God’s Word for You
Mark 12:28-34 The Greatest Commandment
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, April 4, 2022
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
This man was a scribe, an expert in the law of Moses, who approached Jesus about the law in general. He had seen that Jesus believed in the whole body of Old Testament Scriptures, not just some of it like the Sadducees, and now he asks a question, mild enough, to see how Jesus would answer.
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
If I were to ask my seventh and eighth graders the same question, they would very probably choose an important single commandment as being most important; probably the First. And while this would be an excellent answer, I’m sure that a Pharisee or some other theologian could come up with an argument as to whether the First is truly greater than the Second, etc. But Jesus does not give an answer from within any of the laws. Instead, he proclaims the Bible’s clear outline of the law, and he also adds in just these brief sentences) a confession of faith, and an appendix stating what truly makes up the Scriptures.
I, The Shema. The first quote is Deuteronomy 6:4, sometimes called the Shema (from the Hebrew word shema, “Hear!”). This is a confession of faith describing who the true God really is. Just so there will be no question about which God is the true God, which even some modern Christian churches struggle with. The Lord, the true God of the Bible, is the only true God. So while this verse and others like it (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 113:5) teach that God is one, other verses such as John 1:1 and John 1:2 teach that there is more than one person in the godhead. Also: “the word was with God” (John 1:1), and since the same person cannot be both the one who is there and the one who is with him, then the Scripture teaches that there is more than one person in the godhead. In fact, since Genesis 1:2 also mentions the Holy Spirit, the opening verses of the Bible proclaim what Deuteronomy 6:4 and other passages proclaim: God is one God, but there are three persons in the godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus also preaches in Matthew 28:19 when he commands to baptize by one “name” but then gives three persons named with that one name. When we look back at the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and count names with one hand and numerals with the other, we come up with the same conclusion: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” confesses three names (“the Lord, our God, the Lord”) and one numeral (“is one”). The Triune God is the one and only true God.
II, The greatest commandment is in the next verse, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul,” etc. The chief teaching of all the commandments is to love, and we love God above everything else. And while a newlywed would struggle a little to say he loves anything more than his wife, and a new parent would struggle to say she loves anything more than her newborn child, the true meaning of this command is to set God above everything, and especially myself. When I make my desires, my priorities, my opinions, subordinate to God, then I love him above everything. This is the summary of the first table of the law, the first three commandments.
IIa, “...with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” In Deuteronomy, the text only presents three seats of obedience: Heart, soul and strength. But since some manuscripts of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) add “mind,” ancient believers often added the fourth term when quoting from memory, and Jesus simply includes the fourth term, since it is in line with the rest of the Bible.
III, The next commandment is “like it (that is, like the first one)” (Matthew 22:39), which is loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). This is the summary of the second table, commandments four through ten. Beginning with our parents and extending all the way throughout the world, our love should extend to everyone. Jesus illustrated this with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36) and other sayings like the lamp of the body (Luke 11:33-36). Nearly all civil laws are covered by the second table, while almost all ceremonial laws are covered by the first table.
IV, By concluding that there is “no commandment greater than these,” Jesus closes the cover of the Scriptures. In Matthew’s account, he says: “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). The additional laws of the Pharisees went beyond the intent and the commands of God; beyond the will of God. For example, a Pharisee, whether ancient or modern, might look down or even condemn a man who does not dress in his finest clothes but comes to worship, whereas the Scriptures say nothing about it at all. A man who comes to worship can be happily obeying the Third Commandment. Why would we say anything to him that might drive him away?
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (NIV)
The scribe’s explanation and acceptance of what Jesus said is noteworthy. Verse 33 makes us wonder: Had he felt that the sacrifices were the greatest act of worship up to this point, but now Jesus made him see that faith itself and applying our faith in every part of life is equally, at least equally, as important as the sacrifices?
Jesus’ answer, “You are not far…,” should be considered at face value. If I were walking to a village and I asked someone, “Am I there yet?” I might get a similar response: “You are not far.” But “not far” and “there” are two different things. Jesus is not speaking with hyperbole, but with precision. The scribe only knew the law, but not the gospel. He was aware now of his shortcomings and his sins, but he did not yet have faith in Christ. Only faith saves, and only unbelief damns (Mark 16:16). To have a crushed conscience but no faith, one is still outside the kingdom of God. Mark does not tell us what else was spoken; whether the man listened to the gospel or whether he, like others before, “Went away sad” (Matthew 19:22; Mark 10:22). What we do know is that from then on, no one dared ask him any more questions like these. It was time for Jesus to get back to teaching. It was already Tuesday, and there were some questions Jesus wanted to ask his disciples. It was time for a final exam and some parting warnings.
“Am I the Son of David, the Messiah, or not?” You can never, from your whole heart, from your whole soul, from your whole mind, love God—unless you rightly understand Christ and know who he is (Martin Luther).
Pastor Timothy Smith