the weblog of Alan Knox

The third greatest commandment

Posted by on Jan 22, 2009 in discipleship, love, scripture | 28 comments

I’m sure that most of my readers are familiar with Jesus’ declaration of the greatest commandment(s):

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 22:35-40 ESV)

So, a lawyer asks Jesus which is the “great commandment”. Jesus replied with two: 1) Love God and 2) Love your neighbor. But, Jesus said that the second was like the first. Also, Jesus said that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on “these two commandments”, not on one or the other, but on both.

As I was thinking about this recently, I wondered why Jesus gave the man two commandments. I mean, the man only asked for one, but Jesus gave him two. Why didn’t Jesus just give him one? Or, why didn’t Jesus give him three? What would have been the “third greatest commandment” according to Jesus?

When I read what people are saying about Jesus or about Christianity, it often seems that they think “the third greatest commandment” is more important than the first two that Jesus mentioned. What do I mean? Well, in books and teachings and blog posts and other means, people are often telling Christians what they must do to follow Jesus’ teachings. And, love is very rarely at the top of the list. Instead, it seems people like to focus on what they must consider to be Jesus’ “third greatest commandment”. You know, things like:

Have faith!
Study the Bible!
Join the church!
Give your money!
Homeschool your children!
Be baptized!
Sign this covenant/confession!
Make disciples!
Speak in tongues!
Sing worship songs!
Be involved in the programs of the church!
Read the right books!

Of course, there are others who prefer to focus on Jesus’ “third greatest commandment” as a prohibition or negative command:

Do not drink!
Do not curse!
Do not join THAT church!
Do not send your kids to public schools!
Do not speak in tongues!
Do not hang out with THOSE people!
Do not read THOSE books!

I guess I could go on and on. Now, some of these are very good things. But, Jesus didn’t list these among his great commandment list. Instead, Jesus stopped at two: 1) Love God and 2) Love your neighbor.

Why would Jesus stop with these two? Why did he not include other commands in his list? Are we wrong if we place alot of emphasis on love? Are we wrong if we don’t place alot emphasis on love?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-22-2009

    Maybe Jesus gave two commands because God always gives us more than we could hope for 🙂

    Seriously, I think we could add to the list of “commands”

    The Church must do things “my” way, or you are not a faithful NT church…


    Thou shalt not worship in a place other than a house…
    Do not pay your pastors…


  2. 1-22-2009

    Why would Jesus stop with these two? For the very reasons you point out in your post. We have the tendency of making our #3’s (whatever they might be) the emphasis, rather than what Jesus said was really important: Love–“On these two commandments depend all the [rest]…”

  3. 1-22-2009

    Matthew 7:12, Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14 …. That’s all I have to say about that 🙂

  4. 1-22-2009

    Do you ever wonder if Jesus was intentionally being ironic in using the words “commandment” and “love” together? I can imagine the tone of His voice when the word “commandment” was spoken, as if bidding that world goodbye for those with ears to hear. It occurs to me He was giving us a beautiful contrast of that old dead system of rules and regulations compared to this new creational, relational kingdom where He no longer calls us servants, but friends… where we are not merely subjects of a kingdom, but objects of His affection… where we discover He is interested in conversing with us more than commanding us.

  5. 1-22-2009

    Jesus said that when you follow these 2 commandments, you’ve fulfilled the whole law.

    Jesus also said that all things are to be done in love. But, I think that love will look different from one circumstance to another.


  6. 1-22-2009

    Was Jesus giving us two commandments or one? In other words was He presenting us with two sides of the same coin? You cannot do one without the other.

    Jesus wasn’t contrasting a new way with an old dead system of rules. He was quoting it. Which leads me to ponder…maybe they “rules” weren’t so dead after all. Maybe I’m the problem. I have a tough time thinking of God’s revelation as a “dead system of rules.”


  7. 1-22-2009


    Relationship is what the genuine follower of Christ is all about, and that is what Jesus is alluding to.

    If BOTH the vertical relationship with God (via the finished work of Jesus on Calvary) and the horizontal relationship with each other (via the indwelling Spirit), is in place, no other commandments (the #3’s mentioned by Guy)are necessary for the follower of Christ.

  8. 1-22-2009

    Joe (JR),

    Since you haven’t heard me say those things, I’m assuming you’re referring to someone else. 🙂

    It is interesting, though, that if we put love first, several other things fall into place – and they may fall into place differently than we normally see today.


    Yeah. Its easier to focus on what’s most important to us than what’s most important to Jesus.


    You left out Col 3:14 and 1 Pet 4:8. 🙂


    It seems like Jesus, Paul, and James all used the words “commandment” and “love” together. Perhaps what’s really ironic is that this is one command that we think we don’t have to keep?


