The Greatest Commandments

We have been looking at how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law of the Old Testament, specifically how Laws given thousands of years ago to the nation of Israel relate to Christians today.  One thing we have discovered is that while the Law with all its demands was extremely meticulous, the New Testament indicates that Christians, while not expected to keep the letter of the Law, are expected live lives that exceed the spirit of the Law.  Our calling is much higher; we are not answerable to priests or religious leaders for our failures, but to God Himself.

The Torah is a massive book that represents the Books of the Law, or the first five books of the Old Testament.  In Judaism, it is the most sacred of writings; so sacred in fact that some devoted Jews memorize every word of it!  Are Christians as committed to their most sacred Book, the Holy Bible?  Jews are very careful to obey the words of the Law, but are we as Christians as careful to follow the teachings of the New Testament?  The Jews obeyed their Laws because their lives depended on it; is that how we view the Bible?  Do we live according to its teachings as though our lives depended on it?

It is easy to look at all the individual admonitions of both Testaments and just throw our hands up in hopelessness.  There are so many “rules for living” that, we think, who can possibly live up to them all?   And we frequently use the excuse, “God’s not finished with me yet,” to justify our sins.  However, God in His infinite wisdom has given us help.  He has taken all the commandments, teachings, and admonitions in the whole Bible and distilled them into TWO simple commandments.  These two commandments are kind of like the “Cliff Notes” of God’s will in regards to how we, His children, should live.

1.  Love God above all, Deuteronomy 6:4—5; Matthew 22:34—38

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deut. 6:6)

‘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.  (Matt. 22:37, 38)

The interesting thing about the commandments of Scripture is that they cannot be separated from the character of God; God is revealed in them.   Because of this, God is never satisfied with mere external obedience alone because blind obedience cannot change a person’s heart.  In fact, the heart must change first; one must come into a loving, personal, and committed relationship with God; obedience follows after that.

(a)  The Shema, Deut. 6:4—5

These two verses of Deuteronomy are part of the “Shema,” the creed of Judaism.  “Shema” is Hebrew for “hear,” and is translated that way in verse 4.  What exactly was the nation of Israel to “hear?”  Simply this:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  (verse 4)

This was a significant declaration to make, considering the context.  The nation of Israel had just left Egypt and its many gods behind.  They were embarking on a journey of faith and would face other nations with many gods.   It was vitally important for them to know the truth:  there is ONE God alone.  To this day, the Shema is recited in Israel and explains why the Law is still discussed and debated even by Gentiles and unbelievers and why the Law is the basis for our modern civic laws.  God’s commandments were not given as a punishment or as a burden or as a list of impossible ideals.  They were given from God to those He loved and called and they were to be obeyed out of love, not out of form.  That is what the phrase “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” means.  Reading it casually, we might paraphrase it “with all your might,” but to the Hebrews we have completely missed the point!  The word heart refers to the inner workings of a person; his hidden thoughts and attitudes.   Soul is the dynamic of the person; it refers to his actions.  And strength refers to the will and ability of the person.  Every aspect of a person’s life was to be centered around God and His Word.

(b)  The Greatest Commandment, Matthew 22:34—38

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had come to ask Jesus a question after He effectively silenced the Sadducees over the question of the resurrection.  To them, Jesus said—

You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.  (Matt. 22:29)

This would have delighted the Pharisees, who did not hold with many of the teachings of the Sadducees.  But the Pharisees had their own problems with Jesus and they wanted to trap Him with His own words, so they asked Him about the “greatest commandment.”  We could well imagine how silent everybody was as they waited for Jesus to answer!   Which commandment would this new Teacher claim to be the most important?   By Jesus’ time, the Rabbis had meticulously divided the 613 teachings of the Law—248 commands and 365 prohibitions—into “weighty” and “light” categories, and as one might expect, these designations always sparked debate, into which they were determined to draw Jesus.

The disciples must have been relieved when Jesus gave an answer so simple, yet so stunning; it silenced the co-called experts of the Law.  He quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, the Shema.   The clear meaning of the Shema in Jesus’ mind was that love for God was supreme.  The word used for love is agapeao, which, while it does not exclude affection and an emotional attachment, means much more; including “the moral affection of conscious deliberate will not the natural impulse of immediate feeling” (Cremer).  This answer, too, would have delighted the Pharisees; it was well-thought and conservative.  But while Jesus and the Pharisees had much in common, the one glaring difference was one of method:  how does one practice this greatest commandment?

2.  Love your neighbor, Leviticus 19:15—18; Matt. 22:39—40

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19:18)

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (Matt. 22:39)

Much of Leviticus 15 needs very little comment as the admonitions it contains seem to be just so much common sense.  For example, is it not common sense and good citizenship to respect others in every way?  But the Levitical standard expressed in the Law comes closest to Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament.  It forbids vengeance and revenge and demands love for one’s neighbor and stranger alike (see verse 34).   The significance of Leviticus 19:17 shows that the Law did not concern itself merely with external obedience, as so often assumed by Christians.  In fact, Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount was not giving a new spiritual meaning to the Law as many think; it already had a deep spiritual meaning!  Unfortunately, it was missed by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

In Matthew 22, Jesus had given His opinion as to what the greatest commandment was.  In verse 39 He offered the second-greatest commandment:  loving your neighbor as yourself.  Again the verb used is agapao.  Abbott-Smith comments:

Agapao is fitly used in the New Testament of Christian love to God and man, the spiritual affection which follows the direction of the will, and which, therefore, unlike that feeling which is instinctive and unreasoned, can be commanded as a duty.

