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Each person’s life is guided, if not compelled, by what they choose as their ‘great commandment.’  

Put another way, what ‘pole star’ do people choose to navigate life?  

In this post, we will explore:

  • What does this statement mean? 
  • What Jesus identifies as the greatest commandment— the true ‘pole star.’
  • How can that commandment guide you through life? 

Let’s begin by looking at the modern context in which many of us live.

Our modern setting

Our modern culture has become fragmented, polarized, and angry on almost every possible issue.

If you do not fully agree with a person’s values, endorse their lifestyle, or respect what they hold as sacred, you are accused of not loving them, or worse, speaking hate and being toxic. This is the case whether it is in politics, religion, race, or the expanding minefield of gender and sexuality.

Whatever your news source, you constantly view demonstrations, protests, and conflicts about every imaginable issue.

Test it for yourself. Pick any important issue and see what is reported in your news or even what you notice in your streets.

You are either with or against them; you either love them or must be guilty of hating them— there no longer seems to be a middle ground, a valid alternate, or even a space for respectful discussion and disagreement. 

At its core, these diverse and entrenched conflicts flow from the commitment of people and groups to a central idea, concept, or value that becomes the sole guiding light for their attitudes and actions. All other ideas, concepts, and values are viewed as the enemy.

How can a follower of Jesus faithfully navigate the fragmented, polarized, and angry waters of our modern culture?

Jesus leads the way forward. I encourage you to take a moment to read Matthew 22:34-46 (ESV) or its larger context of 21:23-22:46

The antagonist 

Here is how this section opens (22:34-35):

… when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

The various powerful and competing Jewish groups had formed an unlikely alliance with the common aim of discrediting Jesus. Like tag teams, the first combatants were “the chief priests and the elders” (21:23-27), followed by the Pharisees and Herodians (22:15-22), then the Sadducees (22:23-33), and now once again, the Pharisees.

The Pharisees: 

were exponents and guardians of the written and oral law, and, in belief, were the conservatives in distinction from the Sadducees. But their religious orthodoxy was spiritually barren … (Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels, 48).

Now, they delegate an “expert in the law” who had undoubtedly spent his whole life studying and debating the Jewish Law. We are told the lawyer’s motive was “to test” Jesus.

This word “test” translates the Greek peirazō, which is the same word used for earlier antagonists (16:1; 19:3; 22:18) as well as the devil testing or tempting Jesus (4:1, 3). In this context, this reveals the hostile intention of this expert. He “tested” Jesus “to attempt to entrap through a process of inquiry, test … to entice to improper behavior, tempt” (BDAG).

What was he trying to accomplish with his question?  

The question

Here is the question (22:36):

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

First, note that this expert in the Law addresses Jesus as “teacher” (didaskalos) instead of “Rabbi,” a title of respect and validity.   

Second, what was the “test” intended by this question? What kind of answer were they looking for that would entrap and discredit Jesus? 

Some of the suggested answers to this question include an answer that would:

  • show his ignorance (Osborne, Matthew, 822),
  • “denigrate [belittle or speak badly of] certain statutes.” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:239),
  • nullify or cancel part of the Law (cf., 5:17-20).

So, how did Jesus answer?

The response

Jesus’ answer has three parts, shown by the following divisions (22:37-40):

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. This is the great and first commandment.

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Let’s look at each of these parts in more detail.

1.         Love in the vertical:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”

This is a restatement of the Shema (i.e., hear, listen, obey) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear [Shema], O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

The Lord Jesus gives this great command first place— it is preeminent, paramount, foremost.

This is not simply the love of any ‘god’ you might create, imagine, or prefer. This is love of “the LORD God.” “LORD” (all letters capitalized) is how the translators render the name YHWH. He is the One true God of Creation, history, Israel— everything— and He has revealed Himself as Jesus Christ.

This text should be understood in the context of at least Deuteronomy 6:4-19 if not 5:1-11:32. Among other things, that context manifests that the Law was not a way of earning God’s favor; it was the loving response of covenant loyalty to the Lord “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (5:6) 

This love is the response to One who has first loved us entirely and unconditionally. As we love him with all we are and have, we become more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Learn more about the significance of the Shema in “Do We Need a Commandment to Love God?” 

This is love in the vertical.

2.         Love in the horizontal:

The lawyer’s question does not limit Jesus as he adds, 

“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is the quotation of Leviticus 19:18b (and its context): 

… you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. 

If you are tempted to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” that question has already been answered by Jesus with the Parable of the Samaritan (see “A Pagan Shows Us How to Love”).

If we genuinely love God, then we will love our neighbor. If we genuinely love our neighbor, it is because we first genuinely love God. The first is prior, and the second is necessary. The two are inseparable.

This is love in the horizontal.

3.         The wholeness dimension:

Jesus then says,

“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

“Law and the Prophets” refers to the whole Old or Hebrew Testament.

