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The Paramount Issues of Life (Mark 12:28-31)

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(Having God’s Vision Through Understanding God’s Word)

Mark 12:28-31 Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.’ 31 The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 22:34-40 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Conditions and Context

The Confrontation with the Religious Leaders

This incident in Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:34-40 occurs in the portion of the Gospel of Mark where we find the Lord Jesus in opposition to the religious leaders of Israel. The religious leaders were in the process of rejecting the person and ministry of Christ and were seeking to find fault with Him in order to discount his ministry and teaching among the common people.

Think about this. The Savior, the very Son and revelation of God, the one who had come to give life and life abundantly and to bring men into a right relationship with God was standing in their midst. Here was one who would not only provide salvation, but would give men God’s perspective of what life was intended to be—life with significance, meaning, and purpose as the people of God. Yet, all around the Savior, there was opposition. Satan was working through his various methods, schemes, and instruments to turn men away from the plan of God.

We too see such opposition growing with each passing day. All around us are forces at work to distract, delude, and deter us from experiencing God’s plan and vision for us as individual believers and as the body of Christ as a whole. We see people shattered on the rocks of delusion and despair. We see a skyrocketing divorce rate, abuse in the home, disease, crime, abortion, gangs, suicide, incest, child abuse, rape, drive-by shootings, drugs, and the inability of government to handle our problems because we are a people who seek man-made solutions and ignore the biblical mandates of Scripture. So, the list of problems grow.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this, we also see churches turned inward rather than outward as lights in the midst of this horrible darkness. Why? Because to a very large degree, the church—though very religious—has ignored the truth of this passage and lost sight of the vision it gives us of what life should be.

Let us not forget as we examine this passage that Christ’s conflict was with the religious people. They were experts in the Old Testament Scriptures but they had missed the central truth of the Word of God. And the same can apply to us.

The Contention Among the Pharisees (vs. 28)

12:28 Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

The question asked by this scribe, an expert in the law, was one that was a matter of contention and constantly under debate by the Pharisees. The Pharisees had codified the law into 248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions. These 613 precepts were imposed by the Pharisees on their followers as their obligation, yet they offered no love or help or hope of enablement to encourage them in obedience. There was no mercy or grace, only the heavy chains of legalism which always kills the joy of life and alienates rather than reconciles people to God. They were a people without shepherds after God’s heart.

Regarding these 613 precepts, there was constant debate over which was the most important. Some claimed it was the positive commands and others said the negative prohibitions were more important. As a result, the Pharisees were always describing the law in terms of light and heavy, and small and great. The idea was that if your good deeds outweighed the bad, God would accept you, but if not, well, there was no way to get rid of the bad, no way to truly experience God’s forgiveness. As a result, they taught that people needed to keep the weightier commandments because with obedience to these they would get more points with God.

The Concept of the Passage

Obviously, such a preoccupation revealed a shallow and sterile externalism that caused them to miss their own utter sinfulness, God’s absolute holiness, and the need of a suffering Savior. But that’s not all. This preoccupation caused them to miss the very heart, goal, and central theme of the Bible. Simply put, their legalism caused them to miss the very purpose of the Word and their purpose as the people of God.

In other words Mark 12:28-31 (and its parallel, Matthew 22:34-40) is visionary. It gives us a perspective of life which, as the very heart and goal of Scripture, is like a beacon that guides us in our passage through the dark and treacherous waters of life.

Understanding our purpose and having goals in accordance with the teaching of this wonderful passage is equivalent to vision. It means the ability to see where we are going. Having vision means having God’s revelation and using it to get God’s perspective on life so we know who we are, why we are here, where we are going, and what we ought to be doing. Without this we are like ships cast about on the sea of uncertainty with the ever changing winds of the ideas of men. We are left restless and unrestrained by our own desires and aspirations, caught in a ocean of despair.

The Question of the Scribe
(12:28b)

12:28b “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Its Motivation

As Matthew shows in his account of this incident (Matt. 22:34-35), this scribe was there on behalf of the Pharisees to test the Lord. Because of their jealousy and animosity against the Savior, they were looking for evidence to discredit the Lord’s ministry and teaching. Likewise, Satan is at work today to defeat God’s purpose in your life and mine. He wants to discredit our walk with Him and our testimony in whatever way he can.

The people, however, had been astounded by the Lord’s insightful answers and the masterful way He handled the Scripture. This Pharisee too had been impressed by Christ’s answers and, though this man was sent as a representative of the Pharisees, he appears to have been genuine in his question. But what exactly is the significance or meaning of the question?

Its Meaning

“Which” is not the normal Greek word for “which” or “what” (tis). It’s the Greek poios, a qualitative interrogative pronoun meaning, “of what sort, kind, or quality.” It was not merely a question of identity, i.e., which one, but of quality and nature. It meant, which was the most important and why.

In light of our Lord’s answer and its purpose here in Scripture, the incident and the question were recorded to point us to the ultimate goal of the Bible and the impact God wants it to have on our lives and those to whom we minister. The answer given here by the Savior becomes both a compass and a barometer in our study of the Word and in the ministry of building others in the Lord. It directs us and helps us to gauge our own condition and that of others we teach or lead as we progress together in our walk with God.

The Lord’s Answer
(12:29-31)

12:29 Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is one. 12:30 Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.’ 12:31 The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The Foremost Commandment (vss. 29-30)

    The Root (vs. 29)

The primary command is given in the next verse where Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, but significantly, the Lord begins His answer with a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4. These two verses were part of what is called the Shema, a portion of Scripture quoted both morning and evening by devout Jews and worn in phylacteries on the arm and forehead by the Pharisees. Phylacteries were leather pouches containing four strips of parchment on which were written verses of Scripture.

