Posted by: stpowen | August 22, 2009

The Greatest Commandment

From a sermon preached at Whiddon Valley Evangelical Church, Barnstaple

Read Mark 12:28-34.

 Of all the people in the New Testament with whom the Lord Jesus talked, I think this Scribe, or Teacher of the Law is one of the most interesting.  He is the third of three sets of people who came to Jesus with trick questions to try to trap Him in His words.  First the Pharisees and Herodians came with their questions about paying taxes to Rome;  then  the Sadducees, the liberals of their day, had their turn with their question about marriage after the Resurrection.  Our Lord confounded both of these groups with His answers so this Scribe says to himself, “This Jesus of Nazareth is a very clever man.  Let me see if I can ask something really subtle.”  And his question is so subtle that many commentators don’t think that it is a trick question at all, but if you consider the context of the other two questions and also the parallel passage in Matt 22:34-35, there is no doubt that this Teacher of the Law is being very foxy indeed.

The scribes were the custodians of the Hebrew Law. We read of Ezra hat he was ‘A skilled scribe in the Law of  Moses which the LORD God had given’ (Ezra 7:6 ).   We owe these scribes a debt of gratitude under God because they were responsible for the maintenance and copying out of the Law which task they did with great diligence.  They knew just how many words there are in the Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible, and exactly where the mid-point is so that they could check that the copying had been done properly and that no words were missing.  The scribes were also great analysts of God’s word so that this man would have known that there are in fact 613 commands in the Mosaic law of which 248 are positive and 365 negative.

So he asks the Lord Jesus, “Which is the first commandment of all?”  Of course, he is not asking which was the first to be given, but which is first in importance.    He is not so much trying to catch Jesus out as to bog Him down.  He was doubtless expecting Him to name one of the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue.  If He were to say, “Oh, the most important is the first one:  ‘You shall have no other gods before me,’” the Scribe could say, “Aha! So you don’t think murder is important then!”  Or if He replied, “’You shall not kill’ is most important,”  then the Scribe could say, “Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t think duty to God is paramount.”  In fact, there is a rich vein of totally useless argument to be had here.  Imagine how much time you could waste discussing whether breaking the Sabbath is better or worse than not honouring one’s mother or father.  And this is just the sort of stuff that the Teachers of the Law used to spend their time on, and it’s such nonsense because nowhere does the Bible give one commandment priority over another.  Deut 27:26 says, ‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’  All of them.  Or as the New Testament says in James 2:10, ‘For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all’!

So how does the Lord Jesus answer this man?  He does so by going outside the Decalogue to two other Old Testament verses: Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 9:18.  Let’s look at the first of these as Mark gives it to us.  ‘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.’   What does this tell us? 

Firstly, it tells us that the whole moral law- all those ‘Thou shalt nots’ that unconverted people find so restricting- can be summed up in one word- Love.  And this love is to be directed first of all towards God.  It is a response, of course, to God’s love for us.  1John 4:19 tells us, ‘We love Him because He first loved us.’  What could be more natural than to love God who has created us, sustained us and, when we rebelled against Him, redeemed us at measureless cost?  And how are we to love Him?  With heart and soul, mind and strength.   The heart in Scripture speaks of the centre of man’s existence, the mainspring of all his thoughts, words and deeds.  The soul is the seat of emotional activity; the mind is the intellectual capacity and strength equates to power..  Ever faculty of man is to be united in love to God.  And not in some half-hearted manner;  ‘ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your mind and ALL your strength.’  When God loves, He loves whole-heartedly.  ‘For SO God loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son……’  How can we be half-hearted towards a whole-hearted God?  There are plenty of people who will tell you, “Oh, you don’t want to be some kind of religious nutcase.  An hour in church is quite enough once a week and then forget it all and get on with the real world.”  As Bishop Ryle once said, there are many folk who will give you a hand along the road to hell; not so many who will guide you onto the path to heaven.

Of course, this love does not stop at God, but it must extend to all those who bear God’s image. ‘You shall love you neighbour as yourself.’   As the moon reflects the rays of the sun, so we must reflect the love of God towards our fellow men and women.  1John 4:20 says, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’  If we love our neighbour, how can we lie to him, steal from him or covet his possessions?  Rather we seek his good.  When David finally became king of Israel, he asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?” (2Sam 9:3, NIV).  The usual practice was to kill off all members of the old royal family as quickly as possible (cf. 1Kings 15:29 etc), but avid sought out Saul’s grandson, the cripple Mephibosheth and looked after him. 

What sort of love is it that is being talked about here?   It’s not some gooey, sentimental feeling, but the state of mind that says, “For Jesus Christ’s sake I’ll seek your good, even to my own hurt.”  We must show this love not only to our friends and relatives, but also to even our enemies.   It is here that our righteousness must ‘Exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’ (Matt 5:20 ).  The Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:43-45 ).

Jesus ends by saying, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Why?  Because faith and hope both accept or take something from God; love returns something to Him.  Moreover, all other virtues are comprehended in love.  Look at 1Cor 13:4-7 and you will see that love implies kindness, patience, humility, self-control, unselfishness, faith and hope.  Finally, love, at its best and highest, is patterned after God, for He is love (1John 4:16 ).  Love then is the true meaning and purpose of the law (cf. 1Tim 1:5 ).

