"The 'Big Idea' of the Law"
(Delivered Sunday, February 1, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we come to the end of our study of the ten commandments. Of course, it wont be the the last time we talk about them; because they are worthy of being talked about and thought about often. They are even worthy of being memorized. Certainly, we should be living them daily. They are to be the standard of our daily practices, because they present to us a picture of what it means to "live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:12).
But even though we've now looked carefully at all the commandments, we're still not quite done. There's at least one more, very important passage from the New Testament we need to look at before we can consider our study of the ten commandments to be complete. It is a very appropriate passage with which to conclude our study; because in it, the Lord Jesus Himself tells us what the point of it all was. I will even go so far as to say that, if we don't grasp this last point about the ten commandments, we really will not have understood the ten commandments at all.
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I'd like to introduce this last matter by sharing with you a principle that many pastors and preachers follow in preparing their sermons. (I've never heard of a pastor beginning his sermon with a lesson on preparing sermons before; but I suppose there's a first time for everything.) Many years ago, when I began my training for the ministry and began learning how to prepare Bible messages, I was taught to carefully study a passage of Scripture and seek out the unifying theme that ties all the elements of that passage together. And then, having found that unifying theme, and having - to the best of my ability - stated that theme in the form of a single idea, I was taught to construct all the elements of the sermon in such a way as to express and support that one biblical theme as the single, unifying idea of my sermon. All the points of the sermon, and all the stories and illustrations, need to be constructed in such a way as to support that one, single idea. We were trained to refer to it as the "Big Idea" of the sermon.
A very famous preaching instructor illustrated the need for this "Big Idea" by telling a story about President Calvin Coolidge. It was said that he returned home from church one Sunday and was asked by his wife what the minister's sermon was about. "Sin," the president said. But when his wife pressed him further and asked him what the preacher had to say about sin, President Coolidge seemed uncertain. "I think he was against it," was the reply.1 Obviously, even the best preacher's sermon can come across as a very confusing mish-mash of ideas, if all the parts aren't made to focus around that single "Big Idea". And this is not only true of sermons; it's also true of any kind of communication that presents a collection of ideas. It's very hard to tie it all down in an understandable way unless it is all bound together under a unifying theme - under a single "Big Idea".
Well, we have just spent several months studying one of the greatest collection of ideas ever communicated to man. These ten commandments are nothing less than the very utterances of God - given to man on tablets of stone, and forever to be revered as God's own expression of His moral will to humanity. But what is it that relates them all to one another? Is there a single theme that unifies these ten separate, individual commandments - one theme that, if we fail to understand, we will have failed to understand the commandments altogether?
In other words, is there a "Big Idea" that binds the ten commandments together in a meaningful and purposeful way?
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You might be interested to know that this whole matter of a unifying principle in God's Law was a very relevant question in Jesus' day. The Pharisees and the Sadducees debated much about this subject.
The Pharisees was a religious and political party that had developed a couple of centuries before Jesus' walked on this earth. It had, as its main focus, the preservation of Jewish life and culture against the encroaching Gentile culture - particularly the Greek culture. They so esteemed the "letter" of the law of Moses, and were so eager to preserve the oral traditions that were said to have sprung from the law, that they developed very strict and detailed applications of the law for everyday life. Their Scribes - professional scholars who studied and taught the Law - held that there were a total of six-hundred and thirteen different commandments that could be drawn out from the Scriptures. They said that two-hundred and forty-eight were positive commandments (i.e., "Do this; do that"); and three-hundred and sixty-five were negative commandments (i.e., "Don't do this; don't do that").
The Sadducees was another political and religious party in Jewish culture. They were the ruling party in Jewish cultural life in Jesus' day. They rejected the oral traditions that the Pharisees held to; and insisted that people were obligated to the commandments that were written in the Books of Moses, but not to the oral traditions handed down from the Jewish forefathers and taught by the Pharisees. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that "concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them."2
There were even debates between the Pharisees. There were two opposing schools of theology; and they argued over which were the "heavy" commandments - that is, which were the important and essential ones that would require the death penalty if broken - and which were, by comparison, the "light" ones. There were debates over which were the ethical and morally significant commandments, and which were the ritualistic and ceremonial commandments.3 You can just imagine what a mish-mash all this had made out of God's Law.
