The First (and Greatest) Commandment


Mark 12 is an interesting chapter. It’s full of great sermon material. We meet some interesting people in Mark 12. We meet some groups of people who hated each other. The Pharisees hated the Saducees, who hated the Herodians, and they all hated Jesus.

We’ve already met the Pharisees and Herodians. You’ll recall they hated each other, but they teamed up to bring down Jesus by trying to asking this question:

Now tell us, is it right to pay taxes to Rome, or not? (Mark 12:14 TLB)

This was a tricky question because no matter how He answered it, He would get in trouble. Had Jesus said, “No, it’s wrong to pay taxes to Rome,” the Roman government would have come down on Him like a ton of bricks. Had Jesus said, “Go ahead and pay the taxes,” then the Jews would have hated Him. But in the end, Jesus came up with a brilliant answer that shut both groups down.

And then the Saducess took a crack at our Lord. They were an odd bunch. They, unlike the Pharisees, didn’t believe in the resurrection. And that’s why they were sad, you see? During this time, the Saducees were a relatively small group of men who weren’t particularly popular among the masses but they did have some religious and political influence. We are told by Josephus that the Saducees were highly educated men who held in positions of power in Judea. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, this strange religious sect vanished from history.

For sure the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Saducees had no interest in getting to know Jesus better. They just hated Him. But not everybody hated Jesus. He was a really popular rabbi at this time and He enjoyed the attention of the average Jew in Judea. And His teachings caught the attention of some very smart men, the “teachers of the law.” Mark 12 records a conversation our Lord had with one of them.

An honest question

One of the teachers of religion who was standing there listening to the discussion realized that Jesus had answered well. So he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28 TLB)

Jesus’ answer to the Saducees probably pleased the Pharisees, for they too believed in the resurrection. But there was another group of men listening to Jesus’ exchange with the Saducess. A highly educated “teacher of the law” piped up with a question of his own. Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians, this man probably wasn’t trying to catch Jesus; this was an honest question.

The fact that he asked Jesus a question shows his estimation of our Lord. This questioner was an expert in the law, that is, the Jewish religion. He would have known the written law as it is found in the Jewish Scriptures, and he would have been well-versed in its oral interpretation and application.  When this well-educated man asked about the commandments, he wasn’t referring to the Ten Commandments, he was referring to the 613 commandments of Judaism!

We can learn something from this encounter at its outset. This “teacher of the law” could have been anybody we bump into any day. How many people do we rub shoulders with in the course of the average week that ask us about one aspect of our faith or another? And how many of them do we just brush off? We need to be very sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit because who knows if He isn’t at work in heart of that person who may have asked you an irritating question about what you believe? The Spirit was certainly at work in this situation between Jesus and His questioner, and Jesus took advantage of the open door.

The answer

Our Lord began His answer in an unexpected way, by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4.

Jesus replied, “The one that says, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only God.” (Mark 12:29 TLB)

This isn’t a commandment, it actually the Shema, the greatest doctrinal statement of Judaism. In the Hebrew, that sentence begins with the word “shema,” which means, “hear,” or “listen.” Also in the Hebrew it looks like this:

Hear, O Israel! Jehovah our Elohim (plural) is one Jehovah.

That was their affirmation of religious and ethical monotheism. There is only one God and He is the one we worship and He is the one who wrote the rules to live by. Since its inception, Israel was to be the witness to the world of the fact that there is only one God. Surrounded by nations and kingdoms that worshipped many gods, it was up to Israel to show them the truth. The church of Jesus Christ has that exact same mission today. In a secular world full of atheism and false religions, we are to bear witness to the fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make up one, great God, and He is the one we worship and His law is the one we live our lives by.

“And you must love him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” (Mark 12:30 TLB)

This is the essence of Jesus’ answer, and it’s stunning.

First, just as our God is one, the one (or whole) duty of man in terms of the moral-spiritual law is summed up in one word: love. But it’s first and foremost love for God, that is, love for the one, true God, not your “idea” of what or who God is. The first and greatest commandment is love for the God of the Bible. It’s not enough to proclaim your belief in or love for just any god. There’s only one true God and He’s the one you need to know personally. That’s why Jesus began His answer with the Shema.

