" />

Christ Confounds with the Word of the Kingdom, Part 3: The Great Commandment

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 16, 1999

Matthew 22:34-40

Download Audio

If you have your bibles, I’d invite you turn with me to Matthew chapter 22. For the last several weeks we have been in the last week of Jesus' life. In fact, for the last several weeks, we've been on Tuesday of the last week of Jesus life as He has a series of exchanges with the chief priests and the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Last week we were looking at the passage where the Sadducees challenged Him with a mocking question, a silly question about the resurrection. They wanted to make fun of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. They knew that Jesus believed that doctrine. They also knew that the Pharisees believed that doctrine and they thought that that was not a very bright thing to believe. And so they decided to mock Jesus about it and Jesus put them in their place. And today, the Pharisees are back for more. So let's turn with our Bibles to Matthew 22 and hear God's word beginning in verse 34.

Matthew 22:34-40

Father, we acknowledge this to be Your word and we ask now that by the Spirit You would open our eyes to understand its truth. We pray, O Lord, that by the Spirit You would search our own hearts out. That we might see the truth of your commands and see where we fall short and seek to find refuge in Christ alone. That we might in turn, delight in Your law. No longer fearing it as an enemy but rejoicing in it as the expression of Your own character. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Even with His enemies trying to trap Him, this time with a testing question, Jesus takes opportunity in His response to instruct His people to encourage us in the truth, teaching us about the foremost duties of life and teaching us about the proper biblical relationship between love and law. I'd like to look at that glorious subject with you in this passage in three parts today.

First of all, if you look at verses 34 and 35 you will see this question, which is put to Jesus Christ or the context of this question, in spite of Jesus' divine wisdom that has been shared over and over on this Tuesday before His death. In spite of the wisdom that he has shared with the chief priests and the scribes, with the Pharisees with the Sadducees as they have tested Him and challenged Him and mocked Him and he has responded and taught them the truth of God's word and shown them His divine wisdom. In spite of that divine wisdom, we see here in verses 34 and 35 the leaders of God's people conspiring against Jesus. In spite of the fact that they have seen Jesus in the clearest sort of way, show not simply His brilliance and we have to stop and say it is brilliant. His responses are nothing short of brilliant. But not just the brilliance do they miss, they miss the clear testimony of who He is and the answers that He gives, and in spite of that, they oppose Him. They conspire against Him and we see in this passage something very, very important. And that is, that opposition to Christ comes in spite of light because of the darkness of our own hearts. That's a very important thing to understand. That the opposition to Christ here that we see on the Tuesday of the Passover week is not because Jesus hasn't given enough evidence of who he is or the divine authority of His teaching. The reason that these people are conspiring against is because of the darkness of their own heart. The message is clear. The testimony is unmistakable. The light is bright. It's blinding! But they're blind and they can't see it and so their opposition is not because of a lack of light, a lack of witness, a lack of evidence, a lack of testimony, it's because their own hearts are hard. Let's look at the passage together.

I. The Pharisees attempt to tempt Jesus.

In verse 34 Matthew makes it very clear to us that the purpose of the Pharisees, whatever the heart of this lawyer was, the purpose of the Pharisees in sending this young man to ask a question of Jesus was to tempt Jesus. To test Jesus. To trap Jesus. They wanted Him to give a wrong answer in order to alienate Him from the crowds or in order to accuse Him of false teaching, of heresy. Now I say whatever the state of the lawyer’s heart because mark and Luke tell us some interesting things about this man and they also tell us some interesting things that Jesus said to this man. Matthew doesn't include those things. We're going to zero in just on what Matthew says. We'll have to wait for an exposition of mark and Luke one day in order to get to those particular distinctives that they bring out. But Matthew wants us to understand that the Pharisees, by sending this young man, no matter what he's intending to ask or do. No matter what he wants to hear from Jesus. The reason the Pharisees appoint Him to ask the question is they want to trap Jesus.