These verses were called “the Shema” because the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4, “hear,” is the Hebrew word shema, the imperative form of shama, “to hear and obey.” We might ask, why did the Lord begin here? I think it’s because this verse is so foundational to what follows, especially in the context of this confrontation with the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the scribes and Pharisees.

So, exactly what does this verse teach us?

Verse 4 of the Shema pointed to the nature and divine essence of God to contrast Him with the many false god’s of the world. It not only marked out the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, as the one and only true God, but it declared Him as the independent, sovereign God of the universe who had revealed Himself to the nation of Israel and redeemed them from slavery.

First of all there is in this declaration the concept and reminder of the special revelation of God in all His majesty and divine sovereignty which Israel had received.

Further, it reminded Israel of their special covenant relationship with this awesome God of revelation through His redemptive work on their behalf. It reminded them of God’s love. He had given Himself to them in love, but this calls for an appropriate response from those He has loved.

It also reminded them, as it reminds us, of the need to personally hear and respond to His Word. By this revelation we learn about our God, have fellowship with Him, stay focused on Him, and find the capacity to respond to Him in ways that demonstrate our worship and love and trust in His love and care (cf. Deut. 6:6f).

In the process, this passage warns us about the rut of our religious rituals or routines. The Pharisees honored these verses in the sense of lip service, but they ignored their truth.

The point is that we can go to church, memorize Scripture, study the Bible, quote Scripture, know a lot about theology, even be involved in ministry, and yet, hold our hearts far away from any real relationship or commitment to God. When we do this, we are deceiving ourselves and our religion (our worship of God) is vain, meaningless hypocrisy (cf. Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6-7).

We should note three important principles that are pertinent here:

(1) All true obedience and love for God depends on the right knowledge of God. No one will love God and keep His commandments who is not acquainted and occupied with God’s divine essence, His perfections, plan, and His sovereign right to command and direct our lives.

Several years ago, I remember reading in the paper of a car full of naked people who were members of a large nationwide religious group. When they were pulled over by the police They said God had told them to give away all their possessions including the clothes on their backs. People who do things like that have no concept of the essence and purpose of Scripture and the nature of God.

But the same can be true for anyone in what they do, in what they trust for their happiness or security, in their values, priorities, pursuits, and actions as a whole. To us it doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous, but it is to God. People in our “self-oriented” society run around in a frenzy of activity for their own pleasure, happiness or security, while they ignore their responsibilities to God, to family, to church, and to their country.

(2) In the command, “Listen, Israel,” we are reminded of our need to carefully listen to the message of Scripture. For a loving, worshipful, and obedient response to God, we must be regularly and truly hearing and listening and experiencing intimate fellowship with the Lord through His Word (cf. Deut. 32:46-47 with John 17:3).

(3) The preservation of our joy in fellowship with God and love for God takes care and work. It is a constant fight with a call for diligence and alertness. Why? First, because of our sinful nature and tendency to build our own cisterns, to walk by the dim light of our own firebrands, to lean on the arm of the flesh, and because of our proneness to wander. A second reason is found in Satan’s constant activities to undermine daily dependence on the Lord rather than our own schemes to make life work (cf. Deut. 11:22; 19:9; Josh. 22:5; 23:11 and the emphasis on being careful).

It is therefore absolutely imperative that we live in God’s Word because of the nature of Scripture as God breathed and profitable for doctrine or teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction or training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Because of the uniqueness of Scripture in its message and in its impact on lives, Dr Lewis Sperry Chafer use to say, “the Bible is not such a book that man would write if he could or could write if he would.”

A wonderful illustration can be found in John 3:16. New Testament Greek makes a distinction by the grammatical construction used between natural result, what is expected (hoste + the infinitive), but may not necessarily happen, and actual result, what actually happens, but is not necessarily expected (hoste plus the indicative mood). In John 3:16, John used the latter construction. The point is simply this:

If the distinctions of classical Greek are still in force, then there is a suggestion here that the demonstration of God’s love is not something that natural man could have reasoned out, but is something which must be learned of by revelation. In other words, John is subtly yet powerfully telling us that the ultimate demonstration of God’s love is something that natural man cannot discover by himself. Rather, he needs both the revelation of God’s love (in Scripture) and the illumination of the Holy Spirit in order to come to a saving faith.1

    The Fruit (vs. 30)

The command to love God illustrates the truth that God’s special revelation demands an appropriate response, one in keeping with the character and essence of the God it reveals.

(1) The Personal Emphasis: Literally, verse 30 says, “you shall love the Lord your God.” This brings out the necessity of the personal element. Only through personal faith in Jesus Christ does God become one’s personal God. Then by the intimacy of a daily faith and walk with Christ, He becomes the Lord not merely known, but personally embraced in intimate fellowship.

(2) The Nature of Love: “Love” is the verb agapao. This is a love of intelligence and purpose, of sacrifice and hard decisions. But to grasp this word as we should, it must be seen in contrast to the Greek phileo or philia which is more of an emotional kind of love, a mere liking or affection, a love which can be nothing more than sentimentality or a rosy glow created by some special environment. But that kind of love does not translate into hard decisions and actions that call for sacrifice.

Agapao is a “willful love, a determined love that generously chooses for the interests of another.” Agapao and agape, the noun form, speak of a love that grows out of knowledge. It comes from knowing the true God in all of His greatness and grace. You can’t work up agape by emotional fervor as so many people seek to do, and think by this that they love God.

(3) The Source of this Love: The words “with all your…” is literally “from the source of.” “With” is the Greek preposition ek which denotes origin, the point from which action or motions proceed. Love for God flows out of an inner life that is filled and controlled by a faith relationship with God through the knowledge of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (cf. Col. 1:9 with Matt. 12:34-35; 23:25-26).

