What is the Great Command?

Matthew 22:34-46

Trinity 18, 2023


+In the Name of Jesus+


I am going to tell you something you already know, at least as Lutherans.   There are two great overriding teachings or doctrines in God’s Word starting in Genesis and running like two rivers through a country, kind of like the Tigris and Euphrates.   They meander through Holy Scripture for over 1600 years in 66 books composed by 40 different men.          These two “rivers” are very, very different.      One is the river of Law; the other is the River of Life or the Gospel.    What is the difference between Law and Gospel?


  • They are both given by God, so that can’t be the difference.
  • These two doctrines can be found in both the Old and New Testament texts. So that can’t be the difference.
  • They both teach us what God wants, so that can’t be the difference.


The difference is this: one of these “rivers” brings eternal life; the other brings an eternal death.    If you attempt to drink from the wrong river seeking to be quenched of your sin, you will die the horrible death of hell.


If you drink from the other, you will live with Christ for all eternity.    Nothing then, could be more important than knowing these doctrines and knowing the clear difference between them.      This morning, the text of Matthew challenges us TO KNOW AND UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESES TWO DOCTRINES as we consider:



Question 1: What is the great command?

Question 2: What do you think of Christ?




It is time for round three!    No, I am not talking about a boxing match, but rather a battle of wits between the Pharisees and Sadducees on the one side and our Lord on the other.      These matches take place during Holy Week, the last week of our Savior’s earth-bound life.    But this battle is not merely academic; this is the stuff of eternal life or eternal death.     Round one involves the Pharisees and the question of paying taxes to Caesar.   The answer: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s.”


Jesus undoes their trickery and exposes their fraud in front of the people.    This does not make the Pharisees happy.     Round two brings out the Sadducees and the question of “Whose wife is she?    The Sadducees, who rejected life after death, ask a question that goes against their own belief: “If a woman is married seven times, whose wife is she in heaven?”


Now comes round three; the Pharisees come up to bat.    The Pharisees were Jesus’ most embittered enemies.   In their self-righteous pride they denied God’s grace and salvation in Jesus.   Add to this the jealousy over the popularity Jesus had with the people.     Their question: “What is the Great Command in the Law?”   This was meant as a curve ball.


For us to understand this, we need to keep in mind that the Rabbis found “in the Law” 613 commands; 248 of those in the positive and 365 in the negative.    So, this question was considered one of the great problems of the day.   They thought that they could get Jesus to speak disparagingly about some of the Laws while elevating others.    They really thought they had Jesus this time.


In spite of their attempt to entrap Him, Jesus does give them an answer, indeed the answer which affects all eternity: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.    This is the greatest and most important commandment.   And the next is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’   All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”  


Think of for a moment.     “You shall love.”     Do you see anything wrong in that command?    What a beautiful command.     What is better in life than love; to be able to love someone and to receive love in return?      Note that Jesus says, “Love the LORD your God above all things.”     It is that Name and that Name alone which can and does save us.


It is that Name into which you and I were baptized.   It is the very Name of love, self-sacrificing love, displayed on the cross for all eternity.      In these two commands hang the Law and the Prophets, that is, all God’s commands are reflections of the command to love God and your neighbor.     Therefore, Jesus is right.    Great and holy and righteous is the command to love.


In speaking of love, several times I have encountered the mantra, “Love comes naturally; hate must be learned.”   Just the opposite is true.    Love must be taught.    Through Adam and Eve and through our own sin and fault, we have lost love.     Even sadder, the commandments cannot give love back to us.   So here we sit, by nature, with the command to love hanging over us and we can do nothing about it.


It requires from us, what God first of all gave to man and women already in the Garden of Eden.   It is this love Adam and Eve threw away.    It is this love you and I spurn with our daily sin.   It is this love for God which we must have to be happy eternally but in and of ourselves it is completely lacking.


