The Most Important Commandment

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  • 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

    Armies win battles through bombardment. They repeatedly attack until their enemy’s defenses break down. After the barrage, the weakened adversary is defeated. Spiritual warfare advances this way. Do not let your guard down after any battle. Another wave of attack is sure to come. It happened to Jesus in Mark 12. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the temple, disrupting the business administration of the sacrificial system. The religious authorities, guardians of the temple and its operations, sought to destroy Jesus. In chapter 12, three deployments of religious leaders attack Jesus to bring him down. 

    • In verses 12-17, the Pharisees attack with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. 
    • In verses 18-27, the Sadducees attack with a question about resurrection from the dead. 
    • In verses 28-34, the scribes attack with a question about the greatest commandment.

    Each of these attempts to discredit Jesus fails miserably. Instead of exposing Jesus as a false teacher, they confirm the integrity and authority of Jesus. Our text records the religious leaders’ final public attack. Verse 34 ends: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” Every round of questions made Jesus look better, and the religious leaders look worse. The people were more impressed with Jesus the more they tried to disparage him. So the unsuccessful temple authorities gave up their efforts to trap Jesus in his talk. 

    Psalm 76:10 says, “Surely the wrath of man will praise you.” Mark 12 fulfills that prediction. The enemies of Jesus took their best shots. In response, the Lord’s wisdom has saved sinners and edified saints. We benefit today from the answers to questions asked to bring Jesus down. The Lord continues to take what is meant for evil and uses it for good.

    In our text, Jesus is asked about the most important commandment. The questioner was not openly malicious. The question was controversial, nonetheless. It was a much-debated subject to which there was no correct answer. Jesus gave the right answer. Here Jesus teaches what it means to be right with God: Saving faith is loving devotion. God created us, and we are accountable to him. All have sinned and fall short of his glory. Nothing we do can make us right with God. 

    • Sincere motives cannot save us. 
    • Moral conduct cannot save us. 
    • Bible knowledge cannot save us.  
    • Religious activities cannot save us. 
    • Financial generosity cannot save us. 

    Sinners are declared righteous before God by faith in Christ alone. Saving faith in the Lord is loving devotion to the Lord. True religion works from the inside out. It is not about what you do for God. It is about what God does for and in you through faith in Christ. May we see this truth as we ask with the scribed, “What is the most important commandment?”

    The Great Commandment Announced

    The first section of this engagement consists of a question and an answer.   

    A Religious Question. Verse 28 says, “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?” The “scribes” were the theological scholars of the day. Their name reflected their function – they wrote copies of scripture. Many have multiple copies of the Bible. You can easily pull up a digital copy if you do not have one. The ancients did not have personal copies of scripture. They were expensive and labor-intensive projects. As the scribes carefully wrote copies of scripture, they became experts in them. 

    One of the scribes came up to Jesus. Matthew 22:34 says, “And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.” The scribe was not a civil attorney. He was an Old Testament scholar. Matthew says he asked a question to test Jesus. But Mark indicates he did not have ulterior motives. He may have shown up with an agenda. But then he “heard them disputing with one another.” Watching the sparring match between Jesus and the religious authorities, he saw that Jesus answered them well. He did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. But he had to give him credit. Jesus knew his stuff. Here was no upstart rabbi from backwater Nazareth. Jesus was able to handle himself well against the leading theologians of the day. 

    Recognizing the wisdom of Jesus, the scribe asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” This was not a question about the Ten Commandments. It was a question about the tradition of the elders. The religious leaders drew 613 laws from the Old Testament – 365 negative, 248 positive. They categorized these commandments as light and weighty. They constantly debated which commandments were more important. They sought to crystalize the law into one summarizing commandment. It was an ongoing debatebecause there was no agreed-upon answer.

    At best, this scribe wanted to know how Jesus would answer the biggest theological question of the day. At worse, he expected that any answer Jesus gave would put him on the outs with some of the people. Ultimately, it was another trap question.

    A Biblical Answer. Verse 29 says, “Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Jesus quoted the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – the foundational Jewish creedal statement. Devout Jews quote it twice daily, morning and evening. It begins synagogue services to this day. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear” – a call to attention. Israel was to hear the truth about the identity and nature of God. 

    The identity of God is stated first: “The Lord our God.” This is no generic “there must be a God somewhere” theology. This is the God who entered a covenant relationship with Israel. Exodus 20:2 says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then the nature of God is stated: “The Lord is one.” This statement of the unity of God teaches the doctrine of monotheism. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” How should we respond to a God like this? 

    Supreme love for God. Verse 30 says, “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.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5, which commands us to love God supremely. The command is not to merely know, trust, or obey God. It is to love God.

    • You can obey God without loving him. 
    • You cannot love God without obeying him. 

