The Greatest Commandments – Matthew 22:34-40

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Faith Bible Church, NY

October 30, 1994

The Greatest Commandments

Matthew 22:34-40

This morning we come to one of the principal passages in all of Scripture. It’s principal because of an answer that Jesus gives to a question that is asked of Him. In it Jesus tells all of us what our central duty, responsibility, and privilege in life is. To the degree that we fail to live up to what Jesus says in this passage is the degree to which we fail at life.

What’s amazing in this passage is not that Jesus said what He did. His teaching comes from what is seen throughout the Scriptures. It’s that it comes out in yet another testing that the hypocritical religious leaders are giving to Jesus. It is Wednesday of Passover week. The antagonism between Jesus and these self-righteous men is reaching its pinnacle. They have been trying to discredit Jesus all morning, and now they try one more tactic: an insincere plot. Turn to Mt. 22:34.


But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. Jesus’ encounter has had a strong effect on the Sadducees. They came to Him smug in their ability to ridicule and put to shame the Pharisees. But when Jesus demonstrated so clearly that they did not know the power of God nor did they understand the Scriptures, they were put to silence. There is a supernatural, spiritual dimension. Angels exist, the spirit exists, and there is a resurrection. In addition God is powerful enough to radically change us when it happens. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, just as Moses reported. The word “to silence” is the same used to speak of “muzzling” an animal, it means to forcibly restrict the opening of the mouth.

The Pharisees had mixed emotions when Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. There was a sense of joy in finally seeing them get a taste of their own medicine and put to shame. There was no love lost between the Pharisees and Sadducees. It pleased them to see the Sadducees rendered speechless, especially in the fact that they were wrong about the teachings of Moses, an area the Sadducees had prided themselves on.

Yet, at the same time there was a feeling of apprehension and frustration because their mutual enemy, Jesus, was not discredited, but made even stronger in the encounter. The people were marveling at His teaching. Even though they were glad to see the Sadducees discredited, their joy was overcome by their disappointment that their even greater desire to see Jesus discredited was not fulfilled.

Now we find them in this verse meeting together once again to plot how they might bring Jesus to ruin. They had tried many direct assaults even accusing Jesus of doing His work by the power of the devil (Matt. 12), they had tried different angles through different groups including those they were antagonistic too such as the Herodians and the Sadducees, they had also tried to catch Him unaware through the use of flattery. What was left? Perhaps they could get Jesus by getting Him to address a hot topic with a more sincere question. The question would be a test, but there would be a sincere aspect to the question because of who they got to ask it.


Verse 35 & 36, And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

The test of the question was the fact that this question was constantly being debated among the Pharisees and to some degree even among the people. Over the years the rabbis had come up with the idea that there were 613 separate laws in the books of Moses. This did not come from counting each law, but from an unsupported method of exegesis that interpreted the Scriptures through the use of numerology and grammatical studies. It was popular and considered extremely valuable to those who used it, but it was really foolishness. The same kind of foolishness that got Harold Camping of Family Radio in trouble last month. Tragically, he was not the first nor will he be the last who will try to set a date for the return of Christ based on the same sort of mistake the ancient rabbis made.

The number commandments given by Moses was calculated by the rabbis to be 613 because there were 613 Hebrew letters in the Decalouge (the Ten Commandments). In addition, these laws were separated into 365 negative ones like the thou shalt nots, one for each day of the year, and 248 positive laws like thou SHALL. There was one for every part of the human body, they supposed.

In addition to these laws being categorized into positive and negative, they were also divided into being either heavy or light. The heavy ones were absolutely binding and had to be done. The light ones were less binding and more discretionary.

There had never been any consensus as to which laws fit into which category, and so much time was spent debating various schemes of dividing and ranking the laws. The Pharisees undoubtedly thought Jesus would have His own scheme for arranging the laws, so perhaps they could get Him to enter into a debate about it. Even more, they hoped that since Jesus’ teachings were so contrary to their own and He claimed to be the Son of God, perhaps He might not only expose His unorthodox views, but might even directly contradict Moses. If that happened, they could accuse Him of heresy and turn the people against Him.

They still had the problem of who would go and talk with Jesus. If Jesus was on the defensive, He might not fall into their trap, and most of them were by now known to Jesus. But there was a Pharisee in the Temple that might be perfect for the job. He was a lawyer. Usually Matthew refers to them as “scribes,” but this man apparently had a special ability and so was marked out from the rest. He was more than just a scribe, but was an expert in the law. From the account in Mark we also gather than this has some sincere interest in what Jesus might say. He was the perfect one to pose this question. There’s a sincere nature to him and he was well qualified to debate Jesus.

We do not know how the Pharisees got this lawyer to participate or how much he really knew of their plan. We do know that Jesus gives this man no rebuke as He had done to His previous questioners. In addition, Mark’s account records that this man understood Jesus answer and gave Him genuine praise for it, at which Jesus told him that he was “not far from the kingdom of God.” That is why I say that regardless of the insincerity of the plot made by the Pharisees, this man’s question is genuine. He does sincerely want to know what Jesus will answer.

