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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:What is the greatest commandment in the law?
Text:LD 34 & Mark 12:28-34 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 1st Commandment (God alone)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 47

Psalm 25:1-4

Hymn 28:1-4

Hymn 1

Psalm 136:1-4

Scripture readings:  Hosea 6, Mark 12:28-34 (focus of sermon is on this passage)

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 34

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Why are so few people attracted to grace?  Why is it that millions of people would rather be Muslims and have a religion of strict law?  Why is it that millions of others would rather be Roman Catholics and have a religion that gives some lip service to grace, but still places an emphasis on human works in salvation?  What is it that makes human beings see law as the better way, the way to be preferred over the gospel of free grace in Christ?

The answer to that question has to start with human nature apart from the regenerating power of the Spirit.  Anytime someone sees the gospel of free grace as beautiful and desirable, that’s because the Spirit has given them new life.  He has opened the eyes.  Yet Scripture does give us more insight into why people prefer religions where strict obedience earns salvation.  Romans 2:15 tells us all people have the requirements of the law written on their hearts.  All of us are hard-wired for law.  We’re created with an understanding of what God’s law requires.  We know we have to obey, though many rebel against that knowledge.  Others take that ingrained law orientation and combine it with religion.  Religion then becomes about earning the wages necessary to enter into the good books of the supreme deity.

In the days of our Lord Jesus, that was the approach of many of the Jews.  For many of them, religion was all about the law.  It was all about earning favour from God by keeping his commandments.  You might get into the covenant through grace, but once you’re in, you have to work hard to stay in.  The law is what it’s all about.  Human effort and achievement stand central. 

That explains why one of the teachers of the law or scribes comes to Jesus with the question we’re looking at in our text.  He wants to know which of the commandments is the most important.  It’s a good question, but it comes from a place where grace is not attractive.  It comes from a context where the gospel is not necessary.  The question comes from someone who thinks law-keeping is the way to salvation.  With his answer our Lord Jesus makes it clear that this kind of thinking ultimately still leaves one outside the kingdom of God.  As we look at this passage, we’ll consider:

  1. Jesus’ answer to the question posed
  2. The teacher’s reply
  3. Jesus’ commendation  

Our passage finds Jesus at the temple.  This is during the days right before Good Friday.  Tuesday, in fact.  Christ has been debating with the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees.  They’ve been trying to find some doctrinal rope with which to hang him and they haven’t been successful.  One of the scribes or law-teachers has been listening in.  Matthew tells us that he was one of the Pharisees. 

He noted how Jesus had given a good answer to the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection of the dead.  That question was one of the key points dividing the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead and the Pharisees affirmed it.  So it was no surprise that this Pharisee was impressed with Jesus’ answer – after all, Jesus had voted in favour of the Pharisee’s position on this. 

So now he came to Jesus with his own question, a question with which to test Jesus.  It was a question about the Law of Moses, the Torah.  That law contained hundreds of commandments.  A later rabbinical tradition would say there were 613 commandments in the Torah.  That’s a lot of commandments!  How can you know which ones are the most important?  Which ones should you really focus on in your law-keeping?  Which ones is God going to weigh more heavily than others in the last analysis?  From a Jewish Pharisee’s perspective, this is an important question.  Where is Jesus going to fall in the spectrum of answers that might be given?

Our Saviour gives his answer to this question.  For the sake of argument, he works with the assumption of the Pharisees.  He does that with a specific purpose in mind – and we’ll get to that purpose in a moment.

But now look at his answer.  He says there is one that is most important.  Then he quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  This was and is an important passage for the Jews.  It’s called the ShemaShema is the first word in Hebrew, it’s the Hebrew word for “Hear.”  This is like a little confession of faith and still today Jewish synagogue services begin with this.  Christ repeats the words of Moses affirming there is one God.  There is no other besides him.  This one God is “our God.”  He is the God of the people of Israel, the God of all those with whom God has covenanted.  Now that preface sets the stage for what follows.  Because there’s only one God, divided loyalties aren’t going to be tolerated.  God doesn’t allow for competition.  He’s a jealous God and he doesn’t put up with people thinking they can worship him and worship others.

