The Greatest Commandment


The Greatest Commandment

July 28th, 1991 @ 10:50 AM

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

7-28-91    10:50 a.m.


You are now a part of our precious congregation, the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the senior pastor bringing the message entitled The Greatest Commandment.

In our preaching through the Gospel of Mark, the Second Gospel, we are in chapter 12.  And the reading of the passage to be expounded is this:

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

And Jesus answered him, The first of all of the commandments is this, 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 mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

And the second is like, namely, 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 than 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.

[Mark 12:28-34]

“What is the greatest commandment of all?” [Mark 12:28].  Jesus did not look upon the question as idle casuistry.  Things differ.  There are some things more important than others.  And to devote your life to trivialities and minutiae is a waste of time and eternity.

When I was a boy living in a tiny town, growing up in a little white crackerbox of a church, I would hear the pastor preach.  And you wouldn’t know today what kind of a mind and heart lay back of his sermons.  He’d preach on how women ought to dress.  He’d preach on how women ought to cut their hair.  He’d preach on how they ought to make up their faces.  And of course, he was “agin” it.  I don’t know of anything that makes a better contribution to life than for a woman to dress up.  And the uglier they are the more important lipstick and eye shadow and all those things are.  I tell you, I’m in favor of it.  I am.

And he’d preach about men chewing tobacco.  One fellow was griping because they had taken the spittoons out of the church.  And he said, “I miss them.”  And the other fellow replied, “That’s why we took them out because you missed them!”  Oh dear!

It’s hard for me to realize this.  In our little church, we had one prominent businessman.  His name was W. W. Rixey, and he was the president of the State Bank, the only bank in that part of the earth.  He went to a dance, and they turned him out of the church.  It was a bitter confrontation, and nearly ruined the little congregation.  Those trivialities; there are some things that are greater than other things, and our Lord so responded.

The background of the question was this: there never was a greater tragedy in human history than the deportation of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar to be serfs and slaves in Babylon [2 Chronicles 36:20; Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:4-30].  You remember the one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willow trees in the midst thereof. . . .

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. . .

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

[Psalm 137:1-6]

Yet out of that incomparable tragedy came three of the greatest institutional blessings of our lives.  One: monotheism; the curse of Israel was never seen again.  They were thereafter monotheistic.  Second: the birth of the synagogue; today, we call it, in our communion, the church.  And the third: the canon of Holy Scripture.  And it was the discussion of that canon of Holy Scripture and its application to human life that gave birth to the Talmud; the years and the centuries of discussion of the law of God, as it pertains to human welfare.  I have seen Talmuds that were as long and big and multiplied as the Encyclopedia Britannica; the application of the law of God to human life.

The Mishnah, the oral law; and there was a Babylonian Mishnah, and a Palestinian Mishnah, and each Mishnah had a Gemara.  And the Gemara was made up of  Halakha and Haggadah.  Halakha were those laws that were applied to daily life.  And Haggadah were the discussions, the parables, the many things of the rabbinical meetings that pertained to the application of that law.

When Jesus lived, there were two great schools in those rabbinical discussions.  One was Hillel.  His grandson was Gamaliel, who twice in the Book of Acts is presented as the teacher of apostle Paul.  They were far more compassionate and understanding in their application of the law of God.  The other school was Shammai.  They were severe in the extreme.  But the rabbis and the people of the synagogues gave themselves to those discussions.  “Which are the great commandments and which are the lesser ones?”  “And, how do we apply this law of God to this situation?”  That’s why I say, when it was brought to our Savior, He did not look upon it with disdain and contempt, but He answered faithfully and beautifully.

“Which is the greatest commandment of God?” [Mark 12:28].

And the Lord replied, “The greatest commandment of God is this: You are to love Him with all your heart and with all your soul” [Mark 12:30].  This is the greatest decision that a human soul can make.  “I accept the Lord.  I love God, and I give Him my life” [Deuteronomy 6:5].

