The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached March 28th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)
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. – Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes overhears Jesus’ response given to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection and is impressed with Jesus’ answer. He poses to Jesus a typical question of the day: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Rabbis of the day had counted a total of 613 commandments in the Old Testament and had spent time dividing the laws into “heavy” and “light” categories. Jesus seems to affirm this differentiation when he warns of relaxing even “one of the least of [the] commandments” (Matt 5:19) and rebukes the Pharisees for tithing out of their garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” (Matt 23:23a).
This division of the law into these categories, however, wasn’t a way of saying some laws were unimportant or didn’t need to be obeyed. In fact, in Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees of paying attention to the lighter commandments and neglecting the weighty, He concludes: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others,” (Matt 23:23b). One commentator notes, “..it is best to understand this question as an attempt to identify not which commandments are unimportant and need not be kept but rather which commandment is the most fundamental one from which all the other commandments arise,” ( Stein, BECNT). This is the Scribe’s question.
Jesus responds with the most well-known verse in the Old Testament, “The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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,” Mark 12:29-30. This citation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was known as the Shema because the first word of the verse “Hear” in Hebrew is Shema. It was recited morning and evening by all pious Jews. Many famous rabbis had concluded that this was, indeed, the most important command in all of Torah. But Jesus goes beyond the questioner’s original intent and instead of sharing just one command He shares two: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” Mark 12:31 (citing Lev. 19:18).
Jesus is asked which is most important, but He gives two. He labels the first commandment as “1st” and the next as “2nd”, seeing that the second commandment is subordinate to the first. But then he concludes by stating that there “is no other commandment greater than these,” setting them both apart in their significance. These two commands are foundational to the whole of the Old Testament’s Law.
The Scribe responds, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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,” Mark 12:32-33. This response is surprising; all of the Scribes interactions with Jesus thus far have been negative (see Mark 3:22-30, 7:1ff), but this Scribe responds positively to Jesus, agreeing with Him. He agrees with Jesus’ estimation, and even adds that these two commands are more important than “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
In the Old Testament it was God who had commanded burnt offerings and sacrifices—they were not unimportant. There are huge sections of the books of the Old Testament that give precise, painstaking details about burnt offerings and sacrifices. Without burnt offerings and sacrifices the entire system of temple worship was virtually rendered obsolete—it was through sacrifices and offerings at the temple that God was praised, worshiped and sins were forgiven. But the danger was that it was possible to participate in them without loving God and without loving neighbor. In fact there are several instance in the Old Testament where this happens. In the prophet Hosea, God explains, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” Hos 6:6. Or in 1 Sam 15:22, ““Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” Participating in sacrifices and offerings to the Lord while our hearts are far from Him does nothing and God is not pleased. Further, making offerings to God while we fail to love our neighbor earns us similar displeasure from God, as Micah the prophet warns us:
“6 With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8 (cf. Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:18-24; Eccl 5:1; Prov 15:8).
What does God want from you? In the ancient world, what mattered most to the gods were sacrifices and offerings—it was through these offerings that the gods were appeased and satiated. In Hinduism today, food offerings are still presented to the gods to replenish their strength. But in the Bible we see that the God described here is very different; He does not command sacrifices and offerings because He needs them, like other gods do (see Ps 50:9-15). What God desires more than anything is obedience, is love.
The Scribe is a good student of the Bible and sees that love of God and neighbor outweigh everything else. And Jesus agrees. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Mark 12:34. After this, no one dares ask Jesus any further questions.
This morning my wife was reading through the sermon text to prepare for the service today. As I was walking out she pointed something out that I simply hadn’t paid attention to: the scribe in his response to Jesus cites an additional Scripture to the ones Jesus cites. He weaves together 1 Sam 15:22 and Hos 6:6. It is after this that Jesus understands that the man answers “wisely.” Where does wisdom come from? God’s Word.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes; – Psalm 19:7-8
Friend, where do you look for wisdom in life? Do you want to be wise? Look to God’s Word, saturate your mind and your heart in God’s Word. Life is complicated. Politics, parentings, singleness, familial conflict, disappointment–how do you respond to all of these situations in all of their circumstantial complexity? If you read the Bible you will not find chapter and verse telling you who to marry, what job to take, or how to encourage your depressed child–but you will formed into a person of wisdom, and wisdom is what you need in life. So devote yourself to God’s Word, surround yourself with God’s Word, and let it shape and mold you into a wiser person.
What does this passage mean?
The centrality of these commands
Every command in the Bible could be summarized under the heading of either “love of God” or “love of neighbor.” In Matthew’s account of this story he concludes: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” Matt 22:40. The “Law and Prophets” was just another way of describing the Old Testament. So the ten commandments, the clean/unclean laws, the food laws, the teachings on sex and marriage, and every other command we come across in the Bible—they all are branches that shoot out of the trunk of “love God and love neighbor.” This is why Paul can say: “love is the fulfilling of the law,” Rom 13:10 and why Jesus can say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15. This means underneath all of the commands runs these two commands: love God and love neighbor. When we are confronted with a command from God, how we respond to it reveals what you love.
