The First And Great Commandment

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength: this is the first commandment.”

Mark 12:30

OUR Savior said, “This is the first and great Commandment.” It is “the first” Commandment–the first for antiquity, for this is older than even the Ten Commandments of the written Law. Before God said, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal,” this Law was one of the commands of His universe. For this was binding upon the angels when man was not created. It was not necessary for God to say to the angels, “you shall do no murder, you shall not steal.” For such things to them were very probably impossible. But He did doubtless say to them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” And when first Gabriel sprang out of his native nothingness at the fiat of God, this command was binding on him.

This is “the first Commandment,” then, for antiquity. It was binding upon Adam in the garden. Even before the creation of Eve, his wife, God had commanded this. Before there was a necessity for any other command this was written upon the very tablets of his heart–“You shall love the Lord your God.”

It is “the first Commandment,” again, not only for antiquity but for dignity. This command, which deals with God the Almighty must ever take precedence of every other. Other Commandments deal with man and man, but this with man and his Creator. Other commands of a ceremonial kind when disobeyed may involve but slight consequences upon the person who may happen to offend. But this disobeyed provokes the wrath of God and brings His ire at once upon the sinner’s head. He that steals commits a gross offense inasmuch as he has also violated this command. But if it were possible for us to separate the two and to suppose an offense of one command without an offense of this, then we must put the violation of this Commandment in the first rank of offenses. This is the king of Commandments. This is the emperor of the Law. It must take precedence of all those princely commands that God afterwards gave to men.

Again, it is “the first Commandment” for its justice. If men cannot see the justice of that Law which says, “Love your neighbor,” even if there is some difficulty to understand how I can be bound to love the man that hurts and injures me, there can be no difficulty here. “You shall love your God” comes to us with so much Divine authority and is so ratified by the dictates of nature and our own conscience, that, verily, this command must take the first place for the justice of its demand. It is “the first” of Commandments.

Whichever Law you break, take care to keep this. If you break the Commandments of the ceremonial law, if you violate the ritual of your Church–your offense might be propitiated by the priest–but who can escape when this is your offense? This mandate stands fast. Man’s law you may break and bear the penalty. But if you break this the penalty is too heavy for your soul to endure. It will sink you, Man, it will sink you like a millstone lower than the lowest Hell. Take heed of this command above every other, to tremble at it and obey it, for it is “the first Commandment.”

But the Savior said it was a “great Commandment,” and so it is. It is “great,” for it contains in its heart every other. When God said, “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day,” when He said, “You shall not bow down unto the idols nor worship them”–when He said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” He did but instance particulars which are all contained in this general mandate. This is the sum and substance of the Law. And indeed even the second Commandment lies within the folds of the first. “You shall love your neighbor,” is actually to be found within the center of this command, “You shall love the Lord your God.” For the loving of God would necessarily produce the loving of our neighbor.

It is a great command, then, for its comprehensiveness and it is a great command for the immense demand which it makes upon us It demands all our mind, all our soul, all our heart and all our strength. Who is he that can keep it, when there is no power of manhood which is exempt from its sway? And to him that violates this Law it shall be proven that it is a great command in the greatness of its condemning power. It is like a great sword having two edges, wherewith God shall slay him. It shall be like a great thunderbolt from God, wherewith He shall cast down and utterly destroy the man that goes on in his willful breaking thereof.

Hear then, O Gentiles and O house of Israel, hear then, this day, this first and great Commandment–“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

I shall divide my discourse thus–first, What says this Commandment unto us? Secondly, What say we unto it?

  1. And in discussing the first point, WHAT SAYS THIS COMMANDMENT UNTO US? we shall divide it thus. Here is first, the duty–“You shall love the Lord your God.” Here is, secondly, the measure of the duty–“You shall love Him with all your heart, mind, soul, strength.” Here is, thirdly, the ground of the claim, enforcing the duty–because He is “your God.” God demands us to obey, simply upon the ground that He is our God.

