In January of 1999, a friend and I had saved up some money to do some backpacking in Europe. It was quite an experience and one that led me to tell my parents that I don’t think I’d let my children take the same trip. It led to a great number of stories that I continue to tell. One of the highlights of the trip, however, was our arrival in London.
We had come from Scotland (where we were visiting with Ray and Tammie Van Neste), and so we entered London on a train underground. Getting off the train, we were surrounded by concrete walls and dimly lit areas all around. And I can’t remember if we surfaced in that area or got on another train before coming out into the city, but I do remember the first thing we saw. After exiting the train and walking through the underground areas, we walked up some stairs in the middle of Trafalgar Square, where the first thing we saw was a monument known as Nelson’s Column that stands 170 feet from top to bottom. It was quite an entrance into the city and seemed to scream, “Welcome to London.”
But the reality was, I’d been in London for a while prior to seeing that huge monument. All the time I was on that train underground, I was in London. All the time we were walking through the underground tunnels before we surfaced, we were in London. But at the same time, it’s more than fitting to say that my ascent up those subway stairs into the middle of Trafalgar Square was my entrance into London because though I was in the midst of the city while underground, the glory of the city was hidden from me. Sure, above my heads were the old buildings, glorious monuments, and all of the bells and whistles that make up the city, but until I went up those stairs out from the underground tunnels, it was all hidden from me. Walking into Trafalgar Square, though, was a moment in which all the darkness was scattered, what was concealed was now revealed, and what had been impossible for me to behold while underground was now clear to see.
I mentioned last week that I think that’s what Mark wants us to see Jesus doing in Mark 11:27-12:44. Jesus is pulling back the veil so that what has been somewhat concealed is now unveiled, what has been a bit difficult to see is now being made clear. Last week, we saw the first part of Jesus doing this as he pulled back the veil and exposed the hearts of the religious leaders who were rejecting Jesus as Lord. He showed that they had no part among God’s people, were unwilling to believe, were rebelling against God, and were remaining in ignorance because of their refusal to bow the knee to Christ.
This week we see that Jesus pulls back the veil a bit to show us more. Specifically, we’ll see that Jesus reveals what is the greatest commandment from God and he reveals more precisely who he is. These are central issues to the Christian faith. And after Jesus reveals each of these central realities (which end this period of being questioned/challenged by the religious leads), he points us to a picture of one who does not live according to these central truths and to one who does. So, I want us to begin by looking at 12:28-34, where . . .
Jesus reveals the greatest commandment (vv. 28-34)
After Jesus had answered the challenges of the Sanhedrin, including the Pharisees and Sadducees, a scribe took notice that Jesus had answered them well and had his own question. Now, it’s not entirely clear whether the question was to challenge Jesus or was sincere. But the question he asks is, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (v. 28). And while we’re used to Jesus challenging the questioner, pointing out his hypocrisy, or doing something so as not to give a clear, direct answer, in this case Jesus answers very clearly and directly, saying, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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.’ The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (vv. 29-31).
Now, it may have been a debate among religious leaders (and that may be why Jesus is asked the question), but Jesus does not allow any lack of clarity on the issue. There are no commandments above the commandment to love God and love our neighbors. Jesus quotes the foundational verses in the law from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (known as the “Shema”) and Leviticus 19:18.
Interestingly, the scribe was in complete agreement, responding, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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” (vv. 32-33). And Jesus confirmed the wisdom of his answer, noting that he was not far from the kingdom (v. 34). That is, greater than anything one does in offering sacrifices is actually obeying the call to love God and love one’s neighbor with one’s thoughts, words, actions, and lives.
And before considering why Jesus said that the man was “not far” from the kingdom of God, let’s just consider Jesus’ answer for a second. After all, Jesus is revealing to us the commandment which is above all else. We are to love our God with our all (that’s what heart, soul, mind, and strength represent) and to love our neighbor as ourselves. There are no commandments greater than these.
There are a few observations I want to make about Jesus’ answer. The first of these is that these two commandments are inseparable. Take the first – the command to love God. Well, we are told elsewhere by Jesus that if we love God we’ll keep his commandments. And many of his commandments relate to our neighbors. We’re not to murder them, steal from them, covet their possessions, etc. So, loving God really requires that we love our neighbors. Now, consider the second. We do not rightly love our neighbors unless we point them to God, to his Word, to his commands. In fact, one necessary way we love our neighbors is by pointing them to the requirement that they love God. To claim we love our neighbors while not pointing them to God and to obedience to him is an empty claim. It is like claiming we want one to live a long and healthy life while pushing them out the window of a ten-story building. Loving your neighbor requires that you point him to love God. So, these two commandments are inseparable. Obeying either command requires obeying both.