Jesus does not hesitate to answer the question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Which is the great commandment in the sense of being foremost, the most important.


Verse 37, And He said to him, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Jesus repeats to him what is the central section of what is called the “shema”, which is Hebrew for “Hear.” It is taken from Deut. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD thy God is one LORD, and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” This would be recited by faithful Jews as least twice a day. In addition, along with some other related verses such as Deut 11:13-21 and Number 15:37-41, it would be written down and put into little boxes. If it is worn on either the head or arm it is called a “Phylactery” and orthodox Jews still wear them. If it is attached to the doorpost it is called a mezuzah. Most Jewish homes still put these up. Those practicing Judaism will kiss their fingers and then touch it when they enter their home.

Jesus is in effect is telling them that the most important commandment that God gave Moses to pass on to His people was the one that they recited everyday, attached to their doorpost, and wore on their arms or foreheads. The supreme command is to love God.

The Hebrew word for love in Deut. 6:5 is aheb and it is the equivalent of the Greek agaph. This is a love that is primarily an act of the will and mind in a determined care for the welfare of someone else. Emotion can be a part of it, but emotion does not guide it. Instead it involves commitment to what is righteous, noble and true regardless of what feelings may or may not be present. It is in contrast with the physical, sensual ejro;V which dominated Greek society and in many way our own. This sort of “love” rises and falls with each passing mood. It is also in contrast with filevw, the tender affection and emotion of friendship. Our love for God is too beyond the fickleness that infects our friendships. It is a purposeful, willful, commitment to do, behave, and even think in the ways that are pleasing to God.

To love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our minds is not to say that we our love is to be broken into three or four categories, but to express the totality and the comprehensiveness of our love for God. Notice that it is to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. We are to love God with every part of our being. At the same time, a quick look at each of these aspects will help us to understand the depth our love is to have in each area of our nature.

First, we are to love God with all our heart. We use heart to refer to the seat of the emotion, but the Hebrews used it to refer to the core of one’s being. It is as one writer put it, “the hub of the wheel of man’s existence, the mainspring of all his thoughts, words, and deeds.” Proverbs 4:23 puts it this way, Watch over your heart with diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. To love the Lord with all your heart means that your life centers and revolves around Him. He is at the forefront of all that you think and do.

To love God with all your soul is the closest to what we would call the seat of emotion. Again, emotion certainly is to be a part of our love for God and there should be a passion on our part for God. However, my love for God is not to be controlled by my feelings. There are two errors that people have fallen into concerning this aspect of our love for God.

First, to love God with all your soul does not mean to let your emotions lead you wherever they may. This is one of the areas of danger that our Charismatic brothers and sisters can easily stray into because they so often have let their emotions be what determines what they do or do not do, what they think or do not think. It is the barn door that is left open wide that lets experience determine truth rather than the Word of God. It is one of the reasons that they can be led astray by false doctrine and what is just plain kookiness that pervades much of the movement.

The other error is the one that churches with our heritage are in danger of falling into. We place such a stress on the intellect and will that we tend to shun the emotional nature our love for God should have. There is an emotional side to our love for God and we should not be fearful to show it. There is a proper passion that we should have for our God, and especially when we gather together to worship Him there should be feeling there. The worship of God should not be sterile for we are to love Him with all our soul, and that includes emotion. So sing the songs and hymns with feeling and don’t be afraid to laugh or cry, say “Praise the Lord,” or shout “amen.”

We are also to love God with all our mind. This is corresponding to what Deut. 6:5 says as “might” or “power.” The Hebrew term is very broad and carries the idea of moving ahead with energy and strength. Here the term mind includes not only the intellectual life but a sense of willful vigor and determination too. It is mental endeavor and strength. It is loving God with all our mind that balances out our emotions and keeps them in proper check for it is our mind that sets the direction that our souls fill with passion as our whole being pursues after God.

Sadly, it is an area in which too many in modern Christianity already fail and an area which is getting even weaker. People in general have developed more of an interest in being entertained than intellectually stimulated. They would rather watch a movie or docudrama than read a nonfiction book about a given topic. This has come into the church as well. There are many churches now that are more centered on being entertaining than on challenging the mind with the Word of God. Marketing research has become a greater influence on the programs of the church than Biblical theology. Churches are replacing the centrality of the study of the Word of God in their services with all sorts of other things under the guise of “improving their worship,” yet in reality, all they are doing is improving the entertainment value of their supposed worship.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe there is much, much more to our worship than the sermon, and many of the things done in these churches could be very effective in improving our worship. However, if the focus of what we do in worship gets focused on how it makes us feel rather than how it moves us toward a better understanding of God, who He is, and what He wants us to do, then we will become defective in our worship. All the other aspects of my relationship with God are dependent on how well I love Him with all my mind, because the mind leads the rest of our being.

