But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 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. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
The Incredible Context of This Commandment
My main concern in this text is the commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But it is surrounded by such stupendous statements we would be foolhardy to plunge into it without pondering these surroundings. So it is going to take us two weeks at least to deal with this text.
The Great and Foremost Commandment
The two stupendous things I have in mind are, first, the greatest commandment in the Word of God. In verse 36 a Pharisee asks Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5,
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
Then he adds his own words to put the commandment even higher than the question required. The question was, “Which is the great commandment?” and Jesus says, “This is the great and foremost commandment.”
So the first stupendous thing surrounding the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself is the commandment to love God as the greatest and foremost thing that is in the entire Word of God. The greatest and most important thing you can do is love God—love GOD—with all your heart and soul and mind.
On These Two Depend the Whole Law and the Prophets
The other stupendous thing surrounding the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself is what follows in verse 40,
On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.
Everything else in the Old Testament in some sense depends on these two commandments: the commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor. This is an amazing statement. We have the authority of the Son of God here telling us something utterly stupendous about the origin and design of the entire plan and Word of God.
The Overwhelming Commandment to Neighbor Love
Now those are the two stupendous things we need to ponder before we dive into the overwhelming commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I say it is overwhelming because it seems to demand that I tear the skin off my body and wrap it around another person so that I feel that I am that other person; and all the longings that I have for my own safety and health and success and happiness I now feel for that other person as though he were me.
It is an absolutely staggering commandment. If this is what it means, then something unbelievably powerful and earthshaking and reconstructing and overturning and upending will have to happen in our souls. Something supernatural. Something well beyond what self-preserving, self-enhancing, self-exalting, self-esteeming, self-advancing human beings like John Piper can do on their own.
Before we take up such a commandment and apply it to our lives, we need to ponder these two stupendous things that surround the commandment. That the commandment to love God is the great and foremost commandment in the Word of God and that all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.
The Whole Law and the Prophets
Let’s start with verse 40. “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
He Didn’t Have to Say This
First, consider the sheer fact that Jesus said this. He didn’t have to say it. The Pharisee didn’t ask this. Jesus went beyond what he asked and said more. He seems to want to push the importance and centrality of these commandments as much as he can. He has said that the commandment to love God is great and foremost. He has said the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself is “like it.” Verse 39: “The second is like it . . . ” That’s enough to raise the stakes here almost as high as they can be raised. We have the greatest commandment in all the revelation of God to humanity (Love God); and we have the second greatest, which is like the greatest (Love your neighbor).
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He wants us to be stunned at how important these two commandments are. He wants us to stop and wonder. He wants us to spend more than a passing moment on these things. More than a week or two of preaching. So he adds, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” They are 1) the first and the greatest, and 2) the second that is like the first and the greatest. But they are also the two commandments on which everything else in the Bible depends. “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Now what does this mean? Let me see if I can open a window into heaven by contrasting what Jesus says here (in v. 40) with what he says in Matthew 7:12 and what Paul says in Romans 13. Turn with me to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:12. This verse is better known as the Golden Rule. It is, I think, a good commentary on “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Matthew 7:12: This Is the Law and the Prophets
Jesus has just said that God will give us good things if we ask and seek and knock, because he is a loving Father. Then in Matthew 7:12 he says,
Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Notice that again Jesus refers to the Law and the Prophets like he did in Matthew 22:40. He says, if you do to others what you would have them do to you, then “this is the Law and the Prophets.” In Matthew 22:40 he said, “On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Take notice here that the first commandment is not mentioned in Matthew 7:12. Loving God with all your heart is not mentioned. Treating others the way we would like to be treated, he says, “is the Law and the Prophets.”
We must be careful here. Some people over the centuries have tried to take sentences like the Golden Rule and say that Jesus was mainly a profound teacher of human ethics; and that what he taught is not dependent on God or any relationship with God. They say, “See, he can sum up the whole Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, in practical human relationships: the Golden Rule.”
I say we must be careful here, because thinking like that not only ignores the great things Jesus said about God elsewhere and the amazing things he said about himself coming from God to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45); it also ignores the immediate context. Verse 12 begins with “therefore” (dropped in the NIV):
Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them.
What this shows is that the Golden Rule depends on what went before—on our relationship to God as our Father who loves us and answers our prayers and gives us good things when we ask him (Matthew 7:9–11). In fact this is a very profound key to how we are able to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So God is here upholding the Golden Rule by his fatherly provision. His love for us and our trusting, prayerful love back to him is the source of power for living the Golden Rule. So you can’t turn Jesus into a mere teacher of ethics.
