The Whole Law Hangs (Matthew 22:40)
“On these two commandments the whole law hangs—and the prophets.”
While Mark gives us a fuller description of the events surrounding this discourse, Matthew does include one statement from Jesus that is important to mention. As Jesus closes his explanation of what the greatest commandment is, he says that upon these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, all of the law and the prophets finds its rest and fulfillment. In the context of what we discussed earlier about the Pharisaical principle of giving more or less weight to this commandment or that commandment, one of the important things that we see Jesus doing is treating the law of God as one united whole, not a bunch of separate, legalistic principles. Jesus’ half-brother, James, would later build on this principle when he wrote that when you are guilty of breaking a portion of the law, you are guilty of breaking the whole (James 2:10).
In other words, what Jesus, and later James, is bringing out is the unity of God’s demands on his people for holiness. The law of God reflects God’s holy character and God has called us as his people to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:45, 1 Peter 1:16). Since God’s character cannot be divided—God is perfectly consistent in himself—how is it that we think that we can divide up God’s law, obeying part of it and not the whole? Of course, this drives home another vital point—on our own strength, we cannot even obey part of God’s law, but instead are guilty of having broken the whole. We are incapable of earning God’s favor and are thus in need of a redeemer to do so on our behalf. Indeed, that, too, is one of the great purposes of the law—to point us to our need for Jesus.
Yet, Jesus unifies the law for us with two statements. Love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor in the same way as you love yourself. It is a simple principle to understand, but overwhelming to try and live out. Indeed, while we will never be able to fully live this great law out, what a wonderful way to strive to live! Jesus is showing us the intent behind the law as a whole and the writings of the prophets (which were largely covenantal lawsuits made by God against his people for their disobedience). In other words, the purpose of the law is not meant to bind us to an oppressive, legalistic system as the Pharisees interpreted the law, but it was meant to enable us to fully and properly love God with all of our heart, life, and abundance. Beloved, let us seek to do the same—no, we won’t be fully successful and no, we will rarely be very successful of doing this well, yet, how else will we reflect God’s love and character to the world unless we reflect it to one another in our lifestyles? Upon this rests the whole of the law and of the prophets.