NO OTHER GREATER THAN THESE – Mark 12:28-34
Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on November 27, 2016 under 2016 |
Message preached Sunday,November 27, 2016 from Mark 12:28-34
Theme: Love—expressed in the proper order—is the fulfillment of the law of God.
(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Recently, we have been looking in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of Mark; and particularly at some ‘confrontation’ stories. We’ve been considering the ways that Jesus was being opposed by the religious leaders of Israel during His third and final visit to the temple in Jerusalem just before going to the cross; and we have been exploring the lessons to be learned from each of these encounters.
Jesus had been confronted by several groups of religious leaders—first by the chief priest, scribes and elders who had questioned His authority; then by the Pharisees who tried to turn the people against Him by ensnaring Him in a controversy; and finally by the Sadducees, who tried to make Him look foolish with a trick question. In each case, He responded with such wisdom and authority that He left His opponents stunned in amazement. They came to battle wits with the Son of God; and He proved Himself victoriously each time.
And this morning, we consider yet another story to be found in in the context of these confrontations. But this story is different from the others. It’s the story of an encounter with yet another religious leader; but it turned out not to be a confrontation. In fact, it is the only story in the whole Gospel of Mark in which a Jewish religious leader was in agreement with Jesus. Very hearty agreement, in fact. It was such a hearty agreement that this particular leader openly praised Jesus for what He said.
You’ll find this story in Mark 12:28-34. After Mark tells us about all these other groups that confronted our Lord, he writes:
Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But after that no one dared question Him (Mark 12:28-34).
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Now; this passage deals with one of the most important and practical ethical questions we can ever encounter. It deals with the basic principle that stand behind the commandments of God—a unifying principle that ties all the commandments of God together. And that principle is ‘love’.
That’s something that the Bible has taught from the beginning. When Jesus gave the answer that He gave to the scribe’s question—and when the scribe himself approved it—they were both quoting from the Old Testament law itself. God’s own law—given through Moses—affirms that love is to be the guiding principle behind all of His commandments. Love is both the intention of the law, and the means by which that intention is fulfilled.
And the New Testament affirms this also. Consider what the apostle Paul wrote about this. In 1 Corinthians 13—at the beginning of the famous “love” chapter—Paul wrote;
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
In other words, we can do all the right things, and even do the things that are commanded by God, and even do them in a remarkably sacrificial way; but if we don’t have love, we have really done nothing. We’re nothing more than noise-makers. None of it is profitable.
But Paul also told us that if we operate on the principle of genuine love—if we truly walk in love in the sight of God—then we end up keeping His law. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul wrote;
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
In Galatians 5:13-14, he wrote;
… do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14).
So, if I may say so, what the Lord Jesus said in our passage—and what the Scribe endorsed with hearty agreement—is not something really new or unusual to the teaching of the Bible as a whole. It something that was taught long ago in the law, and that was later confirmed in the New Testament.
But I’d like to suggest that there is something very important about all this that we discover from Jesus’ words in this morning’s passage. It’s that ‘love’—which is the essential principle of the law—must be understood as being expressed in two directions. It must first be directed toward God, and then, second, toward our fellow man. Those two directions of love must be seen as inseparable. You can’t have one direction of love without the other. And the first one must always have the priority position over the second; and the second must always come as an outflow of the first. To understand this great principle of love in any other way than what Jesus said is to cease walking in accordance with the law—and to cease to love in a way that pleases God.
This passage teaches us, then, that love is the fulfillment of the law—but only if it is expressed in the proper order.
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So; let’s look a little closer at this conversation, as we find it in Mark 12. And first, let’s consider …
1. THE GREAT QUESTION.
It was a question asked by a man who was called ‘a scribe’. And when you appreciate what a scribe was in the days of our Lord, you realize he was the perfect and most sensible man to have asked the great question that he asked.
In the times of Jesus’ ministry on earth, a scribe was someone who was a scholar in the Old Testament law. The name ‘scribe’” suggests that it was someone who had done a lot of writing; and that, in fact, is how the profession of ‘scribe’ began. It was originally someone who had—as his livelihood—the vocation of copying and writing books. In time, this profession evolved into a very learned one—something like a doctor or professor of letters; and particularly, in the area of copying and interpreting the Scriptures.