    Love is relational… thus love will look as different as the people involved in the relationship. That’s difficult to measure, program, or control.


    I think he was telling us that there are two parts to love and you can’t have one without the other.

    Aussie John,

    “No other commandments are necessary…” That seems so “subjective” though… 🙂


  9. 1-22-2009

    You are right Alan, I have never heard you say those things and I would not hope to give anyone reading that impression.

    I read your initial list and noticed an absence of things related to Ecclesiology and since that is the theme of the site, I tried to come up with a few items from the top of my head that might fit the list.

    Do you have some thoughts on what areas of Ecclesiology we have made into 3rd Commands?

    Check out this post I made sometime back called, “Thou Shalt Not!!!” It is based on the kinds of things you are talking about here, and answers your question “why”?

  10. 1-22-2009


    I would never think of something God reveals as dead either. Sorry if I gave that impression!


    Just a thought that I think is in keeping with the spirit of your post… when we make it less about striving to love others, and more about thriving in His love toward us -the loving others begins to occur naturally and authentically. Until I began to open up to the reality that God was not angry with me, but rather affectionately loving me in spite of my humanness, it was mind blowing. I truly see God as a loving Father / compassionate Friend / affectionate Lover. This is in great contrast to the 40 something years of churchianity I lived in where I saw Him more as a discriminating taskmaster eager to correct and admonish me.

  11. 1-22-2009

    Joe (JR),

    I think there are a couple of items about ecclesiology in my list. I tried to keep them general so it would cover people in both institutional churches and organic churches. I know that many people have put baptism, church membership (choose your brand), confessions, creeds, etc. as the 3rd commandment.

    By the way, I’ve had people tell me that you have to meet in churches. I’ve disagreed with them as well.


    Yes, I think the more we understand the love of God, the more we will love people. The two go together.


  12. 1-23-2009

    Regarding that passage and Jesus instruction, I’ve often wondered the same thing…

    Especially considering that most Christians (at least the American Christians that I cross paths with on a daily basis) put more stock in commandments 3 and upwards, or in negations as you list in your post…

    And most looking in (either anti-Christian, agnostic or tepid, unchurched Christians), do not see that tri-headed commandment of “love God” / “love yourself”, “love your neighbor” being carried out by so-called practicing Christians…

  13. 1-23-2009

    I wonder if you could use the words love and will interchangeably in the scriptures? “Not my love, but your love” perhaps. We have to be careful, because our understanding of how to love God and man is often skewed. To love is to obey. Wasn’t Jesus’ question to Peter (paraphrase) “yes you love me, but with who’s love? Peter then confesses (paraphrase) “You know me Lord” It seems Jesus answers are always taylor made for the inquirer, and meant to confront them with His Lordship. For some the issue is not about commandments but about_________________. ( Each seems to have his own little tender treasure) Lately I find myself having to repent of many of my prayers, almost like I’m praying “If you love me Lord, feed me and bring pleasant experiences to me.” I feel I should be praying “Lord, help me to understand and obey your love, though it seems harsh at times.” Perhaps we should be careful not to build theologies around these discourses.

  14. 1-23-2009


    Yes, that is exactly my point in this post. Christians generally put more emphasis on something besides love, and nonChristians rarely see a demonstration of the love of Christ.


    I think there are probably several concepts that go together: love, will of God, obedience, faith, etc.


  15. 1-26-2009

    Alan, good post. I was only discussing this with a friend yesterday. We were discussing what is absolute and what is relative and whether everything is absolute or everything is relative. We did not completely resolve this, but we did conclude that loving God and loving others is one absolute that we could identify. Which is a big challenge when you start thinking about all the things that you can be doing to show love to others!

  16. 1-26-2009


    Talking with many different people from many different backgrounds and traditions, it seems that everyone agrees that love is central, yet no one (or not many) center their lives around love.


  17. 6-23-2011

    good thoughts. glad to be back to reading your posts. i’ve missed them.

    How this plays out in my life….

    The greatest 2 commandments are the greatest. It seems God makes that clear. When He’s teaching me certain things, these are the first lessons always and it seems to me that IF I am obeying Him in these areas in the situation – He will show/teach/ask more of me.

    For example – when God bought me from slavery – He didn’t show me the entire list of things I needed to work on right away…commands from the Bible. But He did show me the 2 greatest commandments and kept them the focus. As I grew, I became more full of His love which could then pour out to others. I was changed inside.

