What is the most important commandment? If I only had the mental space to remember one thing I ought to do this week, what should it be? Or to put it another way, for those who teach the Scriptures: what is the main thing I should be teaching others to do? That is surely the most important question to consider when we consider how to live as God intends and Scripture teaches. Fortunately, each of the synoptic gospel writers tells us that the Lord Jesus answered this very question, at Matthew 22:37-8, Mark 12:30-1, and Luke 10:27. Jesus’ response: love the Lord, and to love your neighbour.
The answer is clearly very good, but what is surprising is that the question appears to be good too. A common mindset (at least functionally) in conservative evangelical circles is that a commandment’s importance is directly positively correlated to how many column inches it is given in Scripture. This plays out in the idea that to teach a passage faithfully, you may only make ‘applications’ that can be directly made from that text. Only the author’s purpose in that paragraph is a legitimate teaching point. There is a right desire here, which is not to impose the preacher’s personal agenda onto the text.
When that desire becomes a hard and fast rule, however, it puts us in a bit of a bind: Jesus says that one commandment is actually more important than all the others, despite the fact that it only comes up explicitly as a commandment in a few places, and most of them in rarely-preached corners of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, 11:1, 13, 22, 19:9, 30:16; Joshua 22:5, 23:11; Psalm 31:23; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). All in all, loving the Lord appears as a direct commandment in just eleven chapters of the Bible.
Let’s say you preach/study one chapter a week, and look at the New Testament twice as much as the Old (in reality, the balance in the average church is more skewed towards the NT). There are 929 chapters in the Old Testament, and 260 in the New Testament, so that gives us 1449 weeks’ worth of sermons: a nice 27 year cycle. In that time, if you just did expository preaching, and only applied your passages as outlined above, then you might preach (assuming you did not decide the main point and primary application ought to be something else in the text) that people ought to love God 14 times every 27 years. So every other year you would tell people to do what Jesus says is most important, to obey the commandment that basically defined Israel as the people of God.
So what do we do? My humble suggestion is that some of the ‘rules’ that are currently fashionable in teaching the Bible need to be rethought in the light of Jesus’ prioritising of the commandments, and in light of Jesus’ chief concerns for his people (consider that the question asked of Peter three times in John 21 is whether he loves the Lord, and that his rebuke of the Ephesian church is that they have forgotten their first love). It is the great commandment that sums up the law and prophets, which means that it is the commandment that governs every other application you might make. Not to say we preach the text and then lazily say, ‘in conclusion, love the Lord’, but if we make other applications and don’t put them in the context of this command (even if not explicitly in the sermon/study), we’re missing what Jesus says is the key to understanding every aspect of the right response to God.
When we read the Bible and consider how to respond to it, the one question we cannot afford to ignore is ‘How does this text give shape and definition to the greatest commandment?’ The other imperatives of Scripture are there to help us understand how to love God and neighbour, and the indicatives of Scripture are there to fuel our affection for Father, Son, and Spirit, as we see again and again his love, kindness, gentleness, and faithfulness to us. It is moving beyond ‘how do I understand this text and its particular concerns?’ to ‘how do I understand God, his nature and actions, and how do I understand how I ought to respond to him? How does this text help me as I locate myself in the great story of the gospel, of God’s grace towards me and my response to him?’
As I have considered this over the last few days, I realise that there are ways in which I will have to change my preaching and teaching to give more weight to this great commandment, but there is something tremendously exciting about the great simplicity of what the Lord wants from us. And so these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.
Some all-purpose questions for bringing a text to the two great commandments:
1. What about God’s actions/character do I/we see in this passage that is lovely? What is holy/kind/faithful/trustworthy/healing/generous/patient/etc.?
2. What does this passage tell me about loving the Lord in my a) thoughts, b) words, c) deeds? What should I think/say/sing/do, and what should I stop thinking/saying/doing?
3. How might that spill over into loving my neighbour in a) thought, b) word, and c) deed?