Man had so mishandled and meddled with God's law, that it resulted in situations in which one tradition of God's law was made to contradict with another. The Scribes and Pharisees once complained to Jesus and said, "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." But Jesus responded by saying, "Why do you also transgress the commandments of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother,'; and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God" - then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandments of God of no effect by your tradition" (Matthew 15:2-6).
At other times, such confusion resulted in the minutia of the law being emphasized, while the more important issues of the law were allowed to be neglected. Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees sternly, saying, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23).
The Pharisees and the Sadducees even sought to use confusion about the law as a weapon against the Lord. They tried to trap Jesus into saying something controversial about the law that would cause Him to be discredited before the people. The Pharisees, for example, tried to trap Him into saying whether or not it was "lawful" to pay taxes to Caesar or not (Matthew 22:15-22). They didn't ask this because they wanted to know the answer, but because they wanted to "entangle Him in His talk" (v. 15) and catch Him up in a tangle of controversy. This failing, the Sadducees similarly tried use the Old Testament law concerning a man marrying the widow of his brother in order to trap Jesus into further controversy. But He answered wisely, showing that they were "mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" (vv. 23-33).
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Now it was in the context of these debates with Jesus that we come to this morning's passage; and in it, we see that Jesus clears up all the confusion by giving us the "Big Idea" - the unifying principle - of God's Law. Matthew tells us;
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?" (Matthew 22:34-36).
Now, before we get to Jesus' answer, I'd like us to spend just a little time considering . . .
1. THE QUESTION JESUS WAS ASKED.
Obviously, at this point, we can appreciate the context of those first few words about the Pharisees "gathering together."
The Pharisees had stood by and watched as Jesus had answered the question of the Sadducees, and "silenced" them. In fact, in the original language of these words, Matthew says that Jesus "muzzled" them. He left them so that they dared not open their mouths against Him and look like fools again. And you can be sure that the Pharisees loved watching it happen; because the Pharisees and Sadducees were at odds with one another on almost everything. Historians tell us that the Pharisees tended to appeal to the common man, while the Sadducees tended to have the ear of the wealthy. The Sadducees were in the political majority, while the Pharisees were in not. In verse 23, Matthew tells us that the Sadducees "say there is no resurrection." Luke tell us, in Acts 23:8, that the Sadducees "say that there is no resurrection - and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both." There was very little love between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Imagine how the Democrats would feel if Jesus had said something that had put the Republicans in their place; or how the Republicans would feel if Jesus had publically rebuked the Democrats. That gives you an idea of what was going on when it says that the Pharisees "heard that He had silenced the Sadducees," and that they then "gathered together." If they weren't entirely able to discredit Jesus before the people, they were at least hoping to put another question before Him that would further discredit the Sadducees. And perhaps they could also catch Jesus up in a controversy that would, indeed, discredit Him. And the perfect question to do this was a question that concerned which commandment was the greatest.
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But there's something else going on in this question. Matthew reports simply that a lawyer - an expert in the law; that is, a Scribe - came forward from among them. He was the one that asked the question; and perhaps they were content to have him as their representative in "testing" Jesus.
Mark however, in his Gospel, tells us a more detailed story about this man. He writes;
Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" (Mark 12:28).
The others, when Jesus had answered their question, seemed to have sulked away like spanked puppies. But Mark tells us that this man, after Jesus answered His question in a straight-forward way, answered, "Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth . . ." (v. 32); and Jesus responded by telling him that he was "not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34).
I'd like to suggest to you that, while the others were trying to test Jesus in a very negative way, this learned man was asking a question that sincerely troubled Him concerning this whole matter of how to understand the law. He heard how Jesus had answered the other questions wisely; and he thought that here before him stood one who was able to answer the question that had so perplexed him. He had heard all the other opinions; but now he wanted to hear the opinion of this wise 'Teacher.' He was "testing" Jesus; but in what we might say was the most positive way possible.
