And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Mark 12:28-34 ESV
Thus far, Jesus has been met with three challenges via three questions. First, the chief priests, scribes, and elders asked Jesus who gave Him the authority to accomplish His ministry (although His cleansing of the temple was likely most in their minds). Jesus side-stepped that question by asking if they wanted to make an official statement on John the Baptist’s ministry and then by telling them via a parable that He knew their plans to execute Him. Second, the Pharisees and the Herodians put aside their hatred for one another in order to snare Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Lastly, the Sadducees tried their hand at defeating Jesus with a question about marriage in the resurrection.
THE FOURTH GREAT QUESTION // VERSE 28
After skillfully answering the previous questions meant to trap Him with statements that are worth a lifetime of meditation, we come now to a fourth question:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
The first aspect of this verse that should strike us is that this question is not being asked by a group like the previous three questions were. The chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees all came to Christ like wolves or sharks, circling and waiting for the slightest dropping of His guard. Yet now we have one man who is ready to address Jesus directly. It is a tragic reality that many who refuse to believe in Christ reject Him from their crowd of unbelieving companions without ever going to Him face-to-face as this man did. Of course, we cannot literally stand before Christ now, yet we do know that Jesus continues to make Himself known in His Word. Thus, we see the same principle at work whenever someone rejects the Scriptures while leaning on the company of fellow scoffers yet refuses to actually engage with the Bible one-on-one.
This man, however, was willing to separate himself from scoffers, for we are told that he was one of the scribes. Rather than seeking to destroy Jesus, as his fellow scribes were plotting (11:18), this scribe had been watching the previous challenges intently and recognized the wisdom in Jesus’ answers. As we shall see clearly in verse 34, this man did not yet believe Jesus to be the Christ, yet he was not obstinately and willfully blind to the truth of Jesus’ answers.
Therefore, this scribe resolved to bring his own question to Jesus: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” “This was a natural question for him,” says R. C. Sproul. “The Jews taught that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, and the scribes distinguished between the ‘heavy laws’ and the ‘light laws,’ with the heavy laws being the more important ones.” And they often debated on this very question of which was the most important of all.
Again, this is a great question for someone to have asked Jesus. If we are summoned by God to keep His commandments, there is surely great benefit in understanding which commandment holds primacy. Of course, this would be no help if we thought that we exclude all the rest as superfluous, but knowing the greatest commandment would help interpret and weigh all the others. Therefore, let us be thankful that this scribe had the boldness to ask this question.
JESUS ANSWERED // VERSES 29-31
Before we dive into the particulars of Jesus’ answer, it is worth noting that the rebukes that marked the previous questions were absent from this one. G. Campbell Morgan makes the right implication of the scribe’s question, namely, that “it was an honest question, a sincere question.” Here we should rightly remember that Jesus was stern and sharp with wolves and gentle with the sincere.
As to the answer itself, Jesus took the man to Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which many call the Shema (‘hear’ in Hebrew). The context for these two well-known verses is not quite so well-known. Deuteronomy, as the final book of the Torah, is largely the final speeches of Moses to the congregation of Israel before they entered the Promised Land after their forty-year wandering. Thus, in chapter five, Moses recounted the giving of the Ten Commandments from Sinai, and chapter six then begins with Moses saying,
Now this is the commandment–the statutes and the rules–that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear, therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.Deuteronomy 6:1-3
With the privilege of possessing the hindsight of reading these words in light of Jesus’ answer here, we can clearly see that the Shema in verses 4-5 is being set up as the summary of even the Ten Commandments. Indeed, after telling us to love God with all ourselves in verse 5, verses 6-9 then explicitly command us to structure our lives around this command:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Of course, this also fits back into the question of Caesar’s authority to collect taxes, for Jesus concluded by saying that we are required to render to God the things that belong to Him. As we said, Jesus was alluding to the fact that we bear God’s image after having just pointed out the image of Caesar on the coin. To love God with the entirety of our being is what God fundamentally demands of His image-bearers, the supreme command that He gives us.
Indeed, to love God will mean fulfilling the specific commandments that He has given us. To love Him absolutely excludes us from worshiping anything else as greater than Him, which would be idolatry. To love Him supremely means that we will worship Him as He has commanded rather than as we desire. To love Him chiefly means that we will honor and cherish His holy name more than all treasures of this world. To love Him ultimately means that we will rest in Him as our Maker, our Sustainer, and our Shepherd.
