Sermons

May 12, 2019

The Greatest Commandment

Jason Meyer | Mark 12:28-34

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?” Jesus answered, “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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 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. 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.” 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

Introduction

Mother’s Day is one of those holidays that runs the gamut on the emotional spectrum. Some come to this moment with great joy. You have a close relationship with your mom and you get to celebrate her today—or you are the mom and you get to be celebrated today. It is good and right and biblical for a husband and children to rise up and call you blessed.

But some come to this moment with great grief. Some of you have a deep wound and a nagging sense of lost because your mom is gone. You have the memories and they are good, but it is all bittersweet. Some of you have grief and anger and pain. You have memories, and they are hard or even traumatizing. Perhaps your mom was never there for you, or she is still not a functional mother that has really nurtured you and encouraged you. Perhaps your mom was an instrument of incessant criticism—words that cut down and tear down and put down. Maybe you carry feelings of guilt because you were that mom, and you do not know how to mend those relationships or somehow make up for lost time. 

Maybe on this day you are reminded of your inability to be a mom. Maybe you lost a child, maybe you could never have a child (because you are single or because as a couple you face the haunting pain of infertility).

This text speaks to all of you. It does not single one group out and say, “This is for you and you only.” This text speaks to all of us generally and it speaks to us individually and specifically. Let’s get to the text and pray that the Holy Spirit would take this word and tenderly apply it deeply in our hearts. I pray for a healing rain for hurt, and a steady rain for tender shoots to grow up, and for buds to open and blossom. No matter where we are on the spectrum of joy and pain today, let’s bring it all to God in prayer.

The text today is a little bit like watching a tennis match. There is a back and forth dynamic as the scribe asks a question, Jesus answers, the scribe responds, and Jesus responds, and then we see the conclusion of the match.

Outline

  1. The Scribe’s Question (v. 28)
  2. Jesus’ Answer (vv. 29–31)
  3. The Scribe’s Response (vv. 32–33)
  4. Jesus’ Response (v. 34a–b)
  5. The Conclusion (v. 34c)

1. The Scribe’s Question (v.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?” 

Later Jewish teachers would tabulate the number of commands in the Jewish Scriptures. They counted 613 commands: 248 positive (do) and 365 prohibitions (do not do). They distinguished between some commands that were lighter (smaller) and some that were weightier (greater). This debate colors the context of this question: “What is the greatest or heaviest command of them all?”

2. Jesus’ Answer (vv. 29–31)

Jesus answered, “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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

We could make many observations on these verses, but I will limit myself to four.

1) The Providence of God

Let’s start with the most surprising first: the Providence of God. God brings good out of evil in this whole section. People bring three questions to Jesus to try and trap him—paying taxes, marriage in the resurrection, and the greatest commandment. Each of these questions seems to have come from the wrong motive, but look at the good that God gave us in Jesus’ answers! One of the great theologians of the last 200 years, said it well: “Little did the three questioners in this chapter think what benefit their crafty questions would confer on all Christendom” (J.C. Ryle, Mark, p. 192). My guess is that it will be hope-giving for all of you walking through hard times to know that God is sovereignly and providentially turning what people mean for evil in your life for good.

2) The Greatness of God

The first part of Jesus’ answer takes us back to the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4. The fact that God is one points to the exclusivity and uniqueness of God—he is God alone and we must worship him and love him alone. There are endless debates in sports about who is the greatest of all time. In basketball, it is Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James? Is Tom Brady the greatest football player of all time? Someone has done something to deserve that honor or accolade. What stands out in this verse is that there is no question in Jesus’ mind about who is the Greatest Being in the Universe. What does he deserve? All of us all the time. Not begrudging acceptance, but whole-souled love with every fiber of our being. All the love that we have to give we should give to God.

God’s people must make this a matter of first importance and safeguard this truth of God’s absolute and unique greatness and God-ness in their inner core (i.e., the heart; Deuteronomy 6:6) as well as the external fabric of their lives (as they sit in the house, walk on the way, lie down, get up; Deuteronomy 6:7). It is so important, it must also be the focus of our discipleship: we must pass this on to our children (Deuteronomy 6:7). Saturate your life with this truth that it is like surround sound (i.e., sign on your hands and head and house and gates).

And this is part of our discipleship here at Bethlehem: to love God more than we love anything else. And to love everything else in relation to the One we love above everything else and love through everything else. God’s gifts are meant to be a means for us to enjoy God himself. Don’t use God as a stepping-stone to get his gifts. Use them as a stepping-stone to enjoy God. Think about how much more enjoyable the God who created these good things must be. For example, on this day we celebrate the love we have received from our moms (I know there are some painful exceptions). The real love of our mom is an echo of the perfect love we receive from God. We can celebrate the love of Mom without competing with the love of God because the real love of Mom points to the perfect love of God.

