A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. The “golden rule” was superseded by the “new commandment” or the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

When Jesus used the word agape (love) and introduced the Golden Rule, it became clear to all listeners that he was not speaking of rank as in the military. Love goes much deeper that that!

There is a lot of talk about love these days, but in most cases, it is self-love, that which makes US feel good. We love ice cream and chocolate and we love some people.

Jesus said that we should love each other as he loved us. He described that love in the Sermon on the Mount: Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48) Jesus gave his life for the worst of sinners. That is ultimate love!

The “new commandment” or the “law of Christ” gives mankind an entirely new precedent. And our Lord is absolutely consequent in his teaching, calling his disciples to follow that grand example: Just as the father hath sent me, so send I you (John 20:21).

According to the old version of the “golden rule,” logic demands that all participants in a debate be considered equal. But the “new commandment” or “law of Christ” goes one step further and gives the other party preference. Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love [agape], being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:2-8).

Even as Christ “humbled himself,” so we are to humble ourselves – to make personal sacrifices in reaching out to each other, our spouse, our neighbors and even those who persecute us (Matthew 5:11 and 43; Romans 12:14). We are living in an age characterized by a rule called “tolerance,” which not only disregards the “Law of Christ,” but the greater commandment and the golden rule as well.

V. The Church's Neglect of Both the Greater Commandment and the New Commandment

Many pastors, preachers and evangelists give "itching ear invitations." They shortchange the gospel and offer what people want and enjoy. They promise peace, joy, happiness, healing and prosperity. They assure listeners of the blessings of salvation, comfort, answered prayer, provision of needs and promise heaven when you die, but they leave out what Jesus called the "first" or "great" commandment.

Campus Crusade tells sinners, "God has a wonderful plan for your life." The popular "Romans Road" tract (found in many Gideon Bibles) also leaves out the first commandment. I always include Romans 12:1-2, I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. These verses are quite similar to the greater commandment which Jesus spoke of: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

In an age when most people are social media addicts, seeking followers and admirers, Christians should be be witnessing and seeking to lead these people to Christ who alone deserves glory and praise. I pray that we will not conform to this world: but rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Saul was trying to be a good Pharisee with all his heart and soul, with all his strength, but he was not obeying the greater commandment. He persecuted those who sought to obey it. Saul must have wondered about his Pharisee colleagues who would argue with the Sadducees for hours about the resurrection of the dead, yet who bribed the soldiers who guarded the tomb to tell a lie – that the disciples had stolen the body. When they called the apostles before the Sanhedrin for preaching that Christ was risen, they never accused them of stealing the body of Christ! They just warned them of consequences if they continued to preach the gospel (good news!) of a risen Christ.

Ralph V Harvey