Phil Cox

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The first and greatest commandment

9th August 2014

Matthew 22v34-40
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 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 neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

It's depressing, isn't it, that the reaction of the Sadducees and Pharisees was to test Jesus Christ. The greatest man who ever lived - God in human form - healed the sick, raised the dead, and gave us the greatest theological and moral teaching we've ever had. How sad it is that they couldn't just receive it and give thanks to God. Of course, many of our political and intellectual leaders today are just the same.

Jesus was far too wise to waste his words expressing the sort of disappointment we feel when people who should know better try to find a reason not to believe in Him. Instead, he used this "test" as a teaching opportunity. He quoted Deuteronomy 6v5 as the "first and greatest commandment".

It's the first commandment because to love our creator, with gratitude and worship, is our first priority. Morally, it must be right that our first loyalty is to the one who made us. That's not just true for Christians - it's true for us all. Some claim to be atheists, but any open-minded person who takes the time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation must know - even if he refuses to admit it, even to himself - that there is a creator.

And it's the first commandment because our love for God should be the basis of the way we live, and should inform every decision we make, more than anything else does.

It's the greatest commandment because God is the greatest being.

And it's the greatest commandment because love is our greatest attribute.

And it's the greatest commandment because to love God will do us more good than anything else we will ever do.

It's the greatest commandment because the greatest good that a human can know is to be born again through faith in Jesus, and that will never happen if we refuse to love God. But if we are born again, then the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us to want to obey all the other commandments.

A simple way to read the first and greatest commandment is to say that it means "love the Lord your God with everything you are". That's fair enough, but we can go a little deeper. Theologians (let alone simple preachers like me) can disagree about the definitions of heart, soul and mind but, as I meditate on these words, here's what comes to my mind :-

This commandment is firstly to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart". To me, the "heart" refers to a person's inner being, the core of who we are:

  • Romans 7v2 says, "in my inner being I delight in God’s law".
  • Ephesians 3v16-17a says, "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith".
  • 1 Peter 3v3-4 says, "Your beauty should... be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight"".

We could express this by saying that we must love God from the inside out. It's not much good loving God externally - going to the meetings, singing the songs, praying the prayers - if it's not genuine, if it's not wholehearted, the word we used a lot in our last two studies.

Secondly, we're commanded to "Love the Lord your God with all your soul". For me, the word "soul" speaks mostly about the emotions. It might come as a shock to some English Christians when they discover that it's OK to love God emotionally.

At times, it can be good to weep before God in prayer:

  • 2 Kings 13v14 tells us that Even King Jehoash wept before the Lord (see the last two week's columns)
  • In 2 Kings 22v19, God tells King Josiah, "Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, that they would become accursed and laid waste, and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD." (It can also be good to tear our clothes!)
  • Ezra 10v1 says, "Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God"

It's always good to rejoice and exult before God

  • Psalm 89v15-16 says, "Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. They rejoice in your name all day long; they exult in your righteousness.".
  • Philippians 4v4 says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"

And, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise, rejoicing and exulting are not just a matter of our thought life - they're emotional!

Thirdly, we're commanded to "Love the Lord your God with all your mind". Although I've been writing in recent weeks about how our discipleship, our religion, is not merely intellectual, it does have an important intellectual component. It's valuable to study the Bible, to think about what it says, to seek to understand as well as believe.

  • Psalm 119v15 says, "I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways".
  • Verse 27 of that psalm says, "Let me understand the teaching of your precepts".

This commandment is the first and greatest but I still don't obey it. And I've never met anybody who claims that he does. Do any of us love God with all our heart, soul and mind? Jesus did, of course. But even the greatest Christian leaders haven't got there completely. I think I can say that I love God a great deal more than I used to. And I hope I'll love Him more in the future than I do now. But I know I'll need divine assistance.

The first and greatest commandment proves to me that I need God's Holy Spirit to change my heart and my soul and my mind, so that I get my priorities right.