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The Primacy of Love

October 29, 2023 |The Primacy of Love|Matthew 22:34-40

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

Some of you know that my background, vocationally, is in mechanical drafting. I made technical assembly and manufacturing drawings for various products as well as instruction manuals and procedures. Super fun stuff!

When writing procedures or making technical drawings, there were ways to highlight the most important portions. Symbols, notes, etc… that let the person who was manufacturing the product know what particular areas to pay attention to as they fulfilled their jobs.

When a question came up about something on the drawing, who do you think they consulted?

Sometimes, they would consult a more experienced technician, right, maybe they had seen something similar, maybe they understood the technical language better, maybe they could help discern the answer. But that doesn’t always work does it? Where should they go next? Maybe they come to the drafter, the one who produced the prints. I certainly knew more about the design than they did, but if I couldn’t answer it, who would I send them to? The one who created the design in the first place. To the engineer, the one who had designed the product that I had created drawings for, that they were trying to follow.

The creator is always the best person to answer questions related to the creation.

In the same way, whether he knew it or not, the lawyer who brings this question to Jesus has finally reached the one who can answer it most definitely, because he is the one who wrote it.

His question is found in verse 36 of Matthew chapter 22.

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

We find out about this man and the reason for his question in the previous verses.

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

I will remind you of the immediate context, where we have been the last four weeks. Jesus is teaching in the temple during his last week of ministry before the cross. He has been challenged about his authority, to which he gave three parables, then the religious leaders begin questioning him in order to trap him in his words. The first question had to do with taxes, the second with the afterlife, and this third question about the law.

The Pharisees had sent their disciples and some Herodians to ask the first question, upon their failure, the Sadducees questioned him, and upon hearing about their failure, the Pharisees decided it was their turn. One among them, a lawyer, decides to test Jesus.

Having seen the reason for the question, who was asking the question, and what the question was, this morning, I would like to spend our time looking at Jesus’ answer.

How would the Son of God answer this question concerning His law?

We find it beginning in verse 37 of chapter 22.

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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus essentially says, love is primary in all of the law, and in doing so, he gives us three reasons why, which we will look at this morning.

Love is primary because…

Love is the great commandment.

This language comes directly from Jesus’ answer. This is the great commandment, which in turn comes from the question itself, which is the great commandment in the Law?

It is fair to ask then, what is the lawyer asking here?

He limits the scope of his question to the law, which can refer to a few different things.

It can refer to the 10 commandments that God gave his people after bringing them out of Egypt. It can refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, where they are found. It can also refer to the totality of the Jewish law containing, traditionally, 613 laws found in the Old Testament.

I believe this is the context he is asking in, and this is why.

This was a debated question among Jewish rabbis during Jesus’ day.

Additionally, it is a question that comes up repeatedly in the Gospel accounts. When Jesus is asked which commandments to keep, he lists some from the ten commandments and one from Leviticus indicating that he did not limit the law to only the ten commandments.

If this is our understanding, then the lawyer is asking Jesus to choose which is the great commandment out of the 613 commandments given in scriptures.

No small question, and no small answer.

If Jesus answered in the way the lawyer asked, the Pharisees were ready to debate him, indeed, if he picked one, there were 612 other commandments that had come from God that they could point to as equally important. This is a subjective question expecting a subjective, debatable answer.

So we see the snare they have set before him, but what about the question?

What is the word ‘great’ getting at?

The most important to keep or the hardest to keep? Yes.

The idea behind the word ‘great’ here is the idea of weight.

The idea is which commandment carries the most weight in the sense of which one is the most important and which one is the hardest to keep.

Imagine the scene, Jesus surrounded by followers and enemies, in the temple, the Pharisees have come up to him and under the guise of genuine interest, ask this purported Rabbi, which commandment do you think is the most weightiest? Jesus doesn’t refuse the question as he has done previously, he doesn’t ask them a question in return, as he has done previously, he answers it seemingly at once and without hesitation. "Which commandment is the weightiest, you say? Easy, all of them."

I mean, essentially that’s what he does. He pulls one command from Deuteronomy 6:5, where Moses climatically sums up everything he has related to them so far when they are preparing to go into the Promised Land, and he pulls one command from Leviticus 19:18, a book where God describes in greater detail what he desires from his covenant people.

Then he says all of the Old Testament, not just the first five books, but everything the prophets called the people back to, everything God communicated, through Moses and through the Prophets, hangs on these two.