So here we are by nature lost and condemned and the commandment cannot help us; it can only demand, but it gives nothing at all.    But God says we must have love.    But by nature we do not have it.   Instead by nature we have hate; hate toward God and hatred toward man.    We must love, and yet we cannot.   So then we must die and be lost eternally because of this great, righteous and beautiful command.




            You may now be asking,


  • “Is there no way I can convince my heart to give up its resistance to the commandment and agree with the command to love instead of hate?
  • Is there not a way in which the will of God to love once more becomes my will just as it was in the Garden of Eden with something I do?
  • Is there not even one commandment in the Law given by which I can return to keeping the Commandments so that little by little or incrementally I can attain to keeping the Great command?


That is the question of the fool.    Can one who is evil by nature and to the core do anything good?    The answer is NO!     “All our righeousnesses are as filthy rags.”    All the commands of the Law demand love, total, undivided, perfect, self-sacrificing love.    Who of us here can give this love?     We can’t even give that kind of love to our spouse whom God has given to us in love.


Which of you husbands can say, “I have loved my wife as Christ loved the Church?”    What wife can boast, “I have always submitted to my husband out of love for my Savior even calling him “lord” as Sarah referred to Abraham?    What wretched people we are by nature.        There is no command to be found that will give you the love you need to meet the demands of God.   By nature, we stand in absolute contempt of God’s court.    So where can we find this love?


This brings us to the second question.       In asking the second question, Jesus does not mean to entrap the Pharisees but to bring them salvation: “What do you think of the Christ.    Whose Son is he?”    Here, true love shows Itself.     With this question, Jesus points the Pharisees and us to another teaching, that other river, the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.   Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son from eternity to eternity.    In Christ, love has come to this earth; peace has come to this earth.


Dear precious soul who may be troubled over a life of sin or a succession of lawless habits, (lust, anger, greed, gossip, living with one outside the bonds of marriage, drug abuse) know this, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Great Command.   He is love for us in our place.   Christ has fulfilled the Great Commandment for you.


Jesus has loved with the perfect and complete love demanded in the command.   Jesus was obedient to God in every aspect loving God with all of his heart, mind and soul which brought Him to the cross.   Through this, you have pardon for your transgressions.   Through the life of Christ, you now have the right to salvation.    The Law says, “Do this and you shall live.”    Christ has kept the Law for you and therefore you have kept it, you have done it and you will live.


You might be thinking, “Pastor, I so want to believe this for as the command is great, it seems that my sins are greater.”    Be careful, you are looking for something in yourself.     Don’t look for faith in yourself; don’t look for goodness in yourself, you will despair.     Look again at the cross where Jesus died for you.    See there God’s love for you.     Hear Christ beckon you, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest.”


Dear trouble soul, do not try to do the work of the Holy Spirit.          In your baptism, the Holy Spirit saved you by bringing you into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.      Look to the promise there; drink from the river of life.   God promises you that if you have died with Christ in the water of holy baptism, you shall also rise with Christ in newness of life.


Today, we have learned the two great teachings of Scripture: Law and Gospel.    Understanding them and the difference between them is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.   Both are given by God for the purposes of our Salvation.     The Law teaches us to look at ourselves and what we really are by nature: sin-drenched reprobates fully deserving of the fire of hell.   The Gospel has us sinners look at Christ where we are drenched in His Holy life, death and resurrection, acquitted of all wrongdoing and restored to God as His holy children.


I pray now that the words, “You shall love,” are sweet sounding words.   The LORD God commands you to love Him because He wants you to look at the cross for healing, spiritual healing, just as the Children of Israel were commanded to look upon the bronze serpent in the wilderness: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”   Jesus was lifted up for you.


To reassure you that He means you, Jesus says, “Take eat, Take drink, this is My Body and Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”     Come to the holy table of your Lord this day and take from Him personally the very body and blood given and shed on that Good Friday.   Remember that I stand in the place of Christ; my hand becomes the hand of Jesus outstretched to nourish you with His body and blood.     Go in peace.   Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria