What is the Greatest Command in Christianity?

by Reagan McClenny


Scripture: Mt 22:34-40 Mar 24, 2024

Reagan emphasizes that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He warns against inverting these two commandments by putting love for neighbor before love for God, or converting "love your neighbor" into merely being nice. True love involves saying what someone needs to hear, even if unpleasant, motivated by a desire for their ultimate good rather than just telling them what they want to hear.


"But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him and saying, Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" If you have your Bible with you, would you open it up and turn to Matthew chapter 22? That's where I read.

Matthew chapter 22, and we'll keep reading and get to Jesus answer in just a second. But I wonder how people, if they were being totally honest with themselves and others, would answer that question today. If you were to go out on the street and ask people, if you were to poll the masses and ask them this very similar question, what is the greatest commandment of Christianity?

What do you think they would say? If you went to people and you wanted them to describe what was the highest ideal, the highest good, the highest thing in Christianity that describes what Christianity is, what do you think people would say? I don't know if it would really be all that similar to what Jesus says.

This is what He says, beginning in verse 37. Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and With all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first, and great, commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang All the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus answer is one with which most of us here this morning are very familiar. The two things, the two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God, with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Even those things that Barrett's done such a good job in leading us about this morning.

But what does that really look like? And even more, in a world where we are redefining so many things, I'm afraid maybe these two greatest commands have been redefined. And I want to think about that this morning for just a few minutes. Two major issues with Matthew 22, 34 through 40, which we read, two major issues today where those two things are changed, are rearranged, are redefined, and reapplied in a way that I don't believe Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or God the Father.

Thank you for being with us this morning. I see a number who are visiting with us. We're so grateful for your presence. Uh, and in my judgment, it's a good time to visit because the things that we're going to talk about this morning are so foundational, are so motivational to who we are as Christians and what we are supposed to be doing.

And for us here, We are striving in everything that we are to love God. To love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And we are striving with everything that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But it is God who is the one who is ultimately going to define that for us. And yet for many people I think there are a couple of major issues that I've seen in regard to these things.

And the first is this. Something that I've seen is what I'll call the inversion of the first and second commands. And so you've got number one, you've got number two, and what's, what I see happening a lot in our society, among those even who claim to be Christians, is that they're taking number one and number two, and inverting those two.

And making number two number one and number one number two. Here's what I mean by that. I saw a quote in an article recently from a self described ex Christian that said this, A major problem. which is, uh, what we think about as Protestant denominations that aren't mainline. And so that includes a number of people who would describe themselves as Bible believing Christians.

The problem in this realm of Christendom, this person says, is that the question is never asked, does this theology, this, uh, This belief about God and what God teaches in the Bible. Does this theology cause harm? But rather they, that is those who are part of this vein of Christendom. They ask, is it true?

Do we do that? Do we read our Bible and say, is this belief true? Absolutely. We do. Once an evangelical has determined a belief to be true, harm caused is irrelevant. And can be blamed on moral shortcomings of the victim, rather than blamed on the harmful theology itself. And so what this quote says is, this theology, this belief about God and what the Bible teaches, this can harm someone and they become a victim.

And what we need to consider first is, does this cause harm? Now let me say, in regard to this idea of something being true. We, as Christians, need to have the faith, The mind of the Bereans. We need to search the scriptures daily to see if these things are what? True. If they're right. If this is what God really teaches.

And we do not need to be so bound by tradition and what we've always believed that we cannot re examine the scriptures and say, Is this really true? Is this really what God teaches? But, loved ones, if we reach a point in our conviction where we say, Yes, this is true. This is what God teaches. Then I am bold enough to say and answer to this quote, Well, yes.

If it is actually true. If it is actually from God, if it is actually what He has taught us through the Holy Spirit or through His Son, then any harm that God's will and word brings is, is because of our sin. And we are victims, but we are victims of that sin, not of the Word of God. Now, the specific context in which this quote was taken is in an article where application was made to those who, uh, identify as LGBTQ And in fact, this is now a A major argument among churches and those who believe themselves to be Christians who accept and celebrate homosexual behavior.

The teaching of the Bible, the teaching that comes from God, it is so argued, harms these people. And so we need to place these people. Ahead of the so called truth, that, brothers and sisters, is an inversion of the First and Second Commandments, is it not? It is no longer about loving God and what He teaches with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second being love your neighbor.

