Formations 11.22.2015: The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22:34-40; Acts 17:10-12

af25_1_112215_a“What is the greatest commandment?” the legal expert asked.

It was the perfect opening. If Jesus had wanted to say something like “All Scripture is equally important,” there was his chance. But he didn’t take it, because he didn’t believe that was true.

In fact, there is a straightforward answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” In Matthew 22, Jesus says it is the two-pronged commandment to love both God and neighbor. This, he says, is the center of gravity around which all our other conclusions about the meaning of Scripture must revolve.

“Every scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16), but that doesn’t mean every verse or commandment carries equal weight. Or, to return to Jesus, what good does it do obsess over tithing our mint, dill, and cumin while at the same time neglecting justice, peace, and faith (Matt 23:23)?

In his exchange with the legal expert, Jesus provides a guidepost by which to check our use (or abuse) of Scripture. Namely, the goal of our study is to lead us to deeper love for God and neighbor, which is, after all, what all the Law and the prophets depend on.

Add to this the example of the Beroeans in Acts 17, from which we learn that eager, thoughtful, and in-depth study is required to find out what the Bible actually says. Reading Scripture carefully and thoughtfully is worth it. We can’t believe, obey, or proclaim a word we don’t understand.


• What happens when Christians “major” on the “minor” points of Scripture? How does that influence the way non-Christians think of Jesus and his followers?
• When have you been torn between two Scriptural commands that seemed to pull you toward different courses of action? How did you decide what to do?
• How can we keep Jesus’ greatest commandments in mind as we read and seek to apply Scripture?

Reference Shelf


The word “hermeneutics” comes from a Greek term meaning “interpretation, explanation, translation.” As applied to the Bible it has been used to refer both to the principles by which a text is understood in terms of its original context or historical setting, and to the principles and procedures by which a text from one context is made meaningful in another. While hermeneutics encompasses both exegesis and interpretation, the emphasis generally falls on the latter, on making texts meaningful in the present. Since the last century the term came to be used specifically of the techniques, rules, and principles by which the Bible, recognized as the product of ancient Israel, early Judaism, and the early Christian church, could be made meaningful to readers and hearers in a modern west that is so distant from the ancient Near East and the early Mediterranean world.

How could material designed to address people who lived in times and places remote from ours, with their own distinct concerns, perceptions, and sensibilities, be made to address people who live in contexts so distant and different from the material’s original home? How, for example, might prophetic oracles, once addressed to the tiny nation Israel as it struggled to survive amid the tensions created by the ongoing conflict between the superpowers of Assyria and Egypt, meaningfully address the citizens of one of the world’s superpowers in the twentieth century of the Common Era? How might instruction regarding sexual and other relationships that originated in tribal Israel speak to men and women in a society transformed by new technologies, mores, family and communal life styles, as well as distinct individual values? Can letters addressed to small Christian communities struggling to set roots in a Jewish and Greco-Roman world (Should one eat meat or animals sacrificed to idols? Should one observe Jewish dietary regulations?) also address fundamental concerns of churches firmly rooted in the establishments of twentieth-century Main Street U. S. A.? “Hermeneutics” is the term applied to the ways people wrestle with questions such as these, and to the methods developed to allow ancient texts to speak across centuries and vast expanses of space.

W. Lee Humphreys, “Hermeneutics,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 373.

Open, Tolerant, and Generous Reading

In moving toward Beroea, Paul and his party depart from the main Roman highway and head south toward Beroea, located some sixty miles from Thessalonica. The city was located on the eastern slopes of Mount Vermian in the Olympian mountain range and had, at one time, served as the capital city of one of the four Macedonian districts. Consistent with Paul’s pattern, he visits the synagogue (v. 10).

Though one can discern patterns in the way Luke presents stories of Paul’s encounters with Jews and Gentiles in the synagogues, his account of Paul’s experiences in Beroea shows that Luke can be nuanced in his presentations. Specifically, the narrator praises the Jews of this city, describing them as “more noble.” The word eugenesteroi literally means “well born” or “well bred,” but came to take on the more general meaning of “open,” “tolerant” or “generous.” Luke also describes them as “eager” to receive the good news and to examine for themselves the Scriptures to confirm the truth of Paul’s proclamation. Again, Luke does not allow readers to know precisely what Scriptures Paul appeals to, leaving readers unable to follow the characters’ example. As a consequence of their eagerness and willingness to search the Scriptures, many came to believe, in direct contrast to only some (or none!) of the Thessalonian Jews. As in other cities, Gentiles also come to believe. Again, Luke takes care to note that women were among such believers and that they, as well as the men, were of high standing (v. 12).

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 303–304.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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