My emotions are always based on my perception of what is going on around me, but my perceptions are skewed by my self-interest and are misguided because I do not have the whole picture, and often based on things that are not even true at all. For example, I may feel that God has not been good to me because my life is turning out to be harder than I want it to be. If my love for God was based on just my emotion, then my love and worship of Him would quickly diminish because my feelings tell me that God has not been fair with me. However, my love for God must be based in my intellectual attainment of what God has revealed about Himself. In loving God with all my mind I make diligent study of His character and His intervention into the lives of men. My intellectual conclusion based on God’s Word is that God is not only good, but just and holy too. My life is hard, but that is not because He is any way unfair. Instead, it is the result of my own sin, the sin of others, and the general decline in all of creation because of sin. I also find out that God intervenes into the lives of me so powerfully that He even takes what is not good, suffering for example, and can make it a good in my life, in this example developing in me perseverance, character, and spiritual maturity.

Do you love God with all your mind? How much effort do you really make in your quest to know and understand Him. Do take time to read, study, memorize and meditate on your Bible? That can be hard work and it takes diligence and strength of character to do it. Or is entertainment more important? Watching TV or pursuing hobbies?

Do you love God with all your soul? Is there a passion for God in your life and a sense of emotional desire to know and serve Him. When you sin, does your shame and guilt drive you to your knees before Him because you have let Him down. Is there a longing for His forgiveness and favor. When you offend someone you truly love, there is a deep sorrow and longing to get things right again. Is that true of you when you offend God?

In addition, when you love someone, you do not have to sit down and carefully think and contemplate how to give praise to them. Instead, it wells up within you and burst forth with joy. Do you praise God as a normal response and part of your life? Do you love Him with all your soul?

Do you love Him with all your heart? I guess I am a bit of romantic in some ways because I like doing pre-marital counseling. One reason is that I enjoy seeing two people enamored with each other. It is easy to tell that they think about each other constantly and they long to be with each other and they want to share their lives with one another. That is the way it should be with each of us with God. The Lord should be the center focus of our lives. The most practical indication of that is your obedience to Him. In John 14:23 Jesus put it plainly, “He who has my commands and keeps them is the one that loves me.” Do you love God with all of your being?

The question Jesus had been asked was “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Loving the Lord God with all your being is the supreme command. Jesus could have stopped there, as He had answered the question, but Jesus did not. He went on to tell about the second commandment as well.


Verse 39, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The second commandment is a corollary of the first. Both are other centered and if you love God the way you are supposed to, then you will love what He has created too. The commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18, and the nature of this love for your neighbor is the same as true love for God. It is intentional, by choice, and active. It’s not just sentimental or emotional. It measure is your love for yourself.

It is an abomination, but those in the self-esteem movement have twisted this into a proof-text as to the necessity to have high self-esteem. It is another tragedy in the tale of how popular psychology has infiltrated the church and is supplanting the wisdom of God with the foolishness of men. The Bible’s word for high self-esteem is pride, and God is against it. The Bible tells that we are “not to think more highly of [ourselves] than [we] out to think; but to think so as to have sound judgement…” (Rom 12:3). The fact of the matter is that everyone loves themselves. Jesus uses this the same way that Paul does in Eph. 4:28,29 where husbands are told to “love their own wives as their own bodies, He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church.”

When a person is hungry, he feeds himself; when thirsty, he gets a drink; when tired, he lays down to rest; when sick, he goes to a doctor. To love your neighbor as yourself it to care for them with the same intensity, with the same concern, with the same commitment, with the same effort, and with the same actions as you do for yourself. The simple fact of the matter is that humans are naturally self-centered and they love themselves more than anything and anyone else. But as we learn to love God with all our being, we also learn to be other centered and start fulfilling this command as well to love others the same way we love ourselves.

All the rest of the commandments in both the Law and the Prophets and really all of the Old Testament were dependent on these two commandments. Why? Because all the other commandments are only extensions of these two, being details of how to fulfill these two. Even the 10 commandments are only expansions of these two. If you love the Lord God with all your heart, soul and mind then you will not have any other God before Him, make any idol, worship anything else or take His name in vain. All those things are contrary to loving Him. Instead you will seek to exalt Him, praise Him
and do what He wants you to do. If you love your neighbor as yourself you will not kill them, steal from them, commit adultery with them, bear false witness against them, covet what they have and you will even honor your parents.

A true love for God will come out in loving people. 1 John 4:7-8 puts it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The lawyer that questioned Jesus understood what Jesus said and not only commented that Jesus was correct, but he understood that to fulfill these two commandments was more that all burnt offerings and sacrifices. That is why Jesus told him that he was not far from the kingdom of God.

To truly live for Christ can only come as a response of a changed heart, a heart that now does want to love God and other people. Do you love God in this way? Do you love others in this manner? The starting point is coming to God in humility seeking His forgiveness. From there it extends as that humility becomes part of your life and the Lord become the priority of your life and you begin to count other people as more important than yourself. I pray that this text has been a challenge to each of this morning to love God and others in a deeper way than we ever have before.

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