Jesus didn't treat this man's question the way He treated the others. He didn't rebuke the questioner with a statement like, "Why do you seek to test me, you sneaky hypocrite? I'm on to you, you phony!" Instead, it seems as if Jesus treated the questioner with dignity, and the question with the utmost seriousness. And I believe it's because it is a very important question - worthy to be asked: "Which is the great commandment in the law? What is the commandment that gives us the unifying principle that ties all the commandments together? What is the 'Big Idea' of the law?"
We should never forget that, after asking this question and responding rightly to the answer, Jesus encouraged the lawyer that he was not far from the kingdom of God! Obviously, Jesus saw this as an outstanding and important question from a man who sincerely needed the answer.
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This leads us, then, to . . .
2. THE ANSWER JESUS GAVE (vv. 37-39).
Jesus gives an answer that was surely a rebuke to all those who were attacking one another and attacking Him. What's more, He not only answers the man's question, but then goes on to expand on the answer far beyond what was asked. Matthew tells us,
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'" (vv. 37-39).
Everyone already had their own ideas of what the greatest commandment would be. But I wonder whether anyone would have expected the answer that Jesus gave. First, notice that he quoted from a passage of Scripture that every Jewish person would have known from childhood. It's the famous 'Shema' of Deuteronomy 6:4-5;
"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 strength" (Deut. 6:4-5).
And here, we see that Jesus puts first, as a matter of primary importance, the commandment to love God. How marvelous this is! The debate had been all about which outward act - which external expression of the law - was the most primary one; and Jesus put it all in perspective by saying, "Love God." It's not all about God's rules. It's not even about loving God's rules. It's all about loving God Himself! We must start there - at loving God.
Jesus doesn't use the word for "love" that would merely mean 'strong affection' - as if we're to have warm feelings about God. Rather, He uses the word "agape" - a word that distinctively refers to a deep and demonstrable love; a self-sacrificing, others-serving love; a love that actively seeks the best for the one being loved. In this case, it is to be an exclusive love for an exclusive God - the Lord our God, who is one!
And in quoting from this passage, our Lord is showing us how complete and total that love toward God is to be. It is to be with all the heart - which is the very center of our personality; our inner man. It is to also be with all the soul - which is the principle of life; our very being. And it is to be with all the mind - which is the seat of the intellect; our thoughts, our reason, our beliefs. What Jesus is saying in this is that we are to love God with everything that is in us - a total, complete devotion of all that we are.
Jesus once rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees by saying, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying, 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips. But their heart is far from Me And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:7-9). It is so easy to be 'religious' without loving God! And God is not interested in outward observances without inward love toward Him. The keeping of God's commandments is nothing less than a matter of exercising personal love toward God Himself! Obedience to His commandments is to be an expression of genuine and sincere love for Him. If we obey His commandments but do not love Him, we're really not obeying the commandments at all - whatever else we may think. This is reflected in the first of the ten commandments - the commandment that begins all the others; "You shall have no other gods before Me." The greatest commandment of all is to love God with all our being.
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Jesus says that this is the 'first' and great commandment. The man only asked about which was the greatest; and Jesus answered his question. But then, Jesus goes on to say, "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Here, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:17-18; which says,
You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Did you notice that Jesus did not say that we're to love God as ourselves? That, of course, would be a blasphemous thing to do. Well, likewise notice that He doesn't say that we're to love our neighbor with all our heart, soul and mind. That would be placing our neighbor in the place of God. God alone is to be loved according to the standard of 'all our heart, soul and mind'. But the standard by which we are to love our neighbor is 'as ourselves'. Elsewhere, Jesus says,
Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).
Or as Paul has written,
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4).
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Now; let's step back and consider these two answers together. There are several things we need to say about the answer that Jesus gave to the question: "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?"
For one thing, I note that His answer is as authoritative as the answer could possibly be. This was not the answer of some mere philosopher or professor of ethics. His authority extends far beyond even the most learned and pious scholar of the Jewish law. He was, in fact, the Son of God in human flesh. His Father is the Divine giver of the very commandments He was now commenting on. He surely knows better than anyone what the summary of the law should be. The commandment He says is the greatest is truly the greatest!
