Pastor David B. Curtis


The Great Commandment

Mark 12:28-34

Delivered 04/01/2007

It is the final days of Jesus' life, He is in the temple at Jerusalem, and representatives of various Jewish groups come to Him asking Him questions. He had answered trick questions from the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and even the Herodians. He had answered them correctly, and He had answered them in a way that showed His authority. He had put them all to silence. And it is in the midst of this situation that one of the scribes comes forward and asks Him a question:

And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" (Mark 12:28 NASB)

The scribes were the experts in studying the Torah. They were not "Temple men" like the Sadducees. They were men of the Word, the people who'd started synagogues after the Exile, and they had three titles: They became known as "scribes," because they preserved the law by writing out copies of the rulings of the ancient Rabbis; secondly, they were called "teachers of the law," because they gathered around them boys and young men in Rabbinical schools instructing them in the law, also lecturing in the courts of the Temple; and thirdly, they were called "lawyers," because they were the men who passed judgment on disputes in the nation.

He and his colleagues often debated which commandment was the greatest. They identified 613 laws in the Old Testament, with 365 negative--"you shall not"­and 248 commandments positive­ "you shall." Many hours were spent debating which were the heavy commandments, and which ones light, which were great, and which were small.

Matthew suggests that he was sent by a group of Pharisees who had come together to see if they could do better than the Sadducees:

But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, (Matthew 22:34-35 NASB)

The Pharisees heard the report "that Jesus had silenced (literally, 'muzzled') the Sadducees," so they came together for the purpose of trying their hand at putting Him into a precarious position. The person asking the question should be seen to be not just one of the Pharisees who recorded the decisions being reached by the Pharisaic discussions, but one who was commissioned to teach the precepts and interpretations based upon the Mosaic Law.

And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" (Mark 12:28 NASB)

He was testing Jesus. This scribe had heard our Lord brilliantly answering the provocative and mischievous questions which His opponents brought Him, and he was emboldened to approach Jesus and ask his own question, which was this: "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" What was this scribe doing when he asked Jesus this question? He was testing Him.

Remember that we said in our past studies that in Jesus' day there were two types of Rabbis. The first were called Torah teachers. A Torah teacher could only teach what the community believed was right. They could not come up with new teachings. In Jesus' world there was also a small group of what are called Rabbis with semikhah. They were masters of the Torah and the Haftorah. Haftorah is a Hebrew word that simply means: "the rest." They were masters of the whole First Testament. The Jews call it the Tanakh. Because of their unique ability to teach Torah and heal, they received what was known as semikhah. Semikhah means: "authority." They had the authority to teach new ideas.

Each of these Rabbis with semikhah had their own way of coming up with new teaching. And that method of interpretation was called their "yoke." The yoke of Torah is the way you take the burden of keeping Torah on your shoulder. You do it according to their method. Every Rabbi had a different yoke. Torah teachers would teach the accepted interpretations, or yoke, of their community.

In Matthews' account he specifically states that the question was asked of Jesus " test Him":

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, (Matthew 22:35 NASB)

The test was not so much to trip Jesus up as it was a test of His yoke. How did Jesus interpret the Torah? If you wanted to know what a Rabbi with semikhah's yoke was, you would simply ask him, "What is the greatest commandment?" The greatest commandment will tell you what his yoke is. What was Jesus' yoke?

Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; 30 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.' 31 "The second is this, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31 NASB)

This was Jesus' yoke. Other rabbi's had other yokes. So the disciples would test the various Rabbis to find out what their yoke was. We see this happening often to Jesus in the Bible. Various people came to Him to test His yoke. They wanted to know if His interpretation fit the Torah. Now, picture that you have these different Rabbis ,with their different yokes, all really trying to understand the Torah, then along comes Jesus and says:

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30 "For My yoke is easy, and My load is light." (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB)

Jesus is saying: Does your yoke tire you out? Come and take My yoke. He was probably not speaking to unsaved people burdened with sin, but people unsure of the many interpretations they heard in the dynamic religious debate in Galilee. What is Jesus' yoke? Love God with everything in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. Is that an easy yoke? Easy to understand, not to do. Yoke gives you the picture of an animal with a yoke pulling a burden. The burden is keeping the will of God, which is going to take hard work. Do you think it is easy to obey God? No, it's difficult, and in order to do it, you must have a yoke. Your yoke is your way of interpreting the Torah.

