If you will pursue what Jesus talks about today, it will radically change your life. This one thing gives you influence, purpose, meaning, and depth. Regardless of who you are or what you have this one thing, when pursued, changes everything. It changes you. It changes your relationships, and it changes how you make all your decisions. If I could tell you to do only one thing, this is it. It is to love God supremely and love others greatly. As you will see, those two things are actually one thing.
Today, we are going to take a look at a man who asked Jesus an important question that reveals an even more important answer.
We are told in Mark 12:28-34,
One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” 32 The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. 33 And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” 34 Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions. (NLT)
God created you for this commandment. He designed you to be a lover: a lover of God and a lover of people. Loving God and loving people is the most important thing you can do with your life.
God created you in such a way to be a deliverer of love on some level in whatever arena or sphere of influence God has positioned you. God wants you to be an example in your family, at work, and at school of what it looks like to love Him and love others. You were made to be a lover of God and a lover of others.
There are three sections to this: the question, the answer and the response. We are only going to look at the question today. Without understanding the question, you will not fully understand the answer.
Let’s start with the question. Verse 28 says, One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
The Sanhedrin’s[i] plan was to send three delegations to Jesus to try to trap him with trick questions. They hoped Jesus would answer the questions in such a way as to lose popularity with the crowds and/or commit treason against the Roman emperor with one of His answers then He could be arrested and put away. Either way, the questions were not designed to learn, but to trap and prove themselves right. But Jesus saw all this as an opportunity to teach the Sanhedrin and the crowds that were listening some important divine lessons.
When you feel attacked by others for what you believe or stand for, don’t get offended, but see it as an opportunity to teach and share the truth with others. Even though Jesus knew the motive behind the question He still seized the moment to share God’s truth with those asking and listening.
So, the Sanhedrin sent three delegations to test and question Jesus.
- The first delegation they sent to Jesus was a group of Pharisees. They tried to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Instead, Jesus taught them to give to God what belongs to God and give to the government what belongs to government.
- The second delegation was a group of Sadducees. They tried to trap Jesus, and make him look like a fool, with a question about marriage and the resurrection. Instead of making him look like a fool, He demonstrated His perfect wisdom and their foolishness by explaining how they didn’t know their Bible and completely underestimated the power of God.
- A third attempt happens here in verse 28 with one of the teachers of religious law. When you read this event in the Gospel of Mark it sounds like he was simply standing there, listening to the debate, and this question about the greatest commandment pops into his head, so he asks Jesus about it. Actually, he was strategically standing there and intentionally waiting for an opportunity to ask his question in order to trap Jesus. We know this because of what the Gospel of Matthew says about this same event. In Matthew 22:34 we are told, “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (NLT). On the service, this expert in religious law was just standing in the crowd listening to the Sadducees and Jesus debate over the resurrection and marriage. In reality, he was a plant that was intentionally placed there looking for an opportunity to ask another trap question. My guess is the Pharisees thought Jesus would not see the intent behind the question if it came from one person rather than a group.
Before we go and make this man a villain, I do think he was genuinely interested in Jesus’ answer and was thinking through the Lord’s answers. I don’t think the man was completely blowing Jesus off because of what Mark says about his reaction to Jesus’ previous answers. Mark say in verse 28, He realized that Jesus had answered well. He seems to be open to Jesus’ answers unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees in the two previous exchanges. Later, Jesus would tell this man, You are not far from the Kingdom of God (v.34). This man is dangerously close to getting saved. He is seriously close to becoming a follower of Jesus. His understanding is almost there, but not quite. Based on this, I think privately, this man was seriously thinking about believing and following Jesus. For this man, a lot of the dots were connecting regarding Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of God. He was starting to see it.
That man may represent you. You may be like him. There are a lot of things about Jesus you like and admire. You like what Jesus has to say. Most of it makes sense to you. You feel mysteriously drawn to Him. You want to be a follower, but you aren’t quite ready to place your faith in Jesus for salvation and turn away from your sin… but you are close. You are not far from the kingdom.
The man sees an opportunity to ask Jesus His preplanned question, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Now remember, this is a trap question. One reason they asked this particular question is because they believed He was elevating Himself above God’s Word. They viewed some of the teachings of Jesus and activities of Jesus as disrespectful and disobedient to God’s Word.
Jesus would say something like, “You have heard it said” (then quote from the Old Testament) and then He would say, “But I say to you….” This sounded like He was defying God’s Word and placing His thoughts above it. It reality he was clarifying it and fulfilling it.
Then there were those times where Jesus would appear to break the religious laws in the eyes of the religious leaders. One case is when they thought He was breaking the Sabbath religious laws by working or healing people on that day. Paul would be accused of something similar in Acts 21 when some religious leaders arrested Paul stating, “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (v.28, NLT).
The question is designed to see if Jesus would place His truth over God’s truth. Would Jesus place himself over God’s law? That’s what they were trying to do. What they didn’t see was that Jesus was the living word of God. If you wanted to see what living the Word of God out perfectly was like, then look at Jesus. The Living Word was about to summarize the Written Word.
