“ The Greatest Commandment”
Lesson Text:Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Mark 12:28-34
Background Scriptures:Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:1-9; Mark 12:28-34
Devotional Reading: Psalm 15
Leviticus 19:18 (KJV)
18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
28 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?
29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
30 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.
31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
32 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:
33 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.
34 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.
To know that Christlike love is the hallmark of Jesus’ followers.
To emphasize why the two greatest commandments are so important.
Implement a way to keep the greatest commandments always in mind at home, place of work, and church.
Some Things Remain the Same
When one compares what it meant to be God’s people during Old Testament times with New Testament times, we notice that many things change. God’s people are no longer focused on trying to live in Palestine. The practice of circumcision is no longer associated with incorporation into God’s people. Animal sacrifice is no longer required or even adequate to atone for sin.
Instead we see that God’s people are scattered throughout the world in mission (Matthew 28:19, 20); baptism is now associated with the circumcision of the heart as people are incorporated into the church (Colossians 2:11, 12); and the death of Jesus brought an end to the old sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:11-14).
We ought to be careful, however, not to emphasize the differences at the expense of the similarities. For example, God cares about the heart—one’s “internal life”—in both eras. Both old and new covenants reveal God to be a loving God. The truth is, God always has been a loving God. Central to God’s desire for His people is that they model His love toward others.
Times:1445 B.C.; about 1406 B.C.; A.D. 30
Places:Sinai wilderness; Moab; Jerusalem
Our first Old Testament text comes from Leviticus. This book includes many laws that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai; Moses was responsible for passing these on to the Israelites who left Egypt. Leviticus 19:18 is located in the heart of the Holiness Code of that book. This section, spanning chapters 17 to 26, instructed the ancient Israelites how to live holy lives before their holy God.
Our second Old Testament passage is from Deuteronomy. Though Leviticus and Deuteronomy both belong to Torah, the five books of Moses, they were addressed to different audiences. After the first generation of Israelites was not allowed to enter the promised land, Moses had to present God’s laws anew to the second generation, which would enter instead. That’s where Deuteronomy comes in.
After recounting the failure of the first generation in Deuteronomy 1-3, Moses prepared the second generation to renew the covenant in chapters 4-11. Our passage in chapter 6 was a key part of that preparation, and Jesus later acknowledged its ongoing relevance for His followers.
Though only one generation separates our two Old Testament passages, a millennium separates those two from our text of Mark 12:28-34. These verses feature Jesus having one of His most congenial conversations with a Jewish leader. Since Mark 11:27, Jesus had been challenged by priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. They had been coming at Him from every angle, trying to find fault. But the scribe in today’s text asked Jesus a frank question and received a frank answer. That answer drew upon the two Old Testament passages to which we now turn.
The Command to Love Others (Leviticus 19:18)
1. What does it mean to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18)?
To love thy neighbour as thyself is closely connected with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). But this connection can confuse the purpose behind neighbor love, as if we should love others only because we want favorable treatment in return.
Another way to miss the thrust of this passage is to focus on the thyself part. In a culture of self-obsession, it is easy for us to hear this passage saying that we must first focus on loving ourselves because, if we cannot do that, then we will be unable to love our neighbors. But that is not what this passage is saying either.
This passage presumes that humans are accustomed to putting their own needs first. God is telling the people, through Moses, to think that way about other people. This especially applies to fellow Israelites, to whom the term neighbour refers (same as the children of thy people). In the Law of Moses, non-Israelites who live in the land are referred to as “strangers.” An example is Leviticus 19:34, and there God commands the Israelites to love them as well.Therefore, getting along with people, especially our neighbors, isn’t a matter of obeying laws but of having love in our hearts (Lev. 19:18). “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). The new commandment to love one another helps us handle human relationships and treat people the way God treats us (John 13:34-35).
There is one more way to miss the thrust of this passage, and that is by ignoring how it begins and ends. It begins by commanding the original readers not to avenge themselves or to hold grudges (compare Deuteronomy 32:35; quoted in Romans 12:19 and Hebrews 10:30); this implies that the neighbors to be loved aren’t just friends or neutral parties, but also include enemies.
The passage ends with the reminder that the Lord is the one who gives this command; it is not optional. The love that God’s people are to express is grounded not in self-interest but in the identity and nature of God.
