The Greatest Commandment of All
March 31st, 1963 @ 7:30 PM
THE FIRST AND THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-31-63 7:30 p.m.
We invite you on the radio, with this vast audience in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, to open your Bible to the Second Gospel, to chapter 12, and to read to us, and to read with us, to share with us the reading of the Word of God. The Gospel of Mark, the Second Gospel, chapter 12; we shall read from verse 28 through verse 34. The title of the sermon tonight is, The First and the Greatest Commandment. Verses 28 through 34 in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Mark, now sharing our Bibles, all of us, let us read it out loud together; and on the radio you join with us reading it aloud. Mark 12, Mark 12:28-34. Now this is the reading, sharing it 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 mind, 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.
You see that was the last of a series of questions whereby they sought to catch the Savior in some kind of a polemical, dialectical trap. Was it right to give tribute to Caesar or not? Well, if He said no, why, that would bring upon Him the wrath of the Roman Empire. If He said yes, that would bring upon Him the wrath of the Jewish nation who looked upon that tribute as a sign of the galling and hated Roman yoke [Mark 12:13-17].
Then they asked Him about the resurrection from the dead, and told Him a stock story that they’d been repeating for a thousand years; no one had ever been able to answer that question of the resurrection of the dead. This man who’d had a wife, and because of a levirate marriage and custom, having no issue, why, his brother had to take her, until all seven had her; now in the resurrection, whose wife shall she be? They thought that was an impossible thing to answer; yet Jesus answered it according to the power of the resurrected glory of God Himself [Mark 12:18-27].
Then the last question concerned one that had been debated for centuries in the rabbinical schools of Hillel and Shammai. Gamaliel was one of those great rabbans of the school of Hillel, and Saul of Tarsus was his most brilliant pupil. And in those rabbinical schools, if you’ll ever see a Talmud – and they are the most endless and tedious of all of the thousands and multiplied pages of any series of volumes that have ever been published – you have ever looked at a Talmud, a Jewish Talmud, you will see the kind of rabbinical discussion that is represented here by this scribe of the law.
And they had debated for years, and years, and years, which one of these commandments is above all. And they graded them. This commandment was slight, and this one was weighted and heavier. And the reason they did that was so a man could judge in his own mind as to which one of those commandments he wanted to break and which one he’d better keep. Kind of like a present day religion that divides all of sins into mortal and venial: the venial sin, you know, why, you could just go out here and do anything you want to about that, that doesn’t matter much; but a mortal sin would be something else. Well, it’s a same kind of religion; it gets down to where it grades the commandments of God. Now this one is not so important, so I can break that; and this one may be a little more important, but I still can break that one. And that’s why they had those endless discussions about the importance of the commandments.
Well, everybody had his own idea, and each one of those rabbinical schools was fiercely defending their own judgment in the matter, and this was another avenue by which they sought to entrap the Lord Jesus. So the scribe, why, he came and said, "Now Lord, what do You say? What is Your idea?" And the Lord replied. It’s an unusual thing about the Lord; He never looked upon all of that casuistry as being facetious, He took it very seriously. And the attitude of our Lord was this: there are commandments that are weighted; not that these are less to be observed, but there are some that are all-important and cover the horizon, they cover the face of heaven and the horizon of the earth. And He chose the Great Commandment in the Old Testament Scriptures: "To love God with all a man’s soul, and life, and heart, and mind, and strength, and to love a man’s neighbor" [Mark 12:28-31].
Now I want to do the same thing for the New Testament. Is there a great commandment above all mandates? Is there one supreme assignment to be found in the pages of the New Testament? Out of all of the teachings of our Lord, and words of our Lord, and commandments of our Lord, and commissions of our Lord, is there one supreme above all else of all the things Christ has said and done and revealed? Is there one tremendous commandment that covers the whole face of the revealed religion of the Son of God? I think there is. I think unquestionably there is. Now may I illustrate what it is by parable?
Suppose a man were visiting, a devout Christian man were visiting in the Soviet Union, and suppose one of those atheist communists were to come to that man and talk to him; and this devout Christian were to say, "I cannot understand this great nation. I can’t understand this vast people. I don’t understand. Your preachers you have sent to Siberia, or you have shot them before the firing squads, or you have imprisoned them for life. And you have destroyed these churches, and those that remain you have turned into great museums. I don’t understand. How do you live without God? And how do you live without the church? I don’t understand."
And that Russian communist answers, "Why man, we don’t need the church, we don’t need the church. We get along fine and splendidly without the church. What do we need the church for? What does your church do?"
And so this devout Christian would say, "Well, what does the church do? Well our church does lots of things. It builds buildings. It builds buildings and has budgets to keep up its properties."
And that atheist Russian would say, "Well, we build buildings too. Look at that great building there, and look at that one there, and look at there, we keeping them up."