(3) The Extent of this Love: Note that the words “with all your heart, etc.” are not condensed as in “with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Instead, the words “with all” are repeated with each noun to place equal emphasis on each faculty that we are to use in loving God. Furthermore, the word “all” is the Greek holos from which we get the word, holistic. It means “whole, entire, complete.” This strongly stresses the fact that there can be no holding back or incompleteness in our devotion and commitment to God without serious repercussions on our capacity to love God and experience the life He has created us for. We simply cannot divide our love, our affections, or our trust. The Lord put it like this in Matthew 6:24: “No one is able to serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. No one is able to serve God and possessions.”

Anything but a love for God that encompasses all of one’s being and every area of one’s life falls short of God’s will and our need if we are to be all that we were designed to be. Otherwise, we will be self-indulgent rather than choosing for God and others.

But is there special significance in the use of each of the words: heart, soul, mind, and strength? The main emphasis is on their combined strength by which they stress the whole person, but may I make the following suggestions concerning these words as they are used here.

  • Heart” would first of all bring out the concept of the inner person and that which is the center of our life. Our relationship with God is central and paramount. God is no side issue or a once-a-week involvement. He is not like a dose of medicine. That kind of nod-to-God activity becomes mere religiosity which neither glorifies God nor results in the kind of wholesale changes we need as God’s representative people. Heart in this context, perhaps above all else, stresses the idea of our affections which ultimately determine our actions and pursuits (cf. Matt. 6:21-24). It means setting our affections on Him. It means desiring God above all else as the deer pants at the water brook (Ps. 42:1). And oh, how we all fall short here!
  • “Soul” is often used to refer to the physical life and the self concept. To love God with all our soul or life means to be willing to give one’s life to God and to devote it all to Him. It means total commitment. In the word “soul,” we see the will choosing for God, giving one’s life to Him.
  • “Mind” refers to our ideas, viewpoint, and perspective of life. To love God with all our mind means to submit our minds, thought patterns, opinions, and decisions to God’s Word. It means to lean not on our own understanding but to bring every thought into obedience and captivity of the Savior. This means we act then not on what we think or on how we feel, but in accord with the facts of the Word of God.
  • “Strength” refers to all our abilities, talents, gifts, and physical powers. All of these are to be surrendered and devoted to Him for His glory. We are not to lean on our own strength, but we are to use our strength as we lean by faith on Him. Every fiber of our being, every aspect of our lives is to be caught up and focused on the majesty and essence of God and His matchless grace. He is to be the base and reason for our being and actions.

This means we need to recognize God as:

  • Our Source—Our Derivation and reason for being.
  • Our Force—Our Dynamic for life and means for living.
  • Our Course—Our Direction and Destination for where we ought to be going.

The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The world has an insatiable longing. It seeks to satisfy itself on the leeks and melons of the world, but this leads only to a leanness of soul and an inability to love God and others. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. People seek happiness in scenic vacations, in pleasure, in accomplishments, in sports, and in human exploits of all sorts, but the longing and need that only God can fill remains empty like a hollow cave that is cold and damp. We were created for God and our hearts will remain restless with the result that we run around frantically in search of happiness, meaning, and purpose unless we find our rest and joy in the Lord. The Psalmist wisely wrote:

5 My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from Him. 6 He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be shaken. 7 On God my salvation and my glory rest; The rock of my strength, my refuge is in God. 8 Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. [Selah] (Ps. 62:5-8).

Isaiah was so right when he said:

But the wicked are like the tossing sea, For it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up refuse and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked” (Isa. 57:20-21).

Unfortunately, this is not only true of the unbelieving world. It is true for a large portion of the Christian population—at least in America.

Let’s grasp the VISION of this passage and not let go! Certainly, God has given us all things to enjoy, but only as they are secondary to our love for Him and come under His control and direction. Otherwise, not only will we not be able to truly love Him, but we will be like the restless sea, unable to enjoy the life He gives us. In view of this, may I suggest four things:

  • The Reality: The simple reality is we all fall short in obedience and submission to God.
  • The Goal: Loving God with our total person must become our desire and our goal or we will simply be playing church.
  • The Danger: Knowing that we will always fall short must not become an excuse for apathy and business as usual.
  • The Need: The need is concerned and broken hearts with a deep change of mind about what is paramount in our lives.

The Second Greatest Command (vs. 31a)

The second is: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Carl F. Henry accurately points out, “What we are witnessing today is human existence deliberately and routinely collapsed into a me-first philosophy—me first in sex, in work, in all dimensions of life.”2 This includes a me-first philosophy even in the spiritual lives of many believers. This is a strange contradiction for the Christian, but is totally in keeping with Eastern philosophy and the New Age movement so rampant in our society today. What we are seeing is a society in hot pursuit of many of the bursting bubbles of vanity. Ours is a society in which human existence empties into a rushing torrent of emptiness.

For many, man is nothing more than the meaningless product of time plus chance, a purposeless product of accidental origins and impersonal processes. For many others, man’s future lies embedded in the idolatrous and empty world of self-actualization of a me-ism society where man seeks to be his own god or to become a god through various Eastern forms of mind control.

But in America this is the by-product of a nation which, though founded on the principles of God’s Word, has opted for an autonomous humanism. This humanism majors not in true liberty, which gives people the capacity to be what God designed them to be, but in a philosophy of peace and prosperity at any cost. This philosophy leads people into various forms of slavery and will one day ultimately end in the world system of the last days as foreseen in Scripture.