Now Matthew tells us that basically in two ways. First of all, if you look at verse 34, Matthew says, look at the end of verse 34, they gathered themselves together. Now that may look innocuous enough to you but Matthew is alluding to a passage from the old testament. That passage is found in psalm 2, verse 2. Those of you who have the libretto to Handel’s Messiah memorized will recognize that particular passage from one of the particular pieces. Or if you've memorized your king James version of psalm 2, you'll note the passage that “the kings of the earth gathered themselves together against the Lord and against His Anointed.” And Matthew is alluding to that passage. He's saying that the Pharisees gathered themselves together and he doesn't go on say it, but he implies it, doesn't he, “against the Lord and His Anointed.” Matthew is tipping you off. That something horrible is happening. It's not just that the pagans, the gentiles, are opposed to the Messiah of God, it's that the very leaders of Israel are now gathering themselves together to conspire against the Lord's Anointed. If you want to know what Matthew’s take is on the rest of the story, you just go read Psalm 2. You'll see how it ends. But Matthew is tipping you off that these Pharisees by their conspiring against Christ have put themselves in the same category as those pagans who oppose to the rule of God.

The second way that he tips you off as to what these men are up to in their question is by the very word that he uses in verse 35. Look at the end. He asks Him a question, testing Him. The identification of this question as a test is very significant for Matthew, because Matthew uses that word elsewhere. Perhaps you'll remember that a certain person named Satan came to Jesus, asking Him questions, in Matthew chapter 4 verses 1 and 3. And Matthew tells us that what Satan was doing by asking those questions was testing Christ. Matthew also tells us that in Matthew 16 verse 1 and Matthew 19 verse 3 about the Pharisees that they asked questions, testing Christ. So he is echoing the satanic testing of Christ in Matthew chapter 4 by reminding us again here that these men came to Jesus not to hear His answer, not because they cared what he thought, but because they wanted to trap Him. They wanted to tempt Him. They wanted Him to stumble. Matthew is letting you know what the state of the heart of the Pharisees are as they come to Jesus.

And so to make a long story short, in spite of the fact that Jesus had just put to silence their arch rivals, the Sadducees. The Pharisees aren't pleased by that at all. In fact, the Pharisees, immediately after Jesus is done dispensing with the Sadducees, they are immediately conspiring against the lord Jesus Christ. They want to undermine Him. His testimony. His witness meant nothing to them. He had just upheld the precious doctrine of the resurrection of the body from the dead, and they didn't care. All they cared about was that the people would follow after Him and they didn't want that to happen and so they seek to undermine Him. Matthew Henry makes a very interesting comment about this. He says, “this is an instance of pharisaical envy and malice. They are displeased at the maintaining of a confessed truth because it was done by those that they did not like.”

That's a warning to us. When we see the truth upheld by someone who is not of our party, we should not despise them and envy them, and harbor malice like the Pharisees. That's the heart of a Pharisee. To envy. To be malicious towards those who uphold the truth even if they are not part of us. And so again, we see that Jesus' conduct and His claims and His teaching and His testimony has no immediate saving impact on these Pharisees. Jesus' testimony is clear as day and they don't get it. They're hearts aren't changed. And there is a monumental message in that for us. Bear this in mind when you are praying for, and witnessing to, friends who are hardened about the gospel. God alone changes hearts.

This passage reminds us of two or three things that are very important for us to remember when we are witnessing to loved ones who do not seem to be sensitive to eternal things. They do not seem to be sensitive about things of the lord, the things of the scriptures. They are dismissive. They are skeptical. They ridicule. When we are dealing with friends like that, and we earnestly, there's a burden on our hearts because we long for them to have the blessing of salvation, that we long to be with them forever, and yet, when we share the word, its, its, bounced off, its deflected or it's openly rejected and mocked. And our hearts are broken at the thought of a loved one, a person that we care about who doesn't care about these eternal things, we need to remember three things.

