11. Out with the old and in with the new, 21:1-23:39

viii] The great commandment


Matthew now records the third of three questions put to Jesus by the religious authorities while he was teaching in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion. The question, and Jesus' answer, concerns the great / greatest commandment in the law. The Rabbis held that there were 365 prohibitions in the law and some 248 positive commands. So, it was understandable that there would be debates over their relative importance and as to whether it was possible to find a catch-all to gather them all together. Again Matthew tells us that the question put by the "expert in the law" has hostile intent - it served to test Jesus. Although Jesus' answer is not original it does perfectly answer the question by linking Deut.6:5 and Lev.19:18 - the faith statement of the Shema, the command to love God, and the command to love neighbor, "the greatest principle of the law", Akiba. In Mark, the "teacher of the law" is impressed with Jesus' answer, but in Matthew, by being under a curse, his response is not recorded.


The first and great command is the commandment to love God. There is another like it, it is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.


i] Context: See 22:15-22.


ii] Structure: This passage, The great commandment, presents as follows:

Setting, v34:

"the Pharisees gang up."

The Pharisees' tricky question, v35-36;

"which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"

Jesus' answer, v37-40:

The first and second commandments, v37-39;

Summary argument, v40.


iii] Interpretation:

Matthew's use of the word peirazw, "to test", and his removal of the seemingly positive element in this pericope (see Synoptics below), indicates his desire that we read this passage in the wider context. This nomikoV, "person trained in God's law", has hostile intent toward Jesus and so he also stands under the curse which now covers religious Israel. The great day of the Lord / the coming of the Son of Man will soon sweep away those who were once the apple in God's eye.


Jesus and his handling of the Law. Luz nicely identifies some of the main questions raised and provides a selection of proposed answers, see p77-81. Some of the issues are as follows:

• How are we to understand "loving God"? The answers are many, but it's hard to go past John's answer; "this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son", 1John 3:23.

• Who is "the neighbor"? For a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, everyone is our neighbor, which only serves to underline the fact that such love is impossible. In practical terms love is prioritized, first to one's family and family of faith (family love and brotherly loves is often prioritized) and then to all, cf. 1Pet.2:17.

• What does love of one's neighbor mean? Compassion expressing itself in practical care seems to be the intended sense.

• What does it mean to love one's neighbor "as yourself"? The answer lies somewhere between (or in tension between) self-denial and self-satisfaction / egocentric selfishness. Luz quotes Bengel who defines self-love as "a love of self which is a participation in Christ's own love for us."

• How is love of God and love of neighbor related? The two are certainly integrally linked, cf. 1Jn.4:20; note the repetition of the two together. It is also certainly clear that the two are not the same. Note the error of liberal theology which virtually makes the ethic of caring for broken humanity the same as loving God. "By bringing these two texts together (Deut.6:5 and Lev.19:18) Jesus asserts that the one principle of love applies equally to the two main aspects of religious duty, one's attitude to God and one's attitude to other people", France.

• Are both commandments equally important (so Luz), or is the first greater / primary (so Morris, Carson)? Love toward another human being is altruism without God, thus love of God takes priority; "Love in the truest sense demands abandonment of self to God and God alone is the adequate incentive for such abandonment", Carson.

• In what sense does the Law and the Prophets "hang" on these two commandments? "Love is the thrust of them all and it is only as we love that we fulfill them", Morris.

• Does the law of love dispense with / replace the Torah? This is certainly argued by some, but at no point does Jesus abrogate the law; he actually reinforces it. The Torah outlines the practical details of love. God calls for a heart relationship with him thus establishing "the priority of love within the law", Carson.

• Are these two commandments laws to be done or ideals to be aimed at? In a sense, both intentions are present in the commands. On the one hand, these two commands summarize God's perfect law, demanding a righteousness beyond our doing. As such, they remind us that covenant compliance / right-standing in the sight of God is neither gained nor maintained by law obedience. We are forced to align ourselves with Abraham and rely in faith on God's mercy now realized in Christ. On the other hand, Jesus' summary of the law gives direction to the outworking of faith by setting before us two central ideals to aim at.


iv] Synoptics:

Mark's record of both the question and answer is more detailed, cf. Mk.12:28-34. Mark implies that the question is genuine and ends on what looks like a positive note, "you are not far from the kingdom of God." It is anything but positive, but Matthew makes sure that the negative stands out by not recording the tradition found in Mark 12:32-34. Matthew implies that the question is another attempt to catch Jesus out, to "test / tempt" him. If there were originally a trap it would relate to the grading of the law, ie. discerning the relative weight of the 613 laws found in the book of Moses. Arguing for a relative weight, or even an equal weight, will leave Jesus open to attack, particularly as he is viewed as someone who has come to "abolish" the law. Jesus does indeed grade the law by giving two pivotal laws (all laws "hang" from these two), first, love of God, and second, love of neighbor. Luke's version is similar and is used in the introduction to the parable of the Good Samaritan, cf. Lk.10:25-28. In Luke, the great commandment is quoted by the "expert in the law", rather than by Jesus.


v] Exposition: A simple exposition of this passage may be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.

