Looking to Jesus for instruction on how to live in God’s kingdom here and now, we note that the Two Great Commandments provide the foundation for his teachings:
- Love God with all your heart, your being, mind, and strength.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love of God
As a Jew, Jesus knew the First Great Commandment as a fundamental element of Hebrew faith. It derives from the first of the Ten Commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai.
I am the LORD your God….You must have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).
Later Moses told his people:
Israel, Listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Moses further instructed:
These words that I am commanding you must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
Love of Neighbor
In the Hebrew Scriptures love of God and love neighbor aren’t linked. We don’t know whether others before Jesus made the connection. However, we can trace the phrase back to Leviticus, the third book of Moses.
It comes at the end of a long series of negative injunctions on what not to do to other people: don’t oppress, rob, insult the deaf, cause the blind to trip, act unjustly in a legal case, slander, hate in your heart, take revenge, bear a grudge. The passage concludes with: “instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:13-18).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus widened the concept to encompass love for enemy.
You have heard it said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for does who harass you (Matthew 5:43-44).
In the Gospels
As an itinerant preacher, Jesus must have talked repeatedly about the Two Great Commandments. The word spread. Thus, the first time we hear these paired commandments in the chronology of the synoptic gospels, it was a lawyer, not Jesus, who spoke them.
This occurred on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Luke reports that a lawyer wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus turned the question back on him, and the lawyer recited the two commandments. Jesus told him, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).
This suggests to us that eternal life can begin on earth as we live in God’s kingdom by following the Two Great Commandments.
In Mark these commandments come up later during an encounter in the temple in Jerusalem. A legal expert asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus offered the two commandments. The legal expert agreed and affirmed that loving God and loving neighbor is “much more important than all kinds of entirely burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus told him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom” (Mark 12:28-34).
In Matthew a lawyer also in the temple asked the question. Jesus recited the pair and added, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:34-40).
Note the value of the Two Great Commandments:
- More important than burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mark).
- Foundation for all the law and the prophets (Matthew).
- Closeness to God’s kingdom (Mark).
- Key to eternal life (Luke).
In Jesus’ life and teachings the Two Great Commandments are inextricably linked. Therefore, we who seek to live in God’s kingdom here on earth should consider them inseparable.
We need to love God in order to gain the strength and confidence to love other people, including those who irritate us and those we consider to be our enemies. We need to love our neighbors and enemies in order to be true children of God.