Again, just as Caesar had the right to demand taxes because it was His authority that upheld the denarius’ worth, so God as our Creator has the right to demand the entirety of our affection because He upholds us and everything else. Yet even if we agree that God has the right to demand our affection, should He do so? Does commanding our love make God a megalomaniac?
Only if God were not God. You see, if Caesar were to demand absolute love from his subjects, that would certainly be megalomania. He would be demanding what far exceeds his own worth and authority. But not so with God. After all, as the Giver of each breath, is He not worthy of them? As the Designer of our affections, is it not right for them to be wholly fixed upon Him? Indeed, add to this God’s infinite loveliness, and how could it be right for us to give the entirety of our love to anyone or anything else? Rather than being megalomania, it would be unloving of God not to command our love when He alone is able to bear the weight of such unconditional affection. For worshiping affection is certainly a weight that all non-deities cannot uphold. It may seem romantic to give such love to one’s spouse, except that such worship can do nothing less than break them. To give such worshipful love to anything less than God Himself will inevitably lead to our hatred for it whenever it fails to be truly divine.
Thus, God alone must be loved with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, for He alone is God “and there is no other besides him.” Yet if you read Deuteronomy 6:5, you will find that Jesus added the mind into the verse. First, we should note that as Scripture’s author, Jesus had the authority to make this further clarification. Second, this addition is truly a clarification. The mind, meaning a person’s intellectual faculties, was certainly implied already by saying heart, soul, and strength. Jesus is making that implication explicit. As we noted last week, anti-intellectualism is condemned rather than commended by God; instead, we are to use our minds alongside our heart, soul, and strength to love God.
R. C. Sproul is right to make the following point:
If I were to ask you, “What is the most serious sin of all?” what would you say? Murder? Adultery? Idolatry? Unbelief? It seems to me that if the Great Commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the great transgression is the failure to keep this commandment.
Now I second his conclusion: “That scares me, because I have not kept the Great Commandment for five minutes in my life.” Neither have I, and neither have you. We waste our hearts, souls, minds, and strength on lesser things all the time, often giving the very best of ourselves to things that are blatantly sinful and rebellious to God. We only need to look at our failure to uphold Deuteronomy 6:7 as proof. We often think it burdensome rather than delightful to speak of God and His Word in our homes and throughout our day.
We are each, therefore, under the guilt of not rendering to God the things that are God’s. If Caesar, as a lesser earthly authority, had the right to wield the sword of judgment against those who refused to pay their taxes, how much more does the Creator of heaven and earth have the right to execute judgment upon us?
Thankfully, we look to Christ, who came to give His life to ransom us from such rightful judgment. Yet we must remember that He could only do so by having lived a sinless life Himself, which means that He obeyed the commandment perfectly. As Sproul notes, “Every second of His life He loved the Father with all of His heart, all of His soul, all of His mind, and all of His strength. Had He not done that, He would not have fulfilled the law of God and would not have been worthy to save Himself, let alone save us.”
But Jesus did not stop with citing Deuteronomy 6:4-5, He then cited Leviticus 19:18 as the second greatest commandment. This inclusion gives us an important lesson to take to heart. Our love for our neighbor is a second, subservient love to our love for God. Humanists make their love for humanity ultimate, and in their attempt to exalt mankind, they actually diminish them. Yet at the same time, our love for God is not complete unless we also love our neighbor. 1 John 4:20 says plainly, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Verse 21 then adds: “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Therefore, our love for God must be supreme, yet it must also extend outward to our neighbor.
Furthermore, we should note that we are not commanded to love our neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, for that would be idolatry; instead, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is, we are called to love them as fellow image-bearers of God and especially of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to love them as those for whom Christ died.
Finally, let us note the wording: “love your neighbor…” As we said a few weeks ago, let us say again: this is not a command to love people in general but to love your neighbor, meaning the person that you are in contact with throughout the day. That includes our spouse, our children, our coworkers, our neighbors, the people that we pass by in a store or on the road, etc. In short, we do not get to say we “love others” while in reality being a jerk to everyone around us.