Close to Home
Think about how we feel about criminals—even international terrorists—as the news reports them. Sure their crimes are egregious, but what have they ever done to me? We watch, shake our heads, and finish our dinners. Now compare that with the intense emotion we feel when a neighbor’s dog digs up our yard or a friend at church betrays a confidence. The truth is, we are more easily hurt when the offense is closer to home.
I have witnessed people in the same family or the same church merely putting up with each other for years rather than forgiving. They can’t carry each other’s burdens because their arms are full of grudges. I’ve heard Christian people speak as if forgiveness were an extra credit assignment, if you will.
In truth, love and forgiveness are linked. Those two stand at the core of God’s heart. We cannot say we love the God who forgives us in Christ while failing to forgive others, who are created in His image as we are. See Matthew 18:21-35. —V. E.
The Command to Love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
2. What was the purpose of Moses teaching the people to obey God’s law? (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5)
Moses gave two reasons why God wanted each successive generation of Israelites to obey His statutes and commandments: He wanted them to fear Him, and He wanted them to enjoy a long life (Deuteronomy 6:2).
Once more, Moses told the Israelites to “hear” (Deut. 6:4).Even today, this verse is the centerpiece of a prayer that orthodox Jews pray every morning and evening. It is called “the Shema,” taking its name from the first Hebrew word of this verse, which we see translated as hear. In this case the Moses wanted them to listen carefully to a divinely revealed insight: “The Lord our God is one Lord”.Thisdailyconfession by devout Jews all over the world affirms “Jehovah, our Elohim, Jehovah is one.” (See Matt. 22:37-38; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27.) So important is this confession that Jewish boys in orthodox homes are required to memorize it as soon as they can speak. The nations around Israel worshiped many gods and goddesses, but Moses affirmed to all that there is but one true and living God.
Moses, however, was not just making a statement about God. The lawgiver was also giving a command to the people. They were always to worship only the Lord their God and never divide their devotion between the one true God and the false gods. Also, they were to teach their children to do the same. Moses then exhorted the Israelites to love their God with all their heart, soul, and might(v. 5), The Hebrew word that is translated “heart” in this verse is meant to include the mind and will as well as the emotions. Put another way, God wanted all His people’s feelings, thoughts, and decisions to be an expression of their love for Him. God’s people were to love Him with their entire being—that is, their whole self. In every way, their lives were to reflect a kind of love that would not spare even one’s own life for the love of God. Indeed, they were to love Him with all that was in their power. Together, these three terms—heart, soul, and might—demanded total devotion to the one true God, an attitude that was required if a person was to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord.
What Do You Think?
How can the church help people devote themselves ever more fully to loving God?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
In use of time and material resources | In interactions with other people
In lifestyle choices | Other
3. What specific instructions did God give Moses to give to the Israelites? (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7)
Moses linked obedience to God’s commandments to loving God with complete devotion by telling the Israelites to observe the commandments written upon their hearts (Deut. 6:6). The Lord wanted their love for Him to be their motivation for obeying His laws. Thus, He wanted the commandments to be written on their hearts and not only on stone tablets (or our Bibles for that matter). Obedience e should not be the result of formal legalism, but the result of deep affection for the Lord.
Moses also urged the Israelites to teach the commandments of the Lord within their homes-especially to their children. Discussion of these laws was to occur regularly, imparting to future generations an attitude of love for and obedience to God. In addition to teaching the laws to their children, the Israelites were to talk about these commandments outside the home—whether they were sitting, lying down, getting up, or walking along the road (v. 7). Indeed, they were to talk about them constantly. Whether inside or outside their homes, whether during the day or during the night, God’s laws were to pervade every sphere of their lives.
If God’s commands are to permeate the lives of His people, each generation must pass those decrees to the next; there must be no breach in transmitting them. We should realize that Sunday school and youth group are not enough. The world fills our heads with lies so often that unless we constantly remind one another (especially our next generation) of what it means to follow Jesus, we will gradually forget and thereby fail to pass along the message that God has given us.
The Foremost Commandments (Mark 12:28-34)
4. What was the scenario on the day the scribeasked Jesus about the greatest commandment? (Mark 12:28-31)
Jesus has just finished answering difficult questions designed to trap Him (see Mark 12:13-27). One of the teachers of the law who witnessed the ensuing debates was so impressed by what he heard that he asked Jesus a question of his own. The scribe wanted to know which of the commandments was the most important one (12:28). This man’s question seems no different at first since Matthew 22:35 (which is parallel) says that he is “tempting” Jesus. Jewish tradition counts more than 600 commands in the Law of Moses, and this man wants to know which commandment Jesus considers to be most important.