Text - 22:34

The great commandment, v34-40: i] Give that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees decide to have another go at tripping Jesus up, v34.

akousanteV (akouw) aor. part. "hearing" - having heard. The participle is adverbial, best treated as temporal, expressing time; "when Jesus heard ..."

oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement of perception expressing what they heard.

efimwsen (fimow) aor. "had silenced" - he muzzled, put to silence. The Sadducees were muzzled in the sense that they didn't know how to answer Jesus. "After Jesus had made the Sadducees look foolish", CEV.

sunhcqhsan (sunagw) aor. pas. "[the Pharisees] got together" - they gathered together, assembled.

epi + acc. "-" - to [the this]. Spacial; "in [the same place]", Zerwick. They "mustered their forces", Moffatt.


ii] The Pharisees put a theological question to Jesus regarding the grading of God's laws - which is the great commandment of the law? v34-36. Matthew tells us that an "expert in the law" (a scribe, or teacher of the law and member of the Pharisee party) sets out to trip Jesus up with a question that was obviously hotly debated in their own circles. Could they show Jesus up? Rabbi Hillel (AD20), when challenged by a Gentile to summarize the law in the time he could stand on one leg, said "what is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." In fact, some experts of the law at the time were not sure that it was right to grade the law. Some even argued that all the commandments were of equal value. So, as a debating ploy, this can be a tricky question.

ex + gen. "[one] of [them]" - [one] from [them]. Here serving to express a partitive genitive; "[one] of them". An example of the development of 1st. century Gk.

nomikoV (oV) "an expert in the law" - a scribe who is learned in the law of Moses, lawyer. Standing in apposition to the nominative ei|V, "one". The word is missing in some manuscripts. "An expounder of the Law", Weymouth.

peirazwn (peirazw) pres. part. "tested" - testing, trying, tripping up, tempting. The participle is adverbial, modifying ephrwthsen, "asked", best taken as modal, expressing manner; "a lawyer, by way of testing him, asked", Berkeley. Probably with the sense of "entrap", "tried to catch him out with this question", REB.


didaskale (oV) voc. "teacher" - rabbi. A general respectful address.

poia pro. "which" - Interrogative pronoun. Sometimes quantitative, "how much?", qualitative, "what sort of commandment is great?", Wallace. Often in direct questions taking the same sense as tiV, here with a noun, so "which, what" = "which commandment ....?"

megalh "greatest" - great. A positive sense is possible, "what is the great commandment?", although usually treated as a superlative, given that Semitic languages had no degrees of comparison for adjectives. Mark has "first in importance", which means the same. Jesus is probably being baited into a discussion over the relative importance of the 613 biblical laws, and this for the purpose of catching him out and damaging his credibility. "Master, which commandment of those contained in the law is the greatest", Cassirer.


iii] Jesus gives a definitive answer, v37-40. a) Jesus divides the law into the first and second commandments, v37-39. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, describing it as the "first and greatest", meaning primary - in order of importance it is first. A person is to love God with their whole being. "Heart... soul.... mind" are not exclusive parts of the human nature. Every faculty and capacity is to love God. For the second commandment, the next in order, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18. This command also calls for love, but this time toward the "neighbor". In Leviticus, the neighbor is a fellow Israelite, or a resident alien. Jesus clearly extends the demand of love in the parable of the Good Samaritan in such a way as to make love an ideal of perfection which transcends race or creed.

Regarding v36, Matthew doesn't follow Deuteronomy exactly in the three elements, and neither does Mark in 12:28-31 who adds a fourth element. "The challenge is to a comprehensive engagement with God with the total capacity of all one's faculties", Nolland.

autw/ pro. "[Jesus replied]" - [and he said] to them. Dative of indirect object.

agaphseiV (agapaw) fut. "love" - you shall love. A future indicative used as a command (imperatival future) - common in quotes from the Old Testament.

en + dat. "with [all]" - in [all]. Here instrumental, expressing means, as NIV. Both Mark and Luke follow the LXX and use ex "out of", although Luke uses en in the repeated phrases. The threefold statement means "love God wholeheartedly." Ref. Deut.6:5. "Love the Lord your God with all your passion, prayer and intelligence", Peterson.

th/ kardia/ (a) dat. "heart" - "the innermost personal center of one's being", Nolland.

th/ yuch/ (h) dat. "soul" - soul, life, being. "The life force that energizes us", Nolland.

dianoia/ (a) dat. "mind" - The rational and thinking process.


hJ megalh pos. adj. "greatest" - great. Again the positive is probably being used for an intended superlative, cf. v36.

prwth adj. "first" - former, paramount. Priority is being given to the command to love God; "first in importance."


deutera adj. "the second" - The adjective serves as a substantive. The sense is "second in importance."

auth/ dat. pro. "[is like] it" - A dative of the thing compared; "resembles it", JB.

ton plhsion adv. "neighbor" - near, neighboring. As a substantive, as here, "one who is part of a particular group." For a Jew, one's neighbor is their fellow Jew. Apart from the parable of the Good Samaritan, does Jesus actually widen his understanding of the group to the whole human race, or does he stay with the popular understanding of love as a quality of care directed toward one's brother, cf. 1Jn.4:20?

wJV "as [yourself]" - Comparative; "as much as you love yourself", TH.


b) Jesus sums up his answer by pointing out that these two laws are pivotal such that all laws "hang" from them, v40. In what sense does the Law and the Prophets "hang" on these two commandments? All the commandments found in the scriptures, both small and great, hang from the command to love, of which love of God is the foremost. So, the two great commandments serve as a summary of our duty toward God and neighbor. All other commands derive from these two commands.

oJloV oJ nomoV .... oiJ profhtai "all the law and the prophets" - In the sense of all the divine ethical instructions found in the books of the law and the prophets rest on / hang on these two commands; "all the laws of Moses and the teachings of the prophets", TEV.

krematai (kremannumi) pres. pas. "hang" - hangs. "They are the basic norms, in the performance of which, all others are performed, they are the essence of the law", Barth. "Depends", Barclay; "based on", CEV.

en "on [these two commandments]" - Local, expressing space / sphere, as NIV.


Matthew Introduction



[Pumpkin Cottage]