To begin, then–this command demands a duty. That duty is that we should love God. How many men disobey this? One class of men break it willfully and grievously. For they hate God. There is the infidel who gnashes his teeth against the Almighty. The atheist who spits the venom of his blasphemy against the Person of his Maker. You will find those who rail at the very being of a God, though in their consciences they know there is a God, yet with their lips will blasphemously deny His existence. These men say there is no God because they wish there were none. The wish is father to the thought.

And the thought demands great grossness of heart and grievous hardness of spirit before they dare to express it in words. And even when they express it in words it needs much practice before they can do it with a bold, unblushing countenance. Now, this command bears hard on all them that hate, that despise, that blaspheme, that malign God or that deny His being, or impugn His character. O Sinner! God says you shall love Him with all your heart. And inasmuch as you hate Him, you stand this day condemned to the sentence of the Law.

Another class of men know there is a God but they neglect Him. They go through the world with indifference, “caring for none of these things.” “Well,” they say “it makes no difference to me whether there is a God or not.” They have no particular care about Him. They do not pay one half so much respect to His commands as they would to the proclamation of the Queen. They are very willing to reverence all powers that be but He who ordained them is to be passed by and to be forgotten. They would not be bold enough and honest enough to come straight out and despise God and join the ranks of His open enemies but they forget God.

He is not in all their thoughts. They rise in the morning without a prayer. They rest at night without bending the knee. They go through the week’s business and they never acknowledge God. Sometimes they talk about good luck and chance–strange deities of their own brain–but God, the overruling God of Providence, they never talk of, though sometimes they may mention His name in flippancy and so increase their transgressions against Him. O you despisers and neglecters of God! This command speaks to you–“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

But I hear one of these gentlemen reply, “Well, Sir, I make no pretensions to religion but still I believe I am quite as good as those that do. I am quite as upright, quite as moral and benevolent. True, I do not often darken the door of a Church or Chapel. I do not think it necessary but I am a right good sort. There are many, many hypocrites in the Church and therefore I shall not think of being religious.” Now, my dear Friend, allow me just to say one word–what business is that of yours? Religion is a personal matter between you and your Maker. Your Maker says–“You shall love Me with all your heart.”

It is of no use for you to point your finger across the street and point at a minister whose life is inconsistent, or at a deacon who is unholy, or to a member of the Church who does not live up to his profession. You have nothing to do with that. When your Maker speaks to you, He appeals to you personally. And if you should tell Him, “My Lord, I will not love You, because there are hypocrites,” would not your own conscience convict you of the absurdity of your reasoning? Ought not your better judgment to whisper, “Inasmuch, then, as so many are hypocrites, take heed that you are not. And if there are so many pretenders who injure the Lord’s cause by their lying pretensions, so much the more reason why you should have the real thing and help to make the Church sound and honest”?

But no. The merchants of our cities, the tradesmen of our streets, our artisans and our workmen–the great mass of them–live in total neglect of God. I do not believe that the heart of England is infidel. I do not believe that there is any vast extent of deism or atheism throughout England–the great fault of our time is the fault of indifference–people do not care whether the thing is right or not. What is it to them? They never take the trouble to search between the different professors of religion to see where the Truth lies. They do not think to pay their reverence to God with all their hearts. Oh, no, they forget what God demands and so rob Him of His due. To you, to you, great masses of the population, this Law does speak with iron tongue–“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

There is a class of men who are a great deal nobler than the herd of simpletons who allow the sublimities of the Godhead to be concealed by their care for mere sensual good. There are some who do not forget that there is a God–no they are astronomers and they turn their eyes to Heaven and they view the stars and they marvel at the majesty of the Creator. Or they dig into the bowels of the earth and they are astonished at the magnificence of God’s works of yore. Or they examine the animal and marvel at the wisdom of God in the construction of its anatomy. They, whenever they think of God, think of Him with the deepest awe, with the most profound reverence.