Many bible historians believe that the work of scribes began four to five centuries before Jesus’ time—back in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. When the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt and dedicated in Nehemiah’s day, there were specially-appointed readers who would read the Scriptures aloud to the people gathered together; and in their midst would be Levites—members of the priestly tribe of Israel—who would interpret and explain to the people what it was that they were hearing from the Scriptures. The most famous scribe in all of biblical history was Ezra. He was a Levitical priest who, as the Bible tells us, “had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
So; the man who came and asked Jesus this question was a part of what had become a very honored profession. In fact, in Jesus’ day, most people considered the scribes to be more representative of the religious life of the people than even the priests or the Levites. Only those men could be scribes who were freed-up from the time and energy required to earn a living by other forms of labor, and who were thus able to devote all their professional energies to the study and discussion and interpretation of the high matters of God’s holy law.
Now; this particular scribe was in close association with the Pharisees. When the Gospel writer Matthew tells us this story, he calls the man “a lawyer” and tells us that he was “one of” the Pharisees. In fact, Matthew tells us that they sent him to Jesus as a representative to test Him with this question. They must have had a lot of confidence in this particular man’s ability to debate with the Lord all on his own.
But I have a theory about him. It may be that they had sent him to try to test and confront Jesus; but I believe that, along the way, he began to realize that Jesus was far greater than the Pharisees were thinking. Mark tells us that this man came, “having heard” the others reasoning and debating with Jesus. And what’s more, being a brilliant scholar, he “perceived” that Jesus had answered those who had confronted Him “well”—or, we might translate it, “brilliantly”. It might be that his attitude toward Jesus began to change from hostility to respect, and from respect to reverence. He may have been a bit like another famous Pharisee that we read about in another part of the Bible—a man named Nicodemus. That man Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews”; and he came to Jesus by night—perhaps so that none of his colleagues could see him—and confessed to our Lord privately, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
When it came to be this scribe’s turn to speak to Jesus, he asked a question that—I believe—was a popular and controversial question among those who had studied the law of God. He addressed Jesus as “Teacher” according to Matthew’s Gospel; and asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” (v. 28).
And I think you can appreciate why he would ask that question—and why it would have been a frequent topic of discussion among those who had made it their profession to study and interpret and apply the law of God. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law had said that there were 613 specific commands to be found in the law of Moses. Was there one, singular, unifying principle that tied them all together? Was there one commandment upon which all the other commandments hung?
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Now; before we go any further, how do you suppose most people today would answer the question that this man asked Jesus? I suspect that if you were to do a ‘man-on-the-street’ interview, most people would naturally say, ‘love’ is the guiding principle of the rules of life. They might even get very biblical about it and say that the chief command is ‘to love your neighbor as yourself’.
But here is the truly remarkable thing. Jesus didn’t answer the scribe’s question by giving just one commandment. Instead, He gave two. And in doing so, Jesus answered the man’s question in a way that was far more complete and perfect than the man might have expected!—and certainly in a way that was more complete and perfect than what the man would have heard in his discussions with other scribes and scholars!
Let’s look carefully at …
2. THE COMPREHENSIVE ANSWER.
Jesus first took the man back to one of the most important Old Testament passages to the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. He took him back to Deuteronomy 6—and to a passage often called the Shema; a name taken from the first Hebrew word in the passage, “Hear!” It would be a passage that every Jewish person would have known by heart from childhood—a passage that would have been taught and recited often in every Jewish home—a passage that would even have been written and fixed to their doorposts; and that is still commonly found on the doorposts of Jewish homes today.
Jesus said that the first in importance of all the commandments is the one that begins with these words: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And just stop and think of what a remarkable affirmation that is. It declared to the people of Israel that the Lord their God is the only God that there is. There are not many gods—of which He would merely be one. Rather He is the only one there is; and there is no other.
In the greater light of the New Testament, of course—and in a way that is truly beyond our ability to fully grasp—we are taught that this one God exists three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And though they are three individual Persons, they do not constitute three “Gods”. The one God—the only God that there is—is one God in three Persons. But I don’t believe that the passage Jesus quoted was meant to speak to the idea of the Triune unity of the Godhead. Instead, I believe it is meant simply to affirm ‘monotheism’—that there is but one God only. That’s how the scribe who heard Jesus’ words understood them. He affirmed later, “there is one God, and there is no other”. As God Himself says in Isaiah 45:5;
“I am the LORD, and there is no other;
There is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 45:5).
