Why is loving God the greatest commandment? In a nutshell, because it gets to the foundation of our true motivation for serving God. It strips away our pretensions and forces us to come to terms who we really are and what our purposes are.
There are some commands that we can outwardly and ritualistically do by rote. We can attend assemblies. We can mouth the words of songs and prayers, we can take the bread and fruit of the vine of the Lord’s Supper, and we can put on an outward show that may fool those around us. But loving God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind is not something that we can ultimately fake. The actions are outward, but this command goes to the very depth of our being. We don’t want simply to be “attenders”; we want to be sacrifices.
Sometimes we focus on the outward items, but must never neglect the heart and mind. Loving God this way means giving him every fiber of our being — truly denying self and giving ourselves as complete sacrifices, holy and acceptable to Him (Rom 12:1-2).
God has never accepted mere ritualism. Just read the prophets, where you will find some of the strongest rebuke and judgment geared toward ritualism (cf. Isa 1). It wasn’t acceptable then; it isn’t acceptable now. God deserves our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Nothing is left untouched.
To see this point even more, let’s look to a couple other passages:
1. Matthew 15. Recall that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees here for placing their tradition on par with or above God’s commandments. Then, He quoted Isaiah: You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors ME with their lips, But their heart is far away from ME. ‘But in vain do they worship ME, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
This is taken from Isaiah 29, where God is, in no uncertain terms, pronouncing judgment on a wicked and obstinate people — His people here, Jerusalem, not the surrounding nations. According to verse 13, their “reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.” There was no heart and soul in their relationship with God, and so they were ripe for idolatry, deaf and blind like the idols they served, unable to appreciate what God had done for them.
2. Deuteronomy 6, where the original command to love God with all the heart was given. Here we should notice the close connection to the first of the Ten Commandments. After the initial command is given to love God, He then tells them to pass the instruction on to their children, to make it permanent, not just on the frontals of their foreheads or the doorposts of their houses and gates, but in their hearts. They were to make sure they remembered this as they entered the land and built their houses and enjoyed the fruit of the land. Why? Verses 12-15 answers: “then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the Lord your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the Lord your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.”
What intrigues me here is the relationship to the first of the Ten Commandments: 1) Have no other gods before Me; 2) Make no graven images; 3) Do not take the Lord’s name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. In Deuteronomy, He says to fear only the Lord, worship Him and swear by His name; don’t follow any other gods.
Here’s the point. A person might outwardly keep the Sabbath. A person might not make a graven image. He may not even take the Lord’s name in vain through falsely swearing by Him. A man might do that without truly loving God. But the one thing he could not do without loving God with all the heart, was to have no other gods before Him. How so? Having another god before Yahweh was more than just having a material image to bow down to; it is more than outward action. It is deeply connected to what is in the heart. If a man places, in his own mind, anything before God Almighty, then he has violated the point of this command.
So it is with us, for if God is not first in all, then, we have made gods of ourselves. Loving God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind places our own deaf and blind gods, whether in mind or in material, on the altar to be burned up and forever laid to rest.