First, even Jesus' witness was rejected. Now friend, if Jesus' witness was rejected, do you think that your witness is going to be accepted every time? You want something more than your lord had? Even the lord Jesus' witness was rejected by some. Bright as day was His witness on this day, and yet it was rejected by the Pharisees around. The second thing you need to remember is this. Jesus' witness was not in vain. It was not in vain. Two ways you see that it wasn't in vain. The first was is this: Jesus' witness, though these Pharisees didn't accept it, was strengthening to His disciples. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be with Jesus on that day as over and over the leading theologians of Israel came to Him throwing their hardest questions, the hardest sliders they could throw, they threw at Jesus. And time and time again, he not only successfully answers their questions, but he levels them. You just wish you could have been there to see it. You are so bowled over by the glory of your lord as he responds with such dignity and gravity and intelligence and wisdom and force. You just want to bow and worship. You feel privileged just to know the lord Jesus Christ and you feel privileged just to be in His presence as he answers question after question. How strengthening His answers would have been to the disciples even though there were many around Him who were rejecting Him. The disciples surely must have been saying, we've never heard the like. He's answered every question of every wise man in Israel and he's left that man dumbfounded. Surely the disciples’ faith was strengthened. And perhaps you, even as you share the story of bearing witness to some friend, some relation who has not come to Christ, perhaps you don't even know that you're in the process of strengthening one of your brothers and sisters. Maybe they're sitting there thinking, you know, what a testimony this brother, this sister, they're aching over the salvation of this friend, this relation and they're not seeing it come and it convicts me that I don't care that much about the salvation of my own friends and relations. Maybe this is a motivation to them to go and share the gospel. You don't know how your testimony will strengthen the faith of others in that regard.

But there's another way in which Jesus' witness is not in vain, and that is we know it came to fruition in the lives of many of the people who are standing around and this day rejecting Him. In the book of Acts, we learn that many of the chief priests who mocked Jesus, who were involved in His crucifixion, became followers of Christ. And though that testimony was dormant for many weeks and many months, it apparently bore no fruit and yet eventually salvation came. Jesus' testimony, His witness was not in vain. The last thing we learn from this is that we must remember that God is the one who awakens hearts. You and I can't do that. God doesn't say, “Go convert people.” You can't do that. Only God can do that. God calls us to be faithful. He calls us to witness with our lives as well as with our words. In that order. He calls us to be faithful but He does not call us to change hearts because we can't change hearts. Only God can do that. Paul, the greatest evangelist of the New Testament, makes that very clear in Acts chapter 16 verse 14. Luke records the incident. Paul is in Thyatira, he's speaking to a woman named Lydia who is a God-worshiper. She worships the God of the Jews but she's never heard of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul witnesses to her and we're told in acts chapter 16 verse 14 what? And the lord opened her heart to believe the things that Paul had spoken. Notice that it does not say that Paul opened her heart to believe the things that Paul had spoken. “The Lord opened her heart.” God alone changes hearts. That is good for us to remember. When we are praying for and witnessing to those who do not respond to the gospel, let's remember that even Christ’s witness was rejected. But Christ’s witness was not in vain and God alone changes hearts. That's the first thing I’d like you to see as we look at this passage together.

II. The lawyer’s question.

There's another thing I’d like you to see if you'd look at verse 36. In verse 36 we see the testing question which this young lawyer, this expert in the Jewish religious law ask of Jesus. It's a question of great importance. It's a question much more significant than the silly question that the Sadducees had asked. The Sadducees had asked a question about the resurrection because they wanted to make fun of Jesus and they wanted to make fun of His belief in the resurrection and they wanted to make fun of the doctrine of the resurrection. But this was a serious question. It may not have been the most important question that this young man should have been asking. And it certainly was not the question that the Pharisees, themselves, should have been asking, but it was an important question. It was a question about what our greatest duty is in life. And surely that's a pretty significant question. What is the supreme obligation in our life? That's a question worth meditating on. And whatever the motivation for asking that question was, we need to stand back and recognize that the issue of what is our greatest duty, what is our supreme obligation to God? That's a good question. That's worth a few quiet times. That's worth some biblical reflection. Now this young lawyer, this expert in the Jewish religious law, this isn't a civil attorney, this is a religious figure who devotes himself to the study of the law, explains the law, expounds the law, teaches the people of God the law of God, he comes to Jesus and he asks this question. What is he doing? Why is he asking this question to Jesus? I don't know what His heart was. I do know what the hearts of the Pharisees were because Matthew tells me. Matthew tells me that they were asking that question in order to trip Jesus up. So then we ask this question. Well how did they expect to trip Jesus up by asking Him this question – what is the greatest commandment? What is the first commandment? Well, again, there are many different ways perhaps that they envision tripping Him up.

