The Greatest Commandment
Shaun LePage, October 16, 2005
A. “A couple I heard about in Atlanta read that My Fair Lady was still playing on Broadway in New York City. They wanted to go so badly, so they bought their tickets months ahead of time and planned their vacation. The long-awaited day came and they flew to New York City. They presented their tickets, walked in, and sat down in wonderful seats, seven rows from the front, near the orchestra. To the man’s amazement, the entire place filled up except the seat right next to him. He was curious about that. At the intermission, he leaned over in conversation with the lady in the second seat away from him and commented how they had to wait so many months to get tickets to a performance. When there was such a demand for seats, why would someone not come. Did she have any idea? She said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, these two seats are mine. This one and that one.’ She explained further, ‘You see, that seat belonged to my husband, and he died.’ The man said, ‘I’m…I’m terribly sorry. But couldn’t you have invited a friend to come with you?’ Her answer was classic. She said, ‘No, they’re all at the funeral home right now’” (The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, p.468).
B. Some people just don’t have their priorities straight. And, I’m no expert on the church in America, but it seems to me that we—both as individual believers and as churches—tend to get our priorities out of whack very easily.
C. I heard about a small church in West Virginia that had some divisiveness and eventually split. So some men showed up one night with chain saws and literally cut the church building in half and took one half away. Seems to me that church had its priorities messed up.
D. If someone asked you to choose a verse or two from the Bible that gets to the heart of our priorities—a verse or two that summarizes what God most wants from us—what verse or two would you choose?
E. For several weeks, we are looking at our shared core values. You and I barely know each other, but what has brought us together at this time in our lives is what we value.
1. We value the Scriptures—study and application of God’s Word.
2. We value community—true Christian fellowship.
3. We value prayer—consistent communication with God.
4. We value worship—daily bringing glory to God.
5. We value outreach—building bridges to non-Christians in the Lawrence area.
6. We value world missions—supporting those who are reaching other cultures for Christ.
7. We value the priesthood of believers—every member of our church is a minister.
8. We value innovation—working hard at being relevant to our culture.
F. As we explore these values, I’m asking you to think in terms of three relationships: Your relationship with God. Your relationship with unbelievers. And, your relationship with believers. This morning, I want you to again—as last week—consider your relationship to God. This brings me back to my question: If someone asked you to choose a verse or two from the Bible that gets to the heart of our priorities—a verse or two that summarizes what God most wants from us—what verse or two would you choose?
G. In the time between Moses and Jesus—when God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai to the time of Jesus—Jewish scholars had identified 613 specific commandments in Scripture (the Old Testament). There were 365 negative commands—“Thou shalt nots—and the rest were positive—“Thou shalts”. They debated among themselves about what commandments were most important.
H. The thing that always scares me when I read about the Pharisees and Sadducees and all those Jewish leaders is that in many ways, they looked like you and me.
1. Like us, they knew the Bible. They studied the Bible. The Bible was one of their core values.
2. Like us, they were constantly participating in some sort of religious activity.
3. Like us, they prayed, they tried to live by the rules and they gave offerings to God.
4. In fact, they were probably more faithful in all these things: They studied their Bibles far more diligently than I do. They participated in religious activity on a daily basis. They prayed multiple times per day and diligently lived by the letter of the law. Their giving would probably put most of us to shame.
5. What scares me is that Jesus wasn’t impressed with these people who look a lot like me. He said, “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’” (Matthew 15:8,9).
6. What was missing? What was wrong? Why was their “worship…in vain”? Do you realize that all this could be a big waste of time? Do you understand that our Bible studies, our prayers, our giving, our worship—could be “in vain”? All of our religious activity has the potential of being far from pleasing God. It can look great to us, but be a fowl stench in the nostrils of God.
7. Hear me out, this morning. I want to ask you to look at a familiar passage in a fresh way. My hope is that as a result, we will learn or be reminded of what God wants from us—the kind of relationship God wants. The kind of relationship that will please Him. Turn with me to Mark 12.
II. Body: Mark 12:28-34.
A. The Context: These verses contain one question from a scribe and one answer from Jesus. But, they are part of a larger context. Jesus was being grilled by His enemies. These religious leaders were taking this uneducated Galilean troublemaker to task. “He’s impressing the ignorant masses—the hoi poloi—but let’s see how He handles Himself with us”—this was their attitude. “Let’s see how He stands up under our scrutiny.” So they ganged up on Him. They couldn’t stand each other, but their hatred for Jesus brought them together in an all-out attack. But each time they asked Jesus a question—tried to trick Him, get Him flustered—He, of course, embarrassed and frustrated them. Mark 12:28-34 tells us the last question anyone dared to ask Jesus. His answer silenced them for good.