As Christians living in the sick atmosphere of this mindset, we often approach our Bibles from a worldly viewpoint that ultimately bypasses the great vision of this passage and the ultimate purposes of the Word of God. In other words, we use the Bible for our own selfish agendas. But the Bible discredits all those who promote only self-serving ends. The great thrust of Scripture is precisely the opposite. While the Bible validates the principles of private property, profit, and personal needs, it never isolates them from other moral criteria and responsibilities first to God and then to our neighbor.

As an illustration, compare Paul’s admonition to us in Ephesians 4:28. “The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may share with the one who has need.”

Scripture approves of self concerns, but never at the expense of heavenly treasure and seeking first God’s kingdom and love for our neighbor. As we study our Bibles, we are far too often, as Carl Henry has so aptly put it,

…too much preoccupied with the Bible’s existential impact and the private encouragement it affords us in times of personal crisis. To be sure, the preached Word must intersect human life at its most critical moments. It must speak to individuals engulfed by ethical vacuums, torn by consuming grief, battered by doubts, badgered by guilt, and hurting all over. But too often Christians treat the Bible like a jigsaw puzzle, arranging and rearranging random cutouts into an enigmatic chaos. Expository preaching should strive for congregational study of the text not only after but in preparation for church services. Thus prepared, God’s gathered people will anticipate and experience corporate renewal by the Spirit and the Word in worship and response.3

Henry means that we bypass the great themes and primary thrusts of the texts of Scripture in the hot pursuit of personal and selfish goals. We treat Scripture like a cafeteria where we pick and choose what we want rather than what God wants us to learn from the text.

In the process, we often use our Bible study and church worship much like we use a cushion or a feather bed. We use it to meet personal needs or to exercise our privileges, but not to develop our capacity for personal responsibility to God and others. We seek to protect our comfort zones. We don’t want God or anyone to stretch us in the process of real spiritual growth. But as it has often been said, our study and preaching of the Word should be designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Why? in order to jolt us out of our lethargy and lukewarmness and into the great mandates of Scripture. Our passage, Mark 12:28-31, is designed to do exactly this.

The command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This command points to an ensuing response, an expression and extension of God’s love operating in and through the believer who is living in a vital relationship with the Lord (vs. 31). This is the root—knowing and loving God. The ability to fulfill this second command comes from obedience to the first and primary command.

Thus, the next thing we read is, “the second is this.” But Matthew has, “the second is like it.” Please note, there is no connective such as “and” between verses 30 and 31. The Lord Jesus abruptly and dramatically added this next statement because they go together like a hand in a glove. Reality in one’s vertical relationship with God leads to reality and capacity in one’s horizontal relationships with people.

Note two important principles:

(1) Obedience to the first great command cannot and will never exists by itself. If our walk with God is real, it will overflow into the second though not without struggles because of sin, Satan, and self. If , however, we continue to walk with the Lord, truly grow in Christ, cling to Him as our refuge rather than to our man-made strategies for making life work, there will be an overflow into our human relationships.

This is profound in its significance. The Lord’s immediate inclusion of these words here teaches us that love for God and true fellowship with Him in Spirit and truth never stops on the vertical plane. It has an immediate carryover into the horizontal—all our human relationships in life (cf. Eph. 5:18f; 1 Pet 3:1-7; Matt. 5:23-24).

(2) Knowing God in true fellowship with Him is extremely practical. It is never merely religious or ceremonial or ritualistic. Without this practical carryover we become Pharisaic, petty, critical, defensive, protective, and complacent about our responsibilities to God and people. This is important and has tremendous ramifications on manifesting the reality of intimate fellowship with God. This statement, “the second is this” or as Matthew puts it, “the second is like it,” brings out an important emphasis of the Bible. If our religious life does not result in true spiritual growth and moral change—change in our values, in our priorities and pursuits—then we are deceiving ourselves by our religious activities and even by the ministries we are engaged in. If our public life does not stem from our private love for and fellowship with God, what we do will be done for purely selfish reasons—praise, power, applause, self-identity, or good feelings about ourselves.

James 1:26 teaches that without a moral carryover into our relationships with people, our religious activity is a sham and we are deceived.

First John 4:7-8 teaches that love for others with all that this means—involvement, help, forgiveness, patience, interest in others, etc., even though there will be struggles—is the fruit that will be experienced in the life of those who are having fellowship with God and experiencing the life of a God who is love.

First Thessalonians 2:3-8 teaches that authenticity with God leads not only to ministry, but to ministry that is not self-seeking.

What follows deals with the results of truly loving God and brings us to the horizontal plane of relationships. Love for God, which grows out a faith and fellowship with Him in His Word, must lead to a similar commitment on the horizontal plane with people. If we are truly learning to live by faith in God’s grace and forgiveness, we will begin to experience His life and we will begin to experience His love for others, otherwise we are deceiving ourselves and playing at Christianity. The prophets of old were constantly warning Israel about such duplicity.

Let’s now turn to the commandment itself, the fruit that grows out of the root. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This drives home several very important concepts. In the process of our study of this passage we will look at four things.

(1) The Subject, the One Responsible: The “you” and “your” personalize this command. This means me. This means you. So, let’s each put our name here. “_____________, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

(2) The Object, the One we must Love:Your neighbor” personalizes it but also identifies the one we are to love. It means God wants us to get involved where we are. We are to bloom where we have been planted. But if we are going to bloom we must first be growing. We must make the study of God’s Word and intimately knowing Him our first priority. Then we must make growing in our relationships with family and friends the next priority. We must develop a vision for the people and the needs around us. We need to open our eyes and see the fields white unto harvest (John 4:31-38).

But who is my neighbor? In Leviticus 19:18 one’s neighbor is defined as “the sons of your own people,” but the Lord broadened this definition and extended it to include all men as illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). We may exclaim, “but Lord, you don’t know my neighbor! I mean, we call our neighborhood, the “valley of the shadow.” The local little league is nicknamed the Piranhas!”

