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THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT

Matthew 22:34-22:40
Key Verse: 22:37-38

We thank and praise God that our God is the God of the living. We are forever living in him as his children along with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, and many others on the earth. Today’s passage is very short. But its spiritual weight is very heavy, as it contains the 2 biggest commandments. The commandments are well-known to Christians and non-Christians as well. Yet, “well-known” does not mean “well-accepted.” As we study this passage, may God help us to newly and more deeply understand Jesus’ teaching of the commandments, “Love the Lord your God…”

First, “Love the Lord your God”(34-38). Look at verse 34. “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.” The Pharisees must have been happy with the defeat of the Sadducees after their own defeat. Now the Pharisees got together, certainly to muster their wisdom for a new tactic. They wanted to win a victory over Jesus, even one time. They must have realized that the previous question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not” was not that good, probably too worldly. This time they sent one of them, an expert in the law to confront Jesus with a spiritual question.

Look at verses 35-36. “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’” This time there was no flattery strategy, for such a strategy did not work with Jesus at all. Now the question is straightforward and open, yet very spiritual and apparently very difficult. Ordinary people would not raise such a question, but only an expert in the law. Sometimes students can ask a question to their professor, “In this book which chapter is the most important” or “What is the most important teaching in this thick book?” Such a question can be presented after a hard study. No study, no question. So the question the expert in the law raised was a question of high quality. Sometimes we also question, “What is the most important teaching in the Bible?” or “What words can represent Christianity?” or “What is the most important in life?”

Let’s listen to Jesus. Look at verses 37. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls and with all your mind.’” These words are from Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” When we think about these words in the context of Deuteronomy 6, the words are not a part of God’s commandments. 6:1-3 says, “These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess...” God specifically set the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue) before his people to observe, keep and obey the commandments so that they might enjoy long life, it go well with them and they increase greatly in the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. And verses 6 and 7 say, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children…” When we read chapter 6, without verses 4 and 5, the passage flows well, focusing on keeping the commandments. But in between these verses, verses 4 and 5 are written: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Moses inserted this commandment to teach them that love should be the underlying reason of keeping and obeying the specific commands, decrees and laws. This is as Jesus said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…” Love is the basis and motivation for keeping all the commandments.

Then let’s think about the commandment. It does not say, “Love God,” but “Love the Lord your God.” When we read the Old Testament, the LORD is very special to the Israelites. The Ten Commandments begin with the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex 20:2; Dt 5:6). It was impossible for them to come out of the land of slavery by any means. But the LORD made it possible. How did the LORD bring them out of Egypt? It was not done free of charge. Of course it was done by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the LORD. Because of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal, God had to punish the nation with ten plagues. Especially at the tenth place, the angel of death killing all the firstborn sons of Egypt, Pharaoh yielded and let the people go. Yet, it was a huge sacrifice to God since the whole nations were his (Ex 19:5). It was a ransom sacrifice for the liberation of the Israelites from the bondage of Pharaoh King of Egypt. At the deaths of numerous firstborn sons of Egyptians (Isa 43:3), the whole nation wailed, and it caused the gradual ruining of the nation. It meant God would pay any ransom price for them precious and honoured in his sight (Isa 43:4). In this way God showed his marvelous redeeming love for them. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob became the LORD their God. He led them through the desert for forty years with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, which was his ever-presence. In the desert he provided them with food raining down from heaven and water coming out of rock, and trained them in faith. The LORD God would give them victories over their enemies in the promised land according to his promises, although they had no fighting experience and no excellent fighting weapons. No one was like him to them. They were what they were because of the LORD God. The LORD God genuinely loved them (Dt 4;37). In this bond of love they were attached to him, and the LORD their God became a very special one to them.

As we studied, the LORD God is always, “I AM” (Ex 3:6,14) as the God of the living. That means he was relevant to the expert in the law and is relevant to us as well. It is because the LORD God finally sent his own Son into this world as the ransom payment for our liberation from the power of sin and Satan. This payment and sacrifice would be greater than any in the whole universe. In this way he truly loved us. He loved us, not because we were loveable but because we absolutely needed his love. And he is not a just one time-lover, but an unceasinglover who lives with us and in us through the Holy Spirit. He has guided us in the paths of righteousness disciplining us in faith. He is matchless and incomparable to us.

Jesus confirmed what Moses commanded to Israelites, saying, “Love the Lord your God.” It seems to be natural to love God when we know who the Lord our God is. But loving the Lord our God is commandment. No one can command, “Love him or love her.” Love should come naturally from the heart. But in a true sense loving should be a commandment if the object of love is the right one, and it gives a clear direction. There are many things in the world that can entice one’s heart and mind. We can love many things in the world. Unless there is a clear commandment to love the Lord your God, our hearts and minds can go here and there, even though we know the grace and love of our God. In this wandering the grace of the Lord God can be gradually forgotten. The command to love the Lord your God is absolutely necessary. This command shows that loving the Lord God is one’s commitment to him. It is more than emotional level. It demands obedience beyond our feeling. “You shall love the Lord your God” (NASB; NRSV; NKJV). We are to love the Lord our God. We must love him before loving anyone or anything. When we love the Lord our God, our hearts are set on the right channel and function rightly without becoming tainted and corrupt. When we love the Lord our God, we are truly free, and happy and joyful and thankful at any circumstance. In truth those who can love God as human beings are truly blessed and this blessing is immeasurable.

