It occurs to me that if one or two commandments are the greatest, that others are lesser in importance. As difficult as this is to swallow, given our desire to obey all that Jesus commands, He had no problem prioritizing the commandments of God. Granted, the Old Law is the specific context of the Pharisee lawyer’s question to Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” But Jesus’ response was direct:
Matthew 22:35-40 – One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 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.” (NIV)
But the new covenant scriptures bear out that this hasn’t changed under the new paradigm. Paul penned a compelling essay on the subject in the 13th chapter of his letter to the Christians in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 13 – Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (NKJV)
Paul again confirms the preeminence of the command to love one another in his letter to the Galatian believers:
Galatians 5:13 – For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV)
Of course, this shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that other commands we find in the scriptures are optional. But I do think it means that all other commands given to immersed believers are to be interpreted in harmony with these greatest commands that God has ever given to man: to love God and to love each other.
I recall a derogatory comment I heard when I was younger about “those soft preachers who only give sermons on love.” Now I look back on that comment with shame that I didn’t disagree enough to say something. I now understand that I had more to learn about love, which is the very nature of God, than I ever thought possible.
John writes extensively about this “new command” which is really the “greatest command:”
John 14:34-36 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (NIV)
John 14:15 – “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (NIV)
I have always taken this phrase “what I command” in a broad sense. No doubt, if we love Christ, we’ll obey whatever He commands. I certainly use this argument with my kids. But it is clear to me now that the context of this statement is that “what I command” is to “Love each other as I have loved you.” Read this from the same author, who writes so passionately about his pet subject:
John 15:9-17 – “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.” (NIV)
This conclusion is backed up in 1 John:
1 John 3:21-24 – Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (NIV)
Remember, he’s talking to immersed believers here. So these believers, who have already been added to the ekklesia by God, have two preeminent commands: continue believing in Jesus, the Son of God, and love one another. He emphasizes it once again in chapter 4:
1 John 4:19-21 – 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. (NIV)
It’s interesting that the apostle of love in John 14 refers to “a new command,” then years later, in 1 John, refers to “the message you have heard from the beginning.” They are apparently one and the same:
1 John 3:10-11 – This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. (NIV)
Consider this choice passage, which the beautifully arranged song “The Greatest Command” (Songs of Faith and Praise) comes from:
1 John 4:7-12 – Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (NIV)
These words are no doubt the greatest and deepest commands we can find in the scriptures. All of the sermons composed around intellectual, brilliantly deduced doctrines from the scriptures pale in comparison to this simple command. My response is one of shame at missing its significance for so many years.