3) Love for God and Love for Neighbor Are Distinguishable

Humanity does not deserve to be loved with every fiber of our being. We must make a distinction between God and the image of God. It is idolatry when we love others more than we love God. But it is sin to be so self-centered that we use others instead of love others. Instead of using others to serve us, we are called to love others as we love ourselves. 

And we should love neighbor so thoroughly that we love them as though we were them – “as yourself.” Jesus here quotes Leviticus 19:18. What does it mean to love others as we love ourselves? John Piper once preached a sermon in which he said that means take off your flesh and put it on them and see your own reflection and love them with all the self-interest you have for yourself and all of the self-care you give yourself. This command is a profound call to crucify selfishness and pour out self-sacrificing love on others.

4) Love for God and Love for Neighbor Are Distinguishable, but not Separable

“There is no other commandment [singular] greater than these [plural]” (v. 31b). Jesus is saying that these two commandments can be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. They are not identical, but they are interconnected. Indeed, the New Testament teaches the same thing elsewhere: 

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. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.—1 John 4:19–21 

If you claim you can separate them, the Bible does not just call you inconsistent. It calls you a liar. You are not telling the truth about the inseparable way that love for God and love for others comes together. 

Now we are ready to see the Scribe’s response.

3. The Scribe’s Response (vv. 32–33) 

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. 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.”

Notice that the scribe recognizes the wisdom of Jesus. There is a hierarchy in God’s commands. Some are more important and more fundamental than other commandments. For example, loving God and neighbor is “much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33). This is self-evidently true because one could go through the motions in the sacrificial system without having love for God or hearts engaged with God. But love for God should empower obedience to the commands of God—like the command to participate in the sacrificial system.

Remember why these words matter in this context. Jesus has been speaking against what has been happening in the temple. The scribe has at least seen the distinction that Jesus can make between loving God and neighbor as meaning more than participating in the temple activities. We do not know how much the scribe understood, but the reader understands what Jesus has said in relation to Jesus’ cursing of the temple and turning the tables that enabled the Jews to participate in the sacrificial system. He is saying that it is all a sham. People have been doing all the activities without love for God or love for others. They have missed the main thing. This is exactly what the prophets say to Israel throughout its history. God calls their sacrifices “vain” and their incense an “abomination.” He says that he hates their observance of new moon and feast celebrations (Isaiah 1:12–14).

This is one of the first times that Jesus answers and someone openly acknowledges that he is right. How will Jesus respond?

4. Jesus’ Response (v. 34a–b) 

And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Notice that Jesus does not say, “You are in the kingdom,” but “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). This comment raises the question: What is he missing? What does he need to see in order to enter the Kingdom?

The scribe still does not understand the identity of Jesus. Jesus makes this point in the next story. People need to see who Jesus really is. He is not just David’s Son, but David’s Lord. In other words, it is not enough to call Jesus “right,” one must call him “Lord.” The scribe had put himself into the position of passing judgment on what Jesus said. The scribe said, “You are right, Teacher.” But Jesus is in a different position altogether. He and the scribe are not in the same league. Jesus is the Judge and he defines who is in the Kingdom and who is not. For those not in the Kingdom, he can even declare how close or far away they are.

Mark does not end on that note. He takes us to a different climax at the end of this verse.

5. The Conclusion (v. 34c)

And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

What is the outcome of the tennis match? No one dares to challenge Jesus any more. They give up all hope of being able to trap him in his words or discredit him as a teacher of God’s word. He is not going to be stumped or shamed or tricked. He turns the tables time and time again and they are all left to care for their wounded honor and egos. 

It also takes the opening theme of Mark’s Gospel and puts it on full display. We know that Jesus is the Son of God. It was spoken in the first verse and God the Father spoke it at Jesus’ baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration—they saw his glory and they heard the Father’s voice: This is my Son; listen to him.

Jesus is God and he deserves all the worship and honor and love that belongs to God. They are arguing with him and trying to trap him, but in the end they were shamed into silence—no one dared ask him any more questions. Why? Because Jesus is God. We are in the presence of greatness. He takes all of the commands ever spoken in Scripture and says, “This is the essence of all I have been saying.”

Main Point: Jesus is God and he deserves all the worship and honor and love that belong to God.

Transition: Love and Mother’s Day

How do we apply this text on Mother’s Day? The first obvious application needs to be stated: Mothers, are you teaching your children to love God above everything else—not just in words but in actions (are you providing an example of loving God with all that you are?). I can’t tell you how many times I have heard testimonies that talk about how powerful it is for children to see their mothers going hard after God with a Bible open and fresh cup of coffee in the morning. Are you saturating yourself with the surround sound of God’s greatness and the call on our life to love him more than we love anything else or anyone else? This text addresses the importance of motherhood and warns us against the idolatry of motherhood. (You should love your children, but not put that love higher than love for God.)

