The contention between Christ and the Pharisees is a recurring theme throughout the Gospels. In each account of the Messiah’s earthly ministry, numerous episodes are given of the Pharisees’ incessant quest to test and dismantle Christ’s claims. The scene at the close of Matthew 22 is no different and contains some of the most critical words ever spoken by the Son of God.
Jesus has just finished “silencing” the Sadducees in “astonishing” fashion on the subject of the resurrection. (Mt 22:23–34) In the wake of this deafening silence, a lawyer stands and continues inquiring of Christ regarding his view of the law. The lawyer’s inquiry is a continuation of the scribes and Pharisees’ examination of Jesus, hoping they’d find something that would make him stumble. The Pharisees obviously thought much of themselves, as not only were they the self-proclaimed experts on God’s law, they were also looked up to as great authorities of the same, often summoned for assistance as to whether such-and-such action would violate the ordinances of Yahweh. Yet, for all their knowledge and expertise, the Pharisees’ citations and interpretations of the laws of Scripture were crowded with manmade obligations and internal quibbles. Distinctions and directives never given by God were continually laid down and enforced by the Pharisees, which ultimately pushed people away from hope, rather than drawing them to it.
The lawyer’s query.
Thus, in his pomp, the lawyer posits his inquiry to Christ, acting as the collective inquisitor for the rest of the Pharisees. The question, though, was not one of sincerity, but was laced only with malicious motives. He asks, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Mt 22:36) Jewish lawyers were fixated on categorizing the commandments as either great or small, heavy or light. And even though the Pharisees taught that the Jews needed to give attention to all the laws of Scripture, they paid special attention to the “heavy” ones. In their study of the Levitical ordinances, they divided the 613-odd commandments into 248 that were positive and 365 that were negative. Thus, this scribe is seeking to see which law Christ saw as the “heaviest,” which he saw as the most important.
“Which is the great commandment in the Law?” The question isn’t one of pure pursuit of truth, but exists only as a stumbling-block. The scribes and Pharisees are seeing if Jesus will contravene the law in some manner, thereby outing himself as an apostate of their doctrine. But as Christ has already stated, he has not come to disregard the law or ignore it or void it altogether. Rather, he has come to fulfill it. (Mt 5:17) And so it goes that the scribe, here, is looking to impress Jesus with his reason. As many scholars are apt to do, they pontificate and postulate without end, hoping those who see and hear them are dazzled by their intellect. And so it is that this scribe, at the urgings of his peers, poses a question to Christ by which he hopes the wit and wisdom of the Pharisees will not go unnoticed by this radical Nazarene.
The Messiah’s reply.
But Christ, seeing through this charade, rightly responds with the divine summation of all the law and the prophets. He retorts, “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 first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:37–40; cf. Dt 6:5; Lv 19:18) Jesus’s words are the sum and substance of the Old Testament, in which we can see, in vivid form, that which Christ himself is, that is, the sum and substance of the Old Testament. Christ is the embodiment of both the perfect love of God and man, serving not merely or even primarily as our model or example. Rather, he serves as our Substitute, being and showing the perfect love we can never be or ever show.
In Christ’s summation of the Old Testament, then, we’re made to see the purpose of the law as revealed in the gospel. The Pharisees and Sadducees were failing in every point of the very law they assumed they knew and understood. They weren’t aware then, but we know now, that this very scene serves as the launchpad for Christ’s indignant sermon in the subsequent chapter, (Mt 23:1–36) in which he delivers several scathing remarks on how the Pharisees had presumed upon what they didn’t know. He completes the conversation, saying:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Mt 23:23–24)
In their own misguided and mistaken notions of righteousness and perfection, they deemed themselves as not only the practitioners of the law but the fulfillers of it. But Christ’s remark here, as is further expounded in Matthew 23, makes it evident that the Pharisees were not only not fulfilling or living up to the law, they were far away from ever perfectly performing and practicing it. They had forgotten the purpose of law, as often we do as well. They made it about them, their glory, their prestige, their renown. These notions bastardize the law, creating holy hypocrites and pious pretenders. This isn’t what the law’s for. It’s not for spiritual navel-gazing. It’s not for religious résumé-building. It’s for the glory of God and the advancement of his gracious Kingdom. It’s for the upholding and preserving of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
I cannot help but see the link, here, between Matthew 5 and 22. It’s as if Christ is again using the Sermon on the Mount language of “You have heard that it is said, but I say unto you” to this lawyer, and the rest of those in earshot. We might read between the lines of Scripture to say that Christ was saying, “You have heard it was said, ‘As a man thinketh, so is he.’ But I say unto you, ‘As a man loveth, so it he.’” It is love that defines a man. Love that makes him what he is. Love that drives what he does. If we have not love, we are nothing. (1 Cor 13:1–3)
The believer’s mission.