The words “your neighbor” points us to where God wants us to get involved in the expression of His love. On the horizontal plane there are three fundamental areas of involvement: our family, other Christians, and non-Christians.

(3) The Manner in Which We are to Love: “As yourself” points us to the manner in which we are to love our neighbor. The typical understanding of this statement today, however, starts with a focus on self-love. As such, we constantly hear words like self-awareness, self-love, self-actualization, self-esteem, and on and on the list goes. Some even assert that the Lord is saying here that before you can love others you must love yourself, you must have a good self-image, you must feel good about yourself.

What is the biblical perspective here? Naturally, we need a sense of our own value as children of God; we need to know ourselves, our abilities and talents and have assurance of our acceptance with God because of the forgiveness we have through Christ, because we belong to Him, and because of our God-given abilities or capacities (Rom. 12:3; 1 Pet. 4:10-11; 1 Cor. 12:4f).

So it is true, it will not be possible for us to love others if we are not resting in who we have become in Christ through faith in Him: a forgiven sinner, a child of the King, a son of God, a sinner bound for heaven because of the finished work of Christ on our behalf, a member of the body of Christ with special abilities (gifts) given to us by the Lord, an ambassador of the Savior, to name just a few of the blessings every Christian has in Christ. In other words, in Christ we are complete! We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. Because of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ, we can serve God and love others through the enablement of the Spirit.

If we do not grasp this truth and rest in our value as fully forgiven children of God’s grace, we will be unable to love in an unconditional manner. What acts of love we are able to muster up will be pretentious and hypocritical—love that isn’t genuine. Why? Because we are not comprehending God’s grace, most of what we do will be done to feel good about ourselves or to meet our own needs (cf. Rom. 12:9f. and note the context).

However, the ability to love others by loving ourselves is simply not the emphasis of this passage nor is it what the Lord is saying here. The emphasis of this passage is not on self-love. Note that the Lord did not say, “you shall be able to love your neighbor when you learn to love yourself” or “love your neighbor from the source of your self-love or self-respect.”

Why is such a view of this verse wrong? I believe it is wrong because that would make man the foundation and source of His spiritual life and ability to care for and minister to others. What Christ said is, “you shall love as or like you love yourself.” This simply points to an analogy taken from normal human behavior. People naturally look out after themselves. They take care of themselves. Paul used the same analogy, but with different wording in Ephesians 5:28-29.

5:28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 5:29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 5:30 for we are members of his body.

The Lord is emphasizing that we should care for others with the same fervor and in the same manner with which we naturally care for ourselves.

On the whole concept of self-esteem or self-identity, McQuaid in Moody Monthly warns about the wrong theology and approach which can result in the worship of self, the theology of I (a meism mentality) with man at the center rather than God. He goes on to point out that this modern approach has much in common with Eastern religions, in fact a merger is well under way.4

(4) The Action, the Responsibility: “Shall love” (agapao) is the same word discussed above. What is this thing called love—especially the agape love of the Bible? What an awesome subject! As we see from this passage, love is the ultimate goal of Scripture and the preeminent virtue God wants to characterize our lives. Love is even one of the descriptive qualities given of God. The apostle John has written, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Who can adequately define it? I certainly can’t do it justice in one lesson, not even in 20 lessons, but let’s note some important truth about biblical love.

(a) Love is simply and profoundly defined for us as “walking according to His commandments” John says, “Now this is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 1:6). Perhaps John is telling us the same thing our Lord tells us here in Mark 12—living in obedience to Scripture means we live by the standard of love—love for God and for people. The ultimate outcome of obedience to the Word is LOVE. Any obedience that is not the product of love for God and others is futile because it is an act of self love; it is mere religion or legalism or some form of human works by which we seek to be accepted by God or to appease Him and by which we seek gain people’s approval.

(b) 1 John reminds us that love is more than words. John also tells us we are not to love in word only, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:19). He is showing us that true love manifests itself in actions of love that reach out to meet the needs of others.

(c) As described in 1 Corinthians 13, love is more than deeds. Here the apostle describes it both negatively and positively and in the process he teaches us some amazing things about love. We learn that while true love manifests itself in deeds, it is nevertheless more than deeds. One can have all kinds of deeds, even to the point of the sacrifice of one’s life, but still lack love. Note Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. 13:2 And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 13:3 If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.

It boils down to a matter of motive and source. This is why Paul says in Romans 12:8, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” We can appear to be loving by the things we say and do when in essence we are really loving ourselves. We do good to impress others or for other selfish reasons.

Is what I do the product of God’s grace at work in my heart? Is it because of my concern for others and what is best for them according to God’s truth? Or do I have self-centered objectives like seeking to please people, seeking praise, wanting to be spiritual king of my own little mountain? My good works may be nothing more than part of a strategy to feel good about myself, to feel I am okay, or to patch up a relationship for selfish reasons.

For instance, if a man buys his wife flowers, is it an act of genuine love, a true expression of his appreciation? Or is it done to patch up a bad relationship and soothe his conscience? Could it be a means of avoiding the responsibility of dealing with the real issues that are causing problems in his marriage?

(d) Biblical love is based on having right values. Matthew 6:19-34 teaches us that the heart pursues what it values and that what the heart values always becomes a priority. It is the object of our devotion and pursuit. If we have earthly values we will pursue earthly treasure, whereas if we have biblical values we will pursue heavenly treasure. Why is this? Because we have been designed by God to pursue what we value. This is what the Savior tells us in verse 21, “for where your treasure is (i.e., your values), there your heart will be also.” We care for, pursue, and put first the things we value. This is evident in our everyday life. For instance, if we have two cars, one an old beat up jalopy and the other a beautiful new one, we will naturally take better care of the newer car—unless the old one is a classic we have tenderly restored and is now very valuable.