I know that mothers have some of the most sensitive, tender consciences of any group I have ever met. “Mommy guilt” is a real thing. You never feel like you measure up to either part of the Great Commandment: falling short of loving God with all you have and falling short of loving others outside your home, let alone the people living inside your home. How can you take steps forward in love this morning?

Mother’s Day gives us a insightful vantage point from which to understand the love of God. Think about Isaiah 49:14–15.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
     my Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
     that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
     yet I will not forget you. 

God wants to let his people know that he will not forget them or forsake them. What imagery will he use? A mother’s love! A mother’s love in many cases is fierce and heroic. When I lived in Louisiana, there were a couple of times that I would be driving on the highway and have to change lanes in order to avoid running over an alligator. It was such a surreal experience.

I read an interesting study while I lived there. They did a survey on how parents respond when an alligator attacks a child. As they surveyed people, they found a common pattern. The dad would immediately go into strategy mode and look around for some kind of weapon—a stick, a rock, etc. But the mom did not hesitate or look for a weapon. She just moved into action with fists of fury.

God compares his love to a mother’s love. But then he acknowledges that even with the greatest kind of human love—maternal love—there are exceptions. There are times when even mothers do not show love. But there is never a time that God ceases to be love because God is love. How do we know that God will not forget us? He tells us in the next verse of Isaiah.

Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
      your walls are continually before me.—Isaiah 49:16

It was fairly common in the ancient world for a master’s name to be tattooed on his servant. In an earlier chapter, Isaiah referred to this practice when he testified that some people have the name of the Lord written on their hand: “This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s’” (Isaiah 44:5).

But it is with this point that the power of the gospel blows away all our expectations. Never in the ancient world would one see the name of a servant tattooed on their master—ever. That would put the master in the role of the servant, and who could imagine a master devoting his life to serve?

Christians can imagine a Master like this, because the High King of Heaven became a servant to save his people. The words of Isaiah 49:16 convey the principle of God’s love for his people. In the New Testament, the gospel put flesh on that principle. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came as a servant and said that he “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 

The Son of God came to earth and obeyed all the commands perfectly and perpetually for all of his life. And then he paid for all the times that we have not kept them. And the new covenant is in his blood. He purchased it. What does the new covenant do?

If you follow the progress of Deuteronomy, Moses commands the people to love God with all their heart and strength in chapter six. To love God from the heart, they will need to circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16). But Moses declares in Deuteronomy 29:4 that they will fail because the Lord has not given them a heart to love and obey God. The good news comes in the next chapter: God himself will do the work and circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6). The prophets pick up on the power of this promise in the new covenant.

The Power of Promise

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.—Jeremiah 32:39–41

What we need is to see not only the command to love God with all our heart and soul but to see the promise that God loves us with all of his heart and soul. Show me a chapter and verse in God’s word that says his love for his children is half-hearted! Look again at what God explicitly says. He loves you and rejoices in doing good for you “with all [his] heart and all [his] soul” (Jeremiah 32:41). This seems too good to be true. Have you ever seen people do something with every ounce of passion and emotion they could muster? No one ever sees that kind of passion and says, “I wonder if their heart is in it.” Imagine what someone could do with an infinite, unlimited heart and unlimited soul!

We won’t get to heaven because we love God with all of our hearts and souls. We will make it to heaven because God loves us with all of his heart and soul. And that very love is what changes us as God takes out the hard heart and puts in the heart of flesh that will obey him and fear him and love him.

Sermon Discussion Questions

Outline

  1. The Scribe’s Question (Mark 12:28)
  2. Jesus’ Answer (Mark 12:29–31)
  3. The Scribe’s Response (Mark 12:32–33)
  4. Jesus’ Response (Mark 12:34a–b)
  5. The Conclusion (Mark 12:34c)

Main Point: Jesus is God and he deserves all the worship and honor and love that belongs to God.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the scribe asking Jesus to do with all of the commands of the Law?
  • We made four observations concerning Jesus’ answer in verses 29–31. How many do you remember? Why are those observations significant? Is there one that stood out to you more than the others?
  • Why is the scribes’ response important in light of the context of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders over the temple?
  • How does Jesus turn the tables on the Sadducees so that they go from being the judges to being the judged?
  • Jesus told the that scribe he is not far from the kingdom. Why is he closer than the others? What is he still missing?
  • Why does Mark close this story the way he does? What point is he trying to make in the overall context?

Application Questions

  • How does this text apply to our attempts to love today—especially as we think about Mother’s Day?
  • Why is it important to know the command to love God with our whole heart and to know the promise that God loves us with his whole heart? How does the gospel empower our obedience to the Great Commandment
  • What would it look like to take the next steps of obedience in loving God with everything we have and loving others as ourselves? What do you need to give to God? Where do you need to step up love for others?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to love God with all of our hearts and to believe that God loves us with all of his heart—because of that love, we can better love those around us.

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