The Greatest Commandment

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –  Matthew 22:34-40 ESV

Pharisees question Jesus.jpg

In this section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is being bombarded by a relentless series of questions posed to Him by various factions of the religious elite. First, they questioned His authority, wanting to know what right He had to say and do the things He did. Then the Pharisees tried to trick Him with a question regarding the payment of taxes to the Roman government. When they failed, the Sadducees, the liberals of their day, asked Him a question regarding marriage and the resurrection. The fact was, they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and they wanted to show that Jesus was in opposition to their belief system. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and wanted to expose Him as such. But Jesus saw through their motives and easily handled their question.

Like a tag-team wrestling match, the Sadducees were quickly followed by the Pharisees, who once again posed a controversial question to Jesus. This time it concerned the Mosaic Law – their area of expertise.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

This was a common topic of debate among rabbis. They were constantly arguing whether one commandment took precedence over another. And this was a significant issue to them because the Pharisees had codified the law into 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, many of which were man-made addendums to the law given by God to Moses. And the people of Israel were expected to keep this staggering list of 615 rules and precepts.

With that many laws, it wasn’t long before one seemed to contradict another. For instance, over in the book of Leviticus, the Law records, “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16 NLT). Yet, over in Exodus, it declares, “…but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on that day must be put to death. You must not even light a fire in any of your homes on the Sabbath” (Exodus 35:2-3 NLT). So, if your neighbor’s life was threatened on the Sabbath, what were you to do? Take action or rest?

This argument came up regularly between Jesus and the Pharisees because He seemed to make a habit of healing on the Sabbath, which they saw as a clear violation of the Law. In essence, by asking Jesus this question, they are testing Him to see if He had any greater insight into the Law than they did. And they had serious doubts about that.

The answer Jesus gave revealed His authority over the Scriptures.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

Jesus quoted from the Shema, a portion of Old Testament Scripture recited daily by all Jews.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:5-6 NIV

This is just the first part. The love of God was to dictate all their behavior. But Jesus points out that there was a second part to the command.

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:39 NLT

Here, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 and reminds them that this second part was equally essential. While loving God was vital, so was loving your fellow man. And while this would not have been a revelation to the Pharisees, Jesus instilled these commands with new emphasis and meaning. While love for God was to be supreme, one of the greatest expressions of love for God shows up in our love for others. The apostle John reminds us:

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

Why would this have been so revolutionary and revelatory to the religious leaders? THEY DIDN’T DO IT! They claimed to love God but actually hated their brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Jesus was going to have some stinging things to say to them.

“For they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4 NLT

In His answer, Jesus was giving them a new way to see the Law of God. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 23:40 NLT). Every other law was based on a love for God and a love for man. These two things were foundational to every other command given by God. The Ten Commandments themselves were divided into these two areas: A love for God and a love for others. There was to be a horizontal and vertical aspect to our love. You can’t have one without the other. They are meant to be reciprocal – and this Law of Love is found throughout the New Testament.

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These — and other such commandments — are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. – Romans 13:8-10 NLT

But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14 NLT

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:8-9 NLT

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”John 13:34-35 NLT

Jesus puts love for God and love for man on an equal footing. They are inseparable, and yet the Pharisees claimed to love God but hated their fellow man. They despised all those whom they considered to be sinners or law-breakers.

Fast-forward to Matthew 25:37-40. In this passage, Jesus talks about the future judgment of man. He uses the picture of a shepherd dividing his flock between the sheep and the goats. This is an image of what will take place at the end of the great period of tribulation that will mark the end of the age. With His story, Jesus alludes to those Gentiles who will have survived the tribulation, some having come to faith during that time. And their love for God will be evidenced by their actions and their treatment of the Jews who will also be going through intense persecution during the final half of the tribulation. These “sheep” will stand before God and receive recognition for their efforts. And they will ask God a question:

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:37-40 NLT

Their love for others will be proof of their love for God. Their capacity to love others will provide evidence that their hearts have been transformed by God. In fact, it will be the main criterion for judgment. Yet Jesus states that all those who fail to do the same will be condemned.

OUR LOVE OF OTHERS IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE TO GOD. It gives visible, tangible evidence of our love for Him. It reveals that we understand and appreciate His love for us.

So, how are you doing with these two commandments today? Do you claim to love God but struggle with loving others? Since you can’t put your arms around God and show Him how much you love Him, why not express your love for Him by loving those He has made?

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:35 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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