"Yeah, but," said this Christian, "the church does something else. We have orphan’s homes."
"Well," says this Russian, "we try to take care of our children too. We do it by the state. We try to dissolve these families and put all of them in orphan’s homes. We try to take care of those children, too."
"Well," says this devout Christian, "the church does something else. We have great hospitals."
And that atheist Russian replies, "Why, we have hospitals, too. Look at that one there, which is built by the government, and sustained by the state. We also have great hospitals."
"Yes, but," says this devout Christian, "We have wonderful Christian colleges, and schools, and universities, and medical centers."
"Yes," says this atheist Russian, "we also have schools, and colleges, universities, and medical centers. Why, look at that one there." And he could point to the University of Moscow, which is one of the most imposing edifices in this earth.
"Yes, but," says this Christian devout church member, "you see, we have philanthropies and we have great sustaining drives in order to help the needy and the poor."
"Ah!" says that atheist Russian, "You just ought to see the sustaining drives put on by our government," supposedly, "in behalf of the poor, and the needy, and the peasant, and the enslaved."
You can just go through everything that you can imagine that the church does, and that atheist will say, "Well, we think we can do it better by the power of taxation and the strength of our Russian law."
Well, what is that devout Christian man going to do? Well, it’s a very simple and easy reply. That humble Christian man can reply to that atheistic communist, a very simple thing, "But sir, but sir, in our country, nurtured by the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God, in our country we are taught that a man is created in the image of God, and that he has an immortal soul, and that every man is somebody important in the sight of God! And my soul was saved in a little Baptist church back there in America, and I was taught that the eyes of God and the love and mercy of God extended even unto me! And in that I was taught that the life and soul of every man was likewise precious and dear in the eyes of [Him] who died for the sinners of the whole world" [John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 2:9].
What a vast, what a vast, incomparable, indescribable, infinite, immeasurable difference! For to an atheist, the destruction of a hundred million lives is nothing. To feed vast armies into the maw of a cannon is nothing. To see whole nations destroyed in blood is nothing! That’s atheism!
But what it is to be a Christian is to believe that one soul is loved in the sight of God, created in the image of the Almighty [Genesis 1:27], and for that one man did Christ die [Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10; Romans 10:9-13; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Timothy 1:15]. The superlative message of the Christian church always has been, still is, will be as long as there’s a fragment of it that remains in this earth, that Christ died for sinners [Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21], that a man is somebody over whom God weeps, the Spirit of God seeks him! And that Great Commission to bear the message and the story and the invitation of the Almighty to every soul that lives in this earth is the first and the great and all-pervading commandment of the whole New Testament revelation of God [Matthew 28:18-20].
That’s why, if we are in keeping with the Spirit of the Lord, everything we do is turned to that holy end. If we have a building, it’s an incidental thing; we built it in order to point men to Christ. If we have an organization, it’s an incidental thing; the thing was organized and launched that it might be used of God to win people to Christ. And if we have any institutions, and if we have any works done in the earth, it has that one holy and ultimate objective: that we might bring the saving message of God to the lost and dying of the earth.
Now I have a whole lot of reasons and haven’t time even to mention them. I have a whole lot of reasons why that soul-winning assignment is the Great Commission in all of the Word of God [Matthew 28:18-20]. The first one is this. It’s the great thing in heaven; the big thing in God’s glory, up there where the angels are, as they look down upon us here in this earth.
You remember the parable of the ninety and nine? [Luke 15:3-7]. "And he came back and rejoiced. I found the one that was lost" [Luke 15:6]. And could I say incidentally, that there’s not anything so cold and there’s not anything so horrifying as the steel iron indifference of any kind of a totalitarian philosophy, any kind, whether it’s fascist, whether it’s communist; any kind of a state-ism leaves a one man as though he were a digit and nothing. But anywhere the Christian message is told, isn’t it a comfort to the ninety and nine that were in the fold? Isn’t it a comfort to them to know that their Shepherd cares for just one that’s lost? Didn’t they feel the more secure because the Shepherd was out seeking that one that was not found? That’s what it is in heaven. "And when he found the one that was lost, he rejoiced bringing it home. Likewise," said our Lord, "there is joy in heaven" [Luke 15:7]. And then in the following story, "and there’s joy in the presence of the angels of God" [Luke 15:10], and I wonder who they are? Are they God’s saints in heaven? One time He said, "There is joy in heaven" [Luke 15:7], and about five verses down He says, "There is joy in the presence of the angels of heaven" [Luke 15:10], as though there were other people up there rejoicing, "over one sinner that repenteth; more than over the ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance" [Luke 15:7].
