If you had to sum up the Old Testament law in one verb, what would it be? “Obey,” perhaps? Or maybe “fear”? Be honest. No cheating. How you answer this question can tell you a lot about your understanding of the Old Testament.
Of course, anyone familiar with the New Testament already knows the answer (cf. Mark 12:28–33). The verb you’re looking for is “love.” And the passage we’re talking about is Deuteronomy 6:4–5, the Shema (Hebrew for “Hear!”):
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4–5)
Few Old Testament texts are more pregnant with significance and meaning than the Shema, which is like the pledge of allegiance for the Israelites. According to Jesus, this is “the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:38). So let’s examine it in the original context, and then consider why this command was singled out as the greatest.
New Way to Describe Devotion
The opening chapter of Deuteronomy narrates Israel’s stubbornness in the wilderness and refusal to enter the land. Yet Moses seasons these events with a warning: the wilderness generation was stubborn in the past, so this new generation—on the brink of entering the Promised Land—must learn to submit and trust in God’s gracious provisions (Deut. 4).
But what does God-honoring submission look like?
Up until Deuteronomy 6:4–5, “fear Yahweh” has been the main exhortation and basis for blessing (Deut. 4:10; 5:29; 6:2), with “fear” meaning something like deeply felt respect. But a shift occurs here in the Shema, in which love is the central command. “You shall love Yahweh your God” is the first time that commitment to Yahweh has been expressed in such terms.
Even before the Shema, Yahweh had promised steadfast love and faithfulness to those who love him and keep his commands (cf. Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10). But in light of both Israel’s difficulty in keeping the covenant (Deut.1:34–46) and God’s gracious and merciful pardon (Deut. 4:29–31), the covenant people are now explicitly commanded to reciprocate Yahweh’s covenantal love. They’re to love him because he first loved them.
The love Moses has in mind is a complete and unrivaled devotion to Yahweh. It’s not contrary to fear or service, by any means (see Deut. 6:13). Nor does it somehow substitute for keeping Yahweh’s commandments.
The love Moses has in mind is a complete and unrivaled devotion to Yahweh.
Deuteronomy 6:5, we should remember, follows on the heels of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5) and is a theological exposition of that text (cf. Matt. 22:40). Even in the original context, love is seen as a summary of the Ten Commandments.
Why Love Is the Greatest Commandment
Jesus plainly tells us that “love” is the law’s greatest commandment, in one’s disposition to both God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40). Even the lawyer who brought up this topic with Jesus seemed to agree (Mark 12:32–33), which suggests this wasn’t a novel idea. “Love” is the first and great commandment. Not “trust” or “fear” or “obey” (although those things naturally follow from love), but love in the covenantal sense.
Why? Two reasons.
1. Because covenantal love is more than mere emotion.
When the Israelites uttered the Shema they were declaring their complete, undivided, and unqualified devotion to Yahweh. Love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a principle of action. True love for God begins in “the heart” (i.e., mind, emotions, and will), and then moves outward in concentric circles to the whole person (“all your soul”) ending with all available resources (“all your strength”). Love is expressed in faithfulness in every context of life, beginning with the family (Deut. 6:7)co and extending to public spaces (Deut. 6:8–9).
When the Israelites are tempted to sin against Yahweh by giving themselves over to other gods, the Shema provides a constant reminder to devote themselves to Yahweh alone. That is the biblical notion of love: not a pleasant disposition, but a covenantal commitment, seeking the goodwill of another while sacrificing one’s own desires.
Love is not a pleasant disposition, but a covenantal commitment.
The biblical ideal is well illustrated in marriage, since the bind between husband and wife isn’t demonstrated by romantic passion but by actions rooted in covenant that seek the well-being of the spouse—even when sacrifice is required.
2. Because covenantal love captures the essence of what “fear” actually means.
“The fear of Yahweh” remains a central command throughout the Old Testament (cf. Prov. 1:7), but the overarching love command helps us understand what this fear really means. It’s not fear of the unknown, nor fear of Yahweh’s power (although that’s certainly true in one sense; e.g., Ps. 119:120). Instead, fear in the covenantal sense is the awe-inspiring, motivating love for God that leads to obedience and a life of blessing (Deut. 6:1–3).
What Moses has in mind with fear defined by love isn’t obeisance but obedience; not worry but worship. It’s not fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, but drawing near to him, and longing to do his will (cf. Ps. 130:4; 2 Cor. 7:1; James 4:8).
Fear defined by love is not obeisance but obedience; not worry, but worship.
Still the Greatest
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matt. 5:17). So if love is the fulfillment of the Old Testament law, then Christian love in the New Testament is the same as its counterpart in the Old.
Love is still the hallmark of what it means to be disciples of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (John 13:34–35; Col. 1:15). Love involves reverential acts of submission and obedience to his commandments. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The Old Testament law was summed up in one word—and some things never change. Even in the New Testament, the greatest of these is still love (1 Cor. 13:13; Col. 3:14).