Maybe, they were asking Him a question about a matter which was in dispute amongst their own parties. Maybe there was a difference of opinion within the Pharisees on the issue of what was the greatest commandment. We know that the Pharisees, the religious Jews of their day, had divided the commandments of God in the Old Testament into 613 separate instructions and that there were some lively debates about which of those commandments, which of those instructions was most important. So maybe some of them thought it was one thing and others thought it was another thing and if he said one thing the others were going to argue he was wrong and said another thing the others were going to argue he was wrong. Maybe they expected to trip Him up that way. It was a matter of dispute. They wanted to see what He thought.

On the other hand, maybe they simply wanted to see what Jesus' view of the law of Moses was. You remember throughout the gospel of Matthew we have seen the Pharisees accusing Jesus of what? They have consistently accused Him of being against the law of mosses. And over and over Jesus has said what? No, I am not against the law of Moses. In fact, the law of Moses is fulfilled in Me. So, over and over Jesus has refused to put down the Old Testament. He has refused to put down the authority of the Old Testament. He has refused to say the Law doesn't matter any more. And maybe they think by asking Him what is the greatest commandment, that it will give Him the opportunity, as it were ,to really reveal what He thinks. Maybe they think He's going to say, forget the commandment. Who cares about Moses? It's all about love. And then they can accuse Him of heresy.

Or maybe they're asking Him this question because it was such an obvious question that it would have been insulting. We know that religious Jews recited the Sh'ma twice a day in Jesus' time. That's Deuteronomy 6:5. That's the passage He's going to quote to them in verse 37. “Hear, O Israel! The lord your God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Every Jew recited that twice a day.

Maybe asking Him the question, “What is the first commandment?” was a way to mock Him. Sort of like walking up to a minister who's been preaching the gospel in the Presbyterian church for 30 years and saying, “By the way, ‘What is the answer to the first question of The Shorter Catechism?’” Like he wouldn't know that. Maybe they're mocking or insulting Jesus. I don't know. But whatever they're doing, they're trying to entrap Him in one of these ways. And whatever the case is, Jesus gives us an important response to this significant question. A question, as we said, that was better than the question that the Sadducees had just asked.

Whatever the sinful attitude of the Pharisees was, when they asked this question, this question prompts us to ask, do we reverently reflect on what our supreme duty is to God? Do we meditate on His word? Is it the authority of our lives? And when we disagree with it, we know who's wrong. Do we delight in that word? Do we examine ourselves by that word? This question, what is the greatest commandment, presses that issue on all of us. What is our greatest duty? What is our supreme obligation to God? And it ought to have all our ears waiting to hear what Jesus thinks about that, because what He thinks about that matters a lot. And so we look at verses 37 and 40, to hear Jesus' instructive answer to this question.

And Jesus basically responds: “Love God and love your neighbor.” But we learn something else from verses 37 through 40. Jesus shows us here implicitly that love to God and love to neighbor flow from God's love to us in Christ. You can't love God or love neighbor christianly unless you have experienced the love and the grace of God yourself. Jesus makes that implicitly clear. Here Jesus goes immediately, you look at verse 37, He goes immediately to Deuteronomy 6:5, and He quotes the second part of the Sh’ma. The Sh'ma is just the first word of that confession which means hear. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is one.” He quotes the second half of that: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That thing which is so important to the Jews that is was recited twice daily. And its very important to note that in answer to this question, Jesus does not set love over against the law. He does not say, “You know, the problem with you Pharisees is that you spend too much time thinking about the law. You're legalistic. You think about the law all the time.” No, Jesus doesn't say that. Jesus goes to this command and He goes to a law which commands love. Now we often times think, “Well you can't command love.” Don't tell that to God. He just did. Here's your command. Love. Love Me. Love neighbors. And Jesus says that our prime duty in life, He looks these men in the eye and He says, “Your prime duty in life is to love God with all your being.” J.C. Ryle says, “Love is the grand secret of true obedience to God.”

