THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS
by Doug Ward
The Bible has a number of ways of summarizing the commandments of God. One of the most important of these, of course, is the Decalogue, the ``ten words'' proclaimed by God from the summit of Mount Sinai (Exod. 20; Deut. 5). 1 Some other well-known encapsulations of God's law are given in Micah 6:8 and Habakkuk 2:4.
By the time of Jesus, Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 had come to be used as a two-part summary of God's commandments (see Luke 10:25-28). Jesus himself endorsed such a summary (Luke 10:28), and in the closing days of His earthly ministry, He proclaimed that these two commandments are the greatest of all:
There is certainly good reason to single out these two particular commandments as fundamental. In a beautifully concise manner, they sum up the words inscribed in the two tablets of the Decalogue. As Jesus said in verse 40, they underlie the whole message of the Scriptures.
Jesus also stated that the commandment to love one's neighbor is ``like unto'' the directive to love God (v. 39). In addition to providing the foundation for the law and the prophets, these two key laws are somehow closely related.
In this article, I will explore the important connections between Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. As we will see, the New Testament has a great deal to say about the relationship between the two Great Commandments, and an understanding of that relationship can motivate us to carry out both of them more fully.
``Thou shalt love . . . ''
One obvious similarity between Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 is the fact that each of these commandments begins with the phrase ``thou shalt love'' (V'Ahavta in Hebrew). This similarity in wording was one of the reasons that the two verses were associated with each other. During the time of Jesus and for centuries thereafter, Jewish teachers often linked together pairs of scriptural passages containing common phrases, with the idea that each passage in such a pair would provide help in interpreting the other. 2 As disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest Jewish teacher of all time, let us then ask two questions: What does Lev. 19:18 tell us about what it means to love God? Conversely, what does Deut. 6:5 tell us about loving our neighbor?
In answer to the first question, the Bible makes clear that having love for God involves much more than holding fond thoughts toward Him. To completely fulfill Deut. 6:5, one must act in accordance with Lev. 19:18. This is brought out in the teachings of John the son of Zebedee, one of the first disciples of Jesus:
As John wrote in I John 4:21, his admonitions followed the instruction of the Master. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that our relationships with other human beings are an important factor in our relationship with God (Matt. 5:23-24). On another occasion, Jesus stated that He would judge our good deeds toward others as having been carried out for Him personally (Matt. 25:40).
Similar instruction played a prominent role in the post-resurrection teaching of our Lord. In one appearance to a group of His disciples, the resurrected Jesus repeated three times that Peter could demonstrate love toward Him by caring for the Church (John 21:15-17). A few years later, in His appearance to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, Jesus asked, ``Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?'' (Acts 9:4) By persecuting the followers of Jesus, Saul had, in effect, been attacking Jesus Himself.
The basis for this connection between the two Great Commandments is the fact that human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). 3 James the Just, leader of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem, pointed out the inconsistency in simultaneously praising God and cursing those made in His image:
Paul's One-Point Summaries
The aforementioned Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. the apostle Paul) sometimes gave Lev. 19:18 as a summary of the law of God. In Gal. 5:14, Paul wrote, ``For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.'' He expounded on the same idea at greater length in Rom. 13:8-10:
In these passages there is no mention of Deut. 6:5, the first of the Great Commandments. However, our discussion so far shows that Deut. 6:5 is included implicitly in Paul's summaries, since a major way in which one shows love toward God is through love toward our fellow men. Tbere is no contradiction between Matt. 22:37-40 and Gal. 5:14. Instead, the statement of Gal. 5:14 in consistent with a complete understanding of Matt. 22:37-40.
Our Second Question
Now let us turn to the second question posed earlier: What does the first Great Commandment tell us about loving our neighbor? One answer to this question can be based upon the observations that one who truly loves God seeks to emulate Him, and God's love toward us is the greatest love any of us has ever experienced. In the words of the apostle John,
We find one of the greatest examples of God's love in the life and death of Jesus the Messiah. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus made the following statement to His disciples:
What is ``new'' about this commandment of Jesus, over and above what is stated in Lev. 19:18? The newness seems to be in Jesus' example. With His own great example of love, He renewed an already existing commandment and set a high standard for His disciples. He therefore asks us not just to love others as we love ourselves, but to love others as He loved us. Such a love is self-sacrificial (Matt. 16:24; John 15:13).
We have seen, then, that the two Great Commandments are inextricably bound together. We show love toward God in our love for each other. Conversely, our actions toward each other should be guided by God's supreme example of love.
Acknowledgment: This article is based upon an excellent sermon by Dwight A. Pryor entitled ``The Torah in One Word.'' Cassette recordings of this sermon can be obtained from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 750815, Dayton, OH 45475.
1In fact, some have identified the Decalogue as the organizing principle behind the detailed presentation of the laws of God in Deut. 12-26. See, for example, Christopher J.H. Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 5.
2For further discussion, see the article ``Jesus the Master Teacher'' in Issue 3 of Grace and Knowledge.
3The fact that we are created in God's image is also the reason why capital crimes must be taken very seriously (Gen. 9:6). One who murders another human being is, in effect, killing God in effigy.
File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 2 Jun 2003, 15:50.