You never hear them curse or swear–you will find that their souls are possessed of a deep awe of the great Creator. But ah, my Friends, this is not enough–this is not obedience to the command. God does not say you shall wonder at Him, you shall have awe of Him. He asks more than that. He says “You shall love Me!” Oh, you that see the orbs of Heaven floating in the far expanse, it is something to lift your eyes to Heaven and say–

“These are Your glorious works, Parent of good,
Almighty, Yours this universal frame.
Thus wondrous fair. Yourself how wondrous then!
Unspeakable, who sits above these Heavens
To us invisible, or dimly seen
In these Your lowest works. Yet these declare
Your goodness beyond thought and power Divine.”

It is something thus to adore the great Creator but ‘tis not all He asks. Oh, if you could add to this–“He that made these orbs, that leads them out by their hosts, is my Father and my heart beats with affection towards Him,” then would you be obedient but not till then. God asks not your admiration but your affection. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

There are others, too, who delight to spend time in contemplation. They believe in Jesus, in the Father, in the Spirit. They believe that there is but one God and that these Three are One. It is their delight to turn over the pages of Revelation, as well as the pages of history. They contemplate God. He is to them a matter of curious study. They like to meditate upon Him. The doctrines of His Word they could hear all day long. And they are very sound in the faith, extremely orthodox and very knowing. They can fight about doctrines, they can dispute about the things of God with all their hearts.

But alas, their religion is like a dead fish–cold and stiff–and when you take it into your hand you say there is no life in it. Their souls were never stirred with it. Their hearts were never thorough into it. They can contemplate but they cannot love. They can meditate but they cannot commune. They can think of God but they can never throw up their souls to Him and clasp Him in the arms of their affections. Ah, to you cold-blooded thinkers–to you, this text speaks. Oh, you that can contemplate but cannot love–“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

Another man starts up and he says, “Well this command does not bear on me. I attend my place of worship twice every Sunday. I have family prayer. I am very careful not to get up in the morning without saying a form of prayer. I sometimes read my Bible. I subscribe to many charities.” Ah, my Friend and you may do all that without loving God. Why, some of you go to your Churches and Chapels as if you were going to be horsewhipped. It is a dull and dreary thing to you. You dare not break the Sabbath but you would if you could. You know very well that if it were not for a mere matter of fashion and custom you would sooner by half be anywhere else than in God’s house.

And as for prayer, why it is no delight to you. You do it because you think you ought to do it. Some indefinable sense of duty rests upon you. But you have no delight in it. You talk of God with great propriety but you never talk of Him with love. Your heart never bounds at the mention of His name. Your eyes never glisten at the thought of His attributes. Your soul never leaps when you meditate on His works. Your heart is all untouched and while you are honoring God with your lips your heart is far from Him and you are still disobedient to this Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God.”

And now, my Hearers, do you understand this Commandment? Do I not see many of you seeking to look for loopholes through which to escape? Do I not think I see some of you striving to make a break in this Divine wall which girds us all? You say, “I never do anything against God.” No, my Friend, that is not it–it is not what you do not do–it is this, “Do you love Him?” “Well, Sir, but I never violate any of the proprieties of religion.” No, that is not it. The command is, “You shall love Him.” “Well, Sir, but I do a great deal for God. I teach in a Sunday-School and so on.” Ah, I know, but do you love Him? It is the heart He wants and He will not be content without it. “You shall love the Lord your God.” That is the Law and though no man can keep it since Adam’s Fall, yet the Law is as much binding upon every son of Adam this day as when God first of all pronounced it. “You shall love the Lord your God.”

That brings us to the second point–the measure of this Law. How much am I to love God? Where shall I fix the point? I am to love my neighbor as I love myself. Am I to love my God more than that? Yes, certainly. The measure is even greater. We are not bound to love ourselves with all our mind and soul and strength and therefore we are not bound to love our neighbor so. The measure is a greater one. We are bound to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

And we deduce from that, first, that we are to love God supremely. You are to love your wife, O husband. You can not love her too much except in one case, if you should love her before God and prefer her pleasure to the pleasure of the Most High. Then would you be an idolater. Child, you are to love your parents. You cannot love him too much who begat you, nor her too much who brought you forth. But remember, there is one Law that does override that. You are to love your God more than your father or your mother. He demands your first and your highest affection–you are to “love Him with all your heart.”

