Bible, Theology

Is the Greatest Commandment Still the Greatest?


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A couple of days ago I was thinking and tweeting about Jesus’ stand-out words in Matthew 22 that, over the years, have significantly and foundationally shaped my understanding of worship. Saddened by the context of the common experience for many of us – dysfunctional/broken relationships (horizontal) – the critical importance of prioritising a personal and corporate pursuit of intimacy with God dawned on me again (vertical).

As the Church, if we refuse to prioritise the height and depth in God that He invites us to, our relationships will be sentimental at best and manipulative at worst. After all, Paul described this vertical axis as a safeguard. (see Philippians 3:1).

Shema Yisrael

In verses 38-39 of Matthew 22, by directly quoting the Shema Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus teaches the universe about the first and second commandments. He was answering an “expert” in the law who was bent on trapping him, proving that he was anything but an expert in the law. Non-counterfeit experts in the law would have been beholding the Lamb in a vertical worship axis of their own!

(The ancient and wider Jewish context is so important and you can find more information about this through this resource if you’re interested in digging in deeper).

A Worthy Debate

A friend who I love contacted me to disagree with my tweet, above. They pushed back claiming that given Jesus’ ‘new’ law in John 13, the main impulse of the Church was now to prioritise the horizontal axis of worship, of washing the feet of our neighbours – that this is how our love for God is now made manifest.

Which is, of course, partly true.

At first reading, I can understand this tension that John 13 seems to throw up, but is there really a tension here?

The best way of my answering this vital question is to paste the content of our discussion:

My friend’s comment: 

I don’t in way want you to think I’m being combative or being contentious for the sake of it. I REALLY CARE ABOUT THIS STUFF. And I think its of the upmost importance for all of us to be open to having our positions challenged, especially if we are at fundamentally different starting points! How else can we grow in understating if we refuse to be open to one another. I wish it wasn’t so, but unfortunately history reveals to us that you can take any scripture or theme and have at least 3 different views of interpretation, ALL pioneered by Righteous and Godly men. We must, like our forefathers, approach the scripture In absolute humility and be willing to wrestle with them with one another, whilst maintaining an attitude of honor. I’ve been out of the UK since 2012 so I’m actually ignorant of the developments you’re referring to but I am open to being filled in. Regarding the first commandment though, I think there’s some massive things to discuss. We absolutely cannot use Matthew 22 as foundational in terms of what our priority as the church to be, especially in light of its glaring omission of the apostles’ writings. Without fail and with total consistency, Peter, Paul and John all prioritise the second commandment as our exclusive expression of relationship with God. To say the omission is due to a simple assumption that all Jews know first commandment is priority instinctively is to overlook two massive points. First, Matthew 22 is spoken to an EXPERT of the LAW (surely if there was an assumption to be made it would be with him?) and secondly, much of the NT is written to Pagan converts (especially the Galatians) and it just doesn’t make sense for Paul to assume first commandment and establish second commandment as secondary. Surely something else is going on here??? Especially in light of Jesus’ last supper dialogue in which the NEW covenant is announced and the NEW commandment is given. Moses took 10 laws and the Jews turned them into 613. Speaking to an expert of the law, Jesus reduces it to 2. Speaking to the boys he reduces it to 1. And from there it remains 1 Commandment throughout the entirety of the NT. I personally can not overlook this…especially in light of the aforementioned observation of the damage that has been done throughout history when Men have justified atrocity in the name of 1C. That point was nothing personal to you. It was more highlighting the very real danger of your original statement. In other words, I think it’s unwise, and history confirms this, to assume 2C will take care of itself providing we prioritize 1C. I actually believe the opposite to be true, and believe John is explicit in this. Love your neighbor…and THAT not only contains intrinsically the evidence that you love God, but more importantly entirely eradicates the potential of 1C justification for violence in word or deed!

My response 

Firstly, my comment about not wanting to engage with a fundamentally different starting point wasn’t meaning about this specific issue of 1C and 2C but rather areas that I would now break fellowship over – namely, what God says about God and specifically about marriage and sexuality.

I have no doubt that this will continue to be the primary catalyst for the division (sanctification) of the bride ready for His return; so-called believers who have the audacity to renege on centuries of church tradition but, infinitely more importantly, the plainly obvious word of God. Rico Tice was right recently when he described this “division” as tantamount to a different religion (https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Rico-Tice-Why-I-ve-left-Justin-Welby-s-evangelism-team-over-same-sex-relationships). The Beechings, Chalkes – even Welbys – of this time, aren’t holding to what God says about God and they’re leading hundreds of thousands – if not millions – astray with a half-baked gospel, void of repentance and submission to Jesus as Lord. This is what I’m meaning about public/private dialogue and whether or not you’re coming from the same fundamental starting point as me. I’m not going to assume that you see what I see, feel what I feel or believe what I believe.

My reference to “unprecedented developments” in the UK since 2014 was to the “redefinition of marriage” on March 29th. This is a lynch pin influencing so much, (including a massive acceleration in gender dysphoria, even in kids of 5 years old), some of which we haven’t started to see in the UK yet, (polygamy, incest). It was also a date that largely came and went without the Church, generally, even flinching. Contrastingly, I was actually embroiled in a high-profile Twitter fire storm with Vicky Beeching that day. It was around that time that I had an intensely growing awareness – for both Mairi and me together – of our prophetic calling.

Lastly, returning to 1C/2C, I’ve read what you’ve written carefully. All I feel that I can do is offer 6 comments to what you’ve said before asking you to watch a Piper sermon, below. Funnily enough, as you’ll know, Bickle has shaped me hugely in my formative twenties, but it’s Piper on this occasion who’s helped me express what I believe to be true and of utmost importance.

