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How do we make sense of (Jesus’) commandments?

A couple of days ago I read the following Tweet:

Jesus only gave us two commandments, and both of them were positive.

The reference is, of course, to Jesus’ reply to the ‘lawyer’ who was ‘testing’ him. The passage comes in all three Synoptic gospels, though in quite different places.

Matthew 22:34-40 Mark 12:28-31 Luke 10:25-28
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

There are things to note about the differences here. As is common, Mark’s account of the opening dialogue is longer and more detailed than either Luke or Matthew; Mark includes the introduction to the Shema from Deut 6.4 that Jesus quotes, and Jesus goes on to commend the ‘lawyer’ and note that he is ‘not far from the kingdom of God.’ [We need to note the quite different sense of ‘law’ and ‘lawyer’ here; we are looking at a dispute about religious texts, and debates between the religious ‘experts’; and the ‘law’ was the first five books of the Bible, much of which was narrative.] Luke has interpreted this, possibly for an audience less familiar with Jewish theological terms, into the promise that ‘you will live’, though has the answer on the lips of the questioner rather than Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke interpret the question as somewhat negative, whilst Mark’s interpretation is more positive.


The second thing to be aware of is that the request for a summary of the law has some very clear parallels. In Jesus’ day, two of the main rabbinical schools were those of Hillel (first century BC) and the later Shammai (50 BC—AD 30). Hillel and his school were generally thought to be more relaxed and open in their thinking, whereas Shammai and his school were often more rigorist—and so Jesus is often compared with Hillel in his approach.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—go and study it!”

 (It is worth noting that with regards to ethical teaching, Jesus is often more in agreement with the school of Shammai, the most striking example being that of divorce. John Ortberg summarises David Instone-Brewer’s take on this on beliefnet.com)

It is important to spot what Hillel is doing here. He is not telling the would-be convert that there is only one commandment and that is all he needs to know. Instead, the man needs to go away and study Torah—but now knowing what it is fundamentally about, so that he does not fail to see the wood for the trees. There is, we might say, a mutual interpretive dynamic at work. If I want to make sense of the individual commandments, then I need to know the big picture that they are building into. But if I want to live out the big picture, I do need to study the individual commandments and the detail.

There seems to be something similar going on in the teaching of Jesus. It always strikes me as odd that so many read individual commandments of Jesus as if they were just features of an interesting text, and not the product of a mind that had a coherent and integrated outlook. Of course, Jesus offers us many commandments, not just two (‘turn the other cheek’, ‘bless those who persecute you’, ‘do not worry’, ‘do not judge’ and so on), so the question is: how does his summary of the law relate to his other teaching?


Philip Jenson, tutor in OT at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, offers an interesting parallel in his assessment of OT law in an earlier Grove booklet How to Interpret OT Law. Christians have often distinguished OT law under three headings—the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial—and we find exactly this division in the XXXIX Articles of religion. But such a division doesn’t work very well.

One difficulty with this view is partly that such a threefold classification is not found in either the Old or the New Testament. On the contrary, the Old Testament often juxtaposes very different kinds of law. Within the one chapter of Leviticus 19 we find an interweaving of laws about sacrifice (ceremonial law), idolatry (religious law), false dealing (civil law) and love for neighbour (moral law). The Sabbath can be classified as civil, ceremonial and moral, and recent discussion about the special nature of Sunday shows that these aspects cannot be easily distinguished. Moreover, the Sabbath is not even Sunday, for the Jewish Sabbath takes place from Friday to Saturday evening. Another difficulty is that applying this threefold distinction makes it difficult to learn what the Old Testament law has to teach us about politics or ecology or worship—how leaders are to behave, how we are to treat the earth, and how we are to draw near to the presence of God. (p 5)

Instead, Jenson proposes a different kind of three-fold classification, according to the ‘level’ of commandment:

At the highest level the Shema seeks to address the underlying attitude of those who are being called to confirm the covenant that is being renewed. At the lowest level there are the multitude of commandments in Deuteronomy 12–26 which deal with more specific cases and circumstances. There is, however, another set of commandments that sits between the one and the many—the Ten Commandments. These are distinctive in form, being mostly negatively stated, terse, inclusive, foundational and in list form.

The Decalogue is here given an abiding authority and scope, while the statutes and ordinances are more tied to the immediate context. We can compare the notion of ‘middle axioms’ in Christian social ethics, which were intended to sit between norms and situations and provide a bridge between the two. The specific laws may be understood as exploring how the Ten Commandments can be applied to Israel’s behaviour in the land that they are about to possess.

I find it helpful to imagine the one, the ten and the many as comprising three levels in a triangle of graded number, generality and importance. The relationship between the levels is analogous. As one scholar has suggested, ‘The Shema is to the Decalogue what the Decalogue is to the full corpus of covenant stipulations.’