B. The Text: 28One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; 30AND 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.” 32The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that HE IS ONE, AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM; 33AND TO LOVE HIM WITH ALL THE HEART AND WITH ALL THE UNDERSTANDING AND WITH ALL THE STRENGTH, AND TO LOVE ONE’S NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.
1. Scribe. In Jesus’ day, the scribes were the big shots. These were the theologians. The scribes were men of the text. They studied it. They copied it. They memorized it. They agonized long and hard over its meaning. These men were the interpreters. They told everyone else what the text meant. The problem is this: Pride. When everyone’s looking to one man or one group of people—the Masters of Theology—to tell them what God has said, there’s danger. Danger for them and danger for those who are looking to them. We’ve got to be careful to study the Scriptures for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong: It’s good to listen to those who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures. It’s good to read their books and consider what they have to say. It’s good for you to listen to what I have to say. If I didn’t think so, I’d be doing something else. But you should never let yourself get lazy—only listening to my sermons on Sunday. Or only listening to your favorite radio teacher. Or only reading the best-selling books from the Christian bookstore—without studying the Scriptures to see if what is said from the pulpit or on the radio or on the printed page is true. Remember what Luke told us about the Bereans in Acts 17:11? “Now these (Christians in Berea) were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” “These things” were the things being taught by the Apostle Paul! That’s the way it ought to be. This scribe comes across a little prideful to me as I read this passage. Everyone looked to him for the answers. He was the great interpreter of the text. Jesus had answered all the other simpletons well, but Jesus hadn’t dealt with him yet. So he steps out of the crowd with his nose in the air and a smug little grin.
2. “What commandment is the foremost of all?”
a) The scribe’s question is great. You’ve got to hand it to him. He asked a great question. I love this question. His intent was probably to trip up Jesus. When Matthew told this story in the 22nd chapter of his gospel, he mentioned that this scribe was “testing” Jesus. Regardless of his motive, this is a great question. Think about it: You’ve got 613 commandments in the Old Testament. That’s too much to keep track of. Boil it down for me. What’s the heart and soul of all this?
b) Go back to my first question: If someone asked you to choose a verse or two from the Bible that summarizes how we are to relate to God, what verse or two would you choose? Great question—and the scribe’s question is exactly that. What is the foremost commandment? What’s the most important thing God wants from me, Jesus? Listen up and drink in Jesus’ answer:
3. 29Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; 30AND 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.”
a) First, notice that Jesus quoted Scripture. I love it. He’s such a great example to us. Got a question? Go to the Scriptures! Want to know what’s really important? Go to the Bible! Get it in your heart. Get it in your brain. Memorize Scripture. Memorize these verses, as a matter of fact. Someday when you’re confused or hurt or tired or tempted or distracted, these verses will come to mind—if you memorize them. You’ll be questioning what is most important and by the grace of God, the words of Jesus will come to mind.
b) Second, notice that Jesus begins with Deuteronomy 6:4,5. The foremost commandment—according to the Word of God Himself—is first of all a theological statement about God, then the logical response for us.
(i) The God of Israel is very specific. We’re not talking about just any old god. The word god is used in such a nondescript and squishy way by so many so-called “people of faith” today that it’s hard to know who or what they believe in.
(ii) I got an invitation this week to a luncheon sponsored by a group that says it is trying to develop respect for people of all faiths. I think that’s a nice idea—there’s no reason to be hostile and treat people of other faiths as though they have the plague. But the underlying message of a group like this is that it doesn’t matter what you believe. What matters is faith—not the object of your faith. The whole point is to scrape it all down to the lowest common denominator and the lowest common denominator among this group is faith in something. The council of this group includes Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, American Indian Spiritualists and Pagans.
(iii) Jesus—God Himself—says that there is only one God and He has revealed Himself in history. Specifically, He is the God of Israel. The God of the Old and New Testaments—the God of the Bible. That’s the theological statement. This is so important. We’ve got to be more discerning. We can’t just assume because someone claims to love Jesus that he’s our brother. He may have a completely different Jesus than the Jesus of Scripture. So many people have married a spouse or contracted with a business partner or placed themselves under the teaching of someone who “loved Jesus” but later found out that their Jesus was not the true Jesus. What’s the foremost commandment? Start with the right God—the God of the Bible.
