Feb 18, 2007

The Great Commandment

Mark 12:28–34

Every second of Jesus’ life, He loved the Father with all of His heart, all of His soul, all of His mind, and all of His strength. Continuing his exposition of the gospel of Mark, R.C. Sproul looks at this great commandment that sums up the whole duty of human beings before their Creator.


This morning I will be reading from Mark 12:28–34, and I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

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?”

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. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

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

But after that no one dared question Him.

Once again, dear friends, you have heard a word from God this morning. This is not the opinion of an ancient semi-nomad, but the revelation of the eternal God, who is the source of all truth. He who has ears to hear it, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Now, O Lord, as we give heed to the instruction of our Lord to His assessment of the Great Commandment, we ask that we may grasp what He has spoken on this occasion and that our hearts may be pierced by His words. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

The Scribe’s Question

In past weeks, we looked at the different sub-groups among the Jews who brought interesting questions before Jesus. First, we saw the Pharisees uniting with the Herodians to try to trap Jesus on questions of tax. Last week, we looked at the plot of the Sadducees to trip up Jesus with reference to His views regarding the resurrection of the dead.

The third distinctive group we see throughout the New Testament was called the scribes. They were the theologians, the experts in biblical interpretation among the Jews. We note that on this occasion, there is no delegation from the scribes accosting Jesus, but only one of them, who raises a question. We also note this other difference: his question is not dripping with venom or vituperation. He is not hostile. He comes because he has been profoundly impressed as he’s listened to the way Jesus handled the interrogation by the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

So, we read in Mark’s gospel these words: “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?’” The question is not of temporal chronology. Jesus is not being asked, “What was the first commandment God gave?” That is not the question. When he says, “What is the first commandment,” it is not a question of chronology but of priority.

The scribe is asking: “What is the single most important commandment God has given to the world? What commandment sums up the whole duty of human beings before their Creator?” In view here is not simply a question about the sum and substance of obligations for Israel or the later Christian community, but rather of the entire world. What is the chief duty of every human being created in the image of God?

Man’s Chief Obligation to God

There are many times in the Old Testament in which people gave executive summaries of our chief obligation to God. We remember Micah saying, “What does the Lord require of thee but to love mercy, to do justly, and to walk humbly with thy God,” and elsewhere, “The just shall live by faith.”

Rabbi Hillel, who taught twenty years before the ministry of Jesus, summed it up this way when he said, “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor.” What you see and hear there is the golden rule, though articulated not in positive terms as Jesus did but in terms of a negative prohibition: “Don’t do to your neighbor what you don’t want to have your neighbor do to you.” Hillel added to this: “This is the essence of the law. Everything else is mere commentary on it.” So, there were attempts to sum up the whole duty of man in a single sentence.

When Jesus is asked to do this, He directs the attention of the scribe back to the most fundamental summary of obligation God gave His people in the Old Testament. He takes them back to the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6. Before I read the Shema to you, let me read the few verses that begin chapter 6 of Deuteronomy as the introduction to it.

We read: “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” (Deut. 6:1–2). That is the preface.

Then comes the divine summons, the call, as it were, to solemn assembly with the use of the Hebrew word shema, which means “Hear,” or, “Listen, give ear to what I’m about to say.” The summons goes like this: “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” (Deut. 6:4–5).

Jesus directs the attention of the scribe back to this foundational obligation that God imposed upon His people in the Shema: “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.”

Loving Who God Is

Before I try to unpack that, there are some things I would like to observe in passing. When the Shema was uttered and the call given for affection to God, it was announced that the object of the affection from the heart, soul, and strength is not some impersonal cosmic force, some unnamed, unknown higher power. It starts with an assertion about the identity of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one!” In other words: “The Lord, Yahweh, the Lord who has a name, the Lord who has a personal history with you, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

I am reminded of an incident in the early years of my college teaching when I was teaching a course in theology. Just as the bell rang to begin the period, a girl came in the doorway, and she was glowing. She had a big smile on her face, and she was followed closely by a young man.

