So, how’s it going? Did you get enough sleep last night? You get out of the house on time? Did you find a good parking spot this morning? Were you welcomed as you came in? Was it clear where to go? Did you think the building was clean? Are the seats comfortable? Can you see and hear all that’s happening from where you’re sitting? Is it too cold in here, or maybe too hot? What about the people sitting around you? Are they the kind of people you like to go to church with? You may be too nervous to look around right now, so just think to yourself…are they the right age, race, or social class? Are they like you? And what about the service so far? Did you like the music? Was it too traditional? Too contemporary? Maybe not enough of both? How about the offering, can you believe that we still ask folks to give money? How did it make you feel? Pressured, embarrassed, perhaps even guilty? And now you all know what’s coming, maybe you didn’t know it’s already begun – the sermon! You have to agree the preacher has a hard task. He has to be someone you can relate to. He needs to be holy, but not too holy…knowledgeable, but not too knowledgeable…compassionate, but not too compassionate. And what about the message? It needs to be good enough, relevant enough, and certainly short enough.

We can go on and on with questions and thoughts like these couldn’t we? There is so much to consider when evaluating a church. Have you ever really stopped to think about it? Have you ever asked yourself why you’re here? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are literally endless opinions about what makes a church great. But what do you think? What makes a great church? Is it pristine bathrooms, a robust youth program, the right music played in the right way, or the right kind of pastor preaching the right kind of message? Is this really what makes a great church?[1]

I begin asking these questions today because it is our custom to take the first few weeks of the year to focus on the nature of the Church, to remind us who we are and what we’re all about. This year we’d like to continue that custom looking at the Church, but specifically, out of all that could come into a discussion about what makes a great church, for this year’s series we’re boiling it down to just two simple but substantial markers. Two things that lie at the very core of what and who a church is. Two things that if present give a church life and vibrancy, and if absent remove any kind of health a church has. What are these two things? A great church is a church that…

-Embraces the Great Commandment

-Obeys the Great Commission

Today we turn to the first of these markers, embracing the great commandment. So go ahead and turn with me to our text for today, Matthew 22:34-40. I’ve divided the passage into two headings, see first…

The Question (v34-36)

Here in v34-36 Jesus is asked a question. But if we back up a bit in this chapter we learn this isn’t the first time Jesus was asked a question. Rather, we see some dubious questioning had already been taking place. In fact, in Matthew 22 Jesus is questioned three times by the religious leaders of the day. The first questioning comes from the Pharisees, we see it begin in v15. They were seeking to entangle or entrap Jesus in His words. They got a plan together and sent off some of their disciples to ask Jesus about who they should pay taxes to. No surprise, Jesus handles their question easily. The second questioning later that same day but this time it comes from the Sadducees, we see it begin in v23. Like the Pharisees before, the Sadducees were also seeking to trap Jesus in His own words, and they proceed to ask Jesus a question about marriage, death, and the resurrection. And once again no surprise, Jesus handles the question easily. Now we come to our passage today where we find the third question. It is another question from the Pharisees, we see it begin in v34.

“But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question to test Him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

Apparently, the Pharisees had not only been dealt with easily by Jesus once before, but they had also heard how poorly the Sadducees faired with Jesus, that they too posed a question to Jesus that He answered clearly. So what did these Pharisees do? It says in v34 “they gathered together.” For what? To discuss, to plan, and to scheme at great length to come up with a new question. One that would surely stump Jesus and catch Him in His own words. Notice v35. “And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question to test Him.” Before in v16 they had sent disciples to Jesus to ask their first question, now they send one of their own. And that it says “One of them” in v35 is helpful. You see, we normally think of a lawyer as one who deals in the Laws of the land, who knows the courts, one who is so easily able to navigate the murky waters of the Law that they could, if they so choose, manipulate it to their own benefit. This lawyer isn’t quite like that. Yes, he’s after his own agenda and is being dubious himself to a very real degree but this lawyer is “one of them” meaning he’s a Pharisee himself. Another word often used to describe this kind of person is a ‘scribe.’ One skilled and trained not in the Law of the land, but in the Law of God. He is a lawyer yes, but he’s a religious lawyer.[2] Apparently in their gathering we heard about in v34 they decided the best one among them to bring another question to Jesus and be their spokesman would be their very own lawyer, who knows the Law like the back of his hand. Surely, if anyone is to catch Jesus in a trap, it’s him right? So off he goes to ask his question.

