Monday, September 26, 2016

The Greatest Commandments (Mark 12:28-31)

Mark tells us, 
Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” (v. 28). 
The scribe was not wondering about chronology. He was not asking, “What was the first commandment that God ever gave?” Rather, he was posing a question of priority. He was asking, “What is the single most important commandment that God has given to this world?” He wanted to know the chief duty not just of members of the household of Israel and, later, the Christian community, but of the entire world, of every human being created in the image of God.

It was common in both the Old Testament writings and in Jewish teaching at Jesus’ time for teachers to attempt to summarize man’s chief obligation to God. For example, the prophet Micah said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). God told the prophet Habakkuk, “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4b). Rabbi Hillel, who taught twenty years before the ministry of Jesus, summed it up this way: “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor,” which was simply the Golden Rule articulated not in positive terms as Jesus did but as a prohibition. Hillel added: “This is the essence of the law. Everything else is mere commentary on it.” These are just a few of the attempts to sum up the whole duty of man.

When the scribe asked Jesus to do this, Mark writes: Jesus answered him, 
“The first of all the commandments is: ‘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.’ This is the first commandment” (vv. 29–30). 
Jesus directed the man’s attention to the most fundamental summary of man’s obligation that God gave to His people in the Old Testament, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6. That chapter begins with these words:
 “Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the LORD God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ ” (vv. 1–3)
After this preface, we come to the divine summons, the call that begins with the Hebrew word shema, which means “Hear” or “Give ear.” Israel was commanded: 
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (vv. 4–5). 
It is very significant that Jesus chose to cite this passage when asked to identify the highest-priority commandment. When the Shema was uttered and the Jews were directed to focus their affection on God, the object of their affection was not an impersonal cosmic force, an unnamed, unknown higher power. It clearly stated God’s identity: “The LORD our God.” This was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, the God who had delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt.

Of course, the Israelites were not commanded to love Him simply because of what He had done for them, just as we ought not to love God simply for the gifts and benefits we receive from His hand. Neither are we to love Him simply for His attributes—His infinite wisdom, His limitless power, His peerless justice, and so on. Rather, we are to love Him for who He is in Himself. We do not really progress in the Christian life until we understand that we are to love God simply because He is lovely and wonderful, worthy of every creature’s unqualified affection.

This is why the Shema commands the people of God to have a comprehensive love for God. First, we are commanded to love God with all our hearts. The idea is that our love for God is to come from the very root of our beings. Our love for God is to be an affection that is surpassed by no other affection. It is to be an undiluted, unmixed love for God.

Second, we are commanded to love God with all our souls. In other words, our love for Him is not to be tepid or lukewarm. It is to be a blazing fire in our souls. It is good to remember the warning Jesus gave to the Laodicean church in the book of Revelation. He said: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (3:15–16). Our love for God must be white hot, not cold or even lukewarm.

Finally, the Shema tells us to love God “with all of [our] strength.” The affection that we are to have for God is not to be a weak, impotent thing. We must call on all of the strength we can muster to express our affection for Him.

It is interesting that the Shema lists three dimensions of our love for God—heart, soul, and strength. Jesus, however, listed four—heart, soul, mind, and strength. Some Hebrew scholars say the idea of the mind is implied in the word that is translated as “strength” in the Shema. Jesus, however, left no ambiguity. When He quoted the Shema, He said, “You shall love the LORD your God … with all your mind.” We are to love God with the fullness of our understanding. 

Sometimes I get impatient when I hear people say, “I do not want to study, I just want to have a simple faith.” God did not give us the Bible so that we might treat it as a children’s story. He calls us to apply our minds to the fullest extent to understand the riches and the depths of His revelation of Himself in His Word. This is what it means to love God with our minds.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have to admit that we have not kept the Great Commandment for even a single day of our lives. However, we are at ease in Zion about it. We are not really under great conviction in this matter, because we see that no one loves the Lord God with all of his or her heart, soul, mind, and strength. Thus, we think it must not be a big deal if we do not keep this commandment either. We are greatly mistaken in thinking this way.

The scribe asked Jesus which was the Great Commandment, the first in terms of importance. This was a natural question for him. The Jews taught that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, and the scribes distinguished between the “heavy laws” and the “light laws,” with the heavy laws being the more important ones. Even Jesus did that to some degree when He talked about the least of the commandments (Matt. 5:19) and weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23). We see this distinction also in the way the New Testament discusses sin. The New Testament recognizes a love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), meaning sins that do not call for public ecclesiastical discipline. 

Elsewhere, we find lists of heinous crimes that destroy the church and require ecclesiastical discipline (1 Cor. 6:9–10; 1 Tim. 1:9–10). However, no sin is so small as to be insignificant. John Calvin, responding to the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin, said that no sin is so slight that it does not deserve death, but no sin is so great that it actually destroys the grace of God in our souls.

If I were to ask you, “What is the most serious sin of all?” what would you say? Murder? Adultery? Idolatry? Unbelief? It seems to me that if the Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the great transgression is the failure to keep this commandment. That scares me, because I have not kept the Great Commandment for five minutes in my life. I have never loved God with my whole heart. My soul has never overflowed with affection for God. My mind has been lazy with respect to understanding God’s Word, and I am often more interested in learning the things of this world. Finally, I have used only a portion of my strength in my affection for God. Were it not for Jesus, I would perish because of this sin, and rightly so.

But consider Jesus. Was there any portion of the Lord’s heart that was not completely in love with the Father? Did Jesus restrain His soul from affection for His Father? Was there anything that the Father revealed that Jesus ignored as being unworthy of His attention? Was His affection for His Father a spineless, weak affection, or did He manifest the most powerful, strong affection for the Father ever seen on this planet? You know the answers to these questions. The Lord Jesus kept the Great Commandment perfectly. Every second of His life He loved the Father with all of His heart, all of His soul, all of His mind, and all of His strength. Had He not done that, He would not have fulfilled the law of God and would not have been worthy to save Himself, let alone save us.

After identifying the Great Commandment to answer the scribe’s question, Jesus added, “And the second, like it, is this: 
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (v. 31). 
Jesus here quoted Leviticus 19:18 to identify the second-greatest commandment. Obviously, Jesus was correct in ranking love for God as the greatest commandment, but it is significant that Jesus felt it was necessary to mention love for one’s neighbor. Love for other people is also extremely important. Indeed, as Jesus said in the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel, these two commandments summarize “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40), that is, all of Scripture.

It is worth noting the injunctions that follow the Shema: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6–9). We are never to forget the Great Commandment, as well as the other commands in God’s Word. To guard against that, the Scriptures must be an integral part of our lives and something we teach to our children with diligence.