Question: "What is the greatest commandment?"
Answer: Jesus was asked this very question by a Pharisee who was considered to be “an expert in the law” (Matthew 22:34–36). Jesus answered by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Jesus gives us two commandments that summarize all the laws and commands in Scripture. The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 deal with our relationship with God and then our relationship with other people. One naturally flows out of the other. Without a right relationship with God, our relationships with others will not be right, either. The cause of the world’s problems is that man needs to be reconciled to God. We will never love our neighbor as ourselves if we do not first love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. All of man’s best efforts toward world peace will fail as long as men are living in rebellion against God.
When asked by another Pharisee how one could “inherit eternal life,” Jesus answered that it is by keeping these two commandments (Luke 10:25–37). Only two commandments to obey, yet how often do we, like this Pharisee, try to “justify” ourselves because saying we obey these commandments is much easier than really living according to them.
When carefully considered, Jesus’ answer was really a perfect response not only to the Pharisee of His day, but also to all modern-day “Pharisees” who try measure a person’s righteousness by how well he conforms outwardly to a series of laws or commandments. Both the Pharisees of Christ’s day and today’s many versions create a whole system of rules and regulations for people to live by and yet are guilty of breaking the most important commandments of all because they “cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but not the inside” (Matthew 23:25–26).
When we prayerfully consider Jesus’ words and the fact that all the laws and commands in Scripture can really be summarized by these two commandments, we understand just how impossible it is for us to keep God’s commandments and how often we fail to do so and can therefore never be righteous before God on our own accord. That only leaves us with one hope, and that is that God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). God’s law and our failure to keep it “brings about wrath” (Romans 4:15), but “God demonstrates His own love toward us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
While we will never keep God’s commandments or be righteous before Him by our own efforts, Christ did. It is His sacrificial death on the cross that causes our sins to be imputed to Him and His righteousness imputed to us (Romans 4—5). That is why “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9–10). After all, the gospel of Christ “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes,” for “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16–17).
Because Jesus answered this very question and His answer is recorded in Scripture, we don’t have to wonder or search for the answer ourselves. The only question left for us to answer is do we live according to these commandments? Do we truly love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and do we really love our neighbor as ourselves? If we are truthful with ourselves, we know that we do not, but the good news is that the law and commandments were given as “a tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Only as we realize our sinfulness and hopelessness will we turn to Christ alone as the only hope of salvation.
As Christians, we strive to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and as our hearts and minds are transformed by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit we are able to begin to love others as ourselves. Yet we still fail to do so, which again drives us back to the cross of Christ and the hope of salvation that stems from the imputed righteousness of Christ and not from any merit of our own.