But still, Jesus does say that treating others as you want to be treated “is the law and the prophets.” He does not say that loving God “is the Law and the Prophets.” Why does he say it in this way? I think what he means is that when you see people love like that (fulfill the Golden Rule), what you are seeing is the visible expression of the Law and the Prophets. This behavior among people manifests openly and publicly and practically what the Old Testament is about. It fulfills the Law and the Prophets. Loving God is invisible. It is an internal passion of the soul. But it comes to expression when you love others.
So loving others is the outward manifestation, the visible expression, the practical demonstration, and therefore the fulfillment of what the Old Testament is about. So there is a sense in which the second commandment (to love your neighbor) is the visible goal of the whole Word of God. It’s not as though loving God is not here, or that loving God is less important; rather loving God is made visible and manifest and full in our visibly, practically, sacrificially loving others. I think that is why the second commandment stands by itself when the New Testament says that love fulfills the law.
Romans 13:8–10: Love of Neighbor Fulfills the Law
Let’s look at one other text that points in this direction.
Look at Romans 13:8–10.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.
Two times (vv. 8, 10) Paul says that the command to love our neighbor is the “fulfillment of the law.” This is what Jesus meant when he said (in Matthew 7:12) that treating others as you would like to be treated “is the law and the prophets.” And, just as in Matthew 7:12, Paul doesn’t say that the law is fulfilled in loving God and loving neighbors. He only says that if you love your neighbor, you fill up the law. I think this means the same as Matthew 7:12, Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is the visible expression and manifestation and practical completion and fulfillment of all that the Old Testament was about, including love for God. Love for God comes to visible manifestation when we love others. Or you could say, our love for God is “fulfilled” when we love others.
We know Paul saw this practical love as utterly dependent on our relationship to God. InRomans 8:3–4 he says,
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did:sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh [= self reliance], but according to the Spirit [= God-reliance].
In other words, fulfilling the law—loving our neighbor as we love ourselves—is not something we can do on our own. We do it by the Holy Spirit. And we saw last week that Paul teaches God supplies the Spirit to us through faith.
So it’s the same as in Matthew 7:12. When Jesus and Paul say that loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, they don’t exclude our love for God and his love for us; they assume it.
Matthew 22:37–40: On These Two Hang . . .
But let’s go back to our text in Matthew 22:37–40. Here Jesus DOES mention both love for God and love for neighbor; and he explicitly says (in v. 40), “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Why? I want to suggest that he is saying something different here than in those other texts (Matthew 7:12; Romans 13:8, 10). Here he does not say that these two commandments “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets, or that they “are” the Law and the Prophets. He says that the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. Verse 40:
On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.
Now this is a window into heaven, if you have eyes to see. When he says here that the Law and the Prophets depend (literally: “hang,” like a stone around the neck, or a snake on the hand, or a man on a cross) on love, this is the reverse of what those other texts were saying. They were saying that the Law and Prophets lead to and find expression and fulfillment in love. But here in Matthew 22:40 Jesus is saying the reverse: love leads to and finds expression in the Law and the Prophets. 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.
Let me see if I can put this in a picture, so that you can see it more plainly. It is so important, if we are going to grasp the magnitude of the significance of love in our midst, as we move forward into the practical expressions of it in our preaching and in our life together at Bethlehem.
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. Matthew 7:12 and Romans 13:8–10 tell us that, when the people of God love their neighbor as they love themselves, the purpose of this scroll is being fulfilled. Its aim is being expressed visibly, manifested practically so “that people can see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). So the scroll is leading to love. Love is flowing from the scroll.
But then 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.”
I believe it would not be too much to say that all of creation, all of redemption, all of history hang on these two great purposes—that humans love God with all our heart, and that from the overflow of that love we love each other.
Which means that love is the origin (Matthew 22:40) and the goal (Romans 13:8, 10) of the Law and the Prophets. It is the beginning and the end of why God inspired the Bible. It’s the fountainhead and spring at the one end, and the shoreless ocean at the other end of the river of redemptive history—remembered and promised in the Word of God.
God’s Word to Us This Morning
God’s word for us this morning is that we take with tremendous seriousness this season of dealing with love at Bethlehem. That we let this picture stun us and remake our priorities. That we get alone with him and deal with him about these things. That we not assume that we fully know what love is or that it has the proper centrality in our lives. He is saying: All of Scripture, all of his plans for history, hang—HANG—on these two great purposes: that he be loved with all our heart, and that we love each other as we love ourselves.
But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 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.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
A Very Radical Command
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a very radical command. What I mean by “radical” is this: it cuts to the root of our sinfulness and exposes it and, by God’s grace, severs it. The root of our sinfulness is the desire for our own happiness apart from God and apart from the happiness of others in God. Let me say it again: the root of our sinfulness is the desire to be happy apart from God and apart from the happiness of others in God. All sin comes from a desire to be happy cut off from glory of God and cut off from the good of others. The command of Jesus cuts to this root, exposes it, and severs it.
