Earlier in this chapter we read how the Pharisees and Herodians came to the Lord with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. But they weren’t really interested in his answer, because Mark tells us that they wanted to catch him in his words; they wanted him to say something incriminating or to say something that they could use against him. And after them, there came the Sadducees, who also came with a question. This time, it was a question about the resurrection. But they weren’t really interested in his answer; they were trying to trip him up and to show that the idea of the resurrection is nonsense.
In today’s passage, someone else comes to the Lord with a question. This time, it’s not a Pharisee or a Herodian or a Sadducee; this time it’s one of the teachers of the law who were also known as scribes. Now, the scribes were the Bible scholars and the experts in the law of God. They knew the law of the Lord from front to back and from back to front. They had worked out that the law of the Lord contained 613 commandments. They had worked out that 248 of them were positive commands, telling us to do something. And they had worked out that 365 of them were negative commands, telling us not to do something. They’d worked out which of the laws were ‘heavy’ or ‘weighty’ and which ones were ‘light’. That is, some of the laws were more serious than others, or harder to keep than others. They’d worked all of this out, because they were the Bible scholars and experts in the law. And one of the things they tried to work out was what one command could summarise or encapsulate the whole of the law. Was there one particular law among the 613 commandments which could sum up the whole of the law in a nutshell?
And so, in today’s passage, we read about this scribe who came to the Lord Jesus to ask him what that one law might be. Look at the end of verse 28:
Of all the commandments [of all 613 commandments], which is the most important?
Which is the greatest commandment and can therefore sum up the rest of the commandments?
Now, this scribe seems to be different from the Pharisees and Herodians and Sadducees: the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to catch the Lord in his words; the Sadducees were trying to show him that the idea of the resurrection is nonsense; but this scribe seems to be genuine. It doesn’t appear that he wants to trick the Lord, or trap him, or ridicule him. Again look at verse 28 where Mark tells us that the scribe noticed that the Lord gave the Sadducees a good answer. So, he seems to be impressed by the Lord. And look at verse 32 where the scribe praised the Lord for his answer. And then, at the end of the passage, in verse 34, Mark refers to the wisdom of the scribe’s reply to the Lord Jesus. And, of course, the Lord himself commended the scribe for being not far from the kingdom of God. So, this man seems to be different from the others; he seems to be genuine.
But then, having said that, we should bear in mind that in the very next passage after this one, the Lord made clear that the teachers of the law didn’t understand the Bible as well as they should; and he warned the people about the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law. And, of course, we should note how this teacher of the law who questioned the Lord Jesus referred to the Lord Jesus in verse 32 as ‘teacher’. But the Lord Jesus is much more than a teacher; the Lord Jesus is much more than that, because the Lord Jesus is the Eternal Son of God, who deserves all our praise and worship. And so, this scribe — instead of questioning the Lord Jesus — should have bowed before him and worshipped him.
And that’s what all of us must do: we must bow before the Lord Jesus Christ and worship him as God; and we should give thanks to him, because he came into the world to give up his life as a ransom to set us free from condemnation, so that all who trust in him and yield their lives to him may have forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. And so, we should give thanks to him and we should trust him for salvation.
There’s perhaps a sense in which this scribe, who questioned the Lord, saw himself as standing above the Lord and standing over him. You know, the scribe is the expert and he’s testing the Lord Jesus’s knowledge to see if it’s as good as his own. In a sense, he was standing over the Lord Jesus to judge him, when in fact what he ought to have done — and what we all need to do — is to bow before the Lord Jesus and confess him as our Lord and God and Saviour.
But let’s move on to consider the Lord’s answer to the scribe’s question. The scribe asked him what the most important, or greatest, commandment is. And the Lord began his answer in verse 29. However, one of the remarkable things about the Lord’s answer is that it begins not with a commandment, but with a confession of faith. Do you see that in verse 29? The Lord said:
The most important one is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The Lord Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4, a verse which was referred to by the Jewish people as the ‘shema’. That’s the Hebrew word for ‘hear’. And pious Jews would recite these words every morning and every evening. But it’s not a command; it’s a confession of faith. So, the scribe wanted to know what we must do; but the Lord replied by telling him what we’re to believe. And the point is that before we think about obeying God, we need to believe in God.
But which God are we to believe in? Well, we’re to believe in the God who made himself known by the name LORD, which when it appears in the Old Testament is always printed in modern English Bibles in capital letters. That’s how he revealed himself to Moses, who wrote the book of Deuteronomy which the Lord Jesus is now quoting. This is God’s special name, his personal name. In the ancient world, different people believed in different gods. One person might say:
My god is Baal.
Another person might say:
My god is Dagon.
Another person might say:
My god is Marduk.
But the Israelites would say:
My God is LORD.
