Sunday, May 21, 2006

The greatest commandment

When Christians think of the two great commandments, we often without thinking rank the first above the second. We see love for God as more important than love for our neighbour. After all, isn’t God more important than other humans? We are saved by faith in God, and not by loving others right? Loving others is something nice that we ought to do, but our eternal salvation doesn’t stand or fall on it, whereas it does on our love for God. That is generally the reasoning. And so we turn the list of two commandments into an ordered list, where the first is of primary importance and the second is of secondary importance.

However this does not seem an accurate reflection of early Christian use of those commandments. Christians today often take for granted that those two commandments were original to Jesus in the sense that he was asked by people who wanted to know what the greatest commandments were and he ranked those two commandments in order as a list given by God incarnate.

However, Jewish writings from the period show that it was an accepted Jewish religious truth that these were the two greatest commandments. The gospels reflect this – some depicting the commandments in Jesus’ mouth and others put them in the mouth of a Pharisee in answer to Jesus’ question. In other words this saying was not original to Jesus – he was repeating a common Jewish saying.

The interesting thing to look at then, is what new use he made of it. How did Jesus and the early Christians change or modify the existing Jewish truism? Which of the two commandments did they stress, emphasise or extend and which did they downplay?

In Luke, Jesus expands on the second commandment – enlarging it to cover love for all humanity and not merely one’s own race (which was the way most Jews understood it). In 1 John, both commandments appear and the second is stressed while the first is downplayed in favour of the second. We are told that what we have been commanded from the beginning is to love one another. We are told that love of God is to obey his commandment and that his commandment is to love one another. Hence by obeying the second we also obey the first (making the first subservient to the second). We are told that whoever loves his brother knows God for God is love and God dwells in them if they are loving.

If we look at Jesus’ ministry we see him campaigning against the religious leaders who were extremely zealous for God. He attacked them on the grounds that they mistreated the poor and suffering. He was challenging those who loved God because they did not love their neighbours. He threatened them with hell because they did not care for the suffering enough. In other words he threatened with hell the very people who thought they were assured of heaven because of their religion and love for God.

So we see that far from valuing the first commandment over the second, the early Christians turned it around and emphasised the second commandment over the first. Love for God was of less importance than love for others, God’s judgment would be based on how we treated others (Mat 25).

One of Jesus’ parables was about a man who had two sons, whom he asked to do something for him. One son refused and then did it, the other agreed to do it but did not. In Jesus’ society, it was of extreme importance to uphold your family honour. Part of this was a son’s public obedience to his father, so if a father asked a son to do something the son was obliged to announce his intention to obey his father’s will (regardless of whether he subsequently obeyed or not). To flatly refuse to do a father’s will was the height of disrespect and dishonour, and any father would prefer a son who agreed to obey but did not over the son who insultingly refused and caused a public loss of honour and then obeyed. This very story may well have been regularly used to teach honourable behaviour. The moral of the story would have been that the son who publicly honoured his father would have been the better son.

Jesus turns this around and says that God prefers the one who says no and then obeys. In other words, God prefers the person who dishonours him and insults him but does his will to the person who praises and glorifies him but does not do his will. That is a strong statement, but little different to what some of the prophets had said hundreds of years earlier when they criticised an Israel for worshipping God with their mouths and sacrifices but not caring for the poor or giving justice to the oppressed. Jesus is once again saying that God values action over religion. A similar point is made in James 1:27 where he says what God considers pure and faultless religions is to care for those in need and not be corrupted by the world.

Yet today evangelicals think that God values religion over action. We are saved by faith in Christ and our actions are just good works. In this way today’s church seems very much like the Jews of the time of Jesus, it needs the same critiques given for the same reasons. If that is true, we need to be worried, because Jesus didn’t pull any punches. To the Pharisees who were famous for evangelism he said “you go 10,000 miles to make a convert, and when you do you make him even more deserving of hell than you”. Those were harsh words to those religious people who were doing their best to save others! Yet who do Jesus’ words remind us of today? Evangelicals are famed for going to the ends of the earth to make converts. We better be careful then that we are not making them more deserving of hell! Yet we tell them that love for other people isn’t that important and what really matters is subscribing to our religion – if they become Christian, we say, they will be saved. That sounds a lot like the Pharisees who saved people by getting them to follow Israel’s God, and it sounds like the reason Jesus was attacking the Pharisees applies equally to evangelicals - we downplay love for others in favour of religion and the importance of believing in the right God.


Blogger Jared said...

