The Greatest Commandment – Mark 12:28-34
Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark, where we are going to be looking at Mark 12:28-34, this morning.
What is essential? This is a question that every country in the world has been trying to define, during this coronavirus pandemic. What are the businesses and services that must remain open, and what can we do without for now?
Whether you live in Asia, Europe, Africa or Canada, there is a general agreement that health care workers, law enforcement, utility workers, food production, transportation and communications are exempt from restrictions, but there are some businesses and services, in countries around the world, that are also exempt and seem to reflect a national identity.
For example, in the United States, guns were deemed essential. In Italy, newspaper stands were declared essential. In England, while restaurants and pubs were forced to shut down, fish and chip stands could remain open. In France, shops specializing in pastries, wine and cheese were declared an essential business. In Israel, people could gather for outdoor prayer, but had to remain physically distanced from one another.
It would seem that those businesses or services that are part of the culture are those that are considered essential. But what do you do when the government postpones your “non-essential” surgery, or when you lose your job because you are not considered an “essential” worker? What do you do when your definition of what is “essential” is different from those around you?
Of course, we know that our labels of “essential” and “non-essential” are not perfect. And I suppose that is why these lists are constantly changing. We don’t know the effect that some of these things are going to have on people and on the economy. And so, we do the best we can with what we’ve got.
But even if our work is not deemed essential, or even if what is essential to us is not considered essential to the government, we can be reminded in these days of what is truly essential in life.
In our text for this morning, Jesus is going to be asked a question about what is essential. He is going to be asked about what is most important. And Jesus is going to respond with a twofold answer: We must love God supremely and we must love others greatly. And Jesus’ response is going to expose our heart, but it’s also going to reveal whether or not we have what is truly essential in life.
With that, I am going to read our passage for us, and then we will dive in. Mark 12, beginning in verse 28: “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ 29 Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32 And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
This has been a busy day for Jesus. It started with His authority being questioned by the Jewish leaders. And then, Jesus was presented with a question about obedience to authority. And then, Jesus was presented with a question about life after death.
And now, this scribe comes to Jesus with a question, but he’s not trying to trap Jesus, like the previous individuals. Instead, we discover that this scribe has heard how Jesus has responded and that He has “answered them well.” And so, he comes to Jesus with a question of his own: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
This was actually a common question among the scribes, because the scribes were experts in interpretation of the Scriptures. When the crowds, in Mark 1:22, are astonished at Jesus’ teaching, because He taught “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes,” it would have been a slap in the face, because the scribes were considered to be the authority on such matters.
There is considered to be 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And what the scribes did is they classified all of these commandments into categories, based on importance. Some commandments were considered heavier and had more serious repercussions for disobedience, while some commandments were considered lighter and less demanding.
It reminds me of our question about what is essential and non-essential. You have this group of religious leaders, deciding on the essential commandments of God. It’s almost ironic that this question even comes up, as Jesus just condemned the scribes, back in Mark 7:8, of “leaving the commandment of God and holding to the tradition of men.”
But here, this scribe is wanting to hear what Jesus believes is the weightiest of the commandments. He is essentially wanting Jesus to summarize the Torah, in order to see how Jesus does at interpretation.
And Jesus sums up the Law of God with two specific demands: Love God and love others. And in case you think that whittling down 613 commandments to just two is any easier, think again.
1. First, Jesus says that we are to love God supremely.
Jesus begins by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which says: “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.”
What Jesus is quoting is called the Shema, which in Hebrew means “to hear.” This was recited every morning and every evening by every pious Jew. It would be like saying the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed, today. But Jesus isn’t just quoting a popular confession within Judaism. Remember, Jesus is summarizing the Law of God. And what Jesus is doing is revealing to this scribe and to us the nature and character of God.
In Exodus 34:6-7, it says that the Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Behold our God. There is none like Him. The first of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20:3, states, “You shall have no other gods before me.” There is an exclusivity to Christianity. There is only one God, eternally existing in three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this God, the God of the Bible and Him alone, is worthy of our love and our worship and our devotion, “for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God,” Deuteronomy 6:15 says.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says that these words “shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This is who God He is. And Jesus is affirming that we must love God with all that we are. In verse 30, the word “all” is repeated four times. The Shema only refers to loving God with all our heart, soul and might, but Mark quotes Jesus adding a fourth response—that we are to love God with “all our mind.”
What Jesus is emphasizing is our total response of love towards God. If we say we love God, then we must love God supremely. We must love God with all that we are. If I said to my wife, “Helena, I love you with all my heart, but I don’t love you with all my mind,” could I say that I loved my wife supremely? Of course, not. And in the same way, if we do not love God with every fibre of our being, then He is not the Lord our God.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, writes, “God is never satisfied with anything less than the devotion of our whole life for the whole duration of our lives.”
Do we understand how much more difficult Jesus has just made this for us? Summarizing the Law of God like this has not made it any easier to obey. It actually makes it more weighty for us, because we now know that our obedience of 613 commandments is dependent upon our obedience to one commandment. If we fail at this one commandment, then we fail at all of them.