What this means is that we need all levels of law—and we need to read each level in the light of the other. We must remember what the overall goal of the law is—the love of God—to make sense of the details. But we also need the details in order to know what the love of God actually looks like in practice.


This is exactly the dynamic we find in Jesus’ teaching. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ summary, his interrogator famously goes on to ask ‘Who is my neighbour?’, and in response Jesus tells the story of the ‘good’ Samaritan. (The shock of the story, by the way, is not so much that my neighbour belongs to another tribe or religious group, so that I have to cross boundaries to show love [though that is true], but more that it is one who belongs to another tribe who actually understands what neighbour love looks like.) In the conversation, we find Jesus moving up and down the levels in Jenson’s triangle—up to summarise the law, and down again to particularise it. We need both—when looking at the particular we need to know the overall goal, but we need to be told how that goal works out in the particular. Why? Because, as Augustine explored long ago, all our attempts at love are disordered:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

And of course ‘love’ always depends on what the object of love is, how it is loved, and how it sits in relation to other things that are loved. Because we are fallen, it is simply impossible to say ‘Love is all’ and leave it without qualification.

Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote about this in his comment on the current sexuality debates (translated by Markus Bockmuehl for the Church Times):

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

We must take seriously, in understanding what love means, Jesus’ specific commandments including Jesus’ adoption of and continuity with Old Testament relational ethics.

Jesus did give two positive commandments—but a whole lot more besides. In our reading and ethics, let us not divide that which God has joined together.


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2 Responses to How do we make sense of (Jesus’) commandments?

  1. Will Jones February 23, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    I think this is really helpful. Surely only a very selective reading of Jesus’ teaching can conclude that he was never negative, in the sense of pointing out what is wrong and teaching on sin.

    I would put a word in for the traditional three-fold division of the law though. It may not be set out explicitly in scripture. But it is a well-established means of making sense of the way in which the NT does and does not affect the continued applicability of OT law under the New Covenant. Here’s the full text of Article VII, to give it context:

    ‘VII. Of the Old Testament

    The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.’

    It was standard Reformation teaching (e.g. the Westminster Catechism) that the Ten Commandments were a summary of the moral law, and thus it was they which continued in force while ceremonial and civil law and ordinances were abrogated. Thus this from the Shorter Westminster Catechism:

    ‘Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
    A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

    Q. 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
    A. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.

    Q. 41. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
    A. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

    Q. 42. What is the sum of the ten commandments?
    A. The sum of the ten commandments is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves.’

    Otherwise we’re left without a clear understanding of how OT law does and does not apply to Christians.

  2. David Shepherd February 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    Jenson’s three-fold classification, while interesting, may lead Christians into particularizing the law in a manner which can only induce guilt, rather than obedience.

    The problem which his hierarchy is that it doesn’t resolve the fact that the apostles do not treat the commandments as offence of a different order. James writes: ‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.’ (James 2:10 – 12)

    I believe that a better model for comparing the OT commandments with the NT commandments is the distinction between martial and civil law.

    The former is specifically declared during a state of emergency under which the rights and freedoms of citizenship are suspended. The curtailment of liberties under such extended police powers include:
    1. Prohibition of public gatherings
    2. Censorship of all communications and media
    2. Search and detainment without charge or warrant
    3. Curfews
    4. Segregation and mass internment
    5. Summary execution for offences, such as looting, or refusal to disperse (e.g. Riot Act)
    6. Compulsory oaths of loyalty (e.g. during American Civil War – 1862)

    The severity of these measures are akin to the OT law. As under martial law, it’s the threat of disloyalty that is in view, hence what is priority is love demonstrated through loyalty.

    This is why the test of keeping the first and great commandment was the refusal to be led into disloyalty by false prophecy: ‘the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.’ (Deut. 13:3)

    The outward token of this loyalty in the OT was circumcision.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with martial law and, at its heart, its purpose is to restore order and loyalty in situations of widespread chaos and civil unrest. The law only poses a problem to those who are inherently subversive (which we are, by nature, spirutually).

    In contrast to the martial law of the OT, the NT represents the restoration of civil liberties. As the state of emergency is lifted, amnesty for past offences is promised and the rights and freedoms of citizenship are restored. This is the good news and the era which Christ has ushered in.

    In Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that we are no longer under (martial) law, but under a new regime characterised by divine forbearance and generosity. As with a return to civil law, the lifting of martial law neither makes it okay to loot, nor to conspire against the government.

    However, if we do inadvertently offend, we are promised access to God’s ample provision of forgiveness and empowerment to change through the ultimate sacrificial obedience of Christ.

    Yet, even civil liberty, does not excuse those who remain intent on subversion of God’s authority.

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