(iv) Next, respond to Him correctly. Now, the logical and expected response from us is to love this God. If it is true that there is only one God and He is Lord of all then the only sensible response is to completely focus all of our attention and affection and adoration and worship on Him! In other words, this is what it looks like to give Him glory—love Him.
(v) If you’re in the practice of underlining or highlighting words in your Bible, would you underline or highlight that tiny little word “love.” Again, this is a familiar passage to most of us and familiarity causes us to skip over things too quickly. The Greek word for “love” here is agapaw. This is agape love. This is love that takes pleasure in someone or something because that someone or something is so valuable! There’s that word, “value.” Our ultimate core value is God! To love God is to recognize His great value, take pleasure in Him and then demonstrate how much You value Him. Agape love is love that is demonstrated. I want you to see here is that Jesus is not telling us to love God with a wimpy, emotional sappy love. He’s telling us to first of all, pick the right God—the God of the Bible—then open your eyes and see His infinite value—which is another way of saying explore the Scriptures and learn how awesome and holy and glorious God really is—then give Him what He deserves: everything. Is this not what Jesus is saying? Look at v.30 again: “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.” This God of Israel, this God of the Bible, deserves all that you have to give—all of your inner devotion and affection as well as your strength—your physical being. So, this command to love God with everything is based on the greatness and glory of God.
c) Notice something else: Jesus gave a two-part answer to a one-part question. The question was, what is the foremost commandment? It wasn’t, give me the top two. It was give me the top one. But Jesus gave the second one as a bonus. Why? Because these two commandments are really inseparable. What’s the link word? What’s the connection? Love!
(i) The Apostle John got this. Listen to 1 John 4:7-11 and notice how love for God and love for neighbor—one another—cannot be separated: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… (skip down to v.19) …We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.”
(ii) So you see? The basis for loving other people is that God first loved us. In fact, we can’t love God without loving people. If we pretend to love God but hate a fellow human, we’re liars. The opposite is true—if we pretend to love people, but don’t love God, we’re lying or we’ve deceived ourselves.
(iii) Think of it: All those commands in the Old Testament and Jesus says this—to love God—is the greatest. In fact, it’s even more than that. If we love, we fulfill all of those commands. In Romans 13, we learn that love fulfills the law: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
(iv) Do you see how important this is? In any given situation, if you’re not sure what you should do, let love guide you. Do the loving thing. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
d) Notice also that Jesus’ answer is twofold—not three. Many teachers—some who I respect very much—have tried to find three commandments here. Love God, love your neighbor and love yourself. But it just isn’t here. Jesus mentions two commands: “The foremost…and the second.” Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to love ourselves. Self-love is treated in two ways in Scripture:
(i) First, it is assumed. This passage is a good example. Jesus assumes you love yourself and tells you to love your neighbor “as yourself.” As much as you love yourself. Another example—of how Scripture assumes we already love ourselves—is Ephesians 5:28-30: “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” Scripture assumes that we love ourselves—and it is true. Even the self-destructive love themselves and are willing to harm themselves to get someone to notice them or even commit suicide in order to put themselves out of their own misery.
(ii) The second teaching about self-love is that it is sinful—a negative thing. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 is an excellent example: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…” Is this a good thing as many would have us believe? Well, “lovers of self” is the first item in a list that will characterize “the last days.” Listen to the rest of the list: “…lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.”
(iii) Please hear what I’m saying. The Scriptures do not teach self-hate. The Scriptures teach self-worth—not self-love or self-hate. Self-worth is an understanding that God has created us in His own image and He loves us. We should not think more highly of ourselves than we should nor should we think too lowly of ourselves. We should think soberly, rightly about ourselves. Most importantly, we should remember that we were created to give God glory and find our meaning and purpose and “worth” in that fact.
e) Back to Mark 12. Look again at how this proud scribe responded to Jesus (v.32): “32The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that HE IS ONE, AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM; 33AND TO LOVE HIM WITH ALL THE HEART AND WITH ALL THE UNDERSTANDING AND WITH ALL THE STRENGTH, AND TO LOVE ONE’S NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this response. Did he agree with Jesus’ answer? Was he surprised at how well Jesus answered him and didn’t know what to say—he just repeated what Jesus said? Was he opening his heart to Jesus? We don’t know. What we do know, though is important. This scribe was standing in judgment of Jesus. He had the idea that somehow his approval of Jesus’ answer was necessary. But while he stood there testing Jesus, Jesus had been testing Him. Jesus looked deep into his heart and said something that should have given the man chills. Look at Jesus’ reply in v.34: “34When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus saw that the man answered him “intelligently.” I may be reading too much into that word, but I don’t think so. At first, I thought it was a good thing. But now I don’t think so. When you compare it to the rest of Jesus’ answer, I think it is an indictment. In other words, Jesus was telling him, “Not enough! You’re intelligent. You give good answers. You know the truth, but that’s not good enough! You are still not in the kingdom.
f)The passage closes with that interesting little note: “After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.” Jesus bested the great theologian and no one else knew what to ask or say.