This, then, is the point. This is the end at which Christ would have the Pharisees — and us — arrive. That love alone fulfills the law. So often, we make the ordinances of God about our efforts and strivings, as if our labor can satisfy all the law’s claims. But labor isn’t the fulfillment of the law — love is. (Rom 13:8, 10) God’s love fulfills God’s law, without which we’d be nowhere, lifeless and hopeless and helpless.
As an expositor of the law, this scribe was undoubtedly offended by Christ’s summation and intimation here. An expert on the law would know that these words of Jesus were merely re-quoted from an earlier text in the Pentateuch. (Dt 6:5) But Christ’s suggestion isn’t that he had forgotten this summation of the law but had wholly mistaken it, neglecting to grasp its full and far-reaching consequences. As Christ is the true and better Prophet, Priest, and King foretold in the pages of the Old Testament, so is he the perfect fulfillment of all the law of God. Thus, even the summation of the law is enhanced by him. It’s not just service, it’s sacrifice. It’s not just charity, it’s death. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:12–13)
This is the hint that certainly offended this lawyer. Likewise are we offended. We’re natural born lawyers — or so we claim — eternally bent on assuming we not only know the weightier matters but that we’re fulfilling them too. Indeed, those addicted to law will always be offended by the gospel. And so it is that we’re continually offended by this seemingly succinct and elementary summation of the law of God. “Surely there’s more to it than that, right? Surely there’s more that has to be done! This can’t be it!” Or so we think.
In actuality, love is all there is because love is all we have. Only love fulfills the law — perfect love, sacrificial love, dying love, resurrecting love. (Gal. 5:14) Only the great love of the cross can meet all the jots and tittles of God’s law. Only the love of Golgotha can fulfill the wrath of Sinai. In the face of these two commands, our reaction shouldn’t, “Yep, doing that already, what else?” but rather, “Oh God, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24) In the vertical realm of justification, even these two great laws we can’t accomplish. It’s not just love, it’s spotless love. It’s not just consideration of others, but actual substitution of self for their estate. It’s not just dedication, but absolute surrender. This is an extension, again, of Matthew 5:48, in which Christ gives the barometer for entrance into God’s Kingdom: perfection. These are things we cannot carry out. Not on our own. Nevertheless, we are commissioned to their undertaking in the horizontal realm of sanctification. This is our Great Commission.
The mission of the believer is to showcase Christ to a fallen world, to a world of rejects, outcasts, and reprobates. It’s not to be the rigorous rule-keepers and religious fact-checkers of the world. No, our only mission is to face God’s law in utter desperation and in faith rest in God’s gospel. This belief is where the war begins. The battle of our hearts is for the freedom of grace and the furtherance of Kingdom. The innate lawyer inside us will always want to qualify grace and the guilty ones around us. When we hold more tightly to God’s law than God’s gospel, we’ll never be driven to fulfill the law — we’ll never be driven to love our neighbors. What’s more, it is impossible for the love of God to reign in the heart without yielding love of others. True love of others is dependent upon love for God. Right love of God fuels right love for others. (1 Jn 4:21)
There is no earnest and intelligent love to God without love to our neighbour; and the love of our neighbour derives its fundamental and necessary sanction from love to God.1
In our law-riddled hearts, we often deceive ourselves into believing we’re our own God’s. But this inkling not only destroys our life but makes the lives of our neighbors miserable. Yet, in remembering our own deplorable, destitute, and depraved self, we are stirred to love our neighbor and all those around us. As we recall the self prior to being counted as righteous because of Christ’s blood, we are constrained and compelled to share this love, shout this grace, and speak to the One who loved us, even when we were his enemies. (Rom 5:8) Thus it is that we see that the ones who are fulfilling the law are actually the ones who’ve realized how far short of ever fulfilling it they actually are.
The self-righteous claims of the religionist push our fellow men further away from God than the continued failings of the broken publican. The grace-addicted sinner will always be the louder evangelist than the law-obsessed Pharisee.
John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1990), 458.