The Reformation Herald Online Edition

The Purifying of God's Remnant Church

The Greatest Commandment
The Greatest Commandment
G. Bendezu

During His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus was subject to many critical questions. These questions were constantly put to Him by both sincere souls earnestly seeking truth and by bigoted men with malicious purposes, intending to trick Him into His own disgrace. However and whichever was the source, our Saviour always provided the necessary response, a response suited to the occasion and especially to the one asking. The light He provided on these occasions is still to be considered, contemplated on, and discussed today. One of the most famous of these occasions is found in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.

“Then one of [the Pharisees], which was a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:35, 36).

Though it was asked with malicious intent, the question was and still is a critical one, “Which is the great commandment?” To understand better the question, let us consider the context. It helps to realize that in that particular time and setting, giving the appearance of a supposed implication of ecclesiastical or theological truth meant everything for those involved in these verses. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus records that during the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees would often gather in public places to engage in back-and-forth debates in order to exalt individual knowledge. In such a way they would spend whole days, often discussing, for example, the traditionally accepted 613 laws in the books of Moses and how they should be implemented, or arguing over such matters as divorce and remarriage, hand washing, the purpose of the Sabbath, whether Gentiles could be saved and, inevitably, the most important question of WHICH WAS THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT.

What is most compelling is the way in which Christ answered and summarized this question. His response was so powerful, yet so plain and simple. And this question was really an intended trap set by one of the Pharisees who stood out for being a lawyer. This is how Jesus replied:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Verses 37–40).

We modern-day Israelites, with the inclusion of some Pharisees as was the case in Matthew 22, may also ask that question. It would be something like, WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO DO IN THIS LIFE?

As the title of this article reads, there is one “Greatest Commandment,” and as you read in the previous-to-last paragraph, Jesus provided a straightly strong and clear answer about it, splitting it up into two basic commandments, love for God and likewise for our neighbor. In this article we will look at what Christ declared to be the “first commandment”—love for God. In this passage of the Gospel of Matthew the word “first,” translated from the original Greek, means chief or having foremost importance.

Let us examine this fundamental point within the entire law of God.

He loved us first

In order to love God we must first understand His nature, and His Being. When we study of Him in the scriptures we learn of how He, in His essence, is defined—by everlasting, infinite, unconditional grace for us, and grace translates into LOVE. From the beginning of our human history, we have been privileged to live and to have an opportunity to reconcile with God. Our entire existence is based on a plan of grace, designed by God, and completed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Here are some verses to consider:

“God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Understanding that God loved us first is the key. We must learn and accept that God, from even before we were born, loved us in such a way that is beyond our understanding. Once we have understood this we will be filled with a passionate feeling of gratitude for Him, knowing that He would defend and love us even when we were in rebellion against Him. With this comprehension we will also love Him. Once we have developed this sentiment we will feel the impulse to want to demonstrate and prove our love for Him through obedience. There is a short story which can illustrate this.

When we come to an understanding of the infinite grace and love God has for us, and of the inconceivable sacrifice that He made on our behalf, we too will be moved and overcome with gratitude for Him.

Sometime in the early 19th century, when the practice of slavery was at its peak in the United States, a noble man went down to his local town square for the weekly auctioning of slaves. He heard “Sold!” just as he joined the crowd. A strong young man was taken away by his new owner. Next up was a young girl that seemed rather angry, despaired, and helpless. She was pushed up onto the platform; immediately the bidding began. Within a minute, the bids had surpassed what most slave owners at that time would have paid for a slave girl. Finally, when the price had reached what seemed to be the top, the auctioneer called out, “Going once! Going twice!” and just before the final call, the noble man yelled out a price that was exactly twice as much as the amount of the previous bid. With no one else in the crowd standing a chance against the offer made by the noble man, the young girl was finally given to him to take.

The young girl, with a long history of having been mistreated and abused, feared that the same fate awaited her with her new owner, so she was resistant to comply with him. She made herself heavy and was uncooperative to be led away by him. She had determined in her heart that she would never again in her life be at the service of anyone. “I will refuse to work for you!” She exclaimed bitterly, “I would rather die before serving anyone ever again!” She added. At one point she even spat straight into his face and said through clenched teeth, “I hate you!” The noble man, without a word or reaction, silently reached for a handkerchief and wiped the spittle from his face, smiled at the girl, and kept leading her.

They continued until reaching a nearby office where each public deal or transaction was legally closed. In those days, if a slave was to be made free, a set of documents, called manumission papers, were first necessary. The gentleman went into the office, there he bought and signed all the official papers for manumission or liberation of the slave girl. When he came out the door of the legal office the young girl looked away distressed, thinking that she had just been officially made someone else’s property. The noble man stretched out his hand and said to the young girl, “Here are your emancipation papers. You are free.” She did not even bother looking up. He tried again. “Here. These are papers that say you are free. Take them.” “I hate you!” the young girl responded, refusing to look up. “Why do you make fun of me?” she added. “No, listen,” pleaded the noble man. “These are your freedom papers. As long as you have them no one will ever be able to make you a slave again. You are a free person.” Finally the young girl took the papers and looked at them, then looked back at the man, and looked at the papers once again. Was it possible that anyone would carry out such a benevolent act on her behalf? “You just bought me to set me free?” she asked in disbelief. “Yes,” the noble man quietly answered with a smile on his face. At that moment the now-free girl began to grasp the significance of what she held in her hands, and how her life would radically change. Tears of emotion, joy, and gratitude began to stream down her face. She fell on her knees and as she wept at his feet she told him, “I owe you the rest of my life! Because you have done this for me, I WILL SERVE YOU FOREVER!”

