What is the key to a real Christian life? The Pharisees asked Jesus the Jewish form of this question in Matthew 22:34-38, in an attempt to trap Him into saying something that could be used against Him. They “plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk” (Mt. 22:15 NKJV). With this purpose in mind, the Pharisees played their best card: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Imagine those in the crowd thinking to themselves, or whispering to each other, “What will this new Rabbi say?”
How Will He Answer?
Will He say, “Do not murder”? This would sound nice to modern ears, as we all condemn murder. But in Jesus’ society the majority admired the Zealot resistance to Roman rule; some even advocated violence. This answer would invite the follow-up; He would be forced to declare Himself for the Zealots, or against them. And this would either turn the people against Him, or the Romans. He couldn’t win.
Will He say, “Do not commit adultery”? This would sound religious, and attract less opposition. No one would argue that adultery was a good thing, not if they wanted respect. But what about the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:3-11)? Jesus not only forgave her, but shamed her accusers into not stoning her. This would make Jesus seem like a hypocrite.
Will He say “Keep the Sabbath holy”? Sabbath observance is not high on the agenda for most modern Christians, but in Jesus’ time it was critical. God told Moses, “It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever” (Ex. 31:17). Not to observe the Sabbath was a breach of the Law and a denial of a relationship with God. But Jesus had healed people on the Sabbath, and this triggered the first plot by the Pharisees to destroy Him (Mt. 12:14). You can see how this answer would be used against Him. In fact, the Pharisees thought they had Him trapped. No matter what answer Jesus gave, He would be digging His own grave with His tongue.
Instead, Jesus answered by quoting part of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This would have been shocking for two reasons. First, this passage is not a commandment. When asked, “Which commandment is great among the Law?”, Jesus, in effect, said, “None of them!” In the first four chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses told the Israelites how God rescued them and showed them constant mercy, while all they did was grumble and rebel. This led into Deuteronomy 5, a recital of the Ten Commandments. The rest of the book is a detailed explanation of how the Ten Commandments should be practiced. But Jesus did not quote any one commandment. Instead, He quoted Moses’ words to the people about the commandments. In effect, Jesus said, “It is not one Commandment which is great in the Law. What is great is to be part of the people of God, and the Law is only part of this.”
The second shocking thing about Jesus’ answer was that this was not an obscure passage discussed only by rabbis and theologians. In Jesus’ time, every pious Jew recited it first thing upon waking, and last thing before going to bed. It was not a commandment in the way the Pharisees thought; it was a twice-daily prayer taught to children as soon as they could talk. So Jesus was insulting these learned men where it hurt most. They prided themselves on their knowledge of the Law, and had posed the most awkward question they could think of. But Jesus said, in effect, “Even a child knows the answer to that one!” The Pharisees had already said, “This crowd that does not know the Law is accursed” (Jn. 7:49). But Jesus said that even children understand the Law better than these Pharisees.
When Jesus quoted this verse, it was only part of the prayer known by all pious Jews. This prayer was called the Shema, because it starts with that word. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt. 6:4-9).
A Communal Faith
To a Hebrew, “hear” did not just mean to notice a sound; it meant to act on what you hear. When God “remembered” Noah, it did not mean that Noah was forgotten; it meant that God later thought of Him again. It meant that God, who knows everything, did something about it. When God heard the cries of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, it didn’t mean that He finally noticed the noise; it meant that He actually did something about it. To the Israelites, to “hear” meant to act on what they heard. They were told that the Lord is a God who cannot be seen, and utterly forbids any visible representation of Him; but He is a God who can be heard (Dt. 4:11-16). How do you respond to a God who can’t be seen, but who speaks? Easy – you hear, and then you act on what you hear!
Traditionally, Deuteronomy 6:4 is translated, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” But it can also be accurately translated, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” If you translated these two sentences back into Hebrew, both would result in exactly the same Hebrew sentence. They are both right. The only difference is that the official translations are usually done by theologians who are mainly focused on the doctrine of God and want to emphasize monotheism. But if you read the book, you will see that Moses is not so interested in theology, but in calling the people to a personal commitment. So I think the second way of translating it is preferred. Even if other peoples have other gods, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” This first sentence is a call, not just to right belief, but to exclusive allegiance to the God believed in. It is also a call to Israel as a whole, a community based on this faith. The Lord is not just my God, but our God.
An Individual Faith
The next sentence talks to the individual (Dt. 6:5). Older English translations contain the singular form that has dropped out of modern English: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” Being part of the community God calls, also places demands on the individuals in that community. So what does God require of the individuals?
