What is the greatest commandment in the Bible?
The great commandment is a term that is used to describe what Jesus says in Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:27. In these accounts Jesus is asked what the most important thing for people of God to do. His answer is brilliant.
In essence what Jesus does is distill the entire Bible into one commandment. Well, really it’s two commandments combined into one. More on that later.
But this passage of Scripture should be a foundational mark for every follower of Jesus. It deserves a closer look. So let’s dive into the great commandment.
The Setting Of The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:27)
Three gospels record Jesus talking about the great commandment. There are small variations in each of the accounts, but the main details are the same. We will primarily focus on Matthew 22:36-40 in this blog post.
When we read the Bible it’s important to read it in context. That means that we read the verses before and after. This gives us a better picture of what is happening.
In Matthew 22, before and after the great commandment, Jesus is enthralled in a heated conflict with the religious leaders. They are throwing question after question at him trying to trap him in his answers.
As Jesus continues teaching and the religious leaders keep asking questions a common theme unfolds. They ask, Jesus answers, and they are astonished. They can’t trip him up. He continually answers perfectly.
This is making the religious leaders look foolish and they are getting angry. In the coming chapters of Matthew we will see them get more and more aggressive at trying to stop Jesus.
The context of the great commandment is one of building tension. A widening gap between Jesus and the religious. What’s clear is they have different agendas. The religious want to keep the power for themselves and are placing unnecessary burdens on people. Jesus came to love and set free. They are at odds.
It’s in this context that we see Jesus give us these now famous words. So, what is the greatest commandment in the Bible? Let’s jump in.
What Is Jesus’ Greatest Commandment?
After a series of failed attempts to trip Jesus up the religious leaders select an expert in the law as their spokesman. This guy knew his stuff. He was both an expert in theology and law, and he steps up to test Jesus and prove his quality. (Matthew 22:34-35)
The Pharisee asks Jesus a controversial question that was commonly debated among religious experts. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36)
Now the Mosaic Law contained 613 commandments. It would be near impossible for one to perfectly keep all these laws. So typically the religious would divide the laws into the heavy (more important) and light (less important). The Pharisees taught the Jews needed to follow all the laws, but to pay closer attention to the heavy ones.
In essence what this lawyer is asking is, which one of the heavies is most important?
Remember this is a hotly debated topic. The religious leaders are split, they don’t have an answer. And they certainly don’t expect Jesus to nail it. But he does.
Jesus answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:38-40
Jesus’ answer comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. And what he’s saying is the greatest commanded isn’t a single commandment, rather two that are tied together. You cannot have one without the other.
The terms Jesus uses (heart, soul, and mind) are used to cover the WHOLE person. In other words, Jesus is sayings that we are to love God with our whole being. Dr Tom Constable says that we are to “love God preeminently and unreservedly.”
But that’s not all there is to the great commandment. Matthew 22:38 tacks on an “and” that serves to clarify how we live this out. The first command is great because it is primary. But the second is equal in character and quality.
You cannot untie these two from one another. As we love God with our whole being we must love our neighbors. You cannot do one without the other.
The rest of the Old Testament hangs on these two commandments.
Dr Tom Constable says it this way: “All the other laws deal with specific applications of one or the other of these two commands. The prophets consistently stressed the importance of heart reality with God and genuine love for one’s neighbor. Without these two commandments the Old Testament lacks unifying summaries. These are the most important commandments, but they are not the only ones.”
So, what is the greatest commandment in the Bible? Love God, love others. Everything else in the Bible flows from these two commandments.
This was revolutionary. Jesus brilliantly simplified and explained what we are to do. Everything else is just commentary on how we can love God and love those around us. That is what we are to do. These are our marching orders.
For more on the Old Testament Law and how to live in light of the New Covenant check out: What Jesus Says About The Law
Applying The Great Commandment To Our Lives
So, how do do we live out the greatest commandment?
It’s important that we don’t lose sight of our motive to live out the great commandment. We don’t do this to earn salvation, but in response to. We love because we were first loved.
I see far too many Christians running around trying to do the right things to earn their keep. Unfortunately many churches have taught this. That we need to do what God says so that he will love us, accept us, and save us.
But the Bible teaches a different approach. We don’t love to earn love; we love because we are loved.
With the proper motivation in mind let’s look at how we can practically live out the great commandment.
When Jesus says to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, he’s talking how loving God with every single aspect of who we are. No part of our life should be left out.
Maybe that seems a little demanding. And it is. Two things to keep in mind. First, God has given us the free will to decide to follow him or not. We are not forced. Second, it’s for our benefit. When we live for ourselves it never produces what we hope.
Be honest with yourself. That part of your life that you haven’t given over to God, is it life giving or life draining? When we ignore what God says is best, it doesn’t lead to a full life.
The only way to get the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness that God promised is to give our lives fully to him. Those who choose to follow Jesus should submit every aspect of their life to God so that they can experience all that he has for them.
Again, this isn’t to earn anything. This is in response to what Jesus has done. He’s proven his love and commitment to us. He’s shown us that he deeply cares about us. Now it’s our turn to show our trust that what he says for us is indeed what is best.
Our love for God should not stop with God, it should flow to those around us. You cannot love God while neglecting those around you.
While most will certainly agree with the second piece to the great commandment, living it out is another story. Some people are easy to love, others not so much. And we are called not to just love our friends, but also those who are difficult to love.
Lest we forget that we aren’t so easy to love either. Yet God still loves us.
Our love for God should be evident in how we treat those around us. Including our enemies.
This is what Jesus says will be the marker for Christians. We shall be known for our love for one another (John 13:35).
We are to take the love that God has shown us and bring it to the world around us.
For more check out: How To Love Your Enemies (5 practical ways to live this out)
Closing Thoughts On “What Is Jesus’ Greatest Commandment?”
The beauty of Jesus’ words is their simplicity. He sums up the entire Bible in a way no one else could. But that’s not to say the great commandment is easy. It’s simple to understand, but it takes a lifetime to master.
And that’s where God’s grace comes in. We will all struggle and constantly screw this up. But God is faithful. He will lift us up when we fall and help us look more like him each day.
We should continually strive to submit every area of our life to God and love those around us as a response to what God has done for us. We will never be perfect on this side of heaven, but we will make progress.
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