The Great Commandment: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

The Great Commandment… maybe you’ve heard of it? Here it is in Matthew 22:36-40

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”


These words are probably some of the best known words of Jesus. I’ve known them for a long time and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how to live out of them. I’ve heard lots of sermons and have had several discussions with friends about it, especially about it gets manifested in the life of the church.

One of the images that gets used pretty often, at least one that I’ve heard several times, is that the Great Commandment is like two sides of the same coin. Have you heard that one? Maybe you’ve heard a slight variation: it’s like breathing in and breathing out. I actually heard that one in my church yesterday morning in a slightly different but nearly identical context.

Both of these images are pretty good. They have helped me to understand this teaching in the past. But… I’m pretty sure they are incorrect. Why? They assume only two parts; two sides of the coin or breathe in/breathe out.

Guess what? Turns out there are 3 parts:

  1. Love God
  2. Love Others

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sounds like the Great Commandment has 3 parts. Jesus’ statement about loving neighbors, the usual 2nd part, is based on a pre-existing (but not yet complete) love of self. If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love someone else.

So I think we need a new image; one that accounts for all three parts. I’ve never seen a three sided coin and I don’t think the breathing metaphor works either. The first “new” image I thought of is a three-legged stool, but that doesn’t seem very original (in fact I know its not). You got any good ideas? What teaching have you heard on the Great Commandment? Help me out here folks.



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