In verse 26 of Matthew 6 we see that God’s care of the birds and the flowers is to become the basis for our confidence in His loving care of us. But why? The text tells us, “… are you not worth much more than they?” God’s loving care is based on His values and we as human beings have been created in His image.

So, what’s the issue? You guessed it. It is our value system! Our values needs drastic change because sin has warped, distorted, and redirected our hearts into self-centered, earthly, and temporal values. You might say, we have misplaced hearts.

The irony of all of this is that people typically invest heavily in that which proves to be of little or no value. Even worse, they invest little or nothing in what is truly valuable. So the principle remains true. Regardless of its true worth, people will pursue what they perceive to be the most valuable.

To truly love others, we must exchange our value system for God’s. We must recognize how much we are valued by God because mankind has been created in His image and designed to reflect His glory. Then, as believers—those recreated in Christ—we must recognize how important we and our fellow believers are to Him as sons of God who are complete in Christ.

Perhaps you remember the story of Baby Faye back in the mid-1980s which brought this issue into the headlines. The tiny infant needed a new heart. No donor was available and death was imminent. In desperation, her physicians transplanted the heart of a baboon into the baby’s chest. At the time, it seemed her only chance for survival but there was an immediate reaction by animal rights activists who protested on behalf of the sacrificed baboon. Did there have to be two deaths, they questioned? Were not the two deaths equally tragic?5

What is the problem here? The problem is evolution which has distorted man’s value system and a basic unbelief in the Bible’s message about creation. God created mankind and declared that He created them in His own image. In doing so, He created an impassable gulf between animals and humans.

This is why the Lord Jesus asked the question concerning the birds of the air, “Are you not more valuable than they?” Evolution has devalued both God and man and thereby people have lost the capacity to truly love. Human beings are thus expendable in a system based on evolution. The state and promoting what is politically correct becomes the important thing. When we devalue God we do two things: (a) we automatically begin to devalue others and (b) we knock down our moral fences and increase our boldness to do as we please, which encourages self-centered living.

When we fail to see the value of every human being as created in God’s image, we are immediately predisposed to exploit and manipulate others for our own selfish ends. We see this today in society’s attitude toward the unborn child, in mercy killing, and in the moral breakdown we see all around us. This principle is equally true and has all kinds of ramifications in our day-to-day dealings with others—with our spouses, children, co-workers, and the attitudes displayed by Madison Avenue to get people to buy products whether they need them or not.

By way of application, do we recognize our value as one created in God’s image, as a child of God through faith in Christ? Our capacity to love depends on understanding and trusting in this truth by faith. If we fail to see the value our heavenly Father has placed on us we will constantly be turning to our own defense strategies to protect ourselves and to feel we are valuable. These strategies include things like withdrawal, shyness, defensiveness, talking too much or talking for the wrong reasons, boasting, failing to face and deal with our own weaknesses, failure to exercise our spiritual gifts, and a whole host of such strategies. These things hinder our capacity to love and receive love.

Our ability to love people depends on recognizing how God values them. For instance, if someone hurts us or we angry and filled with resentment, does this cause us to devalue them so that we want to get even or do we pull away out of fear of getting hurt? If so, we have devalued them based on their treatment of us because we value ourselves more. Christ died for them and their sin just as much as He died for us and our sin (cf. Eph. 4:31). Does this mean we must ignore what people do to us? No. Scripture gives us procedures and solutions for dealing with others and how to handle our own feelings when we have been ill treated. But God’s solutions are always designed to bring about reconciliation or godly change. They are for the protection of others and never avenues for revenge, to get even, or to control others. Everyone is valuable in the plan of God and if spiritual recovery and reconciliation is possible this will not only honor the Lord but result in their being the people God created them to be.

(e) Love is based on forgiveness. This is evident in the gift of God’s Son and in His person and work. God is able to love us rather than judge us because of the finished work of His Son—if we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior. Further, that forgiveness is an essential part of love and is the foundation for it is seen in the eighth description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “Love…does not take into account a wrong suffered.” “Take into account “ is the Greek logizomai which means “to keep accounts, calculate.” It was an accounting term used of keeping records. Love does not keep records or hold grudges. It wipes the slate clean. Love forgives.

Love is simply not possible without the healing balm of forgiveness which closes up the wounds that separate and hinder love. For us to be able to love others, we must ourselves first experience and rest in God’s love and forgiveness through Christ and then forgive others as God has forgiven us in Christ (Note Ephesians 4:31; Matthew 6:12f).

(f) Love is illustrated in the parable of the unforgiving and unjust slave (Matt. 18:21-35). The issue in this parable is no matter how much others may sin against us, it will always be trifling in comparison to how we have sinned against the holiness of God and thus insignificant in comparison to what He has forgiven us in Christ. If He has done that much for us, how much more should we not forgive the little others have sinned against us by comparison.

(g) Love is illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This story shows us who our neighbor is and beautifully illustrates how we can show love for others.

(h) Love is epitomized in the gift of God’s Son (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10) and incarnated in His person and work for our sin (see Phil. 2:1f). If we want to see what love looks like then let us look at the Lord Jesus.

(i) Love is the measuring cup of my true spiritual condition. First, love shows the level of my maturity. This is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 13:11. In the context of this verse (chapters 12-14), Paul was telling the Corinthians that their preoccupation with the showy gifts like tongues and their failure to be more concerned about building up the body with gifts such as teaching and prophecy was not only a lack of love, but an evidence of spiritual immaturity and even carnality (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-5). God has given spiritual gifts to each of us, but their purpose is for building up the body. They are designed and given to edify other people and never for self-centered agendas.

