April 23, 2017
Most of you have heard of or even owned a red-letter edition Bible. In fact, the Bible I have in front of me is such an edition. As you likely know, a red-letter Bible has the words of Jesus in red. It’s very helpful, but they also present at least two challenges:
- First, the manuscripts didn’t come with red ink, so the translators have to decide which words Jesus spoke, or which ones the Gospel authors wrote. You see, there aren’t quotation marks either, so sometimes the translators are guessing – did Jesus say this, or for example, did Mark. Should these letters be black or red? Not a huge challenge, but sometimes they guess.
- Second, more subtle, but perhaps a greater challenge is this: we, the readers, have a tendency to give more weight to the red letters. I mean, if Jesus said it, it’s more important, right? The problem with that, of course, is all the words of the Bible are inspired – all are the inerrant Word of God. It’s all God’s Word, whether Jesus spoke them audibly or not. In fact, there’s a sense in which if we put all the words of God in red – it would all be red.
But, let’s be honest – while it’s all God’s Word, some passages or even entire books are not only easier to read, but in some cases, more meaningful. For example, it’s probably a lot easier, and more meaningful, to read Romans than Numbers, Matthew than Leviticus.
So, with all that as a backdrop, if I were to ask you what your favorite verse in the Bible was, or maybe stronger, the most important verse or passage in the Bible, what would you say? I suppose you’re predisposed to say now, well, it’s all important, and you’d be right. But, rabbis before and after Jesus discussed that very question. And they came up with different answers. Remembering they only had the Old Testament, what OT passages would you say are most important? Here are some of their answers:
- Some said Proverbs 3:5-6 – and as much as we quote it, we might agree, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
- That’s pretty good. Still others said it’s got to be Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” That’s a pretty good one, too – most of us know it and even have some tune rolling around in our minds.
- There’s a famous story about someone asking the Rabbis Shammai and Hillel which law was the greatest. It’s said the questioner asked it this way, “Tell me the whole law while I stand on one foot.” In other words, don’t be long-winded – just give me an answer. The story goes the Rabbi Hillel answered with the silver rule. Why is it called the silver rule? Well, the golden rule, which Jesus gave, says do unto others as you would have them do to you. Hillel stated it negatively – “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, he said, the rest is just commentary.”
- There were others, but the most popular, no doubt, was Deuteronomy 6:4, which every pious Jew quoted every morning and every evening. It’s called the Shema, which is the first word of the verse and means to hear. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” Again, that’s a great verse – it’s the foundation of monotheism for both Judaism and Christianity.
So, what would you say, if you had to narrow down the Bible’s over 31,000 verses, which one is most important? By the way, you can go ahead and throw in the New Testament. With the sign at many sporting events, some of us would no doubt say John 3:16. Or with the screen prints on tee shirts and coffee mugs, maybe it would be Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” If you were with us when we studied the book of Romans, I actually agreed with D. A. Carson when he suggested Romans 3:21-26 is the most important text in the Bible. So, that’s my answer, what’s yours?
One day, Jesus was asked that very question. What was His answer? You see, His answer is in red letters. What did He say, and why? Let’s look at the text – Mark 12:28-34.
Jesus quoted the Shema and the verse after it as foremost or first of all. Then, He added a second verse, Leviticus 19:18 at no extra charge. That’s interesting – Deuteronomy and Leviticus – two books you likely speed through in your Bible reading. Why did Jesus answer with these? And obviously, this scribe was impressed. Why these? Is this the foundation of the Christian ethic – Love God, Love People? (study this week) Let’s look at it.
You’ll remember we’re in the midst of Jesus’ passion week. It’s Tuesday, and He’ll die on Friday. During this time, Jesus was forced to do battle with His enemies, the religious and political leaders of His day. In fact, we’re in a section that sees three different groups attacking Jesus by asking Him questions, trying to trap Him, test Him, discredit Him – either before the people or the Roman authorities – and it didn’t matter which. The first group to attack was the Pharisees and the Herodians. Their question, “Tell us, Teacher, is it lawful to pay the poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” Jesus’ brilliant reply was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Good answer, one down, two to go.
