The Pharisees thought they knew better than Jesus Christ. What did He know about the greatest commandment that they didn’t?
During His ministry on earth, Jesus Christ was asked many questions. Some questions were asked by people who wanted to understand the truth. Others were asked in an attempt to find a reason to accuse Him. Mark 12 and Matthew 22 record one of these exchanges when He was questioned about the greatest commandment.
What is the great commandment?
“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’
“Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:28-31).
The Greek word translated “first” here means foremost or chief or greatest. The New American Standard Bible translates it “foremost.” The World English Bible has “greatest.” The New International Version translates it “most important.”
The source of the great commandment
Jesus answered this Pharisee’s question by quoting a very important section of the Old Testament from the book of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Christ started with the Shema (from the Hebrew “to hear”), a passage that devout Jews prayed twice daily.
He quoted the second great commandment from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
The great commandment in the book of Matthew
The parallel account in Matthew 22 records more details. We see in Matthew 22 that three of the main political and religious groups of the day sent representatives to try to “entangle Him in His talk” (verse 15). They were trying to trick Jesus into saying something wrong so that they might have a reason to discredit Him before the people, since they were jealous of His popularity.
God alone is worthy of worship. As Creator of all, He commands us to honor and respect Him above all other things. When we divide our affection between God and things, we cannot love Him the way He commands.“But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’” (Matthew 22:34-36).
The Jewish historian Josephus refers to some of the controversies that took place at the time of Christ between the different sects of the Pharisees. The two main schools, Hillel and Shammai, argued over subjects such as divorce, hand washing, the purpose of the Sabbath, whether gentiles could be saved and, of course, what was the greatest commandment. Perhaps the question posed in Matthew 22 was an attempt to identify which school Jesus followed.
Regardless of why the question was asked, what is important to consider is how Christ answered it.
Two greatest commandments
“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
None of the differing religious groups could disagree that the law, and especially the 10 Commandments, was summed up in these two ideas—love toward God and love toward neighbor. So Jesus answered the question in a way that the Pharisees could not argue with, and that also did not allow them to lump Him with any particular sect.
The great commandment: Love toward God
How do these two great commandments summarize God’s law? The first four commandments teach us to love God.
The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). God alone is worthy of worship. As Creator of all, He commands us to honor and respect Him above all other things. When we divide our affection between God and things, we cannot love Him the way He commands. “You cannot serve God and mammon [wealth or money]” (Luke 16:13).
The Second Commandment also shows how to love God: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
This command naturally follows the first. God, the Creator of all, is above all, and we must not worship an image or representation of Him. Jesus Christ summed it up when He said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
The Third Commandment teaches us to respect and reverence God’s name. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
When we use God’s name, we must understand the Being and authority behind that name. Using it disrespectfully is an affront to God; whereas using it in a respectful way helps us show respect to God. This teaches us to love God.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, He prayed that God would “keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (John 17:11). God’s people are kept through God’s holy name.
The Fourth Commandment teaches us to love God for and through the gift that He has given us, the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. … For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11).
God rested on the Sabbath day. He blessed it and made it holy, and He commands us to keep it holy as well. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man and that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). When we rest in accordance with His command, we show God our desire to obey Him and grow in love for Him.
Loving the God who loves us
Our Creator God deeply loves us and has given us everything we have and, much more than that, He has offered us the unimaginable blessing of eternal life as His children (1 John 3:1-2). To do this, He gave a most precious gift:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Our only reasonable response to such great love is to try to love Him in return. Thankfully He has revealed to us how to love Him as wants to be loved. He shows us how to please Him. These things are revealed in the first four of the 10 Commandments, and in “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
The second great commandment: Love toward neighbor
The second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is magnified by the last six of the 10 Commandments, and we have articles on each of these.
The apostle Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, who called God’s law “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12), also summarized the motivation and spiritual intent of the last six commandments in a similar way:
“Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).
Love motivates us to obey these commandments not only in the letter, but in the spirit.
Love and the spirit of the law
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expanded on the commandments to show the spirit of the law, motivated by love.
For example, not only should we not murder, but we should not be angry without a cause or call someone bad names. Love means seeking reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-24).
And not only should we not commit adultery, but we should not look at someone with lust (verses 27-28), which is selfish and not loving.
The great commandment and a matter of motives
What is very interesting about the Pharisee’s question is that the Pharisee had evil intentions. He was not showing love in posing the question about the great commandment. He was trying to set a trap to have a reason to accuse Christ.
But Jesus Christ did not fall into that trap. He answered the question in a way that no one could argue with. He demonstrated love toward God and love toward neighbor in showing what the great commandment is.
For further study, read the article “Are the 10 Commandments Upheld in the New Testament?”