At the beginning stage of Matthew’s gospel is a story of Magi. When they came to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, they asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” They were looking for the right object of love and worship. They had been seeking for him throughout their lives. They found the baby Jesus and worshiped him and returned to their country. “Whom should I love?” Whom should I worship” Where is the one?” These questions are real to all human souls. Matthew seemed to put the answer here at the end of his gospel: “Love the Lord your God.”

Then those who have found the right to love, how should they love him? Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” No love can demand such a demand and commitment as this, but love for God. “All your heart” is most importantly our undivided or single pure heart. “All your soul” is our life-giving spirit or our living being (prayer in MSG, cf Ge 2:7). “All your mind” is all our understanding or intelligence. It does not mean to understand everything. It contains entrusting what we cannot understand to God, and training our thoughts to be godly, thinking of what is true, noble, right and pure (1 Ti 4:7; Ph 4:8). Here we should notice that originally this commandment was not given just to some leaders or specific people, but to all the Israelites. This means that the love commandment is given to all Christians, although this commandment seems to be too great. The Lord speaks to you and me, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Then how can we love the Lord our God with all the heart and with all the soul and with all the mind? The Bible tells us to meditate on the words of God day and night and to fix the words in our hearts and minds (Ps 1:2; Jo 1:8; Dt 11:18). It tells us to pray unceasingly. Especially we must go to God and humbly and earnestly pray whenever we have problems that trouble our hearts, until God solves the problems or gives us a clear direction. It also tells us the importance of our inner motive and purpose in all we do. It says, “Whether you eat or drink, in whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). When we love God, we can strive to please him in doing all things. We can please him, as we live by faith and do things with faith. We can express our love for God even by doing a small thing, like a little one’s offering 50 cents to God or at a student’s giving one hour or some time to God in the midst of a really busy schedule. Also as the expression of love for Jesus one can deny his or her idea or opinion, though it is so painful. Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me...” (Jn 14:21). We know that loving God is a command and it requires our effort and obedience. But we can ask God for his help in this matter that we may truly love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all our minds and with all our souls.

Then Jesus said, “This is the first and greatest commandment.” Here Jesus added “first” to their question, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” “First” implies the most important (Mk 12:28,29). Also the first comes first in the order before the second and any other. In Matthew’s gospel the word “first” used meaningfully in some places: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…” (6:33), “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon…” (10:2), “When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak…” (17:25). Here by saying, “the first and greatest commandment,” Jesus put the emphasis on the importance of this commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” is the first and greatest commandment.

Second, “Love your neighbour” (39-40). Look at verse 39. “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In this world the second can be ignored, forgotten or considered “not important.” But Jesus did not ignore it. By saying “the first and greatest…” and “the second,” Jesus considered them together greatest. The two cannot be separated although there is the obvious order between the two. Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” These words are from Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19 begins with these words, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” And Leviticus 19:18 says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.” And 19:34 says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” They had become together God’s people redeemed from the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt. They became the holy people of the LORD, who is holy. “Love your neighbour…” is God’s direct command to them.

As we have studied, the Lord God is exceptional to us. He loved us first, and he is worthy of our love and heart adoration. He is truly the object of our love. Our neighbour is also the object of our love, the one we are to love. But loving our neighbour is in some way different, though the word “love” is same as “agapao” in Greek. It is not because our neighbour is necessarily worthy of our love and respect. When we think of Leviticus 19:18, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD,” loving our neighbour is from a moralistic sense and is relational. Jesus expressed it this way in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” We don’t want others to seek revenge or bear a grudge against us. God wants us to place ourselves in the shoes of others. And then he said, “I am the LORD.” Considering the LORD, he wants us to love others as ourselves. The meaning of this is clearer in 19:34, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Our God wants us to remember his mercy and grace and practice it, showing the mercy to our neighbour. In his grace he wants us to be merciful. My neighbour needs my love and we should build up the relationship in the mercy and grace and honour of God.

When we think of the command, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” we can think that we should do big things for our neighbour. But we can start with small things. Paul said in Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to its neighbour.” One example of how to love our neighbour is written in Proverb 25:17, “Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house—too much of you, and he will hate you.” It means we must be considerate in relationship with our neighbour: don’t’ do what our neighbour does not like.

A question can arise, “Who is my neighbour?” In Children’s game they say, “I cannot share it with you, for you are not my friend.” Adults can play the same game, saying, “You are not my friend. You are not from my hometown or my school,” “Your nationality is different,” “Your colour is different,” etc. In Luke’s gospel an expert in the Law came to Jesus. The expert knew the commandments of loving the Lord God and loving the neighbour. When Jesus said, “Do this and you will live,” he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour.” Then Jesus told him the story, well known as the Good Samaritan. A man met a robber on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was half-dead left on the road. A priest passed by, and a Levite, too. But a Samaritan whom the Jews despised came and took care of him. Jesus did not answer to the expert in the law who his neighbour was. Rather, he asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The Lord wants each of us to be a neighbor to others, not trying to calculate who my neighour is. We can say that the one who needs my love is my neighbour.

Those who truly love God can love their neighbours. These two go together. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is written two times in Matthew’s gospel. Again, the repetition in Matthew’s gospel indicates its importance. And Jesus said in Matthew 7:12, “…do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” And Paul said in Romans 13:9, “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” And here verse 40 says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The two commandments are the basis and pegs for all the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew’s description of Jesus’ teaching in this event is concise and straightforward compared to Mark (12:28-34). Matthew writes: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” In Matthew’s gospel it seems to be the last direct teaching of Jesus while on earth before his last Supper and his trial. God is love (1 Jn 4:16). The greatest command is love command: “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighour.” We are reminded of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now these remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

May God help us to keep the greatest commandments of love, the first and the second, in our hearts and strive to live by them.

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