This is really the first of the Ten Commandments, which we learned about in our reading of Lord’s Day 34 of our Catechism.  The First Commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me.”  That isn’t an easy demand to meet.  Not at all.  Sure, you can obey it in a superficial, external sort of way.  You don’t have a shrine set up for Baal or Vishnu in your home.   Nobody here has an obscene Asherah pole they’re worshipping in their backyard.  Our Catechism mentions prayer to saints or other creatures – we don’t do that.  But before we feel all smug, let me remind you how idolatry is a pervasive, wicked, and deceitful sin living in all of us.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories.  He was exactly right.  If we were to make a list of all the things that become idols in our lives, it would have to include at least the following:  our pride, other people, sex, money, food, alcohol, drugs.  That would be just the start of it.  Basically anything which begins to take the place of God in your life.  We all have such things.  There is one God and we were created to worship him.  Him only.  The demand is clear and it’s far-reaching. 

It reaches further as Jesus goes on with the words of Deuteronomy 6:5.  It’s not enough just to worship God with appearances.  God wants your love.  He demands it and as your Creator he has every right to make that demand.  God wants your love from every aspect of your being.

It begins with your heart.  In the Bible your heart has nothing to with a four-chambered muscular organ in your chest.  Your heart is the center of who you are.  The heart is about your feelings, emotions, desires, and passions.  Your heart is what really defines you.  People can put on an external show, and the Jewish religious leaders were especially good at this.  But the big issue is: where is your heart?  Do you really love God with all your heart?  And notice that little word “all.”  That’s a little word, but it’s got huge significance.  God doesn’t want half your heart – he wants the whole thing.  He wants your desire to be entirely for him. 

Then Moses said we’re to love God with all our soul.  One commentator (David Garland) summarizes this well, “The ‘soul’ is the source of vitality in life.  It’s the motivating power that brings strength of will.  Together with the heart, the soul determines conduct.  When we are commanded to love God with all our soul, it refers to the power of our lives.”  When we love God in this way, we dedicate all our energy and strength to him.  That’s what he calls for. 

Jesus then quotes the next part of Deuteronomy 6:5, saying you’re to love God with “all your mind.”  The mind is where you do your thinking and reasoning.  It’s your intelligence.  God demands our brains be engaged in love for him too, that we be committed to him with all our thoughts.

Then there’s your strength.  That’s looking to your outward abilities, what you can do with your body and also your material possessions.  With all of that too, God commands that it form part of our love for him. 

Loved ones, we need to see how our Lord Jesus is quoting a passage of Scripture far-reaching in its demand.  He’s isolating this one part of the Torah because it gets to the heart of the issue here.  The issue for that Jewish scribe was this:  do you think you can do this?  Do you think you have it in you to love God in this comprehensive way?  How are you doing with this?  And that same question can be put to us as well.  If you’ve chosen for law-keeping as the way to earn your place with God for eternity, then here are the conditions.  This is how high the bar is set.  Now look up, way up.  It’s way up there and there’s no way you’re going to achieve it.  Does law-keeping still look attractive as a way of salvation?  How does grace sound about now? 

With verse 31, our Lord Jesus adds another related demand of God’s law.  He quotes Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Christ may not have been the first or only rabbi to combine Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18.  There’s some evidence that others had done this before.  And it makes sense to do it, because what both commands have in common is love.  Love your neighbour as yourself.

What did God mean when he said, “Love your neighbour as yourself”?  It’s a simple observation of human beings.  People look out for themselves.  They have a natural instinct for self-preservation.  For instance, normally people feed themselves.  You take the food on your fork and you lift it from the plate to your mouth because you need to eat to survive.  That can be described as loving yourself.  You take care of yourself.  You do that without even thinking.  It’s like a reflex action. 

Now Scripture says God wants you to do the same with your neighbour.  Take care of your neighbour the way you take care of yourself.  It should become a reflexive, instinctual sort of action where you don’t really have to think about doing it.  You just do it because that’s what you do. 

Then of course the issue could get raised, “Who is my neighbour?”  That issue doesn’t get raised here in our passage.  In a similar passage in Luke 10, the question was asked.  I think many of us remember the answer.  Our Lord Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We’re to be neighbours to any one God brings across our path.  Here again the law is deepened in its demand.  You can’t pick who your neighbour is going to be.  God decides.  You can’t be selective.  It’s decided for you.  And the demand of you is real:  take care of that person with a genuine interest and compassion.  Love your neighbour as yourself. 

