Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(Matthew 22:34-40 ESV)
Jesus faces His third test today. This time one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, posed a question to Him. Note that this man was not a lawyer. To the Jews the term “law” refers to the first five books of the Old Testament. This man was a scribe – one with deep knowledge of the these books which were written by Moses.
This scribe seems to be trying to get Jesus to say something that would contradict Moses. To contradict Moses was to contradict God since the words Moses wrote were dictated to Him by God. And to contradict God would be viewed as heresy by not only the Jewish leaders but the Jewish people. His goal – which was really the goal of the Pharisees who got together and came up with the question and sent him to Jesus – was to turn the people against Jesus so they could kill Him [Matthew 12:14, 21:46].
Over the years Jewish rabbis had identified 613 commandments in the Pentateuch that they believed one must follow to be right with God. This man wants Jesus to declare one of them to be the greatest.
Jesus does not hesitate in avowing that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. These words come from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and would have been very familiar to His Jewish audience who knew them as The Shema (from Hebrew for “hear”). Every faithful Jew recited these words at least twice a day.
But the scribe gets a two-for-one because Jesus goes on to tell Him that the second greatest command is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. Instead of promoting one command over another Jesus identifies the overarching principle of all of God’s commands – love.
God is love [1 John 4:8]. Everything He does is based in love, including sending His son to earth to die for our sins [John 3:16]. And every commandment given by God to us hangs on the commandments to love God and each other.
In order to be fully obedient to God we, too, must love God and others. If we were to read through the Bible and pay attention to every command issued by God we would see that each of them are, in principle, a command to love God or to love others (or both).
The Ten Commandments, for example, can be broken down into two parts. The first four are commands to love God [Exodus 20:1-11]. The last six are commands to love each other [Exodus 20:12-17]. Notice that we cannot love others until we first love God.
There are many well-intentioned people who want nothing to do with God who think they can love each other and thereby make the world a better place. Today Jesus tells us this cannot be. Neither atheism or man-made religions can ever promote true love among people because they ignore the love of the true God which must come first.
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