Why the First Commandment Must Be First
(Mark 12:28-34)
by Vernard Eller

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When reckoning a passage in Mark's gospel with the title "Why the First Commandment Must be First," I see that the first thing I must do is specify that we are talking about Jesus' Two Commandments rather than Moses' Ten Commandments. Actually, it won't make all that much difference. In time we will discover that both Moses' Two Commandments and his Ten commandments follow the same order of priority as do Jesus' Two. Nevertheless, we presently are addressing Jesus' version of the commandments as given in Mk. 12:28-34.

There, a scribe (which is to say, a highly trained expert in the Hebrew scriptures) approaches Jesus with a question. Notice that his inquiry is not simply as to whether Jesus knows the commandments. His question is quite deliberately worded: "Which commandment is the first of all?" So the matter of priority is seen as of critical importance.

Jesus understands what the scribe is getting at; his answer is carefully worded. "The first is, 'Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'"

At that point, then, Jesus goes beyond the scribe's question to talk about a second commandment. Yet notice that Jesus is explicit in calling this one "second," saying: "The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The scribe then confirms that Jesus has the commandments right--and in the right order. And in his turn, Jesus recognizes that the scribe himself is not far from the kingdom of God in understanding the commandments as he does.

What we need to realize is that, in this conversation, Jesus is not acting as an innovator, is not introducing anything of "Christian newness," nor anything Christianly unique. No, both he and the scribe are simply voicing the common Hebrew tradition from which they spring. At most, Jesus might be doing something a bit new in linking the second commandment behind the first as clearly and explicitly as he does.

Yet in giving what he calls "the first commandment of all" Jesus is simply quoting (from Deut. 6:4-5, the Shema passage which still today is considered the very heart of the Jewish faith). And Jesus quotes what Moses there clearly presents as the prime, the first and greatest, commandment.

On the other hand, when Jesus gives what he calls the "second" commandment, he is quoting directly from Lev. 19:18--though it is found there simply as "a commandment," not as any sort of special "second commandment" given a priority right behind the first one. Now scholars find some evidence that Jewish tradition already had moved toward pairing Deuteronomy's first commandment with Leviticusí second commandment--doing this even before Jesus came along to make the linkage definite. Yet I want to argue that the linkage was at least hinted and implied in the original Old Testament texts themselves.

In the Deuteronomy passage, after his presentation of the first commandment about loving God with everything that is in us, Moses' second commandment immediately following is that Hebrew parents be diligent in teaching the first-commandment faith to their own children and to whomever else they encounter. And I am prepared to argue that such a second commandment very properly could be worded: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Consider that our word "neighbor" comes from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning "nigh dweller"--and who, then, dwells any nearer to us than the children in our own household? "Loving the neighbor as yourself" ought to begin with our passing on to our own children the greatest gift that could be offered--even that first-commandment loving of the Lord. And, from there, "loving the neighbor" can then progressively extend itself to those dwelling farther and farther away. Yet it is not entirely wrong to suggest that, even with Deuteronomic original of the First Commandment, there is at least a hint of a Second Commandment like unto it--that of loving the neighbor as oneself.

In that regard, we are doing the Old Testament a grave injustice when we assume that its recognition of the Second Commandment is confined to the one verse Jesus quoted from Leviticus--and that "loving the neighbor" is essentially an innovation made by Jesus and his New Testament gospel. Not at all. Clear back in the Mosaic Law of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, there is a widespread emphasis upon loving the neighbor--and that with a little fillip that makes it quite noteworthy. Yet in that material, the neighbor who is to be loved in particular is the foreigner, the sojourner, the stranger, the outsider--namely, those who would not normally be considered candidates for neighbor-love. Indeed, it may be Jesus' instruction that that love is to include even the neighbor who is known to be enemy--that may be the one and only point upon which Christianity advances beyond the Old Testament understanding of the Second Commandment.

Thus, Ex. 22:21 commands: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Leviticus passage from which Jesus quoted his Second Commandment--in its larger context--the passage says: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And then, elsewhere in Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is specified that strangers are to participate in all of what we would call "the welfare privileges" that the people of God had set up for their own poor.

Reconciling the Two Commandments with the Ten

Finally, only late in my thinking did it occur to me to apply this Two-Commandment pattern to the better-known Ten Commandments of Moses (Ex. 20:3-17). However, let me propose that the top four commandments of the Ten relate to the First Commandment of the Two. They are all stated in the negative; but each tells what you simply must not do if you intend to be loving the LORD Yahweh with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength:

  • You dare have no other gods besides the one God Yahweh.
  • You shall not be reducing God to pictorial forms, as the idolaters are continually doing.
  • You shall not besmirch the name of Yahweh by using it for vain purposes of self-advantage.
  • You shall be careful not to desecrate that day of the week set aside especially for the honoring of God (I am assuming that it was originally worded in the negative.) The implication is that, rather than doing any of these things, what you should be doing is loving the LORD your God as the First Commandment (of the two) suggests.