As the girl entered the classroom, there was some blinging going happening. She walked in as if her arm were broken, but really she was displaying the diamond ring on her finger. I stopped her and said, “Mary, is that a diamond ring I see on your hand?” She said that it was, and I asked, “Does that mean that you are engaged?” She was happy to announce that she was, indeed, engaged. Then I asked, “Are you engaged to John?” He had just walked into the room with her. And she responded, “Yes, I am.”

Then I said: “Before we start class, let me take a moment and ask you something. Since you’re now engaged to John, you’re planning to marry him, you’re wearing his ring—Do you love him?” She answered, “Of course I love him.” I said, “Tell me why you love him.” She thought for a second, and she responded, “I love him because he’s so intelligent.”

I said: “You won’t get any argument from me. He’s an excellent student, on the dean’s list every semester, probably has an all-college 3.8. But here’s Bill over here on the other side of the room. He’s got a straight 4.0, and I know that students can get good grades just by extra labor, and some of them are educated beyond their intelligence, but I think that in the case of Bill, he’s an intelligent student. Would you grant that?” She said, “Oh, yes, yes.” I stated: “But you’re not in love with Bill. You’re in love with John.” She answered, “Right.”

I asked: “So, there must be something about John that you love that’s not in Bill. What is it?” She responded, “John is so athletic.” I said: “Yes, he plays on the basketball team. He starts and he’s a good ball player. I grant you that much. Bill’s the high scorer, and he’s the captain of the team. So, you’d grant that Bill also has athletic ability, wouldn’t you?” She answered, “Yes.” And I stated again: “But you’re not in love with Bill. You’re in love with John.” Once again, she answered, “Right.”

I said: “Come now, we can’t waste the whole day. Tell me more. What is it about John that makes you love him and not Bill?” She responded, “Well, John is so polite and courteous.” I said: “Bill, did you hear that? Are you rude?” “Oh, no,” Mary said, “no, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Bill in that way.” I said: “Mary, Bill has all these qualities that you say you find in John, and yet they don’t define your love. Tell me what it is about John that makes you love him.”

By this time, she was so nervous that I was sure she was going to start crying. If it was anything I hated when I was teaching, it was to have a young lady burst into tears under one of my interrogations in the classroom and make me feel like such a cad. But she was trembling.

Finally, she said, “I love John because, well, he’s John.” I said: “Yes. When you ran out of the specific qualities that you could enumerate to capture the essence of this person, you went to his name, because to you everything that John represents is bound up in his name.”

So it is with God. The name Yahweh is the name of our God. We love Him not because He is intelligent. We love Him not because He is strong, or polite, courteous, or kind. Beloved, we are not to love God simply for all the wonderful gifts and benefits we receive from His hand, but we are to love Him for who He is in Himself. We do not really progress in the Christian life until we understand that to love God is to love Him because He is lovely. He is wonderful. He is worthy of the creature’s unqualified affection.

Loving God with Fullness

In the Shema, Israel is commanded to love God not simply with all the heart, but the idea is that the love is to come from the heart. It is not a superficial affection nor a casual or cavalier endearment, but an affection from the very root of our being. This affection is not surpassed by any other experience. It is an undiluted, unmixed love for God. It is a love that is to come from the soul, from the very center of our being.

Remember the judgment and warning that Jesus gave to the Laodicean church. He said, “I wish that you were either hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of My mouth.” When we love God with all our souls, there is nothing tepid or lukewarm about that affection.

Then the Shema says, “With all of your strength.” The affection that we have for God is not to be a weak, impotent thing. Rather, we call upon all the strength we can muster up in our persons to magnify that affection for Him.

Do you notice something strange here about how Jesus quotes the Shema? In the Shema of the Old Testament, there are three dimensions of our love for God. We are to love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Some Hebrew scholars say that the word for strength ambiguously but implicitly contains the idea of the mind, but it is not spelled out. Jesus does not leave it in any ambiguity. When Jesus summarizes the Shema, He says that not only are we to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength, but with all our mind, the fullness of our understanding.