Once again that Pharisee was being challenged to reflect on his law-keeping.  How was he doing with this command?  Was he loving his neighbour when he was plotting the death of Jesus with his colleagues?  When it comes to us, we’re not plotting the death of our Saviour.  But what about bitterness, resentment, and just plain cold-heartedness towards the people around us?  Brother, sister, do you harbour hard feelings towards people God has put on your path?  “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  That’s the demand of God’s law.  And it’s given here first of all to expose your failure and your weakness in that regard.  You can’t do it.  Christ proclaims the law here so you’d despair of your own efforts to measure up for God and earn your place in heaven.  We can’t do it and we need to have that driven into our heads.  Salvation through your own law-keeping is an impossibility. 

Only when we understand that can we come at this text from a different angle.  When we despair of our own righteousness, we’ll look up to Christ and his righteousness.  We’ll look to a Saviour who not only understood the demands of God’s law and properly taught them, but who also fulfilled them perfectly.  Jesus our Saviour loved God perfectly in every aspect of his being every moment of his earthly existence.  He loved his neighbour comprehensively, exquisitely.  There was never a moment where love didn’t define his character, attitude, and actions.  Scripture promises us that Jesus did this for all who trust in him as their Saviour.  Do you trust him in that way?  When we understand we can’t do it, then we also know how often we have failed.  We know how much we need the cross.  We need Jesus to have died on the cross in our place to pay for all our sins and wickedness.  Scripture promises that Christ cancelled the debt of all who rest in his perfect sacrifice once offered on the cross.  Do you rest in that sacrifice?  To be saved from the wrath to come, you must.  Jesus calls out to all of us again today with the gospel of hope in his perfect life and death.  Believe it.  Rest and trust in him.       

Believing this gospel, then we begin to love God for having first loved us.  When the demand of the law brings us to the gospel of what Christ has done for us, then we’re filled with a desire to please God.  Then we’re ready to look at Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 as the guide for believers who love God and who want to thank him for the salvation they have in Christ.  Then these words become the vision for who we want to become and for who we will some day become, by God’s grace.  We want to be people who love God with everything in our being.  We pray that God will work in our lives with his Word and Spirit so that we are increasingly transformed in that direction.  We take his Word seriously and endeavour to follow it consistently.  We want to be people who love our neighbour as ourselves.  We pray that God will help us with that.  We hear the many admonitions of God’s Word in that regard and we seek to put all bitterness and malice to death.  We seek reconciliation and healing at every opportunity.  We do all that because God first loved us in Christ.  His grace has made us into new people who are now keen on obedience.  Not to replace grace, but as a response to grace.

Now how does this teacher of the law respond to Jesus’ proclamation of the great demand of the law?  He’s impressed.  He knew Jesus had responded well to the Sadducees, but you wonder what he was expecting with his own question.  We can only speculate.  The plain fact is that he thought Jesus gave a good answer, a right answer.  He basically rehearses it right back to him. 

He begins with the teaching that there is but one God.  He agrees.  Then he quotes the same words from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.  But he adds something.  He adds something taught in a number of places in the Old Testament.  It’s found in what we read in Hosea 6.  It’s also found in 1 Samuel 15 where Samuel confronts Saul with his failure to obey God.  “To obey is better than to sacrifice,” says Samuel.  Here the teacher of the law modifies that slightly through Hosea 6 and other passages, “To love is better than to sacrifice.”  What does this mean?  It means God isn’t interested first of all in the external actions.  In Hosea, God’s people were quite adept at offering sacrifices, but their hearts were far from him.  They didn’t love God, rather they loved religiosity, the outward trappings of religion.  The burnt offerings and sacrifices still had to be offered, God’s law called for them, but without love for God, these things were empty and meaningless. 

This is a good answer.  Our Lord Jesus says so.  He says the teacher answered wisely, thoughtfully.  That gives us reason to pause and consider too.  Is it possible today to love religiosity, but not to love God himself?  To love religiosity and yet be an idolater?  How might that happen?  Well, here’s a hypothetical example I came up with in Canada some years ago.  Imagine a man who loves the Genevan tunes and the pipe organ.  I have nothing against either personally, in fact I love them both.  So this is not meant to disrespect our Psalms or the pipe organ.  These are good things that can be used well for God’s glory.  And certainly God’s Word calls for us to sing Psalms.  But anyway, imagine a man who loves those things, not the Psalms as such, but the music that goes with them.  When he comes to church, he comes to sing the traditional Genevan tunes and to hear the pipe organ.  But when it comes to the Bible, he really doesn’t care.  When it comes to the gospel, he’s heard it all before and it doesn’t capture his heart.  He’s not interested.  He doesn’t rejoice to hear about what Christ did for sinners.  He doesn’t embrace the gospel for himself as often as he hears it proclaimed.  So when it comes to loving God, he tends to think of God as a theological concept or a good debate.  God is not even really real to him, and how can you love someone that’s not real?  The Genevan tunes and the pipe organ are the ultimate mark of orthodoxy for this man.  For the church to lose these would be a sure sign of deformation.  The man loves religiosity or maybe religious music, but he doesn’t love God, not at all.  You could swap out the Genevan tunes and throw some other music in there and the scenario is the same.  You could swap out the pipe organ and insert a guitar or whatever other instrument and it’s the same scenario too.  I’m sure we could think of more examples beyond music in worship and some of them might hit a lot closer to home.  We should also think of the love for one’s neighbour.  How many love their religiosity, the outward trappings of church going and church membership, but don’t really love their neighbour?  Something to think about.  This passage pinches, pokes, and prods.  It’s gotta hurt and if it’s not hurting, you have to wonder if you’ve really understood it. 