I agree totally. A lot of the NT is concerned with discarding the old social order and setting up a new one of equality for all, such that in the end there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are equal.

Also with regard to the greatest commandement from what I recall of my lectures the english translations don't capture the meaning of the Greek (surprise, surprise) in saying "the second is like it". The Greek word used there means closer to "the same as the first" so neither one has precedence over the other.

Blogger Katherine said...

What do you make ofMatthew 26:6-13?

To me, genuine love for God is something beyond either saying that you love Him or making showy expressions of love, or mere obedience. And it's more than simply approving of His ways. Really loving Him is being captured by the heart like a lover, and forsaking all to pursue Him.

Uh, yeah. I think they're both important, they're both commandments, and it doesn't matter which is the 'most' important.

Blogger Dan said...

But without first having a love for God, love for or fellow man is irrelevant. Doesn't that indicate a precedence?

Blogger Jim said...

"Really loving Him is being captured by the heart like a lover, and forsaking all to pursue Him."
To me, that sounds a bit like an emotional "love"... nice to have, but a bit too feeling dependant to last... I think of Love and commitment being kinda closely related... and that love should transcend how you feel... Also, how can you command someone to be "captured by the heart"... it's not really something we have huge amounts of control over..

"But without first having a love for God, love for or fellow man is irrelevant."— I think the point here may be that if you don't love your fellow man, you don't truly love God... and hence a "love for God" without a love for fellow man is not real.

That said, it probably is possible to love other people and not God... I wonder what the implications of that would be?

Blogger Andrew said...

That's a very modern and romantic definition of love Katherine... too many romance novels for you! ;)
Since Jesus is not with us now, Mat 26:6-13 seems to have no relevance.

Dan. I just argued the opposite of what you said. If you expect anyone to be convinced I suggest you at least give some reasons why we might want to agree with what you said.

Jim, it seems to me the parable of the two sons and the judgment in Mat 25 both implicitly cover the instance of loving others but not God and both imply that God views such people positively.

Blogger Scott said...

In Luke, I don't see how Jesus' expansion of the definition of 'neighbour' somehow undermines the commandment to love God. (And it fits in well with Luke's focus on the whole word).

In 1 John, the letter is written to counter those who claim to love God, but whose lives prove otherwise. He isn't redefining love for God as == love for our brothers. Instead he teaches that whoever genuinely loves God will by nature love the children of God because they are his (5:1).

Jesus' challenged the religious leaders on both types of love. Yes, on their lack of love for 'sinners' and the poor. But also for their pride, which disregards the supreme authority of God (Matt 23:8-12).

Matthew 25. I've previously posted about how the judgement here is not simply about how we treat people generally, but Jesus' disciples and hence how we treat Christ (c.f. Matt 10:42).

Matt 21:29f (parable of the two sons.) Jesus' point here is not that God prefers people who continue to dishonour him, but are kind to people - quite the opposite. It is contrasting those whose love for God is false pretense, and those who turn to God in repentance even though they are not 'righteous persons' by the definition of the Pharisees (e.g. a prostitute or tax-collector). But more than that, the parable isn't just a little moral lesson, it foreshadows the Pharisees' rejection of Jesus (very next parable) - showing that their unrighteousness was indeed about a rejection of God.

The two loves go hand in hand, there is no divide. In your reaction against hypocritical evangelical 'religion', you've sought to drive a sharp divide between religion and love for neighbour which simply isn't there in scripture.

Like the Da Vince code, your argument initially sounds convincing, but is based on quite shakey evidence.

I like this quote from D.A. Carson.

"Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they lanch the church into violent pendulumn swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ."

Blogger Scott said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Scott said...

Jesus also demands our love, greater even than love for close family...

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

" `a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--

a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.
"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
(Matt 10:35-39)

Blogger Dan said...


I've had a bit more of a think about it.
I'd agree that perhaps they cannot be ranked, nor can one be considered better than the other.

I'd say both are equally essential, but the first must be understood and obeyed before the second can be obeyed.

It is the love of/from God that we then share with our neighbour.

Love of God is primary, and love of neightbour is secondary. But both are equally important.

Blogger Christina said...

Scott; perhaps rather than being a black-and-white loving people is better than/seperate from loving God, this post could be interpreted as a call for actually treating both commandments with equal gravity (as I think the author intended)?

Maybe what Andrew is trying to get at, beneath all the rhetoric, is that here in the West in this day in age, we in the church tend to be a lot more focussed on loving God than loving others (practically or otherwise).