When we compare these two what is at the root of each of them?

Love. Love for God and love for your neighbor.

(Which by the way, just parenthetically, is not a summary of the gospel. It is popular for churches to have signs, mission statements, etc… that say Love God. Love Others.

You realize that is not a summary of the gospel, it is a summary of the law. Right?)

So Jesus, asked to identify the weightiest commandment, gives two, but then says, if you want to get down to it, the root of all of it is love.

Love for God and love for our neighbor is the weightiest, most important and most difficult commandment. If we could truly fulfill these two commandments, to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves, we would fulfill the rest of the commandments.

This, by the way, is picked up again and again by Jesus’ disciples in the New Testament.

Galatians 5:14 (ESV) 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

1 John 4:21 (ESV) 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Romans 13:8-10 (ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Jesus says Love is primary because love is the great commandment expressed both in love for God and love for our neighbor. John says it there in 1 John 4, whoever loves God must also love his brother. They are inseparable from one another. If you love God, you will love your brother but, you cannot truly love your brother unless you love God because love is from God.

The first reason Jesus gives that love is primary is that love is the great commandment, the second is…

Love is the first commandment.

Jesus doesn’t just answer which is the greatest, but goes further and adds it is also the first commandment.

I don’t think Jesus is merely talking sequentially when he says this is the first commandment and there is a second one like it. The language he uses when he says, and a second is like it, is the same word used by him to describe something that corresponds to another. For instance, the words we heard again and again when we were looking at Jesus’ parables are ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’, Jesus was saying that the parable illustrated the kingdom in some way, it was like it, similar to it.

I actually think Jesus is saying that these two commandments are equally great which would make them equally first. There are a couple of reasons I think that.

Neither came first in context of the giving of the law. The first commandment given was that they should have no other gods before, or alongside God.

Neither does one logically come first, because they are so intertwined with each other, as we have seen.

Some translations use the word foremost in place of first.

I believe Jesus is adding to the question asked, they are not just the weightiest, most important and most difficult, but they are principal to keeping the law.

John Calvin said it this way,

Jesus chose “love” for a reason: “He means by this that only the free service of our wills is acceptable to Him. Ultimately the man who comes to obey God will love Him first. . . . God will not have the forced obedience of men, but wishes their service to be free and spontaneous.”

Jesus could have said our first duty is to “serve the Lord” or to “obey the Lord” or to “fear the Lord” or to “bow to the Lord.”

In God’s law, you cannot obey it without love.

Doesn’t this sound a lot like what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians?

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV) 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:13 (ESV) 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Love is first, because without love, you will not even want to fulfill the other commandments, not in any meaningful way. You may keep the letter of the law, but you would fail to uphold the spirit of the law, which is exactly where these Pharisees and religious leaders were failing.

Jesus puts love at the place of prominence within the law when he adds that it is not only the great commandment but the first one.

Jesus elevates love to a place of primacy in the law when he calls it both great and first.

We can never rightly obey God unless we begin with loving him.

In the same way, we can never serve our neighbor well unless we begin with loving them.

What is the great commandment? Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the great and first commandment. Love is primary because it is not only the weightiest and most difficult, it is central to our very obedience and understanding of the law.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he goes one step further in his answering of this question. The third reason Jesus gives that love is primary is that…

Love is the foundational commandment.

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

A more literal translation of the word ‘depend’ is hangs.

If we state it in reverse, we get ‘All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two precepts, absolute love for God and self-sacrificial love for our neighbor’.

Can we just stop and appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus says here?

Every commandment we can find in the Old Testament, in some sense depends on these two commandments. Indeed, one may be inclined to go further and say that everything in the Old Testament, in some sense, depends on these two commandments.

Jesus, in his authority as the Son of God, tells us something here that reveals the magnitude of these twin commandments.

John Piper says it this way, The Law and the Prophets are hanging on―depending on―something before them, namely, God's passion that this world, this history of humankind, be a world of love to God and radical, other-oriented love to each other.

John Piper goes on to paint a picture for us that helps illustrate the reality of what Jesus says here.

(John Piper's Sermons (over 1200 sermons)) Let's picture the inspired history of redemption from creation to consummation as a scroll like the one John saw in Revelation 5. This is the Law and the Prophets (and the New Testament). The story of God's acts and purposes in history are told in this scroll, along with God's commandments and promises…(John Piper's Sermons (over 1200 sermons)) Jesus gives us an incredible perspective. He lifts us out of history and out of the world for a moment and shows us the scroll from a distance. Now we can see it whole―the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament, the story of redemption, the purposes and acts of God in history. And what we see is that the scroll is hanging by two golden chains, one fastened to each end of the scroll handles. And Jesus lifts our eyes to heaven, and we see the chains run up and disappear into heaven.