In Jesus' day there were seven schools of Pharisees. These seven schools of Pharisees all took the Bible literally, but they ranged from the most progressive school, which was the school of Hillel, to the most conservative, very traditional school of Shammai. There were five other schools whose views fell in between these two. These Rabbinic schools were always arguing about how to interpret the Torah or how to determine the proper yoke. The debate always revolved around which is the greatest commandment. The Jews said that the commandments contradict each other by God's design, so they had to know which was greater. For example:

'Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for people. 15 'For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 31:14-15 NASB)

That's clear enough, isn't it? You are not to work on the Sabbath. The Torah also taught:

"You shall not see your countryman's donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up. (Deuteronomy 22:4 NASB)

They were not to let animals suffer. If they saw an animal in trouble, they were to help raise it up. That's clear enough also. But what do they do if they see their neighbor's animal fallen down on the Sabbath? How do they keep one command without breaking the other? This is why they were always asking: Which is the greatest commandment? The greater one they must keep.

With 613 individual statutes of the Torah from which to choose, all the schools of the Pharisees agreed on the greatest commandment­love God! When asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" Shammai's school would answer, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." Hilel's answer would be the same, and so was Jesus' answer. Where did this answer come from?

"Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 "And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NASB)

What did the Jews call this passage? The Shema­which literally means: "Hear!" based on the verbal imperative at the start of the verse. A careful investigation of early sources suggests that Deuteronomy 6:4 must have been the first portion from the Torah that Jesus committed to memory. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 42a), Jewish boys were taught this Biblical passage as soon as they could speak. So all the Rabbinic schools of Jesus' day agreed on the greatest commandment.

When asked, What is the second commandment? Shammai's school would answer: "Keep the Sabbath." They put the Sabbath law above loving your neighbor, because they said the Sabbath was about God. If your neighbor was in trouble on the Sabbath, too bad, you keep the Sabbath. When asked, What is the second commandment? Hillel's school would answer, "Love your neighbor."Jesus' answer was also, "Love your neighbor." Love your neighbor came seventh in Shammai's school.

The debate in Jesus' day was how to interpret the Torah by deciding the greater and lesser commandments. We see this idea of greater and lesser commands in Jesus' words:

"Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19 (NASB)

So Jesus says the two greatest commandment are: Love God and love your neighbor:


Jesus gave the inquiring scribe more than he bargained for! Love God and love man, and you have followed the teaching of Scripture. Yet we balk. To love God supremely and to love man in a corresponding way is no light task. It is a sheer human impossibility! Everything rational in our mind tells us that we ought to have such love. But every irrational thought tells us that we cannot.

One commentator wrote: "We must enter the Kingdom by making our top priority loving God fully. To fall short of experiencing a full love for our Lord is to fall short of the Kingdom." Is he correct? Jesus seems to agree with him. In Luke's account of our text, the lawyer lists the two great commandments, and then our Lord replies:

And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS, AND YOU WILL LIVE." (Luke 10:28 NASB)

Notice the capital letters in the New American Standard Version, which indicate that it is a citation from Leviticus 18:5. The answer of the law is: If you would attain to eternal life by the keeping of the law, then keep the law. Do it and live. Keep on doing it and live.

The words of the law, cited by Jesus, not only require that one keep the law, they require that one keep the whole law perfectly. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. You must not only love your neighbor, you must love him as yourself. The law must be kept, all of it, without any omissions or failures. In other words, in order to be justified under the law, one must be perfect. Listen to what the apostle Paul writes on this point:

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM." (Galatians 3:10 NASB)

Can we love God? Is it possible for man to love God? No! Well then, why does the Law tell me to? What was the purpose of the Law?

because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20 NASB)

The Law shows us that we are sinners and under the condemnation of God. We are all condemned in Adam. We cannot love God, and we cannot love our neighbor as our selves. We are dead in our sin, and our heart is wicked. We love darkness. God must first love us, and only then will we love Him:

Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1 NASB)
and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5 NASB)

When was the love of God "poured out" into our heart through the Holy Spirit? Pentecost! This term "poured out" is also used in:


