Loving God and people (Matthew 22:34-40)

What’s the most important thing God ever told us to do? The answer describes kingdom life, what the king intends for his community.

The fight is on!

Jesus is in one corner. Opposing him is a tag team of Israel’s leading fighters. They’ve stopped fighting each other to bring down the people’s champion. Three rounds:

  1. Pharisees lead the attack by testing his support for Caesar. Jesus sends them back in their corner: give Caesar the currency in his name, but he’s not the ultimate authority (22:15-22).
  2. Next, Sadducees take a swing at his resurrection hope, but Jesus finds their vulnerability. They failed to factor in God’s power, the I AM, the life-giving Being (22:23-33).
  3. Then an unnamed hand gathers reinforcements to bring down God’s anointed.

This fight is the final week of Jesus’ life. It’s building towards the final assault on God’s anointed. He’s been in this fight since he was born, when Herod gathered together all the ruling priests and scribes of the people to investigate this king of the Jews (2:4). Now the leaders are gathered against him by an unspecified hand (same verb, passive voice):

Matthew 22:34-40 (my translation, compare NIV)
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they were gathered together for the same purpose. 35 One of this group, a Law-expert, pressured him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which is the great command in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with your whole being, your whole life, your whole thinking.’ 38 This is the great and leading command. 39 The second is similar: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commands hang the whole Law. And the Prophets.”

Opposing God’s man is opposing God (22:34)

Matthew’s words are so pregnant they feel distended. Our English versions struggle to translate how he describes this alliance against the Christ. What he literally says is, they were gathered upon the same (συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό). He’s unlikely to mean gathered to the same place, as that would be redundant. He’s saying this third group was being gathered for the same purpose. They were being assembled to bring him down.

Matthew’s strange phrase echoes the Greek translation of Psalm 2:2. There, earth’s kings and rulers were gathered upon the same (συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ). The next phrase explains the intent for that evil alliance: against the Lord and against his anointed (κατὰ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ κατὰ τοῦ χριστοῦ). The Psalm says these enemies were fools who found themselves fighting earth’s ultimate sovereign (the Lord) when they attacked his anointed.

Early Christians loved this Psalm. They understood that the Lord and his anointed meant the heavenly sovereign and the Davidic king he appointed to reign on earth. They claimed that term for Jesus: he is the Davidic descendant appointed by God to rule the earth, his anointedchristos in Greek, Christ in English. That’s the opening announcement of Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus the anointed son of David (Matthew 1:1).

Sure, the nations had destroyed the kingdom of Israel, but Jesus was restoring the kingdom of God. The tragic coalition arrayed against the Lord and his anointed was not an assembly of foreign armies: it was the alliance of the opposing factions within God’s people: Pharisees allied with Herod’s supporters (22:16), Sadducees with their deadly theology (22:23), and more Pharisees being assembled for the same purpose (22:41).

Just as the foreign armies did not realized they were fighting God when they assembled against David, these enemies of the Lord’s Christ don’t realize they’re opposing God when they attempt to bring down his anointed.

Shifting the goal posts (22:35-40)

They haven’t knocked him out, so they shift ground to where they’re most comfortable: discussing the Torah as the laws people are failing to obey. Jesus doesn’t use the Law to bludgeon people into submission. They accuse him of devaluing it (5:17), and he accuses them of applying it harshly (23:4). To get to the bottom of this difference, they ask him to name the most important law for people to obey. They’ve “got him” if he says the Law doesn’t matter now and it’s all about grace.

He doesn’t. Jesus believed the Law was important for Israel because of who gave it to them. Their most important response to the Law is loving the Lawgiver. That’s the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5). Who could argue?

But how do you love a ruler? In practical terms, you align your heart with his governance, you spend your life in his service, you focus your energies on his purposes. That’s loving your sovereign with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind.

And you can’t love a ruler without loving his people, because that’s his heart.

Leviticus is the book at the heart of the Torah. The first half reveals how Israel was to honour their sovereign — being wholly devoted to him, because he was wholly devoted to them. The central ceremony of the book (Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16) is all about maintaining that relationship. Then the rest of Leviticus spells out the corollary of divine kingship: a community that loves each other, the living expression of his love for them. Love for neighbour is the outflow of the king’s character:  Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).

Love the king, and love your neighbours as his community. Those two anchor points hold everything the sovereign expects of his kingdom.

Did you see what Jesus did? He moved the lawyer’s focus from Law to Lawgiver. Loving the Lawgiver fulfils his Law. Loving the Lawgiver’s people is being the community he expects. Those two commands are the anchor points of the whole Torah, and the Prophets too.

If they want to do it (not just argue about it), how would they love God and his people? What would change?

Number one issue would be to stop opposing God and his anointed. Matthew alluded to the Psalm that describes God’s anointed as his Son, and concludes with a confronting challenge:

Psalm 2 12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Do you think they realized Jesus was challenging their murderous attitudes against him when he told them that obeying the Law was all about loving God and his people? Jesus response to their fight was a call to love.

Application for us

Unless we’re modern-day Pharisees, we do not take the laws God gave to Israel at Sinai and impose them on the world. I cringe when people do that on social media: they’re detracting from the gospel. Often they’re reflecting condemnation they heard from a pulpit.

The Law God gave Israel was specific to them as a nation. It defined their national holidays (Sabbaths and festivals in honour of their heavenly king), and restricted how they were to engage with neighbouring nations. We don’t live under that Torah because we are not God’s prototype nation. We live as the global kingdom of God who rules all people, with the law embodied in his anointed ruler (1 Corinthians 9:20-21).

The king’s brother called this the royal law (James 2:8). We love our Lord by taking care of our neighbour in the same way we take care of ourselves. Jesus’ two anchor-points are still the foundational response to his kingship: love for our heavenly sovereign and his people on earth.

The difference is that we now have a much clearer picture of what it means to love God and people. Jesus is that image. We love because he loved us (compare Galatians 6:2).

Loving God does not mean trying to build up some emotional connection with him the way some of our worship songs suggest. Love for a king isn’t an infatuation; it’s an inclination towards obedience. To love the king is to participate in his life, what he’s doing for his people. We care for his people with the same generosity he extends to us.

That defines the church. We could wipe everything off our agenda and leave people free to fulfil the law of Christ by loving our neighbours who belong in his reign. It’s how people see God.

Open Matthew 22:34-40.

What others are saying

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 531:

Other Jewish teachers also conjoined love of God with love of neighbor (Test. Iss. 5:2; 7:6; Dan 5:3; Philo Decal. 108–10; cf. Philo Every Good Man Is Free 83; Jos. Ant. 3.213) …
Yet Jesus’ combination of the two as the greatest commandments, which exercised an authoritative influence on subsequent Christian formulations (including Paul’s frequent triad of virtues with love as the greatest—1 Cor 13:13), is distinctive … Only Jesus wielded the moral authority among his followers to focus their ethics so profoundly around a single theme (cf. Meier 1980: 257). The distinctive primacy that love plays in virtually all early Christian ethics would not have been possible had the Christians not derived this primacy from the mouth of the one Teacher who united them. Thence comes the early Christian “law of love” (cf. Rom 13:8–10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; Jn 13:34–35).

1 John 4:7–21 (NIV)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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