Which Commandment is First? (Mark 12:28)

“And one of the scribes approached, hearing them disputing, and seeing that he replied well to them, put a question to him: “which commandment is first in the whole?”

(Mark 12:28)

 

Matthew and Mark both include this dialogue between Jesus and the Scribe/teacher of the Law with very few variations.  Luke relates a similar account, but the context and the question were entirely different.  In Luke 10:27, Jesus is being asked what one must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ response is to give the same answer that he does in this passage, but also to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate who one’s neighbor happens to be.  In addition, Luke then records the event with Jesus at Mary and Martha’s house to help illustrate (through Mary’s actions) what it looks like when you love the Lord God with all of your heart, strength, and mind.

In this context, we find Jesus during his last week of earthly ministry, often referred to as Jesus’ Passion Week.  Jesus has entered into Jerusalem during this time and has been publicly teaching and facing the challenges of the Jewish authorities.  In terms of the immediate context, this dialogue most likely takes place that Tuesday, two days before his arrest, and he is facing a string of legal and philosophical questions that are designed to trap Jesus into siding with one religious party or another—a trap that Jesus refuses to fall into.  Hence, unlike the account in Luke, there is no genuine interchange of ideas nor does Jesus tell any parables to illustrate his point; he is being challenged and the statements that come out of the mouth of our Lord are made with emphasis and with clarity. 

Earlier this day, the Sadducees had sent a group to question Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and to clear it of those who were selling in the courtyard.  After the Sadducees leave the Pharisees step in only to be followed by the Sadducees once again.  Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with one another.  The Sadducees were the remnant of the elite priestly ruling class that went back to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had begun in Judea roughly 170 years earlier.  When Judah Maccabees and his brothers overthrew the Seleucids, who controlled the area at the time, his brother Simon would end up ruling over the then free Jewish state (Judah had died).  Simon combined the office of King with that of the High Priest, making the priestly office one of privilege and reputation and not one of Levitical service.  These “Royal Priests” would become known as the Sadducees.  During this era, two reform groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Essines.  The Essines were a radical group that withdrew from the cities into what were essentially fortified monasteries.  They studied and trained to become the army of the Messiah when he would come.  The Pharisees were a less radical group, but one that pushed personal piety and who challenged the hypocrisy of the ruling order.  Sadly, by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had reduced themselves into a legalistic view of what it meant to be a believer and had become very hypocritical themselves, obeying the law (as they nuanced it) but missing entirely the purpose behind the law.  With this history in mind, it is easy to see not only the tension between the two classes (Pharisees and Sadducees), but also the way each group was looking to try and get Jesus to take sides so that they could discredit him.

Thus a scribe approaches Jesus and puts him to the test—which commandment would Jesus say was first amongst the whole of the law, or, as we usually put it into language today, which is the greatest commandment?  Our idiomatic English translation does us a little bit of an injustice, though, given our mindset.  When someone poses the question to us of which commandment or which law is the greatest, we think back, and in our minds, treat the commandments of God as separate commands that can be isolated from one another.  As westerners, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing everything, and while on some level this is useful for acquiring and applying knowledge, it also creates a perception that the commandments of God are not intimately interrelated—or more specifically, are a unified whole.  One of the great points that James makes is that if you break one of the commands in the Ten Commandments, you are guilty of breaking the whole law because the whole law is one (James 2:10).  It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus answers this question by summing up the spirit of the law in two categories rather than elevating one aspect of the whole.  Which is first in the whole, Jesus is asked?  “Love God” is his answer.  Which is second?  “Love man.”

While many of us who have grown up in the Protestant traditions are accustomed to this kind of language, essentially dividing the Law of God (the 10 Commandments) into two sections, or two tables, one being our obligations toward God and the second being our obligations toward man, we must not assume that such is the same way the ancient minds approached the Law.  In fact, there were and continue to be many schools of thought amongst Jewish and Christian thinkers as to how the Decalogue should be divided up.  Some have suggested that there are five and five, drawing thematic parallels between the first and the sixth, the second and the seventh, and so forth.  For example, the line of thinking is that the first commandment (no other gods) is connected with the sixth (not kill) because when you take the life of another you put yourself into God’s place, essentially making yourself to be a god and breaking the first commandment as well as the sixth.  Though Jesus does not divide up the law in this way, it does help illustrate the inter-connectedness and unity of the Ten Commandments of God.