Instead, those two things are reversed, where it's about loving people more than it is about loving God. And the author of the article I read went on to say, I am encouraged to find more and more Christians willing to transgress the boundaries of purity to practice and be recipients of generous hospitality with those they have harmed, whether directly or indirectly, by their beliefs.

We need to define the word harm, first of all, don't we? Does calling someone who practices this specific sin, does calling their choice to engage in this behavior, to call it sinful? Does that make them uncomfortable? Uh, can I hear your head rattle this way or that way? Um, not just falling asleep this morning.

Yes or no, right? Does it make people uncomfortable? Makes me uncomfortable. Makes them uncomfortable. Does it convict of a need to change behavior? Yes. Does it make people feel guilty sometimes about the things that they have been doing? Yes. But it does not harm.

It does not harm them any more than a surgeon removing a cancerous growth harms someone. If we were to just see, without context, someone cutting on someone else with a scaffold, While they lay on a table, what would we do in that moment? We would run up to them and say, No, you can't do that. Maybe we wouldn't say anything.

Maybe we'd just tackle them and put their arms behind their back because they're causing harm. But you put that in the context of a surgeon who is operating on someone and all of a sudden, we see the whole story. Sometimes pain and discomfort is necessary. To save, to help, not to harm. And all this kind of people before truth and purity thinking says is, My relationship with these people is more important than my relationship with God.

Oh, I want a relationship with God, but my relationship with these people comes first. And nothing about my relationship with God, what He demands, and what he says, nothing about that relationship with God is going to get in the way of my quote unquote love for these people. And in so doing, we have inverted the first and second commandments.

It is love your neighbor first, and love God second. And God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that this would be a temptation for us. Jesus, when He came, says on a couple of different occasions, we'll quote from Matthew chapter 10 and verse 37, where Jesus says, He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And what Jesus does there is he runs right to the closest of relationships, the most important of relationships, and he says I know you love your mom and dad, I know you love your children, I know you love your spouse, but that love, that love cannot be greater than the love that you have for me, not, not if you want to follow after me, not if you want to be my disciple, not if you want to be And so this is the first thing that I, that I see in our society today, is there is this inversion, that these relationships, as important as they are, they must be second.

They cannot be first. And for too many people, they have become first. The second major issue that I see is, Not the inversion, but the conversion of love your neighbor to be nice to your neighbor. That this has been changed and converted and explained as if you want to love your neighbor, the greatest good, the greatest way of explaining that is be nice to your neighbor.

And if you're nice to your neighbor, then that shows you love. I think some would answer the question of our title, in fact. What is the greatest commandment in Christianity? I think if we took that microphone out and brought it up to people, I'm not going to go down the aisle and do that, but I think a lot of people would answer it this way.

Be nice to other people. That's what being a Christian is about. And let me ask you, beloved, are Christians supposed to be nice? Well, that's not a hard question. Yeah, yeah, we're supposed to be nice. The dictionary definition of nice. The dictionary defines nice as pleasant or agreeable. There's the old saying that goes, If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

Right? If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. And for some of us who wear our thoughts on our face, Sometimes we have to stop short even of that, right? So don't think anything at all because they're gonna see it on your face, in fact. And that's good advice in many situations. I know because my mother told me that.

Must be good advice. And we never, as Christians, have an excuse to be rude. or needlessly cruel to anybody. We should be nice as much as possible. But sometimes, nice is defined as pleasant and agreeable. Sometimes, we have to say things that are unpleasant out of love. Sometimes,

sometimes we have to do and say things with which others are likely to disagree, or things where we express our disagreement. And in those situations, though motivated by love, we are neither pleasant nor agreeable in that sense. We can't always say something nice, and sometimes what we must do is unpleasant and disagreeable to people.

I think about the message Paul had to get across to the, to the church in Thessalonica in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. You want to turn over to 1st Thessalonians chapter 2. We're going to look at a few verses here. In these two letters that Paul wrote over the course of, uh, a number of months, in fact, we mentioned this, uh, in our, uh, Bible class this morning as we're talking about Paul's journeys.

Paul is in Corinth and he's there for a couple of years and during those two years he writes two letters back to the church in Thessalonica that he had established, uh, just months earlier. And there was an issue in Thessalonica. These brethren were awesome in so many ways. They, uh, shared their faith.