When heaven asks about the services here that we have Sunday night, they won’t ask, "Were there ten thousand people there or three thousand? And was the music magnificent? And was the sermon well prepared and beautifully delivered?" All heaven will ask is this, when the service was done, "Say, my brother, you’ve been to the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas; was anybody saved? Did anybody find the Lord? Was anybody converted? Did anybody come to Jesus?" That’s what they rejoice over, the Book says, in glory. "Was anybody saved? Did anybody come to the Lord?" It’s the great thing in heaven.
It’s the great thing, the stupendous, startling, amazing thing in the life of our Lord. When He went to be the guest of a sinner, to stay in his house, why, the Lord defended Himself by saying, "For the Son of Man came into this world to seek and to save that which was lost" [Luke 19:10]. And I say it’s the great thing in the life of our Lord because it’ll explain everything that He did. He came into the world for what? "Call His name Jesus; He is going to save lost sinners from their sins" [Matthew 1:21]. That’s why He was incarnate, born in Bethlehem. It’ll explain His ministry: He went about and He defended His life of ministry with these words, "They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I have come to minister to the lost among God’s people in the earth" [Luke 5:31-32]. It will explain His death: "This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for the remission of sins" [Matthew 26:28], that we might be washed in the blood of the Crucified One [Revelation 1:5]. It will explain His resurrection: "He was raised for our justification, to declare us righteous in the presence of God" [Romans 4:25]. And it will explain His coming again: For whom is our Lord returning? He is coming for His own [John 14:3]. The whole life and ministry of our Lord can be explained in that great mandate: seeking those that are lost [Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10].
That Great Commandment [Matthew 28:19-20] will also explain the entire ministries of God’s apostles, and emissaries, and evangelists, and preachers, and missionaries. "And they went everywhere, preaching the word," the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts [verse 4] says everywhere, everywhere [Acts 8:4] – Philip went down to Samaria [Acts 8:5-13], Paul is over there in Cilicia [Acts 15:40-41], and Simon Peter is down there in Lydda and Caesarea [Acts 9:32-35, 10:1-48]. And they scattered out and fanned out over the civilized world, preaching the gospel of the Son of God, seeking lost men for Christ. This is the holiest assignment that any man ever assumed in his life: on the road to Ethiopia, Philip sitting there in the chariot, preaching Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch [Acts 8:26-40]; Saul of Tarsus bowing his head in tears, saying, "I would to God I could be accursed for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" [Romans 9:3]; and Simon Peter announcing the grace of God that reached even to the lost Gentiles [Acts 11:1-18]. This is the story of the apostles and preachers of the Son of God. And it gave rise to those tremendous commissions. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" [Mark 16:15]; and the Great Commission, in the last verses of the last chapter of Matthew, every one of those verbs is a participle except one, "Going, make disciples, win converts, baptizing, teaching" [Matthew 28:19-20], all of them participles except that one, to win souls, to win people to Christ. And this is the raison d’Ãªtre, the reason for being of any church in this earth.
And it’s the great profound reason for the building of this mighty lighthouse in the heart of the city of Dallas; that we might preach, and sing, and pray, and visit, and make appeal that the lost might be saved. Oh, the dereliction, the dereliction of our churches in that great, vast, primeval, fundamental commandment and assignment of our Lord. John Wesley said to his men, he said, "My brethren, you have one task: win souls, win souls." Yet how many services are conducted in which no invitation is ever given, ever given?
One of these men from the north came down here and listened to me preach here. And when he went out he said to a friend, "Did you know the thing I noticed most about the service is this: that when he got through preaching, he gave an invitation." What an, Oh, what a, what a, what an open door, looking into the spiritual life of the religion that man has known all his life up there where he came from! It was an amazing and a startling thing to him that when I got through preaching here I gave an invitation for people to accept Christ, an unusual thing. And to me, and to me, I cannot explain the religion, and the faith, and the service, and the worship of the church that doesn’t bend itself and pour itself out in an appeal to the lost.
What if I went to a dairy, and they said, "You know, you know we got a dairy farm here, but we don’t produce milk. We’re not in that business?" What if I, what if I went to a bank and the bank said, "You know we do a lot of things here, but we don’t handle money?" What if I went to a school and they say, "You know we do lots of things here, but we don’t teach anybody?"
Why, it violates the very reason for the thing itself! So it is in the church of God. What are you here for? What did God bless you for, and why is this building present here? Why does the spire point upward? Why the services? There is an everlasting why: God bless us as we seek in prayer, and song, and sermon, and appeal to win people to the blessed Lord.
And that is the sweet and blessed answer of God to the precious compassion of His praying people. If there is any holier worship, if there is any drawing nigher to the very presence of God Himself than in that answered prayer of love and compassion over these whom we seek to win to Jesus, I could not imagine what it is.