We think of the heart as the seat of the emotions, so to “love … with all your heart” means to love with great depth of feeling. This might be true, but it’s not the main meaning to the ancient Hebrews. To them, the heart is the part of you that decides, that sets priorities and makes plans. To love the Lord with all your heart is not a gushy, emotional thing. It is to give God top priority, to make every decision in the context of His truth, to make plans centered on doing His will.
We also think of “soul” in a slightly different way today. Most of us think of it as the part that lives on after the body dies. But Hebrews did not think this way. They thought of the whole person as a unit. A soul was a life. The closest we come in our language is the expression that “a number of souls were lost when a ship sank.” This doesn’t mean that the bodies are safe but the souls were lost; it means that lives were lost. So to love God “with all your soul” means to love him with all your life. Is everything in your life based on loving God? Is everything disposable, if it gets in the way of loving God? It gets back to loving God with all your heart, doesn’t it? Loving God is not an emotion, but a choice. And to choose for God, you sometimes have to choose against something else – like your own comfort, or wealth, or life.
The expression “with all your might” is a bit tricky to translate. Sometimes “might” means “strength,” and sometimes it means “exceedingly.” The common thread is the sense of great exertion. It’s not something done in half-measures. It’s not something you do when you feel like it. Loving God is to be done with all your heart, all your life.
The Next Generation
“You shall teach them diligently to your children” (Dt. 6:7). Part of being a community is to continue the community through the generations. Children are to be taught, and not just in formal institutions like schools or Sunday schools, but at home as well. The words translated “teach diligently” literally mean “you shall sharpen.” Teaching children is not just a matter of having them memorize verses. God’s word must be made sharp, it must have a point, a cutting edge that gets into their hearts.
So Deuteronomy 6:5-7 shows three layers of what it means for Israel to be the people of the Lord. It affects the community as a whole, the individuals within it, and the way they pass this identity to the next generation. But to emphasize the point, Moses then repeated the same layers in reverse using different illustrations.
Symbols Of Faith
“You shall bind them … on your hand and … between your eyes” (Dt. 6:8). Ultra-orthodox Jews wear little leather pouches strapped to the back of their right hands, or on their foreheads held by a headband. Some Christians wear “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) wristbands, and crosses around their necks or on pins. Some fans at sporting events wear their team colors. These are similar principles.
The pouch on the right hand extends the point of loving God with all your heart, in that your right hand puts the decisions and plans of your heart into action. It prompts us to ask, “Is my right hand doing the will of God or telling a lie?” And when people see us going about our lives, they see our faces. Is the word of God visible to anyone who looks at our face? We might not have a leather pouch and headband; we might wear a cross around our necks instead. But whatever we wear, or if we wear no emblem at all, do people who watch our lives see God’s will on our faces?
Finally, Moses comes back to the level of the community again (Dt. 6:9). The mezuzah, a little copper capsule (containing Dt. 6:4-9, 11:13-21) nailed to the door frame of a house, is the normal Jewish response to this verse. Anyone who comes to the door will see it; and those living there will touch it as they leave, to remind them. We Christians might not have the capsule, but many of us will have something on our wall that shows our faith. But whether we do or not, do visitors sense that they are in a godly house? And do we remember that every time we leave our house we are going into the community to show God’s character?
The gates in this verse are not front gates, like on our homes today. Houses at that time did not have front gardens; they opened onto the street. These gates are the city gates. This is where law cases were settled, where the daily market operated, and where marriages and contracts were made and witnessed. The city gate was the hub of the community, where all questions of justice, commerce, and relationships were decided. Moses is saying here that all these personal, commercial, property and family matters – in fact all community matters – are to be according to the Word of God. “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” And everything we do as a community is to recognize this as its foundation.
So these six verses, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 start at the level of a people called by God to be His own, and wholly committed to Him. Then they move down through the layers of community response, individual response, and then to the next generation, to show what this means. Then it moves back up again to reinforce these points.
What About Us?
When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” they were really saying, “Tell us the key to the Law, if you’re so clever!” He answered, “Any child knows that the key is to love God, and be part of His community and family – to be His child. It’s there in Moses’ writings, and you don’t know it? You’re so tied up in obeying the rules for the community and family, that you’ve forgotten to listen to the God who made the community and family. You have forgotten that the rules were put there simply to help us show that love.”
Likewise, may we be sharpened by God’s Word, so it pierces all our layers of indifference, our excuses, our laziness and our bad habits – and cuts us to the heart. Then may we truly love the Lord with all our heart and all our life, as He has loved us.
By Bob Springett
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org