They had a focus on God. They were doing lots and lots of really good things. But they had a misconception about the second coming of Christ. They thought Jesus was going to come like any day. And so the application that many of those brethren made was, well, you know, if Jesus is going to be here any day, you know, why am I working the nine to five?

And so what they did was a bunch of them quit their jobs. They quit workin they started livin off the church and the generosity of other Christians, and they said, we're just gonna sit around and wait for the Lord to come. And Paul had to address that. And he addresses it in love, as he always did. But what strikes me is, in 1 Thessalonians, is that he's just so stinkin nice about it.

He's nice about this. These are new Christians, baby Christians. They've got a misconception. And he's gonna be very gentle and kind and sweet and nice to them in addressing this. The thing that they're doing wrong. I want you to just read these verses with me, and maybe my perception's not the same as you, but isn't Paul being really nice here?

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, beginning in verse 8, he says, So affectionately longing for you. We were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil, for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preach to you the gospel of God.

Paul says, you remember when we were there, the way we acted? We worked, man. We work night and day so that we wouldn't be a burden on you, so that you didn't have to support us in the things that we were doing. Drop down to chapter 4, beginning in verse 9, chapter 4 in verse 9. He brags on these brethren all through this letter.

He says to them in verse 9, But concerning brotherly love, we have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves are taught by God to love one another, and indeed you do so. Toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia, But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more. You're doing awesome.

Keep it up. Do even better. Love more. Then verse 11, that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you might lack nothing. And then in chapter 5 and verse 14, this is the closest really that he comes to an outright rebuke.

But even in that, notice how he says it. In chapter 5 and verse, uh, 14. Now, we exhort you, we encourage you, brethren, warn those who are unruly. Maybe your translation says, warn those who are idle. And that's really the idea, that these people who weren't working were just kind of getting to be gossipy and busybodies, living off the church and getting involved in everybody else's matters.

He says, you need to warn those people who are being idle. But also comfort the faint hearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. Be patient with these brethren who aren't working. Now, we need to address it, but be patient. And he is so, so nice about it. Then we get to 2 Thessalonians. And in 2 Thessalonians, things had not only not gotten better, they had gotten worse.

And how does Paul address it here? Well, let's turn over to 2 Thessalonians, and let's read beginning, uh, in verse 4 of chapter 3. 2 Thessalonians,

chapter 4.

Beginning in verse, uh, chapter three, beginning in verse four, and we have confidence in the Lord concerning you both that you do and will do the things we command you. Now, may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ. Do you hear that? He wants obedience. You're gonna do the things that we command you, but it's, it's out of and motivated by and toward what?

The love of God and, and the patience of Christ. He wants obedience out of love. So what is the command that He's gonna give them that they need to obey out of love? Keep reading in verse 6. But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you be nice to everybody, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly, and not according to the tradition which he received from us.

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you. Nor did we eat anybody's bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil, night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. Not because we did not have authority. Hey, we could have demanded that as preachers of the gospel, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us.

For even when we were with you, we commanded you this, If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such, we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread.

But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him that he may be ashamed, ashamed of his behavior, of what he's doing. Yet do not count him as an enemy. What's the motivation for this? He bookends it.

Admonish him as a brother. Do this command out of love, and remember the reason why you're doing this command is because you love your brother. But I tell you, verses 6 through 14 is not nice by any definition that I really know. Is that nice? You refuse to work, you're not gonna eat.

If you refuse to work, we can't help you. We're not gonna help you. You're not gonna be fed by us. It isn't pleasant or agreeable, but you know what it is? It's loving. And some might say, no, some have said. Here, some have said here in times past, and by some, I'll name names this morning. Reagan, McClinney,

I've said. I don't know about that.

I can't just let them starve, go without, leave with nothing. Especially not somebody who is my brother or sister in Christ. It just doesn't seem loving.

Here's my question, who has a better understanding of what love looks like, Reagan

or Paul as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit?

If I love God and I love my neighbor, I will fulfill this and all those difficult commands out of love because God says it's best and God says it's best for me and for them. I want their soul to be saved even though it be unpleasant and disagreeable. And that hints at the solution to these two issues.

The inversion of the first and second commandment. The conversion of love your neighbor into be nice to your neighbor. Really what we need to do, the third thing, is reversion. We need to revert back to Jesus answer. And I think we can do that in two steps. We have to get back to what Jesus actually said and meant in this passage.