As the one and only God, He deserves our exclusive worship. Just as the first of the Ten Commandments literally has it, we are to have “no other gods’ before His face”.
And I believe that, because He is the only God, Jesus then goes on to quote what that passage in Deuteronomy commands: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (that is, with the full totality of your affections), “with all your soul” (with the full totality of devotion of your inner being), “with all your mind” (that is, with all of your intellectual powers and thoughts and imaginations and reasoning), “and with all your strength” (that is, with all of your outward bodily energies and with all the resources you have at your disposal). I don’t believe this is meant to communicate that we have only four parts to our being—body, soul, mind and strength. Rather, I believe this is simply meant to communicate that we are to love God with the totality of our whole being—however many parts we have, and whatever it is that constitutes who we are. We are to love God with everything we are and have.
Now; Jesus said that this commandment is the first one—the first in priority over all the others. But if someone puts that one commandment forth as the only “chief” one, then the answer to the question “Which is the first commandment of all?” would not be complete. The scribe wanted to know what ‘one’ commandment was the first over all the others; and Jesus taught Him that the correct answer was that it wasn’t just one, but two. He went on to say, “And the second, like it” (that is, like the first one in being—along with it—chief over all the commandments) “is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus is here quoting—once again—from right out of the Law of Moses. He is quoting from Leviticus 19:18; which, again, would be a passage that every Jewish person would have learned from childhood. And may I point out just a few remarkable things about these two commandments that Jesus quoted?
First, they have this in common: they are both about love. But they are not about the same kinds of love. Perhaps it would be better to say that they are ‘loves’ that point in two different directions. The first love is pointing in a vertical direction. It has God as its object; and it deals with our relationship with God. The second love is pointing in a horizontal direction. It has our neighbor—our fellow human being—as its object; and it deals with our relationship with other people. As some have pointed out quite rightly, the first commandment has to do with the first four of the Ten Commandments—or, as it is often called, the first ‘table’ of the law. The second has to do with the last six of the Ten Commandments—the second ‘table’ of the law. So, the thing to notice is that they are both about ‘love’; but they are about two different kinds of love. They are about love in two different directions.
The second thing to notice about these two commandments is that they must always go together. The man asked Jesus which was the chief commandment; and Jesus answered in a truly comprehensive way by making sure that the man understood that there was not just one, but two commandments that fit into that category. We cannot have one without the other. If we were to say, “I only obey the commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength!”, but then refuse or fail to keep the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we have not kept God’s law. Or, if we were to do the opposite, and say, “I only obey the commandment to love my neighbor as myself”, but then refuse or fail to love God with the totality of our being, then we have likewise failed to keep the law before God. As Jesus said, there is no other commandment greater than “these”—in the plural.
The third thing to notice is that the two loves described in these two commandments—going as they are in two different directions—do not involve the same intensity of devotion. Jesus said that we are to love God with all the totality of our being. We are not keeping the law as we should if we do not love God with “all” our hearts, souls, minds and strength—with the complete and full totality of our whole being. But we are never to love our neighbor in that way. If we do, we have made an idol of our neighbor and have moved God from off of His proper place upon the throne of our hearts. We are not to love our neighbor with the kind of love that only God has the right to receive from us. And likewise, we are not to love God with the kind of love with which we are to properly love our neighbor. We are not merely to “like” our neighbor. We are to love our neighbor with the same intensity of love with which we love ourselves. But we are never to love God that way. If we love God as we love ourselves, we will be simply showing that we love ourselves above both God and our neighbor. To truly live a life that pleases God, we must keep these two loves together; but have them with the two different kinds of intensity that are proper to their objects. We must love God with the totality of all our being, and love our neighbor as ourselves; and we must never get those two intensities of loves mixed up.
And a final thing to notice is that these two loves must be kept in their proper order. The first one—our total love for God—must be kept in the place of first priority in our lives; and it must come always before the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. I have noticed—and perhaps you have too—that most people will gladly embrace the second commandment to love their neighbor; but then hold that commandment up as the first one. They very often completely ignore or reject the commandment that is the true ‘first’ of the two commandments—the one from which the second commandment is supposed to flow. And do do that is to rebel against God, and to turn our love for our neighbor into a thing of our own creation—dictated by our own set of rules and by our own definitions and by our own levels of sacrifice. When that happens, you can end up doing and believing things that are very evil in the sight of God—and yet convince yourself that you’re really being ‘loving’.