Sometimes I get impatient when I hear people say: “I don’t want to study. I just want to have a simple faith.” God did not give all of Scripture to His people to be treated as a children’s story. He calls us to apply the fullest ability of the faculty of our minds to attempt to understand the riches and depths of what He has given to us in His Word.

I live in terror of that part of the Great Commandment because I am aware—not fully aware by any means but to some degree—of how little I know about this book, how much of the content I do not know that I have never carefully, closely studied. I know that in many ways, I have wasted my mind with respect to mastering the things of God.

I know that if God were to ask me, “R.C., have you loved Me with all of your mind?” I would have to say, “Not by a million miles.” I turn my mind to other things. Sometimes I am more interested in learning the things of the world than I am about learning the Word of God.

We all know that not one of us, for a single day, keeps the Great Commandment. But we are at ease in Zion about it. We are not really under great conviction from that matter because we look around and see that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. We think, “What is the big deal if I do not?”

The Great Transgression

In the scribe’s inquiry, He asked Jesus about the Great Commandment, the first in terms of importance. The Jews of that day made a distinction between heavy law and lighter law. There were 613 or so laws found in the Torah. The scribes distinguished between the heavy and light ones. Even Jesus does that to some degree when He talks about the least of the commandments and those that are weightier than others.

The New Testament recognizes that there is a love that covers a multitude of sins. Those are real sins, but they do not call for public ecclesiastical discipline. Then we find lists repeated in the New Testament of heinous crimes that destroy the church and require ecclesiastical discipline. So, distinctions are made between lesser and greater laws.

No sin is so small as to be insignificant. As Calvin responded to the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin, he said, “No sin is so slight that it doesn’t deserve death, but no sin so great that it destroys the grace of God in our souls.” But if I were to ask you, “What’s the most serious sin of all?” what would you say? Murder? Adultery? Idolatry? Unbelief? It seems to me that if this is the Great Commandment, then the great transgression would be the failure to keep it.

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 been totally rhapsodized by my affection for God. As I have already indicated to you, my mind has been lazy with respect to applying it to His Word, and I have only used a portion of my strength in my affection for God. Were it not for Jesus, I would perish because of that, and rightly so.

Consider Jesus for a moment, and ask the question, Did He love His Father with all His heart? Was there any portion of the heart of Christ that was not completely in love with the Father? Did Jesus hold anything back from His soul when His meat and drink was to do the will of the Father? Was there anything that the Father revealed that Jesus ignored as being unworthy of His attention? Was His affection a spineless, weak affection, or did He manifest the most powerful, strong affection for the Father ever seen on this planet?

The Lord Jesus kept the Great Commandment perfectly. Every second of His life, He loved the Father with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength. Had He not done that, He would have not fulfilled the law of God, and He would not have been worthy to save Himself, let alone save us.

Not Far from the Kingdom

After Jesus gives His exposition, tying to it the love of neighbor, which we do not have time to expound right now, the scribe is again duly impressed. He compliments Jesus: “Well said, Teacher.” I do not think he is being patronizing. I think he means it.

The scribe says: “You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Jesus notices his answer. When the scribe answers in this way, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” He does not say, “You’re in the kingdom of God.” He says: “You’re close. You’re starting to get it. You’re starting to understand what it means when the Lord God omnipotent is really regarded as the sovereign King and we are willing to love Him for who He is.”

Write Them on the Doorposts

Let me go back to Deuteronomy 6. After the commandment was given in verse 6, we read these words: “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.”

The Lord is saying: “Do not just recite it twice a day, but with the recitation comes exposition. I want you to talk about this when you are sitting down, when you are standing up, when you are on the highway, when you are on a trip. I want you to bind it to your forehead and on your hands and on your doors.”

I noticed recently a big issue about the government prohibiting a woman in a community from hanging the Shema on her front door as a violation of the covenants of that community. It was interesting to see that when a person tried to obey this command, they said, “This is not suitable for our community.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.