Turn back, if you would, to Matthew chapter 22. Because Jesus doesn't just give these two commands and say, you're supposed to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He gives some explanatory phrases in verses 38 and 40 that I think clarify some things for us and help us to get back, to revert back to Jesus actual answer.

Notice what he says in verse 38, after saying, I You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, uh, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. Notice what he says in verse 38. This is the first and great commandment. Again, the first thing that we need to do is be reminded that God comes first.

This is the first and great commandment. And whatever the choice, I've already made it. I'm choosing my relationship with God above all else. I'm totally committed to Him, His direction, And His purpose is no matter what. He is my priority, and all other things are secondary. God comes first. And if I may be so bold, that's the only way to be a Christian.

Jesus requires all or nothing. God must come. Now, having said that, don't misunderstand me. These two commandments, Love God, Love Jesus, are interwoven. You notice that the lawyer asked him a question saying, which is the great commandment in the law? Singular. He says, give me the one greatest commandment.

But Jesus, you know, as he so often does, if, you know, If somebody's honing him in, boxing him in, he's gonna give the right answer instead of the answer that they're asking for. And so he gives two commandments. He says, Love God. This is the first and greatest commandment. And then he says, The second is like it.

The second goes right along with it, that you love your neighbor as yourself. And so the issue is not, Well, I've got to choose. Am I going to love God or am I going to love my neighbor? Am I going to love God or am I going to love my children? Am I going to love God or love my spouse? That's not the issue.

It is a matter of priority that I love God more, but I'm supposed to love both. Turn, if you would, quickly to 1 John chapter 4. 1 John chapter 4. I think it shows this really, really clearly. Some people, you know, have the other extreme on this. You know, they say, well, I love God and so, uh, If I love God, all's good, and I can hate all you other people.

As long as I love God, everything's okay. But John says, no, no, no, that's not the way this works. And in 1 John chapter 4 and verse 20, if someone says, I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God must love his brother.

So the issue is not choosing which one we're going to love, God or my brother. The issue is redefining in God's terms what it means to love your neighbor, to love your brother. And we see that in this, in this very same context. If you drop down to chapter 5 and verses 2 and 3, notice, By this we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments.

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. If you want to know that you're loving your brother, loving your neighbor, well, you keep God's commandments and, and you're going to do that. Because what does God command? He commands us to love one another as Christ has loved us.

All of God's teaching is grounded in love because God is love. And we need the example. and teaching of the law and prophets, and even more the example and teaching of Christ to make proper application of love. And really that's our second explanatory phrase if we look there in verse 40. Notice Jesus says after giving these two commands, first and second, verse 40, on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

All other commands from God flow out of these two commands, but also these other commands. Explain what it means to love God and love your neighbor. And I think the ultimate example of this is what we see in Jesus himself. Turn over to John chapter 15, beginning in verse nine, if you would. Just two passages and the lesson will be yours.

John chapter 15,

back there in chapter 13, when this context begins, it begins by saying that, that Jesus loved his own, his apostles who were in the world and he loved them to the very end. And in John chapter 15, beginning in verse nine. Jesus takes those two greatest commands, and He shows us how to live them daily and practically.

As the Father loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one's life for his friends. Jesus applies this idea of loving one another to the ultimate and greatest extent in giving his life on the cross for us. Obviously, that idea of loving as Jesus loves applies to his self sacrifice, but may I suggest that it also applies to all of those other ways that Jesus expresses his love in the Gospels, including, and sometimes especially, In the not nice ways that Jesus expresses his love.

Let me, let me give you one example of this. Look in Mark chapter 3 if you would. Mark chapter 3.

Before I read this, let's make sure we're on the same page. Did Jesus love all people? Give me a thumbs up if you say Jesus loved everyone, all people. And maybe we could quibble on some of that, but I, I think it's fair to say Jesus loved everybody. Read with me Mark chapter 3 beginning in verse 1. And he entered the synagogue again.

And a man was there who had a withered hand, so they watched him closely, whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. Oh, is he gonna heal somebody on the Sabbath? Because if he does, we're coming for him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, Step forward. Come here.

Stand right here. And he said to them, with this guy with the withered hand standing right there in front of all of them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? But they all kept silent. And when he had looked around them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, he said to the man, Stretch out your hand.