The New Living Translation helpfully renders this verse as:

“The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

So, what does this mean for us?

What can we learn from this?

We began with a brief description of our modern culture, which has become fragmented, polarized, and angry on almost every possible issue.

My analysis is that the fragmentation, polarization, and anger in our modern culture result from what people desire most— what they choose to love above other things— their great and first commandment. First and foremost, they choose to love their political party and its agenda, their stand on sexuality, or their opinions on issues such as race, religion, environment, and so on.

What people choose to love guides their decisions and governs how they view the world. There are so many choices that one person’s ‘love’ will inevitably collide with other people’s ‘love.’ 

We need a reference point that is true, constant, and worthy of our love.

Here are four preliminary insights I am learning from Jesus’ response that equips followers of Jesus to faithfully navigate the fragmented, polarized, and angry waters of our modern culture— you may have more.

1.         Reorientation

What aim or reference point currently guides you as you navigate life? 

Maybe it is a political party and its agenda, a particular stand on an issue, or whatever. 

It might be something more individual, such as a commitment to earning a degree or progressing in a career path; maybe the yearning for more recognition or wealth; perhaps the desire to benefit your family. Whatever that reference point might be, it is your main desire, what you love more than anything else. It is the foremost consideration when you make choices.

Jesus identifies “the great and first commandment” (22:38). Keeping in mind God’s commands are the appropriate response to the God who has first loved us, we might refer to this as the “great and first love,” or commitment, yearning, desire. That means loving God first and foremost should be our “pole star” for navigating all of life

How we do that is an essential subject too large for this post. Let me recommend two ways to get you started. 

a. Begin by reading the Bible regularly in large sections. You may want to refer to “Make This Your New Year ReVolution!” As you listen, learn, and live what you read, keep this “great and first commandment” before you. The following points will help you apply this recommendation

b. A second recommendation is reading how others have discovered and are living what the “great and first commandment” means in practical terms. One title I recommend is You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith. (This affiliate link directs you to Amazon and provides a small commission at no extra cost to you). 

2.         Reflection

What does it mean to love the One True God with all that you are and have?

This love is rooted in God’s very nature, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). It is God’s nature that defines this love. It is loving on His terms, not ours

In this regard, there are two living theology series you might want to read:

a. “16 Qualities of Love,” which examines each of the qualities of agapē-love in 1 Corinthians 13.

b. “How to Love Like Jesus.”

3.         Recognize

Loving God with all that you are and have will impact the lives of others. 

Jesus continued with, 

“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

God’s love cannot be contained or limited. It insists and persists in expressing itself toward others.

How do you love yourself appropriately? By recognizing how God loves you.

How do you love your neighbor? By recognizing how God loves your neighbor.

It is axiomatic that if we genuinely love God, we will love our neighbor, who is ‘image of God.’ How we treat another who is ‘image of God’ is how we treat the God of the image.

Also, recognize that this is love that does not endorse sinful behavior

As an illustration, Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:2-12). But we do not take the love or ethics of Jesus seriously if we do not add what Jesus adds: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Love that expresses itself according to God’s nature, in God’s ways, continues loving, even in disagreement (See “How to Love Your Antagonist”).

4.         Recalibrate

Jesus concluded with (22:40 NLT),

“On these two commandments depend [or hang] all the Law and the Prophets.”

“The Law and the Prophets” refers to the entire Old or Hebrew Testament (OT). If we read the OT at all, I wonder if we read it the way Jesus does.

Jesus’ statement should cause us to recalibrate how we read and understand the OT. We have already encountered Jesus’ interpretation (or reinterpretation) of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (i.e., “but I say unto you …” in Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 35, 39, 44). 

The two extreme views regarding the Law (and the prophets) are:

a. to throw out the Law as irrelevant to the Christian life. 

b. to insist on observing the Law as if Jesus had never come.

Both these extremes must be avoided.

Instead, the Law and the Prophets hang or depend on loving God and loving our neighbor— exemplified in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s promise and fulfillment. This is a touchstone for understanding God’s intentions and actions throughout the OT.

There is no space here to go into how we recalibrate our reading and understanding of the OT, but I leave you with three examples to work on. Hopefully, another post can go into this vital issue in greater depth. For now, read and ponder these three examples:

a. How Jesus reinterprets the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, with particular reference to the “but I say to you” statements (5:17-48).

b. How Jesus views the Sabbath (12:1-14), as applied by Paul in Romans 14 (e.g., 14:5 “one day more sacred than another … every day alike.”). Sabbath is a Hebrew word meaning “rest,” so you will want to include Hebrews 3- 4 and what it instructs about “rest.”

c. How Jesus views marriage and divorce (Matthew 19:3-9), as applied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7

So much can be learned from this rich section. I invite your comments and questions. You can contact me by using this link.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO What do you do when you are mocked for what you believe?

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