The Greatest Commandment: The Very Heart of the Matter

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

[Published in Decision magazine 41/12 (Dec., 2000) 31-34.  Used with permission.]


The Ten Commandments represent God’s own summary of our duties toward Him.  How valuable to have God lay out His instructions in a space of only 17 verses.  But how difficult it proves to obey them, when our hearts have gone astray!

Struggles and Questions

One month, while I was in college, I struggled with what it meant to obey God and follow him.  I went from one extreme to another.  For awhile I devoted myself fanatically to obeying commandments.  But I became stiff and artificial in my obedience.  People must have wondered whether there was a real person behind the appearance.  On top of it all, I was miserable.  I came to my senses only when a fellow Christian reminded me of God’s love.  God’s grace to me did not depend on my scrupulosity, but on his forgiveness and on the fact that he accepted me through Jesus Christ.  How could I have forgotten such a basic truth?!

So I went to the other extreme.  Feeling myself free because of God’s love, I decided to do what I wanted, regardless of what anyone thought.  But then another Christian brother had to take me aside and gently point out to me that I was hurting other people by not showing consideration for them.

I had to take stock.  Neither of my two ways worked.  Neither had really honored God.  So what was the answer?  I did not know.  I decided that I had to follow Christ and have personal communion with him, without having a simple formula.

The Greatest Commandment

If I had known it, I could have received decisive guidance from a passage in Matthew where Jesus indicates how to serve God. One of the Pharisees tested Jesus with a question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 NIV).  Jesus replied, ” ‘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 22:37-40 NIV).

Loving God

The Pharisees prided themselves on meticulous observance of the Law.  They not only knew the Ten Commandments, but they paid rigorous attention to all the laws in the books of Moses–613 laws1 according to a traditional count.  They tried to reason out the implications of the laws, and to make sure that they avoided even the possibility of violating any of them.

But the Pharisees had lost sight of the very heart of the matter–loving God.  Without love for God, the external observance of the commandments becomes an empty form.  In another place Jesus specifically warned of the danger: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26 NIV).

Loving God means receiving cleansing inside first.  Only in this way is our obedience genuine.  Otherwise, even though we may appear to others to be righteous, our obedience is corrupted by bad motives.

God himself gave us the central commandment to love God, along with the other commandments (Deuteronomoy 6:1-25).  This central command helps to define the spirit in which we must keep all the other commandments.  If we are not ardently following this one command, we are not really keeping any of the others either.

The example of the Pharisees shows that when we fail to be in communion with God personally, and to love him fervently, we also become prone to misinterpret the Bible.  Jesus bluntly told the Sadducees that they misinterpreted Scripture: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 RSV).  Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the scribes because they transgressed the Commandment of God for the sake of their traditions (Matthew 15:3).

Full Devotion

What then does Jesus say?  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37 NIV).  Heart and soul and mind are not three distinct small pieces of ourselves that we may offer. They all point to what we really are.  The Bible indicates that our heart is central: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.  For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 NIV).  Everything we are and have, beginning with our inmost commitments and all our thoughts, we must devote to loving, adoring, and serving God.

The Heartbeat of All the Commandments

Jesus then said, that “[to love God] is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:38 NIV).  It is first and greatest in that it represents the heart-beat of all the commandments.

Note that it is the first Commandment, but not the only one. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 RSV).  That is, if we truly love God, we will keep all the other commandments as well as this greatest one.

Today we also need this reminder about obeying all the commandments of God.  Some people today understand “love” as merely a happy feeling of friendliness or good will.  They think that, provided they feel good about the idea of God, they may do as they please.  Indeed, an approach called “situation ethics” has claimed that love replaced all the commandments.  But that is not a Biblical conception of loving God.  Love does not replace Commandments.  Love gives us the right motive so that we genuinely can obey the Commandments.

This is true even on a human level.  What would a mother think if her eight-year-old boy is constantly saying that he loves her, but then disobeys, back-talks, and never helps out?  In First John we read, “Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18 NIV).

Really loving God means honoring Him, revering Him, and paying close attention to His desires as expressed in the Bible.  And not only are we to pay attention, but we are to obey.  The Bible warns, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV).

The Right Way

What wise direction Jesus gives!  He shows us how to avoid both the errors that I fell into in college. On the one side, Jesuse directs us beyond legalism by starting with the central issue of our communion with God.  Are we really devoted to God or to ourselves?  Have we asked God to clean our hearts?

On the other side, he leads us beyond an irresponsible idea of freedom by indicating that God does really expect us to obey him, not just have good feelings or wishes.  God wants us to please Him by following the ways He has revealed, not by making up our own ways and calling them religious.

Loving Your Neighbor

Jesus added something more to the greatest Commandment: “The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matthew 22:39 NIV).  In First John the connection is explicit: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19-21 NIV).

Loving God empowers us to love other people. The Commandments not to murder (Exodus 20:13) and not to steal (Exodus 20:15) are not just about refraining from evil.  When seen in the light of the fundamental principle of loving others, they imply that we should look for positive ways to enhance the life and prosperity of our neighbors.  The focus on love helps us not to settle for a minimum concern for neighbors, but to reach out to them.  Love helps us to understand the real thrust of the commandments, and to give us concern for actual obeying, not merely listening (James 1:22).

Measuring Up to the Standard

When we read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), we begin to see some of the deep implications of God’s commandments, and we need to ask ourselves, “Who can do all this?”  “How can I measure up to a standard that asks for perfect motivations as well as full outward obedience?

You and I do not measure up.  But there is One who does.  We read in First John, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NASB).

Jesus loved us perfectly and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).  He saved us when none of us could save ourselves (Romans 5:6-10).  And now, when we put our trust in him, we are united to him, and we are transformed so that we can imitate the pattern of his love: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 RSV).  Through Jesus Christ we receive not only understanding of God’s will, but power and motivation to serve Him.  In receiving His love, we can, in turn, love others.

Bible verses marked NIV are taken by permission from The Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Bible verses marked NASB are taken by permission from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, California.


1 See New Testament Commentary: Matthew by William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Baker).


This article was taken from Decision magazine, December 2000; ©2000 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; used by permission, all rights reserved.

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