I know loving and following God is of the highest importance in our faith, but that love also infolds the second commandment; that we love, care, and respect for our neighbour - whoever they may be (not just other Christians).

Perhaps we need to be a bit more focussed on social justice; balance the two halves of the coin a bit better.

Blogger Jesus Crux said...

interesting, i always thought it was the other way around - that Christians emphasise love your neighbour and not love your God 'cos they don't wanna scare away the non-Christians. like every now and then i turn up to a random Church i've never been to before and pretend i know nothing about Christianity and they present it in a really "human-relevant" way

anyhow, i think loving God comes first if you wanna love your neighbour rightly. not that i personally believe that, for example often i wonder if i had to choose between God and my family ('cos Jesus once asked people to leave them behind to follow Him and some didn't), i don't think i would choose God. and at the same time i love my neighbour because i lust after her but if i completely loved God it would be 'cos i care about her. it's a balancing thing and if you don't totally love God first i don't think you can truly love someone the way Jesus wants you to love them, like for example you'd love them 'cos you got something selfish out of it

Romans 13:10

Blogger Scott said...


In "balancing the two sides of the coin" let's not deny the gospel in the process.

Blogger Andrew said...

Consider the person who kills others in the name of their God, because he has commanded them to.

Consider the person who prays and reads their bible every day, who worships God with great passion at church every sunday. Yet everyday walking to work they walk past street beggers and just don't care, and who is nasty to other people at work.

Consider an atheist woman who is loving wife, who cares for her family, loves her husband and is deeply involved in charity organisations out of concern for the well-being of others.

If you cannot see a difference between a love for ones neighbour and a love for God you are blind.

Yes, both are good. But religious people are very good at having the first without the second.

In "balancing the two sides of the coin" [by focusing more on social justice] let's not deny the gospel in the process.

Social justice was what Jesus' gospel was all about. If by "deny the gospel" you mean deny the theory of penal substitution, then consider it denied.

Blogger Scott said...

I'm a bit confused as to why the existence of hypocrites argues your case here. I don't think 'love for God' necessarily entails the lifestyles you mention. Besides, a nice atheist is also someone who has rejected the Lordship of Christ and constantly ignores God and does not give thanks to him. I understand that you don't think this is a big deal, but I would argue that Jesus did, and does.

Also, I wasn't thinking of penal substitution. Jesus' gospel was about the kingdom of God, and about himself being King of that kingdom. It was not about being nice to people - it was about submission to him. If you are saying that the gospel is simply a message about social justice (and I trust you aren't, and if so I stand corrected), then that would be denying the gospel. (And again, I'm not denying that social action is an important implication of the gospel.)

Seeking the best for us both,


Blogger Andrew said...

Of course love for God doesn't entail the lifestyles I mention. My point is simply that love for God and love for others are in practice two quite different things. Having one does not mean someone has the other. Religious people tend to be quite good at having love for God without love for their neighbour.

Well I think we do have fundamental disagreements about the nature of the gospel Jesus was preaching. Yes I do think it was about being nice to people. No I don't think it was about submission to him. Sure he gathered followers, but the purpose of that wasn't for the sake of gathering followers, it was in order to further his social justice causes. Yes, I am saying his gospel was a message about social justice.

Blogger Nick Duke said...


I think you're right to prod us to love our neighbour as an expression of our love for God. That is always helpful. That, surely, is to rightly understand one of the themes of 1 John (although it is noted that the focus their is brothers and sisters in Christ).

I just can't go with you the next step in playing them off each other. The direction of the Bible is to care for humanity, BECAUSE they bear His image (James 3:9). Again it holds the two loves together; indeed as you say at one point that one leads to the other.

1 John seems to me to make this quite explicit -

"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. " (1jn 3:20).

Indeed, John's argument is from the love of God, to the love of the brother (v21)

It doesn't allow for the categories you are creating, specifically of a group of hard nose evangelicals who love God but not their neighbour and are hence 'unbalanced'.

If this is the case, then I think the Carson quote surely applies. We would all like to do more for others - life is always in that tension. Using this sense to further the distinction you make is really more rhetoric than anything else. Who doesn't want to align their argument with the compassion and concern the Bible commands?

We need more than rhetoric at this point. 1 John talks of a love for our neighbour that can only arise out of spiritual rebirth and a real knowledge of God (1 Jn 4:7).

Andrew - your sense is a good one, and your prodding is good - but it's just to easy to use false antitheses. By all means, argue for compassion, but not assuming the high moral ground. It just does't wash well or treat your brothers and sisters fairly.


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