Now, the end of v35 shows us the question was not true. It wasn’t the case that they really desired to learn something from Jesus. Rather the question was intended to “test Jesus.” The question, in other words, doesn’t come from a friendly spirit, it comes with evil intent. But nonetheless, we have ample reason to be thankful that the question was asked at all, because Jesus’ answer is full of precious instruction.[3]

What is the question? We find it in v36, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Curious question, don’t you think? Isn’t this lawyer an expert in the law? Indeed he is. Why then the question? Well, his question, no doubt, is one he had already spent a large time on answering himself. But he asks it to Jesus because the answer to the question would reveal where Jesus thinks the heart of the Law of God really lies. So the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” is really getting at fundamental foundation of what the entire Law, or the entire Old Testament, is based on.[4] For this lawyer-scribe, and really for all Jews, there could not be a more serious or hefty question raised.

So we’ve heard the question, let’s now hear…

The Answer (v37-40)

“And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus gives two answers to the question. First, love to God. And second, love to neighbor. Two things, two realities, two commandments that summarize the heart of the Law and Prophets. One on hand, how simple is Jesus’ response? All that is in the Law of God boils down to these two things? Indeed it does. Yet on the other hand how comprehensive is Jesus’ response? As soon as we hear His answer we’re humbled, we’re exposed, and we’re reminded of how far we fall short of loving God and loving neighbor. Truly the world would be a far better place if these two rules were known and heeded.[5]Truly churches would be far healthier places if these two rules were embraced. And truly, our own lives would be more beautiful, perhaps more difficult, but far more beautiful if we lived in light of these two rules.

In the context of all His questioning in Matthew 22 this is the first question Jesus responds to with a straightforward answer that the Jews would’ve agreed with.[6] Why? Jesus is simply quoting the Old Testament here. Love to God from Deut. 6 and love to neighbor from Lev. 19. But while these Jews would’ve agreed with His answers, they also would’ve been cut to the heart because His answers pierce through all of the man-made traditions they’ve built up for themselves in their prideful religiosity. But to see such things let’s take each one of Jesus’ responses in turn to see and savor them for what they are.

Love to God

v37-38, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”

As we’ve already said this comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 which says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” We could simply say love toward God is being taught here. To love God is the greatest commandment. What does it look like to love God? Well, we love God with our heart, our soul, and our might. But be careful here. What’s being taught is not a lesson on the makeup of man and how we ought to use the various parts of our makeup (heart, soul, might) to love God and that each looks a bit different in its love to God, no. Rather, the way we love God is with our whole person. So heart, soul, and might do not describe different parts of us, they’re overlapping categories that describe and reflect all of us.[7] In other words, our entire makeup, from top to bottom, inside and outside, are to be active and engaged in loving the Lord. Did you notice Jesus makes a change here though? He quoted Deuteronomy verbatim except for the last part, where He replaced ‘might’ with ‘mind.’ See that? Why did He do that? Many wonder at this and give all kinds of answers to it yet it’s never really explained in the passage so it’s hard to know why He changed it. But, because the whole of one’s person is in view in these terms I think Jesus makes the change to get more at the heart of what’s being aimed at here.

All in all, it’s refreshing to see this. What matters most to Jesus isn’t the 613 various Laws found in Moses or any other of the various Laws found in the prophets, no. One law, one rule, one commandment rises above them all, loving the Lord with all one is and has. The key word to note in v37 is the word all. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Seeing this word all repeated so often teaches us that a true love to God isn’t halfhearted. Loving God looks like a total allegiance, a total devotion, with the totality of one’s being.[8] Loving God is not just an sentimental reality removed from the mind and loving God is not just an intellectual reality removed from the affections. Not just part of us, but all of us is to be active and engaged in loving the Lord.