The next group was the Sadducees – we looked at that last week. Their question was designed to disprove the resurrection – life after death – which they denied. You’ll remember they posed a question which involved a women who had several husbands because of the levirate marriage responsibility – whose wife will she be in the resurrection, seeing she was married to seven brothers? Again, Jesus’ answer was brilliant, “You’re mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures or the power of God.” The power of God will result in a future life that is completely different than anything we’ve experienced here. So quit superimposing earthly categories on heavenly realities. If you think earthly relationships are great, which they are, wait till heaven.
Not only that, Sadducees, you don’t understand the Scriptures. One of your favorite verses is Exodus 3, where God says, “I am [present tense] the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus says, “He’s not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Two down, one to go.
Which brings us to the third group – the scribes. Now, Mark’s account of this encounter is frankly different than Matthew’s. Matthew says when the Pharisees saw Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, this scribe, asked Jesus his question to test Him – to trap Him. That’s why I’ve been suggesting there were three groups of people who sought to test Jesus with their questions. So what’s going on here? Matthew makes this guy an opponent, Mark makes him a fan. Which is it?
Here’s what I’d suggest happened. Yes, a variety of groups came to trap Jesus – most notably Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. Now remember, the Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling body, made up of chief priests, scribes and elders – those are their occupations. Those groups were largely Pharisees or Sadducees – which was their religious, political affiliation. Now, the chief priests were largely Sadducees, the scribes and elders were largely Pharisees. Those two groups were bitter, arch-rivals. So, when Jesus silenced the Sadducees about the resurrection, the Pharisees were pleased – they at least agreed on this point. But they were still opposed to Jesus, so they were going to take their shot through this scribe – who was himself a Pharisee.
But again, Mark tells us he was impressed with the way Jesus handled the Sadducees. But he asks his question – seeking to trap Jesus – and finds Himself impressed again. Know this, this is the only time a scribe is mentioned positively in all of Mark’s gospel. They are always out get Jesus – except here. What’s the difference? We’ll come back to that as we close today.
So three questions – Pharisees and Herodians, Sadducees, and a scribe. We get to the end, look around the ring, and all three opponents are down for the count. As I said last week – there was no way to defeat this guy in a fair fight, which means very soon, they’ll resort to unfair tactics.
Now, we’ve all heard this passage before – in fact, you maybe got the question right when I asked it a moment ago – what’s the first of the verses in the Bible. The problem we face is one of familiarity. Love God, love people. But let’s look at it closely and see if we can discover the depth of its meaning. Jesus says the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself – there is no other commandment greater than these. Wow. I’d say they’re pretty important – we need to know what it means to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let me give you the outline – we’ll have four points to guide us through the text:
- The Scribe’s Question (28)
- Jesus’ Answer (29-31)
- The Scribe’s Reply (32-33)
- Jesus’ Reply (34)
Jesus had just silenced the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees. Things aren’t looking good for the home team, so the Pharisees decide it’s time to get back into the fray. They gathered together in a group and approach Jesus. One of them, a Pharisee scribe, asked a question.
What is a scribe? He was considered an expert in the law – both in understanding and teaching the Bible. He was well-versed in the law of Moses – that is, religious law. Since the Mosaic law had a civil function, a scribe who the knew the law well could be called a lawyer, one who had the ability to apply the law to the affairs of life. He was considered a theological and civil expert. Certainly, he would be considered more than a match for this unlearned carpenter-turned-rabbi from Galilee.
By this time, the rabbis had come up with 613 different laws in the Mosaic Law, all of which came from the Ten Commandments. What’s interesting, they said, is that the Ten Commandments in the original Hebrew contained 613 letters. 613 laws from 613 letters in the Ten Commandments – that’s amazing. They also divided those laws into positive and negative laws – thou shalts and thou shalt nots – things you’re supposed to do, things you’re not supposed to do. There were supposedly 248 positive laws – one for every part of the body, the Pharisees said – I’ll let our doctors figure that one out. And there were 365 prohibitions – one for every day of the year. Isn’t that special?
