On April 5, 2022, I gave my third message to the women of my church Bible study on Matthew 20–22. Here is a written version of my message or you may watch the video.
I have two sons. I love being a boy mom. I left for Indonesia when my oldest was ten months and my second was born there. Since we lived overseas, I was glad God gave me two of the same gender so that they could always have a friend. I loved watching them play together. There was a period in their late teens when they were not so close. They struggled to understand each other and accept each other’s differences. During that time I had to do a lot of instructing about loving each other. But now that they’re young adults they are good friends again. In fact they live together. My oldest bought a house and rents the master bedroom to his brother and sister-in-law. And he just got engaged himself a little over a week ago. So now I have two daughters. They love each other too! And by loving my sons, they love me.
It brings me joy when I see my children getting along. I don’t believe I ever commanded that they love me nor is my love conditional on whether or not they get along. I just know I feel loved when I see them expressing their love for each other.
I think that all of us know that love is the greatest. We’ve heard things like: All you need is love. Love makes the world go round. Make love, not war. Love will find a way. Love conquers all. Love knows no bounds. Or from my favorite movie: “Death cannot stop true love.”
But still we struggle with loving one another. Is there someone really difficult to love in your circles? A family member that you’d really prefer not to have contact with? What does love look like in your marriage, with your children, among friends and with strangers, social media friends, those that look and think differently than you? Hardly a day goes by when we don’t wish that people would just love each other. The characters in Matthew chapters 20–22 also struggled with loving. And Jesus showed them first-hand how to love.
Our passage starts in 20:17 “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside” and tells them a third time what’s going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn me to death and will hand me over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day I will be raised to life!” (20:18 NIV)
This is the beginning of the end for Jesus. He sets his heart and his feet toward Jerusalem and to the cross. With his triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple, things are set in motion for his arrest and crucifixion. He’s still doing miracles but mostly he’s in discussion with the disciples and the religious leaders. The parables that Jesus tells at this point indicate that some will not be in his kingdom. The crowd praises him as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey but the religious leaders are filled with animosity. They come with verbal attacks to trap him.
The religious leaders set three traps: First the Pharisees, their disciples, and the Herodians ask an IRS question (22:17). They try to get him in trouble with Rome. Next the Sadducees try to prove that an afterlife is ridiculous using an absurd story about a woman with 7 husbands (22:28). Because Jesus masterfully navigates trap #1 and #2, they send a lawyer to ask a question about the Mosaic law.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22:38–39
Now, in order to understand what’s going on here, we must look at the context.1
Who is Jesus addressing? A law-keeper. A religious legalist. Someone trying to trap him. One who doesn’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, who has just seen him break some of their 613 laws.
What did he ask Jesus? Which is the greatest commandment IN THE LAW? He asked for ONE commandment. This is crucial. They are talking about the law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
How does Jesus answer? Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 which the expert of the law would know by heart and he would agree with Jesus. Now remember that the Jews demonstrated their love for God by obeying the Law. But the expert only asked for one commandment. Perhaps he’s got a follow-up question, but Jesus isn’t finished.
What new and unexpected law does Jesus introduce here? A second equally important law: Love your neighbor. This time Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 which also would have also been familiar to the law-expert: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (NIV). Jesus’s addition would have surprised the lawyer because these two commands had never before been put side by side.
Who did the Jews consider to be their neighbor? To this lawyer, his neighbors were his fellow Jews only, the descendants of Abraham. (See among your people above.) But we know that loving those of our own tribe is not enough. Jesus has already taught them they should love their enemy (Matthew 5:44) and that the kingdom is available for Gentiles too.
Putting all this together, I think Jesus is saying to the lawyer: You haven’t obeyed the first commandment because you haven’t obeyed the second. You don’t love God because you don’t love your neighbor. And in fact, these two laws actually show you how greatly you fail to keep any of the commandments in the law. That’s why you need me to fulfill the law. I came to give you a new way.