The one true God wants our undivided love just as He wants to love us with an undivided love. He loves us personally and He wants us to love Him personally.

Second, just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make up a unity, a one God, so man is made up of different parts. Man’s heart, soul, mind, and strength must all work together in loving the one true God. It doesn’t work if your heart loves God but your mind and soul doesn’t. Your whole being must co-operate in complete unity in loving the one true God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all love you as one. He deserves that kind of unified love in return.

A man’s heart is the very center of his existence, the source of all his thoughts, words, attitudes, and deeds.

Above all else, guard your affections. For they influence everything else in your life. (Proverbs 4:23 TLB)

The soul refers to the seat of his emotions and feelings, while the mind has a reference to our mental capacities and inner attitudes. All those components must work in concert, in full strength, in loving God. This idea of loving God is serious business and it doesn’t just happen. It takes work. It takes dedication and consecration.

An extended answer

The questioner didn’t ask about the second commandment, but that didn’t stop our Lord from addressing it, too.

The second is: ‘You must love others as much as yourself.’ No other commandments are greater than these.” (Mark 12:31 TLB)

Here Jesus brings in another Old Testament passage, Leviticus 19:18, to show how love for God naturally produces love for others. Loving others ought to be a natural result of loving God. In fact, these two commandments though separate, cannot be separated. They work together. That’s why Jesus put them together the way He did.

Dear friends, since God loved us as much as that, we surely ought to love each other too. For though we have never yet seen God, when we love each other God lives in us, and his love within us grows ever stronger. (1 John 4:11, 12 TLB)

This makes complete sense. Love toward our neighbor is part of our love toward God because that neighbor is created in God’s image! To hate that person would be to hate God’s image in him.

The second part of that sentence involves loving yourself. What does that mean? Is Jesus talking about some kind funky religious self-esteem? Not at all. In fact, human beings were created with love for themselves. Think about that. We want to be healthy, so we look after ourselves. We care about how we look. We don’t want to be cold or hot so we find ways to live a comfortable environment. We’re not talking about some kind of sick narcissism here, but a kind of self-respect. How much we love/respect/care for ourselves should be the measure of how we treat our fellow man.

Jesus ends His answer by telling the religious teacher there are no commandments greater than these two. The over 600 remaining commandments don’t even come close to being as vital and as important as these first two. William Hendriksen gives three good reasons why this is the case.

First, faith and hope take, but love gives. Faith receives God’s gift of salvation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Hope accepts the promise of it future consummation – our heavenly inheritance. But love involves giving of ourselves to God and to others. It is imparting a part of ourselves to make the lives of others better somehow.

Second, “love” is an all-encompassing word. So many other virtues are included in it. 1 Corinthians 13 is all about this. So expressing love toward others would naturally include all the virtues of that so-called love chapter; things like patience, kindness, humility, and so on.

Lastly, the highest form of human love is patterned after God, who IS love.

Most of all, let love guide your life, for then the whole church will stay together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:14 TLB)

Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love makes up for many of your faults. (1 Peter 4:8 TLB)

The effect

The teacher of religion replied, “Sir, you have spoken a true word in saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is far more important to love him with all my heart and understanding and strength, and to love others as myself, than to offer all kinds of sacrifices on the altar of the Temple.”

Realizing this man’s understanding, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:23 – 34 TLB)

We have to admire this man. He got it. Maybe nobody else did, but this one man did. He understood it completely. And Jesus saw into his heart and knew that. He knew this man understood precisely what He was trying to say.

And yet, that understanding, that comprehension, wasn’t enough. It got this genuine questioner close to the Kingdom of God, but not into the Kingdom of God.

This incident is all about completeness and unity. Our God is complete and unified. Our love for Him must be complete, with our whole being loving in unity. This man got the truth in his mind, perhaps he even practiced the truth. But something was lacking. Part of his being was lagging behind, and that was enough to keep him out of the Kingdom.

Loving God is an all or nothing proposition.

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