The second observation that I want to make about Jesus’ answer is that love is at the center of both commands. We are to love our God, and we are to love our neighbor. Now, this isn’t a case where in the New Covenant, on this side of the death and resurrection of Christ, there are no longer any laws. There are still laws. It is true that a number of laws in the Old Covenant are not found in the New (e.g., the prohibition against sowing two different seeds in the ground together), however, this does not mean that there is no such thing as law in the New Covenant. We are still commanded not to commit adultery, not to murder, not to steal, etc. However, throughout all of God’s covenants with his people, there has always been a call to something greater than external obedience to his laws. We are to love him, and we are to love our neighbors. This means that if we go through the external actions of serving God and serving our neighbors, for example, but have no affection for our God or our neighbor in our hearts, then we are not truly obeying the call of God. The command of God is that we love him and our neighbors and that our obedience flows out of love.
Finally, the call to love God and to love our neighbor means that in areas of freedom from specific laws, we must look for ways to love God and our neighbor. This means that it is insufficient merely to ask questions like, “Is there a law against doing this?” or “Is there a law against doing that?” That is definitely a good starting point on any issue. After all, if there is a law against something, we must not do it. You don’t have to pray about whether to commit adultery or not. There is a law against it.
However, take the example Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8. Let me just point you to the entire chapter as an application of the love command we see Jesus giving here. In that chapter Paul writes, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do [that is to say, there is no law commanding us to eat certain foods or not to eat certain foods]. But take care that this right [i.e., freedom from any specific law concerning food] of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
Do you see what Paul says here? There is no law saying that he can’t eat meat, even if it has been sacrificed to an idol. There’s no god in that meat that would defile him. He has freedom to eat or not to eat. However, because he is called to love God and to love his neighbor, it is not enough for him to ask if there is a law against eating meat sacrificed to an idol. Rather, he must go beyond that and ask, “Is my action building up my brother or tempting him to do evil?” And Paul determines that if his action will not build up his brother but cause him to stumble, then Paul won’t do that action – not because there’s a law against the action (in the case of eating meat, there isn’t) but because he is called to love God and to love his neighbor.
In the same way, the priority of love means that this must be our question as well. In areas where we have rights or freedom from any specific law, even then, we still let love be our guide. That is the call to a follower of Christ. We must love our God with our entire being, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves. In this, Jesus has revealed what is the greatest commandment.
But he doesn’t stop there. Next, . . . .
Jesus reveals who he is – the Lord (vv. 35-37)
Now, to this point in the gospel, Mark has made clear who Jesus is, and we’ve heard Jesus declare who he is by several different means. But we’ve also seen Jesus quieting individuals who revealed his identity. Sometimes when one would say that he is the Son of God, for example, he would tell them to tell no one. So, there’s been a bit of a shroud over the identity of Jesus before the crowds. But that is not the case here. In verses 35-37, Jesus pulls back any veil and forces the people to recognize who he is. And the way he does it is by asking them a question he doesn’t answer.
First, he quotes David’s words from Psalm 110:1, noting that David wrote these words as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Specifically, the text reads, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” (v. 36). Then Jesus says, “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” (v. 37).
Now, to orient ourselves a bit, all those knowledgeable of the Old Testament Scriptures knew that the Messiah would be David’s Son. We remember that God promised to raise up one of David’s descendants to be King over his eternal kingdom back in 2 Samuel 7. So, the Messiah was known as the Son of David. However, Jesus points out that in this psalm, David refers to the Messiah as his Lord.
So, the question is, “If the Messiah is David’s son, then why does he refer to him as Lord in Psalm 110:1?” And Jesus doesn’t answer. Why? I think Jesus doesn’t answer because he wants the crowd to answer for themselves. And the clear answer is that the Messiah is not just the Son of David; he is David’s Lord. And if he’s David’s Lord, then he is their Lord as well. That’s who Jesus is. He is the Lord. He is God the Son.
So, let’s back up a minute and return to an earlier question. Why does Jesus say that this scribe with whom he dialogs in verses 28-34 is “not far” from the kingdom? Why is he “not far” from being saved instead of being saved? And the answer is that though his heart is rightly recognizing the nature of God’s commands, he still must recognize who Jesus is and bow the knee to him. He is not yet in the kingdom because he needs to recognize that in having this conversation with Jesus, he is having a conversation with the Lord of all the universe.
And that’s the case with us as well. The call to love our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves is a command not given to us by a peer; it is a command given to us by our Lord. This means that when Jesus gives us commands, he doesn’t intend for us to think of them as optional, does he?
This means that when obedience to Christ, love for God, and love for our neighbor cost us, and we want to do something besides obey, we must simply ask ourselves, “Who is the one who commands us?” And the answer is that he is our Lord – he is our Ruler! He is our rightful God and King. No competing desire or want can trump obedience. This means that if it seems like there is a path to glorious bliss that you see but it is disobedience to the Lord to walk that path, then you must not go down that road. And the reason you must not go down that path is not because you are able to reason out all the dangers that could be down that path that you can’t perceive or are able to see the glories of going down another path. The reason you do not go down that path is because God has commanded you not to, and if he has done so, our call is to obey.