Have you done that?  Are you saved?  Do you put God first in all of the decisions of life?  Thereafter, everything follows in its order.  Loving God and giving your soul and life to Him [Psalm 37:5], then to be baptized [Acts 8:36-38], and become a member of the family of the Lord [Romans 8:15].  Then to observe the things God has given for us to do in our daily lives.  But first, the greatest commitment of all is to place God in your heart and in your life and make every decision in keeping with His holy will.

And that is true at the judgment day of the Almighty.  Second Corinthians chapter 5 says someday we shall all stand in the judgment before Jesus our Lord [2 Corinthians 5:10].  And what shall it be for us in that inevitable and inexorable hour?

Already, I have two funeral services prepared for the week, in which this is the first day.  And in that cold dead hand, what if a man possessed the title deed to the riches of the world, and he’s dead?  How infinitely more precious to have in his hand a title deed to a mansion in heaven!  Great God, the greatest decision that we can make in our lives is, “I will love God with all of my heart, and with all of my soul” [Mark 12:30].  May I add that is the greatest commitment you can make in your life, to love God with heart and soul, and to love Him with your strength and with your might [Mark 12:30].  Dear God, what a marvelous open door God has set before us to commit our lives to Him!

There are some things that I have never been able to understand in the Christian pilgrimage.  I held a revival meeting in the Kirkwood Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, years ago, when K. Owen White, with whom I went to the seminary, when K. Owen White was the pastor of that church.

He did something that amazed me!  He took a friend and went through all of the liquor stores in that part of the city of Atlanta.  And after they’d made their survey, after they’d gone to the liquor stores and talked to the people there and invited them to the revival, why, he told me, he said, “I never met anybody in any one of those liquor stores that wasn’t a member of the church.  One of them was a daughter of the pastor.  Another, his brother was the Sunday School superintendent of a church.  All of them were in the church, all of them.”  How is it—I can’t get it in my mind—how does one give himself to God and commit his life to the Lord and sell cocaine, crack, alcohol, drugs?  How do you do that?  If you love God and commit your life to Him, how do you compromise in the ways of the world?

In my first pastorate at Chickasha, Oklahoma, every Saturday I took my Bible and went down on the courthouse lawn, and I preached to everybody that listened to me.  And in those days, I had a loud voice and you could hear me all over the county.  They were all there, all there.  Some of the most marvelous experiences of conversion I’ve ever seen in my life were in those days when I was preaching on the courthouse lawn.

One day, in the years after, I was driving from Oklahoma City down and I stopped at Blanchard for a snack.  And as I sat there in the bus station where the cafe was located, there came a woman, sat down by my side and she said, “Aren’t you Brother Criswell?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And she said, “You were pastor at Chickasha.”


“And you’re now pastor in Dallas.”


“Well,” she said, “in those days when you were at Chickasha, you were preaching on the courthouse lawn, and right across the street I was running a joint.  I was running a liquor store.  I was running a place where you could sit down and get a bite to eat, but mostly they served drinks.”  And she said, “I couldn’t help but hear you preach.  You preached so loud, I couldn’t stop my ears.  And as you preached there, Saturday by Saturday, I came under conviction.”  And she said, “There in that joint, I gave my heart to Jesus.  And I closed the thing.  I couldn’t continue.  I closed the joint.  And I turned the property back to those who owned it.  And I came here to Blanchard, and I opened this cafe here in this bus station.  And that’s what I’m doing now.  And my heart is free before God.”  A commitment of your life—it’s a wonderful way.  It’s a beautiful pilgrimage.  It is a preciousness in this life and in the life to come.

What is the greatest commandment of all? [Mark 12:28].  Thou shalt love the Lord with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and all of the strength and might of every day’s journey [Mark 12:30].  And the second is like unto it.  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself [Mark 12:31].  Loving your own life, that means I seek its highest destiny in God.  I love the Lord in my soul, and I look forward to being with God forever and ever.  And that is what I wish for my neighbor, that he, too, will find the Lord as his Savior, and his hope, and his friend in this life and in the life to come.  What greater thing could there be than that, loving your neighbor, you bring him to the Lord Jesus?  You introduce him to the God of our hope and salvation.

As you know, for years, for ten years, I preached out in the country.  And in one of my country churches was a glorious deacon.  His name was Quince Davidson.  His father was Craig Davidson, who died before I came to be undershepherd of the little flock.  But Craig Davidson had befriended a man named Will McKelvy, had helped him get started, had helped him buy his farm, helped him plant his first crops.

