The Greatest Commandment

What does a life lived in fellowship with God look like? The way the Pharisees put their question in Matthew 22:34–40 points entirely in the wrong direction, looking at life with God as a burden.

Love God and your neighbor. Love God with your whole being. The background reflects the continuing rivalry of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The questioner this time is an expert in the law. The Pharisees listed over 600 laws, and assumed that whatever response Jesus gave, there would be room to dispute him. Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind. Jesus quotes from the Law (Deuteronomy 6:5) as he gives this command to love God. Don’t try to distinguish too sharply among these aspects of your being. The point is that God requires of you nothing less than total commitment. The command to love God is absolute and unqualified. Examine your life for areas which you may be reluctant to submit to his sovereign rule. “[T]he concept of sin and the sense of sin is sharpened and deepened by Jesus. Precisely by moving away from human ordinances and going back to the law of God in the Old Testament, he again makes that law known to us in its spiritual character (Matt. 5), reducing it to one spiritual principle, namely, love (Matt. 22:37–40) and communicates it to us as a single whole (cf. James 2:10).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 135)

Love your neighbor as yourself. This command is related, but is secondary. Again Jesus quotes from the Law, this time from Leviticus 19:18. Love for God might be an abstract ideal. Your love is put to the concrete test in dealing with your specific neighbor, 1 John 4:19–21. Love your neighbor as yourself. Put your neighbor’s interest, not just your own, at the forefront. Love those around you, especially those in need, as you love yourself.

Keep this greatest commandment. The whole Law and the Prophets hang on these commandments. These commandments summarize all that God requires. “This does not mean, as some modern ethicists have argued, that ‘all you need is love,’ so that one can dispense with the ethical rules set out in the Torah. It is rather to say that those rules find their true role in working out the practical implications of the love for God and neighbor on which they are based.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 847) The other specific commandments can be seen as simply concrete applications of the principles in these two laws, Matthew 5:17–21. These laws put obedience in the context of covenantal fellowship with God. The Lord reveals himself as the faithful covenant God who redeems his people from their slavery in Egypt. The basic confession of Israel, the Shema, which addresses God by his covenant name, introduces this basic command to love him above all else. God has redeemed you from death in sin. He summons you to love him wholeheartedly.

Love is the fulfilling of the Law. The Pharisees had a different approach to the law. In their enumeration and evaluation they ended up (as natural man always does) with a works religion. Jesus is about to point out in Matthew 23 the hypocrisy of that approach to the law of God. “A new and more powerful proclamation of that law [that gives to men the consciousness of sin] is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law…. A lax view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.” (J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith, p. 141) Instead of the approach of the Pharisees, Jesus points you to himself as the Messiah. Notice that next question (verses 41–45) comes, not from the leaders of the people, but from Jesus himself. He points to himself as the Messianic King. As you appreciate just how sweeping is God’s requirement, you come to realize that your best efforts are not enough. You need, not better works, but the perfect work of Christ in your place. Then, in him, you can begin to render new obedience to God.

The Pharisees intended their question as a trap for Jesus, testing him about his knowledge of the law. Jesus turns it around, pushing you to ask whether you have any understanding of the holiness of God and the broad sweep of what it means to reflect his character. Thankfully, the One who summarizes the law is the One who died and rose in our place.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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