With his words, that teacher of the law made his own contribution to the depth of the crisis facing sinners apart from Christ.  He was right – God wants our hearts to be in love with him.  He wants us to care for our neighbours.  These things are what God really demands and what we really cannot do by ourselves.  That teacher of the law didn’t see it, but we do:  we need Christ.  Desperately.  We need to him to do these things for us and we need him to do these things in us and through us. 

That’s underlined with the way Christ responds in verse 34.  He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  In a way, it’s a commendation, a pat on the back.  He’s saying, “You’re getting there, you’re on the right track.  Keep thinking like that and you might get to where God wants you to be.”  He’s not far from the kingdom of God – that means the rule or reign of God.  He’s not far from the humility that characterizes those who submit to the reign of God – that humility which brings one to Christ with empty hands.  So it’s an encouragement to the teacher of the law.  Jesus encourages him to keep reflecting on these things.

Yet there’s another side to it.  He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  He’s also saying, “You’re not yet in the kingdom of God.  You may be on the right track, but the destination hasn’t been reached.”  In other words, simply knowing the serious demand of the law is not enough.  You have to let that demand works it way in to serious self-examination.  Then, once you’ve been horrified by what the law has exposed in your life, then you’ll be humble enough to submit to King Jesus and live under his reign.  That’s really the heart of the matter:  will you humble yourself?  Will you let go of your pride and acknowledge the truth that you’re a sinner and need a Saviour?  Will you stop trying to measure up for God and accept his grace to you in the gospel? 

Mark adds a post-script to this episode.  Jesus has verbally jousted with the best the Jewish religious leaders had to offer.  He’s obviously their better.  He knows the Bible better than they do and he knows how to apply it.  So Mark says, “And from then on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”  That means they gave up on this strategy to try and eliminate him.  They’re still going to try and get rid of him, but they know this approach doesn’t work with him.  They’ll have to find other means.  And they will. 

Now, let’s end where we began.  Why are so few people attracted to grace?  Why do they want to do it themselves, have a religion where salvation is based on works?  The answer is in one word, a sinful word.  Can you guess what it is?  Pride.  Pride is a virtue today in our culture, but it’s always been a virtue for non-Christian religions too.  It’s a pervasive sin.  It’s a destructive, life-sucking sin.  In this text, the Holy Spirit wants to put a stake in the heart of pride.  At the end we will all face the Lord.  If we don’t humble ourselves and trust in his work on our behalf, if we knew the strict demands of the law, but didn’t flee to him, he will say, “You were not far from the kingdom of God.  But now you will be thrown into the outer darkness.”  But brothers and sisters, if we humble ourselves and rest in what he has done for us, both in his life and on the cross, he will say, “You have been brought into the kingdom by my grace.  Enter into your rest.”  Let those be the words we all hear on that day.  AMEN. 


Our gracious Father in heaven,

Sometimes your Word makes us uncomfortable.  Sometimes it pricks and prods us.  We don’t always like it, but we know we need it.  Father, let the discomfort of your Word this afternoon help us flee to the comfort of the gospel of Christ.  Help each of us to be truly looking to him so that we are in the kingdom and not simply near it.  As kingdom citizens, we want to follow you our King, we want to love you with our all our heart, soul, mind and strength – with everything in our being. We want to flee from idols and serve you alone. We want to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Father, please help us with your Spirit to do exactly that.  Please strengthen our resolve and please diminish our inconsistencies.  You have given us every reason to love you in the gospel promises.  Father, we see your great love for us at the cross.  Now please help us to be humble before you and live our lives with eyes fixed on Christ.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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