The Simplicity of Obedience (Mark 12:29-31)
The Simplicity of Obedience
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
January 15th, 2017
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail …Simplify. Simplify.”
Those are the words of Henry David Thoreau, the American writer, who in the early 19th century, for two years, lived alone and isolated by the shore of Walden Pond in the woods of Massachusetts.
Simplify. Do you have any interest in simplifying your life? Does that sound appealing to you? Do you feel like we tend to complicate things, even spiritual things? In terms of the purpose of your life, what would God have you do? We need answers, don't we?
But where will you go to find your answers? Out into the woods like Thoreau? Well, to discover answers it is helpful to use another quote by Thoreau’s: [he said] we must “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms”. “Simplify. Simplify.”
I believe Henry David Thoreau is right, not because he's my favorite spiritual advisor, but because that’s exactly what Jesus himself does in our passage this morning.
Take your Bibles and turn with me, if you haven’t done so already, to Mark chapter 12.
II. The Passage: "No Commandment Greater" (12:29-31)
We've already heard three verses from Mark 12, our key memory verses. But let's look together at the larger context of those verses, but looking at verses 28-34. Let me read those:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
So what do we see here? We see a scribe coming to Jesus, listening in as Christ interacts with the Sadducees back in verses 18-27. From what we can tell, the scribe’s doesn’t seem to be motivated by jealousy or ill-will. He seems to ask Jesus this question because he recognizes that there is wisdom in the words of Christ. But why does he ask this question?
Well, the Mosaic Law consisted of 613 different commandments. And Jewish teachers had long argued with one another about which law, which command or commands were more important. Some said all the commandments were equally important. Others argued that this or that command was more crucial.
But notice Jesus does not hesitate in responding. For Him the answer is obvious. And it should have been for them as well, seeing as how they recited His answer twice every single day! You see, the greatest of all the OT commandments came from Deuteronomy chapter 6, from a section recited daily by faithful Jews everywhere, even today; a confession called the Shema. It's exactly what Jesus quotes in verse 29 and 30.
Now, I want you to notice something here. Do you see how Jesus takes advantage of this opportunity? Jesus is not simply humoring a peripheral question asked by a scribe with misplaced priorities. This scribe has asked a fantastic question, and Jesus makes the most of the opportunity by giving not just the greatest commandment, but the second most important command as well.
What I’m saying is that this is not just a question that was important to the scribe. It is a question that was and is important to Jesus. Why? Because in it, Jesus has the opportunity to simplify the issue of man’s highest end before God.
And did you notice, the scribe understood the importance of Jesus’ answer. His response to Jesus in verse 33 reveals that this man recognized how obedience to these commands was far more important than obedience to all of the sacrificial laws of the OT. Such laws were worthless if a worshiper’s heart was not aligned with the greatest law.
So what do we see in this passage? Using this man's question, Jesus has “drive[n] life into a corner and reduced it to its lowest terms”. What would God have you do? He would have you love; to love Him and to love others. If you want to gauge your spiritual health, this is the metric; this is the standard, the measurement: are you obeying these commands?
III. Simple, But Not Simplistic
Now even though there is something beautiful and instructive about the simplicity of this idea, it is not simplistic. There is amazing depth here. To really dig down, we need to take a closer look at Jesus’ answer in verses 29-31. To understand His response, I’d like to look at four characteristics of Jesus’ answer about the greatest commandment. Ready?
The first thing I want you to notice is the Comprehensiveness of Jesus’ answer.
He calls you and me to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart (not just part of your heart) with all of your soul (not just part of your soul), with all of your mind (not just part of your mind), and with all of your strength (not just part).”
Now it might be interesting to break this down even further and ask, “How do I [for example] love God with all of my mind?”, but we don’t want to miss the point of the Hebrew idiom, the figure of speech that Deuteronomy is using (remember, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6).
What Jesus is calling us to do is to love God with everything we are. Everything! That means that our love is not divided between this and that; even if God is still getting a good size portion of it , maybe even the majority of you, it's not enough. He wants all of you.
Jesus is calling us to love Him above all else, to serve Him and Him alone, to put him first in everything we do. Why? We love Him with everything we are, with everything we have, because He alone is worthy of such a love. Anything else would be an unhealthy counterfeit.
The purpose of our life is an all-consuming, an all-encompassing, an overarching purpose that demands that at all times, in every place, with every thing, in whatever way, we are to love God. That is the comprehensiveness of the greatest commandment.
But, second, we also need to consider the Composition of Jesus’ answer.
As we see here, Jesus did answer the scribe's question, but that answer included two parts. Not only did Jesus call us to love God with every fiber of our being, but He also called us to love our neighbor as ourself.
But why is that? Why did Jesus feel compelled to add a second commandment, a commandment about loving others? Isn’t this going against the idea of simplicity? Instead of one ultimate goal for my life, now I have to juggle two? I have to figure out how to love God and others? And if I’m supposed to give all my love to God, what’s left for those around me?
Well, according to Scripture, our love for others is not in addition to our love for God. Our love for others is the result of our love for God. It is not an extra love, but an expression of the love we have for God.
And it is for us, broken human beings, a corrective commandment, a commandment of clarity. Listen to this: the second commandment helps us to test whether or not the first commandment is really being lived out in our lives.
