The Greatest Commandment, part 1

A sentiment I hear frequently is “I just want to love Jesus,” with the implication that the speaker would rather not get too caught up in some of the more controversial or foreign passages found elsewhere in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament. People sometimes embrace this perspective as a way to keep the Christian life simple and pure. They don’t want to get caught up in religious rituals, arbitrary requirements, and teachings that are hard to make sense of in the modern world.

Jesus himself was once asked to pinpoint what God wants from his people. Mark 12:28-34 records a conversation between Jesus and an earnest Jewish scribe. The scribe asked Jesus to identify the most important commandment, and we know his answer well. Or do we?

Jesus’ answer to the scribe was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But that is not his complete response. His entire answer draws from a passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, that was familiar to all Jews in the crowd that day, because they recited that passage as part of their daily worship. The passage, known as the Shema, begins with “Hear, O Israel: The LORD (YHWH) our God, the LORD is one.” Jesus includes this as part of his answer because he is talking about loving a specific God: the God who initiated a relationship with Israel and who was revealing himself to Israel. The audience of Jesus’ day knew this God as the God who was testified about in the Scriptures – the Old Testament (of course, the New Testament wasn’t in existence yet!).

We shouldn’t miss the significance of Jesus’ answer. Jesus himself highlighted loving the God of the OT as the most important thing we can do. If we want to love and follow Jesus (and we should!), we will love God as he is described in both the OT and the NT – the complex, challenging, holy God who doesn’t always act according to our sensibilities. It is not enough to follow Jesus in isolation and cast the God of the OT aside, since Jesus points us to the God of the OT rather than away from him. “Jesus” without the OT is a skewed, distorted Jesus.

As Christians, our relationship with God is defined by Christ (and the new covenant he inaugurated in his death and resurrection), but God has not changed or “improved” from the way he was in the OT. Jesus’ answer to the scribe that day directs us to love the same God who revealed himself to Israel – YHWH God of the OT – who is the same God we can know today through Christ.

Distorted religiosity and heartless rituals still have no place in the life of a Christ-follower. But careful, prayerful, responsive engagement with the Old Testament does. If we love Jesus, God the Son, let’s listen to his call to embrace the LORD God, as witnessed in all the NT and OT, without reservation, revision, or apology.

For the second part of this series, see the link below:



Filed under Biblical Theology, New Testament, Old Testament

3 responses to “The Greatest Commandment, part 1

  1. Samuel D. Judge

    Dr. MaGee, we know that the God of the O.T. is the same as the God of the N.T. since God is unchangeable. However, since this is true, how come God was so willing to change the way things worked? Why did He want to send His Son if the “old method” worked?

    • Great question, Samuel! I might need a whole blog post at some point to do justice to this topic, but here is a “short” answer.

      The OT on its own terms presents a story that is headed somewhere yet is incomplete and pointing forward. The NT presents Jesus as the completion to the story.

      The direction in which the OT story is heading is God ruling over a perfected world, with a perfected people living in right relationship with him (see Gen 1:26-30 and Gen 2 for a glimpse of this end goal). The Israelites received the first taste of this perfected rule and loving relationship through the covenants God made with them (and God promised blessing to all nations through Israel – Gen 12:1-3). But because of deep-rooted sin (towards God and others) they fell short of experiencing God’s reign, and the relationship was broken, pending a new work of God (promised in Jer 31:31-34 and elsewhere).

      Jesus comes as the faithful, sacrificial savior and vindicated, resurrected victor to both provide for the sins of Jews and Gentiles (giving us relationship with God) and to inaugurate the reign of God (“the kingdom of God”). All of this will come to fruition when Christ returns.

      In short, the “old method”/old covenant was a good part of God’s overarching plan that was fulfilled in Christ. This was the plan God always had in mind (2 Tim 1:9; Eph 1:9-10) and was even foreshadowed throughout the OT (see the entire book of Hebrews for examples). The shortcomings under the old covenant were related to human failure rather than deficiency of divine design (see Rom 7 for this argument from Paul).

      That is a very simplistic overview of the OT and NT, but I hope it helps for starters!

  2. Pingback: Jesus Speaks . . . With the Father and the Spirit | Watchful

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