Love also reveals the reality of my intimacy with God. This is the point of the apostle John’s exhortation in 1 John 4:7-8, 16. John uses the word “know” in the sense of the intimacy of fellowship, not in the sense of salvation. Compare the Lord’s words to Thomas and Philip in John 14:7-9.

The issue is, how can I truly know and love God if I am not loving others? How well am I loving my spouse, my children, the people in my church, and others around me?

  • This means growing in Christ individually. It means drawing near to God, loving Him and then, out of that environment, bearing fruit where we are planted. It means first taking root downward into our God and then bearing fruit upward into the world around us (cf. Isa. 37:31).
  • For the church this means ministry, servant living—loving our families according to the standards of Scripture and then out of that stable laboratory, reaching out to the church, the body of Christ, and to the world around us starting with our neighborhood, where God has planted us.
  • This also means evangelism, edification, encouragement, involvement, help and concern for others.

No Greater Commandment (vs. 31b)

“There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Finally, the Lord concludes with these words, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (verse 31b). Though short and to the point, this statement has tremendous ramifications. In essence, this concluding statement concerns our perspective and use, study, and application of the Word of God.

The Foundation—The Basic Proposition and Belief

Underlying the question of the Pharisee and Christ’s answer was belief in divine inspiration and thus, the accuracy, inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Scripture. It was the Lord who said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). This meant Scripture is true and that its principles, promises, and purposes are accurate. The Bible works in our lives when believed and applied, and whether man believes it or not, its principles are true, its record accurate, and what it promises will come to pass. Because of this, man is faced with the consequences of his unbelief or failure to live by faith in the teaching of the Bible.

This statement by our Lord in John 10:35 also means that the Bible is authoritative because it is not a word from man, but the Word of God. It represents, “thus says the Lord.”

The basic proposition, then, is that the Bible is God breathed; we have supernatural revelation, the revealed absolutes of God which are essential to both knowing and having a relationship with Him and to moral and social stability. The first command, loving God, is the foundation or framework for the second, loving others. But the mindset of today is strongly against this and this is true to some degree even among many Christians because they have been infected with the world’s mentality. Though intellectually people hold to the inspiration and authority of the Scripture—as did the Pharisees—many today tend to interpret or respond to the Bible according to their comfort zones, personal interests, desires, opinions, or lust patterns.

As a result, people develop all kinds of ways to circumvent the Scripture when it hits too close to home. Fear strikes when our desires are thwarted, when our determination to pursue life the way we want it is hindered, or when we sense God’s call upon our lives. So what happens? We rationalize, we make excuses, or we simply shut our ears and harden our hearts. We may avoid serious study of the Word by stressing fellowship or programs or entertainment. If we are involved in serious Bible study, we may find ways to avoid its application. We may argue that we are in a different culture and it is not applicable to us today or we simply disobey because we think we can always confess it and God will forgive us even though Proverbs 28:13 warns, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes {them} will find compassion.” Perhaps we simply avoid anything which might cause us to become accountable to others in deeper relationships and ultimately have to face up to sin in our lives and make tough choices.

Thus, crucial to what follows is this basic proposition: The Bible is God’s inerrant and authoritative Word which cannot be broken without serious consequences to individuals, to churches, and to nations.

In Mark we read “there is no other commandment greater than these” but Matthew adds this astounding statement, “on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the prophets.” Now what does this mean?

Negative: What this does not mean

Some say that since Christians are no longer under the Law, they are not obligated to its many commands. Instead, it is said, we are obligated to a command—the love command. They maintain as long as we love, anything we do must be moral. That approach—sometimes called the “new morality” or “situation ethics”—is popular both within and outside the church. This naturally exerts a strong appeal to our generation, a generation that is uncomfortable with absolutes, that seeks to do its own thing in its own way, that seeks to do what is right in its own eyes, and would like to be free from conventional moral codes.6

While it is true that we are not under the Old Testament law as a religious code, most of the Ten Commandments are in some way reiterated in the New Testament and are to be obeyed, not as a means of spirituality, but as a result of an intimate walk with Christ through the enablement of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:1ff). Without the rest of the absolutes of God’s Word and its directives, we too easily mistake love for selfishness. We fool ourselves into doing what we want out of so-called humanitarian motives which are often nothing more than self-love and the pursuit of our own selfish desires at the expense of others like our family, our church, and our society.

For instance, a father may consistently spend 60 or 70 hours a week in his business, which means he must neglect his family. He may rationalize this by saying he is providing more for his family, while in reality he is being driven by self-centered longings. Perhaps he is still trying to prove something to his parents or seeking his security in material wealth or personal significance. But he has never faced this as sinful.

Positive: What this does mean

In general, this means that no commandment is greater because these two commands stand to the rest of Scripture as source, sum, substance, and goal. The rest of Scripture is God’s “commentary” on these two responsibilities—loving God completely and our neighbors as ourselves. As God’s commentary on the Scripture, the rest of Scripture provides us with the means, manner, motive, and method for loving.

Without GROWTH in the REALITY of these two commands in our lives, obedience to rest of Scripture will become merely legal demands and burdens that we seek to obey—usually for the wrong reasons. In the process, all our works and ministries become acts of self-love, things we do to feel better about ourselves, for the praise of men, for power over others, or for position.