A. Let me leave you with a couple of challenges. Applications for you to take to heart and consider how you should respond to these words of Jesus.
1. Write this down: Know God personally—do not remain outside His kingdom. This man agreed with Jesus, but he was not in the kingdom. To know the truth is not enough. We must believe the truth. How tragic it will be when we all stand before God to find out how many people knew the truth but never believed it. How many people can answer “intelligently” but still be just outside the kingdom. Is that you? Do you know how to relate to God, but have never taken the step of faith and committed yourself to a personal relationship with Christ? You can do so before I finish my next sentence. Trust Jesus Christ with your eternal destiny and at that very moment, you will enter into eternal life with your Creator.
2. Second, Love God completely—do not continue in a half-hearted relationship with Him.
a) I can’t help but think of the Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3.
(i) Please turn there. Let’s read Revelation 3:14-22. “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
(ii) The church was lukewarm. Some drinks you like cold. Some drinks you like hot. But I don’t know of any drinks that taste good lukewarm. Lukewarm drinks get spit out. Jesus is telling this church to get with it! Lukewarm Christianity disgusts Me! Lukewarm love disgusts Me!
(iii) Here’s what I really want you to see, though: Look at the offer in v.20—fellowship! Close, intimate fellowship. Jesus says, “I’m at the door knocking. If you let Me in, we’ll dine together!” A picture of close, intimate fellowship. If you’re feeling lukewarm this morning, be greatly encouraged by this verse. This is a verse for believers, not a salvation verse for unbelievers. Jesus is ready and eager to be in a love relationship with you. Open that door. Invite Him in. Meet with Him in praise and in prayer over an open Bible.
(iv) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength! This is the foremost commandment. Don’t love Him with a third or an eighth of your heart, mind, soul and strength—don’t be lukewarm—love Him with all you’ve got.
b) As a church body, we must see this foremost commandment as central. We must get our priorities straight. We must let it sink deep into the way we think and believe. It is vital to everything we are and everything we do. If we are to glorify God—and fulfill our greatest purpose—we must obey the greatest commandment and love God. Love is the answer to how we best glorify God. What happens to a church that makes love her priority? Everything changes!
(i) Studying the Bible is no longer a duty and drudgery—it is the means to knowing God better so we might love Him better. It becomes a love letter rather than a dry, ancient book.
(ii) Prayer and worship become relationship tools—not religion tools. We don’t bounce our dead, lifeless praises and prayers off the ceiling. We approach God with delight—remembering that Jesus loves us and stands at the door and knocks, eager to meet with us in intimate fellowship.
(iii) Our whole-hearted love for God flows naturally to those around us—especially to those who share our love for God. Our community becomes sweet because it is based not simply on a doctrinal statement, but first on our shared love for God. Our ministry would be selfless and powerful because it would come not from selfish ambitions, but from hearts that desire to express gratitude to the One who first loved them.
(iv) If we—as a church—are driven by love for God, we will develop an overwhelming love for the unsaved world around us. We will desire for them to know this God we love so much. We will pray for them and go to them and show them the difference the love of God can make in a life. Also, the love we have for each other within the church—because of our love for God—will become contagious and the world around us will know we are His disciples by our love for each other.
B. Do you know what really bugs me about this encounter between Jesus and the scribe in Mark 12? Mark didn’t tell us what the scribe did.
1. Did he get mad and walk away in a huff? Did he continue in prideful unbelief? Did he become a follower of Christ? Did he take to heart the greatest commandment and begin loving God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength?
2. It’s frustrating in one way, but highly appropriate in another. You see, like that scribe, we’re faced with these decisions. Will we stand outside the kingdom or will we trust in Christ and know God in a personal relationship? Will we be lukewarm in a half-hearted walk with God or will we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength? These are my choices. These are your choices. May God be glorified as we keep ourselves focused on our top priority and obey the greatest commandment.