“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts 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 yourselves. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV)
“Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” When the Pharisee asked this to Jesus, we must keep in mind, that he was not referring to just the ten commandments we find in Exodus chapter 20; but the 613 laws (according to the traditional count) found in the book of Moses. The Pharisees were known for paying very close attention to these laws, being careful to observe them; and they took pride in this. They see themselves as being righteous for their observance to the laws that Moses gave to their fathers. However, they ended up missing the main point of the commandments, that is: to love God. They “cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside [they] are full of greed and wickedness.” They only focused on the things of the outside but not those of the inside (or of the heart).
To this question, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and following that the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is on these two commandments that all the Law and the prophets depend. Do you ever wonder why love is very emphasized in the bible? A number of biblical answers can be given in response to this question, but here we are going to touch on just one and that is this: Love serves as the basis for all the commandments. And not just any love, but specifically the ones that have been said above, love towards God and love towards others. These two cannot be separated.
Jesus said, “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.” Why did Jesus say this? When the Pharisee asked Him this question, he might have expected another answer such as, “the greatest commandment is that of circumcision”, or the laws of the Sabbath which they often try to use to put Jesus at fault, or some other commandment. But no, Jesus gave the Pharisee an answer that was far from what he would have ever expected; the greatest commandment is the commandment of love. Now, when Jesus says this, He is not putting down the other commandments as being in a position that is lower than the commandment of love (as one may expect the answer to such a question to put down the remaining commandments). Love is the greatest commandment, not because it is exclusive of the other commandments; but it is great because it is inclusive of the other commandments. The law of love is pervasive throughout the whole laws of God. It is the spring from which comes actual and true obedience to the other commandments.
The law of love does not negate, or replace the other commandments. It is indeed the greatest commandment, but Jesus did not say that this was the only commandment. In John 14:15, Jesus said “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” If we love Him, we would keep all His commandments. Again we see here, that love serves as the foundation (or motivation) in obeying the commandments, there is a relationship between loving God and keeping His commandments. Love does not replace the other commandments; it ensures that all the other commandments are truly being done. Vern Poythress used an example of a mother and her child: what would the mother think if her child keeps saying that he/she loves her, but also constantly disobeys her commands, and even talks back against her? Do you love God? If you do, do you love and keep His commandments?
Love is a prerequisite to Actual Obedience or God-centred Obedience. John Calvin wrote this in His commentary on John 14:15: “[in this verse, God] declares that no other worship is pleasing to Him than what is voluntary; for no man will actually obey God but he who loves Him” (Calvin, n.d.). Just as a mother would not be pleased with the forced obedience (obedience that does not result from love) of her child, and neither would we; so God is not pleased with our obedience unless that obedience comes out of our love for Him (Actual Obedience). This is very true even in our personal life experience. Imagine looking at your child, doing what you ordered him to do, but he does it with a frown. You know that he is not actually obeying you, he is just forced to do something even though he does not like it; in other words his obedience is Insincere Obedience.
Another type of obedience that does not count as actual obedience is something that I’d like to call Self-centred Obedience: To obey because it is “beneficial for us.” For sure, we see many Christians out there who seem to be obeying the commandments of God just fine, they do not seem like people who are doing something they hate. In fact, they may really be loving what they do. However, their ease of obedience does not necessarily signal a genuine love for God.What do I mean by this? All of God’s commandments are good, this is for sure. But this does not mean that people cannot misuse them in order to seek personal gain. A very obvious example of this would be when a person is helping other people who are in need, with an aim of gaining fame and/or being praised by other people. It may seem like what he’s doing is obeying the commandment to love other people, but the fact is his true motivation is to gain fame. We can take another example of a Christian who goes to Church every Sunday and is involved in numerous ministries that it seems to other people as if he really loves God, when in actuality he is just doing it so that people may like him and so he would have many friends. In its core, we see that it is actually a self-centred decision. We must examine ourselves, for these self-centred motivations often hide themselves behind layers of supposedly “good motivations.”