This love being poured out in our hearts was a fulfillment of the New Covenant that was to be written upon the heart. Only now, since the love of God has been poured out within our hearts, can we love God. This love is the fulfillment of the Law. If God has poured out His love into your heart, then you love God and have fulfilled the command, "Love the Lord your God." You meet the requirements of the Law if you are in the New Covenant:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1 NASB)

The word "condemnation" is the Greek word katakrima, it is only used here and in:

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. (Romans 5:18 NASB)

Because of Adam's one sin, there resulted condemnation to all men. Condemnation did not come as a result of the Law of Moses; it came as a result of Adam's sin. The Law revealed that we were condemned in Adam. But there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ­those in the New Covenant:

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:2-4 NASB)

Believers, please grasp this: The requirements of the Law are fulfilled in us! Did the Law command to Love God and love our neighbor? Yes, it did, and that has been fulfilled in us by Christ's perfect obedience!

For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 NASB)

I'm righteous because of the obedience of Jesus Christ.

in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:4 NASB)

Notice that this verse says that the requirements of the Law are fulfilled in those who "do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the spirit." Does this mean that we are not condemned, and that the requirements of the Law are fulfilled in us ONLY if we live right? NO! Walking according to the flesh is kata sarxa, and Paul uses this to refer to the Old Covenant. Walking according to the flesh is to walk according to the Old Covenant. Walking according to the Spirit, kata pneuma, is to live in the New Covenant. If you have trusted Christ, you are in the New Covenant, you are walking according to the Spirit, and ALL of the Law's requirements have been fulfilled in you. Please grasp this!

Since the requirements of the Law have been fulfilled in us, do we need to love God and our neighbor? Absolutely! Since we are righteous, we are to live righteously. We are to practically live out who we are. And our motivation is gratitude!

What does it mean to love God? If we want to know what it is to love, we must go to the Scriptures:

"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:15 NASB)
"He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him." (John 14:21 NASB)
"If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love. (John 15:10 NASB)

Based on those verses, what would you say it means to love God? If love here is not formally defined as "obedience," it is so closely connected with it that there seems to be no room for anything else:

And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: (1 John 2:3-5 NASB)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. (1 John 5:2 NASB)

It seems that the visible characteristic of love is obedience, and love, itself, is a desire to obey.

The Scriptures also make it clear that our love to God is validated by our love for others:

If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21 NASB)

We cannot truly love God without loving one another. To recognize that there is someone I do not love is to say to God, "I do not love you enough to love that person." Love is truly preeminent­I hope that you see that. To not be a loving person is not some small character flaw, it is to break the greatest commandment; it is to not love God.

Jesus said that love would identify us as His disciples:

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35 NASB)

Please look closely at this verse­is it love that identifies us as Christians? That is not what it says. It says that it is love that identifies us as disciples. What is the identifying mark of a Christian? Faith!

Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1 NASB)

One of the most important and misunderstood distinctions in the Bible is that of a Christian and a disciple. Many see them as synonymous. But I think the Bible makes a distinction between them.

The Scriptures make it quite clear that salvation is a free gift of God's grace, but the Scriptures also teach that discipleship is costly. Salvation is our birth in the Christian life, and discipleship is our education and maturity in the Christian life. All Christians are called to be disciples, but not all are. Jesus taught His disciples, all His disciples, that we are to love one another just as He loves us:

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34 NASB)

I don't think that there should be much argument as to the fact that we are commanded by God to love each other. We know we're supposed to love, but do we know what love is?

Our culture uses the word love to mean just about everything except what the Bible means by it. So Christians are easily misled into thinking love is primarily a feeling, something we fall in or out of. The Biblical word used for love is "agape." Agape was used by the New Testament writers to designate a volitional love (as opposed to a purely emotional love), a self-sacrificial love.

Agape love is a response to someone who is unworthy of love. This concept of love was derived from the cross. God loved the world and gave His son for it. That was a response to unworthy people, to sinners, to those who were His enemies. That is agape. It is a love that proceeds from the nature of the lover, rather than the worth of the person who is loved. It is a love that gives, a love that seeks the best of the object loved. Agape is a commitment of the will to cherish and uphold another person. It is the only word ever used to describe God's love. It is a decision that you make, and a commitment that you have launched upon, to treat another person with concern, with care, with thoughtfulness, and with his or her best interests foremost. That is what love is.