Jesus’ concluding statement that “there is no commandment greater than these” is displayed through our discovery that every other commandment is encapsulated within these two commandments. We have already seen how loving God summarizes the first four commandments, and we can make the same point with the remaining commandments, for loving our neighbor means that we will not murder, commit adultery, bear false witness, etc.
NOT FAR, YET NOT IN // VERSES 32-34
In response to Jesus’ answer, the scribe did not slink off in silent defeat to plot Jesus’ destruction like Jesus’ enemies typically did; instead, he responded:
You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
This is perhaps one of the most shocking moments within Mark’s entire Gospel, for a scribe is the very last persons we would ever expect to admit that Jesus was right. Yet this again testifies that this scribe was a sincere seeker of truth and that his question for Jesus was indeed sincere, for he saw Jesus’ wisdom.
The scribe then displayed his own understanding of the Scriptures by not simply repeating back to Jesus the two commandments but by adding the implication that loving God and neighbor “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” He clearly did not read Scripture as the Sadducees read it, for he evidently had meditated much upon this question. Perhaps as Jesus stated these commandments, Samuel’s words to Saul came to mind: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Or perhaps Isaiah 1 or Amos 5 came to his mind. Or maybe he remembered David’s prayer: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). Most likely, as a student of the Scriptures, many such passages came to mind as he understood the implication of love being the greatest commandment.
Of course, Paul affirms this principle in his own words:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1–3
Our text ends with two statements. First, when Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely, He said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” By this declaration, Jesus affirmed that the scribe was on the right path toward the kingdom of God. He was pursuing truth and godliness, and so long as his pursuit continued, it would lead to God’s kingdom through the discovery of God’s King. Whether that pursuit continued for this particular scribe is unknown to us. Since Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 13:7 to say that love hopes all things, I certainly hope that this scribe came to believe that Jesus is much more than a sage of great wisdom. J. C. Ryle, however, assumes the opposite, saying:
But we must not shut our eyes to the fact that we are nowhere told that this man became one of our Lord’s disciples. On this point there is a mournful silence. The parallel passage in St Matthew throws not a gleam of light on his case. The other parts of the New Testament tell us nothing about him. We are left to draw the painful conclusion that, like the rich young man, he could not make up his mind to give up all and follow Christ; or that, like the chief rulers, elsewhere mentioned, he ‘loved the praise of men more than the praise of God’ (John 12:43). In short, though ‘not far from the kingdom of God,’ he probably never entered into it, and died outside.
Such matters are not for us to know in this life; rather, we ought to remind ourselves that being near to the kingdom is not enough. Being near the ark would not have saved anyone from the flood. We may certainly be encouraged whenever we see those who are on the right path toward the kingdom as this scribe was, yet near is not yet in. Even affirming the truth of Jesus’ words is not enough. Let us heed Ryle’s counsel:
May we never rest till we are inside the kingdom of God, till we have truly repented, really believed, and have been made new creatures in Christ Jesus. If we rest satisfied with being ‘not far from the kingdom,’ we shall find at last that we are shut out for evermore.
Second, Mark tells us and after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. Matthew Henry is right to note that Jesus’ gentleness here “should have invited many to consult him, but it had the contrary effect.” Jesus shut all of their mouths with His answers to all of their attempts to trap Him, and this final question likely shined far too bright of a spotlight upon the religious leaders’ meticulous yet unloving obedience to God’s law. Rather than repenting and confessing Jesus to be the Christ, they simply seethed in silence and hungered all the more for His blood.
Brothers and sisters, as we come to our Lord’s Table, let rejoice that Christ did not stand far off from us but that He left eternal glory with the Father to become a man like us only without sin. Let us give thanks that, while we have never fulfilled the Great Commandment fully, Jesus never once failed to keep it. And as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim with humble joy that Christ is our once-for-all sacrifice, who took upon Himself the judgment of our sins and gave to us His perfect righteousness.
And to any who, like the scribe, could be called not far from the kingdom of God, the ark of Christ is not yet closed but the door will not remain open forever. It is not enough to believe that Jesus spoke truth; come to Jesus as the truth and find that He is also the way and the life. Jesus Himself said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Come to Him, and He will never cast you out.
 Sproul, Mark, 288-289.
 Sproul, Mark, 289.
 Ryle, Mark, 209.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentaries: Matthew to John Vol V, 536.