A very common incident in the first century would be for an expert in Judaic legal rulings to ask a Rabbi for his opinion regarding some portion or aspect of the Torah. This is what happens to Rabbi Jesus as recorded in the twelfth chapter of Mark….
On this occasion, Jesus was asked about the Torah’s greatest command. His well-known answer, every word of which comes straight from the Torah, follows: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O 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 12:29-31).
Fast forward two thousand years, and most bible readers see two commands in Jesus’ reply; Love God and love your neighbor. Sure, Jesus was asked about the single greatest command, but for reason unknown, they reckon, Jesus responded by giving the two greatest commands. And then there are other bible readers who see not two but three commands; the previous two commands plus the added command to accept that God is One. This additional requirement causes trepidation for some defenders of the trinity doctrine, but for the record their trepidation is unnecessary; although Jesus proclaims God to be One He uses the Hebrew Elohim for “God,” which is a plural noun.
So which is it? Are there two greatest commands or three? Actually, Jesus gives us neither two or three greatest commands, but only one….
The first part of Jesus’ response (Deuteronomy 6:4) is a very significant Torah passage; it is the first line of the Shema, the most important of all Jewish prayers both then and now. By beginning with this passage, Jesus added considerable authority and importance to what He was about to say.
What does NOT come after His preamble, however, are two separate greatest commands. It certainly appears to be two greatest commands; after all, Jesus quotes two distinct passages that come from two different books of the Torah. But we need to remember that Jesus was functioning here as a rabbi, and as such He was answering as a rabbi would answer. Specifically, He was employing a rabbinical style of teaching called gezera shava.
Gezera shava means “moral equivalence.” To explain the meaning of a passage of scripture a Rabbi like Jesus would reference another scripture with the same key word or phrase as the original passage and then use the second quoted scripture to expand upon the meaning of the first. In this case, the key phrase is “you shall love,” which occurs in both of the verses that Jesus quotes in His answer; first, Deuteronomy 6:5 and second, Leviticus 19:18.
So, Jesus in fact gives only one answer to the expert’s question; the greatest command is to Love God. Period. This is the most important thing. Then He adds some definition to what loving God means by giving us a second (or clarifying) command: love people. That is, loving God necessarily means loving people. You cannot be a lover of God if you do not love people. Moreover, loving God and loving people are morally equivalent activities. This is not merely my opinion…it is what Jesus said when He was asked about the greatest of all the commands.
Once we understand this we can better appreciate what the apostle Paul had to say on the same subject. For example, consider Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We might expect that Paul should have rather said that the entire Law is summed up in the single command to love God, since Jesus himself said that loving God was the most important command. But Paul is not at odds with Jesus here. No, he is in full agreement, as he understands that the obligation to love God is achieved by loving people. So, instead of having conflict between what Jesus and Paul had to say on this topic, we have harmony.
If it is fair to expect that the most important command is what one would use to summarize the law, then it is also fair to assume that obeying the most important command would lead to a person fulfilling the law. That is, if a person loves God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, then what is left to violate any of the other laws? Paul addresses this concept in Romans 13:8-10, but again in a way that might have looked before to be at odds with Jesus: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for 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.”
There is more here to address, as “loving people” does not represent the totality of what Jesus said was the way to love God. He says we are to love people as ourselves. For more on this see my next blog, The Greatest Command, Part Two.