“The Law and the Prophets” and the Second Great Commandment


In the twenty-second chapter of Matthew, after the Savior had silenced the Sadducees on an issue about the resurrection, a Pharisee, who was also a lawyer, came forward to confront Him with a question—in an obvious attempt at entrapment.

“Which is the great commandment of the law?” he asked.

It is important to our understanding of this man’s question to know that his reference to “the law” was specifically referring to the Law of Moses (or the five books written by Moses—the Pentateuch).

The Savior of course knew the Law of Moses well (because He was the one who gave it to Moses) and He also knew the right answer.  He responded by quoting the scriptural passage found in Deuteronomy 6:5: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This,” said Jesus, “is the first and great commandment.”

This answer was all that the question required, but He continued: “And the second [great commandment] is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”—here quoting part of Leviticus 19:18.

But Jesus did not stop there either.  He not only cited these two commandments as the greatest and second greatest in the Law (of Moses), He went on to point out that these two commandments together comprised the most significant message in all the writings of the prophets.  Said He: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When the Jews of the Savior’s day spoke of “the law and the prophets,” they were speaking of the scriptures—those writings of Moses and the prophets that were available to them.  This would have comprised what is now included in our Old Testament (give or take a few books), plus the Apocrypha.

The scriptural writing in common usage during the Savior’s lifetime would have been the Greek Septuagint—the scriptural writings translated from Hebrew to Greek in the third century B.C. for the Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (284–246 B.C.).  The title Septuagint derived from the tradition that it was translated in 70 days by 70 (actually 72) elders sent from Jerusalem.  In Old Testament commentaries, the Septuagint is often referred to by the designation LXX.

As a matter of interest, I should point out that, in addition to the law and the prophets, the ancient scriptures also included books that were known as the writings.  These “writings” included the books that we usually think of as being more literary, including such works as the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Job, and Esther.

To be sure, there were no greater commandments to be found in the Law of Moses than the two commandments mentioned in Jesus’s answer. But it is also important to observe that He later added some important enhancements to the second commandment.  Just as He specified significant changes in other matters, He also gave a higher law in the matter of loving our fellow beings.  Before I get to that, however, let us look at two other such enhancements to the Law of Moses as it was understoood by the Jews of Jesus’s day.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentioned various issues that required a higher standard than what the people knew from their interpretation of the Law of Moses.  For example, He told them…

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And whoso shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away”  (Matt. 5:38–42).

Jesus also brought up the issue of loving our neighbors in the Sermon on the Mount.  The instructions He gave on that matter are interesting in light of His answer to the lawyer about the second great commandment of the Law.  His message was this:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you: That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?  Do not even the publicans so?”  (Matt. 5:41–47).

From Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, it is apparent that more is required of us than just loving our neighbors.  We are also required to love those whom we are not ordinarily inclined to love.  Even the bad guys love those who love them.  If that is the best we can do, we are no better than they are.

But there is still more.  Alone with His apostles at the Last Supper, the Savior actually gave then a “new commandment” on the subject of loving one another (i.e., our neighbor).  There is more required, it seems, than just loving our neighbor as ourselves.  That new requirement—certainly a much higher standard—is to love others as Jesus loves:

“A new commandment I give unto you,” He said. “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another”  (John 13:34–35).

If there was any doubt about what was required, Jesus subsequently restated this new commandment and also added words of clarification: “This is my commandment,” He said, “That ye love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12–13).

When we consider that Jesus loved us enough to actually do what He said here—to lay down His life for us—that is a significant challenge.  How can we as mere mortals ever love anyone in the same way or to the same extent as the Savior loves us?  And yet, we should ask ourselves if He would command us to do the impossible?  If it is not impossible, how then can we possibly do it?

There are very few of us who will ever be asked to actually give our mortal lives in someone else’s behalf.  Most of us will never face such a test.  And certainly none of us will be asked to give our lives for everyone as the Savior did—nor are we capable of doing so. However, we all have the challenge and the opportunity to give our lives in other ways.

Most of us are capable of giving our lives in service to the Kingdom of God and to our fellow men.

Do you remember the Savior’s comment that “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it”?   (Matt. 10:39)  This scripture suggests that we can indeed give (or lose) our lives, as He says here, for His sake.  And, when all things are considered, the best way to give our lives for Him and for our Father in Heaven is to show love—or give our lives in service— for our fellow men and for the work of the kingdom . The necessity of that connection is the very reason the first great commandment can never be fully obeyed unless the second great commandment is also obeyed.

Jesus gave the lawyer His two-part answer because the two parts cannot be separated.  In reality, we cannot love the Lord very well except we love and serve our neighbors, His children.  As He said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”  (Matt. 25:40).

Yes, we can love one another as the Savior loves us.  Perhaps not perfectly, but that is what we can continue to strive for.  We can give our lives for our neighbors, and it will be counted as giving our lives for Him.  We can lay down our lives for our friends, thus coming close to—at least in the same neighborhood—as loving one another as He loves us.  And, by so doing, it follows as the spring follows winter that we will also be keeping the first great commandment.

The Old Testament: understand it, love it!