First the bullet points, then the sermon:

1. I’m still not understanding why you interpreted my original tweet as being negative in terms of the horizontal axis. I guess you could have interpreted it as meaning “leave relationships to themselves and they’ll be fine – a kind of default, coasting mode”. This isn’t at all what I meant and I’m not accepting that your comment, “I think it’s unwise…to assume 2C will take care of itself providing we prioritise 1C”, was a reasonable deduction from my tweet! (As Piper’s sermon explains compellingly from John 13 & 15). It’s an extremely unbalanced focus to (seem to) reduce the prioritising of the 1C as pointing to only historical atrocities, especially given that they were enacted with motivations of a counterfeit vertical love of God rather than a genuine one. (see point 6).

2. I accept that there are differing viewpoints about a wide variety of different theologies and often from good blokes. But not all areas are equally important. If we’re arguing about the cross, forget it, but if we have a different eschatology then, in one sense, who cares?! My point is, not all points of (fundamental) difference should be engaged, condoned or honoured in humility. Some should be rebuked. I think we’ll start seeing much more of this Timothy/Titus/Ephesians 5:11 strength over the earth during the next 5 years.

3. I could say a lot about this, but I’ll keep it brief: I disagree with your apparent priority of the Apostle’s writings over Jesus in Matthew 22 quoting the OT, and in your previous note asking for a “post ascension text”. You’re obviously using categoric language about Matthew 22 which tells me that you’re some-what entrenched in this view, but, compared to mine, it’s a very different way of reading and understanding the Bible. Muslims read the Quran with an exegesis of abrogation – we can’t do that if we’re handling the Bible properly. (Again, Piper models this so well in his sermon via his concentric circles of cross-reference and context!).

4. One point here about what you’re saying about the expert in the law cf. Jesus’ disciples and my counter point about “1C assumption”: though Jesus is technically addressing an expert in the law in Matthew 22, he was an “expert” that was trying to trap Jesus. This proves that he wasn’t an expert at all! If we was truly an expert he wouldn’t have been asking Jesus the question with the motivation that he had. Jesus’ teenage men were the real experts – relatively – because they had come to see Jesus for who he really was! (Matthew 13:17, 1 Cor.1:27, 1 Pet.1:12). So, just to follow the train of thought on my argument, it was actually completely appropriate for Jesus to assume a 1C understanding with his boys AND completely appropriate for him to assume that the “expert” needed a basic lesson in kingdom realities. he knew their hearts! The expert was blind. The scribes had forensic skill in detail but had missed the wood for the trees. So, (also because of point 3) I believe the opposite of what you believe to be true – we absolutely can use Matthew 22 as foundational in terms of what our priority of the church should be. (Again, Piper makes the point from John 15 much more strongly. And, yes, I appreciate my point here is based on a cultural context/dynamic/assumption more than the specific text that Piper picks up).

5. Moses’ 10 laws, the Pharisees’ 613 and Jesus’ 2 and then 1: the point is, what is this new one commandment in essence? Piper is right – the critical part of the verse is John 13:34(b) “as I have loved you”. (In other words, the pattern of now loving others in/as Christ, just as He demonstrated and modelled repeatedly through the rest of the gospels and into Gethsemane. Loving others as a new-John-13-commandment (and prophetic fulfilment of the law) inextricably first involves a John-15-abiding in the Father…the vertical priority of my original tweet).

6. The last thing I want to say concerns your final paragraph that, honestly, I completely disagree with and believe where the only personal and corporate danger lies. (It’s actually more than a danger; it’s a plague ravaging huge parts of the Church): Imagine an L shape: authentic, supernatural love for God coming down (and back up) and expressed out into our world by washing the feet of our neighbours. It’s an order and shape that works from a) humility and b) dependence on the Vine. It’s the shape of John 15 and Matthew 22. You’ve alluded to a false L shape where the vertical axis wasn’t real (no-one kills or abuses or neglects others when the love for God is real – John 16:2). So, my point is that genuine love for God, from receiving genuine love from Him (1 John 4:19), NEVER results in the abuse or neglect of our neighbours. We can say that categorically. The same can’t be said in reverse. Imagine inverting the L shape: you’re saying that love for each other internally evidences love for God. But, whereas the first L shape affords absolute confidence, you simply can not be categoric about this in reverse. Why? So much of what is currently going on in the name of “love” isn’t rooted in vertical love AT ALL – it’s counterfeit love, proud, entitled and independent. Don’t hear me wrong – some feet-washing is real (from vertical). But the social justice movement is a largely false love because it’s isolated and rooted in the horizontal, humanist reach, again often without any paradigm for the vertical in any shape or form. Ariana Grande’s #onelove concert provided a good example: a microscope on “human love” without any awareness or surrender to Jesus. Jesus would have loved the bereaved families, comforted them, called the terrorists to repent and then said “follow me…and seek first the kingdom of heaven and righteousness”. At that point for the Millennials, Jesus would stop being the Messiah and become hateful-Jesus. Bigot-Jesus. We-don’t-want-the-vertical-Jesus. And this same proud, independent, self-seeking form of love has infiltrated the Church which is why you can’t be categorically sure that horizontal love always evidences the vertical. It’s not necessarily real love on Jesus’ terms. The horizontal axis in and of itself offers no empirical evidence of vertical unless it’s the love of John 13:35 in the context of Jesus’ specific words: “As I have loved (modelled for) you”. This is exactly why Jesus likened the 2C to the 1C while keeping it separate and pre-eminent, calling it “the greatest” for our personal and corporate lives.

Here’s the Piper sermon: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-new-commandment-of-christ-love-one-another-as-i-have-loved-you

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