The Greatest Commandments
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 37–39).- Matthew 22:34–40
After the Sadducees fail to confound Jesus (Matt. 22:23–33), the Pharisees gather together to try and trap Him again, sending one of their own to test Jesus on their behalf (vv. 34–35). A lawyer, this man’s training in the Mosaic law goes beyond even that of most Pharisees, legal experts in their own right. The question he asks our Savior is likely an attempt to get Jesus to deny one or more laws in the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy) and find proof of heresy.
Rabbis hotly debated the lawyer’s question during the lifetime of Jesus. One count lists 613 individual stipulations in the Torah, and Jewish teachers wanted a unifying principle to aid the Law’s application. Christ’s answer to His examiner (vv. 36–39) is not wholly original; others combined the concepts of loving God and neighbor as the greatest duty in the Law. Yet Jesus is the first to combine the two specific texts in today’s passage to prove the point. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema that pious Jews still recite daily (Deut. 6:4–9). The injunction to love one’s neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18.
Despite attempts to interpret passages like Matthew 5:17 otherwise, today’s passage indicates that Jesus does not abrogate the Law when He fulfills it. He would not single out passages from the Law as God’s greatest commandments if He wanted to eliminate all principles found in the Mosaic code. Also, Jesus’ answer reveals that love is primarily an action, not a feeling. The commandment to love is an order to do something; thus, we are to love others, serving them even if we do not feel like it. Furthermore, if love for God and neighbor are the commandments upon which the Law and Prophets hang, we cannot somehow separate love from these stipulations and define love in a way that ignores God’s law. Any act the Bible forbids is not love; rather, the Law shows us how to express true love. Paul can say, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10) and also expect Christians to live out the basic ethical code of the Old Testament (v. 9). Above all, John Calvin comments, Jesus says that “love is the first and great thing that God demands from us, and therefore the first and great thing that we should devote to him.”
“We learn from this, that God does not rest satisfied with the outward appearance of works, but chiefly demands the inward feelings, that from a good root good fruits may grow” (John Calvin). Love is not primarily a feeling, but Jesus certainly wants feeling and action to agree. We must act in a loving way even if the feeling is not present, but to feel love while acting is even better. Pray that your actions would always be a result of the love you possess.
Passages for Further Study
Deuteronomy 5:6–7, 21