What is love? That is a hard question to answer in a few words. Here's my best shot at it this morning. Love to God means delighting in God. To love means to delight in God. And therefore, neighbor love means looking out for your neighbor's best interest because you delight in God. There's your definition. Love to God. Delighting in God. Love to neighbor. Looking out for your neighbor's best interest because you delight in God. And Jesus says, “Let Me tell you what, you can't love like that, unless you know God. You can't love what you don't know. You can't love who you don't know. And unless you know God, and unless you know Him savingly, unless you've experienced His grace, you cannot love as he calls Christians to love.” Jesus here calls us all to wholehearted love. He calls us to love God for himself. Not for what He can give us, but for Himself. Love God for who He is. He calls us to love Him as much as we're able. With all your heart. With all your soul. With all your mind. With all your strength. He calls us to love God actively. To actively display that love of God. Not just to say that we love God, but to practically live out our love to God.

Thomas Watson said Mary Magdalene loved Christ and she poured her perfume on Him. We think that we never do enough for the person whom we love. So we love God actively. And we love God supremely above all else. Just like we saw last week. Abraham withholds not his own son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves, because he loved God above everything else. What are the evidences of real love to God? The evidences of real love to God are communion with Him. The love of communion. You love His ordinances. You love the word, you love the prayer, you love sacraments, you love communion with Him. You find contentment in God. You love the God of our blessings more than the blessings of God. And if you had to choose between the two, you'd take the God of the blessings. And you'd leave behind the blessings themselves, because you find your contentment in God. Hatred for sin. You can't love God and love sin at the same time. Sympathy with God. That is, that the same things that grieve Him, grieve you. Desire to draw others to God. How can you truly love God and not want everybody else in the world to experience His love as well? Aching in His absence. Cheerfully doing His will, even when it conflicts with our ideas and our agendas. All those are evidences of real love for God. And Jesus connects to this love to God, of course. Leviticus chapter 19 verse 18. And He says, “and the second commandment is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.” And again He says that on the human level that means determining to seek others own best interests because we delight in God.

Isn't it brilliant how Jesus doesn't oppose love and law nor does he confuse love and law. Jesus doesn't say the law is love. And he doesn't say that love is law. They are distinct. But in the Christian, they work together. The law is the rails. It's the guideline. The pattern. The standard. Love is the energy which drives the train on the rails. Law without love cannot be kept, because the whole purpose of the law is that love might be guided in its expression. Let me put it this way: he function of law is to guide our practical expression of our love. Love to God. Love to neighbor. And so love needs law and the law needs love in the Christian.

III. Jesus’ question.

And so after having called attention to which command was the greatest, Jesus would go on to ask these men a question himself. If you look down in Matthew 22, you'll see it. “What do you think about the Christ? “ That's the very next question that comes from Jesus' mouth. We'll look at it next time we're together. What's He telling them? Is Jesus saying to these men, "You know, your question, ‘What is the first commandment?’ Is a good question. Let Me ask you a better one. ‘How are you going to keep the first commandment? And the second one? And the third one?’” How are you going to keep it? Because just having described what love is, everybody in this place who is listening, realizes that we've never done that perfectly once in our lives.

So the real question is, “How in the world do you do that?” And there's only one answer. Christ. Because only a regenerated heart can keep the law like God intended it to be kept. The most important question about the law is not what it is, but how do you keep it? John tells us in 1John 4:19. “We love Him because He first loved us.” Love to God is enabled only by God's prior love for us.

And the apostle Paul, in Galatians chapter 5 verse 22, will tell us that love is the first fruit of the Spirit. Let me rephrase that. The fruit of the Spirit is the consequence, it is the result of the Spirit's work in us. It's not something that we do on our own. It's something that God does in us. God must change our hearts. J.C. Ryle puts it this way: “We cannot have love to God and man without faith in Christ and without regeneration.” So the way to spread true love in the world, is to teach the atonement of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. That's the way to have love in the world. You see, it's not enough simply announce standards. Our society is falling apart. We have no standards any more. There are a lot of dear, sweet people out there who want to announce the standards and they think everything will be fine. Wrong. Because the standard won't help you unless the regenerating work of God on the hearts of men and women is done. And so we need a dynamic, something that empowers us to love before we're able to love. Its not enough simply to announce, “Well, you ought to love.” “Well, that's fine. How do I do that?”

And Jesus says, “What do you think of the Christ?” And He says that in part because that's the real question. If you would love God, you've got to know His Son. And you've got to know His love through His Son. Believe on Him today. Amen

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.