Matthew 22:35-36
A Professional Debater
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Matt. 22:35 (Holman) And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a
question to test Him:

The Pharisees sent a professional to confront Jesus. Experts in the law were obsessed with any and all minutia of the law. They studied it, taught it, interpreted it, and connected it with everyday situations. Since the law was applied in Israel to every minute detail of life, these men were revered as wise authorities on life. We would call them lawyer-theologian-ethicists.
The Pharisees sent this man, but he was not their minion. There was more to him than what they saw on the surface. He had perceived Jesus had answered the Sadducees well (Mark 12:28); Christ later said he was not far from the kingdom of God. It seems Jesus had somehow touched his heart.
He had evidently been in deep thought, truly wanting to know the truth. Having a sincere, genuine interest in knowing truth, he was not as hostile as the men who sent him. He was a person seeking true devotion.
Often those who speak loudest against Christ are actually speaking against a stirring they fear in themselves. A minister I know was in college a bitter atheist; his goal was to argue with Christians till they broke down and cried. He said he finally found atheism empty, and saw his lashing out as a lashing out against his own uncertainty. Intellectual honesty led him to faith.
I urge us to re-evaluate people in our lives. The ones we have marked off as farthest from God may be the ones He’s at work in to draw to Himself.
If they talk of religion, even if in mean and negative ways, they are at least showing concern about spiritual matters. God may be working in them.

Matt. 22:36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

In Israel, this was an argument waiting to happen. The religious leaders had been hotly debating it for centuries. Whichever law Jesus picked would offend people who felt other laws were primary. It would be like asking which is the most important star, ocean, or tree, the greatest baseball team, college, or church? There was no way to win, the Pharisees thought.
We have trouble appreciating the combustible nature of this test because we do not grasp how rabidly dedicated the Jews were to the Law. After Babylonian captivity, Israel had no temple, no king, and no sacrificial offerings. The people concluded; these things may come and go, but the Law, being permanent and unchanging, was dependable. They did not have to fear losing it. Also, Ezra and others had taught the people that obeying the Law was their only hope of preventing another captivity from happening. Thus they built their post-exile existence around what was reliable, the Law.
Lest we be too harsh on Israel, I remind us they developed an orderly society that became the envy of many. Romans and Greeks by the droves were impressed with the social order and good ethics found in Jewish life.
As a culture goes more and more haywire, the behavior of believers can stand out in stark relief and be an attraction to others. In these trying days let’s not miss the chance to be salt and light in a decaying, dark world.
If there is joy in your heart, let it show. If you have a happy marriage, flaunt it. If your children are serving the Lord and happy, brag about it.
Even people whose lives are most saturated with sin can eventually become bored with it, and actually find the simple life of a believer attractive, though it is a stark opposite to their own indulgent lifestyle. This realization can happen because lost people find no ultimate fulfillment in their sins, and even though their first thought toward a believer may be he or she is boring or totally bonkers, they cannot deny the inner peace they see. A Christian life, lived with loving authenticity, is an attractive life. Live it well.
By the time of Jesus, the experts in the Law had let their reasoning go to seed. They had reached the point of the inane in splitting theological hairs.
The experts decided there were 613 commandments, corresponding to the number of letters in the Ten Commandments. They said there were 365 negative laws, equaling the number of days in the year. They identified 248 positive commands, matching the number of members of the human body.
By the way, as a sidebar, while the main fuss was about the number one commandment, it is interesting to know which law they believed came in last place. Law number 613 was the law of the bird’s nest. “If you come across a bird’s nest with chicks or eggs, either in a tree or on the ground along the road, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with the young. You may take the young for yourself, but be sure to let the mother go free, so that you may prosper and live long” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Birds ranked very low on their list of importance.
The birds easily won last place, but the battle raged over which was number one. Many options were put forth: fringes and tassels on garments as outward verifications of nationality and religion; phylacteries on the forehead to denote love for God’s Law; Sabbath regulations; sacrifices and ceremonial law; circumcision; moral law. The disagreement was engaged.
A correct answer to this question was vital to the religious leaders. If salvation depended on works, as they believed, there had to be some way to determine what laws mattered most or least. Since no one can keep every law, they felt compelled to decide which laws earned the most merit.
Once top-priority rules are determined, a person can be excused for being careless with lesser ones. James (2:10) defied this mindset, “Whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all.”
The leaders discussed ways to make it possible to simplify mastering obedience to the law. We in our day also seek truth in a nutshell. Cacophony bombards us. We too are in danger of classifying sins as worse or not as bad.
When we play this game, we grow selective in what we feel compelled to obey. This lets us conform our religion to our behavior, rather than vice versa. The choosers do what they like to do, and leave undone what they don’t like to do. This lets them sin without pains of conscience.
If this happens, people become a law to themselves. Some of Israel’s darkest days ensued when “everyone did whatever he wanted” (JG 21:25b).
For a society to survive, its constituents need to embrace an objective standard, something outside themselves to conform their lives to. It’s not our job to determine which laws of God are more or less important than others.
They are equally important. Our saying a law is unimportant does not make it so. Each, as interpreted through the filter of the New Testament, is to be obeyed outright, or at least respected and observed as a principle. We can learn something from every law, including all those in the Old Testament.
For instance, do we believe Old Testament laws about killing people due to committing sex sins are to be enforced today? No, Jesus took care of this with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1ff). But do these verses serve as a lesson to teach us sexual purity is very serious in God’s eyes? Yes.
What about our handling of the creation? Are there laws we have to obey? No, but the same God who gave us dominion (GN 1:26-28) talked about birds on nests, and said the righteous care about an animal’s health (PR 12:10a). He forbade killing fruit trees when besieging a city (DT 20:19), ordered a delay in harming trees (RV 7:3), and ordained harmony will return to the creation (RM 8:21). No hard and fast rules are given for us to obey, but these words prove God cares about His creation, and we should too.
Many Old Testament laws provide helpful guidelines for how to best handle everyday situations. Even much of our Western World’s courts and legal systems can be traced to the standards set forth in the Old Testament.