    THEN when I started listening to what HE wanted me to focus on…. it surprised me that what He was asking of me didn’t match up with what church leaders/friends I knew at the time were telling me to do. I was still living in such bondage even though He had freed me. Trying to jump through a certain amount of hoops, straining to be good enough, trying to live up to some daily expectations I allow to be put on me.. it’s a battle I guess I will continue to have to fight… trying to live in freedom and not live by the spirit of the law.

    I found that now..years later…God is asking me to be obedient in similiar ways to what people were telling me to do back then… but now it’s coming from Him…. I have ownership in it… the MOTIVE is different…. now the obedience to the ‘other’ commands are symptoms of the inside change that He brought to me by focusing on the TWO greatest…. rather than just being disciplines/external habits/laws coming from self-motives.

    Sooo all that being said…. I wish more time was spent focusing on the 2 greatest commandments….. rather than trying to teach people how to get there. How to get there – is to focus on it.

    We can’t focus on the “others” to get to the greatest.

    Focusing on the greatest – will bring change and obedience to the ‘others’.

    What a loving Father to understand our human-ness and need to have things be simple… even though we still complicate them and say…. no that’s too easy… that’s not enough…. we (as leaders) need to burden err raise the bar for ‘our’ people and get everybody to look cleaned up FIRST – then we can teach them how to be more like Jesus.


  18. 6-23-2011


    Welcome back! Thanks for the great comment!


  19. 6-23-2011

    Love takes many forms. It is likely that the way I love God looks differently from the way you love God. The same is true with people. There is no set way to love, but love is in the heart.

  20. 6-23-2011


    True. There are many ways to love. I think people want to add other commands to the two greatest as well… and sometimes they care more about #3, #4, and beyond more than the first 2.


  21. 8-16-2011


    All the law is summed up in loving God and neighbor. It’s obvious that “Sign this covenant/confession!” falls neatly under both great commandments.

  22. 12-14-2011

    …love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? …LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” …LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’…’ YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ …There is no other commandment greater than these.” …love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, …” If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. …”But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. …”A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another…”By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”…”Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love…”This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you…”This I command you, that you love one another….the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”…the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us…Let love be without hypocrisy…Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…For this,” YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ” YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…we know that we all have knowledge, Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies…If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing…And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing…Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant…Love never fails…But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love….Let all that you do be done in love….My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen…For the love of Christ controls us…For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love….For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ” YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”…But the fruit of the Spirit is love…that we would be holy and blameless before Him In love…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, walk in love, just as Christ also loved you…I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment…put on love…may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people…you yourselves are taught by God to love…the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart…and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus…Let love of the brethren continue…If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. ..fervently love one another from the heart…Honor all people, love the brothers and sisters…Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins…Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them…Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister… For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another…We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth…And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us….let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar…And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister… I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another…. As you have heard from the beginning, His command is that you walk in love. …keep yourselves in the love of God…

  23. 5-18-2012

    Thanks for the post. I agree that the two commands that Jesus gave are all we need to focus on. All the other rules and regulations of the modern day religious system, the past Old Covenant Law are done away with and not required to live a life pleasing to God. We now live through grace and not law. God has given us such a great priviledge of being called friends and having a relationship with Him. Most of us Christians don’t get it. We still want to try to earn it by living up the the 10 commandments and doing things rather than accept the grace given us through Jesus. Obviously we don’t want to go out and do wrong things, we want to please God. But now we can do that out of love for Him and not out of obligation of the law. Praise God for the gift He has given us. Help each of us to begin to understand it better and love Him and those around us more each day.

  24. 5-18-2012


    If we love God and others, we will obey him. I’m not opposed to commands/instructions/exhortations. We find plenty of those in the New Testament. However, they all fall within the confines of love. Without love (of God and others), there is no obedience.


  25. 7-12-2012

    I agree Alan! Focus on any activity or command and you will finish tired, dry and far from Christ. Focus on the Lord, embrace Him, love Him, fellowship with Him through His children; make Him your Life and He will make of you His expression!. All activity will be then a fruit of Him in us and not anymore our many efforts to please Him 🙂

    Have a great day brother!

  26. 7-13-2012


    Thanks for the comment. I agree. When we are in Christ and following him, love will be the (super)natural response, and everything else will come from that.


  27. 9-27-2012

    When God gave the ten commandments he did not start with a list of rules. He reminded them of his grace and mercy: “I am the Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. I want my relationship with you to be categorised in the following way …
    Jesus does not grap the declaration of the two greatest commandments out of thin air. The first one is a welknown instruction in Dt 6:5; and the second one comes from Lv 19:18.
    All the guys that see the commands as part of a system, what do they make of Ps 119? Read all 176 verses. I marvel at verses 97, 98.
    Thanks for making us think, Alan.

  28. 9-27-2012


    You’re welcome. I’m glad that you found this helpful.