I was preaching in a service, and when I gave the appeal – it was in another church, it was not my own – and when I gave the appeal after the sermon, I saw a mother who had a child asleep in her arms, I saw a mother in that night service, a young woman, a young mother, I saw her leave her place, walk over to the other side of the church, and with one arm that she could free from holding the child, she put her arm around the neck of a man standing there on the other side of the church, and kissed him so sweetly and so tenderly, and came down the aisle and gave me that free hand, saying that tonight, that night, she accepted Jesus as her Savior.
Well, it’s not my business to be curious. God never called me except just to preach the gospel. And these things that happen in the lives of the people, why, don’t ever confess your sins to me. I can’t forgive sins. One of the most foolish things in this earth is to tell other people your sins. One of the most foolish things that I see in the name of religion is to tell a man your sins. What can he do with your sins? Man, tell them to God.
You do more harm spreading the story of your sins around than any one thing I know people do. Tell them to God. Ask God to forgive and to help. Well, I’m not curious, and when I talk to people over there in my study, I am very careful. If anybody begins telling me anything, I try to stop it. I try to stop it. You see, it’s easy to fall into the persuasion that that man can help me forgive my sins. No sir, that man can’t do anything about your sin, because he’s asking God to forgive his own. We all alike, all of us alike, bowing before the Lord.
Well anyway, it wasn’t out of just cheap curiosity, I, I said to her, I said, "That was an unusual thing you did, crossing over the church and kissing that man back there, before you came down here to give your hand to me and accept Jesus as your Savior." I said, "If you don’t mind, just want to know, who is that man? Who is that man?"
And she replied, she said, "That man is my father-in-law." She said, "My husband, that’d be his boy, and I, we have not been Christians; and my husband still, his boy, is not a Christian. But that man, my father-in-law, has prayed for us and asked God for us, and has wept for us, and has pleaded with us." And she said, "Tonight, my husband wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t come. But I have come accepting the Lord as my Savior." And she said, "I owe my salvation to my father-in-law. And before I came to give you my hand, I just wanted to thank him for his prayers and his love and his tears." So she said, "Before I came I went over there and kissed him."
If there is a holier devotion and a more spiritual love than that, I do not know what it is. And to have a people like that, and families like that, and homes like that, filled with the love and compassion and intercession of God, is like a piece and a reflection of heaven itself. Interested, interested; it is a care, it is a concern, it is our love for God loving you, loving you. I have to close.
The great ministry of the church is holding forth the blessed gift of God. If in one hand we had the world and in the other hand the offer of salvation, what would it be if the church, if the message, if the pastor, if the sermon, if the Spirit could bestow upon you the world? What would it mean? Then we have the service of memorial here, or in Embree Hall, or at the funeral chapel; and then the preacher stands up and he says, "Oh, this man, he lived in a great big house, and this man had vast farms and great bank accounts." Or, what would it matter if the pastor stood up and said, "This man lived in a cottage, and he worked with his hands all the days of his life"? What would it matter if the pastor could say, "This man died in the love and grace of Jesus our Lord"? What does it matter whether a man lives in a big house or a little house? What does it matter whether he has vast farms, or labors and toils with his hands all the days of his life? Just so, just so, when he stands some day in the presence of God, he stands washed in the blood of the Lamb [Revelation 1:5], saved, forgiven, in the goodness and mercy and love of Christ our Lord [Titus 3:5]. This is the rich endowment and the infinitely precious gift the pastor, the church, our Lord, offers to you. Come, come.
On this radio, "The Spirit and the bride say, Come. Let him that heareth say, Come. Let him that is athirst come. Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely, come, come" [Revelation 22:17]. While we sing this appeal, while we sing this song of invitation, while our people prayerfully, reverently wait before God, "Preacher, tonight, taking Jesus as my Savior, here I am." "Coming into the fellowship of this church, here we are." As God shall open the door, shall make the appeal to your heart, make that decision tonight. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. Rabbinical discussions of the Torah produced Talmud
1. Two schools of thought: Hillel, Shammai
2. Endlessly discussed which was the greatest commandment
B. Jesus does not dismiss the question as idle casuistry
II. The greatest task of all
A. Apply same principle of selection emphasis to us
B. Russian Communist asks, "Why need the church? What does it do?"
1. Buildings, organizations, hospitals, education
a. So does the Russian state
C. The difference is the gospel teaches man is created in the image of God
1. Everything we do is for bringing saving gospel to the lost and dying
A. The greatest thing in heaven (Luke 15:7, 18)
B. The greatest thing in the life of Jesus (Luke 19:10, Matthew 1:21, Mark 2:17, Matthew 26:28, Romans 4:24-25, John 14:3)
C. The greatest thing in the life of His disciples (Acts 4:12, 8:4, 26-39)
D. The greatest thing in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)
E. The greatest thing for us
1. Giving an invitation
2. Young mother and her father-in-law