The greatest command; it’s not what you think

Jesus was asked, what is the greatest commandment? And I’m convinced that his answer has been completely misunderstood by a lot of christians and the consequence is huge.

But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

Commands are not suggestions

To love the Lord with our entire being is by far the greatest commandment, with which no one would disagree. This command is not a suggestion, it’s not a good idea but rather it is a Holy command from the God of heaven and earth. The second, says Jesus, is like it; to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

Before I go any further (and jump into deep water) let me first say this; I completely affirm that we are to love God with all that we are and that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Now here comes the but…

The law and the prophets

These two commands are that which the entire law and the prophets depend on. This is often taught as meaning that these two commands summarise the law and the prophets, and rightly, that by keeping these two commands one would keep the whole of the law. Lets consider this a little closer and trust me, it matters:

  • The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments (NLT)
  • All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (NIV)
  • On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets (NASB)
  • On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (KJV)
  • These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them (MSG)

You get the point right, there is no real confusion about what Jesus is saying – upon these two commands the entire law and all of the demands of the prophets are seated. Everything that the Jewish listeners would have considered ‘scripture’ and ‘law’ was wrapped up, fulfilled, hung on and encapsulated in these two commands.

The problem

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3:23

Absolutely everybody falls short of God’s glorious standard for holiness (all that is except Jesus Christ). Not one person measures up! Measures up to what? The two commands that fulfil the law and the prophets of course!

Those two commands summarise and capture completely the requirements that were upon Israel as part of the covenant agreement God made with them.

These two commands summarise and capture completely the requirements that no one could keep! No one except Christ himself has been able to keep the law.

The problem many many Christians have created for themselves is that they read these commands and begin to think that not only do they have to seek to keep them but that it is actually possible! It’s not!

For if keeping these two commands was achievable by regular people Jesus would never have had to come and die on the cross. His death is evidence that we needed a saviour to reach down to how far short we had fallen and pick us up.

Shock and awe

A tactic in warfare is to try and overwhelm your enemy with so much firepower and brute strength that they surrender. This is the shock and awe tactic. Whilst I’m not trying to force anyones surrender, I am going to say some things that may shock and for some, create a mixed emotion of awe and… ‘oh really!?’ So here it comes…

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. – Romans 7:4-6

What shocks many people is to realise that we’ve not just been released from the penalty of the law, but of all of it’s requirements and commands. We longer offer sacrifices or wave offerings – neither do we stone people who commit adultery.

Paul puts it clearly, we who are dead to sin and alive to Christ have been released from the law and now we serve God in a new way, the way of the Spirit.

Again, I refer to my opening statements, I affirm and agree that we should love God and our neighbour, but the crazy thing is (and it does sound crazy), that we have been released from all of the law. All of it! Even these two commands! For if we are bound to just one part we would fall short all over again!

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Context really matters

What I feel many people miss when studying and preaching these two great commands (and they are indeed great!) is that the context is the ‘requirements of the old covenant’. Look again,

“…a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

See that? In the law? If the question had been, what’s the weirdest command in all the law? we would never had assumed that we need to strive to keep it because we would look at it and say, ‘yeh, but that’s old testament’. Yet somehow to label these two great commands as merely old testament somehow seems blasphemous and uncouth.

Yet this is exactly what the Good News of the Gospel is all about, that we have been released from the law of sin and death and have been set free to live according to the law of the spirit!

So how does having the wrong paradigm here about these commands cause so much error and consequence? Isn’t pursuing a life that loves God and our neighbour as our selves a good thing? Yes it is, but not at the expense of something that potentially is greater…

Old vs New

The old covenant was all about effort. It was all about our effort to keep the rules, obey the commands, follow the instructions and get it right. Human effort, the life of a slave and not that of a son. Falling back into ‘old covenant thinking’ is what Pauls letter to the Galatians was all about;

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

When we begin to think that our place before God, that our identity, value, worth, level of acceptance or holiness has anything to do with our ability to keep the law (or not keep it) we have fallen into the Galatian trap of ‘human effort’ and old covenant thinking. Whether we beat ourselves up for not working hard or good enough, or we become proud because we’ve worked so hard and become so good; both are wrong.

The new covenant imparts holiness and acceptance before God based on our faith in what we have heard, namely that Jesus is the Son of God who has become both Lord and Saviour.

When we put our faith in Jesus and not our law keeping effort, we are born again. Life starts a new. Hence Paul calls it a beginning!

My status before God is not built or torn down according to my ability to keep any part of the law

Sola fide – faith alone

The protestant reformation defined this as the doctrine of sola fide – faith alone. To say we are saved or sanctified through any means other than by faith alone is to add human effort to the cross. To assume or think that my holiness is based on my performance, even if slightly, is to start in the spirit but end up in the flesh. We are saved and sanctified through faith in Jesus and not by our work or effort – Thank God!!

The great command and it’s trap

So we are saved despite our poor performance and inability to keep the commands of God. Through faith in Jesus we no longer fall short of the glory of God but rather we’ve been raised to life with Jesus Christ;

even when we were dead in our trespasses, [he] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and [he] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… Ephesians 2:5-6

The trap that many well intentioned Christians have encountered is the overwhelming drive and motivation to love their neighbours as they love themselves.

Out of this pursuit people have developed ‘missions’, charity arms, welfare programs, helps ministries and all kinds of community service initiatives. All of these are good things, but when they are pursued in an effort to fulfil or to keep the ‘second greatest command’ it has become human effort.

Now you might disagree. You may think that to pursue these things is very Christ like and noble. I completely agree. Jesus loves the poor. Jesus’ love for the poor should compel us to serve them! However…

Whose love is the model?

