This is the third time a religious leader comes to the Lord Jesus Christ with what he thought was a hard question to answer. Jesus had put to silence the foolishness of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, now it was the turn of the Scribes. Little did these questioners know that Christ’s answer to their riddles would be a source of blessing for all who love and read God’s word. The words of Judges 14:14 are certainly true here, “Out of the eater came forth meat.”
The superior commandment
“And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).
This man’s words might sound very sincere, but there was insincerity in his heart, “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him” (Matthew 22:35). We do not know what answer the Scribe was expecting from Jesus. Maybe he thought that the Lord would commend him for knowing and observing all the commandments. He was not only told what the greatest commandment was, but was also shown which one came after it. These two statements of Jesus actually encapsulate the Ten Commandments. The first four deals with loving God, while the six that follow speak of our interaction with our fellow man (see Exodus 20:1-17). God only gave Israel Ten Commandments, but the scribes had divided them into 613 precepts – 248 do’s and 365 don’ts. To them Sabbath observance, circumcision, sacrifices, and religious clothing were considered to be of the greatest importance, so when the scribe asked which was the “first commandment” he was asking which of the 613 was the most important. Jesus cut through the added laws to the kernel of truth. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
Religious people major in one or the other of these two commandments. They will either claim to love God and show no concern for man, or they will be very humanitarian but have no heart after God. It is impossible to please God by obeying one and neglecting the other. These two commandments are the sum total of worship, holiness, godliness and justice. Love for God must include love for our fellow man who is equally the creation of God as we are. “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). No wonder Paul also writes, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
The direction of our love must always be toward God first. For it to be in any other direction our lives will be heading for disaster. No one and nothing ought to take this “First love” away from the Lord (Revelation 2:4). Our attitude should be like that of the psalmist when he said, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee” (Psalm 73:25). We may err in our affections either in our thinking or actions by going beyond what is required for our fellow man, but there can never be any excess in our love toward God. He is worthy of all our love. The one who is truly blessed is he that seeks to obey these two commands of Christ.
Can we honestly say that we love God the way we should? Just like the legalist, we often try to prove that we honour God by doing everything He commands without actually loving Him from the heart. Obedience to the law has never made anyone righteous in the eyes of God. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one … Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:10, 20). The only person who can truly obey the commandments is the one who loves and puts God first in his life.
The sad condition
“And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question” (Mark 12:32-34).
It is clear that this Scribe understood what Jesus was talking about. He realised that the Lord was no mere ignorant carpenter from Nazareth, but was a master of the word of God. According to Christ this man was not far from the Kingdom of God. Would he take the next step and become a follower of Christ or would his position hold him back? Scripture tells us nothing more about this Scribe, so we must conclude that he rejected his Messiah. Maybe the sad condition of his heart was summed up in the words of John 12:43, “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” The Scribe probably died outside of the Kingdom of God.
There are multitudes both in the church and the world, who knowing much about Scripture, are not far from the Kingdom. No matter how near a person may be to salvation, he will be eternally lost if he does not accept Christ as Saviour. Being religious yet unconverted is probably the saddest spiritual condition to be in.
There is a warning here for us too. We must be certain that we are not pinning our hope of salvation on intellectual knowledge and religious duty. We may know and believe that the Scriptures are absolute truth, but unless we receive them into our hearts and be guided by them in our lives, we are deceiving ourselves. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). “Not far from the Kingdom of God” is not good enough for salvation. Paul says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is possible to place ourselves in the same sad condition as the Scribe, “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1).
Which commandment is the most important? Since Jesus, instead of subdividing the commandments into 613, revealed that there are only two basic commands, it is easy to see which is the most important. Both of them are vital of vital importance to the true follower of Christ, for it is impossible to obey the first without applying the second. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).