Just as this story was, so it is also ours with the Lord. In the same manner that the young slave girl was originally resistant and insolent towards the noble man, so are we to God. However, going back to the story, once the girl understood what the man had done for her she was overwhelmed with feelings of appreciation and gratitude, and completely changed her disposition toward him. Likewise, when we come to an understanding of the infinite grace and love God has for us, and of the inconceivable sacrifice that He made on our behalf, we too will be moved and overcome with gratitude for Him. And just as the young slave girl did, we will become fully devoted, and say to the Lord: “I WILL SERVE YOU FOREVER!”

Our love for God can be manifested and shown through our actions, if they are to His honor and glory. Through love we will have a basis of strength to follow His instruction, which is found in His commandments, His law.

A premise to the commandments

If you analyze the Ten Commandments, you will notice that every one of them essentially relies on either one of these two principles—love to God or love to our neighbor, as a premise. That is why Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The first four commandments are based on what should be our love toward God. Let us break them down:

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Without true love for God we cannot happily go forth with this instruction when we live in a world full of other “gods,” or what can also be translated as ungodly interests. Only by a superior love for God over anything else can we truly keep this commandment, the first to be written in stone.

Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Verse 4). This commandment follows the lines of the first one. It must be kept by true love to God.

Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Verse 7). This one alludes to reverence and respect. True respect can only be devoted to someone or something which you have first already loved, otherwise it would be compulsory and not genuine.

Fourth Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Verse 8). Here we are called to a commemoration for the marvelous works of creation. Only through love can we truly delight in creation and ultimately in its author, the Creator.

As we can see, in order for us to keep the commandments above we must first experience the embedding of the love of God firmly into our heart and character. Love for God is the underlying purpose for every one of the commandments, and love for God will be the sustaining foundation to our obedience to the law of God. It cannot work the other way around, learning to love God after we’ve imposed methodical obedience. That is confusing the order.

Beware of confusing the order

Jesus explains: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

The Lord did not present it in the reverse order, “If you obey me, you will love me,” because it doesn’t work that way. Rote obedience does not lead to love, but true love will lead to passionate obedience. Love is the only source by which obedience can be motivated.

“As men fail to practice obedience in its simplicity, they depart from God. Plans and methods that bear the marks of man’s natural attributes are brought in to be obeyed, while the principles of truth, love to God and to man, are left out of the life. Kindness, love, and mercy are not seen in the character.”1

But we must be aware and be very careful of a great danger—a formal obedience to God without first having love for Him would just be an empty form. It is exactly the problem into which the Pharisees fell. We may take an example from their error, in an effort not to repeat it. They lost sight of the very heart of the matter, which is the cause and purpose for following the commandments—loving God. As a result, they became hypocritical in their purely external observance of the law. Jesus rebuked them saying:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. . . . Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:25, 26).

Loving God begins by first accepting internal cleansing. Only then can our obedience be genuine. Without this, even though we may be able to present an outward appearance of being righteous, our obedience would be corrupted by bad motives, as the verses above reveal.

This is love, that we [follow] His commandment

God Himself gave the central commandment to love Him, along with the other commandments (Deuteronomy 6:1–25). This central command determines whether or not we are keeping His law. If we are not wholeheartedly keeping this one command, we cannot be keeping any of the other commandments, either. The Spirit of Prophecy supports this idea:

“Love for God and man alone places human beings on vantage ground with God. Obedience to the divine command enables us to become laborers together with God.”2

When we accept to love God, we will automatically feel the desire to obey and serve Him; the two must go hand in hand. Jesus said: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth Me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).

The apostle John said: “This is love, that we walk after his commandments” (2 John 6). Just as the verse says, true love for God is the very definition of true obedience to Him. It is only genuine love for God that can naturally lead us forth into obedience for his commandments. This is why love for God is the greatest commandment.


The greatest commandment allows us to see and appreciate the law of God and the gospel of Christ. It says to us that we have an infinite obligation to the One who is infinite in His love and grace for us.

Christ with every instance of His life exemplified and followed the greatest commandment. By positively changing the world for the better, He left a testament of what would result if we lived by this commandment. We, too, can choose to live by and obey the greatest commandment and fulfill the prayer of Jesus:

“Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be . . . , as we are” (John 17:11).

May the Lord help us, and may we decide to be cheerful followers and partakers of the greatest commandment today! This is my earnest desire and prayer for each and every one of us.

1 The Signs of the Times, February 24, 1898.
2 Selected Messages, bk2, p. 187.