And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored, as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Rhodians against him, how they might destroy him. Now it's interesting, isn't it, that Jesus argument here is actually hitting at almost something very similar to what we said earlier about this idea of harm, right?

And they had misunderstood what it meant as far as the laws of the Sabbath and what you could do on the Sabbath. In other places he says, you'll take care of an ox or a lamb that's, you know, having an issue on the Sabbath. Can't you do the same thing with people? They had misunderstood. Because they thought something was true, and that's a lesson for us.

We need to be careful to know that something is true. But here's my question. Who, who did Jesus love in this passage? Did He love the man with the withered hand? Oh, absolutely He did. He's willing to do this and fly in the face of all this tradition and all these people were after Him in order to heal His withered hand.

But you know who else He loved in this passage? Those who watched Him closely. Remember Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 16 and verse 14, Let all that you do be done in love. And certainly that was the case with Jesus. But Jesus's anger toward these people, His fiery question directed at them, Indeed, came from His love, His compassion for the man with the withered hand, Certainly, but also, Also his love for those men who sought to accuse him, trying to wake them up for their sins so that they could repent.

Jesus love is evident in this passage and any other. His compassion and love for others like this man, who had been taken advantage of and neglected by the religious elite. His love for the Father's law and the Sabbath, that they had misunderstood and misapplied and abused. But even for those who were seeking to discredit him, to, to ultimately kill him, Jesus was going to express his love.

And sometimes that love was expressed by saying, woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, you're like whitewashed tombs.

That's not very nice. But Jesus was willing to say that because he desired so greatly. Shake

them out of their sin.

Don't you see where this is headed? Don't you know God cares about your heart? What can I say? What can I do? For three years he had talked with them. For three years he had reasoned with them. For three years he had, he had got all of their barbs coming at him. And finally, at the end of his ministry, when he knows he was about to die, he says, You whitewashed tombs!

Don't you understand where this is headed? You're full of dead men's bones!

And that was ever bit. As motivated by his love is

when he pulled up the woman caught in adultery and said, neither do I commend you go and send no more.

If we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, he defines what is good for us, but also what is good for others. He shows us what love looks like to us, but also what our love should look like to others.

And saying what someone needs to hear is love. Just saying what somebody wants to hear is love. That's being nice, but it's not love. And when those two things are opposed, saying what someone needs to hear versus saying what someone Wants to hear, love leads to heaven, and nice leads to hell.

And with all of the kindness and gentleness we can muster, we know the choice. But please do not misunderstand me, beloved. This is not an excuse to be rude, or to speak the truth without love, to abandon the principles of kindness, meekness, and gentleness. Just the opposite! Those things should be employed while saying, Love What needs to be said, uh, I've told you before, uh, I've shared with you before.

Um, how I was visiting, uh, waiting at the airport actually. And I did another congregation. Well, just the building, not the congregation itself. And I sat behind the desk of a preacher that I've really admired through the years. And he had framed on that desk, Lord, a little prayer, Lord, help me to say what needs to be said and say it as gently as possible.

And I've shared that with you before. Well, Jason Moore, who was here. For our meeting. He worked with that preacher and he gave me a little Paul Harvey rest of the story background that I'd never heard before. He said, I know, I know. When Dee wrote that, he told me, you know, for me, I just thought it was a good reminder.

As a preacher, this is what I always need to do When I'm in the pulpit. I need to say what needs to be said, say it as gently as possible. But there was actually an occasion where he wrote that down and he said, you know, when he wrote that, I was there when he wrote that down, he had a meeting with some people that he knew were in sin.

And they were coming to his office to talk to him. And he wrote that down and put it on his desk so that he would see that as he talked to them. Because he knew two things. He knew he needed to say what needed to be said out of love. That he had to convict them of the sin that they were in. Because that's what love would do.

But he also knew that he could not give in to the temptation of being

He had to say it as gently as he possibly could while still getting that message across. And so too for us. May God help us all to say what needs to be said and to do it in the gentlest way possible that we can for them to repent. I love God and I love my neighbor. And so I ask, are you a Christian? May I gently ask, are you sure you're a Christian?

Have you done what Jesus commands for you to do to wear his name? Have you been baptized into Christ because it is sure there's no salvation outside of Christ? And if not, we would love, yes, love to do whatever we can to help you this morning. All you have to do is come now, but together we stand and while we sing.