To understand Matthew 22:37–39, we need to understand the setting in which Jesus responds. Throughout His ministry, Jesus faced questions from religious leaders meant to entrap Him or damage His reputation. They would often try to tie Him up in a difficult subject or statement to prove He was unworthy.
This portion of Matthew’s gospel is no different. Jesus has just silenced the Sadducees, and the Pharisees put a lawyer from their group up to test Him with a question meant to spin off a multitude of concerns (Matt. 22:34–35). While the use of teacher is one of endearment, Matthew signifies this lawyer’s intentions when he records that the lawyer asked the question to test Jesus.
The question, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36), is meant to get Jesus to stumble into a trap. If Jesus picks only one, that would imply that the other laws were not as great. At the very least, this would surely stir up controversy around Jesus and get His followers to look at Him in a negative light.
As a reader, when you come to these places in Scripture, it is so important to examine the context. The context paints a picture of what it must have been like as the religious leaders posed this question and waited for the response they believed would finally take this thorn in their flesh down.
But Jesus never responds the way they expect or hope. He’s already left the Sadducees in silence, and now, His response has been cited as one of the high points of Scripture for generations. Jesus alludes back to Deuteronomy and Leviticus when He responds to the lawyer. Here we have a clear, simple, and direct response to the difficult question. Jesus’ response, while simple, is far weightier than merely following a law to the letter.
His response was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. On the surface, this doesn’t appear too difficult. But in practice, this is the encompassing of so much more.
Our whole self is to be wholly devoted to Jesus. Our love for God has the highest place rather than attempting to check off boxes of following laws. In William Barclay’s commentary on Galatians, he writes regarding the law and love, “And so religion becomes a matter, not of satisfying the claims of the law, but trying to meet the obligations of love.”1 Jesus’ response demonstrates the religious leaders have missed the purpose of the laws and are missing the purpose of Jesus’ testimony here.
Jesus follows up the first commandment with a second that is like it. It is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, this command seems simplistic but has been a driver of Christian service for generations. Loving God with all we have spills over into how we see other people. It is not a personal decision void of implications for how we treat others but drives us to care and love all people.
Both of these commandments are simple and clear. The difficulty comes as we are people who appreciate being able to quantify or check off boxes of completion. There is not a clear checklist of completion with either of these commands. As William Barclay described, we are focused on fulfilling the obligations of love rather than the requirements of the law. Our neighbors next door and the neighbors across our landscape are to be loved and showed the gospel.
This is the heart of the gospel message for believers. Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we extend the same grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love to those around us. Jesus’ love over us should change every facet of our lives and lifestyles.
As Christians, if we are to live according to Scripture, Jesus holds this commandment as the foundation by which we build. If we do not first give ourselves entirely to Jesus (heart, soul, and mind), our structure will be off. Everything hangs on getting this right. We allow Jesus’ grace to affect us to the deepest parts of our hearts, souls, and minds.
1. William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), 10.
Mark Bethea is an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He enjoys hanging out with his wife of 10 years and son Micah (3) and daughter Helen Ann (1). You can follow Mark at marklbethea.com or on Instagram @marklbethea.