Now, underlying both of these “obediences” is the same condition of the heart; that is, a heart that does not love God. To put it in another way, a heart that loves the self. Let us look at this in slightly more detail:
1) Why is the obedience Insincere? Because to the person, to obey God would not bring any benefit to the self and therefore he does not want to obey. However, due to some circumstances, he has no choice but to obey, though insincerely.
2) Why is the obedience Self-centred? Because, even if it is easy for the person to obey, it is only easy because given his circumstances, it would benefit him to obey.
We see that whether a person is obeying God’s commandments Insincerely or Self-centredly, the cause is the same and that is love of self. On the outside they seem to be doing the commandments of God, but on the inside none of those are done for God. God desires sincere obedience out of love for Him, and not anything less.
For this reason Jesus added; that on these two commandments all the Law and the Prophets depend. Without biblical love, all the commandments done will either be like the works of forced labor, doing work just for the sake of doing it, or a self-centered labor, merely aimed at obtaining benefits.
The Apostle Paul also wrote of a similar matter in his epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV). Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels… And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and If I have all faith… If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned… but have no love, I gain nothing.” Let us examine what the apostle is saying here. In these verses, Paul listed a number of things that are not in themselves bad; it is not wrong to have knowledge, and it is definitely not immoral to lay down your life for another. But what does Paul say? He says that if he has all those things “but [has] no love,” he gains nothing. The person is a fool who thinks that true gain is achieved merely by outwardly doing things that appears consistent with the word of God. For “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7, ESV) Those who seem to do good outwardly, but do not actually accomplish them for God nor for others will gain nothing as the apostle stated in verse 3.
What is the apostle Paul actually trying to say here? For surely, a man that excels at his talent is bound to get something from other people; whether it be gifts, praise, or recognition. But Paul is here not talking about worldly gains but rather of heavenly ones. For what are the value of worldly gains compared to the heavenly? The bible says: “for the world is passing away… but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17, ESV).” A person may gain all the things in the world but as Jesus has said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:26, ESV)” A person is nothing in the presence of God, he does not gain the truly valuable things from God, even if that person commits martyrdom, if that person is destitute of love unto Him.
But what is it that we gain when we do them out of love? For if Paul wrote, that all those things, if done without love, will gain us nothing; then it must mean that we gain something when we do these out of love. When we use our gifts for the service of God and for others, when we lay down our lives for others; what is it do we gain? If it’s not fame, money, nor applause; then what? Well, we can say that we are shaped to be more patient, to be more selfless, to depend more on God. We can make a list of these benefits. But one gain that I would like to point out more than the others here is this: we are being conformed more and more to Christ’s likeness. Christ was obedient to the commandments of God, yes; but His obedience was not selfish for it was actual obedience based on His love for God and others. The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, wrote that to imitate Christ is to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, ESV). When we obey God’s commandment, and obey it sincerely out of love; we are being conformed to Christ. Conformity to Christ, should be, to the Christian, the greatest blessing he/she could ever be given.
The Example Set in Christ
To the Pharisee, Jesus gave the answer that the greatest commandment is the commandment of love. But Christ did not just give an answer that was only theologically correct but it was also consistent with the way He lived, as many people today fail to follow. He truly loves the Father, and He truly loves His people. For example, in John 14:31 (ESV), we see that Christ obeyed the Father’s commandments to show His love for the Father. Not only that, in John 13:34 (ESV), Jesus says to His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Jesus did not live a life of mere loveless obedience, but all His ministry on earth was done with love. Evenmore, it is on His cross that we see the greatest love, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8, ESV). Christ laid down His life for us while we were still His enemies. In the life of Christ, the truth found in Matthew 22:36-40 was manifested, and therefore it is His life that gives us an example of how to live in true obedience.
Jesus says that the greatest commandment is the commandment of love. Yet at the same time, nobody can say that His love has resulted in Him neglecting the other commandments, for His life was a life of obedience, even to the point of death on a cross: and every bit of His obedience is founded on that love. Love doesn’t exclude obedience to the other commandments, but instead it enables true obedience to all the commandments. Without this, it is impossible to please God. Again, God desires sincere obedience out of love for Him, and not anything less. Love serves as the basis of true and actual obedience to God. (CDS)
Calvin, J. (n.d.). Commentary on the Gospel According to John. (W.Pringle, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.i.html