Not only that, they divided the law into heavy and light laws. As you’d expect, the heavy ones were considered most important – binding laws everyone had to keep. The light ones were not considered as important, not as binding – somewhat optional. We do the same thing today – most of us would never consider armed robbery, but we do occasionally drive 40 down 105. Jesus even acknowledged this division of the law in Matthew 23 when He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness…” You count your seeds and give a tenth of them, but you don’t give a rip about justice and mercy and faithfulness. What’s interesting is what Jesus said next, “These things you should have done (tithing your seeds) without neglecting the others.” There may be more important laws, Jesus says, but you’re ignoring the important ones, and besides – you should be doing all of them.
The point is this: they used to spend a lot of time debating which laws fell into which category – this one’s heavy, this one’s light. This one’s heavy, and if you keep this one, you’re really spiritual. Sound familiar? As legalism usually does, even today, legalists focus on external performance. And you focus on the light ones, because those are the ones you can keep. You focus on external ones – those are the ones you can measure. You even start making up new laws – which become heavy laws – like washing your hands just right, fasting twice a week, counting seeds. Going to church more than anyone else, reading your Bibles, memorizing verses, paying your tithe – but what about loving God – what about justice, mercy, faithfulness? Those other things you should have done, but what about the things that really matter? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to church and read your Bibles – but if you make it an external performance, jumping through hoops, and you don’t love God and love people – you’re wasting your time.
Now, there was disagreement between rabbis as to what made you holy. So, they thought – this scribe thought – certainly Jesus will say something we can then take Him to task on. No matter what He says, we’ve got Him – we can show Him to be less holy than everyone thinks. Maybe He’ll really mess up and say something like, thou shalt not murder, instead of something really important like, thou shalt wash your hands before every meal.
They were poised, the trap was set, which brings us to our next point, Jesus’ Answer in verses 29-31. While they might have expected Jesus to quote one of the Ten Commandments, Jesus actually quotes verses out of Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, which is critically important. Deuteronomy 6:4ff, along with a couple of other verses formed the Shema. As I suggested, every good Jew stopped to recite the Shema twice a day. Not only that, it was a favorite passage to carry in their phylacteries and to put in their mezuzahs. Phylacteries were leather or wooden pouches that they tied to their left forearms or their foreheads – mezuzahs were little boxes attached to the doorframes of their houses. In these pouches and boxes, they placed pieces of Scripture, most notably, the Shema. That practice came right out of Deuteronomy 6, which they took literally, “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The point is this – these guys knew these verses. The problem they faced was familiarity. They were committed to reciting them, carrying them, posting them – everything but obeying them. Jesus said, that law – the one you quote every day – the one you know with your head but ignore with your heart – that’s the one that’s most important. We should take notice.
Now, what does it mean, to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength? It means to love God with every part of your being. The heart speaks of the core of who you are, the soul speaks of your desires and emotions, the minds speaks of your intellect, and strengths speaks of your will. In other words – with every capacity you have, love God. Love Him with everything you’ve got. In other words, God doesn’t just want your external compliance – He wants your heart. It’s a reckless abandon to love God with everything. Devotion, loyalty, sacrificing everything because you love Him completely. Now stop right there – do you love Him first?
The word Jesus uses for love is agape. We’ve all heard there are three words for love in the Greek – eros, or sensual love; phileo, or brotherly love; and agape, the strongest from of love – it’s a self-sacrificing love. At its core, it’s an unconditional love – I love you whether you give me anything back or not. It is a love of commitment, regardless of payback. It is love with no strings attached. We usually read of God’s agape love toward us – which makes sense, in the context of God’s sacrificing Himself for us. We usually hear we’re supposed to have an agape, or self-sacrificing love for one another. But it’s not very often we’re commanded to have an agape love for God. A self-sacrificing, supreme love for God. What does that mean?
It means I love God with no strings attached – with no thought of getting anything in return. It means I love God even if He never does anything for me – it means I love Him because He’s the King, and He deserves my undivided loyalty and my all-encompassing love. That’s the first commandment.
It’s the kind of love the three Hebrew children had for God when they faced the fiery furnace. Remember that? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said to Nebuchadnezzar, “We will not bow down to your golden image. Because we love God. Not only that, we believe God can save us from the fiery furnace. Not only that, we believe God will save us. But listen, Nebuchadnezzar – even if He doesn’t save us – know this, we will still not bow down to your image. We love God – even if He doesn’t rescue us – we love Him – because He’s the King.”