Think of the issue of time management. A seemingly “small” command. Paul exhorts us: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” Eph 5:15-16 (cf. Col 4:5). Make the best use of the time. How do you use your time? At a time where our opportunities for entertainment, leisure, and distraction are legion, where the word ‘binge’ has become commonplace, what does God’s command to use our time well mean? Well, we understand that God has called us to many, many noble tasks: to work diligently at our vocation; to be fruitful and multiply and so raise our children in the discipline and instruction of our Lord; to share the gospel with the lost; to care for the widow, the orphan, and the poor; to help our fellow church members grow in their discipleship; to use the gifts God has given us for the good of the church; to pray without ceasing; to work for the good of our city; and to rest, relax, and enjoy the many good gifts God has given us in such a way that our hearts are warmed to the Lord. If we look at all of those commands and say: No thanks, I really need to catch up on my shows,or I can’t do that, Billy made the travelling team this year, or I’m sorry, but I must impress my boss so I have to use all my time to work, then we look at God and say: You are not important enough to be obeyed, I love these things more than you.
The connection of these commands
Why did Jesus present two commands when asked about just one? Jesus was asked which commandment—singular—was the most important. In a way, Jesus answers the question: the most important, the first, is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But why does Jesus add the second? Why not just leave that off? Because we demonstrate our love of God through our love of neighbor. John explains: “We love because he first loved us. 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,” 1 John 4:19-20.
It is impossible for us to love God and not love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor with loving God, since loving God is the first and greatest commandment. This guards us against two errors: loving God without loving neighbor, or loving neighbor without loving God. Let me share two stories with you to illustrate this.
Once when I was younger I was speaking with a girl who was a Christian that I was hoping I could ask out. So, naturally I told her that I was a Christian too—I was not, but in my defense, I really thought I was. I just had no idea what that actually meant. Later in the day, while she was nearby, a friend of mine ran by and did something to me that I cannot even remember but found it extremely irritating and obnoxious, before sprinting away laughing. I exploded in anger and shouted a long, ugly string of profanities after him. The girl was shocked and looked at me: I thought you said you were a Christian? I was genuinely baffled by her response. “I am!” I responded, slightly offended. “Well, Christians definitely don’t talk like that.” I rolled my eyes and laughed at her.
(Unsurprisingly, she was no longer interested in a date).
What I had assumed—and what was so obviously wrong to the girl—was that being a Christian really required very little from you. It was just an interesting detail about your life, like your genealogy or your family traditions around the holidays, but it didn’t demand anything more than your tacit awareness and token rituals. It was merely a private, personal reality. But these commands say otherwise. The faith of the Bible is a faith that makes demands of you, and those demands extend outside of your personal, internal world. They dictate how you treat others. So much so that, as John as told us, if we claim that “we love God” but do not love our brothers, we are deceiving ourselves.
Years after becoming a Christian I worked as a server at a restaurant here in town. It became known that I was a Christian and had aspirations of becoming a pastor someday, so everyone knew I took my faith very seriously. One man (who insisted on calling me “Father Marc”) got into a lengthy discussion with me one day during a slow afternoon. In between wiping down tables he asked why Christians cared so much about sex and why we were not content with simply letting two people who loved each other to do whatever they pleased. We often hear the slogan today: “Love is love.” What that tautology and my co-worker were trying to communicate was that if two people love each other, then who cares if their expression of love looks different than traditional morality? I responded by trying to affirm that the Bible puts a very high premium on “love” and the Bible actually says that all of its ethical commands can be summarized by love. But, the Bible also defines “love” for us. To “love” someone is to be committed to their good, and what is “good”? The highest and must supreme good is God alone. So, if I try to define “love” in such a way that runs contrary to what God has commanded, then I am not actually loving. In Paul’s great chapter on love he explains, “love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth,” 1 Cor 13:6. So if our “love” tries to cut against the grain, if it does not flow out of and lead into a greater love for God, then it is not love. In other words, we cannot love our neighbor at the expense of loving God.
The culmination of the other commands
When the scribe points out that these two commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by that? If you remember, Jesus understands the kingdom of God to have come in His arrival. The Gospel of Mark opened with Jesus’ pronouncement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” Mark 1:15 The kingdom of God is what was lost in Eden, what the kingdom of David was a foretaste of, and what every Jew in the Old Testament up to Jesus’ day had been awaiting. In the Kingdom all of God’s promises would be fulfilled, God would restore His people, and overcome all of their enemies. Jesus teaches that the wait is over and the Kingdom is here. Of course, Mark has taught us that the arrival of the Kingdom has been surprising, not what anyone would expect, but nevertheless the Kingdom had come in the person of Jesus.
But why does Jesus tell the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom here, specifically after the scribe says that love of God and neighbor is more important than sacrifice? Further, why would there be so many places in the Old Testament that teach that sacrifices and offerings are less important than other commands? Because what the sacrifices and offerings pointed to had arrived in the person and work of Jesus. Under the old covenant, to have fellowship with God, for your sins to be forgiven, you went to the temple and offered sacrifice. But Jesus has come to usher in the new covenant, a new way to commune with God, a new way for sins to be forgiven. Under the new covenant, it is not a lamb or bull who is sacrificed, it is the Son of God Himself. Jesus’ blood is establishes the new covenant, and thus renders the old covenant and its obsolete.
So now, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament connected to the Temple are exhausted and fulfilled through Christ, and the “lighter” matters of the law fade away.
God wants all of you. When we are told to love God with our “heart, soul, mind, and strength,” it is just a way to describe every nook and cranny of our lives. Our desires, our affections, our ideas, our thoughts, our will, our actions—there is not one square inch of our lives over which Jesus does not rightfully claim ‘Mine!”
But isn’t it interesting that we are commanded to love God—in other religions, what is the most important command? God doesn’t just want servile subjects—He desires a relationship with you. He desires your love. As a husband desires all of his wife’s heart, so too does our God desire all of us.