Matthew 22–The Greatest Commandment

This semester, in our weekly time of Scriptural teaching with Christian Challenge our theme has been “Great Expectations”. It’s based on three great mandates or commands that we find in Scripture. The first is the “Great Mandate” from Genesis 1: 26, where God gives man a sense of responsibility over the rest of Creation:  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness: let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” We talked with students about all that this teaching implies, ranging from one’s calling in life, to how you raise your family, how you manage stress, and many other areas of life. Then later this spring, we will look at the “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:16-20, and explore this seminal passage on missions and the need to evangelize and make disciples. This past week, I introduced our current study on the “Great Commandment”, from Matthew 22:37-40. Now it’s interesting that this passage is referred to as the “Great Commandment” since it actually contains two separate commandments. But they are so intertwined and inseparable in their application, that they actually comprise one unified teaching. In addition these two commands are so foundational, and so all-encompassing for our spiritual lives that, according to Jesus, the entirety of the Old Testament Law and teaching is contained within them!  To offer further context, here is the entire passage–Matthew 22:34-40. “But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”


So the idea here is that Jesus, the great teacher, has just been tested. The lawyer asks Christ a hard question—“what is the great commandment in the law?” And you just suspect that perhaps this lawyer’s motivation isn’t purely an intellectual curiosity. Because he’s also a Pharisee—the Jewish sect that was considered the experts on the religious law during their day, and they’d already had some run-ins with Jesus in the past over questions of interpretation of the religious law. In fact, earlier in this same chapter of Matthew 22, some Pharisees had tried to trip Jesus up by asking Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Christ’s famous answer, in Matthew 22:21, however left them speechless—“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” So Jesus exalts the power of God without offending the political sensibilities of Rome. Then, just before our passage in question, Jesus has a discussion with the Sadducees, a sect of Jewish religious leaders associated with the Temple, and who were known for their denial of belief in the Resurrection. Here, Christ quotes from the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3 to prove them mistaken. It seems that people just couldn’t resist trying to trap Jesus verbally. He was gaining fame as a wise teacher, with a large following, but there were those who apparently wanted nothing more than to see Him say the wrong thing, and so they looked constantly for an opportunity to catch Him in a compromising word or phrase.




Dr. Karl Barth (1886-1968), the eminent Swiss theologian, generally considered to be amongst the most brilliant and influential Protestant thinkers of the 20th century was once on a speaking tour. And after his talk, he held a question-and-answer session. There was someone in the audience who thought they would try and test the knowledge of the great Barth, and maybe even get him to reveal how liberal or conservative he was theologically. So they asked him if he believed that the serpent in the Book of Genesis actually, literally spoke to Adam and Eve. Apparently a trap was now cleverly laid. If Barth endorsed a literal view of the Genesis 3 story, then all of the progressive and liberal Christians could argue that he was a fundamentalist, who reads every Bible story literally. But on the other hand if Barth said the serpent didn’t really speak, and that it was only a figurative thing, then conservatives could accuse him of not holding to Biblical truth and Scriptural authority. Barth’s brilliant answer however, left no one able to trap, or label him. His response was simply this—What did the serpent say?” This answer works on two levels. First, Barth is calling attention to the fact that what’s most important is not a discussion on the actual manner of the serpent’s communication—but the message of about sin and temptation itself. Secondly, if we go back to Genesis 3:1 we find that these were the serpent’s initial words to Eve—“Has God indeed said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” The serpent began by questioning, almost mocking the authority of God—and in the same way Barth was insinuating that this individual was attempting to undermine or even mock the power of Scripture by focusing on a question of secondary importance, and ignoring the clear spiritual lesson the text had to offer!!

Well, in Matthew 22, a mind infinitely more brilliant than Karl Barth’s is tested by the Pharisees. Perhaps the lawyer is hoping that if Jesus singles out one individual commandment, He will inevitably get Himself in trouble by virtue of all the other commands He leaves out. After all there were something like 613 binding commandments for Jews in the Torah, so how in the world could anyone, even the great Jesus, possibly sum up in one law all of this teaching?? Well Jesus gives us two laws as it turns out, which are equal in their importance. These are two laws without which we could hardly understand the spirit of the Old Testament law, or the overall intent of Jesus’ own life and work. They are the Great Commandment.