Another name for this root of sinfulness is pride. Pride is the presumption that we can be happy without depending on God as the source of our happiness and without caring if others find their happiness in God. Pride is the passion to be happy contaminated and corrupted by two things: 1) the unwillingness to see God as the only fountain of true and lasting joy, and 2) the unwillingness to see other people as designed by God to receive our joy in him. If you take the desire to be happy and strip away from it God as the fountain of your happiness, and people as the recipients of your happiness, what you have left is the engine of pride. Pride is the pursuit of happiness anywhere but in the glory of God and the good of other people. This is the root of all sin.
Now Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And with that commandment he cuts to the root of our sinfulness. How so?
Self-Love: A Creation of God
Jesus says in effect: I start with your inborn, deep, defining human trait—your love for yourself. This is a given. I don’t command it; I assume it. All of you have a powerful instinct of self-preservation and self-fulfillment. You all want to be happy. You all want to live and to live with satisfaction. You want food for yourself. You want clothes for yourself. You want a place to live for yourself. You want protection from violence against yourself. You want meaningful or pleasant activity to fill your days. You want some friends to like you and spend some time with you. You want your life to count in some way. All this is self-love. Self-love is the deep longing to diminish pain and to increase happiness. That’s what Jesus starts with when he says, “as yourself.”
Everyone, without exception, has this human trait. This is what moves us to do this or that. Even suicide is pursued out of this principle of self-love. In the midst of a feeling of utter meaningless and hopelessness and numbness of depression the soul says: “It can’t get any worse than this. So even if I don’t know what I will gain through death, I do know what I will escape.” And so suicide is an attempt to escape the intolerable. It is an act of self-love.
Now Jesus says, I start with this self-love. This is what I know about you. This is common to all people. You don’t have to learn it. It comes with your humanity. My Father created it. In and of itself it is good. To hunger for food is not evil. To want to be warm in the winter is not evil. To want to be safe in a crisis is not evil. To want to be healthy during a plague is not evil. To want to be liked by others is not evil. To want your life to count in some significant way is not evil. This was a defining human trait before the fall of man into sin, and it is not evil in itself.
Love Your Neighbor AS You Love Yourself
Whether it has become evil in your life will be exposed as you hear and respond to Jesus’ commandment. He commands, “As you love yourself, so love your neighbor.” Which means: As you long for food when you are hungry, so long to feed your neighbor when he is hungry. As you long for nice clothes for yourself, so long for nice clothes for your neighbor. As you work for a comfortable place to live, so desire a comfortable place to live for your neighbor. As you seek to be safe and secure from calamity and violence, so seek comfort and security for your neighbor. As you seek friends for yourself, so be a friend to your neighbor. As you want your life to count and be significant, so desire that same significance for your neighbor. As you work to make good grades yourself, so work to help your neighbor make good grades. As you like to be welcomed into strange company, so welcome your neighbor into strange company. As you would that men would do to you, do so to them.
In other words make your self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the word “as” is very radical: “Love your neighbor asyourself.” That’s a BIG word: “As!” It means: If you are energetic in pursing your own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are creative in pursuing your own happiness, be creative in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you arepersevering in pursuing your own happiness, be persevering in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. In other words, Jesus is not just saying: seek for your neighbor the same things you seek for yourself, but also seek them in the same way—the same zeal and energy and creativity and perseverance. The same life and death commitment when you are in danger. Make your own self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. Measure your pursuit of the happiness of others, and what it should be, by the pursuit of your own. How do you pursue your own well-being? Pursue your neighbor’s well-being that way too.
Now this is very threatening and almost overwhelming. Because we feel immediately that if we take Jesus seriously, we will not just have to love others “as we love ourselves,” but we will have to love them “instead of loving ourselves.” That’s what it seems like. We fear that if we follow Jesus in this, and really devote ourselves to pursuing the happiness of others, then our own desire for happiness will always be preempted. The neighbor’s claim on my time and energy and creativity will always take priority. So the command to love my neighbor as I love myself really feels like a threat to my own self-love. How is this even possible? If there is born in us a natural desire for our own happiness, and if this is not in itself evil, but good, how can we give it up and begin only to seek the happiness of others at the expense of our own?
The Necessity of the First Commandment to Fulfill the Second
I think that is exactly the threat that Jesus wants us to feel, until we realize that this—exactly this—is why the first commandment is the first commandment. It’s the first commandment that makes the second commandment doable and takes away the threat that the second commandment is really the suicide of our own happiness. The first commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (v. 37). The first commandment is the basis of the second commandment. The second commandment is a visible expression of the first commandment. Which means this: Before you make your own self- seeking the measure of your self-giving, make God the focus of your self-seeking. This is the point of the first commandment.
“Love God with all your heart” means: Find in God a satisfaction so profound that it fills up all your heart. “Love God with all your soul” means: Find in God a meaning so rich and so deep that it fills up all the aching corners of your soul. “Love God with all your mind” means: Find in God the riches of knowledge and insight and wisdom that guide and satisfy all that the human mind was meant to be.
In other words take all your self-love—all your longing for joy and hope and love and security and fulfillment and significance—take all that, and focus it on God, until he satisfies your heart and soul and mind. What you will find is that this is not a canceling out of self-love. This is a fulfillment and transformation of self-love. Self-love is the desire for life and satisfaction rather than frustration and death. God says, Come to me, and I will give you fullness of joy. I will satisfy your heart and soul and mind with my glory. This is the first and great commandment.
And with that great discovery—that God is the never-ending fountain of our joy—the way we love others is forever changed. Now when Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we don’t respond by saying, “Oh, this is threatening. This means my love for myself is made impossible by all the claims of my neighbor. I could never do this.” Instead we say, “Oh, yes, I love myself. I have longings for joy and satisfaction and fulfillment and significance and security. But God has called me—indeed he has commanded me—to come to him first for all these things. He commands that my love for him be the form of my love for me. That all my longings for me I find in him. That is what my self-love is now. It is my love for God. They have become one. My quest for happiness is now nothing other than a quest for God. And he has been found in Jesus Christ.”
What Jesus Is Commanding
So what, then, is Jesus commanding in the second commandment—that we love our neighbor as ourselves? He is commanding that our self- love, which has now discovered its fulfillment in God-love, be the measure and the content of our neighbor-love. Or, to put it another way, he is commanding that our inborn self-seeking, which has now been transposed into God-seeking, overflow and extend itself to our neighbor. So, for example:
- If you are longing to see more of God’s bounty and liberality through the supply of food and rent and clothing, then seek to show others the greatness of this divine bounty by the generosity you have found in him. Let the fulfillment of your own self-love in God-love overflow into neighbor love. Or better: seek that God, who is the fulfillment of your self-love overflow through your neighbor-love and become the fulfillment of your neighbor’s self-love.
- If you want to enjoy more of God’s compassion through the consolations he gives you in sorrow, then seek to show others more of God’s compassion through the consolations you extend to them in sorrow.
- If you long to savor more of God’s wisdom through the counsel he gives in stressful relationships, then seek to extend more of God’s wisdom to others in their stressful relationships.
- If you delight in seeing God’s goodness in relaxed times of leisure, then extend that goodness to others by helping them have relaxed, healthy times of leisure.
- If you want to see more of God’s saving grace powerfully manifested in your life, then stretch out that grace into the lives of others who need that saving grace.
- If you want to enjoy more of the riches of God’s personal friendship through thick and thin, then extend that friendship to the lonely through thick and thin.
In all these ways neighbor-love does not threaten self-love because self-love has become God-love, and God-love is not threatened, diminished, or exhausted by being poured into the lives of others.
I don’t mean that this answers all our questions about love, or that it takes away every kind of threat in loving our neighbor. There are many perplexities in the life of love. There are competing claims on our limited time. There are hard choices about what to give up and what to keep. There are different interpretations of what is good for another person. I don’t mean here that all of that becomes simple.
What I do mean is this: loving God sustains us through all the joy and pain and perplexity and uncertainty of what loving our neighbor should be. When the sacrifice is great, we remember that his grace is sufficient. When the fork in the road of love is unmarked, we remember with joy and love that his grace is sufficient. When we are distracted by the world and our hearts give way temporarily to selfishness and we are off the path, we remember that God alone can satisfy, and we repent and love his all-sufficient grace all the more.
It is a very radical command. It cuts to the root of sin, called pride. Remember, this root of pride that gives rise to all other sins, is the passion to be happy (self-love) contaminated and corrupted by two things: 1) the unwillingness to see God as the only fountain of true and lasting joy, and 2) the unwillingness to see other people as designed by God to receive our joy in him. But that is exactly the contamination and corruption of self-love that Jesus counteracts in these two commandments. In the first commandment he focuses the passion to be happy firmly on God and God alone. In the second commandment he opens a whole world of expanding joy in God and says: people, human beings, everywhere you find them, are designed to receive and enlarge your joy in God. Love them the way you love yourself. Show them, give them—through every practical means available—what you have found for yourself in God.