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Sermon Message


"The Great Commandment"

Matthew 22:34-40
Theme: The guiding principle of God's law is love.

(Delivered Sunday, June 1, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

We have been looking together at the hostile "questions" that the religious leaders and the rulers of Israel had been putting to the Lord, just a few days before He went to the cross for us.

These questions in the temple were asked from hearts that were hostile. But one of the blessings we gain from studying them is the glorious view it gives us of our Savior's character. He was unafraid and undisturbed by the challenges from those who disbelieved Him. He was wise and perfectly balanced in the answers He gave to the perplexing questions that were put to Him. And He was bold and direct in exposing the sinful heart of unbelief from which those questions sprung. When it was all over, as Matthew 22:46 tells us, "[N]o one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore."

And now, this morning, we look at the last of the last of these questions in the temple. In Matthew 22:34-40, we read;

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" (Matthew 22:34-40).

This is a wonderful passage. We have to each be honest, and admit that we fall far too short of obedience to it. But even so, it is one of the most freeing and grace-celebrating passages in all the Bible. In it, our Lord Jesus teaches us that the guiding principle of our obedience to God's law is love.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, the question about the law in this morning's passage was asked by—of all things—a lawyer. He wasn't a lawyer in the sense that we understand today in our culture. Rather, he was a "lawyer" in the sense that he was a scholar and an expert in the interpretation and application of the Old Testament law of Moses. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that the man was a "scribe" (Mark 12:28).

So; let's begin by looking closer at . . .


Matthew picks this story where the previous one ended—in which the Sadducees had sought to trap the Lord. The Sadducees, you may remember, were a religious party that only acknowledged the first five books of the Old Testament, and disregarded the rest. The Pharisees, on the other hand, so esteemed the whole Old Testament and its laws that they expanded on them.

The Pharisees surrounded God's law with 613 additional rules and regulations of their own. They referred to these additional rules as a "fence around the law"; designed to keep anyone from crossing any lines that might result in any form of disobedience. Some of them taught that there were 248 positive statements of what someone should do (the same number, they said, of parts of the human body), and 365 negative statements of what someone should not do (the same number as days of the year); altogether making a total of 613.

Those 613 precepts, made up from the law of God, touched on every conceivable area of life. Some of them were thought to be very crucial; and others of them were thought to touch on only minor areas of life. Some were said to be "weighty", and others "light". And so, it would be natural that, among the Pharisees, there would be a lot of arguments over which of those laws were of the greatest importance. They would naturally want to 'systematize' those laws in an orderly manner—which would make it necessary to define which were the main ones and which were the subordinate ones.

So; Matthew tells us that, "when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees" (much to the delight of the Pharisees, by the way), "they gathered together." No doubt, they gathered into a huddle to hatch another question in an attempt to trap our Lord in His words.

And it's then that we're told that this lone man—a lawyer—stepped forward to ask his good question.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; did you notice that I called it a "good" question? Even though the other two questions that were put to our Lord were asked out of an evil motive, I believe this man was sincere. I believe that he truly saw that the Lord had demonstrated divine wisdom in the answers He had given; and that he truly wanted to receive a wise answer to the question he asked.

Let me share with you a few reasons why I say that. In Mark's Gospel, we're told that this man came on the scene while the Sadducees and the Pharisees had been confronting our Lord with these hostile questions. And Mark tells us, "and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He [that is, the Lord] had answered them well," then asked Him this question about the law (Mark 12:28). In other words, the man's question was not motivated by a desire to trap the Lord, but rather because he saw that the Lord answered "well".

Second, Mark tells us more of what happened after the Lord answered the man's question. When Jesus gave His wise answer, the man said to Him, “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 whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:32-33). In other words, rather than by being frustrated by the Lord's answer—as the others had been—he praised the Lord for His answer and agreed with it heartily.

And thirdly, Mark tells us that when the man said this, the Lord said something quite remarkable to him; "Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God'" (Mark 12:34). In other words, the Lord didn't respond to this man as He had responded to the others—rebuking them for their hypocrisy, or scolding them for trying to trap Him. Instead, He affirmed that the man responded wisely to the Lord's wise answer; and affirmed him as someone who was not far from the kingdom of God! He wasn't there yet, of course; he still needed to believe on the Lord Jesus Himself, and rest on the sacrifice He was about to accomplish on the cross. And who knows? Perhaps he eventually did so!