2. We are to love God supremely. Secondly, we are to love others greatly.
Jesus doesn’t just give the scribe one commandment. He gives him a second commandment that is like it. And Jesus is quoting from Leviticus 19:18, which says, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
For Jesus to place these two commandments—love God and love others—on the same level, would have been revolutionary to the Jews in Jesus’ day. It would have made sense for Jesus to stop at the commandment to love God with all our being, but then Jesus takes it a step further by including love of neighbour. There was no way that a Jew would have placed these two on the same level.
But what Jesus is doing is showing us that these two commandments are connected. How we respond to loving God supremely will determine how we respond to loving others greatly. You cannot love God and yet not love your neighbour. It’s incompatible. It’s like what 1 John 4:20 says: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
If we love God supremely, then love for our neighbour will naturally follow. And Jesus isn’t using neighbour here in a restrictive sense. It was a common understanding for Jews to take “neighbour” to mean only fellow Jews. But Jesus isn’t referring to our neighbour here as those who think like us and look like us. Instead, our neighbour, according to Jesus, is all of humanity, even those who are our enemies. Jesus is saying that we must love others greatly.
But then, there is this interesting phrase that is used in both Leviticus and here in Jesus’ response to the scribe, and it is that you are to love your neighbour “as yourself.” Now, that sounds very narcissistic, doesn’t it? It sounds like Jesus is giving us permission to love ourselves. And in a culture, where it is all too easy for us to love ourselves, this can be a dangerous verse for people to use out of context to show that we need to love ourselves more than we do.
But what we need to remember is that each one of us is created in the image of God. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Since we are created in the image of God, we are created with inherent dignity and worth, and thus, it would be wrong for us to hate ourselves. To hate ourselves is to hate the God who created us in His image.
And so, Jesus isn’t saying that we need to love ourselves more than we do, but rather, we need to love ourselves as God loves us, and then we are to love others—fellow image bearers of God—with that same love we have for ourselves, so that the same energy that we pour into ourselves, we pour into others, and the same needs that we meet in ourselves, we meet in others.
Ephesians 5:2 says that we are to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Do you know what this means? It means that there is no end to my love for my neighbour. I can’t come to the end of the day, and go, “I’ve hit my ‘loving my neighbour’ quota for the day, so I guess my wife and kids miss out on my love.” No, there is no end to my love for my neighbour, because there is no end to God’s love for me. In fact, God died for me, which means I must die for my neighbour. This is what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves.
In fact, the passage in Leviticus 19 gives us all sorts of practical ways of loving our neighbour: In verse 10, we care for the poor; in verse 11, we do not steal and do not lie; in verse 13, we are fair in our dealings; in verse 14, we care for the deaf and the blind; in verse 15, we deal justly with all; in verse 16, we avoid slander; in verse 17, we do not hate our brother in our heart; and in verse 18, we do not take revenge or bear a grudge against another.
That is quite the list of ways in which we can love our neighbour as ourselves. But again, Jesus hasn’t made things any easier for us. When Jesus says, in His Sermon on the Mount, that you don’t even need to murder your brother but that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,” or that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” we are all too aware of how greatly we fall short of loving others greatly.
We have a hard enough time loving God supremely, let alone loving others greatly. And if these two commandments are on the same level, then what Jesus is commanding of us is impossible. If this is God’s standard for perfectly obeying His Law, then what hope do we have? And church, this is why we need Jesus.
You see, we are created to love God supremely. We are created in the image of God to reflect the glory of God in Creation. And we are created to love others greatly. Genesis 1:26 says that we were created to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
But we look around our world, and there are wars and viruses and sicknesses and death and strained relationships and non-essential work. And it just seems like loving God and loving others is more of a weight than life. If this is what we were created for, then why does it seem so hard to do? And it’s because the first man and first woman rebelled against the Word of God and brought the curse of sin into the world, so that our love for God and others is distorted.
In Genesis 3, Satan deceived the man and woman, getting them to question the Word of God: “Did God actually say?” And as a result, we too find ourselves deceived into thinking that the Word of God cannot be trusted. But our problem is much worse than we think, in that, we don’t naturally want to obey the Word of God. Romans 8:7 says that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.”
And so, the problem with obeying the commandments of God is not that God is requiring too much of us—that the bar is set too high—but rather, the problem is with us being unable to bear the weight of the Law of God, because of our sin.
In fact, the whole purpose of the Law of God was to show us that we are unable to perfectly obey God. It was intended to show us that we all fall short of loving God supremely and loving others greatly. And God would be entirely Just to leave us in our depraved position and to judge us for our disobedience to God.
But thanks be to God, there is One who lived the perfect life, perfectly obeying the entire Law of God, loving God supremely and loving others greatly, and His name is Jesus. Jesus did what none of us could ever have done, and He took our place and suffered the judgment of our disobedience to God, so that, by faith in the completed work of Christ on our behalf, we receive His perfect obedience, and Romans 6:14 says that we are now “not under law but under grace.”