Jesus fulfilled the law by dying on the cross, but also in the way he lived. But to get a more complete picture of Jesus’s new way, we need to briefly look outside of Matthew to the Gospel of John. (This is the same John who we’ll see in a few minutes wants a place of honor beside Jesus in the new kingdom.) We go to Jesus’s sermon during the Last Supper—his upper room discourse. Here he instructs the disciples:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13:34–35 NIV 2
As we have already seen him do many times, Jesus takes an old covenant law and turns it on his head, revealing the flaws in it. The new way we are to love each other is no longer just doing to others what we would have them do to us (7:12) or loving others as we love ourselves (22:39) for that is an incomplete and imperfect way to love others. Instead we love as Jesus has loved us. My women’s pastor, Michelle Attar said, “Jesus loves perfectly, sacrificially, not with his interests in mind but God’s interests. That’s the perfect way to love.”
Take note that this new command doesn’t say anything directly about loving God. Because love for others demonstrates our love for God. We don’t love God unless we love others. Jesus is saying: Do you want to love God? Love his children the way I love them.
Let me remind you what this kind of love is like: The Greek word here is agape: It’s defined as unconditional love not based in emotion or on the merits of the receiver. Agape love acts sacrificially for the good of the other person. Most importantly, agape love comes from God for God is love (1 John 4:7–8) and he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
God loves us first. We respond to his love by loving others the way he loves us. So let’s see how Jesus loves each of the people in Matthew 20–22, how they respond to his love, and then how they do (or don’t) love each other.
Mother of James and John (20:20–21)
I call her Mrs. Zebedee. She comes to Jesus, kneels down and asks a favor. She wants her sons to have seats next to him in the kingdom. Remember, Mrs. Zebedee lives in a time when her worth is based on her sons. They left the family business to follow Jesus and she wants to ensure it will be worth it. So how does Jesus love her?
Jesus loves her by asking the beautiful question, “What do you want?” Jesus’s questions were so good, so caring, they get to the heart of what people really need. But she doesn’t understand how much Jesus loves her for who she is, not for the sons she has born. She doesn’t need to find her identity in her boys. We are not defined by who we love but by Who loves us. Asking good questions is such a great way to love others. One of my colleagues overseas was a master at questions. I remember feeling so loved and seen by the thoughtful things she asked me.
James and John (20:22–23)
James and John want recognition, power, authority, and reward for their service. Again, Jesus loves them by asking another question: “Can you drink the cup?” Can you die as I will die? We see how James and John respond to Jesus’s love when we look ahead to their futures. We discover that John writes five books of our Bible filled with the concept of love. And James is the very first martyr (Acts 12:2). They certainly spread Jesus’s love to others. Responding to Jesus’s love might come with a high price.
The other ten disciples are indignant. They don’t want James and John to be promoted above them. After all, they each gave up occupations and homes and a normal life to follow Jesus. And Jesus gave all of them power and authority to heal and teach. I wonder if Peter was especially indignant? After all, he was one of the inner three, but they weren’t asking for his promotion.
Jesus loves them by gently teaching them what true love looks like. It looks like himself who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28 NIV). Loving others means they become servants and slaves to one another. Servant (diakonos in Greek) means “to hasten to perform a service, to execute the commands of another.” And slave (doulos) means “devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests.” In the new kingdom community, status, money, and popularity aren’t prerequisites for leadership. Rather, humble service is. We also know from our scriptures that all these guys (with the exception of Judas) responded to Jesus’s love and became servants in the early church. Are you a humble servant?
Blind men (20:29–34)
On his way out of Jericho, Jesus and a large crowd encounter two blind men. Once again, we see Jesus’s love in his beautiful question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus knew what they needed, of course, but he lovingly gave them an opportunity to express their dependence on him. Jesus shows his compassion and touches their eyes. He humanizes the marginalized. Immediately they are healed and they respond by following Jesus. When we truly understand Jesus’s love and compassion for us, we can’t help but follow him!