So you see; this was a genuinely good question. It was asked with a sincere desire to know the truth. Perhaps he heard the Pharisees debating among themselves as to how to trap the Lord with a question about which was the greatest commandment of the law. And since it was a question that he himself struggled with, perhaps he stole it from them. Perhaps he jumped ahead of them; and, with a sincere heart, asked the Lord a question that plagued the minds of many scribes and scholars of the law.

As we saw last week, unbelieving people sometimes ask questions about faith in Christ with a desire to mock that faith, and to belittle those who trust in Him. In such cases, the motive is not to know anything. Rather, it's to further justify their unbelief. And in those instances, our Lord's example teaches us to respond by exposing the unbelief that motivates the question in the first place. But just as often, some unbelieving people—in whose hearts, I believe, the Holy Spirit has already begun His gracious work—ask questions about faith with a sincere desire to have the intellectual barriers removed, and so they can genuinely comprehend the truth and believe.

Such was the case with this man. Even though Matthew says that the man was "testing" the Lord, it was not a "test" in the sense of seeking to tempt or trap the Lord. Rather, it was to make further proof of our Lord's manifest wisdom.

And our Lord shows us, by His example, that we need to be discerning in such cases. When the questioner is sincere, we should greet them with tender love and treat their questions with respect—pointing them carefully to the One who has all the answers.

* * * * * * * * * *

And what a great question this "good" question was! Out of all the commandments of God's law, and out of all the "rules and regulations" that the Pharisees made up from those commandments, which one was the "great commandment of the law"? Which one was the "first" above all others; and from which all the others drew their foundational principle?

So; let's look, next, at . . .

2. THE LORD'S WISE ANSWER (vv. 37-39).

Without a moment's hesitation, the Lord quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5. It's a quote taken from a passage that every Jewish person would have known by heart from the time they were little people—a passage that many pious Jewish men and women would have recited at the start of the day. It says;

“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" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

What a remarkable command! It's a command to love the Lord! You might have thought that Jesus would have quoted from the first of the ten commandments as the one that would have been the "greatest": “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:2-3). But Jesus taught that it's not enough to simply "have" the one true God exclusively as one's only god. All of the people who were seeking right then to destroy Jesus would have agreed with that! Rather, the chief command is to love Him! No one who truly loved the Father would have hated His Son.1

Look at how our Lord—who is Himself the divine Lawgiver in human flesh—described this love as a completely exclusive and totally encompassing love. It would be easy to think that we keep this commandment if it had been given in an 'abstract' form; but the Lord reminds us that it has been broken down for us into 'concrete' details of life. It is to be, first of all, a love that is with all our "heart". God is to have the exclusive first place in all our affections. We obviously must love other things along with loving Him; but we must love Him above all other things—even the things that we hold most dear in this world. Jesus Himself put it this way; "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:37).

It's also be a love that is with all our "soul". Our "soul" is the seat of our inner-life; and is, in fact, our very selves. We all love our selves. We all love our own lives, and seek to protect and nurture that life God has given us. It's hard to think of anything that is more "yours" than your own being. But the purpose of that life that God gives us—that "soul" that makes us what we individually are—is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it is to be that with which we love God first. I believe that, in Romans 12:1, Paul captures this idea when he says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

And finally, it is to be a love that is with all our "mind". The mind is the center of our intellect, our beliefs, our convictions, and our expressions of that inner-self. It's one of the most private parts of our being. What goes on in our minds is ours, and is accessible to no one except those to whom we choose to share our thoughts. And Jesus here tells us that the chief commandment is that we are each to love God with all our mind; with all our intellect; with all our reasoning. As King David prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

In Mark's telling of the story, Jesus also says that we are to love God with all our "strength"—that is, with all our bodily power and through all our actions. But the general sense of what Jesus is telling us is that the first, great, chief commandment—the one that stands as the foundational principle for all of God's other commandments to us—is that we are to love Him with the totality of our being. We are to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—with all of everything that we are.