Then he takes us up to heaven. And he shows us the ends of the chains. They are fastened to the throne of God. One chain is fastened to the right arm of the throne where the words are inscribed: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind." And the other chain is fastened to the left arm of the throne where the words are inscribed, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

And Jesus turns to us and says, "The whole scroll, the whole Law and the Prophets, the whole history of redemption and all my Father's plans and acts hang on these two great sovereign purposes of God―that he be loved by his people, and that his people love each other.

Now there is enough in just these two commandments on love to spend an entire sermon series, but for now, let us remain at the surface for our purposes this morning.

If Jesus says here that all of the commandments hang on this issue of love, love for God and love for our neighbor, doesn’t it logically follow that sin, the violation of the commandments of God, in all of its various forms and expressions, boils down to a violation of one of these two loves?

They wanted to know the great commandment, but Jesus dug deeper into the heart behind all the commandments.

But, let’s press further. If sin is a violation of God’s commandments, and every commandment depends on this commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself, then every sin is a violation of both the great and the first commandment to love.

That is to say, that love is the foundational commandment.

In this way, we get a way to evaluate ourselves in light of what God commands.

In every action we ask, in this did I love God with all my heart, mind, and soul?

In every action towards another we ask, did this express radical love for my neighbor, did I love them the way that I love myself?

In one way, it is much easier than remembering 613 commandments, right? But in another, it shows us that we have failed miserably at any attempt to live according to God’s standards.

We have failed to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. We stand utterly condemned under the law of love.

I noted last week that these are the last three questions Jesus is asked, and I think It is appropriate that this is the very last question asked by the religious system before he is crucified because in his answer, Jesus definitely shows how inept they were at keeping the law. Indeed with this answer he exposes anyone who would try to keep the law in order to be right with God.

Here is where I want to land this morning. I said before that Love God. Love Others is a summary of the law and not the gospel, which is true.

But it does involve the gospel.

Jesus came and showed us what it looked like to perfectly obey the law. Throughout his life he displayed perfect love for God and perfect love towards man. He did what we could not do. He fulfilled the law to Love God and Love others.

But if that was all he did, that would not be very good news. We would simply be more aware of our inadequacies.

The Bible says that even though he lived a sinless life, perfectly obedient to the Father, he willingly went to the cross to pay the price for our sin, showing his perfect love on display for his people.

That he paid the price so that we could be set free from the law and come under grace. We have been freed from the demands of the law, and yet, the question remains, what does God desire of us?

For those under the law as these Pharisees or those freed from it, the question remains, ‘what does God desire of us?’ Paul tells us we are not under law, but under grace, but then goes on to tell us that our freedom is not lawlessness, but rather we can now live out the principles in the law because we are enslaved not to sin or the law but to righteousness.

He goes on to say that Christ having fulfilled the law where we could not, we have been freed to walk in the Spirit as adopted sons and daughters of God.

Having been born again, we can now live out the principle of the law found in the commands to love God and to radically love others. This is where we find ourselves as New Testament believers.

Not under the law but still directed by it.

God still desires for his people to love him with all their heart, all their soul, and all their mind, that is their whole being and God still desires for his people to love each other radically and selflessly.

Indeed, the apostle John says it is only possible because we have experienced the awesome love of God.

1 John 4:19 (ESV) We love because he first loved us.

Where do we go from here?

That depends a great deal on where you are now. If you are like the Pharisees and trying to be good enough to be right with God, then I pray that you will see that Jesus says that it is impossible because we know we have failed in the primary commandment to perfectly love God and one another.

I would tell you to turn to the perfect love of God that was demonstrated in sending his one and only son to not only fulfill what we could not but to love us by dying on a cross for our sins.

If you have come to the end of yourself and have experienced the overwhelming love of God in salvation, then I pray that you will see that although we are not under the law, we are called to become more and more like Jesus which means becoming more loving of God and towards our neighbors. The Christian life is still about the primacy of love, more than anything else.

Where in your life are you failing to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind?

Where in your life are you failing to love your neighbor as yourself?

These are the areas I pray that you would allow God to convict, convince, and empower you to live in light of his amazing love.

Let us pray.

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