I hope you are beginning to see the thread running throughout Scripture and the pointers to Jesus and the things he emphasized. Now let’s study the context for the Great Commandment and the Great Commission a bit because I think there is a lot we can learn by doing so.
Take for example, Mark 12:28-31.
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.'”
If someone asks Jesus, of all the commandments, which one is the most important, meaning, first in priority, and then Jesus actually gives an answer, then I think we better pay attention. Jesus does give an answer. Many things in Scripture are debatable. Is the 1,000 year reign of Christ a literal 1,000 years or a symbolic 1,000 years? It’s debatable because Jesus did not say explicitly, I am talking about a literal or a symbolic 1,000 year kingdom. The Bible, at times, is unclear about matters of secondary importance. But the Bible is crystal clear when it comes to matters of utmost importance. If you ever wondered, what is the most important thing to keep at the forefront of your mind as a believer, here’s your answer: the Great Commandment.
Now let’s look at Matthew 22:34-40. This one is slightly different.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus gives the same answer–love God and love your neighbor–and this answer comes out in a discussion with a Pharisee, specifically an expert in the law.
How about Luke’s version. Let’s read Luke 10:25-27.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 …Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
This expert in the law doesn’t ask, which is the most important commandment? Instead, he asks, what must I do to inherit eternal life? This time, Jesus turns the table and doesn’t answer the question, but says, what is written in the law, how do you read it? After all, that’s your area of expertise, isn’t it? Because your title is “expert in the law.”
And it comes at no surprise that this expert in the law knows the correct answer–love God and love your neighbor.
Do you notice a trend? In the very passages where Jesus gives the Great Commandment, every gospel writer highlights the occupation of the person to whom Jesus is speaking. In Mark 12, it’s one of the teachers of the law. Like a modern-day religious studies professor. In Matt 22, it’s one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law. In Luke 10, again, it’s an expert in the law.
Isn’t it ironic that experts in the law, teachers of the law, people who knew the OT law backwards and forwards and who memorized the Ten Commandments from a young age missed the whole point of Scripture?
37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus interprets the entire OT law for us in the Great Commandment. It has been and always will be about love.
Now, we have finally gotten to our passage.
Read Luke 10:25-37.
I never noticed that the passage that contains the Great Commandment is part of the context of the Good Samaritan story. The expert in the law, a highly religious person, or in our context, a churchgoer, asks Jesus a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus turns the table and asks the expert, what does the law say? And the expert gets the answer right. And Jesus replies in v28, do this and you will live.
At that point, I imagine Jesus turning to walk away, but the expert reaches out to tap Jesus on the shoulders. Something about that answer didn’t sit well with the expert in the law. v29 – But he wanted to JUSTIFY himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer to that question is to cite a story where a man is half dead and bleeding on the side of the road and a priest sees him and then a Levite sees him and both religious people pass him by. But a Samaritan, a half-breed, half Jew, half Gentile, the most unexpected person among the three demonstrates love. He sees the man, he has pity, he inconveniences himself, he gets his hands dirty, he pays an innkeeper out of his own pockets.
Then Jesus asks the expert in the law the piercing question in v36 – 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Let’s pull the pieces together. Jesus has a discussion with a highly religious man, an expert in the law. And this man knows the law. He answers his own question about how to inherit eternal life. You inherit eternal life by living out the Great Commandment. Love God, love neighbor.
And Jesus leaves him with that. You know the answer. The Great Commandment, do this and you will live.
But the religious person is unsettled. Because he wanted to justify himself. Let me narrowly and precisely define who my neighbor is so that I can obey it and check it off. The Great Commandment is too abstract. Give me a rule. Tell me how many times I have to fast or pray in the temple or how much money to give to the poor. Give me a rule that I can obey so that after obeying it, I feel justified. That’s why he asks the question, who is my neighbor? That’s the voice of religion. Religion seeks to create a world where I am still in control. As long as I am good at following rules and I go to church and I tithe, then I will inherit eternal life.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t give a clear answer as in a rule to follow. Rather, he gives a parable of 2 religious men who failed to see this half-dead man on the side of the road as his neighbor and 1 man who loved his neighbor by caring for his physical needs.
This underscores an important principle about spiritual life. Love cannot be quantified into a rule. The best you can do is to give a sermon illustration and tell the listeners, do you see the heartlessness of the 2 men in contrast to the heart of the Good Samaritan toward this half dead man? Go and do likewise. Live a life of love, not religion.
Religion is safe and controlled and rule-based and for many it is an obstacle for genuine salvation. Love, on the other hand, is messy, it’s hard to quantify, but if you see it being lived out, you can recognize it. And if you are living a life of love, you are not out to justify yourself in terms of checking off rules. However, you can have assurance of salvation because the chief fruit of the Spirit is love.
Even in the Great Commission, God doesn’t say he will be with you when you pray and when you study Scripture and focus on loving Him, although I am sure He is with us in those moments many times. It’s interesting that the promise of Matt 28:20–surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age–is given in the context of going and making disciples.
Next time, we will unpack more the definition of neighbor and the nature of love toward our neighbors.
Look back on 2011. Was it filled with religious activities or was it filled with love? Let’s commit to love in 2012, knowing that a life of love is going to be messy.