We are allowed to love our relatives–we are taught to do so. He that does not love his own family is worse than a heathen man and a publican. But we are not to love the dearest object of our hearts so much as we love God. You may erect little thrones for those whom you rightly love. But God’s Throne must be a glorious high Throne. You may set them upon the steps but God must sit on the very seat itself. He is to be enthroned, the royal One within your heart, the king of your affections. Say, say Hearer, have you kept this Commandment? I know I have not. I must plead guilty before God. I must cast myself before Him and acknowledge my transgression. But nevertheless, there stands the Commandment–“You shall love God with all your heart”–that is, you shall love him supremely.

Note, again–from the text we may deduce that a man is bound to love God heartily–that is plain enough, for it says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Yes, there is to be in our love to God a heartiness. We are to throw our whole selves into the love that we give to Him. Not the kind of love that some people give to their fellows, when they say, “Be you warmed and filled,” and nothing more. No–our heart is to have its whole being absorbed into God, so that God is the hearty object of its pursuit and its most mighty love. See how the word “all” is repeated again and again. The whole going forth of the being, the whole stirring up of the soul is to be for God and for God only. “With all your heart.”

Again–as we are to love God heartily, we are to love Him with all our souls. Then we are to love Him with all our life. For that is the meaning of it. If we are called to die for God, we are to prefer God before our own life. We shall never reach the fullness of this Commandment till we get as far as the martyrs, who rather than disobey God would be cast into the furnace, or devoured by wild beasts. We must be ready to give up house, home, liberty, friends, comfort, joy and life, at the command of God, or else we have not carried out this Commandment, “You shall love Him with all your heart and with all your life.”

And, next we are to love God with all our mind. That is, the intellect is to love God. Now many men believe in the existence of a God but they do not love that belief. They know there is a God but they greatly wish there were none. Some of you today would be very pleased–you would set the bells a-ringing–if you believed there were no God. Why, if there were no God then you might live just as you liked. If there were no God then you might run riot and have no fear of future consequences. It would be to you the greatest joy that could be–if you heard that the eternal God had ceased to be.

But the Christian never wishes any such a thing as that. The thought that there is a God is the sunshine of his existence. His intellect bows before the Most High. Not like a slave who bends his body because he must–but like the angel who prostrates himself because he loves to adore his Maker. His intellect is as fond of God as his imagination. “Oh,” he says, “My God, I bless You that You are, for You are my highest treasure, my richest and my rarest delight. I love You with all my intellect. I have neither thought, nor judgment, nor conviction, nor reason which I do not lay at Your feet and consecrate to Your honor.

And once again, this love to God is to be characterized by activity. For we are to love Him with all our heart, heartily–with all our soul, that is, to the laying down of our life–with all our mind, that is mentally. And we are to love Him with all our strength, that is, actively. I am to throw my whole soul into the worship and adoration of God. I am not to keep back a single hour, or a single farthing of my wealth, or a single talent that I have, or a single atom of strength, bodily or mental from the worship of God. I am to love Him with all my strength.

Now what man ever kept this Commandment? Surely none. And no man ever can keep it. Hence, then, the necessity of a Savior. Oh, that we might, by this Commandment, be smitten to the earth–that our self-righteousness may be broken in pieces by this great hammer of “the first and great Commandment!” But oh, my Brethren, how may we wish that we could keep it! For, could we keep this command intact, unbroken, it would be a Heaven below. The happiest of creatures are those that are the most holy and that unreservedly love God.

And now, very briefly, I have just to state God’s claim upon which He bases this Commandment. “You shall love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, strength.” Why? First, because He is the Lord–that is, Jehovah. And secondly because he is your God.