    Loving affection compels loving action. The text commands us to love God “with.” The Greek preposition is “out of.” It is a statement of the source of true love for God. We are not to merely love God with the various aspects of our being. Our love for God is to be rooted in our innermost being. Love God “with” what? “All” – used four times in verse 30. Repetition is emphasis. Here it emphasizes a supertotality. To love God with your all is to love God without any divided loyalties. 

    Deuteronomy 6:5 commands us to love with all our heart, soul, and might. Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The terms should be read collectively, not individually. The command is not analyzing different psychological aspects of human nature. It is a command to love God with all that is within us. This one statement is sufficient proof that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 

    • Our hearts are divided. 
    • Our souls are polluted. 
    • Our minds are corrupted. 
    • Our strength is misused. 

    We do not love God with all our heart, soul, mind, or strength. We definitely do not love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. We need a Savior! 

    Selfless love for neighbor. Verse 31 says, “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a quote from Leviticus 19:18. The same word for love is used. It now moves from Godwardlove to manward love. History is filled with atrocities against man committed in the name of God. Jesus says love for God results in love for neighbor.

    In Leviticus 19, “neighbor” meant fellow-Israelite. Scripture did not justify hatred for non-Jews. It did distinguish strangers and foreigners from the people of Israel. They were to be treated with kindness. But they were not considered “neighbors.” Jesus radically enlarged the neighborhood. A lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are not to categorize others as neighbors or non-neighbors. We are to be a neighbor to any person in need that we can help. 

    How should we love our neighbor? “As yourself.” Many read the text to say you are to love your neighbor and yourself. They conclude you cannot love your neighbor until you love yourself. God does not command us to love ourselves. 2 Timothy 3:1-2 says, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self.” Jesus assumes we love ourselves. He commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Matthew 7:12 explains: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” 

    Verse 31 ends: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Jesus calls these two commandments a singular “commandment.” You cannot have one without the other. Matthew 22:40 says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus summarized the Old Testament in two commands: Love God supremely, and love your neighbor selflessly. 

    The Great Commandment Affirmed

    The Great Commandment is also recorded in Matthew 22:34-40. Only Mark records the follow-up discussion. What is announced in verses 28-31 is affirmed in verses 32-34. 

    A Statement of Confirmation. Verse 32 reads: “And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher.’” This is the only place in Mark where a religious leader agrees with Jesus. The Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees sarcastically addressed Jesus as “Teacher.” This scribe meant it. He acknowledged Jesus as a teacher who told the truth. 

    Right about God. The scribe said, “You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him.” What Jesus declared from Deuteronomy 6:4 about the identity and nature of God was the truth. Reverently avoiding using the Lord’s name, the scribe said, “He is one.” There is only one true and livingGod. Then the scribe added: “And there is no other besides him.” This was the necessary application of what Jesus said. If God is one, there is no other. 

    Isaiah 45:21-22 declares, “Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior, there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”

    Right with God. Verse 33 says, “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.” The key phrase is “much more.” The scribe affirmed the Great Commandment: Love God supremely, love your neighbor selflessly. Then he drew a comparison. The Great Commandment matters more than “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” “Whole burnt offerings” were the greatest sacrificesin which the entire offering was consumed by fire. It signified giving your all to God. “Sacrifices” referred to the various offerings of worship.

    The scribe did not denounce the sacrificial system. He acknowledged sacrifices do not make you right with God. The religious leaders determined to get rid of Jesus because he cleansed the temple of their sacrificial business operations. This scribe acknowledged all the sacrifices in the world are nothing if you do not love God. 

    A Statement of Conviction. Verse 34 says, “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” “Wisely” is used only here in the New Testament. It indicates insight, not intellect. He had a proper understanding of the truth. Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This statement was an affirmation. Many –irreligious and religious – are far from the kingdom of God. This Scribe was not. He was standing at heaven’s gate. This statement was also an admonition. Not far from the kingdom is still outside the kingdom. “Not far” is far enough to send you to hell. You can be close and yet so far away. 

    Did this scribe make it in? We do not know. That’s not what matters. Here’s the question: How far are you from the kingdom? You remain far away until you come to Jesus.  John 14:6 says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

    John Wesley grew up in a Christian home. His father was a pastor. His mother was a godly homemaker. Wesley attended Oxford University, where he started a group called “The Holy Club.” He was a deacon in his father’s church. But he was not saved. At the age of 32, Wesley went on a missions trip to America. It was a colossal failure. “I went to America to convert Indians,” he lamented. “But who will convert me?” On May 24, 1738, he randomly opened to Mark 12:34 and read, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” He went to church, was strangely warmed as he heard the gospel, and trusted Christ alone for salvation that day. Wesley became a key figure in church history. 

    How far are you from the kingdom? 


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.