The Two Great Commandments
July 25, 2021 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: The Gospel of Mark
Passage: Mark 12:28–34
THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS
An Exposition of Mark 12:28-34
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: July 25, 2021
Series: Mark: Knowing and Following God’s Son
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Turn to Mark 12. I'm going to read verses 28-34. This is a very familiar passage, and it's very rich to ponder it and to be reminded of what really matters in life. So let me read Mark 12, beginning in verse 28. God's Word says,
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?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 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.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 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. 33 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.” 34 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)
This is God's Holy word. It is for our good. Let's pray.
Father, we pray that this Word that you inspired to be written down for our good, we pray that this Word would be on our heart, and that by the Holy Spirit, this Word would transform and renew and strengthen our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
A SCRIBE ASKS JESUS A GOOD QUESTION (v. 28)
If you go back to the previous passage in verses 18-27, Jesus is having a conversation – a disputation, you could say – with the Sadducees over the doctrine of the resurrection. And at some point one of the scribes – one of the teachers of the law, one of the theologians in first century Judaism – comes on up and hears this interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees. And this particular scribe is impressed by what Jesus says to the Sadducees, and this prompts him to ask a question of his own.
Now as we've been reading in the Gospel of Mark – and through Chapter 11 in particular – we know that in general these scribes were opposed to Jesus. The scribes were conspirators with the chief priests and the elders to destroy Jesus. But this particular scribe seems a bit different, a bit more earnest, a bit more sympathetic to the Lord Jesus. And so, he comes with a question at the end of verse 28: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
There are many commandments, in fact. It is difficult to know exactly how to count the number of commandments that appear in Scripture, as you will find repetition and variation and so forth. But by one count, there are 613 Commandments just in the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Bible. And, of course, there are many additional commandments in the remainder of the Old Testament. And this scribe wants to know which commandment is the most important one of all.
JESUS ANSWERS THE SCRIBE’S QUESTION (v. 29-31)
Jesus begins to answer in verses 29 and 30. In verse 29, Jesus lays the foundation of the most important commandment. And then, in verse 30, he actually states what the most important commandment is. Jesus is basically quoting here from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.
The Foundation of the Most Important Commandment (v. 30)
The foundation of the most important commandment is the fact that the Lord God has redeemed Israel. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is God's spokesman: he is addressing the people of Israel, he is calling them to attention. Moses says, “Hear O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) – and this reminds us that we are talking about God's covenant people. These are the people that God has redeemed. These are the people that God is going to be bringing into the promised land. God's covenant people today are those who belong to his Son. God's gracious covenant is for you, if you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, you can put yourself within that grouping of covenant people when Moses says and Jesus repeats, “Hear, O Israel”. The entirety of Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The phrase “Hear, O Israel” calls God's covenant people to attention. And then what immediately follows is this great foundational affirmation of faith, of core belief, of fundamental conviction – that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This great theological declaration calls us to consider “the LORD our God”, to consider that the Lord is our God, and to consider that the Lord who is our God “is one”.
Now the meaning of the phrase “the LORD is one” is actually difficult to pin down with precision. I doubt that the phrase “the LORD is one” has anything to do with God's metaphysical unity, as if the passage is telling us that God is unified instead of divided. I don't think that's the point of the passage at all. The word “one” actually allows for different possible meanings. For example, the Lord is one could mean that the Lord is one-of-a-kind, that the Lord is unique. Or it could mean that the Lord is first. Or it could mean that the Lord is the only one. Or it could be calling attention to ‘the Lord alone’. In fact, if you have an English Standard Version Bible and you have Deuteronomy 6:4 in front of you, where it says “the LORD is our God, the LORD is one” the ESV has a footnote which indicates possible legitimate translations of the Hebrew text. And one of the possible translations that it gives is this: “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” And if this is on the right track (and some of the passages below give us reason to think that it may very well be on the right track), then I think it explains how the phrase functions as the foundation to the most important commandment.
Why should we love the Lord our God with everything we've got? Why should we do that? Because the Lord alone is our God, the Lord alone is our Sovereign, the Lord alone is our shield and defender, the Lord alone is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The Lord alone is our God. Therefore, Deuteronomy 6:14 (just ten verses later) says, “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you.” In fact, I'm reminded of a similar teaching in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 8 the Apostle Paul says:
“Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
Now the belief that the Lord alone is our God is rooted in the even more foundational belief that the Lord alone is God. It's not just that the Lord alone is our God, but the Lord alone is God. In fact, if you have Mark 12 open in front of you, the scribe calls attention to this reality when he summarizes and affirms what Jesus says in the middle of verse 32: “You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him.” That is the scribe’s summary of what Jesus is saying. And there is an earlier statement in Deuteronomy which highlights the uniqueness of God – that he is the one and only God of heaven and earth. This is absolutely foundational to the instruction that we ought to worship the Lord alone and follow him faithfully. The passage in Deuteronomy 4 says:
“Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:34-39)
The Lord comes to his covenant people, and he says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) Therefore, the Lord alone is our God. We owe him everything. We know no other Savior. We know no other Refuge. We know no other Life-Giver or Promise-Keeper. The Lord is our one and only God.
