The Greatest Commandment

Posted: December 12, 2012 in Christian Living
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There are 613 commandments in the Torah. A Talmudic passage in the tractate of Shabbat says that a proselyte asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg. (Meaning he wanted a simplified version that he could learn quickly) Hillel replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Out of the 613 commandments, which of the commandments are the greatest?

That’s the question that was posed to our Lord by one of the Pharisees. (Mathew 22:15-40) During the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They tended to be wealthy and held powerful positions, including that of chief priests and high priest, and they held the majority of the 70 seats of the ruling council called the Sanhedrin. They seemed to be more concerned with politics than religion. Because they were accommodating to Rome and because they were the wealthy upper class, they did not relate well to the common man, nor did the common man hold them in high opinion. They were extremely self-sufficient to the point of denying God’s involvement in everyday life. They denied any resurrection of the dead in any afterlife, therefore denying any penalty or reward after the earthly life.Andthey also denied the existence of a spiritual world, i.e., angels and demons.

In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen, and therefore related more with the common man and were held in much higher esteem by the common man than the Sadducees. Though they were a minority in the Sanhedrin and held a minority number of positions as priests, the Pharisees seemed to control the decision making of the Sanhedrin far more than the Sadducees did, again because they had the support of the people. They so esteemed the “letter” of the Law of Moses, (more so than the “spirit” of the law) and so esteemed the oral traditions that they developed strict applications of the law for everyday life. They believed that God controlled all things, yet decisions made by individuals also contributed to the course of a person’s life. They believed in the resurrection of the dead in an afterlife, with appropriate reward and punishment on an individual basis. They also believed in the existence of angels and demons.

The Pharisees just heard Jesus put the Sadducees to silence. (Mat. 22:34-40) The Sadducees thought by their subtlety they would put Jesus to shame, but they were only preparing shame for themselves. To make matters worse, the multitude was astonished at the way Jesus handled this. (v. 33) Jesus had stopped their mouths, but their understandings were not opened.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together and 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.”

The Pharisees gathered together, not to thank him for effectively asserting and confirming the truth against the Sadducees, (Since the Sadducees were common enemies of their religion) but they wanted to get the reputation of stumping the one who had stumped the Sadducees. And yet they were even more upset that Jesus was honored because they were more concerned about their own tyranny and traditions.

Sometimes, like the Pharisees, we get upset at a confessed truth, when it is done by those we do not like. The Apostle Paul had a different attitude about this when he wrote, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” (Phil. 1:15-18)

The Pharisee lawyers were students in, and teachers of, the Law of Moses. But this lawyer asked him a question not so much to test his knowledge as his judgment. It was a question disputed among the teachers of the law. Some would have the law of circumcision to be the greatest commandment, others the laws of the Sabbath, others the laws of sacrifices; because they were personally affected more by their favorite laws and therefore spent more of their zeal on them. Now they would try to refute what Jesus said, hoping to incense the people against him, if he did not answer according to their opinion. And if he should magnify one commandment over another, they would accuse him of vilifying the rest.

The question was, “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?” A needless question, since all the things of God’s law are great. (Ps. 119) And the wisdom from above is without partiality. (Deut. 10:17)  It is true that there are some commands that are the principles of God, some more extensive and inclusive than others, but our Savior speaks of the weightier matters of the law. (Matt. 23:23)

All the law is fulfilled in one word, and that is, love. (See Rom. 13:10 and Luke 10:27, 28) All obedience begins with love; and nothing in religion that is done right is done without love. Love is the leading affection, which gives the law its foundation. Mankind is designed for love; therefore a law of love is written in the heart of the believer. Love is a short and sweet word; and, if love fulfills the law, surely the yoke of the command is very easy. Love is the rest and satisfaction of the soul; if we walk in this good way, we shall find rest.

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