The old testament command to love our neighbour is based on the premise that we first love ourselves. This means that my capacity to love others is limited by my capacity to fully love myself. The focus of this command starts with my love for myself. The only way I can love my neighbour better is to love myself better, after all, Jesus said love your neighbour as you love yourself. This self love motivation is linked and tied to old covenant thinking and human effort. Let me show you, as Paul said, a much better way.

The love of the father

The new covenant flips everything on it’s head, even this “second greatest” command to love our neighbour. Let me show how, these are the words of Jesus himself;

  • [Speaking to his disciples] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love – John 15:9 (ESV)
  • [In prayer to the Father] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me – John 17:23 (ESV)

The love that the father has for the Son, so the Son has for us.

The love that the Father has for the Son, so the Father has for us. Let that sink in. God loves God perfectly right? So too does God love you and me. Perfectly.

The same love that the Father has for the beloved son he has for us!

For more on the Fathers Love, listen to this sermon on John 15:9 & John 17:23

Jesus shows us how to respond to this perfect love in the perfect way

  • but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father – John 14:31
  • If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love – John 15:10

As Jesus obeyed the father in an expression of love, so too does he call us to obey him, in an expression and response of love.

Tying it all together

Jesus tells us the obedience to the commands of God is the highest way we can express our love for the Father. This is why so many Christians rightly pursue obedience to God. The thing that we get off centre by 0.01 of a degree is the place of priority we give which commands and whose love it is we are motived by.

The old testament said love your neighbour according to how you love you.

The new testament says something different… there is still a command to keep, and it is still a command to love…

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to 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

The old said love everyone and anyone how you love yourself but the new covenant comes with a new command, love each other [the church] as I have loved you says Jesus.

This is where things change:

  • My standard of love is not how love myself, but rather how Jesus loves me! And he loves me the way the Father loves him!
  • The primary object of my love (after God) is no longer my neighbour, but my brothers and sisters in Christ – each other.

How much of your life, your ministry and your church life is focused towards better loving each other? How does that compare with your efforts personally, in ministry or as a church to loving your neighbours? Who would you say gets the most attention?

By our love for each other we are known as disciples of Jesus

The world is great at loving it’s neighbours, charities and ‘good samaritan’ causes abound, many of which were started by the church to glorify God. Yet many are just good, worldly people, trying to help others. Rotary Clubs, RSL’s, disability services, government agencies, NGO’s, NFP’s, humanitarian organisations, red cross, UNISCO, etc… but,

the one group the world will never love like you can and should, is the members of the local church

The world will love it’s own, but it won’t lay it’s life down for a stranger. Jesus said no greater love is there than laying your life down for your friends, which is exactly what he did. He loved us like that, for that is how the Father loves and it is that love that is now in us through the Holy Spirit that should be seen, felt and experienced first by those of the family of God, then our neighbours.

When we esteem love for our neighbours as more important or a more worthy pursuit we are effectively telling Jesus that loving our neighbours (an old covenant law) takes precedence over loving each other (the new covenant command).

But no one ever thinks like that. What if instead looking for a need in your community you  looked for a need in your church? The church in Acts had a food care program for widows in the church not for the general community. Who is weak among you? Who can you help?

When Jesus spoke of separating sheep and goats and he told the faithful that they had fed him when he was hungry or clothed him when he was naked, they asked him, ‘when did we do this for you?’ Jesus response? Whatever you did for these my brothers you did for me. Jesus doe not mention whatever you did for the poor or for your neighbour, but for the church, the brothers! The body of Christ! (Matthew 25:35-40)

Is it any wonder the church is Acts had no one needy among them?

Loving our neighbour is good and it is right. Let’s not stop loving them! We certainly need to love the people in our world. But the story of the good samaritan is not a lesson on how to love our neighbour, it’s a lesson on how God has loved us! Jesus is the good samaritan for while we were his enemies he dismounted from his glory and stepped down into our mess and helped us when we could not help ourselves! Religion and service couldn’t and wouldn’t help us – but Jesus, our enemy (while we we sinner we were his enemy) paid a price to save us as an expression of the Fathers love.

When we pursue loving our neighbours or the poor in an attempt to obey a command and in doing so somehow prove our sainthood, we miss the point of the Gospel. We are not meant to prove our holiness, but rather we should seek to be identified as true disciples of Jesus, and the only descriptor Jesus gave of such a person is that we love each other… with the same sacrificial, servant hearted, generous and outrageous love that the Father has for the Son, and that the son has for us; so too are we to love one another.

This I believe, is a higher call than any command of the old covenant for it is the only “new command” that Jesus himself gives us – and he said it more than once. It’s also harder. Anyone can love a stranger or the poor, but to love our church family and to keep loving them with generosity and warmth? To insist on falling back in every time we fall out and not just walk away and find a new church? To love sacrificially?

This is why the next significant move of God in the church is going to be outrageous brotherly love – cos in the last church we’ll never love our enemies until we can first love each other and truly be known as the Lords disciples.

So what do you think?

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Andrew Coates

Andrew Coates

Husband, Father, Pastor

Andrew serves as Executive Pastor at C3 Spectrum Church, Port Stephens. He has a background in teaching & prototyping manufacturing. Andrew holds Diploma‘s in Business, as well as in Theology & Christian Ministry. Andrew loves Apple computers and Android devices (weird right?), is mad about systems and making things sync but he’s really passionate about helping people grow and engage in the beautiful life of discipleship. Married at 20 to his high school sweetheart Rachel, they now have two amazing children together - Amity & Roman. Andrew loves spearfishing, a good espresso in the morning & nice glass of red in the evening.

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