The Most Important Commandment (v. 30)
Therefore, Deuteronomy 6:4 leads to Deuteronomy 6:5, which Jesus quotes in Mark 12:30. Therefore, since the Lord alone is God, and the Lord alone is our God, therefore: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
What is love? What does it mean to love? Many of you are familiar with one of the well-known New Testament Greek words for love – agape, or variations of agape, which is the case in Mark 12:30 (Deuteronomy, of course, was written in Hebrew). I'm not going to give you a dictionary definition of agape love. I'm going to give you a functional definition, and then illustrate it from another passage. Here is a functional definition: love is an attitude that values the beloved and desires the best for the beloved and expresses itself through self-giving action for the benefit of the beloved. You actually give yourself to the one that you love. Agape pops up all over the place in the New Testament, and it pops up at least three times in John 3. So, if you want to hold your place in Mark 12 and turn over to John 3, this will help you see the concept of agape love in action.
John 3:16, one of the most well-known and beloved verses in the whole Bible, says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loved the perishing world and he wanted to rescue the perishing sinners out of it. And so, his love did something, namely, he gave his Son for our redemption.
Now go down three verses to John 3:19. The word agape is not necessarily used to communicate that which is positive. We can love the wrong things. And you see that here in verse 19 where Jesus says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” They had an agape love for the darkness. They preferred the darkness and they wanted that darkness to be a cover over their misdeeds.
Some verses later, John 3:35 also utilizes the word agape. John 3:35 says, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” When the Father looked out at the world, he saw an unlovely world and he gave his Son to it. But when the Father looks at his Son, he sees the One who is wonderfully and perfectly lovely – the radiance of the Father's own glory – and the Father is pleased.
It says in Mark 1 that the Father spoke over Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) The Father so delights in the Son that he gladly hands over his entire estate to his Son, because his Son is worthy. Agape values, esteems, cherishes, and prefers the beloved. Agape desires that the beloved be honored, if the beloved is worthy of honor. And agape desires that the beloved be rescued, if the beloved has lost their way. And agape takes action: you actually give your very best to the one that you love.
And so, this is the most important command: to love the Lord your God with your whole being. This is the highest calling upon your life. This is the weightiest matter for you and for your soul to reckon with – that you ought to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Your “heart” (Mark 12:30) is the innermost part of you, where you experience affections and where you make choices. Your “soul” (Mark 12:30) is really you – your self, your life. Your “mind” (Mark 12:30) is that part of you that thinks and discerns and appraises. And your “strength” (Mark 12:30) is your energy, your capabilities, your potential for action. And so, the greatest command is that in all of your desiring and willing, in all of your being and living, in all of your thinking and discerning, and in all of your exerting and doing, you are to demonstrate your supreme love and uncompromising loyalty to the Lord God Almighty.
Now how do you love someone who is perfect – someone who has no deficiencies and no needs? Answer: By delighting in his perfections; by basking in his great love for you; by preferring fellowship with him over anyone or anything else; by desiring that he be honored, that he be known, that his name be hallowed, that his kingdom come and that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven; and then, by actually striving with all that you have to do his will. If you are here this morning, and you find the Olympics exciting, the news interesting, money captivating, games compelling, hobbies addicting, sins enticing, but God boring, then you have a big problem. In fact, you might be utterly perplexed about how you could ever love him with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength, because you find him boring and his word boring and his mission boring. And if that’s the case in your life, then I'm here to tell you that you have a huge heart problem. You have a disease at the core of your being. You are completely missing your point in life. And what you need is a miracle to change your heart.
I'm going to ask you some diagnostic questions in order to help you to let this great commandment really sink in. Do you seek to align your heart, your affections, and your will, with the heart of God? Do you feel the reality that the Lord is your life and that his words are your life? Do you deliberately turn your mind to meditate on the mind of God as revealed in Scripture? Do you find your strength in the Lord? And as the Lord renews your strength, are you diligent to run the race that he has set before you? Are you glad to spend and be spent for the Lord's sake and the gospel’s sake and the mission’s sake? Do you demonstrate your love for the Lord in practical actions? It is a complete impossibility to love someone with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind, and all of your strength, and for such love not to get translated into your actions and decisions. That is impossible. Is your priority in every relationship, every responsibility, every situation, every mundane moment, every choice of entertainment, every use of your smartphone, tablet, or computer – is your priority to demonstrate love for the Lord? Is there anything in your life right now that is undermining or hindering your love for the Lord? And if so, what are you going to do about it?
When I was a much younger Christian, I found great quotes electrifying and I would write them down in one of my Bibles. Here's one that I wrote down from J. Wilbur Chapman, an evangelist from a few generations ago. He said, “The rule that governs my life is this: Anything that dims my vision of Christ, or takes away my taste for Bible study, or cramps my prayer life, or makes Christian work difficult, is wrong for me, and I must, as a Christian, turn away from it.”
The Second Most Important Commandment (v. 31)
Finally, and transitioning to the next part of our passage, do you demonstrate love for the Lord by showing care and concern for other people? Remember, the scribe asked Jesus which commandment is the most important of all, and Jesus answered it. Jesus has identified the single most important commandment, but Jesus is unwilling to stop there. He is unwilling to stop at the most important command. Jesus believes that the second commandment is so important that it must be mentioned immediately after the first commandment. Some people might be tempted to think that the ideal situation is to spend all your time with the Lord, and minimize your interactions with people. Get me a Bible. Get me a journal. Get me a monastery. Get me alone on a mountain, and let me just live there all the time – communing with the Father 24/7 and having no disappointing, frustrating, imperfect, and troublesome people to deal with. But that's not the Father's will. The Father's will for you is not to pull you out of relationships but to remake you into someone who is able to represent him in your relationships. The Father so loved this sinful world. The Father shows kindness to the righteous and the unrighteous. The Father sent his Son to die for his enemies. The Father has a special love for the people who belong to his Son. The Father wants you to so receive his love – and so get to know him and his character – that you become a participant in his mission. His purpose is that you are able to go forth, into your network of relationships, and represent him well. Your love for the Lord, if genuine, must get expressed in love for other people.
And so, in verse 31, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 and says this: “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Remember what this means from our earlier reflection on agape. Neighbor-love means that you value your neighbor, you desire your neighbor’s well-being, and you act to promote your neighbor’s well-being.
Now in our therapeutic and self-conscious age, some people have demoted the second commandment to third place. My guess is that most of you have probably heard some form of this somewhere along the way. People will reason like this: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ presupposes that you ‘love yourself’. Therefore, these people will reason, the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with your whole being, the second commandment is to love yourself, and the third commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. But this is foolish tinkering with the word. There is no command to love yourself. And Jesus clearly identifies that the second most important commandment is about loving your neighbor, not about loving yourself. I'm not going to disagree with the Lord's assessment. The second commandment should not be demoted!
The point of saying “love your neighbor as yourself” (italics added) is because it is universal human experience – except in cases of psychosis or demon possession – it is the universal experience of humankind to engage in self-care. There is nothing wrong with this. You are hungry, and you eat. You are thirsty, and you drink. You are cold, and you turn up the heater or put on the sweater. You are hot, and you turn on the air conditioner. You are bored, and you pick up a good book. You are tired, and you rest. And so on! There is nothing selfish or self-absorbed about this – it is just ordinary and appropriate self-care. You are instinctively responsive to your own needs. You are a precious image-bearer of God, and therefore self-interest and self-care is entirely appropriate. Ultimately, we find our deepest interests and needs and desires met in relationship to the first commandment, which is going to the Lord, loving him with all of our being, and receiving from him all that he has for us. Now in setting forth the second commandment to love others, Jesus tells you to learn to be instinctively and selflessly responsive to the needs of the people around you in the same way that you are instinctively and dutifully responsive to your own needs. Be attentive to other people's spiritual needs, other people's relational needs, other people's practical needs. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Brothers and sisters, consider your neighbor! Your neighbor is not a cog in a machine. People are not utility devices. People are not problems to be solved. However broken they may be, people are image-bearers of God, and they are to be regarded as precious. They are made for him. Therefore cherish and care for the people that God puts around you.
These Two Commandments Hold the Most Weight (v. 31)
Now at the end of verse 31 Jesus says: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” These two commandments are the apex, the summit, the high point of all that God expects of you. They are also the foundation and the heartbeat of every other commandment. Jesus tells us that if we love him, we will walk in obedience to his instructions (see John 14:15). These two commandments must get into everything – everything that we are, everything that we do, everything that we build. Without Love for the Lord and love for one another, religiosity is a sham, ministry is worthless, family life deteriorates, and good things die. Without love, your life is a mess. Love toward God and neighbor must get into the mundane, everyday, ordinary moments of our lives.
After this worship service, we're going to have a special business meeting. The primary thing that the Lord is looking for in our meeting is not – ‘they cranked out a decision, yay!’ No! The main thing issue is this: is our meeting together and our conversation flowing out of our love for the Lord and our love for each other? And is it feeding back into the very same thing? If it's not that, then we're wasting our time.
If you're volunteering as part of VBS this week, would you stand up? I have a brief word of encouragement for you. Great execution is not the most important thing. You will rightly try to do your best and do a good job, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to stay close to Jesus, keep your heart tender before the Lord, and love on those kids and love on one another. And if you do that, then you are in the stream of God's blessing to his people, and that's where you want to be.
The two greatest commandments must shape every aspect of our lives.
THE SCRIBE EVALUATES JESUS’ ANSWER (v. 32-33)
In verses 32-33, the scribe summarizes and assesses Jesus’ answer. I'm not going to reread everything that he says. Basically, he's just affirming that he agrees with and approves of the answer that Jesus gave. He summarizes it in his own words. And he draws out an obvious application at the end of verse 33 – that since the love commands are the most important commandments of all, then these are “much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” As I said earlier, there are a lot of commands in the Old Testament, and some of them do involve presenting before the Lord offerings and sacrifices. But what we learn throughout the Scriptures, including right here in Mark 12:28-34, is that ultimately and foundationally – at the heart of things – the offering and sacrifice that you are to offer before the Lord is you, your love, your devotion, your loyalty, your obedience. You are to be “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). If you are not a living sacrifice, then anything else that you do or present or offer is just empty religion.
JESUS EVALUATES THE SCRIBE (v. 34)
Our passage concludes in verse 34: “And when Jesus saw that he [the scribe] answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”” I want you think about this for a few minutes. On one level, the statement “You are not far from the kingdom of God” is an encouragement. It communicates to the scribe something like, ‘Hey, you are seeing something really important here. Your understanding is correct. You are on the right track. But it's not only an encouragement. It's also a sober warning that raises a very important question, because at the end of the day I don't want to be “not far from the kingdom of God”. If you go through your entire life and then you die, and then you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and all you ever got to was “not far from the kingdom”, then he is going to say to you, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23) Knowing that the love commands are the most important commands doesn't mean that you are in the kingdom. Knowing Scripture, knowing the promises of God, knowing the content of the gospel and being able to verbalize it – none of those things necessarily mean that you are actually in the kingdom of God. You might know so many right answers, and yet Jesus would have to say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”, but you are not yet in the kingdom of God.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
I wonder if there is one, two, three, four people here this morning who are “not far from the kingdom of God”, but are not yet in the kingdom of God.
Those of us who follow Christ know how often we fall short in love. But there really is a love from the Holy Spirit that he pours into the heart of believers, and we begin to experience and grow in the reality that we love the Lord and that we love one another, and we have this special bond of fellowship in Christ.
But perhaps you are here and you know a lot of right answers, but the heartbeat of love is not within you. You do not have a passion for the Lord. You do not have a desire to live sacrificially for the good of others. Listen: if you are not far from the kingdom of God, attempting to love God and attempting to love others will not get you into the kingdom. The New Testament teaches in various passages that love for one another is not the way into the kingdom. Loving one another is evidence that you have been brought into the kingdom; it is evidence that you have been brought from death to life; it is evidence that you have been born again by the Spirit of God.
There is one God, and "there is no other besides him" (Deuteronomy 4:35). And if you would enter into his kingdom, he must become your God: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God…” He has to become your God. And before you can ever love him, before you can ever love other people for his sake, you must learn of his great love for you. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [atoning sacrifice] for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Yes, our love for the Lord and for each other is “more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”; therefore the true sacrifice that we must offer to the Lord is ourselves as a living sacrifice. But what comes first? Not our sacrifices, but the unique sacrifice that he made for us. God gave his very best, his very own Son. And the Lord Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself for us.
Maybe you are here this morning and you are feeling in your heart something like this – ‘I know a lot of Bible, but I think I'm outside of the kingdom.’ Maybe the Lord is convicting your heart. Is there anyone in here who would raise their hand and say, ‘Please pray for me. I am not far from the kingdom of God, but I don't think I'm in the kingdom of God.’ Anyone? Maybe you feel that, but you're afraid to put your hand up. If that's you, then my hope is that the Lord bugs you and hounds you and stays after you until you surrender to his gospel and come to know him in a personal way.
Father, I pray that we would not veer off the path. I pray that we would be continually renewed in these most important things. We want to know you, Lord. We love you. We want to fellowship with you. We want your words to be upon our hearts. We want your Spirit to transform us into the character of Christ. We want to be faithful representatives to the people around us. We want to bring love into our marriages and into our families and into our ministry teams and into our workplaces and into our neighborhoods. We need to be transformed. We need to abide in Jesus and his words to abide in us, so that we would be useful and fruitful. And Father, this is our prayer: enlarge our hearts so that we would walk in the way of your commandments. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Daniel I. Block, How I Love Your Torah, O LORD!: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011: p. 73-97.
James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 2). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
James W. Voelz, Mark 8:27–16:20 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019.
Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
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