The Greatest Commandment


The Pharisees and Sadducees were the dominant sects of Judaism during the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. They took every opportunity to challenge the teachings of Yeshua. John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers.

On one occasion, the Sadducees (who did not believe in a resurrection) confronted Jesus regarding the issue of marriage in heaven. Under Levitical law it was possible that a woman could have several husbands throughout her lifetime. If a husband died having no children, his brother could marry the woman and raise up children in the name of the deceased kin for the purpose of continuing the family line. They asked Jesus, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” They were testing His adherence to Mosaic law for they condemned as heretical spiritualism the teaching of miracles and raising of the dead. Jesus simply told them that they did not understand scripture nor the power of God for there would be no marriage in heaven; and the Father is not God of the dead but of the living. Matthew 22:33 records that the crowd was astonished at His teaching.

Now the lawyers (Pharisees) were observing this exchange between the Sadducees and Jesus, and they sought to test His faithfulness to the law of Moses by asking Him directly, which is the greatest commandment? The Pharisees were legally expert at applying the Torah (or law) to the degree that it had become a ritualistic exercise devoid of compassion and grace. Of the Ten Commandments, the first four dealt with man’s relationship to God, while the remaining six concerned man’s relationship to his community. How would Jesus answer this question? The Pharisees were plotting to convict Jesus for by His answer they hoped to charge Him with blasphemy.

Matthew records that the Lord answered them from the Book of Deuteronomy:

Jesus said, “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 neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37-40).

What an amazing and convicting response. To love God fulfills the first four commandments, and to love your neighbor fulfills the remaining six. Love is the greatest commandment. From the book of the law, Jesus silenced the lawyers.

[It is interesting to note that Jesus often quoted from the ‘copy of the law’ (Deuteronomy) as He did when tested by Satan. Our Lord taught the kingdom of heaven and God from the books of the Pentateuch as the B’rit Chadashah (New Testament) had not yet been written.]

In the Gospel of Luke we read about a lawyer who asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lord responded by asking the lawyer, “What is written in the Law?” Jesus was making a point that the scribes and Pharisees were so rooted in the letter of the law that they had become blind to its meaning and truth. So the lawyer referred to the passage in Deuteronomy about loving God and your neighbor, but he asked of Jesus (hoping to trap Him), “Who is my neighbor?” Yeshua then told the parable of the Good Samaritan about the man who was beaten, robbed and left for dead on the road to Jericho. A Levite and a priest looked upon the victim with a blind eye and passed by on the other side of the road. The Pharisees and scribes knew the letter of the law, but not the spirit. (To add insult to injury, Jesus revealed that a Samaritan—considered an unclean dog by the Jews—stopped to help the injured man.)

Who is my neighbor? The disabled vet, bound to a wheelchair, sitting in front of the corner store asking for change every morning; the widow living on the next block who always greets you with a smile as you walk your dog in the evening; and the fatherless child who stands with her mother every day in a long, hot line at the downtown soup kitchen; and, yes, even the person who lives next door—the one you judge so harshly because of their unholy lifestyle.

The Word teaches that we are not to judge the world for God will judge the unrighteous. We were once unwashed and unclean for none are perfect and all have fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus said He did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. And He did that through love and compassion and grace. He was not derisive towards the woman at the well who was amazed that a Jew would even take notice of a Samaritan woman. He was not condemning of the woman caught in adultery, but instead rebuked her accusers. He loved sinners and chastised the scribes. This is opposite of how we think and act. If we are to become more perfect in the image of Christ, we must learn to love. That is how God can use us to bring lost sinners into a saving relationship with Him otherwise all the world sees in us is hypocrisy.

We love…we forgive…we receive with open arms. This is how an unsaved person sees our faith at work and is convicted in their heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. Love is, indeed, the greatest commandment for it fulfills the law completely.

But there are modern-day Pharisees within the messianic revival who exhort the brethren to follow the Torah. They have something in common with feel-good messengers such as Joel Osteen in that they never preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (Have you ever heard Osteen talk about the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord? Every Sunday he delivers a motivational speech followed by a sales pitch for a book full of cheery platitudes.)

The substance of some messianic teaching is the Law and nothing but the Law. There may be a gratuitous reference to Yeshua but the name Jesus Christ is never used as if that were an abomination! It is a legalistic theology that is absent the true meaning of grace by faith, leavened with a hardened and rigid focus centered on the law of Moses rather than the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. We need, like the Apostle Paul, to focus on the One who is the source of redemption and salvation. The law could not save us otherwise Christ need not have been crucified.

Paul wrote that he determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. He admonished the Romans that whosoever lives by the Law will die by the Law for no flesh is justified through the Law. The Law and prophets all foreshadowed, or pointed to, the coming of Messiah. It is spiritually risky to keep looking back at Moses when Moses himself was looking forward towards the Christ. That is the meaning of Yeshua’s words that He came not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and prophets. When Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and Prophets) appeared with Christ at the Transfiguration, God manifestly declared, This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him! [Mk 9:7]

And, still, there are messianics who decree that we must follow Moses. This was the problem with the Galatian church that was being deceived by the legalists. Paul delivered unto them a harsh rebuke: You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Gal 5:4). The Apostle explained that saving faith is displayed by the Spirit through works of love and not the Law. They will know that we are His disciples by our love.

What is this love that works through the Spirit? We know that the gifts of prophecy, knowledge and tongues will pass away, but that the gift of love will endure. This is not the world’s love based on self-centered lust and desire, but it is a gift from the Holy Spirit that  never fails; is patient, kind and endures all things; and is not arrogant, boastful or jealous. Paul wrote that faith, hope and love abide; but the greatest of these is love.

John teaches (1Jn 4:18-19) that perfect love casts out all fear, and that we love because He loved us first; and those who abide in love abide in Him; and that this love is perfected within us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgement. Praise the Lord!

One of our favorite passages of scripture is found in the Gospel of John (Jn 14:23-24):

Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.

How great and awesome is our God that He loved us while we were yet sinners! We can do no less than to love Him even as He first loved us. Do we, then, obey Moses and Elijah? Jesus said, If you love Me you will keep My commandments (John 14:15).

And, as we have learned, His greatest commandment is love.

Next: An Obedient Heart