And as the days passed and the years multiplied, Craig Davidson had died.  And upon a time, Will McKelvy was reviewing what Craig Davidson had done for him, helped him get started, gave him his money to buy his first farm.  And thinking of the kindness of Craig Davidson, he began to think, “What could I do to repay him?”  And it came to his heart, “His boy, Quince, a young man, is not saved.  What greater thing could I do to repay Craig Davidson for his kindness to me than to win young Quince to Jesus?”

And he prayed.  And he sought him.  And he talked to him.  And in a revival meeting under the big tabernacle, open tabernacle, he came down the aisle with his arm around that young fellow, Quince, my deacon.  He’d won him to Jesus.

What greater thing in the earth is there than that we could win somebody to a like faith and a like hope in God our Savior?  Is that not the greatest thing in the life of Jesus?  How would you explain why He came from heaven to earth other than to seek and to save us who are lost [Luke 19:10].  When He was accosted because of His friendship to the publicans and sinners, He replied, “They that are whole need not a physician—they that are sick.  And I have come to seek and to save that which was lost” [Mark 2:16-17; Luke 19:10].

It will explain the death of our Lord.  “This is My blood, shed for the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:28].  It will explain the coming again of our precious Savior “to those that look for Him shall He appear the second time apart from sin unto salvation” [Hebrews 9:28].  The whole work and ministry of our Lord can be defined in His love for us [John 13:1], and His seeking for us who are lost [Luke 19:10].  “He was delivered for our offenses.  He was raised for our justification” [Romans 4:25]—to declare us righteous.  “If, when we were sinners, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” [Romans 5:10].  Saved by His life; raised for our justification; the life of our Lord Jesus, here in this sanctuary, making appeal to your heart to give your life to Him.

That is the tremendous import of the Great Commission, that we might be saved.  In the commission in the last of Matthew, Matthew 28:18-20, every verb is a participle except one.  Poreuthentes, “going,” that’s a participle.  Baptizontes, that’s a participle, “baptizing.”  Didaskontes, that’s a participle, “teaching.”  But matheteusate, that’s an imperative!  “Make disciples,” win them to Jesus, teach them the things of the Lord [Matthew 28:19].  That’s our great imperative, called the Great Commission [Matthew 28:18-20].  And that was the whole story and ministry of our Lord’s first apostles.  They went everywhere preaching the gospel, the Book of Acts says. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” [Acts 4:12]

So Philip is there in Samaria preaching the gospel to the despised, outcast Samaritans [Acts 8:5-13].  He’s down there in the desert winning the Ethiopian eunuch to the faith [Acts 8:26-39].  Simon Peter is in Caesarea in the house of the despised Roman, Cornelius [Acts 10:34-48].  And those unnamed disciples are in Antioch preaching the gospel for the first time to those who were not Jews, preaching the gospel to the Gentiles [Acts 11:19-21].  And the Holy Spirit said, “Separate Me Paul and Barnabas for the work whereunto I have called them” [Acts 13:2-14:28].  And God sent them out to the ends of the earth.  And some of them went to England, to my ancestors.  And some of those men and women came to America, and they brought the message to us.  Bless God.  Praise the name of the Lord!

And this is the great source of joy in heaven [Luke 15:7].  At the 8:15 service our wonderful pastor preached on the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, the threefold facet of a parable about saving the lost [Luke 15:3-32], these sheep, a hundred of them, one of them lost [Luke 15:3-6].

Did you know, if I may make an aside, that the ninety-nine felt safer because of the Lord’s love for the one?  And it says that when He found that one and returned home, the people shouted with him and rejoiced with him.  Likewise there is joy in heaven over one sinner that comes to the Lord Jesus [Luke 15:7].  Same thing in His parable of those ten coins, one lost.  And when that one lost coin was found, all of the neighbors rejoiced with that dear woman.  “Likewise, said our Lord, there is joy in the presence of the angels” [Luke 15:8-10].