Man, the creature of a day, you ought to love Jehovah for what He is. Behold, Him whom you can not behold! Lift up your eyes to the seventh Heaven. See where in dreadful majesty the brightness of His garments makes the angels veil their faces, lest the light, too strong for even them, should smite them with eternal blindness. See Him who stretched the Heavens like a tent to dwell in and then did weave into their tapestry, with golden needle, stars that glitter in the darkness. Mark Him who spread the earth and created man upon it. And hear what He is. He is all-sufficient, eternal, self-existent, unchangeable, omnipotent, omniscient! Will you not reverence Him? He is good, He is loving, He is kind, He is gracious. See the bounties of His Providence. Behold the plenitude of His grace! Will you not love Jehovah, because He is Jehovah?

But you are most of all bound to love him because He is your God. He is your God by creation. He made you. You did not make yourself. God, the Almighty, though He might use instruments, was nevertheless the sole creator of man. Though He is pleased to bring us into the world by the agency of our progenitors, yet is He as much our Creator as He was the Creator of Adam when He formed him of clay and made him man. Look at this marvelous body of yours. See how God has put the bones together so as to be of the greatest service and use to you. See how He has arranged your nerves and blood vessels. Mark the marvelous machinery which He has employed to keep you in life! O thing of an hour! Will you not love Him that made you? Is it possible that you can think of Him who formed you in His hand and molded you by His will and yet will you not love Him who has fashioned you?

Again, consider, he is your God, for He preserves you. Your table is spread but He spread it for you. The air that you breathe is a gift of His charity. The clothes that you have on your back are gifts of His love. Your life depends on Him. One wish of His infinite will would have brought you to the grave and given your body to the worms. And at this moment, though you are strong and hearty, your life is absolutely dependent upon Him. You may die where you are–you are out of Hell only as the result of His goodness. You would be at this hour sweltering in flames unquenchable had not His sovereign love preserved you. Traitor though you may be to Him, an enemy to His Cross and cause, yet He is your God, so far as this, for He made you and He keeps you alive.

Surely, you may wonder that He should keep you alive when you refuse to love Him. Man, you would not keep a horse that did not work for you. Would you keep a servant in your house who insulted you? Would you spread bread upon his table and find livery for his back, if instead of doing your will and good pleasure he would be his own master and would run counter to you? Certainly you would not. And yet here is God feeding you and you are rebelling against Him. Swearer, the lips with which you cursed your Maker are sustained by Him. The very lungs that you employ in blasphemy are inspired by Him with the breath of life, else you had ceased to be. Oh, strange that you should eat God’s bread and then lift up your heel against Him!

Oh, amazing that you should sit at the table of His Providence and be clothed in the livery of His bounty and yet that you should turn round and spit against high Heaven and lift the puny hand of your rebellion against the God that made you and that preserves you. Oh, if instead of our God we had one like unto ourselves to deal with, my Brethren, we should not have patience with our fellow creatures for an hour. I marvel at God’s long-suffering towards men. I see the foul-mouthed blasphemer curse his God. O God, how can You endure it? Why do You not smite him to the ground?

If a gnat should torment me, should I not in one moment crush it? And what is man compared with his Maker? Not one half so great as an ant compared with man. Oh my Brethren, we may well be astonished that God has mercy upon us, after all our violations of this high command. But I stand here today His servant and for myself and for you I claim for God, because He is God, because He is our God and our Creator–I claim the love of all hearts, I claim the obedience of all souls and of all minds and the consecration of all our strength.

O people of God, I need not speak to you. You know that God is your God in a special sense. Therefore you ought to love Him with a special love.

II. This is what the Commandment says to us. I shall be very short, indeed, upon the second head, which is, WHAT HAVE WE TO SAY TO IT?

What have you to say to this command, O man? Have I one here so profoundly brainless as to reply, “I intend to keep it and I believe I can perfectly obey it and I think I can get to Heaven by obedience to it”? Man, you are either a fool, or else willfully ignorant. For surely, if you do understand this Commandment, you will at once hang down your hands and say, “Obedience to that is quite impossible. Thorough and perfect obedience to that no man can hope to reach!” Some of you think you will go to Heaven by your good works, do you? This is the first stone that you are to step upon–I am sure it is too high for your reach.