Let's look at a few verses that command us to love:

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, (1 Peter 1:22 NASB)

The Greek word that Peter uses here for "fervently" is ekteos. This Greek word means:"intently". It comes from ektenes, which means: "without ceasing." We are to intently love each other without ceasing.

Look at what the writer of Hebrews told believers:

and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, (Hebrews 10:24 NASB)

He says, "Let us consider another." The word "consider" is from the Greek word katanoeo. Katanoeo is a compound word composed of kata, which means: "down" and noeo, which means: "to exercise the mind." It has the idea of thoroughly and carefully noticing someone or something. A good English equivalent would be: "to contemplate." Do you "thoroughly and carefully notice others"?

This exhortation to consider is not given to the church elders­it is given to all believers. We all are to "consider one another." We are to look to the needs, problems, struggles, and temptations of one another. The spirit of rugged individualism so prevalent in America is wholly incompatible with the church of Jesus Christ. American believers think that they have discharged their responsibility to the Lord because they are individually living in holiness, but they are wrong. We are not only to look out for our own lives, but we are to consider others. Christianity is others oriented! But most of us care only about meeting our own needs; we ignore the many instructions in the Bible about our responsibility to others. Do you realize that individually you and I are personally responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of each other? Do you understand that? Look at just a few of the ways that the Bible says we should be involved in each other's lives:

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing [Greek: noutheteo; to put in mind, to caution or reprove gently, warn] one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 NASB)
Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, [Greek: oikodomeo: to be a house-builder, to construct] just as you also are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NASB)
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve [Greek: douleuo:to be a slave to] one another. (Galatians 5:13 NASB)

The kingdom of God is not designed for believers to exist in isolation from each other; we are interdependent. We need each other if we are truly going to be what God has called us to be. Each believer has unique abilities and insights that are invaluable for ministering to the body of Christ. Christianity is to be lived out in community, and God has created us to be dependant both on Him and on one another. God said in Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for a man to be alone." That principle does not only apply to the marriage relationship; none of us has the spiritual wherewithal to go it alone in our Christian lives:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 NASB)

We need each other, because that is how the Lord created us. We are to teach, to serve, and to bear the burdens of one another.

I think that the contemporary church is miserably failing to love. We are really not much different than the world. We come to a meeting on Sundays, and we chat with and hang out with our friends. Then we go home, and during the week, we talk to and hang out with those we are comfortable with. How much time during the week do you spend loving others, besides your friends? Don't the unsaved also love their friends?

Look at what Paul told the believers in Rome:

Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Romans 15:7 NASB)

The word "accept" is the Greek word proslambano, which means: "to take to one's self, to take into friendship." It is an intense word, it means: "to grant one access to one's heart, to take into friendship, communion." So Paul is saying: Take intimately to yourself one another:

"He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. (Matthew 10:40 NASB)

How you receive another believer is how you receive Christ and the Father. We are to accept our brothers in Christ even though they are different from us. We tend to receive only those who are like us, and we reject or exclude all those who are different.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Ephesians 5:1-2 NASB)

Christ received us unconditionally. Were we worthy of it? No, not at all. When a believer refuses to accept into his heart another believer, he is saying in effect, "I know Christ has received them, but I require more, I have a higher standard." We're to be like Christ, but are we?

You may be saying to yourself, "I just don't have time for others, I'm too busy taking care of me and my responsibilities." I'm sure many of you feel that way, but I don't feel that it is a legitimate excuse for not ministering to others. We all have our own stuff to deal with, but notice what Paul told the Philippians:

do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4 NASB)

The word "look" is from the Greek word skopeo, it means: "to fix the attention upon with desire for, and interest in." We are to be looking out for others; looking to meet the interests of others and not just ourselves. We need to hear this; we are so consumed with ourselves that we have no time for others.

Timothy fleshed this out, Paul said this of him in:

For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:20-21 NASB)

Notice that he doesn't say that others care for themselves and not you, but others care for themselves and not for Christ. To be concerned for other Christians is to be concerned for Christ; to love Christ is to love His people.

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