In Jesus’ day, gematria had become a popular way of looking at the Law.  Gematria is a means by which the numerical value of words or phrases was calculated (remembering that letters in ancient times represented the numerical system, so “a” would be equal to 1 and “b” would be equal to 2, etc…).  Then, the laws which represented the highest numerical value was considered to be most important.  Another way that was popular was to look at the penalty that was connected to disobeying the law.  The harsher the judgment against the sin, the more important that rule was considered to be.  This concept was later picked up by the Roman Catholic church and provided some of the foundation for their division of mortal and venal sins along with isolated passages like 1 John 5:16-17 and Hebrews 10:26).  By Jesus’ day, the rabbis had extended this debate outside of the Ten Commandments to reflect the whole council of God’s command.  They had identified (in what we refer to as the Old Testament scriptures) 613 commandments of God (248 positive commands and 365 negative commands).  Others weighted commands more heavily depending on how far back in the scriptures that they were recorded as having been given, thus emphasizing the Sabbath command or the Circumcision.  Yet, once everything was said and done, they missed the purpose of the law—to demonstrate to us the holiness of God and to make us painfully aware that based on human efforts alone, we cannot come close to that holiness—or, in other words, to drive us to our knees in the midst of our sins and make us realize how desperately we need a redeemer.  The Law was not designed to be parsed and made into a checklist; it was meant to drive us to Christ!

With this now before us, we have a far better picture of what the religious authorities were trying to do with Jesus.  They were trying to put him into a box or a category, and then once defined by men’s terms, they could give him a label.  Once labeled, they could have worked to discredit him in the people’s eyes.  This scribe is essentially seeing where Jesus is going to fall in this matter, but our Lord does not allow himself to be put into a box.  Our Lord never allows himself to be put into a box, but oh, how we so often try.  We want to define God on our terms and according to our own understanding of how we believe God should think and behave, but God refuses to be dealt with on human terms.  Beloved, how we must always endeavor to submit ourselves to God’s terms.  Let God define our theology and our ideas according to his word, do not try to make God work to support your pet preference.  This way of thinking and living is a harder road to travel, but it is the only road that honors God with your heart, mind, and whole life.

4 Comments

  1. dallas caldwell

    Very excellent commentary. I found it as I was looking at a variety of commentaries on the “two tables of the law” . . . Actually, yours was most helpful of the six I read.

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  2. Matthew Perri

    Which is the most important?
    Jesus was asked twice, by two different men, the same basic question about which is the most important or greatest commandment in the Law. Here is how Jesus answered that question:

    #1
    “One of the teachers of the law… asked him [Jesus],
    ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “ is this: ‘Hear, of Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than THESE.” [Mark 12:28-31, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18]

    #2
    …an expert in the law, tested him [Jesus] 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.” [Matthew 22:36-40, Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18]

    But in contrast with Jesus, Paul the Pharisee didn’t know the greatest, most important, first commandment according to Jesus. Paul made up his own rule. Paul wrote:
    “The entire law is summed up in a SINGLE command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” [Galatians 5:14, Leviticus 19:18]

    And again, Paul wrote:
    “He who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this ONE RULE: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” [Romans 13:8-10, Leviticus 19:18]

    Jesus said it’s TWO commandments, with the greatest, most important, first command to
    .1) first, love God with everything you’ve got, and
    .2) second, love people.
    Paul said no, it ONE commandment- to love people.

    This is very similar to The Beatles- “All you need is love. Love is all you need. Love, Love, Love.” (In other words, the second commandment, the love of man, without the love of God. Love as me, myself and I define love to be, and continuously redefined by sinful men.)

    In essence, it is also the same principle as what Eve did in the Garden of Eden, forgetting about the Tree of Life, which is the first tree in the middle of the Garden, and instead referring to the second tree as “the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” [Genesis 3:3 & 2:9 2:17, 3:24]

    Kind of like the Pharisees with Jesus, who were pushing the false idea that we can consider ONE commandment in the Law, alone in isolation, to be “the greatest commandment in the Law.”