It’s the love Job had for God – in the middle of his incredible pain, Job said, though He slay me, I will still hope in Him. It’s the love 11 of the 12 disciples had for God when they met a martyr’s death. It is the love a believer has for God – who loves Him for who He is – who doesn’t treat God as a celestial vending machine, loving Him for the gifts He gives – but loving Him with no strings attached – loving Him because He’s the King. I don’t love Him because He gives me gifts – although He does – I love Him because He’s God.
Jesus didn’t stop there. You want to know the greatest commandment? I’ll give you two for one – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Now, contrary to what you might have heard, Jesus is not saying in order to love people, you’ve got to love yourself first. He’s not giving a self-love, self-esteem seminar. He presupposes people love themselves, and says, the second commandment is just like the first – love them like you love yourself. Same word, by the way – agape love. Have a self-sacrificing love for you neighbor – which, Luke 10 says is pretty much everyone you run in to. It’s not just people like you – it’s not even just other Christians – it’s everyone around you. Love God, and love those created in His image. Don’t miss the order – we love God first, then as a consequence, we love others. Now, how do we love people around us best? Certainly, we meet their needs, we honor them, we care for them. But we love them best by introducing them to our greatest love – our King.
Love, Jesus says, is the epitome of the law – no greater commandment than these. It’s not a love that loves to get something back. It’s not a self-serving love. It’s a self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Love that way, Jesus says in Matthew, because all the law and the prophets hang on those two commands. How so?
Because if you love God the way you’re supposed to love God – with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – you will obey Him. Simple as that. Jesus said in John 15, “If you love Me, you’ll obey my commands.” Our love for God is directly proportional to our obedience. Show me someone who is disobeying God, sinning, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t love God enough.
Love God with everything you’ve got, and you won’t have other gods before Him, you won’t bow down to idols, you won’t take His name in vain. Love your neighbor like you’re supposed to, and you won’t steal from him, you won’t covet what he has, you won’t murder him, you won’t lie about him. It’s actually when we love ourselves too much with a selfish, sinful love that we disobey God and sin against people. The whole law, Jesus said, hangs on those two commands. Later writers of the New Testament picked up on this truth.
Paul said in Romans 13:8-10, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Love God, with everything you’ve got, and love people. That should describe us. Again, don’t think you can keep the first one without keeping the second. “I love God, it’s just people I can’t stand.” John warned against that over and over again in his first letter, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
The whole law, all of our obedience to God, can be summed up in these red-letter verses. The problem we face this morning is familiarity. Don’t be like the Pharisees, who quoted the thing twice a day, and had no idea what they were saying. God wants your heart, every bit of it. The only way you can love God and love people, is to allow Him, by His Spirit, to do it through you.
Quickly then, we see the reply of this scribe. I’ve suggested he was supposed to test or trap Jesus. But when he saw the interchange with the Sadducees, he was impressed. Then, when he asked his question, he was impressed again. You got it right, Teacher. By the way, this is the first time we find anyone combining these two laws as the epitome of the Law. Others copied Jesus – He was the first. Right, red-letter Jesus. All Your commandments are summed up in these two commands. In fact, to do these is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Burnt offerings are offerings where the entire animal is consumed. Sacrifices are where parts are consumed, and parts are reserved for the priest.
But the point is this – anyone can give offerings and sacrifices. That’s external. It takes a true worshiper with a changed heart to love God and love people from the heart. And so, Jesus looks at the scribe, impressed with him. You are not far from the kingdom of God. You’re starting to get it – all that’s left is faith in Me as the Messiah, the Son of God. Believe the gospel.
Here’s my question as we close. What was the difference with this scribe? Every scribe in Mark’s gospel is hostile. Even this one came with hostile intent. What’s the difference? He listened to Jesus. He showed up and gave Jesus an honest hearing. It’s why we encourage unbelievers who are interested, and new believers to read the gospels. Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. You can’t help but come away impressed with who He really is.