The Greatest Commandment | Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

 

The mission and purpose of God’s people, the church, is clearly given by Jesus in His Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Of the four commands given, making disciples is the primary. We go into the world for the purpose of making disciples. We baptize believers into the church in order to make disciples. We teach one another every command of Jesus so that disciples are made. Making disciples of Jesus, therefore, must be at the heart of everything we do as a church.

The book of Acts gives us a further glimpse at how the New Testament church sought to make disciples: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They devoted themselves to the Scriptures, to prayer, and to community. It is my belief that a life molded by these values cannot help but obey the Great Commission. In our present text, we will observe particularly how a life saturated in God’s Word is essential to obeying the Great Commission.

Deuteronomy literally means “second law,” which is fitting because it is composed of the final sermons of Moses given to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, and much of their content is reiterating the laws and commandments that God gave them forty years earlier. In the sixth chapter, we find our present text, which is one of the most important portions of Scripture. Called the Shema (the Hebrew word for hear), they essentially formed the doctrinal thesis of the Jewish religion, the central belief of their faith. Because of this, these verses were regularly prayed in both the morning and the evening and were often the final words upon the lips of dying Jews. Jesus, of course, affirms their importance by citing verse 5 as being the greatest commandment within the Bible. This text, therefore, is certainly worthy of our study and careful attention.

The general outline of the passage is: the central doctrine is presented in verse 4, the central command is given in verse 5, and proper application is given in verses 6-9.

THE LORD IS ONE // VERSE 4

Hear.

I am tempted to spend all our time with this one word, but alas, we shall not (today…). The importance of our text beginning with this word is multitude.

First, by being command to hear we must conclude that something is about to be said that is worth listening to. Something important is about to be communicated, so we would be wise to give our attention.

Second, we must remember who is commanding us to hear: Moses, the prophet of God, the vessel through whom God provided His holy law. Moses is such a dominating figure within the Old Testament that Jesus was prophesied to be a prophet like him (Deut. 18:18). This prophesy is the confirmed to apply to Jesus by how frequently their lives are paralleled. Both survived mass infanticide by an evil king, from which both found refuge in Egypt. Both were sent to rescue God’s people from slavery. Both issued the commands of God. And Moses is issuing those very commands here. He is speaking on God’s behalf, commanding us to pay careful attention to his words.

Third, because Moses is speaking the words given to him by God, we know that God not only communicates to us but actively entices us to listen to Him.

Fourth, God speaks this command to Israel, His people. God’s people should, of course, listen to their God.

This, then, begs the question: are you listening?

The reality of life is that we are hearing messages constantly. The entire field of business marketing is devoted to getting you to listen to a company’s message. People and devices are constantly vying for our attention, and we are largely influenced by the voices we are hearing. The Creator knows this, so He steps forward and demands our listening. As we will see, this God wants nothing less than to have our full attention. He requires it of His people. Why?

He is God. Two names are given here for the Creator of everything: the LORD and God. The LORD, in Hebrew, is God’s holy name, His personal name, while God is His divine title. Although we know that there is only one true God who formed the cosmos, people constantly worship other beings that they call gods. The LORD, therefore, is God’s proper name for clearly identifying the God of the Bible, which is why He specifies to Israel that He is their God.

This is intriguing because we might expect God to declare Israel as His people, as He often did. We would expect the Creator to brand them with His mark of ownership; however, He reverses the order. He calls Himself their God. He attaches Himself to them, not the other way around. I don’t think this observation is merely semantics for the sake of semantics; rather, this displays the kind of condescension that God shows repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. God does not treat us as nothing more than a pet or property. He doesn’t merely claim us as His own (even though that thought is no small wonder either!); He ties Himself onto us. Jesus is the most obvious example of this glorious condescension by literally becoming a human as we are human.

God, therefore, identifies Himself as being the God of Israel, but He also identifies Himself as being one. This means that God alone is God. Christianity is a monotheistic religion because we live in a monotheistic reality. There is only one Creator, and His name is the LORD. And He is our God. Other spiritual beings (i.e. demons) might establish false religions in which they are called gods, but they are not divine. The LORD is God, and there is no other.

Jews have rightfully identified this as being a cornerstone doctrinal statement, which specifies which God we serve. To affirm this declaration is to reject other views of God. For instance, we cannot properly believe that Allah, the god of Islam is the same as the God of the Bible because Allah is not the LORD. We serve the God whose name is the LORD, who attached Himself to the people of Israel, and who is uniquely God.

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT // VERSE 5

Following such a necessary declaration of doctrine, Moses then provides us with what Jesus calls the Greatest Commandment: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you might. Each command is contained within this one. Even the second command, love your neighbor as yourself, will naturally be accomplished if we truly love God as we ought. Therefore, if the aim of our life is to obey God, the process has been simplified tremendously. Obey this one command, and everything else will be naturally obeyed. How then should we obey it?

Moses explicates three realms of obedience.

First, we must love God with all our heart. In Hebrew, this refers not only to feelings and emotions (as we think of the heart today) but also to the mind alongside its thoughts, desires, and will. When Jesus added the mind onto this list, He was not adding a new concept but making the idea more explicit.

