The Greatest Commandment


The Greatest Commandment

May 30th, 1976 @ 7:30 PM

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Mark 12:28

5-30-76    7:30 p.m.



This is the pastor bringing the sermon entitled The Greatest Commandment.  We are going to read the text together; all of us in this great auditorium turning to the Gospel of Mark, the Second Gospel.  The Gospel of Mark, chapter 12; we shall read verses 28-34.  Mark chapter 12, verses 28-34, and all of us sharing our Bible and all of us reading out loud on radio and on television.  If you have a Bible, turn to Mark, chapter 12.  Read it out loud with us, beginning at verse 28, concluding through verse 34.  Now together:

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, Which is the first commandment of all?

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord:

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul . . . and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  There is none other commandment greater than these.

And the scribe said unto Him, Well, Master, Thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but He:

And to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, He said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.  And no man after that durst ask Him any question. 


There is a background to the query of the scribe that for us today is largely unknown.  For the generations and for the centuries before, the rabbis had discussed the application of the Torah, the Mosaic law, and out of those vast and almost endless discussions came the Talmud.  The Talmud is composed of the Mishnah, which is a commentary upon the law of Moses.  And since there were so many Jews in Babylon and then again in Israel, there was developed a Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah, which was a commentary on the Torah.  And the Babylonian Gemara, with the Mishnah, is the Babylonian Talmud.

Then, in Israel, in Palestine, the Mishnah with the Gemara that was developed in Palestine – the Mishnah and the Gemara make the Palestinian Talmud.  In that Mishnah and in that Gemara there are halakah and haggadah.  Halakah is the refinement of the law as it applied to the daily life of the people, finally becoming endless in its application – hundreds of hundreds of halakoth – how we are to walk and how we are to do, the commandments to them of the Lord, the oral tradition, the tradition of the elders.  The haggadah, of course, was the commentary, the discussion of the rabbis about the halakah.

Now, in the day that our Lord lived there were two schools of rabbinical thought:  one called Hillel – Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, belonged to that Hillel school.  The other was Shammai, the rabbinical school headed by Shammai.  And those schools endlessly discussed which was the greatest commandment.  When the scribe, therefore, listening to the Lord in the previous verses of the chapter as He had answered the Pharisees and as He had answered the Sadducees, the Lord answering brilliantly, the scribe came to the Master and asked Him that question that had been discussed for centuries by the rabbinical school.  "Which is the greatest of all of the commandments?"

Now the Lord did not look upon the question as idle casuistry, but receiving it as a word that was to be spoken authoritatively from heaven, the Lord answered – the text that we read.

The first and the greatest of all of the commandments is: there is one God.  And thou shalt love that one God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all of your mind and strength and understanding.

And the second great commandment is like the first: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.


The message tonight is taking that word from heaven, the authoritative commandment of the Lord, and applying it to us.

First: the greatest decision that a man can make is in that commandment.  "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul."  The greatest decision that a man can make is to give his heart to God.  Is it right between us and the Lord?  If I were called to stand in His presence tonight, could I stand in justification?  Would the Lord receive me unto Himself?  Am I saved?  The greatest decision that a man can make is, "I will give my heart and my soul in love and in trust to the great God and my Savior."

The greatest commandment involves also our greatest commitment.  "I shall live, by God’s help, my life for the Lord, for I am to love the Lord my God with all my strength, and with all my understanding."  It is the commitment of a man’s life to God that glorifies the Lord – people seeing the light glorify God.  It is a tragedy, unspeakable and sad, that so many of us who name the name of our Lord do not exalt Him in the commitment of our lives, but we are worldly and we are compromised, and people seeing us never glorify our heavenly Father.

I have a wonderful friend, a schoolmate with me in the seminary, pastor of one of the great First Baptist downtown churches in a city in America.  And upon a day, he decided to go out and to visit all of the liquor stores in the city.  He did so.  The first liquor store that he came to, the woman seated there behind the counter, casually smoking a cigarette, welcomed him into the store.  She belonged to his congregation.  She was one of his members.  She was happy to see her pastor visit her in her liquor store.  The second store he came into, there was a woman running that store.  She was the daughter of a Baptist pastor and a Baptist preacher.  And he went through the whole city, and he said to me, in the whole city, in all of the liquor stores in all the city, he only found about two who were not members of the church.

Now, I would not say that a man was damned because he worked or he owned a liquor store.  But what troubles me and bothers me is this, that he’s selling a product that ruins a man’s life.  It destroys him in his job and in his work.  It is an instrument that breaks the wedding band, that orphans children.  There has been more death, and more sorrow, and more tears, and more heartache from liquor, from liquid pot, than any one source known to the sad human heart.  And to be a part of that, to sell people something that addles their brains and destroys their homes and ruins their lives, to me is unthinkable.  And when one gives his life to God, it carries with it a great commitment to glorify our Heavenly Father.

I was in Oklahoma City upon a preaching mission.  And I was in the hotel waiting for a man to pick me up.  While I was seated there in the hotel lobby, a woman came by and stopped in front of me, looked at me closely and said, "Are you not W. A. Criswell?"

I said, "Yes, ma’am."