 I want you to preach a sermon on who those people are.  Will you do that?  Will you do that?  I’ve thought of that all of my life.  There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one somebody that comes to Jesus [Luke 15:10].  Who are those that are rejoicing?  Do they look down on us?  Mother, do you see me?  Dad, do you hear me preaching the gospel?  And those saints that I knew when I was a teenager pastoring those little country churches, all of you in heaven.  Do you see me?  Who are they who are rejoicing in the presence of God over one somebody that comes down that aisle this morning?  Who are they?  All I know for sure is that there is gladness there and here when somebody comes to the blessed Lord Jesus—wonderful, wonderful thing; glorious, glorious experience, just to look upon Him.

And that is the great assignment for us in the kingdom and patience of the Lord Jesus, and in this dear church.  As 2 Corinthians 5:20 avows, “We are ambassadors for God.”  We are emissaries from heaven, speaking in His name.

Be ye reconciled to God.

For God made Him to be sin for us, Him who knew no sin; that we might be saved and might be made the righteousness of God in Him. . .

Wherefore, brethren, we beseech you that you hear not the grace of God in vain,

For He saith. . .Now is the accepted time; and now is the day of salvation.

[2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2]

That’s the great assignment for our church and for our denomination.  Here in the city of Dallas our denomination and our church is a part of it.  We have a great hospital, a wonderful hospital, a glorious and magnificent healing institution.  And I thank God we are healing the sick.  Here in our city we have a glorious orphans’ home, one of the greatest in America.  Here in our city, we have a great university.  And even in our dear church, we have a preachers’ college.  Here in our city we have the Annuity Board to take care of God’s servants when they get older.  We have in our own county a magnificent camp and retreat that continues all summer long.  But when you put it all together, all of it together, it is nothing compared to the great assignment God has given us to win the lost to Jesus [Matthew 28:19-20].  This is our first and greatest assignment, preaching the gospel, making an invitation, giving an appeal for the Lord.

Preacher, you mentioned it at the 8:15 service.  This is something that has continued ever since I have been pastor of this church, in these years and years and years.  People from the North come and attend our congregation and our services and will say to me after the hour is over, “This is the first time in our lives we have ever seen an invitation or heard an appeal.”  And I look at them in amazement!  Then why the church?  As the French would say, raison d’etre, what is the reason for being?  We’re here to praise God, and to love the Lord, and to worship in His name.  But above all, we’re here to win people to Jesus, to preach the gospel, to make His saving grace known to this city, and to these who listen on radio and on television.

I have to close.  I think of our church in the downtown heart of this great metroplex, and how easy and how simpler and how more redolent of all of the appurtenances of a life of leisure to move out; we have been encouraged to move out.  We’ve been appealed to move out ever since I have been here.  “Why don’t you move out?  Why stay downtown?”  We stay downtown because our hearts are sensitive to the Word of God.  We’re to preach the gospel to this city, down here where God has placed us one hundred and twenty-three years ago.

I said, “Let me walk in the fields.”

He said, “No, you walk in the town.”

I said, “There are no flowers there.”

He said, “No flowers, but a crown.”

I said, “But the skies are black.

There is nothing but noise and din.”

And He wept as He sent me back.

“There is more,” He said; “there is sin.”

I said, “But the air is thick

And the fogs are veiling the sun.”

He answered, “But souls are sick

And souls in the dark undone.”

I said, “I shall miss the light

And friends shall miss me, they say.”

He answered, “Choose tonight

If I am to miss you, or they.”

I pleaded for time to be given.

He said, “Is it hard to decide?

It will not seem hard in heaven

To have followed the steps of your Guide.”

I cast one look at the fields,

And set my face to the town.

He said, “My child, do you yield?

Will you give up the flowers for the crown?”

Then into His hand went mine

And into my heart came He.

And I walk in a light divine,

The path I had feared to see.

[“The Path of Obedience” by George MacDonald]

I’m glad to be downtown.  I’m grateful to be in the heart of this city.  And I love the thought that this dear church prays for the lost, visits homes that are outside of the kingdom of God.  And the people rejoice, rejoice when there is a response and souls come down this aisle giving heart and life in love to the Lord Jesus.