The Greatest Commandment
As Christians we have an obligation to do what is right. This obligation is measured against the Word of God. Sometimes we take things a little too far and feel as though we must attain the commands given in scripture to achieve holiness. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day often spent time debating about the commandments given in scripture that dealt with this. Which commandments are more important to follow? In Matthew 22 they confronted Jesus about this topic.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:34-40
In the preceding context, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in His triumphal entry to the city and is now teaching a series of parables just a few days later. The Sadducees and Pharisees are listening in and finally speak up with some questions. The Sadducees go first and ask a very pointed question about the Resurrection with the intention of trapping Jesus into affirming their belief that there is no Resurrection of the dead. Jesus answers them saying, “have you not read what it was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead but of the living.'” This statement referred back to Exodus 3. A passage that they would be well familiar with and showed that the covenant made with the forefathers was still living and active and thereby implying that the forefathers were not truly dead. This corrected the Sadducees in their thinking. You might assume that the Pharisees would then think twice about trying to trap Jesus but they go ahead and ask a question anyway.
The expert in the law, or lawyer, most likely a Pharisee scribe well verse in the Old Testament presented this question, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law.” The intention of this question isn’t abundantly clear but this topic was one of debate among this religious sect and had been for a very long time. For Jesus to give a direct answer would surely prove that he hadn’t really weighed the different commandments in a proper way. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus did. He got straight to the point and said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” citing Deuteronomy 6:5. This commandment incites an obligation to submit every aspect of your being to loving God. The Jewish people would have understood the word “heart” to refer to the entire man, yet Jesus clarifies further by saying “soul” and “mind.” This clarification again is referring to all ones self, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Jesus then says, “the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Once we’ve submitted ourselves to God and are loving Him we then have the ability to fulfill the second commandment towards our neighbors. The question begs to be asked, “who is our neighbor?” The word used here is plēsion meaning “nearing, or neighboring.” Our neighbor is anyone who is near to us. Whether that be in proximity, relationally, or spiritually. Essentially it is everyone you come into contact with. Loving each other as we love ourselves. If we are first submitting our entire person to loving God then we are loving ourselves in the way God loves us and thereby loving others in the same way. Looking at them through God’s eyes and putting ourselves in their shoes. Being tender-hearted, forgiving, honest, encouraging, and self-sacrificing.
To finish His reply to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This would have been such a shock to the listeners as they would recognize this referring to the entire Old Testament and that Jesus wasn’t addressing those specific commands but revealing a skewed hermeneutic in approaching the Law. He was showing the Pharisees the flaws in their discussion over greatest commandments as being a means of salvation and directing them towards the view of grace. If the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others fully and completely, we know that by nature we will fail to do so at one point or another. Jesus was pointing out our sin nature and the need for a fulfillment of the Law in a Savior. That even in the Old Testament this was the over-arcing means of their salvation.
As we consider this truth, let us remember to strive for holiness in Christ. It is perfectly okay to stack yourself up against the commands given in scripture. It is even healthy to do so, but do not be caught in the same fallacy as the Pharisees and measure your salvation by these commands. The Law has a purpose of exposing our sin nature and pointing our moral compass in the right direction. As we submit ourselves to God, knowing it is by His grace that we are saved, we love Him in our actions of following His commands and loving other people the same way.