(Appeared first in May 2012, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
Jesus was once asked which was the greatest commandment in the Jewish Law. He 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” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV).
For the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering why Jesus might have called this the first and greatest commandment. It certainly wasn’t first in the sense of chronology. Dozens of commandments were given earlier in Israel’s history. It doesn’t even appear in the “Big Ten,” the listing of commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on tablets of stone. Rather, this commandment is found in Deuteronomy, a book that tells of God’s affection for Israel and deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It appears in the sayings of Moses, who recounted the long and circuitous journey of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the verge of the promised land. The context makes it clear that wholehearted love for God and neighbor is but a fitting response to the LORD, who keeps “his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments,” (see Deuteronomy 6:5; 7:7, 9). The requisite love for God as described in Deuteronomy is not syrupy or romantic. It is resilient and strong, characterized by respect, obedience and honor. It results in humility and reaches out to foreigners.
Jesus viewed this “love commandment” as the most important directive in the Law, the mandate that demands top priority in our lives. The second commandment (to love one’s neighbor) is like it. Together, these commandments provide a sufficient anchor on which to hang all of the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus clearly viewed God through a different lens from that of the religious leaders of his day. They feared to even write or speak God’s proper name for fear of retribution. To them, God was an awesome and distant sovereign, untouched by the everyday needs and problems of the world. They hardly noticed the few passages in the Hebrew Bible that hinted of God’s paternal love. Jesus defied the status quo by boldly addressing God as a loving heavenly father. He further encouraged his disciples to address God this way in their prayers. None of his teachers had dared to approach the sovereign LORD with such intimate familiarity.
The disciple John was moved by Jesus’ testimony of God’s love. He wrote that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV). He also told of Jesus’ mandate to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV). Later, John wrote that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16b, 19, NIV). Paul declared that “whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8, NIV).
The “first and greatest commandment” and its twin point us toward the heart and soul of the missional church. The future of our church will ultimately be shaped by the depth and quality of our love for God and others. The best way to move into a missional future is simply to ask ourselves: How can we best express our love for God with all our heart, soul and mind? How can we best express our love for our neighbors? On these concepts hang all the theoretical and practical aspects of the truly missional church.