Then, following the pattern to a T, the last six of the Ten Commandments specifies what you must not be doing if you want to be obedient to the Second Commandment (of the two), the one about loving the neighbor as oneself.

  • You shall not dishonor your aged parents, for they are, after all, the very nearest of all your neighbors; (Again, I am assuming a negatively worded original.)
  • You shall not kill your enemy neighbor--but rather love him.
  • You shall not do adulterous cheating on your spouse--but rather show her love.
  • You shall not steal from your neighbor--but rather give him love.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (that's the actual wording of that commandment)--but rather speak to him loving words of truth.
  • You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor's (again the "neighbor" word is in the text)--but rather than coveting what he has, loving that neighbor as yourself will have you giving to him from what you have.

So I submit that the better-known Ten Commandments are actually built over the less familiar Two. Yet what is abundantly clear is that Jesus did not himself invent the First and the Second of the two commandments. He fully endorsed them; but he did not in any sense invent them.

We have said enough, I think, to establish that the Gospel of Matthew has it right in having Jesus say: "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets"--which is to say, "the whole of biblical teaching." So the question now to be raised is whether there is any significance to the fact that Jesus (following OT precedence) specifies the First Commandment as first and the Second explicitly as second. Is that order necessary or only coincidental? Would the Commandments have the same significance and work just as well if they were in reverse order? Or could they be treated as independent of each other--in effect simultaneous, giving you the choice as to which of the two you want to tackle when?

Getting the Priorities Straight

The reason I see the matter of priority as so critically important is that I find than many of us Christians are currently muffing it so badly that we are in danger of losing our status as being a biblical people--people who claim that the New Testament is our rule of faith and practice.

To me, the evidence is abundantly clear that we are at our best in centering in and giving it all we've got regarding the Second Commandment about loving the neighbor, while giving little more than a passing glance to the First Commandment about loving God. Our obedience to the Double--First and second--Commandment is completely out of whack. There are several different ways in which we have gone about fouling up on Jesus' commanding of us. Let's look at them in turn:

  1. I want to speak now of what I would guess to be a very, very small percentage in numbers. We might call them the "ultra-liberals." However, most of them are in positions of crucial leadership and thus represent a greater threat than their numbers would indicate. Nevertheless, their concept of God is such that it has to be sheer nonsense to talk about a First-Commandment "loving him"--with heart, soul, mind, and strength. In the first place, God for them is not a personal being with whom any sort of true love relationship is even conceivable. In the second place, it is wrong even to use personal pronouns in reference to God. But if I may say so, the Bible's First Commandment simply will not translate into: "The universe is permeated by one Principle; and you shall love it (love it?--that principle, idea, concept, model, process, theory?) with all your heart, soul mind, and strength." Of necessity, these folks have to go all out simply with the Second-Commandment loving of neighbor--because they have no God to whom the First Commandment could apply in any case.
  2. Many others (scads of us, I think, this time) work the skewing of the commandments in a different way. They assume that doing a good job on the Second Commandment automatically takes care of Commandment One. "The way I give myself in the loving of neighbor is proof enough of how much I love God." However, I invite you to try that one once on your sweetie, and see how far it gets: "Darling, all that attention I give to other women is actually incontrovertible proof of how much I love you." We will get back to this point in a bit; but consider that, if doing a good job on Commandment Two automatically takes care of Commandment One, then there is no point at all in the Bible's even giving us Commandment One. Simply pushing Commandment Two would have sufficed for the fulfilling of the whole gospel.
  3. A third way in which we tend to skew the matter (scads of us, again, I think) is this: We take for granted that Commandment One has already been cared for, that we have already given God as much love as he should ever expect. And having already done the First Commandment as well as we have, that certainly should free us to give our total efforts to Commandment Two. So, now try this one on your sweetie and see how far it gets you: "Honey, in the wedding ceremony I told you that I loved you--and that should have settled the matter. So why do you keep after me about it? I've got more important things to do than spend my time telling you how much I love you."

So I invite you to listen to the sermons on Christian Radio, to listen to the hymns and praise songs, to read some of the Christian magazine articles and other mailings, attend some Christian conferences, follow the talk and program-pushing--to just keep an eye on us Christians generally. And then you decide the proportions by which our time, attention, and resources are split between the First Commandment and the Second. My own opinion is that the first and greatest commandment is being badly ignored.