This is what matters most, and because this is what matters most the question for us is: does this matter the most to you? Loving the Lord with all, over all, and above all? If so, great! Glut your soul in this love, enjoy it, and pray that your love to God would fan into an even greater flame! But if God is not what matters most to you, what is it that matters more? Something surely takes first place in your heart, something surely takes first place in your affections, so what is it? Whatever it is, whether something corrupt or something holy, if it has more of a hold on you than God Himself does, that thing is an idol.

Church, perhaps it’s simple to say it but perhaps a simple statement is what we need.[9] Christians are those who love God. Christians are those who hold first place for God. Not second, third, or fourth…first. Over all and above all. God is to have all of our love, all of our affection, all of our attention, all of our soul, not just some of us or a part of us. Why? Because God commands it, because God is worthy of it, and because God is not an idolater. He will not let us settle for less knowing He made us for Himself. So He must be first! Church, who God is in His perfections, His nature, and His beauty…and what God does in His creating, His redeeming, and His keeping work gives us abundant reason to love Him!

But, do you see the problem? Love to God isn’t natural for us. We’re sinners and not only at odds with God as sinners but at war with Him as sinners. Deep down, God in His holiness scares us. How then are we to love God? Only through Christ. Only when we feel our sins forgiven, only when we find ourselves at peace with God through the gospel, only when we’re filled with the peace of God through the Spirit, only then will we rejoice in the new heart He’s given us and soar in love to God as we ought. Or simply put, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Love to Neighbor

v39, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

As we’ve already said this comes from Leviticus 19:18 which says, “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” This, Jesus says, is the second great commandment and while the first had love to God in view, this one has love toward neighbor in view. But, what does it look like to love neighbor? Look at v38, notice that love to neighbor is rooted in love for self. See that? “…love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ll be honest here. I never had to learn how to love myself. I naturally love myself more than anything else or anyone else. I’m aware this isn’t a great thing to say, but this is an honest thing to say. It’s is only by grace that I ever honestly treat someone as more important than myself…and you know what? I’m not alone I this. This is the human fallen condition. Why then does Jesus root love to neighbor in love to self? He does it because the measure by which we love ourselves, according to Jesus, is the measure by which we’re called to love others.[10]

Maybe you might be asking, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Well, the parable of the Good Samaritan and other passages teach what some call the universal neighborhood of all. This means everyone in the world is our neighbor and because of that Christians are to love all people. Those like us. Those less fortunate than us. Those more fortunate than us. And even those who hate us, who oppose us, who persecute us. They’re all our neighbors. That this command is second in our passage means love to neighbor follows after and flows out from love to God. Which is challenging because it means Christians cannot say they love God while hating any of their neighbors.[11] This is a high calling indeed, isn’t it? It’s so high one might ask how it’s possible to do this, knowing the kind of hurt and pain goes around from person to person in the world. Is Jesus really teaching this kind of love? Yes, He is.

But again, do you see the problem?[12] Love to neighbor isn’t natural for us. We’re sinners and not only at odds with God as sinners but we’re at odds with others as well. How then are we to love others in this way? Only through Christ. Hear it again. Only when we feel our sins forgiven, only when we find ourselves at peace with God through the gospel, only when we’re filled with the peace of God through the Spirit, only then, will we rejoice in the new heart He’s given us and soar in love to God above us and to neighbors around us as we ought.


So come back to the beginning with me. What makes a church great? Above all else it is this greatest of all commands: loving God and loving neighbor. A quick survey of this past week might alarm us, for there are likely many occasions when we did not do this. But Church, Jesus came to love us in this way and He did not fail in His love. It led Him to come, to live, to die, and to rise. As we meditate on His love, may it awaken ours![13] Embracing the great commandment is the root which, if planted deep within, brings forth all manner of pleasant gospel fruit in us and through us. May such love be present and growing here to the glory and praise of God.

[1] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway 2013) 39-42.

[2] Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 654.

[3] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012) 235.

[4] O’Donnell, 655.

[5] Ryle, 235.

[6] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew – NAC (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992) 335.

[7] O’Donnell, 656.

[8] O’Donnell, 656-657.

[9] O’Donnell, 658. See also Ryle, 236. See also R.C. Sproul, Matthew – Saint Andrew’s Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 647.

[10] O’Donnell, 661.

[11] Sproul, 648.

[12] Ryle, 236.

[13] Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew 14-28 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008) 321.

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