    Or like today, false teachers in the Chrislam – Purpose Driven – Seeker Sensitive – Emergent – Liberal – Ecumenical – New Age – world church movement pushing the false idea that the ONE RULE is “Loving God and Neighbor together.”

    The Lord God Jesus the Jewish Messiah, Son of Yahweh the Most High God of Israel, said:
    “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these TWO commandments.”
    Not one. TWO.

    Sometimes, Paul was wrong. Jesus is always right. I’m following Jesus.

    Here are answers to 2 common objections:
    .a) What about the so-called “Golden Rule”?
    Jesus spoke the 3 chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, including 7:12. Jesus didn’t make PART of this one verse out of context into “The Golden Rule” or “one rule.” Jesus did not use the term “Golden Rule,” it’s simply a tradition of men. The sentence begins with “So” in the NIV and Amplified Bibles, and “Therefore’ in the NASB and King James Bibles, which ties 7:12 to the previous sentences. So 7:12 cannot stand alone as One Commandment.

    .b) What about the so-called “Great Commission”?
    Jesus spoke the words recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, including “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus never used the term “Great Commission,” it’s simply a tradition of men. Yes I agree it’s a commandment given by Jesus, it’s not optional, and it applies to us today. We need to carry this out, with our own God-given abilities and talents, using the skills, and circumstances we have. But we don’t need to put words in the mouth of Jesus, we can let Jesus speak for himself, and we can listen to Him – and obey Him.

    Evangelism is part of the Second Commandment given by Jesus, to Love people. Evangelism is not the most important commandment, and it isn’t the entire Second Commandment. So if our priorities are “The Great Commission and the Great Commandment,” we have our priorities upside down and confused, and we are not listening to the voice of Jesus. Never mind what Paul said. Let’s listen to the voice of Jesus first, and get our priorities straight.

    The people who will protest most loudly against this truth are the modern “Pauls:” traveling evangelists, speakers, writers, abusive absentee mega-church pastors, Crusaders, and self-appointed “apostles” like Paul, who find it “profitable” to “be like Paul” rather than follow Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

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    1. preacherwin

      Matthew,

      Sorry for my delay in responding back to you, between things going on at church and some time away with my family, I had not had the chance to sit and write. That said, here are a few thoughts.

      First of all, I would suggest that you not set a dichotomy between Jesus and Paul’s language…Paul is writing scripture and is inspired by the Holy Spirit in doing so, thus to claim that Paul is in error is to claim that the Spirit misled him, which would obviously be heresy. Instead, when there are apparent discrepancies, seek to discover how they fit together. My response to your discrepancy between Jesus’ language of Greatest and second greatest and Paul’s appeal to the second as the great commandment is simply to say that 1) to love neighbor as self in a Biblical way requires you to first love God with the totality of your being and 2) James is quite clear that there is no real ontological division in the law, when you break one you break all. Jesus is summarizing the two halves, Paul is arguably speaking of the whole. Harmony, not division.

      It is true that the phrase, “Great Commission” was one applied by men to Jesus’ instructions to us to make disciples of the nations. That said, there are lots of such terms that we employ for practical purposes to communicate what we know to be true in a way that is consistent with Scripture. The use of the word, “Trinity,” for example, is such a word… as is “Missionary.” To reject all such words places you in a context where you cannot easily communicate with a group of Christians broader than your little circle. Paul did not seem to have a problem with using even pagan ideas as a tool to point to Christ. Furthermore, God chose to give us the Gospel in the Greek Language and thus there are going to be Greek figures of speech and Greek influences on the way that information is logically and rationally communicated. “Great Commission” is useful as people know that it points to Matthew 28:18-20; no more. And the term, of course, is only really as valuable as it is with Christians who will live it out.

      There are indeed many against which we are called to lay condemnation, my encouragement is to make sure you don’t lay a stumbling block before people by getting caught up in the use of a given term.

      Blessings to you and your church, may Christ be exalted, but may it never be forgotten that all of Scripture is the revealed Word of God…nothing to be dealt with lightly.

      win

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