So, it can happen and has happened that many Christians in all traditions have chosen to begin their Christian life by centering in on the Second Commandment. Consequently, many have hung up there and never come to the place of doing much about the First Commandment. Now let me tell you how the reverse approach of starting with Commandment One has inherent safeguards against the same thing happening, with people hanging up on No. 1 and never getting to No. 2.

Put it that, in obedience to the First Commandment, we come to God to tell him how much we love him. What is his first response? It follows the pattern of Jesus' speaking to Peter on the seashore at the conclusion of the Gospel of John. Jesus really pushes Peter as to whether Peter truly loves him. Each time, Peter responds, "Yes, I really do love you." And each time, Jesus comes back, "Fine! So, now, feed my sheep"--which is to say, "Proceed to Commandment Two, for that is the best way of proving your First Commandment love of the LORD." So, the Second Commandment does get into the picture either way. Yet, if I may say so, the action has an entirely different significance depending upon whether one comes to the Second Commandment by way of the First or whether one moves directly to the Second as an ignoring of the First.

Indeed, I think there is one compelling reason why coming by way of the First is the only move that will make the second workable at all. When the command is that one is to love the neighbor as oneself, I suppose that, if the neighbor happens also to be one's good friend, it might be within the realm of sheer human possibility that we find ourselves able to love such a person as we love ourselves. However, as soon as the command is extended in asking us to love as ourselves that neighbor who is to us "the stranger," or even "the enemy"--well, then, the commandment is asking of us the impossible, asking of us that which runs totally against the grain of our human nature.

So, you see, a First-Commandment love relationship with God is absolutely essential as the one thing that might conceivably convert, transform, and empower us to the point that we have any chance of succeeding with the Second. Without the First Commandment, the Second would spell nothing but our damnation and a grade of flunk.

Why the First Commandment?

Consequently God is right in making the First Commandment first and asking us to love him with all our hearts, soul, mind, and strength. Yet something more must be said. God has not made that Command No. 1 for his own sake--as though he needs the ego-support of feeling himself loved, wanted, or needed. No, God in his wisdom knows that Command No. 1 is right and necessary for our sakes.

A father does not ask his little boy to "help" him on some home project because the job couldn't get done without help from the child. Obviously, the job could be done better and in half the time if the kid would stay clear out of it. No, it is solely for the child's benefit, as a learning experience for him, that the father asks for the child's "help." And just so, God's first command is that we love him--knowing that it is only in our loving a God of truth, justice, righteousness, and goodness that we stand any chance of learning those moral distinctions for ourselves. The First Commandment is there because we need the experience of loving God, not because God needs the experience of being loved.

Well, then, if the First Commandment must be first and if we as a people need to get our priorities squared with that fact, how are we to define and describe what First-Commandment "loving the LORD" is to look like? If, at baptism, the pastor asks whether you love the Lord and you say, "Sure"--is that adequate to the situation?

I think that almost everything we need to know about loving the Lord can be derived simply by observing the romantic attachment of a couple in the courting stage. (I will state it in terms of "him" loving "her"--though I trust you realize that it could as well be stated just the other way around.)

  1. The lover always wants to know as much as can be known about his beloved; he wants to love everything about her. And a First-Commandment loving of the LORD wants to know as much as possible about him. Accordingly, Lord-lovers will search the biblical accounts of God with something of the same passion that lovers search their love letters from one to the other.
  2. Lovers want to enjoy each other's company for every minute possible. The girl's parents have a dickens of a time getting that guy to go home at night. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind in calling us to pray without ceasing. In any case, God should be in our thoughts (and his name in our mouths) much more often than is the case.
  3. The lover is eager to do anything (just name it!)--anything that would please his sweetie. It's a far-gone case of "thy will be done." And Jesus says that First-Commandment love is just as eager that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
  4. The lover loves to rave to anyone and everyone about what a great gal his beloved is. And, for a fact, the instruction immediately following the Deuteronomic presentation of the First Commandment is to the effect that lovers of God ought to be raving about him--first to their own children and, after that, to anyone who will listen.
  5. Perhaps above all, the lover is eager for the day in which the romance can be consummated--so eager he can taste it. And in the same way, First-Commandment lovers are eager in their anticipation of the consummation of their love affair with God. And this, of course, is the "thy kingdom come signaled by the return of Jesus--what the Revelator properly calls "the wedding supper of the Lamb" and describes as "the dwelling of God with men" (and they live happily ever after).

Yet I do not believe that our failure to give first attention to the First Commandment has been for any lack of understanding as to how one goes about loving God. No, we simply have been so caught up with ourselves that there has been a general laxity and sloppiness in paying attention to what God asks. And we can turn that matter around just as soon as we choose to--which I propose we start right now by dwelling on Wesley's hymn:

0h for a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.
My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name."

Charles Wesley had his Commandment priorities straight. Do you?

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