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Now, what this doesn’t mean is that the commandments to love God and love others are now irrelevant, and we can live how we want. Jesus isn’t saying that we are to love God supremely and love others greatly, only to do away with these commandments, a few days later.
No, the commandments to love God and love others still apply. The Law of God is good and true and lovely. Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” There is goodness and fullness and life that is found in obedience to the Word of God.
But listen, by the grace of God we don’t obey the commandments of God to earn our salvation. I want to make this abundantly clear: We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. But this work of saving grace in our lives now frees us up to love God and love others more freely and more deeply than ever before.
You see, we now love God and others, because we want to and because it is an overflow of the grace that has been shown to us, and not because we have to or because we are doing so out of obligation.
We will only see the beauty of the Law of God, if our eyes are fixed on Jesus. No, we won't perfectly obey the commandments of God. No, we won't always love God supremely and love others greatly. But we have a Saviour, who has rescued us from our sinfulness, so that we can love like never before.
It would seem that the scribe is satisfied with Jesus’ answer about what is essential—what is most important. After telling the Sadducees that they were “quite wrong,” Jesus has one of the Jewish leaders tell Him that He is “right.” The Jewish leaders had come to Jesus earlier with a pronouncement of Jesus’ truthfulness, but here is a truthful truth claim about Jesus’ truthfulness.
But notice that Jesus said nothing about burnt offerings and sacrifices in His answer, and yet, the scribe acknowledges that Jesus is correct that loving God supremely and loving others greatly are “much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
That’s coming from a Jewish scribe in the temple around the time of Passover when there were thousands of animals being sacrificed. The scribes were very intent on religious practices and observances. But this scribe sees the heart of what Jesus is saying. He sees the point of burnt offerings and sacrifices as a means of pointing us to relationship with God and others. He sees that it’s more than just religiosity, but that the point is love.
He sees something, but we have no idea if what he sees causes him to ever follow Jesus. We don’t know if he went away from this conversation with Jesus, unchanged. We know nothing more about him. What we do know is what Jesus tells us about him, and that is, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And we have the tendency to look upon this statement with optimism. He is so close to the kingdom of God. But there is no indication that this man ever entered the kingdom of God. As far as we know, this man is not yet under the rule and reign of King Jesus. He is not far from the kingdom of God, but he is not in the kingdom of God. He is not a citizen of the kingdom of God.
And church, this is a dangerous place to be. You may be that close to the kingdom of God. You may say and do and believe all the right things. You may even be friends with those who are in the kingdom of God. You can almost smell and taste the kingdom of God, but you are not in the kingdom of God, because you haven't yielded to the rule and reign of King Jesus, over your life and your heart and your family and your affections and your mind and your health.
Jesus isn’t saying you are so close, but you just need to try harder. No, Jesus is saying that entering the kingdom of God, having your sins forgiven, receiving the perfect obedience of Christ, is a matter of the heart. You will never enter the kingdom of God based on your obedience, but only by drawing near to Jesus.
Back in Mark 4:9, after He tells the parable of the sower, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Here was a scribe who heard Jesus disputing with the Jewish leaders and liked what he heard of Jesus’ response to his question, but who did not respond to what he heard. In the end, he did not have what is truly essential in life, and that is, Jesus.
There is a warning here for us. May we not be satisfied with being “not far from the kingdom of God.” May we not come so close to the kingdom of God that we fail to enter it. There are many today who put their faith in their religion or in their knowledge or in their merits, and not in Jesus. And I pray this is not one of us.
If you haven't trusted in Christ, then I encourage you to take to heart what Jesus says, in Mark 1:15, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” I pray that you would repent of your sin, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and His completed work on your behalf.
But if you have trusted in Christ, then you are in the kingdom of God. Regardless of what the government or anyone else says, you have what is truly essential in life, and there is nothing and no one that can take that away from you.
And my prayer for us is that we would take a hard look at the way we love God supremely and love others greatly, because we will often fail at this. We will often not love God supremely. I mean, how many of us have questioned the wisdom of God in ordaining this pandemic? But if we believe that God is in control of all things, that He is the Lord our God and there is no other, then loving God means trusting in His goodness and that He has good in store for those who love Him.
And how about loving others greatly? There are a lot of conspiracy theories about how this virus originated and there is a lot of misinformation that we jump on because we want an answer that we aren’t getting from those in authority over us, and we actually start debating with other people, even those in the church, over what is true, instead of lovingly disagreeing with them.
And so, my prayer for us as a church is that we would not get caught up in what is going on around us, but that our first response would be love—love towards God and love towards our neighbour. But this will only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through us. We will not be able to exhibit this unconditional love for God and others in our own power and ability. We need God to love through us. And we will find that as we draw near to Jesus, we will grow in our love for God and our love for others, as God loves through us.
But the question that we are left with, is: Are we “not far from the kingdom of God,” or are we in the kingdom of God? Do we have what is truly essential in life? Do we have what is most important? Regardless of what anyone else defines as essential, do we have what God defines as essential?
John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And 1 John 4:11 says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
May we be a people who love God supremely and who love others greatly, as we draw near to the One who first loved us. Let’s pray…