Second, we must love God with all our soul. Again, the Hebrew’s conception of soul differentiates from what is common to today. We tend to imagine the soul as metaphysical, akin or even conjoined to consciousness. While the Hebrews did conceive of the soul as being alive (perhaps even the lifeforce of a person), they also viewed the physical body as part of being a soul.

Finally, we must love with all our might. The word used here is often translated as very or much. For instance, it is used when God declared creation very good in Genesis 1. When used as a noun, the word implies might, strength (as it is said in the Gospels), force, or we might add, fervor or zeal.

Together these categories encompass the entirety of a person.

So how then do we obey the command?

Here’s an idea. Grab a piece of paper and write those three realms of life side-by-side. At the end of each day, think back over how much you loved God within those categories and assign a percentage value to your effort. Now strive each day to increase those percentages until you are living each at 100%.

If the previous paragraph didn’t raise a few red flags, your heresy alarm system might need some maintenance. Such a goal-setting mindset misses the entire point of this command. After all, what is the command again? To love God. While true love often requires us to act without emotional backing, love itself is an affection. Love is not simply an action that can be accomplished; it is the prime motivator behind our actions. We spend time with our spouse because we love them. We watch television because we love it. Even actions we dislike, we do out of love. We work a job we hate because we love what it provides for us (at least more than the alternative of not having an income). Because love is a motivation, while it is easy enough to do loving things, it nearly impossible to force ourselves to love something or someone. Yes, we can certainly stir up the flames of love, but can we actually create love? Can I force myself to love something that I am truly apathetic towards? Without outside intervention, I don’t think we can. Our loves proceed from our being, and so what we love is a reflection of who we are.

This command, therefore, is not so much about what to do as it about what to be. In order to properly obey this command, your love of God must become your identity. You love God with your whole person. Every thought, emotion, desire, intent, word, action, breath, and heartbeat come from your love of God. That is what the word all means, after all. Nothing lies outside of your love for God. Loving God is woven into each fabric of your existence.

Of course this means that we can never hope of obeying. Even if, by some miracle, we managed to love God with our entire being for one whole day, we’ve still fundamentally disobeyed. Not loving God entirely yesterday ruins an entire lifetime. The command says all, and everything less than that is disobedience.

But, you interject, God will judge me by my effort, not the result; He knows that I tried. But have your really? Might could also be translated as effort, so did you actually make every effort every moment of every day to love God? I don’t think so.

But, you offer again, won’t God show me His mercy by relaxing such an unattainable standard? For God not to demand obedience as the command is written would be for Him to lie. To command one standard but accept a lower one is dishonesty, and God never lies (Titus 1:2).

All of this means that you can never do enough to obey this command. More than that. You, as a person, are not enough to obey this command. The problem is not just your actions; it is you as a person. You are utterly incapable of loving God as He commands and deserves.

And I’m in the same boat.

We all are.

No effort will ever be enough because we ourselves are not enough. We each stand before God, disobedient to His commandments and deserving His just judgment.

Yet for all the insufficiency that mars our love for God, His love for us is more than sufficient. The glorious news of the gospel is that God extended His boundless love toward us, even when we willfully refused to love Him. Although we could never fully obey this command, Jesus did. He lived a life of total love for God, never once failing to glorify the Father in all things. Such obedience is a battle to even comprehend for us. Yet He obeyed perfectly, and then He willingly submitted Himself to die in our place. His undeserved death then became the payment of the penalty for disobedience for all who believe in Christ. For those who are united with Christ, we are now presented before God as if we have completely obeyed this command. Our status before the Father by the blood of Christ is as if we truly have loved God with all our heart, soul, and might for every single moment of our lives. Jesus Christ is our only hope. Without His righteous being imputed onto us, we are each guilty of blatant and continual disobedience, earning us the fury of God’s wrath, but in Christ, we are now children of God.

SCRIPTURE AND DISCIPLESHIP // VERSES 6-9

Verse 4 gave us the key doctrine, and verse 5 was the key command. These final verses show us how to apply them into our lives. Verse 6 is the backbone for the remainder of the passage, while verses 7-9 explain what that verse looks like when lived out.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. What words is Moses referring to? Of course, the immediate context is in reference to verse 5, but they also apply to the words of all of Deuteronomy and, then, to the rest of Scripture. But even if Moses only meant verse 5, we could not properly love God without keeping His entire Word upon our heart.

What then does it mean to keep the Greatest Commandment specifically and all of Scripture generally on your heart? As we said earlier, the heart in Hebrew entailed much more than just feelings and emotions; for them, the heart was always the center of thought and reason. Therefore, keeping God’s commandments on your heart is the same practice as meditating on God’s law, which the Psalms urge us to do. Because God is revealed through His Word, we must treasure the Word in order to properly love Him.

Verses 7-9 describe how to do this. First, Moses gives the command of discipling our children in the Word of the LORD. Notice how Moses describes the manner in which such teaching ought to be done: diligently. Just as the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, so Moses commanded the Israel’s to diligently teach their children God’s commands. Discipleship has always been God’s idea of expanding His kingdom in both Testaments.

