Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 7, 1970

The Greatest

Robert H. Farish

"The greatest" is a familiar term. It is a superlative frequently heard but rarely deserved. It is often misused by man, but seldom used by God. Like other superlatives it has been cheapened by the flatterer and irresponsible advertiser. Nearly everything and everybody has been referred to as the greatest by someone. It has been prostituted by the fawning sycophant who "will everything admire; each verse, each sentence sets his soul on fire" (Dryden). Did you ever hear some subordinate refer to his superior (in the superior's presence, of course,) as "the greatest"? Examples of the improper use of the superlative could be multiplied but our chief objective is to consider some of the cases in the Bible where God employs the term. We need to know what people, principles and things, God rates as the greatest.

The greatest commandment, the greatest in the kingdom, and the greatest of the three abiding principles referred to in I Cor. 13:13 will be considered in these articles.

The Greatest Commandment

The people living in the days when our Lord was in the flesh were interested in determining "what is the greatest commandment?" According to Jewish writers, there had been a long standing dispute as to which was the greatest commandment.

The question of which is the greatest commandment in the law, was put to Jesus by a scribe (lawyer) — "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" (Matt. 22:36). What motives generate the interest, ancient and modern, in being able to identify the greatest law? Several possibilities come to mind.

The disposition to disregard or neglect small things and demand things that "challenge" us is one possibility to consider. Naaman is a good example of this type. "And his servant came near, and spake unto him, and said, my father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it?" (2 Kings 5:13) The commandment to dip seven times in the river Jordan, was not dramatic enough to compliment Naaman's rank and pride. It was not "great" in the sense that the worldly pride of Naaman judged a thing to be great.

Then there are those who want to "get it over with." These seem to think that if they can discover one specific commandment that is the greatest and do that one, they need not concern themselves with the lesser, ie., if they are scripturally baptized, they need not be bothered to "live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world." Such attitudes will bring disaster to the soul and thus need to be corrected. None of the counsel of God can be neglected with impunity.

The question of "what is the greatest commandment?" could stem from the desire to give a terse compact answer as to the duty of men. Even in the dawn of the "moon visiting age" we are still trying to accommodate the mentality that demands "answer, yes or no." It is impressive to give a terse, accurate and complete answer to questions. It is sound practice to give a comprehensive answer to questions so long as the querist avoids regarding a comprehensive answer as a specific and will allow all the distributives to occupy their essential place.

When the Bible declares that man is "justified by faith," unity can prevail among the hearers so long as they bend their efforts toward learning the distributives of the comprehensive requirement; division and misunderstanding results when people fail to make the necessary distinctions between comprehensive statements and distributives. The question that should come to mind is, what is involved in faith in these contexts? It is said that "Crispus the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his house" (Acts 18:8). "Believed in the Lord" is the comprehensive expression of what Crispus did. Distributives of "believed in the Lord" are expressed in the next statement — "and many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:8). A number of examples could be introduced to illustrate the comprehensive and distributive use of terms in the New Testament; the reader is urged to search out some of them and study them for himself.

The fact that Jesus answered the question of "what is the greatest commandment?" suggests that interest in the question can be legitimate and that the question could be asked from a worthy motive. Note the answer given by the Lord. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40). The first and great commandment requires that all the emotions allowed to dwell in the heart must be feelings and attitudes worthy of the object, God. We must love God more than we love our life. We must submit the intellect to the will of God; many fail here being unwilling to love God above their own wishes and plans, etc.

To love one's neighbor as one's self is simply the "golden rule" phrased differently. We need to realize that every element of godliness is a distributive of "thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .," and that every obligation to man, expressed in the New Testament, is a component of "love thy neighbor as thyself."

— Cedar Park, Texas