This is God’s special, personal name; and it signifies his commitment to his people, because it’s the name he revealed to his chosen people, the people he loved and the people he was determined to save and to bless. And it’s the name his people used when referring to him. So, we’re not to believe in any god, but we’re to believe in this God, the God who is known by the name LORD and the God we read about in the Bible who has bound himself and committed himself to saving his people in every generation.
And the LORD our God is one. In other words, he’s the only God. Whereas some people believe in other gods, we know that those other gods are not real; they’re only idols who do not really exist. And because they don’t really exist, they cannot hear us and they cannot speak to us and they cannot help us. Every other god is a worthless idol; and there is only one true God, and it’s the LORD.
And the LORD is one in another sense. He’s one in the sense that he is one in mind and purpose. And that’s important. If he were divided — if he were in two minds about us, for instance — then his love for his people would be divided. Or if he were divided — if he were in two minds about us — then his willingness to save his people would be divided. If he were divided, then his ability to save his people would be divided. But because the Lord is one and undivided in mind and purpose and in his love for his people, then he is able to save us completely and for ever.
But then the last thing to say about the LORD is that as time passed and he revealed more and more about himself, he revealed to his people that he is a Trinity of Three Persons. Yes, there’s only one God, but this one God we believe in is a Trinity of Three Persons, because there’s God the Father and there’s God the Son and there’s God the Holy Spirit. Not three separate gods, but one God in three persons, eternally the same and worthy of our worship and praise. And that’s why I say that this scribe, this teacher of the law, ought to have bowed before the Lord Jesus and worshipped him, instead of standing over him in judgment. He ought to have bowed before the Lord Jesus — just as we should all bow before him — because the Lord Jesus is none other than the Eternal Son of God, equal to his Father and the Spirit in glory and power and worthy of all our praise.
Love the Lord
So, the man asked the Lord about what we’re to do. And the Lord replied with a confession of faith, because before we think about obeying the Lord, we need to believe in him.
But then, having made that clear, the Lord Jesus went on to quote from Deuteronomy 6:5. This is the greatest command:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
In other words, love the Lord your God with all of your being. With all of your being — with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength — love the Lord.
What does it mean to love God? How can we tell if we love him or not? A man might say that he loves his wife. He might insist that he loves her. He may tell her every day that he loves her. But how does he show his love for her? Well, he doesn’t do it with words only, but with actions. Anyone can talk about love, but the husband who loves his wife will demonstrate his love for her by what he does and by the way he spends time with her and cares for her and cherishes her and does everything he possibly can to please her and to make her happy. The husband who loves his wife will demonstrate his love for her by what he does.
And it’s the same when it comes to loving the Lord. Jonathan Edwards was the minister of a church in Massachusetts in the USA and he died in 1758. There was a great revival in Christianity when he was minister of his church, and great numbers of men and women seemed to be deeply moved by his preaching and seemed to be filled with the Spirit of God, so that they declared that they had been converted to Christ and had become true Christians who loved the Lord their God.
However, some people were sceptical about what was happening and did not believe that the experiences of the people were genuine. And so, Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons in which he examined what were the true signs you could use to determine whether their experiences were genuine or not and whether they really did love the Lord. And he went through the various signs which people normally accepted as evidence; and he showed that many of those signs were not signs you could rely on. For instance, some people seemed to experience great emotions and were moved by his preaching. Many people said that feeling those strong emotions of love and joy and peace were signs that they really were believers who really loved the Lord.
But Edwards showed that no, other people feel the same emotions and it has nothing to do with the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance, when I listen to a Bruce Springsteen CDs in the car, I feel great joy and sometimes excitement. But the joy I feel and the excitement I feel is caused by the music and it has nothing to do with the Spirit of God. And Edwards went through the different signs, one by one, showing that they weren’t true signs. And then, in the end, he described what the true signs are. And chief among the true signs is the way that we live. It’s not what we feel. It’s not what we experience. It’s not what we say. It’s what we do. The person who is truly converted and who truly loves the Lord will demonstrate their faith and their love by the way they live their lives and by trying to obey the Lord on all occasions. The person who truly loves the Lord will seek to conform his way of life — what he says and what he does and what he thinks — to the ways of the Lord.
And, of course, whenever he breaks God’s law — as we all do because we’re sinners — the person who loves the Lord is immediately sorry about it; and he’s sorry that he has offended and dishonoured and disobeyed the one he loves. And so, he immediately confesses his sin and turns from it in repentance and asks for forgiveness.
If you’re familiar with our church’s Catechisms, you’ll know that they say that the commandment to love the Lord our God sums up the first four of the Ten Commandments. So, those who love the Lord will show it by not putting any other gods before the Lord; and instead they’ll love and trust him above all others. And those who love the Lord will show it by not making or bowing down to images; and instead they’ll be careful to worship the Lord in the way that he has commanded. And those who love the Lord will show it by not misusing his holy name; and instead they’ll honour his name and they’ll honour him in all they do and say. And those who love the Lord will show it by not misusing his holy day which he has given us for rest and worship.