It all starts with loving God. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus actually quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This is the famous passage which begins with what is known as the “Shema” a word taken from the Hebrew verb meaning “to hear.” And so fundamental is this phrase to the Jewish people that it still forms the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayers in Judaism. “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” So Jesus is wise enough to cite a foundational principle of Judaism, and one that the Pharisees could hardly have found fault with. We will see though a little later how Christ adds a very important teaching to this first great commandment and even elevates it to the same level. Bur first, let’s analyze this teaching more extensively. Because in addition to the Shema, which simply acknowledges the existence of the One God, Jesus cites the next verse in Deuteronomy, which tells us how to love God. It’s a threefold, or depending on which verse you look at, a fourfold process, mirroring the complexity and depth of God’s love for us. Among the best-known stories from ancient Greek mythology is the legend of the Sphinx. The Sphinx, we are told, was a terrible monster–she had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, the head of a woman, and a serpent-headed tail. And so the legend goes, this grotesque creature guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes, and would ask all passerby a riddle. If they could not answer successfully, they would be devoured. This was the Sphinx’s famous question–“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The answer—as you may know, is a human being. As infants we crawl on all fours, then we walk on two legs for most of our lives, but then in old age we may require the help of a cane. By successfully answering the riddle, a man named Oedipus defeated the Sphinx and her power over the city. Now, why is the riddle so tricky?? Because we tend to think in limited terms–how can one creature be so multi-faceted, walking on three, two and then four legs?? But the fact is that as humans we are complex individuals and change over the course of our lifetimes.

God however is infinitely more complex, and yet He never changes! And thus we are called to love Him in a way that is commensurate with that complexity, and with the great, unchanging qualities of His character and nature. Let’s break down these individual parts of the command a little further. To love God with all your heart means to love Him with the entirety of your emotions. We know from Scripture that our God is all-loving, and all-benevolent. In fact, as 1 John 4:8 states so perfectly and succinctly, “God is love.” God wants our love of Him to be sincere—from the heart, with no faking, or dissimulation on our parts. There are many possible applications of this, but let me just offer one—from the economic realm. Because if we’re honest, one of the hardest ways for many of us to show our love and devotion to God runs through our wallets. We say we love the Lord, but are we willing to give money generously to support His church, ministries, missions, and other Kingdom causes?? And not just give the money, but do so with the right heart attitude. This is what Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 9:7 is getting at: “Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”

The second part of the command is to love God with all of your soul. This is the spiritual component of our love for the Lord. For as much as we want to personify the Lord as a male or female or anything else in our likeness, Jesus teaches us explicitly and definitively in John 4:24 about the nature of God: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Now seeing as we are obviously not purely spiritual beings, this would apparently pose a challenge, right? How are we able to love God in such a fashion? Well fortunately, we have an aid in the Third Person of the Trinity, which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will you guide you into all truth.” Paul then later explains how the Holy Spirit helps us to be able to communicate with God through prayer. Romans 8:26—“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Our spiritual love of God is a reflection of the fact that one of the Lord’s principle qualities is His aseity, or His self-existence. Now I’m using a technical theological term here to highlight the important distinction between aseity, and merely saying that God is eternal. Aseity means that God has always existed, and was not created from anything. Now something eternal can be created, such as our souls. But Psalm 90:2 tells us “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” In J.L. Packer’s excellent book Concise Theology, the author says this—“In theology, endless mistakes result from supposing that the conditions, bounds, and limits of our own finite existence apply to God. The doctrine of His aseity stands as a bulwark against such mistakes.” So maybe part of loving God with all of your soul and spirit means that you try not to limit Him based on your own limitations.


The third part of the command in Deuteronomy tells us to love God with all of our might, or strength. This is also what Jesus tells us in Luke 10:27. This command reflects the omnipotence of God. He is indeed all powerful—and to be feared. There are many Scriptural metaphors that we can draw on to help us understand the amazing power of God—one of my favorites is found in Hebrews 12:29—“Our God is a consuming fire.” I like the fire image because of its duality. Fire can be very useful, life-giving and life-sustaining. Yet it can also wreak destruction. It can be a wonderful thing, and yet for those who would oppose God or persist in stubborn, sinful rebellion, it can be a terrible thing to face. As with all of these qualities of God, and the love on our part that corresponds to them, there are so many different possible points of application for our lives. But let me just touch on one here. I think that loving God with all of our strength, means of course giving Him 100% in all aspects of our life—and this really translates to the idea of Lordship. This is the concept that everything belongs to God, and we should not be “holding out” on the Lord in any area of our life. 1 Corinthians 6:19 and Paul reminds us—“Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own.”

