By Sam E. Stone
Today we study Jesus’ answer to a question about the greatest commandment. In reply, he cites the two Old Testament passages that we will consider first in our lesson.
Moses had been given the assignment to pass along God’s commands to those Israelites who left Egyptian bondage. Leviticus explained they were to live holy lives (Leviticus 17–26). Then the book of Deuteronomy (literally “the second law”) reminded the people of the first generation’s failure to follow the Lord’s rule (Deuteronomy 1–3). The second generation was told to renew their covenant with the Lord (chapters 4–11).
In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, late in Christ’s ministry, we are introduced to a sincere Jewish leader (Mark 12:28). Jesus had been repeatedly attacked by the Pharisees and others, but this teacher of the law was sincere and straightforward.
Love in the Old Testament
Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:4-9
God knows that humans tend to put their own wants and needs first. He wants us to demonstrate similar concern for the wants and needs of others. Your neighbor is whoever is in need (Luke 10:25-37). This includes not just friends but foreigners, and even enemies. James E. Smith reminds us that these commands “came from the Lord, were intended for observance in the promised land, were to be conveyed to future generations, would test their fear of the Lord, and would lead to a more abundant life and the fulfillment of all God’s promises.”
Deuteronomy 6:4 is a key part of the Shema, a prayer offered daily by orthodox Jews. It gets its name from the first word of the prayer—“hear” (shema). In Jesus’ day, devout Jews also wore these words as symbols on their foreheads and arms (Matthew 23:5). Even today Jewish people place a small scroll inside a container on the door frames of their homes, literally fulfilling God’s commands. God’s intent was not just that these words be worn and placed on the door frame, however. These commandments . . . are to be on your hearts.
Teaching these important principles to our families is essential. They should not be relegated to once a week at worship time. Rather they are to be discussed at home . . . along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. It was essential for God’s people to know that God is one, not like the multiple pagan deities worshipped around them. C. F. Keil wrote, “To him alone . . . the name Jehovah rightfully belongs . . . he is the one absolute God, to whom no other Elohim can be compared” (see also Zechariah 14:9).
Love in the New Testament
The enemies of Jesus were increasingly active in the latter months of his ministry. One day after he had responded to various difficult questions intended to trap him (Mark 12:13-27), one teacher of the law was very impressed with the good answer Jesus gave. His motives in asking his question are unclear. He had an air of fair-mindedness and sincerity about him, but Matthew tells us that he was testing Jesus (22:35) by asking, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus began by quoting the Shema: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” J. W. McGarvey noted, “This command is first, because it is the foundation of the entire law of God. It is greatest, because, in a sense, it includes all the other laws.”
R. C. Foster added that Jesus introduced terms that are not mutually exclusive, but overlap. “The ‘heart’ is used in Scripture to mean the whole intellectual and spiritual faculties—the understanding, the emotions, and the will. The ‘soul’ is differentiated by some scholars from ‘spirit’ . . . but both Greek words used in the Scripture are defined in the standard lexicons as meaning both soul and spirit, and the two terms are generally synonymous in the Scripture.”
The second greatest commandment is then also named by Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Mark alone gave the reply of the scribe to Jesus: “Well said, teacher . . . You are right.” In replying, this questioner emphasized some of the same truths Jesus had taught previously (Matthew 9:13; 12:7). Now Jesus was impressed by him! “The critical attitude of the lawyer had melted before the reply of Jesus into genuine enthusiasm that showed him to be near the kingdom of God” (A. T. Robertson).
The touching response of Jesus makes us wonder what happened to this teacher in the days that followed. We can only hope that this man who was not far from the kingdom of God soon became a believer in Christ.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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