You might as well try to climb to Heaven by the mountains of earth and take the Himalayas to be your first step. For surely when you had stepped from the ground to the summit of Chimborazo you might even then despair of ever stepping to the height of this great Commandment. For to obey this must ever be an impossibility. But remember, you cannot be saved by your works if you cannot obey this entirely, perfectly, constantly, forever.

“Well,” says one, “I dare say if I try and obey it as well as I can, that will do.” No, Sir, it will not. God demands that you perfectly obey this and if you do not perfectly obey it He will condemn you. “Oh,” cries one, “who then, can be saved?” Ah, that is the point to which I wish to bring you. Who then can be saved by this Law? Why, no one in the world! Salvation by the works of the Law is proved to be a clean impossibility. None of you therefore will say you will try to obey it and so hope to be saved. I hear the best Christian in the world groan out his thoughts–“O God,” says he, “I am guilty. And should you cast me into Hell I dare not say otherwise. I have broken this command from my youth up, even since my conversion. I have violated it every day.

“I know that if You should lay justice to the line and righteousness to the plummet, I must be swept away forever. Lord, I renounce my trust in the Law. For by it I know I can never see Your face and be accepted.” But hark, I hear the Christian say another thing. “Oh,” says he to the Commandment, “Commandment I cannot keep you but my Savior kept you and what my Savior did, He did for all them that believe. And now, O Law, what Jesus did is mine. Have you any question to bring against me? You demand that I should keep this Commandment wholly–lo, my Savior kept it wholly for me and He is my Substitute.

“What I cannot do myself my Savior has done for me. You can not reject the work of the Substitute, for God accepted it in the day when He raised Him from the dead. O Law, shut your mouth forever! You can never condemn me! Though I break you a thousand times, I put my simple trust in Jesus and in Jesus only. His righteousness is mine and with it I pay the debt and satisfy your hungry mouth.”

“Oh,” cries one, “I wish I could say that I could thus escape the wrath of the Law! Oh that I knew that Christ did keep the Law for me!” Stop, then and I will tell you. Do you feel today that you are guilty, lost and ruined? Do you with tears in your eyes confess that none but Jesus can do you good? Are you willing to give up all trusts and cast yourself alone on Him who died upon the Cross? Can you look to Calvary and see the bleeding Sufferer, all crimson with streams of gore? Can you say–

“A guilty, weak and helpless worm,
Into Your arms I fall.
Jesus be You my righteousness,
My Savior and my All”?

Can you say that? Then He kept the Law for you and the Law cannot condemn whom Christ has absolved. If Law comes to you and says, “I will damn you because you did not keep the Law,” tell him that he dares not touch a hair of your head. For though you did not keep it, Christ kept it for you and Christ’s righteousness is yours. Tell him there is the money and though you did not coin it Christ did. And tell him when you have paid him all he asks for, he dares not touch you. You must be free, for Christ has satisfied the Law.

And after that–and here I conclude–O child of God I know what you will say. After you have seen the Law satisfied by Jesus you will fall on your knees and say, “Lord, I thank You that this Law cannot condemn me, for I believe in Jesus. But now, Lord, help me from this time forth forever to keep it. Lord, give me a new heart, for this old heart never will love You! Lord, give me a new life, for this old life is too vile. Lord, give me a new understanding–wash my mind with the clean water of the Spirit. Come and dwell in my judgment, my memory, my thought. And then give me the new strength of Your Spirit and I will, by Your grace, love You with all my new heart, with all my new life, with all my renewed mind and with all my spiritual strength, from this time forth, even forever.”

May the Lord convict you of sin, by the energy of His Divine Spirit and bless this simple sermon, for Jesus' sake! Amen. Adapted from The C. H. Spurgeon Collection, Version 1.0, Ages Software, 1.800.297.4307