Then, finally, Matthew 22:37 also tells us to love God with all of our minds. Omniscience, or knowing everything, is one of God’s key attributes. And so we correspondingly can love God through our minds, and acknowledge Him in all our knowledge!! What does this look like practically?? I think it starts with recognizing the limitations of our own minds, and the proper perspective of our insignificance next to the surpassing wisdom of the Almighty. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, while in Proverbs 3:5 we are urged to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Thus, to know what you don’t know, and to honor how much more God knows is the first step towards loving God with all of our minds.

Now, the genius of Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question in Matthew 22:37 is that not only does His answer demonstrate the multifaceted ways that we should love God, but contained within this verse also is a summation of the intent of the first four of the Ten Commandments. If you go to Exodus 20, here they are: “You shall have no other Gods before me, You shall not make for yourself any carved image…You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, and Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” So as we can see, these first four commands all relate to how we should love God. But let’s go one step further here. Because it’s not just about us loving God. Not at all—because in fact, God loved us long, long before we ever loved Him. Scripture makes this clear—1 John 4:19—“We love because He first loved us.” So much richness is contained in that simple verse—including the fact that God demonstrated His love to us first by sending Jesus to save a fallen world, and the fact that our very capacity to love is God-given. And while it may be an obvious point, it bears making—how much greater, how infinitely superior is God’s love for us in comparison to our love for God!! After all, we love God in response to His goodness towards us, His sustenance provided for us, and all of the manifold ways in which He blesses us. But God, the Bible tells us, loved us at our absolute worst—at our very lowest point. Listen to Romans 5:6-8—“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”


Now contained within this passage from Romans is really the essence of Divine Love, and it entails both worse news than we dare to accept, and better news than we can dare to believe. The bad news is of course the accurate depiction of our true state as human beings—we are sinners. Many people don’t want to believe they are sinful, and in fact deserving of going to hell. And as a result, they may not want to accept God’s love because they are so upset at the implications of us being sinners. Have you ever heard the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”, meaning don’t blame the bearer of bad news?? Well I was doing a little research into its origins and found a very interesting early example of such an occurrence in the Lives by Plutarch. These were an early series of biographies written in the late 1st century AD by Plutarch, a Greco-Roman historian. One of the stories talks about an ancient Armenian King named Tigranes who was revolting against the Roman Empire. Tigranes was informed by a messenger that the avenging Roman general named Lucullus was on his way to meet the rebellion, and then according to Plutarch: “The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him”

Many people are just like that King Tigranes when it comes to believing the news of their sinfulness. People want to flatter themselves that they are really “good” and as a result they’d rather believe this than confront the real problem, and then the cure for it. And they are angry that Christians would dare insinuate that they are sinners. Well, the cure itself is as hard to believe in a good way, as the sin nature is in a bad one. We cite John 3:16 so frequently, but in reality how many people have simply dismissed the good news of God’s love as too good to be true?? The beloved children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by British author Roald Dahl, led to a charming 1971 film adaptation starring Gene Wilder. Now the premise of the movie is that there is a famous, but reclusive candy maker named Willy Wonka, played by Wilder in the movie. Inside five of his signature “Wonka Bars”, he has randomly enclosed “golden tickets.” To the lucky children who win one, they will get a tour of his factory, and the chance to win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate! It a child’s dream, and this dream comes true for one poor boy named Charlie Bucket after he finds the last of the five golden tickets in a Wonka Bar. Charlie, along with his Grandpa Joe, then get to go on the long-awaited factory tour with the other four winners—all of whom turn out to be essentially spoiled brats. At the end of the tour in fact, only Charlie and his grandfather are left–all of the other children having run into various mishaps as a result of disobeying Wonka’s rules. But because Charlie has demonstrated his honesty and integrity, at the conclusion of the film, it is revealed that not only does he get the lifetime supply of chocolate—something already beyond his wildest dreams, but Wonka is now going to be make him the co-owner of the factory and heir to the entire business!! Charlie’s days of poverty and struggle are finally behind him, and for all of his family too. News that is simply too good to be true. Now I deliberately just used an illustration taken from a children’s fantasy, because for many people, the good news that the Gospel offers similarly falls in the category of a fairy tale. They may can believe vaguely in a God or life-force somewhere in the universe, but to believe that this God loves them personally, sent His Son to die for them, and offers eternal life—freely, and with no expectation of payback—this seems fantastical, and utterly inconceivable to many. So it can be a challenge for people to learn how to receive the Love of God, and this is where all of us as Christ followers must step forward in willingness to be witnesses and continually illustrate with our lives, the difference that having Jesus as Lord and Savior can make!!