And by the way; think of the first four of the ten commandments—those four that regulate our relationship with God. If you truly love Him with all your being, you will never allow any other 'god' occupy the first place in your heart but Him. If you truly love Him with all your being, you will never seek to create a graven image of Him that reduces Him in some way; nor will you bow down to any such thing and worship it instead of Him. If you truly love Him with all your being, you will honor and reverence Him and never use His sacred name in a vain or blasphemous way. And if you truly love Him with all your being, you'll faithfully set aside all the lesser things of this world for a while, follow the example He set for you, and give due attention to Him on His sacred day of rest.

Jesus said that to 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. So; how would the Lord say that you and I are doing in keeping it? I'll leave it to the Holy Spirit to give us the answer!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; the lawyer only asked what the one, "great" commandment was. But isn't it interesting that Jesus goes on to give him what he didn't ask for—the "second", which He said is "like it"? He goes on to quote from Leviticus 19:18; which says, "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" (Leviticus 19:18).

And just as the first great commandment speaks of the first four of the ten commandments—the ones that govern our relationship with God, the second great commandment speaks of the last six of the ten commandments—the ones that govern our relationship with other people. If you love your neighbor as yourself, for example, you'll honor your father and mother—which is as much as to say that you'll honor the human authority that God has placed over you. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you'll not murder your neighbor—or, by extension, you'll not seek to diminish your neighbor in any way, but seek to protect their life. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you'll not commit adultery with him or her—that is, you will honor your fundamental commitments; and, in moral purity, will not violate their fundamental commitments either. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will not steal from your neighbor or take from them what God has given them to use and enjoy. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will never bear false witness against them—either by lying to them to their disadvantage, or lying about them to advantage yourself. And if you love your neighbor as yourself, you'll be content with what God has entrusted to you, and not look in envy upon what God has entrusted to them.

Now; stop and think of what marvelous wisdom our Lord displayed in answered the question that the man didn't ask—telling him not only what the great commandment is, but also the second "which is like it". By saying that the 'first' and greatest commandment is to love God with all our being, and then adding that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves follows afterwards as 'second' to it, He was protecting the integrity of God's whole Law.

If we were to try to treat the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves as if it were the greatest commandment, while ignoring the commandment to love God first with all our being, then we would be committing a sinful act—boasting in a supposed love for our neighbor while breaking the first four commandments, and refusing to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. And yet, so many people try to do just this very thing today—insisting that the only rule they need to follow is to "love one's neighbor as one's self", while refusing to properly worship the God who made both them and their neighbor!

Likewise, other 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 they don't love people! But again, to try to love God without loving the people He loves is to break His commandments. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this”, James writes: “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Both commandments—to love God totally and to love one's neighbor as oneself—must be obeyed, or neither of them are truly being kept in God's sight. The Son of God has joined them together; and what He has joined together, let man never try to separate! And let's remember that the 'first' must come first, and the 'second' must flow from it.

So I ask again; how do you believe the Lord would say we're keeping the two greatest commandments?

* * * * * * * * * *

Finally, let's notice how the Lord Jesus “summarizes” His “summary” of the law. He gives us . . .


Our Lord Jesus—the great Authority on the law—said that the first commandment was to love God. And then, He said that the second commandment, "which is like it", was to love our neighbor as ourselves. They are alike in that they set the principle of love before us as the great guiding principle of the Law. And so, He concludes by saying, "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." They are, if you will, the peg on which all the rest of God's commandments rest.

When it comes to the love of God the Father, Jesus Himself has said “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30). To love the Father is to love His Son. And how do we love the Son—and thereby love the Father? Jesus 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). Love is the abiding principle in keeping our Savior's commandments.

And when it comes to the love of our neighbor, the Bible tells us such things as this:

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).

Or this:

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).

* * * * * * * * * *

Our Lord Jesus—the Lord of Grace—clearly affirms the law. The gospel of Jesus doesn't set the law of God aside! Our God could no more set His law aside than He could deny His own character. Rather, what we find in the gospel is that the requirements of the law are completely fulfilled for us in Jesus Himself. He is the One that the Bible sets forth to us as "the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4).

And now, in Christ, we seek to walk in accordance with God's Law—but not through a careful adherence to the letter of the law out of fear of judgment. Instead, we keep it out of a thankful heart through the principle of love.

I wonder; in closing, would it help you to know what the Bible says all of this "love" is supposed to look like in actual practice? The Bible gives us a great answer:

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).

1See John 5:20-23.

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