In this same encounter, the people in the crowd shush the blind men. They do not love their neighbors, instead shut down someone in need, showing no mercy. But Jesus shows them how to love someone who is marginalized. We love our neighbors by reaching out and touching them and meeting their need, not shutting them down.
Then Jesus rides into Jerusalem to bring the crowd the king they truly need, not the one they want or expect. The crowds love the idea of a king to overthrow the government, not the king himself. Do we have faith to believe his kingdom is different from what we expect?
Religious leaders (21:23–22:45)
The religious leaders are worried about Jesus’s authority because it might mean they have to give up their own. He answers their questions using parables which teach that the kingdom is open to any who accept God’s righteousness. We love others by sharing the good news of his Kingdom to the highways and byways. Remember while few are chosen it is still our job to invite them.
Jesus demonstrates love by healing and doing miracles in the temple. The religious leaders do not respond in love but instead are indignant when they see the “wonderful things Jesus did and the children in the temple courts shouting Hosanna” (21:15). They fail to love others when they enslave them in rituals and rules and so Jesus attacks their system of extortion practiced in the temple.3 Are we indignant when we see the wonderful things Jesus does? Upset by the praise of children? Do we enslave people in rules?
Since God loves us, we love him back by loving others as Jesus loves us.
We’ve got to know that God loves us first. To come to the place of knowing, truly believing deep in our soul and even feeling that God loves us. That he adores us—you and me. Then and only then can we love him back and love others. This has been one of the most important lessons in my life. In the early years of my marriage, my heart was so full of disappointment that I could not know and receive God’s love. In time, I learned to internalize this truth:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!1 John 3:1 NIV 4
God’s lavish love was illustrated to me when I stood in front of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe Africa. This waterfall is the longest in the world. Standing close to the spray, seeing the gallons and gallons of water falling, and hearing the deafening roar will forever be my picture of God’s lavish love. His love pours over me and fills me so that I do not look to others, especially my husband or my sons, to fill up my need for love.
As I’ve ministered to women over the years, I’ve seen some of the reasons why it’s hard for us to know and receive God’s love:
- Some are not able to know this fully because they’ve had no example of a good earthy father.
- Some hearts are so full of other things and persons, there is no room for God’s love.
- Some have been so wounded they can’t hold God’s love when he pours it into them.
- Some watch God love everyone else but don’t believe it’s true for them too.
- Some hearts are blocked by pain, sin, bitterness, or unforgiveness.
- Others don’t know how to sit still long enough to hear his voice telling them he loves them.
God doesn’t demand love from us, it comes as we respond to his love. He invites us, he woos us.
One of the ways I have learned to know God’s love is by meditating on the many verses about his love in Scripture. I encourage you to find your own verses and receive his love as you read his words to you.
God loves us. We respond to his love by loving others.
We love others because this is how God delights in us and loving each other shows how we love him, just as my children love me when they love each other. 5
We love others as Jesus loved us.
Jesus example inspires us to love. We’ve seen some ways to do that in Matthew 20–22 and I encourage you to keep looking for how Jesus loves others and how he loves you throughout the gospels. Then go and do likewise. 6
Which of the people in these chapters do you relate to most and why?
What question is Jesus asking you?
How can you grow deeper in your knowing that God loves you?
In what ways can you love others this week as Jesus has loved you?
What does it look like for us to love this way? We’d know deeply and personally that God loves us, and love him back. We’d act as servants and slaves of one another, not lording it over them, but rejoicing when we see Jesus doing wonderful things for them. We’d show compassion and mercy to one another, ask thoughtful questions, don’t enslave others in rules, or extort the poor. Since God loves us, we love him back by loving others as Jesus loves us.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18–19 NIV) so that this love might then overflow to one another.
1 These next thoughts come from from Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 179–200.
3 Read my thoughts on Jesus Overturning the Tables.