The Greatest Commandment

On “Passion Tuesday,” the Tuesday before Christ’s crucifixion, Jesus had a series of interactions with different Jewish religious leaders.  In each, He not only answered but also challenged them from the Old Testament Scriptures over their unbelief and hypocrisy.  We now turn to their final question on this day (Jesus still has a question for them).  It came from a Pharisee, and with a measure of respect that we don’t see in the earlier interactions.

This question, and its answer, is a key transition in this final week.  No more will they ask questions of Jesus, for His answer exposes all the spiritual darkness and hypocrisy, the complete failure of Judaism and any other religious efforts to achieve God’s standards.  From now on, all points towards the Cross.  This will be the first of two posts, Lord willing, on this last of their questions.

The Questioner

Mark 12:28

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?

Matthew 22:34-35

34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,

This question was from a scribe, or lawyer.  “Lawyer” means a teacher, an expert in the Law of Moses.  Not all scribes were Pharisees, but this one was.  The Pharisees heard of Jesus’ crushing blow to the Sadducees.  This was big!  From now on, their answers to the Sadducees would echo His, and the Sadducees, repeatedly exposed as Scripturally bankrupt, would be a dying sect, propped up only as long as the Romans found them useful.

The Pharisees gathered, and one asked another question.  Matthew’s account suggests they planned it together, while Mark reads as if this man chose to ask.  Perhaps they decided, “Let’s ask about the greatest commandment,” and the scribe, impressed by Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees, volunteered to be the spokesman.

Matthew says he was “tempting” Jesus, and seems to relate the question to Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, so maybe it had to do with a Pharisee / Sadducee debate.  “Tempting” doesn’t necessarily mean the scribe was hostile, and Mark’s record suggests he was not.  It does indicate that his motives weren’t entirely pure — at least at first.

The Question

Mark 12:28

Which is the first commandment of all?

Matthew 22:36

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

The difference in wording is because a temple discussion would have been in Aramaic or Hebrew.  The Spirit led Matthew to translate it into Greek with megas (“great”), Mark with protos (“first” or “foremost”).  The scribe asked which commandment was supreme, the first in importance, the “great” commandment beside which all others were lesser.

The rabbis had an extensive list of commands — all were required, but some they called heavier / weightier, some lighter.  Their rules to decide which were most important (as recorded in the Talmud) can make your head spin.  But the Sadducees rejected their list because, of course, it wasn’t in the Torah.

Perhaps that conflict lay beneath the question.  As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus had been really helpful on resurrection.  It was obvious to them that “He knows His stuff” and rejected the Sadducees’ doctrine.  Maybe He had a good answer against them on the commandments?  That could be why they asked.

Or perhaps they thought He would cite the first of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”), and they wanted to accuse Jesus of violating it by claiming to be the Son of God.  That would fit better with “tempting” but not so well with the way Mark portrays the scribe.  Perhaps there were a variety of motives.  We don’t really know why the question was asked, or what they were thinking.

The First Commandment

Matthew 22:37-38

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.

Mark 12:29-30

29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

Whatever the motivations or thoughts behind the question, Jesus went straight to the essential truth that answers it.  He didn’t get caught up in their conflicts, but based His answer on the great doctrinal truth, the instruction that God’s people were to teach their children, day in and day out:

Deuteronomy 6:4-5

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:
5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

Doctrine:  our God is the one true God.  Command:  therefore, we are to love Him with all that we are and have.  Mental assent to truth leads to true religion!

This was good, safe, powerful, something any rabbi could approve!  The Jews repeated the great “Shema” (“Hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4 every single day.  They stopped there, rather than going on to verse five, but any rabbi would appreciate a “greatest commandment” based on the “Shema.”  It was powerful, for loving God was obviously a great and wonderful thing.  And it was safe, for the Jews loved God!

They studied His Word and kept the religious observances stringently.  The Pharisees tithed everything, even spices!  Certainly, if anyone loved God, they did.  You could just look at the way they dressed, and the way they prayed in public, and all the other things they did!  Yes, they loved God, anyone could see that….

If only Jesus had stopped there, the Pharisees would have been really, really happy.  He might have even won some friends who would try to help Him before the Sanhedrin, if He had only stopped there.

But He didn’t stop….

Next:  The Second Great Commandment

Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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