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? One commandment that eclipses all others? Is it, for example, ‘the greatest commandment’, or ‘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
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said: “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 four 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 that is sometimes emphasised 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.
2 The greatest commandment
Since Jesus told us the most important commandment, then it must be important. In Matthew 22:36-39, 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, Jesus was asked 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?”
3. The identifying mark of a disciple
It’s worth noting this one. In John 13:34-35 Jesus said: “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, if you love one another.”
Remarkably, Jesus said the way we stand out as Christians 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 a 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….but essential!
4. The topic Jesus spoke of the most
According to the superb Infographic Bible (William Collins), 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 on a small handful subjects far more than anything else. That makes them important. Here is what they are, in reverse order. In fifth place is…Satan (didn’t expect that!). The Gospels contain 36 teachings on Satan. In fourth place, it’s money (surprised again?), then in third place, it’s faith – healings due to faith, criticisms for people’s lack of faith etc. In second place, it’s teachings on God the Father (including The Lord’s Prayer and the sheep and goats’ parable).
What the Infographic Bible says is the topic Jesus taught the most about (over 60 texts across four Gospels, including duplicate reports) is…the kingdom of heaven. His teaching includes, for example, the Beatitude promises in Matthew 5:1: “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…is like treasure hidden in a field”. (Matthew 13:31,44). And they include the times Jesus used this idea to deal with our anxiety: “Do not worry….but seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:31,33).
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.
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’. For example, 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, the one that occurs most often (apart from believe in and follow God) 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 found in scripture including Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13. Amos 5:21 puts it like this: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals.” And perhaps what God desires is most famously summed up in Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
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 on the most and the most common themes in scripture – that’s a lot to take in!
It all 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.
Our faith is one of grace…but if it’s real, it will lead to doing, to practical daily living
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 a great 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 his will on this earth.