But what does the Lord mean by the term “depend” when he says “on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the prophets” (Matt 22:40, NASB). The NET Bible has “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” The tense of this verb is the continuous present. It points to that which is always true. “Depend” is the Greek kremannumi which means “to hang, suspend on something,” like a door hangs on hinges or articles hang on a peg. The voice of the verb is passive and looks at what God has done in the writing of His Word. God has hung the whole of Scripture on these two foundational commands and principles of life. This stresses that our ability to properly fulfill the rest of Scripture hinges on our grasp of these two paramount commands as the goal of our study of the Bible. Without the reality of these two, we will miserably fail. Let’s look at some specifics of what this means.

(1) The Principle of Source—the Concept of Internal Controls: Love for God and our neighbor becomes our source and means of obedience in the other commands of Scripture by virtue of internal motives and inner ability to carry out the commands of God. Of course, we obey through the power of God’s love operating in us by the ministry of His Spirit and the joy of His fellowship (cf. Gal. 5:22; 2 Cor. 8:1-5; 1 Thess. 4:2-9), but the hundreds of commands in Scripture are no longer simply duties we must obey. Rather, they become the means for the expression of love through fellowship with God. Note a couple of illustrations:

  • We are not to neglect the assembling together with other believers because it is the means of encouraging each other (Heb. 10:25).
  • One of our responsibilities is giving, but giving is always to be the result of the grace of God at work in the heart—the result of love for God and others (cf. 2 Cor. 8: 1f).

(2) The Principle of Supervision--the Concept of External Controls: We need the imperatives, principles, promises, and guidelines of Scripture as a whole to guide us in the wise expression of God’s love so that love never degenerates into mere sentimentality, self indulgence, or the compromise of righteousness. Fundamentally, the whole of Scripture gives us the revealed will of God in the expression of how we are to demonstrate love. This can be seen in the Old Testament by a comparison of the three codices of the Old Testament Law and their relationship to each other (see also Phil. 1:9-11).

  • Codex I—The Ten commandments. These commandments set forth the basic moral law of God. Commands 1-5 deal with man’s relationship with God (how to love God) and 6-10 deal with man’s relationship to his fellow man (how to love man).
  • Codex II—The Ordinances. This set forth the laws concerning the sacrifices, the priesthood, and the tabernacle. This showed Israel how to maintain a right relationship with the Lord.
  • Codex III—The Judgments. This set forth the social laws which showed Israel how to live in right relationship with one’s neighbor.

(3) The Principle of Substance and Summary--the Controls Defined and Directed: Love for God and for one’s neighbor is the very essence, heart, and substance of the rest of Scripture. Thus, these two commands sum up the heart and goal of the rest of the God’s commands in the Word. In other words, they tell us what we are doing (or should be doing) when we obey God’s word—we are loving either God or people, or both.

Ephesians 5:22-6:9 contains a number of social commands and provides a practical illustration and application for us. For instance: Husbands, love your wives; Wives, submit to your husbands; Children, obey your parents; Parents, bring up your children…; Slaves, obey your masters…; Masters, give up threatening….

But these imperatives must never be divorced from their context in Ephesians.

  • Obedience can be defined in this passage as love for God. It is in reality responding in love and obedience to God—seeking to walk worthily of the Lord who has loved us as His beloved children (cf. Eph. 4:1 and 5:1f with 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another”).
  • Obedience in the home or in the workplace is a product of responding to other controls that occur from the source of personal relationship with God. Love is to have its source in fellowship with God through a Spirit-controlled, Word-filled life (cf. Eph. 5:14ff; Col. 3:1ff).
  • Obedience in the home or in the workplace is a product of God’s direction through other passages of the Word. It gives us the “how,” it describes for us the responsibilities of love and the methods God has chosen according to His perfect wisdom and love (cf. Prov. 13:24).
  • Obedience in the home or workplace is also the product of developing and deepening relationships with one another because these two environments—the home and the workplace—are like laboratories which test the reality of our walk with God and our commitment and willingness to change for the glory of God and concern for others. This is seen, for instance, when we compare Ephesians 4:1 with verse 2.

Summary

The fact that the whole of Scripture hangs on these two commands means that the rest of Scripture is God’s commentary on these two responsibilities and provides us with the means, manner, motive, and method. The other commands are never the end or goal in themselves, but find their meaning and purpose in these two—love for God and love for men who are made in the image of God.

Morality without the knowledge of God and the absolutes of Scripture cannot long exist. Morality must be founded on the reality of God and the absolutes of the Bible or society will crumble like Humpty Dumpty. And apart from God, it can’t be put back together again.

Our passage in Mark 12:28-31 (and its parallel in Matthew 22:37-40) stress the necessity of a heart relationship with God through the Word of God. Love for others can only grow out of the soil of love for God as it is fed and watered by fellowship with God in the streams of the Word (cf. Ps. 1:2). Without this, you and I will end up with a life that is pharisaic, external, sterile, artificial, petty, critical, selfish, and lifeless. Or we will end up being dominated by the control of others. We will find ourselves submitting to please people or to avoid confrontation, but it will not be the product of love for either God or for others. Without fellowship with God, our actions of love, if we have any, will be full of hypocrisy and self-centered goals (Rom. 12:9).

There is, therefore, in these two passages, Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:37-40, the principle of VISION. Vision means seeing as God sees and allowing that sight to direct our path. Having such vision leads to devotion to God, but to have vision we must start with His precious Word and our relationship with Him.


1 Daniel Wallace, Selected Notes on the Syntax of New Testament Greek, 4th ed. (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981), 7.

2 Carl F. Henry, The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society (Multonomah Press, Portland, Oregon, 1984), 15.

3 Henry, 35.

4 Elwood McQuaid, Moody Monthly, Nov. 1986, 14-16.

5 Joe Aldrich, Loving for All You're Worth, 36.

6 For more on this see Renewing Your Mind in a Secular World, p. 148.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians