The Greatest Commandment
Text: Mark 12:28–34
Main Idea: The Greatest Commandment exposes our failure and desperate need for a Savior.
I. A Respectful Inquiry (Mark 12:28)
II. An Honest Reply (Mark 12:29–31)
III. A Wise Reflection (Mark 12:32–33)
IV. A Penetrating Observation (Mark 12:34)
As I was preparing for the sermon this last week I was reminded of Dr. David Wells’ insights into American Christianity in the late ‘90’s as our nation was drifting into post-modernism. Piercing insights that certainly define the 2020’s as well.
“It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is [delicate or] ethereal BUT rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has completely lost his prominence in [people’s everyday lives]… Those [professing Christians] who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers’ sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness.”
What does he want us to see? He wants us to see that, even though there are vast numbers of people in America who believe in God and even affirm proper beliefs about God, very few of them truly orientate their lives to the Sovereign Lordship of God. Or to put it in the most simple terms, their beliefs about God have zero impact on their daily behavior and basic approach to life.
Let’s be honest, we live in a world where most people take for granted that they will be ushered into a blessed afterlife with God, no matter how they related to God in this life. They ultimately believe that God is too loving to place any real demands on his creatures. And if he does, they believe that he will condone any behavior that flows from their pursuit of personal wholeness or true love. And that couldn’t be any further from the truth because as we are going to see in our text today: God demands our highest love and our deepest obedience.
A Respectful Inquiry (Mark 12:28)
The surprising thing about our passage this morning is not that Jesus is presented with another question. Rather, the surprising development is that this Scribe’s inquiry is motivated by respect for Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection. Because, up until this point in the Gospel of Mark, the Scribes have been wholly unified in their whole-sale opposition to Jesus.
But, this man is not interested in trapping Jesus or making him look bad in front of the crowds. No. He engages him as a fellow expert in the Law, honestly asking him to weigh in on a long-standing religious debate over the Torah’s 613 separate commands. A religious debate among rabbis that was not motivated by a desire to dismiss “lesser commands,” but an honest pursuit of the greatest command from which every other command flowed. In other words, which command functioned like the mountain lake or subterranean aquafer from which every other river, stream, creek, and tributary of the Law originated.
An Honest Reply (Mark 12:29–31)
Jesus’ Two-Fold Answer
Notice, here that Jesus isn’t frustrated or angered by this man’s inquiry, in that, doesn’t respond in a pejorative parable or sharp rebuke but a clear and honest answer to his question about the “greatest commandment.” Rather, he gives him a single answer grounded in two well-known OT passages—Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18.
Deuteronomy 6:4–5 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Leviticus 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
A Closer Look
The first thing I want to point out is that the “Greatest Commandment” is anchored in God’s singular exclusivity and primacy, in that, God is one. Now the primary thrust of this affirmation is the fundamental truth that there is only one God, he has no rivals, there are no other God’s before him and there will be no God’s after him. The god’s of the nations are wholly impotent because they are not gods at all.
And given the fact that, He is the one who created all things, including humans, for his glory. He is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power. He is the one who wields distant galaxies, redeems sinful men, and feeds hungry sparrows while he sovereignly rules over every single atom in our universe. Therefore, he is necessarily the one to whom all praise, honor, obedience, worship, and love is due.
The second thing I want to point out is that God is not content with the leftover scraps of his people’s affections. As if he is a part-time lover looking for an occasional good time. No, Jesus is saying that mankind’s proper response to God’s exclusivity and primacy is nothing less than a whole-hearted love and devotion that flows from every aspect of their being.
When Jesus says that the “first and Greatest Command” is to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength. He is saying that our most fundamental responsibility as humans is to love God in such a way:
- That he is the goal of our highest affections (Heart).
- That he is the focal point of our deepest desires and feelings (Soul).
- That he is the joy of our thoughts and understanding (Mind).
- That we use his gifts, in terms of our personal abilities and financial resources, as stepping-stones to greater enjoyment of him.
And here is the most beautiful part of the command. It’s the underlying promise that God is a happy, gracious God who loves to pour out good things upon his people.
Psalm 16:11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
See the call to love God above every other thing in life is, in fact, an invitation to experience life, fullness of joy, and pleasures forever more in our pursuit of his glory.
But, here is that catch in the “Greatest Commandment,” True love for God necessarily overflows into love for our neighbors. And don’t forget that Jesus is not merely talking about the nice people who live next door or the people in our church. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37) reminds us that Jesus is including people that we would normally consider political enemies and religious heretics. In other words, no one is exempt from God’s command to love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves.
So, what does it to love other people as we love ourselves? To put it very simply it means “to love other people with the same self-interest that you have for yourself and all the self-care you give yourself” (John Piper).
Isn’t that what we see as the Samaritan goes out of his way to help the Jewish man left for dead in the ditch? See he didn’t just bandage him up and give him some water nor did he simply drop him off at the inn and absolve himself of any responsibility. He paid for his care and promised he would return and pay any additional fees!
Deep down inside, isn’t that how you really want to be treated? This is what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In other words, love is not an abstract emotional feeling about our neighbor but an expression of active obedience toward God in acts of loving-kindness toward our neighbor.
Distinguishable but Forever Inseparable
So what does Jesus want us to know about the most important command, the one command from which every other command flows? He wants us to that the “greatest commandment” is not one, but in fact two distinguishable but forever-inseparable commands.
Mark 12:31 “There is no other commandment [singular] greater than these [plural].”
Are they two different commands? Yes. Can they be separated? No. Even though the former is far superior to the later.
These two commands are the “headwaters” from which every other command flows, in that, they neatly summarize the two sections of the Ten Commandments; commandments that begin with Israel’s vertical relationship with God and transition to their horizontal relationships with other people. In fact, every other commandment in the Bible is merely an explication of this single, two-part command.
1 John 4:19–21 We love because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
You cannot have one without the other, when people love God supremely they will supernaturally love their neighbors rightly.
A Wise Reflection (Mark 12:32–33)
Love for God always Trumps Religious Rituals
Did you notice what is missing in this man’s reply? It’s missing the typical distain, cynicism, and criticism that define the religious elite in Mark’s Gospel. This man isn’t leaning away from Jesus he is leaning in. And even more, he not only agrees with Jesus but adds his own observation that fulfilling the Greatest Commandment is more important than all of the Temple’s rituals and sacrifices combined. A truth expressed countless times in the in the OT.
Malachi 1:10–12 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised.
See he rightly understood that that rituals and sacrifice were only acceptable to God when they were an authentic expression of love for God and faithful obedience to his sovereign Lordship. And that apart from love, the most sacred duties were utterly devoid of any meaning or significance. Because for the most part, animal sacrifice was an acknowledgement of sin and plea for forgiveness.
For all intensive purposes, this Scribe’s insights far exceed the insights of Jesus’ most intimate followers, 12 disciples. We might even expect Jesus to invite him into his group. But, instead Jesus concludes their interaction with a penetrating observation.
A Penetrating Observation (Mark 12:34)
The Hidden Hook
Now, I realize that when we come to this text out natural impulse is to start examining all of the ways that we are not loving God supremely and not loving other rightly, and tell ourselves or one another to just try harder. And while I believe there is a proper place for honest assessments and exhortations, I do not believe that is the primary purpose of this passage because that is not where Jesus goes. Rather, Jesus concludes with the curious statement, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34).
If this man is in complete agreement with Jesus about the Greatest Commandment, why does Jesus tell him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God?” I am asking this question because a few years ago one of the rising stars in the emergent church movement, Brian McLaren, quoted this passage and confidently declared that it was in fact a “summary of the gospel” itself. And in this he couldn’t be more wrong.
Main Idea: The Greatest Commandment exposes our failure and desperate need for a Savior.
He is not close to the kingdom in that “If he simply tries hard enough to obey the Greatest Commandment, he might get in.” He is close to the Kingdom of God, in that, the Greatest Commandment exposes the true depths of his self-centered depravity that leads to his perpetual failure to love God supremely and love others rightly. And only once he realizes that despite all of his religious pursuits he completely unable to fulfill the law, and feels the weight of God’s wrath against his sin, will he be ready to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. [The Law is a sin detector not a righteousness indicator]
James 2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. [The Law does not grade on a curve, it is an all or nothing pursuit and everyone fails]
Romans 3:23–24 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
See, the first and second commandments establish our guilt and our shame before God and drive us to despair of ourselves so that we will place our hope in Jesus Christ, the one who perfectly fulfilled the Law for us and offers his perfect righteousness to everyone who abandons every hope in themselves and embraces his free gift of salvation by faith in him.
Romans 3:21–22 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
The Greatest Commandment is not gospel nor is it the path to peace with God. The only people who can ever hope to uphold the Greatest Commandment are those who have become new creations in Christ through the power of the gospel.
See the gospel is not simply the path to peace with God, it unleashes the very power of God within us to desire, pursue, and fulfill his two-fold command to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Romans 5:1–5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
So how should we respond to this passage this morning?
If you are not yet a believer. Please, stop resting on your own achievements believing you have lived up to God’s standards. And please do not try to keep living you life as if God does not exist.
The Greatest Commandment is an ever-present reminder that you are currently under God’s wrath because you cannot perfectly obey his commands.
But, the gospel is the good news that God showed his love, compassion, and mercy toward you in sending his Son Jesus Christ to perfectly obey the law on your behalf AND pay your debt of guilt by dying on the cross. The call of the gospel is simply this, honestly confess you inability to please God in your own power and receive what Christ has done for you as you only hope of forgiveness and restoration to God and you will be saved.
If you are a believer, do not dismiss the Greatest Commandment. Just because Jesus has perfectly fulfilled the Law on your behalf does not mean that you are exempt from its demands. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit you are finally capable of fulfilling it’s requirements. Not as a means to righteousness before God. But, a true expression of love for God and undeniable evidence of his saving grace in your life.
If you are a believer, how are you doing?
Do you need to rekindle your love for God. Has your love an passion for him diminished from a bright fire to smoldering embers?
Do you need to step out of your well-ordered but self-centered word and love your neighbor as Christ loved you?
Do you need to repent of your hatred of those who you consider enemies so that they can experience God’s love in your kindness, grace, and patience?
 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 88.
 Of these 613 commands, 248 were positive pursuits and 365 were prohibitions.
 “Perhaps the most famous is found in b. Šabb. 31a, in which Shammai and Hillel are challenged by someone, ‘Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Hillel then replies, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof;’ ” (Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 560).
 James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 372.
 Stein, Mark, 562.
 “…love fulfills the law, in that, love for God releases the love of God ;” (Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 373).
 Cf. 1 Sam. 15:25; Pss. 39:7 [40:6 Eng.]; 50:18–19 [51:19 Eng.]; Isa. 1:11; Jer. 6:20; Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:22.
 Cited by, D. A. Carson, “On Loving God with All Your Mind.” D. A. Carson Sermon Library. (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016).