While peer-to-peer or mentorship forms of discipleship are thankfully resurging today, we must never forget this ancient truth that, for parents, our children are our primary disciples. They must not be recipients of our secondhand efforts. They must be our first and most important ministries, second only to our spouse. While the community of the church can be lifesaving in childrearing, the God-given responsibility is upon the parents’ shoulders and no one else.

If that sounds intimidating, Moses continues in verse 7 to show how this is to be done. By stating two pairs of opposites (sitting-walking and lying down-rising), the prophet is emphasizing that all of life should be filled with discussion of the Scriptures. Tremendous benefit can be found in having a daily time of family prayer and Bible reading, but that is not enough. The goal is not simply to read the Bible at least once a day; the goal is the saturate life with it. That is how to disciple our children.

The great difficulty of saturating life with Scripture is that we tend to be very biblically illiterate. Living in the Bible Belt, this is especially tragic. Many people spend their entire lives attending church faithfully who still do not know the basic storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. They may know the Sunday School stories (Noah, Jonah, Daniel, etc.), but they do not know which books of the Bible focus on the period of the Babylonian Exile. They do not know the basic purpose behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians or why Revelation isn’t as scary as it seems (for Christians, of course).

By God’s providence, the tide is changing, but much progress remains to be made. In order to discuss the Scriptures with our children and the people around us, we must first know them, and we can only know them by first consuming them. This is why Moses tells the Israelites to bind these words to their hands, place them on their forehead, and write them on their doorposts. While many Jews have (and still do) take these commands literally, the prophet is simply commanding them to be remembered. He essentially saying: do whatever you need to do to keep God’s Word in your mind and heart.

Of course, the added depth of meaning to having them on your hand, forehead, and doorposts is that they are visible to others. The significance here is that as we saturate ourselves in the Scriptures, we will be marked by them. They will brand us in such an obvious way that we might as well have them glued to our forehead. The Bible-saturated life is easy to recognize and impossible to hide.

If we don’t have to literally bind Deuteronomy 6:5 on our hands, how then do we dive deeper into Scripture? How can we place it constantly before our eyes?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read it for the story. One of the best ways to become more familiar with the Bible to read it, and particularly read it with the goal of first becoming familiar with the overall narrative. While the Old Testament can be quite intimidating, it’s story can be fully grasped by reading eleven books (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah), and the other twenty-eight books take place within the timeline of those. The New Testament typically isn’t as frightening, but if the complexities of the letters are an issue, try reading them an entire letter in one sitting (as their recipients would have read them), focusing on understanding the main idea. Reader’s Bibles can be a great asset in the endeavor to enjoy the story and message of the Bible. They remove chapters and verses so that it is easier to focus on the actual words. This also makes them ideal for a self-paced reading plan.
  2. Listen to it. I think audio Bibles are awesome. They might not be for everyone (I certainly go through seasons of use), but I’ve found them to be of great aid. While visibly reading the Bible is still ideal, listening is a valuable supplement (especially when remembering that most Christians throughout history only heard the Bible read on Sundays). Most Bible apps and websites have free audio to use, but my two favorite apps are Bible.is and Streetlights. Bible.is contains dramatized Bibles, which I’m a fan of, and Streetlights throws really great background music behind them.
  3. Pray it back to God. Reading the Bible is often be boring because we fail to properly interact with the Scriptures. Praying God’s Word back to Him is the easiest (and probably best) way of developing such an interaction. Plus, if the Bible is how God speaks to us and prayer is how we speak to God, this truly turns our reading time into a dialogue with God.
  4. Meditate on it. Meditation is hard because there are, at once, so many ideas of what it might look like as well as no ideas at all. So how should you meditate on Scripture? Having a time of silence to think through a portion of Scripture is one form; however, if you are like me, our distracted age has made maintaining internal trains of thought quite difficult. Journaling can remedy this problem. Follow a formula of questions (like from 2 Timothy 3:16) or simply ask a question about the text and attempt to answer it. Regardless of how it is done, think deeply about the text and keep thinking about it throughout the day.
  5. Choose a book to study in-depth. I know this is the polar opposite of the first suggestion but hear me out. First of all, I would not suggest this approach until you have at least read the entire Bible and have a basic understanding its whole. That said, every Christian should remember that Bible commentaries are not pastoral exclusives. Anyone can, and should, grab a biblically faithful commentary and have it aid you in a deeper study of God’s Word. Tim Challies (at Challies.com) and Keith Mathison (at Ligonier) both have lists of the best commentaries on each book of the Bible, which are invaluable resources. The Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary Series is easy to read and contain questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. Also listening to a sermon series or reading a book of sermons can be use in the same way.

The point of these suggestions is not a heap a new burden upon you but to give ideas for how to begin swimming in the sea of God’s Word. The more we see God in His Scriptures, the more we will love Him. And the more we love the LORD, the more we will saturate our lives with His Word. And the more our lives are saturated with His Word, the more naturally we will disciple those around us.

Brothers and sisters, it is a new year; take this season to renew your hunger for God’s Word.

Read the Scriptures.

Meditate on them.

Study them.

Pray them.

God is speaking.

Are you going to hear Him?

Are you listening?

 

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