She said, "May I tell you my experience of grace?"  She said, "Your first pastorate, you remember, was in Chickasha, Oklahoma.  And in the years that you were there, every Saturday you preached the gospel on the courthouse lawn."  She said, "In those days, I was running a cheap beer joint just across from the courthouse."  And she said, "Because of the loudness by which you preach, when I closed the door, I could still hear the sermon."  She said, "Working in that beer joint, running that beer joint, I could not help but hear the gospel."  She said, "At first I bitterly resented it.  But as the days passed and the Saturdays multiplied, and you continued to preach on the courthouse lawn, conviction entered my heart and I became a Christian.  I accepted your Christ as my Savior."  She said, "I went down to your church, the First Church in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and I made my confession of faith, and you baptized me."  She said, "The following day on Monday I went down and opened my beer joint," and said, "As I served those trashy customers who came in to guzzle that slop," she said, "it was something that finally became impossible to me.  I could not serve God and at the same time serve that stuff."  She said to me, "I closed the joint.  I just locked it up.  I sought for another assignment."  And she said, "In the good grace of God, the bus station offered me the little restaurant in Blanchard, Oklahoma, and that’s where I am now working."  And she says, "To the customers that come into the little restaurant in the bus station at Blanchard, if God gives me opportunity I talk to them about Jesus and about the Lord."

Oh, what a happiness a thing like that brings to my heart!  If you are in a job that does not honor God, quit it!  Resign from it.  "But, pastor, how would I live?  How would I support my family and my children?"  God will see you through.  He will give you a better place and a better job for the great assignment the Lord has laid upon us.  When we give our hearts to God, it is also to commit our lives in His faithful service.  This is the great commandment.  "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart and soul."  I must give my heart to God, and  I must live my life for Him with my strength, my length of days, my understanding.

One other: "And the second commandment," Jesus says, "is like unto the first."  Both of them in God’s sight are somehow the same.  "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."  What could that mean?  It means for us this: loving God and loving my neighbor – what is the finest and the best thing that I could do for him?  It is this: to win him to Jesus.

I attended the funeral service of a man who lived a long way from me.  And he belonged to another communion, but I made the journey to attend the memorial hour for that good and godly man.  The reason why?  I had a deacon in the church.  He was the pillar and foundation of the faith in that little congregation.  And he’d been won to Christ like this.  The deacon’s father had befriended this man who had died, and to whose funeral I made my way.  And that man who had befriended this one who had died – that man was translated to heaven.  And the friend that was left behind thought one day, "What a wonderful thing did he do for me, winning me to Jesus!  What could I do that I might repay him?"

And the Holy Spirit placed upon his heart, "He has a son, a young man, and the young man’s lost."  

"The best thing I could do for my friend is to win his son to Jesus."

The rest of that story is a remarkable intervention from God, how that man prayed that boy into the kingdom and into the church and in my pastorate there, my finest yokefellow and co-labor and godly deacon.  Isn’t the sentiment of that incomparably precious?  "What is the best thing I can do to return the kindness of my friend?  I can win his son to Jesus."

"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."  The best thing I could ever do for a neighbor or for a friend is to introduce him to Jesus.  Now, I have a bunch of reasons for that, if I have time.  Number one: it’s the big thing in heaven.  It’s the glorious thing in heaven.  For it says, “There is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth than over a multitude who think they need no repentance” [Luke 15:7].

You know, when the service is done, and the benediction is said, what we would say, I suppose, is, "Was the sermon well-prepared?  And was it magnificently delivered?  And did the choir sing gloriously, and was the congregation large?"  And oh, many things that we might add, but do you know what I think heaven asks?  Heaven asks, "Was somebody saved?  Did somebody find the Lord?"

The greatest thing in heaven is the salvation of the lost.  There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one somebody you who comes to Jesus [Luke 15:18].  It is the greatest thing in the life of Christ.  It will explain everything about our Lord.  He came to die for our sins.  His ministry was not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance [Matthew 9:13], not to minister to the well, but those who were sick.

It will explain His death: "This is My blood of a new covenant shed for the remission of sins" [Matthew 26:28].  It will explain His resurrection.  "He was raised for our justification" [Romans 4:25] to declare us righteous.  "For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of our Lord, how much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" [Romans 5:10], that is, His life of intercession in heaven.  And it will explain His coming again.  He is coming for His own.  The great thing in the life of our Lord was He has come to seek and to save that which was lost [Luke 19:10].

It is the great thing in the ministry of the apostles who went everywhere preaching the word.  It is the great thing in the Great Commission.  All of those are participles in there; poreuthentes, going; baptizontes, baptizing; didaskontes, teaching.  But the imperative verb in the Great Commission is "to make disciples" [Matthew 28:18-20].  And it is the great happiness of our church and of us who love our Lord in it.  "We therefore as ambassadors for Christ beseech you in Christ’s stead: ‘Be ye reconciled to God’" [2 Corinthians 5:20].

And this is our appeal to your heart tonight, trusting Jesus, loving the Lord, giving your life to Him, finding strength, and ableness, and joy, and happiness, and victory in Christ – tonight, would you come?  Would you come?  On the radio and on television, where you are, bow your head.  Say, "Lord, come into my heart.  I lift my soul heavenward and God-ward.  Lord, write my name in the Book of Life.  Let me live with Thee here in the pilgrimage of this earthly journey and someday with Thee forever in heaven."  And to the great throng in the service and congregation tonight, on the first note of the first stanza, come.  "Tonight, I take Jesus as my Savior."  Or, "Tonight, I’m putting my life in the fellowship of God’s dear church."  A family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, in the balcony round, down a stairway, in the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, "Here I am, pastor, I make it now.  I’m on the way."  Angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.