Now this scribe is just overwhelmed by all this.  ‘“Well said, Teacher,” he replied. “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 neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” ‘  His former antagonism towards the Lord Jesus has vanished, replaced by admiration.  He sees now, perhaps for the first time, that the law has a spiritual element to it- that it is more than just keeping a set of rules.  It is seeking to live a holy life- out of love for Jesus Christ-  otherwise it’s just Pharisaism.  He also sees that burnt offerings and the like are no substitute for a life of loving obedience to God.  How many of his fellow Israelites thought they could come to the Temple, dump an offering on the altar and then push off home and carry on with their lives?  And how many so-called Christians think the same?  How many think they can come to church, sing a few hymns, stick a pittance in the offering and then say, “Well, that’s it.  I‘m all sorted out with God for another week.”  What madness!  To think that you can fob God off with a dead animal or a couple of coins in and offering plate or a standing order.  No, no!  It was the repentance and faith of the Jews who brought the sacrifices, trusting not in the offerings themselves, but in the mercy of God and in His Messiah, that wrought forgiveness for them and this was something that this scribe had not yet learned, as we shall see.

‘Now when Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”’  Not far from the kingdom of God;  what an interesting and cryptic comment!  What does it tell us?  Well first of all it tells us that there are varying distances at which non-Christians are from the kingdom.  We may easily observe this; many people today are totally materialistic.  They believe in their foolishness that the whole of life can be explained by natural processes and if you can’t see a thing or hear it or measure it in some way, they don’t want to know it.  They are as far from the kingdom of God as you can imagine. Then there are others who have some sort of spiritual awareness; these are into New Age or Feng Shui or whatever.  They at least have an awareness of some sort of divine essence in the universe, but as to a real knowledge of the living God, they are still pretty clueless.  They are perhaps nearer to the kingdom than the first group, but still a very long way off.  Then there are others who have read the Bible and are really quite interested in religion and like to get into discussions about it, and so on until you get to this Scribe and he really is right at the gates of the kingdom.  He knows the Scriptures back to front; he knows that the Law is not based on outward observance; he knows that Jesus of Nazareth is a great Teacher and so our Lord says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

‘Not far from the kingdom of God.’  What a terribly dangerous place to be!  I was brought up on stories about the British Empire and two of them come to mind.  Captain Scott of the Antarctic was ‘not far’ from his supply camp when he and his men perished in the snow.   A relief column was ‘not far’ from Khartoum when General Gordon and his troops were overwhelmed and killed by the Sudanese; and more recently, the car ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise, was ‘not far’ from harbour when it capsized, killing more than a hundred passengers.  John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven.’  Let me put this another way.  Suppose you are in a queue of twenty or thirty people waiting for the last ‘bus home.  The ‘bus arrives and people start climbing aboard.  Just as you are about to get on the ‘bus, the conductor says, “Sorry! We’re full,”  And the ‘bus leaves without you.  It makes no difference whether you are the next person to get on or if there are fifty people ahead of you.  The ‘bus has gone.  You have to walk home.  So it is with the kingdom of God;  being near it doesn’t help at all in the final analysis.  You’re either in the kingdom or outside it; you’re either saved, or you’re lost.

So what was the matter with this man?  Well, when our Lord said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” I see him as being rather pleased.  Perhaps he went home and said to his wife, “You know, that Jesus of Nazareth says I’m not far from the kingdom of God,” and his wife said, “Oh, that’s nice, dear!”  And perhaps he sat in his favourite chair and thought to himself, “Not far from the kingdom of God, eh?  Not bad!”  You see, he had heard the Lord Jesus say that the greatest commandment was to love God with heat, soul, mind and strength and to loves one’s neighbour as oneself and he had agreed with Him.  But he had never asked himself, “Do I actually do this?” ‘For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified’ (Rom 2:13 ).   Are you, the reader happy to stand before God on the Last Day and tell Him that you have kept these two commandments perfectly and constantly?  Of course not!  ‘As it is written, “There is none righteous, no not one”’ (Rom 3:10 ):  not this scribe, not me and not you.  ‘For by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified’ (Gal 2:16 ).  It can’t be done.  To hear God’s law as this scribe had done, to approve of it, even to preach it, can save nobody.  Only perfect obedience can satisfy our thrice-holy God and fallen men and women cannot achieve it.   Worse than that, we are constituted sinners in the eyes of God, and are under His active displeasure.  The Bible tells us, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23 ), and that ‘God is a just Judge; God is angry with the wicked  every day’ (Psalm 7:11 ).

If we cannot save ourselves, then what we need is a Saviour:  someone to stand between us and the righteous anger of an outraged God.  We need an ark to shield us from the torrent of God’s wrath; a city of refuge to which we can run to be safe from His justice; a hiding place from His indignation (Isaiah 26:20 ).  In short, we need Jesus Christ.  He is for us a perfect Saviour in every respect.  He has led the life of perfect obedience to God’s commandments that we cannot live; and He has taken upon Himself the punishment that our sins deserve.  There on the cross, all the sins of those who trust in Him are laid upon His sinless shoulders and His perfect righteousness is credited to them.

So what should this Scribe have done?  Well,  there was another way in which he was not far from the kingdom of God;  he had the King standing right in front of him and yet he let Him go away.  He should have laid hold of Him and pleaded with Him:  “Lord Jesus, you’ve got to help me.  If what you’ve said is true, I’m lost!  If these are the greatest commandments, I can’t keep them.  I know I break them every day. What can I do, Lord?  How can a sinner like me get right with God?”  You see, there is only one way to enter the kingdom of God- by repenting of your sins and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. And His blood, shed for sinners on the cross.  He tells us, ‘Look to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 45:22. cf. John 3:15 ); and again, “The one who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out’ (John 6:37 ).  If there is anyone reading this who has not done so before,  come to Jesus in true repentance and faith and you will know sins forgiven and peace with God.

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