When the expert in religious law asked, Of all the commandments, which is the most important? he is NOT referring to the Ten Commandments. He is referring to the 613 religious laws that were developed from the first five books of the Bible. All 613 of these religious laws are not clearly stated in the Bible. The religious leaders stretched these laws with their own oral traditions. Why did they stretch these laws to the number 613? Because there are 613 Hebrews letters in the Ten Commandments.[ii] They thought there should be one law for every letter of the Ten Commandments. That is silly, but that demonstrates the religious nonsense of how they approached the Bible.
Most people cannot remember the Ten Commandments, let alone 613 religious laws based on Ten Commandments. Since there were so many religious laws and people couldn’t remember them, much less obey them, they began talking about some of the commandments being heavy and others being light. While all the laws were considered important and should be obeyed, some were heavier and more important than others. Others were lighter and less important to obey. Jesus referred to this in Matthew 23 when He said, 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. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (v.23, ESV).
Jesus is speaking their language here. He is addressing their system of self-righteousness and their hypocrisy within their religious system. Notice Jesus used the phrase weightier matters of the law. Jesus reminded them they had placed more important emphasis on some commands and less emphasis on other commands.
Jesus gives them an example using spices: mint and dill and cumin. When you want spices for your food you go to your cabinet grab your container of mint that you bought at the grocery store and add it to your food. In Jesus’ day the people grew most of their own spices in pots or they had a spice garden. If you wanted spices for your dinner, you trimmed a few leaves off your spice plants to add to your food. The experts of the law and the Pharisees were very careful to give 10% of the leaves they trimmed off a potted spice plant as part of their offering at the temple. We are talking about micro amounts of spices they meticulously brought to the temple when they trimmed the leaves off their house plants. That’s crazy and that’s legalistic and that was part of the burden of the religious law.
What Jesus was saying is they were focusing on the religious laws dealing with tithing on spices rather than focusing on what they themselves said were the weightier matters of the law like justice and mercy and faithfulness. They were more concerned about tithing one spice leaf rather than showing mercy and faithfulness. They were making the small things the big things and the big things the small things.
If we are not careful, we will do the same thing today. We will focus on the minor things and neglect the major things. We will concentrate on the milk of God’s Word, but ignore the meat of God’s Word. We will focus on the facts and information of God’s Word, while ignoring the transformation it wants to bring in our life. We will focus on the outward rather than the inward. We will focus on the temporary rather than the eternal.
Over the years of being a pastor I have seen Christians get upset over the types of songs their church sings rather than worshipping God. I’ve seen Christian parents be to harsh on their children for little things, when they should have shown mercy. I’ve seen Christian men focused on tithing, but are unfaithful to their wife. I’ve seen Christian women dedicated to memorizing scripture, while they are oblivious to how rude and unkind they are to their husband and family. Over the years, I’ve seen believers who seem to ignore things like faithfulness, justice, mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, patience, kindness, and gentleness and who are more concerned about the color of the church’s carpet, the length of a man’s hair, whether a woman should wear pants or a dress, and bunch of lesser important things that really don’t matter. Let’s make sure we don’t neglect the weightier things in God’s Word.
Back to the 613 religious laws. Some were heavy and some were light. Some were more important than others. One of the ways they tried to make all these religious laws more manageable was by trying to reduce God’s laws to something that was short and easy to remember, something that was portable in people’s memory that they could keep with them.
The religious experts struggled with various ways to summarize all these 613 laws. This was a major issue for them and it said a lot about the person and their belief system. So to understand Jesus a little better and maybe trap Him, the expert in religious law asked Him this loaded question, Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
We now have the question and the context of that question, Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
We are going to need to end here. We will pick up with Jesus’ answer next week. So, what have we learned so far?
- You are created to love God and love others. Those two go together. You cannot separate them.
- Just like Jesus, if you follow Him, you will be asked questions. Some of those questions will be designed to trap you or make you look ignorant. God will give you the right words to say at the time. Don’t get offended when you are questioned about what God’s Word says. See it as an opportunity to teach.
- There are some people in your life who are asking questions and challenging you about God, your faith in Jesus, and spiritual things. They may appear more like an enemy at first glance, but they are not far from the kingdom of God. Take their questions seriously. Your response is your witness to who God is and what He says.
- Just like the Pharisees, you have your own set of religious rules and commandments officially and unofficially in your mind. You have given them rank. One is more important than the other. Let’s set those aside for a moment and let’s start thinking and reframing everything we do and who we are based on loving God supremely and loving others greatly.
Now the stage is set for Jesus to summarize everything the Bible teaches in one statement. We will examine that next week.
- What is your reaction that God created you to be a lover of Him and others?
- When you feel attacked because of your faith, what is your normal response? Do you retaliate or see it as an opportunity to teach God’s truth?
- Describe someone in your life you thin is “not far from the kingdom of God.” What do you think needs to happen to see that person born again?
- Just like the religious expert who had 613 religious laws, you have your spoken and unspoken religious laws. What are they? Where did they come from?
- Of your personal religious laws which ones are weightier to you? Why?
- How do you think your religious laws get in the way of loving God and loving others?
[i] The Sanhedrin was similar to Congress in our day. Some members are Republicans and other members are Democrats. This is similar to the Sanhedrin made up of two parties, Pharisees and Sadducees.
[ii] There were 248 religious laws that were positive and 365 were negative commands.