The Greatest Commandment

Jesus and Pharisees Cropped

James Tissot, “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” from the Brooklyn Museum collection. Purchased by Public Subscription.

In both the book of Romans and the book of Galatians, Paul offers some insight into the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. For example, in Romans he says,

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, ESV)

Similarly, in Galatians, he says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14, ESV).

In the context of sexual ethics, these verses have long been used to argue for a revisionist view recognizing same-sex marriage as legitimate. The idea is that if we can’t see any way that affirming same-sex marriage is an affront to love of one’s neighbor, it must not be wrong. Much of the conservative response has been to try to show how same-sex marriage fails to love one’s neighbor.

However, there is another point to consider here. Paul was likely echoing a saying of Jesus:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he 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 great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40, ESV)

Notice that “love your neighbor as yourself” is only the second greatest command according to Jesus. Similarly, the Law and the Prophets depend on the two commands, not just the second greatest. (To his credit, Justin Lee acknowledges this in the post I linked above.)

Why is the command to love God, the first and greatest commandment, left out of these discussions so often? Well, one obvious reason is that here, Paul focuses more on the “love your neighbor” command. I think another factor is the desire to come up with an ethic that will be compelling to non-believers. However, loving God isn’t less important just because it isn’t an area of common ground with non-believers.

Let’s look more closely at what Paul says in Romans (quoted above). Notice that he quotes from the Ten Commandments, but only cites some of them. For example, he does not cite the commandments against worshipping other gods, making idols, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. To me this seems natural, if he is to focus on the “love your neighbor” commandment. It is not clear how worshipping other gods, making idols, or taking the Lord’s name in vain is a failure to love one’s neighbor, except insofar as failing to love God is also failing to fully love one’s neighbor.

What are we to make of Paul’s potential glaring omission? Was he saying that the command to love God is no longer applicable to Christians? That conclusion is patently absurd, given that Jesus says that loving God is an even greater commandment than loving one’s neighbor. It’s also totally inconsistent with the rest of Paul’s teaching. So I think we need to be cautious not to take Paul overly literalistically in this manner; the command to love God is also essential to understanding Christian morality.

How does this relate to the discussion on sexual ethics?

Sexuality is actually connected quite closely with loving God in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the entire book of Hosea uses a metaphor of marital unfaithfulness to image Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord. In the New Testament, marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church. Similarly, Paul talks about the way that sexual immorality is a direct affront to God, in 1 Corinthians 6. His discussion of sexual immorality in Romans 1 is couched around both idolatry and God’s created order.

Jesus also frames his discussion of sexuality around the created order in Matthew 19. Although divorce was permitted under the law of Moses, Jesus reveals that this was not the intent in creation, citing Genesis. He also says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” indicating that marriage is something that comes from God.

In these and other passages, we see that marriage is deeper than a commitment between two humans to love one another. It is a way to honor and worship God by living the way that He ordained in creation. It is an image of our ultimate marriage to Christ in the age to come. And sex outside these bounds is an affront to God, like idolatry. Scripture doesn’t just focus on the consequences that sexual immorality has towards others. Sexual immorality not only breaks the second greatest commandment, but also the first.

From a more immediate perspective, we can also see the connection between sex and worship in our lives today. One of the most common reasons people leave the Christian faith is that they start dating or marry an unbeliever. The romantic feelings for that person often end up outweighing the person’s commitment to God. Paul brings up this concern in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (ESV). Romance and sex are powerful forces that have the power to misdirect our allegiances, even though they are also great gifts in the right context.

We would do well to consider the implications of this teaching for our own lives and our own hearts. Christianity is about directing our hearts towards God in worship, and we must not forget the greatest commandment in our efforts to follow the second greatest.


3 thoughts on “The Greatest Commandment

  1. This post is a rich feast for sexual theology (and theology of friendships too!). I highly appreciate this thought provoking (and worship evoking) post. God is to be honored and praised above all else. When our hearts are rightly ordered, and only then, are we able to love our neighbors with pure affection.

    I am contemplating a reposting of this. Let me know if you would appreciate that.

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