Jesus begins His answer by citing the Shema (see Deuteronomy 6:4, above, which was noted earlier in the lesson). Jesus not only affirmed the uniqueness of God, but also called for a level of obedience to Him that included a responsiveness in action and affection as well as understanding. The Son knew that the Father did not give the Mosaic law to burden people with endless rules, but so that they would love Him. Indeed, obedience should be an outgrowth of love for God. In Mark 12:30, the words “heart, “soul,” “mind,” and “strength” are a way of referring to an individual’s entire being. Expressed differently, every part of us should be involved in our devotion to the Lord.
Jesus is not content to answer the scribe’s question at the level of love for God only. People may profess love for God yet have little regard for their neighbor. Yet Jesus knows that these two cannot be separated. To say we love God while withholding love from a neighbor is a lie (1 John 4:20-21). If we love God, we will experience His love within and will express that love to others. We do not live by rules but by relationships, a loving relationship to God that enables us to have a loving relationship with others. Jesus concluded His answer: “There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).
5. How did the scribe respond to Jesus’ answer about the greatest commandment? (Mark 12:31-33)
When he started this conversation, the scribewas only the tool of the Pharisees who were trying to get evidence against Jesus (note Matt. 22:35). But after he heard our Lord’s answer, the scribe stood and dared to commend the Lord for His reply. The Word had spoken to the man’s heart and he was beginning to get a deeper spiritual understanding of the faith he thought he understood. He is united with Jesus regarding the centrality of love. Even the Old Testament Scriptures taught that there was more to the Jewish religion than offering sacrifices and keeping laws (see 1 Sam. 15:22; Psalm 51:16-17; 141:1-2; Jer. 7:22-23; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8). He now begins to understand that God cares more for how His people treat one another than what sacrifices they offer to Him. Jesus says the same in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.
What Do You Think?
Why do we sometimes fail to show genuine love to neighbors? How can we do better?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Barriers of past experiences | Allowing the urgent to displace the important
Barriers of suspicion | Fears of becoming too involved | Other
6. How did Jesus evaluate the scribe’s spiritual condition? (Mark 12:34)
Jesus is impressed with the scribe’s response! Although the scribe started by “tempting” Jesus (Matthew 22:35), the man ends up acknowledging that Jesus teaches the truth. In fact, this man’s acknowledgement means that he is on the path to understanding God’s heart; this puts the scribe close to Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God.
What does it mean when a person is “not far from the kingdom of God”? It means he or she is facing truth honestly and is not interested in defending a “party line” or even personal prejudices. It means the person is testing his or her faith by what the Word of God says and not by what some religious group demands. People close to the kingdom have the courage to stand up for what is true even if they lose some friends and make some new enemies.
Now that Jesus has shown himself to be adept at escaping traps and is orthodox by Old Testament standards, the questioning comes to an end. If Jesus’ enemies are going to take Him down, they will have to find some other way.
(Continuing with Mark 12:35-37, not in today’s lesson). Now it was our Lord’s turn to ask the questions, and He focused on the most important question of all: Who is the Messiah? “What think ye of Christ? Whose Son is He?”(Matt. 22:42). This is a far more important question than the ones His enemies had asked Him, for if we are wrong about Jesus Christ, we are wrong about salvation. This means we end up condemning our own souls (John 3:16-21; 8:24; 1 John 2:18-23).
Not as Different as It Appears
God wants His people to be set apart by their love for Him and for one another. Is it not true, however, that differences between the Old and New Testaments mean that God wanted something quite different in this regard from Old Testament Israel? How else can we explain the Old Testament focus on Palestine, circumcision, and sacrifices?
An analogy to parenting is instructive. When parents ask different things of their children at different stages in their development, it does not mean that the parents’ ultimate desires for their children are constantly changing. When my children were toddlers, I blocked their access to electrical outlets and warned that they must never touch them. As they grew older, I removed the plastic protectors and taught the children that it is OK to stick appliance plugs into the outlets, but they must never remove the faceplate. Now that they are becoming adults, I am teaching them that it is appropriate to switch off the circuit breaker, remove the faceplate, detach wires, and install a new outlet when the old one needs to be replaced. Though I have taught my children three different ways of relating to electrical outlets, what I have wanted of them from the beginning has never changed.
Lord God, we thank You for Your constancy! Empower us to love as You draw us deeper into Your own love. In Jesus' name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Love God and neighbor.