So, if we take these two realities together – Jesus being the Lord and the greatest commandment being to love our God with our everything and to love our neighbor as ourselves – then I think we can see Mark 12:38-44 as two examples: one where this is not picture and one where it is (a negative and positive example of Jesus’ teaching, if you will).
In the first section (vv. 38-40), we see that . . .
Jesus reveals a picture of hypocrisy (vv. 38-40)
After being challenged and attacked by the scribes (see 11:27-28), Jesus turns on the offensive in 12:38-40. In these verses, we are told that Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The scribes were a group that had a place of honor as religiously elite. They had long robes. They were honored in the marketplace. They were given the best seats and places of honor. They made long prayers in public and supposedly ministered to many. These are all things that we would perhaps see today. We are in fact commanded to give honor to those who labor over us as elders (1 Timothy 5:17). However, they were not laboring out of love for God or love for their neighbors.
Sure, they prayed. But their prayers were simply in order to look good before others. They perhaps even did things for others. Supposedly scribes would pray for individuals who would pay them so that they might have taken the time to come and pray for widows for a price. But Jesus sees their hearts and tells us that they were devouring others. They are doing all kinds of religious stuff but they had no love for God and no love for their neighbor.
And it’s good for us to consider this. After all, we’re not above being tempted by honor and money. We might like the thrill of public ministry because of the honor people bestow on us. Maybe we like hearing people telling us what a good teacher we are or what a servant we are. Maybe we see certain ministry paths as an opportunity for riches, which is what we’re really after. And if that’s the case, we need to repent. Ministry for the sake of prestige and/or riches is an abomination before God. It reflects no love for God or neighbor.
So, maybe it’s good for us just to ask ourselves some questions: “Are we willing to minister even when it brings no praise and no money because we love God and our neighbor?” or “Do we minister, groaning and complaining that it doesn’t bring the honor and money that we so desperately want?” If our answers to these questions expose a heart that craves honor and/or money, let us repent this morning and pray that God might shape us by love for him and love for neighbor.
But Jesus also gives a positive example. In verses 41-44 . . .
Jesus reveals a picture of trust in the Lord (vv. 41-44)
As Jesus sat down in the temple, he watched as people put money in the offering box. Several rich people put in large sums. But then a poor widow came by and put in a couple of coins that together only totaled a penny. But Jesus called his disciples together and praised her, saying, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (vv. 43-44).
What Jesus shows is that it’s not necessarily what one gives of his or her finances that shows our heart most clearly but what is left after we give. The person who has billions and gives a hundred thousand dollars will indeed give enough to do much and impress many. But the Lord does not look on the amount of our offerings as much as he does our trust in him.
This widow was completely dependent on the Lord. In fact, there is no command in the Old or New Testament that forced her to give both coins. She would have been fine giving one. That would have been half of all she had to live on! But she gave all. Her heart was driven by trust in the Lord.
In the same way, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9 that each of us must give as we’ve decided in our hearts. It must not be under compulsion. There is no specific law under the New Covenant that tells us what amount we must give. But know this: the Lord loves a cheerful giver. The Lord will allow those who reap bountifully to sow bountifully. The Lord is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. Your giving will supply the needs of the saints and overflow in thanksgiving to God. Many will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your gift (2 Cor. 9:6-13).
So, no, there is no law on how much you should give. There is no law in the New Covenant that names what percent of your income you must give to the work of the kingdom. However, we must ask ourselves, “Does our giving reflect the kind of trust of the Lord that claim we have? Does our generosity reflect our love for God and his people? Or does our money show that we have another lord to whom we are more willing to bow to than the Lord Jesus Christ?
This morning, we’ve seen that the greatest commandment given to us by our Lord is that we love God and our neighbor. And this means that we must not do external acts while walking hypocritically or without affection for God and our brothers and sisters in our hearts. It means that we must trust him, which is especially clear in our finances. So, what then should be your response to this text this morning?
Whatever your specific conviction, one thing we all need to do is consider the gospel. After all, our love for God and neighbor stems from understanding God’s love for us, and God’s love for us is scene most clearly in the act of sending his Son to take on flesh, live a perfect life, die for our sins, and rise from the dead on the third day so that we who believe in him might have eternal life. Consider that reality. And as we consider the gospel, let it be your foundation this morning to live your life in full trust of the Lord Jesus, who died for us, rose for us, lives for us, and will one day come and get us, holding fast to his trustworthy word. So, let us come to the table this morning with our actions of eating and drinking being our proclamation that we have heard the Word this morning and we receive it in faith. Amen.