And, of course, those who love the Lord will show it by keeping his other commandments too. And that takes me to verse 31 of today’s passage.
Love your Neighbour
The scribe asked the Lord for the most important commandment. And the Lord gave them two commandments. These two commandments sum up the whole of the law and the whole of our duty to God. So, we’re to love the Lord our God; and we’re to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Lord’s will for us is that we should love him; and the Lord’s will for us is that we should love the people around us. And since the Lord commands us to love our neighbour ‘as ourselves’, he’s saying to us that we’re to love others and treat others as we would like them to love and treat us.
As with the command to love the Lord, so it is with this one too, because those people who love their neighbours will show it by what they do for their neighbours. We’re to love our neighbour, not in words only, but in deeds and with actions. And again, if you’re familiar with our church’s Catechisms then you’ll know that they say that this particular commandment sums up the remaining six of the Ten Commandments. So, those who love their neighbour will show it by giving their neighbour the honour they deserve. So, children will honour their parents; and students will honour their teachers; and employees will honour their employers; and so on. And those who love their neighbour will show it by not hurting their neighbour in any way; and instead they will do what they can to help them and to protect them and to care for them. And those who love their neighbour will show it by not spoiling their neighbour’s marriage in any way; and instead they will do what they can to protect their marriage. And those who love their neighbour will show it by not steal their neighbour’s property; and instead they will do what they can to protect their neighbour’s property. And those who love their neighbour will show it by not ruining their neighbour’s reputation by spreading lies and slander and gossip about them. And those who love their neighbour will show it by not resenting them for what they own; and instead they’ll rejoice with their neighbour in their good fortune.
This is how we love our neighbour. And this is the Lord’s will for us and for all his people. And it’s all very down to earth and ordinary, isn’t it? We sometimes think we have to do great things for the Lord. We have to give up our work and give up our homes and fly across the world in order to serve him. And, of course, the Lord calls some of his people to do precisely that. But for most of us, loving the Lord and serving him is very ordinary and mundane and it’s not very glamorous and it’s not very special, because the Lord’s will for us is to love the people around us in our daily lives. The Lord’s will for children is for you to honour your parents on all occasions. The Lord’s will for all of us is for us to care for one another, instead of hurting one another. The Lord’s will for us is for us to have pure thoughts and to live pure lives and to protect the purity of one another. The Lord’s will for us is for us to give generously to others instead of stealing from them. The Lord’s will for us is for us to place a guard over our mouths so that we don’t spread gossip and rumours and complaints about one another. The Lord’s will for us is for us to be content with what we have so that we don’t resent our neighbour who has more than we have. It’s all very ordinary and mundane, isn’t it? But this is the Lord’s will for us.
What is the greatest commandment? What command sums up the rest? We’re to love the Lord our God; and we’re to love our neighbour as ourselves.
When the scribe heard the Lord’s answer, he praised him for it. And he went on to say that loving the Lord and loving our neighbour is more important than than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Now, in those days, there was nothing wrong with burnt offerings and sacrifices. In fact, the Lord God commanded his Old Testament people to bring him burnt offerings and sacrifices. However, the scribe understood — didn’t he? — that it was easy for someone to bring an offering to the altar in the temple. It was easy to do: it cost a little money, but it didn’t take much effort or take up too much time. Anyone could do it. But loving the Lord in your daily life and loving your neighbour in your daily life was something else entirely.
And it’s the same today. Anyone can come to church and it doesn’t take much effort to sing a hymn or to bow in prayer. It’s easy to do. But loving the Lord in your daily life and loving your neighbour in your daily life is far, far harder. Putting God first, worshipping him in his way; honouring his name and his day: that can be hard. Obeying parents; keeping our thoughts pure; helping others; and so on: that’s far harder. It’s far harder, because by nature we’re sinners; and by nature we put ourselves first; and by nature we live selfish lives; and by nature we do what we want. By nature, we want our own way and by nature, we want everyone to serve me, and we do not want to serve them. That’s what we are by nature.
But the Lord Jesus Christ — who is the only person who loved the Lord his God with all of his being; and who loved us and gave up his life for us — he has paid for all our shortcomings and our failures and our sins. He has paid for all our sins by his death on the cross whenever he took the blame for us and suffered the penalty that we deserve. The Lord Jesus has paid for our sins; so that now — if you trust in him — then God will forgive you all your sins; he’ll treat you as if you’ve done everything right, even though you may have done everything wrong. He will forgive you if you trust in Christ.
And more than that, he gives you his Spirit. And his Spirit works inside us to renew us and to make us more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth. He helps you to love the Lord your God as you should. He helps you to love your neighbour as you should. The Lord Jesus Christ gives his Spirit to all who believe so that we might walk in his ways and do his will. And so, trust in the Lord our God for forgiveness; and rely on his help to do his will.