Yes, loving God involves giving our heart to God in all things. But it also means receiving God’s heart in return. And God’s heart, as we know from Scripture, is concerned with the welfare of human beings, so much so, that He “gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
As the Apostle John would later write:
If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (I John 4:20, 21)
When you truly love God, you will love the things that God loves, which includes those who were made in His image. But there's more here in terms of the relationship between the two commandments Jesus talked about here.
Third, think for a minute about the Construction of Jesus’ answer.
There is an order to Jesus' two-part answer. It has a ‘first’ and a ‘second’. And it has a first and second for a reason.
Just as the second commandment is meant to be a result of the first, so also is the first meant to be the rule for the second. Just as the second is a test of the first, so too is the first a template for the second. What I mean is this: we cannot hope to truly love others, to truly love those around us, if we do not first love God.
Not only does our love for God fuel the fire of the love we give away, but it also shapes the love we share with those around us. When we try to love others apart from God, our love become shaped by our own wisdom and by how the world defines love. You might consider yourself a loving person, but is the love you are showing to others the same love that God describes in his word?
Is our love sacrificial? Is our love centered on the other’s good and not on any benefit we might receive? Is our love willing to speak the truth? Is our love more than just emotions? Is our love always striving to direct the other person to Christ?
We cannot get the order of these commandments reversed. And we cannot simply ignore the order and separate these commandments. We need to hold onto the construction of Jesus' answer, as well as the way it's constructed: first, then second.
But there's one more thing I want to point out about Jesus' answer here: consider the Command-ness of His response.
Even though “command-ness” is not a real word, I want to emphasize something very real about Jesus' answer: Jesus is talking explicitly about a commandment. That's exactly what the scribe was asking. But if that's true, we might ask the question, can you really command love? Can you really command someone to love God? Can you really command someone to love another human being?
The reason we might find this question a bit sticky is that we've been brought up in a culture that usually equates love with a feeling. But when we come back to the word of God with our culture’s ideas about love, we find that definition to be severely inadequate, and even more than that, severely misleading.
When the Biblical writers call God’s people to love God and to love others, they do not proceed to describe how love feels, they proceed to describe how love looks.
Listen to how the Apostle Paul, in keeping with Jesus’ answer in Mark 12, listen to how he describes love for the Christians in Rome:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Did you see Paul's description of how love looks? If you love someone, you don’t cheat with their wife or husband, you don’t take their life, you don’t take what belongs to them, and you don’t jealously long for what they have. That is one aspect of what loving looks like.
In the same way, listen to how the Apostle John describes our love for God in His first letter:
This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. (I John 5:3, 4)
C.S. Lewis said, “…love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will…”
That doesn't mean there are not feelings involved. Love is a matter of the heart, the soul, the mind, and our strength. It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees and scribes who made obedience for obedience sake the test of loving God, without considering, without challenging the commitments of one’s heart. The great heroes of faith in the OT were passionate about God. They delighted in Him. They longed for Him. They worshiped Him.
So love involves both actions and the attitude of our heart. But when the attitude of our heart is not characterized by love, we are still called to act in a loving manner. And when you act in a loving manner, you will find that the Spirit is at work on the attitude of your heart.
III. Doing the Word
Years ago, when all I was doing was walking from one room in our house to another, God filled my heart with these truths. Even though my feet were merely walking, my mind was racing. I was thinking about my faithfulness as a servant of God. I was taking my spiritual temperature. I asked myself, “had I been in the word that day, had I been praying, had I been sharing my faith, was I giving financially, was I serving my wife, how was my thought life, was I being faithful in my ministry, etc., etc.?”
Question after question came pouring out. And good questions. Important questions. All but the most important question. But that’s what came to me. It was as if a flood of noise suddenly went silent, and a still, small voice whispered: “Do you love God with everything you are? Do you love those around you with His love?”
That’s it. That’s it. Simplicity. And I stopped in my tracks, and I was reminded of how simple it all is.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians and reminded them: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)
The Bible is the most powerful expression of God's One Truth. As we have seen this morning, as we see every Sunday morning, through His word, God reveals amazing things to us. But it ultimately does us no good if we do not submit to it, if we do not allow it to change us, if we do not obey it. As James said, But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)
But this is precisely where we must simplify. Instead of running through a laundry list of spiritual indicators and feeling overwhelmed by God's call in every area of your life, instead of opening yourself up to temptations to rote obedience and legalistic mindsets, simply come back to these commandments. Meditate on them. Let them direct your focus back to God. Let them remind you of what matters most.
Make it your goal to unpack them. What will it look like for you to love God with everything you are...today? What will it mean for you to love your neighbors, to love those around you, to love those in your circle, whoever they are, what will it mean to love them...today?
This morning, we have only scratched the surface of this incredibly foundational passage. But this is where it all must begin: for the glory of God, obedience to the greatest commandments.
And such obedience can only be powered by one engine: the Holy Spirit of God working through the new heart that is yours, or can be yours, through the cross of Jesus Christ. Think about this: Jesus perfectly fulfilled these commandments in His death. On the cross, He gave everything for the glory of God, as an expression of His love for God. And He died because of His love for us.
And so, when we trust in Jesus' perfect and powerful obedience on the cross, we will find the power to obey. It's simple: by grace alone, through faith alone.
Brothers and sisters, simplify! Simplify!
other sermons in this series