Within the context of being members of the Kingdom of God, we are duty-bound to love our neighbors as we love God and as we love ourselves.  That love, as agapao suggests, is a love not based on emotions or feelings or even reciprocation; it is our solemn duty as Christians.

Why is this kind of behavior so important to God?  It all goes back to the context of Leviticus 19.  Immediately following the law to love their neighbors, the Israelites were given the following law—

” ‘Keep my decrees. ” ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’  (verse 19)

This may seem strange to us, but there is a Biblical principle at work:  it is the habdalah, or the “principle of separation,” and this principle was to characterize every aspect of Jewish life.  What God separated the people were to keep separate.  The application is obvious:  the nation of Israel was to be separate and distinct from all the nations around them is every way, from the food they ate to the clothes they wore to the seeds they planted.  The spiritual lesson is powerful for believers today:  the Church is a “called out assembly,” we are to be living lives of separation and holiness evidenced by our attitudes, our thoughts, and our behavior.  Loving our neighbors is a spiritual act because it is something that does not routinely occur in the world.

3.  Everyone is my neighbor, Luke 10:25—37

This section is unique to Luke and is one of the best-loved stories of the New Testament.  Over the centuries this story has been abused mercilessly, especially by the early church fathers who overallegorized it, as they often did with many passages of Scripture.

Jesus had been teaching the people, probably in or near Jerusalem—possibly at Lazarus’ home in Bethany—when a legal expert addresses Him, hoping to embarrass Jesus.  The question he asked concerned eternal life—

“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (verse 25)

Before we look at the Jesus’ answer, note the question carefully and the man’s attitude becomes apparent.  He assumed there was human responsibility involved in attaining eternal life.  This is typical of the legalist who thinks eternal life may be earned by an individual; something the NT never teaches.  At any rate, Jesus immediately recognized this outwardly sincere-sounding question as a trick to trap Him, which it was, and our Lord answered the man with a counter-question which put the man on the defensive—

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”  (verse 26)

In response, the man answered Jesus correctly, quoting Leviticus 19:18.  But as the parable of the good Samaritan will illustrate, love for one’s neighbor (and also for God, for that matter) is demonstrated by deeds, not words.

In the parable, an unidentified man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of some 17 dangerous miles.   Jesus gives no information about the man, something that Luke would have appreciated, for Luke presents Jesus as the Savior of all men.  We assume, though, that he was a Jew given the point of the story.  This man falls prey to bandits who beat him and steal all his possessions.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  (verses 31, 32)

Priests served in the temple; their duty was to offer sacrifices.  Levites assisted in the maintenance of the Temple services and order.  Although some have offered excuses as to why these religious types did not stop to help man, the point of the story is that they had NO excuse for avoiding this injured man.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  (verse 33)

It was a lowly Samaritan who “took pity” on the man.  The Greek is asplanchnisthe, a word that strongly implies a deep sense of sympathy; a striking contrast to the attitude of the priest and the Levite!   Once again, Jesus gives no detail about the Samaritan, which doesn’t really matter because Samaritans were hated by the Jews and generally hated the Jews is return.  This man had absolutely no reason for stopping to help this Jew and almost every reason for not helping him.  However, he was moved by compassion for a suffering human being.  Note the great extent of his help:

  • He gave him immediate emergency help;
  • He took the man to an inn where he could be cared for while he recovered;
  • He paid the bill in advance;
  • He offered further help if it proved necessary.

Note verse 36 carefully—

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  (verse 36)

Jesus reversed the order and the relationship with a neat play on words. The man had asked, “Who is my neighbor?”  But in Jesus’ story and in His question it is, “Which one was a neighbor to him?”  In other words, Jesus is really asking the man, “To whom must I be a neighbor?”   Jesus’ question to the legal expert highlights the man’s selfish, legalistic attitude, for his question had no sense of human duty or obligation.

In fact, if we read the account correctly, we will notice that Jesus did not answer the man’s question:  He showed the man that he asked the wrong question, and that alone showed that the man did not have love for his neighbor and that his attitudes were exactly opposite to what the Law taught they should have been!  The man knew the Law; he had the right answer, but he did not have the Spirit of the Word in his heart, his soul or his mind.

This expert in the Law, like the rich young ruler, had the right answers but the wrong attitudes.  When Jesus told the man, “Go and do likewise,” He was simply telling the lawyer, “You know what you must do, go do it!”

So the teaching of the Law and the teaching of Jesus go hand-in-hand.  Perfect obedience to the teachings of Scripture will result in eternal life.  There is just one problem:  not one of us is capable of perfect obedience!  Yet the demands of the Law and of the Word of God are not abrogated.  The solution to this problem was provided by God Himself.  His Son, Jesus Christ, by coming to earth and living a life that perfectly fulfilled every point of the Law and by dying a substitutionary death in our stead, has done for us what we ourselves would never have been able to do.  Our part is to accept in faith what Jesus did for us and, in gratitude and appreciation, live the kind of life pleases God, to the best of our ability, aided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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