The Foremost Commandments (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34)

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When certain Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees on the subject of the resurrection, they gathered around him. One of their number, a scribe (a legal expert, according to numerous manuscript readings of Matthew 22:35) approached him with the objective of testing him. This scribe had overheard the interchange with the Sadducees and recognized that Jesus had answered them well. He then asked which was the first or greatest commandment in the law. (Matthew 22:34-36; Mark 12:28; see the Notes section for additional comments on Matthew 22:36 and Mark 12:28.)

In answer, Jesus identified the first commandment with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord [Hebrew, YHWH our God—YHWH (is) one], and you must love the Lord [Hebrew, YHWH] your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29, 30; see the Notes regarding Matthew 22:37.) This commandment stressed the all-embracing nature of love for God, with not a single faculty being omitted.

According to Matthew 22:38, Jesus identified this commandment as “the greatest and first.” Referring to the second one as being like it, he then quoted from Leviticus 19:18, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” “No other commandment,” Jesus continued, “is greater than these.” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31) The two greatest commandments express the complete intent of the law and the prophets, with love for God and for one’s neighbor or fellow guiding one’s attitude, thoughts, words, and actions. As Jesus said, “On these two commandments, all the law and the prophets hang.” (Matthew 22:40) The law and the teaching that the prophets conveyed are based on love. Therefore, it logically follows that the law and the prophets cannot be rightly understood or appreciated when one lacks love for God and for fellow humans.

The scribe who had raised the question was moved to acknowledge, “Excellent, Teacher, you have spoken in truth, ‘He is one, and there is no one other than he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love [one’s] neighbor as oneself surpasses [in importance] all the holocausts and sacrifices.” Recognizing that he had responded wisely, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from God’s kingdom.” (Mark 12:32-34)

To be in the realm where the Most High is Sovereign requires living a life of love, for love uniquely distinguishes him and expresses who he is. By acting in harmony with the words he had uttered, the scribe would have put faith in Jesus and imitated his love.

The question had not stumped the Son of God. Therefore, no one among the group dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:34)


The scribe’s question is not worded the same in Matthew 22:36 (“Teacher, which commandment [is the] greatest in the law?”) as in Mark 12:28 (“Which commandment is [the] first of all?”). The difference is understandable when one considers that the question was not originally expressed in Greek. Both passages, however, convey the identical thought.

In Matthew 22:37, the quotation is limited to the words in Deuteronomy 6:5. Both Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30 include the phrase “with all your mind.” This phrase is not found in extant manuscripts of the Septuagint nor is there any corresponding wording in the Masoretic Text. With the exception of the missing phrase and a different word for “strength” or “might,” the extant text of the Septuagint and the text of Mark 12:29, 30 are the same. Matthew 22:37, in the abbreviated quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5, omits “with all your strength.” The differences in the Greek of Mark 12:29, 30 and Matthew 22:37 are minor and have no bearing on the meaning of Jesus’ words.