Jesus’ words teach us, then, that to truly fulfill the whole law of God, we must have both commandments together at the same time and in their proper order—loving in both directions, with proper levels of intensity toward their proper objects—and with love toward God always kept first; and love toward our fellow man kept second as an expression of that love toward God.
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; this is a truly profound expression of ethics! This is the greatest expression of ethics the world could ever know!
And if I may offer a personal note, this is also practical. I have found that I cannot love my fellow man as I should—especially a particularly unlovable fellow man—if I do not first love God with all that is in me. In fact, there is no way in the world I could ever love my fellow man “as myself”—that is, to seek the good of my neighbor in a truly self-sacrificing way—unless I first love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. It simply can’t be done by me in any other way. But I have also found that when I put God in His proper place in my affections and—by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit—cultivate a love toward Him with all my being; then He enables me, by His love, to love my neighbor as myself. I find that, in complete devotion to Him, I am enabled to love and serve others as He would want me to.
I believe—if I may say so—that Jesus’ answer was truly brilliant! And apparently, I’m not alone in that opinion. Look on to verses 32-33 at …
3. THE HEARTY RESPONSE.
After hearing this answer from our Lord, the scribe—the esteemed expert in the law—exclaimed, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” You can almost feel the enthusiasm in his approval, can’t you?
Did you know that Mark is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells us about this man’s response? Why do you suppose the Holy Spirit wanted it included in the Scriptures for us? I believe it was because—even though everything that our Lord Jesus says is true and reliable—the Spirit has allowed us an endorsement from a human expert in order to assure us that what Jesus said the absolute truth. I suspect that that’s how the Pharisees and the others understood it. We’re told at the end of this passage that, “after that no one dared question Him” (v. 34). They realized that if this remarkable expert in the law of God would so heartily confess the truth of what Jesus said, than they don’t stand a chance in arguing with Jesus any further.
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And let’s not end our time together without considering …
4. THE INVITING COMPLIMENT.
The man who was so enthusiastic about Jesus’ answer was indeed most assuredly correct in his approval of it. Jesus, we’re told, looked upon the scribe—seeing that he had himself answered so ‘wisely’ in response to Jesus’, and that he had agreed so whole-heartily with Jesus’ answer to his question about law of God—and then told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
“Not far”; but do you notice that he was not yet there? What was still needed? When I read those words “not far”, I often think of what I heard from one of my professors back in Bible college. He said that he was talking to someone about the faith, and the man that he was talking to got all upset and offended with him. “Why are you telling me all this? Do you think I’m some kind of pagan? I believe in God; you know!”
“Wait a minute,” the professor said. “You mean you believe in God?” “Well of course I do!” the man said. “I’m and American, ain’t I?” “Why that’s wonderful!” my professor said. “You’re halfway to salvation!”
That caught the man’s attention. “’Halfway’—? What do you mean?” “Well,” my professor said, “The Bible says in Hebrews 11:6 that ‘without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.’ You just told me that you believe in God! You’re halfway to salvation!” And that really got the man’s attention! “I am? So … what do I have to do to go all the way there?” And that’s when my professor shared with the man about placing his faith in Jesus Christ.
I think that this was the case with this scribe. He was “not far”. But just recognizing the truth about the nature of God’s law was not enough. All that such a recognition would do is convict him of sin; because he would know that he had not loved God with the totality of his being, and had not loved his neighbor as himself. He was only half-way to salvation. In order to come all the way, he needed to place his trust in the very Jesus who was standing before Him; and who was proving that He truly is the Son of God; and who would, very shortly, die on the cross for all his sins. It truly was a compliment to the man that he was getting things right about the law; but it was also an invitation to take the step of faith and come further.
Let’s you and I also remember that. It’s not just about getting the law ‘right’. True love for God—with all our being—means that we love His Son and place our trust in what He did on the cross to make us right with God. He paid the full debt for our sins; so that we can then—in a state of redemption under His grace—truly love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
May God help us—each one—to make absolutely sure that we’re more than “not far” but are actually ‘in’ the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus.