The Image of God and The Greatest Commandment, Part 2

The Greatest Commandment (6)

The Shema, from which Jesus appropriated the greatest commandment, is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a restatement of the Mosaic covenant, which was grounded in Israel’s redemption from Egypt (Ex 2:2). This redemption was grounded in God’s covenant with Abraham (Ex 3:15). This covenant was the result of God’s gracious choice (Gen 12:1) and his plan to redeem for himself people from all nations through Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:3). Further, this covenant was rooted in God’s promise in the garden to defeat Satan with the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). In this unfolding of redemptive history, God is actively restoring creation to its original design—a world filled with image-bearers who reflect the glory of their Creator. This is precisely what Jesus came to do.

The previous post explores what the image of God is in order to connect it to the greatest commandment. The Image of God and The Greatest Commandment, Part 1


The Greatest Commandment

Jesus did not only command us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength, but he intentionally and actively obeyed this command as a man. By doing so he revealed to us what the image of God is and what our purpose in life is—loving God and loving our neighbor. John Nolland explains that the greatest command “sums up the passion for God, the intimacy with God, and the fidelity to God that were the hallmarks of Jesus’ own life, and to which he called others.”[1] It is here at the ontological (our being) and the teleological (our purpose) that the image of God and the greatest commandment intersect and augment our understanding of each other. The Shema commands us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. How are we to understand these three words and their relation to one another?

Climactic Parallelism

S. Dean McBride interprets these terms as three different ways of referring to the same thing—the whole person. He says, “While syntactically the three phrases are coordinate, semantically they are concentric, forming a sort of (prosaic) climax parallelism which reinforces the absolute singularity of personal devotion to God.”[2] He goes on to explain that heart refers to the intentionality of the whole man, soul refers to the whole self—“unity of flesh, will, and vitality”—and might similarly refers to the fullest capacity of one’s being—“the superlative degree of total commitment.”[3] In his view, these three terms all refer to the same thing for the sake of climactic emphasis.

Covenant Faithfulness

J. Gerald Janzen holds a similar position. He agrees with McBride’s definition of might, but rather than seeing all three as reinforcing one another synonymously, he sees a distinction between the heart and the soul as two distinct actions. He bases his argument on the fact that this two-term expression—“heart and soul”—is repeated 16x in the Old Testament without the third term. Correctly seeing the Shema in the context of covenant relations, he explains two factors crucial for each party in a covenant: 1) it must be entered into wholeheartedly without reservation, and 2) it must be lived out till the end of one’s life.[4] He sees heart and soul as distinct and complementary rather than concentric. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, he claims, is “to commit ourselves without reservation to God as the One who alone rightfully claims our total and unqualified loyalty.”[5] To love the Lord with all our soul, he claims, means “to ‘hang in there with God’ under the full onslaught of all that might call into question God’s faithfulness to bring to completion what God has begun in our lives.”[6] Janzen believes that the two halves of the Shema mirror each other. Just as God is morally and spiritually one, we should mirror his faithfulness. In other words, our faithfulness should be punctual and durational—it should exist at every given point in time and endure throughout one’s life.[7]

Distinct Life Spheres

Early Jewish interpretations viewed all three terms as distinct yet complementary referring not to distinct attributes of a man’s psychological composition, but distinct spheres of a man’s entire life. In this view, heart refers to one’s undivided loyalty; soul refers to a one’s life, as in his commitment to God is so great to the point of death or martyrdom; and might refers to an individual’s substance, wealth, and property—all of which must be expendable to God in worship and service.[8]  This view emphasizes the unity of a man’s life in his worship to God rather than the unity of his inner person and it sees a distinction between the three words.

Distinct Internal Faculties

Early Christian exegesis viewed these three terms as distinct attributes in the composition of the inner man. This view, I believe, incorporates the best of the previous views: God’s covenant required that his chosen and redeemed people have an absolute and perpetual singularity of personal devotion to him being fully prepared to give from all spheres of their lives. Of course the three terms are parallel, but just like image and likeness, I believe there is room for some nuance, which is seen in the use of these words in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word for heart can refer to the totality of man’s immaterial nature, but is often used in reference to the man’s cognitive capacities—his understanding and intellect.[9] The Hebrew word for spirit can also refer to the whole inner man, but often refers to man’s emotional state and his appetite—his affections, yearnings, and delights.[10] The Hebrew word for strength is an adverb meaning “exceedingly, abundantly,” but is used in the Shema as a substantive. It refers to man’s volition—the magnitude of his fervor, earnestness, strength, and vigor.[11] I believe these three words refer to the God-given faculties—the cognitive, emotional, and volitional. Nolland explains that “The challenge is to a comprehensive engagement with God with the total capacity of all one’s faculties.”[12]


What is interesting in determining the significance of heart, soul, and strength is that we are asking the same question we asked about the image of God—is it all about structure or function? As we determined the image of God incorporated both, I believe the same should be determined about these three words and their relation to one another. The command to love God is already a command to action. The following phrases intensify the command by applying it to the whole person—to the specific faculties which enable us to fulfill the command. There is a logical progression from cognition to emotion and then to volition. A right understanding of God (theology) leads to affections for him (worship), which then leads to the will (corporal actions in his service). This view includes everything in the previous views and fits with the image of God as a complex unity of body and soul in the faithful service of God.

Like creation, redemption teaches us something important about ourselves—we are not our own, we have been purchased with the very blood of Christ. “You have been bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Commenting on this verse, Jonathan Edwards states, “Here, not only is glorifying God spoken of, as summarily comprehends the end of religion, and of Christ redeeming us; but the apostle urges, that inasmuch as we are not our own, we ought not to act as if we were our own, but as God’s; and should not use the members of our bodies, or faculties of our souls, for ourselves, but for God, as making him our end . . . We should give ourselves as it were away from ourselves to God, and use ourselves as his, and not our own, acting for his sake, and not our own sakes.”[13] Sin turned us in on ourselves and then against each other. Redemption turns us back around, abandoning love of self for love of God and others.

Just as Adam was to commit himself wholly to God and fulfill his role as the vice regent in the garden, Israel was to commit herself wholly to God and fulfill her role as priest-king in the land. Both failed to do this. Neither Adam nor Israel was ever intended to be anyone’s savior, not even their own. The role of Savior was designated for the man Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world. He is the prophet, priest, and king who fulfills God’s intention to have a man rule over his creation. So, sin is not essential to humanity, but it is an essential to the redemption story bringing glory to God in a way that he has designed in his infinite wisdom.  It is so amazing that the end of the story mirrors the beginning—a man ruling the earth with his bride. But the end is so much better. It will be the culmination of God’s plan, the result being his glory fully magnified in us and our good fully maximized in him. The image of God will be fully restored and the greatest command will be fully observed. But let us now live in light of this future reality by actively forsaking our sin and instead intentionally pursuing this kind of devotion to God now.


[1] John Nolland, Luke 9:21-15:34, WBC (Thomas Nelson, 1993), 584.

[2] S. Dean McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” Interpretation 27, 3 (1973), 303. Emphasis mine.

[3] Ibid, 304.

[4]  J. Gerald Janzen, On The Most Important Word in The Shema, Vetus Testamentum XXXVII, 3 (1987), 249. Emphasis mine.

[5] Ibid, 250.

[6] Ibid, 250.

[7] Ibid, 245.

[8] McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom,” 303.

[9] Andrew Bowling, “לָבַב,” in TWOT (Chicago: Moody, 1980), I:466-67.

[10] Bruce K. Waltke, “נׇפַשׁ,” in TWOT (Chicago: Moody, 1980), II:586-591.

[11] Walter C. Kaiser, “,” in TWOT

[12] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, WBC (Thomas Nelson, 1993), 487.

[13] Jonathan Edwards, “A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 109.


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