Second, need to recognize how orderly and systematic and orderly His answer is. His answer is given in the only way it could be given to protect the integrity of God's whole law - that is, by saying that the 'first' and greatest commandment is to love God with all our being; and that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves follows afterwards as 'second' to it.
Many people try to violate that order in some way. Some, for example, try to keep the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves; treating it as if it were the greatest commandment, while totally ignoring the commandment to love God. But to keep the second greatest commandment while completely ignoring the first is to not keep the commandments at all. It is an act of sinful arrogance to boast in loving one's neighbor as one's self while breaking the first and greatest commandment and refusing to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.
Likewise many people try to keep the first great commandment without being concerned about keeping the second. They boast that they love God with all their heart, soul and mind - but can't stand people! But to try to love God without loving the people He loves is also to fail to keep His commandments. The one must spring from the other. Both commandments must be obeyed, or neither of them are being kept. But the 'first' must come first, and the 'second' must come second.
And finally, we note that His answer is complete. He said, "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." There is no 'third greatest commandment' mentioned. These two are sufficient to cover them all; because the first great commandment deals with all the commandments of the first table of the law, and the second deals with all the commandments in the second table of the law.
You see; if you love God with all your heart, soul and mind, you will keep the first four commandments: You will have no other god than the one true God; you will never make an image or likeness and bow down to worship it instead of God; you will never take His name in vain; and you will honor His Sabbath day. And likewise, if you love your neighbor as yourself, then you'll keep the last six commandments: You will honor your father and mother (your first and most important 'neighbors'); you will not murder your neighbor; you will commit adultery against your neighbor; you will not steal from your neighbor; you will not bear false witness against your neighbor; and you will not covet what belongs to your neighbor. Jesus' answer is a complete one - one that sufficiently covers the whole span of God's law.
Obviously, the Scribe believed that Jesus' answer was complete. Mark tells us that he responded by saying, "Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:32-33). And Mark adds the verdict of the Lord Himself; that Jesus "saw" that the Scribe "answered wisely" (v. 34).
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And that leaves us, then, with one more conclusion to draw . . .
3. THE PRINCIPLE JESUS TEACHES (v. 40).
The "Big Idea" of God's law is clearly stated; and it is 'love'. The principle of love is what unifies the law of God and ties it all together - first, total love for God with all our being; and second, a love for our neighbor that is equal to our love for ourselves. Jesus point is that, if we love in accordance with those two commandments, we will be keeping God's law contained in the whole of the Scriptures; for "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."
Now, if the Son of God Himself says that love is the "Big Idea" of the law, then there's nothing more that needs to be said about it. But, of course, the Bible does say much more about this. For example, it tells us that Jesus Himself said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Or, "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me" (John 14:21). Or, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10).
The apostle Paul taught the same thing to us. He said,
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).
He also wrote (in words very familiar and dear to many of us);
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
And again he wrote,
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal. 5:13-14).
Similarly, the apostle John wrote,
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).
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In Christ, we have been set free from the ten commandments as a means of achieving favor with God. Apart from Him, those commandments were what condemned us as sinners and had driven us to Christ for salvation. But having come to Him, we now have God's complete favor by faith in Christ. That means that, for us who are now in Christ, the law is all about love. Love is the unifying principle - the "Big Idea" - of the law.
Do you realize what this means? It means that we haven't just spent several months studying the ten commandments - we've just spent several months studying God's own description - in the form of ten propositional statements - of what real love is supposed to look like! If you haven't come to terms with that unifying principle of love, then you really haven't understood God's ten commandments at all.
John wrote that the commandments are not "burdensome". Have you found them to be burdensome? Perhaps it's because you've only looked at them as a bunch of commandments. Perhaps it's because you haven't understood them in the light of this unifying principle of love: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. Those commandments are not "burdensome", if they are - indeed - expressions of genuine love.
1From Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching, second ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), p. 34.
2The Antiquities of the Jews, 13.10.6; cited in The Works of Josephus, William Whiston, trans. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), p. 355.
3J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 501.
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