But the Greatest Commandment has a second major dimension to it, and we now turn to that—loving others. Jesus wants the questioning lawyer, and all of us to see that our love for God and our love for our fellow men and women are two sides of the same coin, and in fact are inseparably related. Now here again, just as with the first commandment, Christ is drawing directly from the Old Testament law. Leviticus 19:18 tells us that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”. And then furthermore, just as we saw with the fourfold commandment to love God, the injunction to love others is a succinct way of summing up the remaining six of the Ten Commandments. To honor your parents, to not murder, to not commit adultery, to not steal, to not bear false witness, and to not covet—these all relate to the way in which we should treat one another.

Now in case any of you are wondering—who exactly is my neighbor, well I will refer you to a passage in Luke 10. Here, another lawyer tests Jesus—what is it with these people! Anyways, the lawyer asks Christ this very question–“who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The message of that parable is clear—our neighbor is anyone who might be in need—which is to say, everyone. And the Samaritan not only interrupts his own journey to help the man who has fallen among thieves, but pays to ensure he will receive long term care at the inn. So Christ is telling us that to love our neighbors is not merely to express good thoughts or attitudes towards them, but to actively help them and even sacrifice of our own time and resources to do so. Yet nonetheless, the fact remains that it’s very difficult for many of us to really begin to see everyone around us as deserving of our love and compassion, and not just our friends or loved ones. In fact, there is a fascinating, yet somewhat disturbing social phenomenon that psychologists have observed, known as the “bystander effect.” It was most famously illustrated in March 1964, when a young woman named Kitty Genovese was assaulted and eventually murdered on a New York City street, during which time an estimated 38 people in the immediate vicinity witnessed the event but did not help or intervene in any way. Social psychologists have subsequently determined that the more people that are present, the less likely any one of them will step forward to help someone in need. The tendency is to defer, and to assume that someone else will take responsibility and get involved. But this is more than just a psychological observation—I think it gets at the very heart of our sin natures. All of us are flawed and broken by sin, and yet we are called by God to overcome our innate selfishness and hard-heartedness in order to seek and promote the welfare of others around us. And difficult as this may be at times—it’s not optional!! If we think we can love God, regardless of how we view and treat our fellow men and women, Scripture would tell us that we are gravely mistaken. 1 John 4:20-1 spells it out so plainly: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” So will we be “bystanders” in life, or will we live as people who continuously share God’s love with those around us?

Now there are many ways in which we can talk about how we can learn to better love those around us. But just as a starting point, I want to cite one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture—1 Samuel 16:7. It comes from the passage where the prophet Samuel is anointing the new king to become the successor to Saul. He is to be chosen from one of Jesse’s sons. Everyone naturally assumes it will be one of the older boys, but God makes it clear to Samuel that age, and external appearances have nothing to do with it. “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees: for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This is key then–we must learn to see others as the Lord sees them, not as strangers, but as children of God, made in His image, and worthy of love, dignity, and respect!! As we learn to see with God’s eyes, I think we will find it easier to begin to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even follow the example of that Good Samaritan and of course Christ, in sacrificially loving others.


Well, in closing, let’s look at one last verse, Matthew 22:40. Here Jesus assures us that on these two commandments, to love God, and love others—“hang all the law and the prophets.” We can find a similar, all-inclusive injunction in Matthew 7:12—“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” It is important to remark that Christ gives us these two commands, not in the spirit of saying that the rest of the law is superfluous, or unimportant. After all, this is the man who says in Matthew 5:17-18—“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Thus Jesus has immense knowledge of and respect for the Law. And yet He is pleading with this lawyer, and with all of the Pharisees as lovers and observers of the law—and indeed with us today—to see that unless we have the end goal of loving God and loving others in mind, we will miss the significance, and the true importance of almost any teaching we can find in Scripture. Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher of the mid-20th century once famously claimed that “all of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.” This was Whitehead’s way of paying tribute to the influence of the classics, and to the work of the great ancient Greek philosopher in particular. Whitehead wasn’t denigrating or criticizing the work of all of the subsequent great thinkers in Western history, but simply saying that their work was in some way influenced by and building upon the earlier work of Plato. And so Jesus assures us that for all of the multitudinous and varied lessons that the Bible can teach us for how to live our lives—all of them draw from this mighty double foundation. We must love God and we must love others. So basic, and yet we will spend the rest of our lives exploring the depths of these truths. God is giving to all of this simple, and profound command, and we must endeavor to discover just what it require of each one of us, and let no passion, pursuit, or goal in our lives ever draw us away from these two most essential duties–which define what it means to be a Christ follower, and indeed what it means to be fully human!


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