I was once asked, “what do Christians do?”. It was while living in a foreign culture, and it was a genuine question. After all, Muslims specifically follow the five pillars of Islam. What do we do – apart from believe?
Is there a single, stand-out instruction for Christians in the Bible? I mean, like one commandment that eclipses all others? Is it, for example, “the greatest commandment”, or is it “the great commission”? What about the most repeated command in the Bible? Or what is the topic Jesus spoke about the most? Surely that must be critical?
If we search the Bible, we find hundreds of instructions and directions on what we are supposed to do. But a handful appear more critical than the rest. How do we know? Because the Bible itself says so. Let’s take a look.
1 The Great Commission
Jesus said (Matthew 28):
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The thing to note about the Great Commission is that Jesus never called it great. And the Bible never calls it great either.
The phrase “Great Commission” became popular during the 19th-century missionary movements to Asia. Of course, it is important. It’s the final teaching of Jesus, and we see it in all 4 Gospels and in the New Testament church. Many of us, including me, are Christians BECAUSE someone else took this seriously and shared the Gospel with us.
But it is also teaching which is sometimes emphasized at the cost of all others – especially in evangelical circles where it is often seen as the one thing we must do because … well, “it’s the Great Commission” isn’t it.
But this is undoubtedly one contender.
The thing about the Great Commission is that Jesus never called it great. And the Bible never calls it great either.
2 The Greatest Commandment
Since Jesus told us the most important commandment, then it must be important. In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked:
‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
Jesus replied: ’ ”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”.
Here, Jesus declares that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. This one is wide-ranging, and it is one that could in fact encompass everything else in this article. But note, the question Jesus was asked was to name the most important commandment from Old Testament law. That is different to simply asking, “what’s the most important instruction in our Bible today?”
Hugely important – but let’s carry on looking.
3 The identifying mark of a disciple
It’s worth noting this one in passing. Jesus said (John 13):
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
Remarkably, Jesus says the way we must stand out as Christians – the distinguishing work of a Christian — is not that we follow a great commission or a great commandment or something else. No, the way we are recognised is disarmingly simple: we love one another. And that love has to be real, practical, and visible.
Take great care because this one is easy to agree with, until we quarrel. I know Christians who have entirely lost sight of this command in their disagreements on how to pursue the Great Commission. Christians are frequently in conflict on practical matters and theological matters. (Think about someone in church you really don’t get on with).
This is hard …. and essential!
4 The topic Jesus spoke of the most
According to the superb Infographic Bible (and the magnifying glass I need to read it!), it’s possible to count the number of times Jesus spoke on any particular subject. And when you do, you see that Jesus spent most of his time on earth teaching a surprisingly small number of topics. In fact, Jesus taught only four or five subjects* far more than anything else. That makes them important.
And in first place, the topic Jesus taught the most (over 60 texts across four Gospels including duplicate reports) is …The Kingdom of Heaven. His teaching includes, for example, the Beatitude promises in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. They include occasions when Jesus wanted to give us the sense of discovering something profoundly new: “the Kingdom of God is like … a mustard seed … it’s like stumbling upon treasure”. (Matthew 5). And they include the times Jesus used this idea to deal with our anxiety: “Don’t worry about these things …. but seek first His kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6).
There’s a whole swathe of teaching we’re skipping over here. But clearly, the Kingdom of Heaven is a central idea Jesus wants us to spend time exploring and reflecting on.
Jesus spent most of his time teaching a surprisingly small number of topics.
5 The most repeated command in scripture
Lastly, the sledgehammer approach. If God gives an instruction over and over and over … it must be important, right?
This one is harder to nail down than you might think. It depends on what you mean by “instruction”. Eg many have written that “do not be afraid” is the most repeated statement in scripture, but is that an instruction? To me, it’s a reassurance before God gives us the instruction.
I would say that if we examine themes, as opposed to a word search, and leave out the theme of belief or following God, then the theme that recurs most often is social justice. There are frequent and repeated laws for protecting foreigners, widows and orphans, the sick, the marginalised, the weak and needy, especially in the Old Testament. In fact, God demands this attention to the poor more than our worship: the phrase “I desire mercy not sacrifice” is a refrain, a repeating catchphrase in scripture, including in Hosea, Isaiah and Matthew. Amos 5 puts it like this: “The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me?…I hate, I despise your religious festivals….”. And what God desires is most famously summed-up in Micah 6: “and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly”.
To many Catholics, in particular, social justice is what Faith is about — and you can see why.
Why does this matter?
The Great commission, the Greatest Commandment, the identifying mark of a disciple, the topic Jesus taught the most and the most common themes in scripture – that’s a lot to take in!
But this matters because we should be able to explain to others not only what we believe but what practical difference it makes. If a friend asked you, “what do Christians actually do?”, I hope your answer would include some of these ideas. Our Faith is one of grace, believing not doing, but if it’s real, it will lead to doing, to practical daily living.
And it matters because we need to keep in mind that these are all priorities in scripture. Any one of them will appear the most important when it’s the only one on the table. That’s always the case. For example, when you hear that wonderful sermon on the Great Commission, obviously it will outshine everything else. It’s easy to become unbalanced.
And lastly, a reassurance. We are all better at some of these than others. That’s’ fine. We won’t all shine in all things. That’s why we are called together as the church, corporately called to be the body of Christ, together accomplishing what his body on earth would achieve.