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I have long been plagued by a suspicion that tradition and biblical academia is leading me down into a many tunneled burrow of theological intellectualism. In a quest for efficiency, simplicity, clarity and ultimately sanity I am seeking a simple tool or mechanism to unify both my past revelations and future pursuits in my relationship with, and knowledge of, God.

Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”

37 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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

To me Matthew 22:36-40 is a beautiful summary of biblical literature also with the import given it by Jesus, speaks definitely on its centrality in canonical interpretation. By including our directive to comply with, 'all of our heart, our soul and our mind', it seems Jesus has brought together: God and His character; Love, scripture and it's message, and man.

That being said I would love to hear your thoughts on my question. Can Matthew 22:36-40 be successfully used as a hermeneutical key in biblical understanding?

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond.

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    I commend your methodology. Scripture must interpret scripture, but this passage can hardly inform some of the difficult ones that have cause much confusion. While it may well be a fine 'key' to how to live, it does not help to understand who God is, or who Jesus is. On these matters to be sure, tradition has made it quite complicated and mysterious.
    – steveowen
    Jan 17 at 6:05
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    You seem to be on the right track. Love the Holy Spirit and he will help you to interpret the Bible. Upvoted. Jan 17 at 6:56
  • A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35, ESV)
    – Perry Webb
    Jan 17 at 10:26
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    Matthew 22:36-40 is a summary of the Law. The 27 books of the New Testament state the Gospel. The Gospel is that which delivers from Law.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 17 at 15:11
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    Have you ever checked out The Bible Project? They’re brilliantly simple - without being simplistic- and implicitly use the ‘key’ of the Kingdom of God (God’s people living in God’s place under God’s rule), which is really the same thing as your Matthew 22 passage, plus of course, relation with the land. Having said all this, don’t pass by @Nigel J ‘s comment above of course - Jesus brings freedom from law and gives us a new commandment to love as he has loved. Which of course is love of God and love of fellow human beings… so there we go!
    – user36337
    Jan 17 at 16:16

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For sure, the two Greatest Commandments are important for shaping how we understand the Jewish Law. They don't explain everything, but they give us a safety net: no matter how weird the laws are, we can know that they serve the purpose of Loving God and Loving Other People.

  • What's up with the weird food laws like not boiling a kid in its mother's milk? They're for Loving God and Loving Other People.
  • What's up with sewing different fabrics together? It's part of Loving God and Loving Other People.
  • What's up with offering Strange Fire in the tabernacle? It shows a violation of some kind against Loving God and Loving Other People.

But, the Law is only part of the Bible, and most Christians would say that understanding the Law is not enough to understand the Gospel. The Law prepares us for the Gospel and for Jesus: it shows us how the holiness of God and how serious our sin is. But if we've understood the book of Hebrews, then we'll understand that the Law can't save us, because we need Jesus.

So if your goal is to pursue a relationship with God, then you'll need much more than the Greatest Commandments, because they don't help us understand Jesus Christ with any detail. They don't make clear who Jesus is, why he came to earth, or what exactly his death accomplished. Jesus says we are to approach the Father through him, but the Greatest Commandments don't tell us what exactly that means. Are we to love Jesus as God himself, with all of our heart, soul, and mind, or are we to love Jesus as a neighbour, a fellow human being? Indeed, the Greatest Commandment to love God with all our being really makes it a priority for us to learn the doctrine of God; we cannot love God with all our mind while being deliberately agnostic about the nature, character, and identity of God. So in that way I guess the Greatest Commandment does direct our studies, but it's not a hermeneutical key, it won't somehow simply unlock the many mysteries of God.

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I agree - "God is Love" (1 John 4:8, 16) teaches that God, in His very essence is love. All He does and all His interactions with people are dominated and controlled by love, despite our limited human perspective to the contrary at times.

Jesus made this explicit even for the law in the OP's quotation of Matt 22:37-40.

Too many have erred when they view the Torah as a series of regulation and exactitude controlled by legalism. They appear to forget that when Jesus annunciated the principle of love in the law, He was quoting the Torah itself in Lev 19:18 and Deut 6:5.

Further, Jesus wants His disciples to be similarly motivated and follow the example of Jesus:

  • John 13:34, 35 - A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
  • John 15:12 - This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
  • 1 John 4:8, 11, 19 - Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love ... Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another ... We love because He first loved us.
  • Eph 5:1, 2 - Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God.

APPENDIX - Love

The Bible does not discuss just one type of love but clearly recognizes several kinds. The Greek language had six words for various kinds of love, but only three of these broad categories are discussed here. They are arranged into a kind of hierarchy – the widest first and the narrowest last. “Agape” love (Greek: agapao (v) or agape (n))

This is the most general kind of love and does not necessarily involve any sentimentality, feelings nor whim. Nor does this kind of love necessarily involve liking somebody. It springs purely from principle and is often opposed to the natural inclinations. This dependable, abiding and constant love is celebrated in 1 Cor 13. It is others-focused so excludes all self-centredness.

The best definition of agape love is, “God so loved … that He gave His son …” (John 3:16). The “agape” love is the central most important characteristic, the very essence, of God (1 John 4:8, 16). Love’s outward manifestation is grace. It is God as love that defines God and all else about Him such as justice/righteousness tempered with kindness.

This principled love of God (1 John 4:8, 16) is to be imitated by all Christians (John 13:34, 35) and is motivated by God’s love for us (1 John 4:9, 10, 19-21, 2 Cor 5:14). Thus, love is quintessentially Christian and reached its zenith when God gave Jesus as the solution to the sin problem (2 Cor 5:14, Eph 2:4, 3:19, 5:2, John 3:16). Therefore, Christians should have as their primary focus their love of, and love to God (Matt 22:37, Deut 6:5), and secondarily love to fellow humans (Matt 22:39, Lev 19:18). This word is used to describe God’s love to Jesus (John 17:26) and humankind generally (John 3:16, Rom 5:8). It also describes the love that Christians should have to all people (1 Thess 3:12, 1 Cor 16:14, 2 Peter 1:7).

From this agape love springs all else and expresses itself in obedience to God’s commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23, 15:10, 1 John 2:5, 5:3, 2 John 6). Love is the root of respect for others’ opinions and choices; thus it is also the basis for freedom of choice (which see) and freedom of religion (tolerance of other views).

Isa 63:9 expresses the kind of empathetic love that God has for each person.

“In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

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