IF SOMEONE asked you what’s the most important thing in life, what would you say?
This was Jesus’ reply when he was asked that question:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37–40).
His answer combined two verses from the Bible. The first is Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This commandment was at the centre of the Law which God gave to His people Israel. Today Jews know it as Shema Yisrael (‘Hear O Israel’) and it’s at the heart of Jewish prayer services. The second verse he quoted is also taken from the Law, it’s Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.”
Jesus said that the entire teaching of the Law and the Prophets is summarised in these two commandments.
The Law and the Prophets
The ‘Law’ which God gave to Israel is contained in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It was to be the basis of their religious, national and personal lives. It’s comprehensive and thorough and gives guidance for every situation. The ‘Prophets’ is the writings of the many great men God provided throughout Israel’s history to proclaim to the nation His guidance, encouragement and warnings.
Jesus distilled it all into just two commandments. It’s not that the rest of the Law and the Prophets are unnecessary —they are the words of God, Jesus himself continually referred to them and his teaching was based on them and every Bible reader knows that they are invaluable. What he said is that if you boil them all down and extract the essence of them, they are all underpinned by these two great principles: love God, and love your fellow people. This is essentially what all God’s laws are about.
When you think about these two great commandments there’s a lifetime of lessons to learn: for example, about the supremacy of love; about the fact that (contrary to the popular notion) love requires effort, whether it’s love for another person or love for God; and about the fact that there is a priority—God first, people second. This is the big difference between the Christian concept of love, and the one that’s popular in today’s world.
Our world puts great emphasis on the virtues of peace, harmony and love—which is absolutely a good thing. From the United Nations which exists to promote peace between countries, all the way down to reconciliation counsellors who seek to restore harmony in personal relationships, we value and try to achieve peace and love. But somehow, as anyone’s experience of the world will show them, it very often doesn’t work. The reason, I suggest, is that we’re trying to fulfil the second commandment without the first. We’re trying to make the tree stand up without its roots. We’re trying to promote love without the source of love —God.
How do we learn to love one another? The Bible’s answer is that we learn to love by learning about the love that God shows to us. He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, so that our sins can be taken away:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him… Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7–11).
A follower of Jesus Christ should be someone who stands out as a truly loving person. Like their master, they should show kindness in everything they do and say. And the key to this state of mind is that it is a response to the love which God has shown to them.
You could say that their life is like a tree with its branches and its roots—vibrant and fruitful with their love for their fellows, and underneath anchored and nourished by their love for God.