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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Hear, O Israel

Mark 12:28-37

It is easy to get the impression from the New Testament that Jesus was some sort of radical, out to overthrow “the system.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus is the author of “the system.” He has come to complete it. As such, he will affirm the truth of the Old Testament consistently. In today’s passage we see the supreme example of Jesus being orthodox.

(Mark 12:28-34 NIV) One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" {29} "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. {30} 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: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." {32} "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. {33} To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." {34} When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

God is one

In most of the discussions of this text the opening statement is skipped. Indeed, in Matthew’s parallel account[1] he omits this opening statement. It is, however, found in the original from the Old Testament.[2] It is also extremely important in the mind of the Jews, for it calls up the oneness of God.


We often use the word “integrity” to mean uprightness, and that is perfectly correct. Its original meaning (from the same root as “integer”) is “oneness.” It means that the person who possesses integrity is not double minded; not this way one day and that way the next. Integrity, in the sense of being one, is a key attribute of God. Like all the attributes of God, it flows out from his character. We are told that the native and the alien are to be treated alike.[3] Why? Because God is one. He cannot be a different God to the alien and the native.

The concept becomes important when we consider the nature of sin and evil. God is righteous; indeed, God is righteousness itself. He cannot tolerate sin and evil. But God is love; therefore He must love the sinner (which means me). In our lack of integrity we “put up with” the conflict. In his integrity Christ comes to seek and save the lost.

God is his attributes

The philosopher of the New Testament is the Apostle John. More than any other writer he grasps the inner nature of God. This is not surprising; he was Jesus’ closest friend on earth. In his writings he makes three interesting statements:

·         God is light.[4]

·         God is Spirit.[5]

·         God is love.[6]

The phrasing seems unique to John, but it has influenced the church for centuries. Thomas Aquinas later crystallized our thinking on it: God is his attributes. God is love; he is also righteousness. We might in our day say that he is “pure” righteousness. He is light, there is no darkness in him. So in dealing with God there is no possibility of mixture or compromise. His integrity, his “oneness,” prohibits it.

No “accidents” with God

Aquinas, in his classic work Summa Theologica, states this last in the idea that there are no “accidents” with God. The word means something different to him; it means those things which are not essential to the character. God is not petty. He has no “small parts.” With God, things truly are black and white – and there is no black (meaning sin). There is no lukewarmness about God, for to be lukewarm is to be a mixture of hot and cold. He is not a mixture of anything. He is pure.

This was important to the ancient Israelite. All other peoples had a system of gods. You could bargain with them, in effect. Needed rain? Go see the rain god. But don’t forget to placate the sun god. And the fertility goddess could be bought off in that little matter of your girlfriend on the side. But to the Hebrew all these requests must go to the one God – and he cares about all of you.

Is there a point to all this? Indeed, there is. If we are to love Him, we must know Him. And if we love Him, then we will want to be like Him. I love my earthly father; his example is one I have followed all my adult life. If I love my heavenly Father, should I not also follow his example – integrity?

Love the Lord your God…

This is the thought that Moses and Jesus are expressing. To do this they use a set of metaphors which are still with us today. Bear in mind that we cannot separate these things out. The intention is that we are to love God with everything we have and everything we are or will be. By dissecting the words I do not wish to imply any limits on our love for God, nor any area of our lives from which it is excluded. But it is worth the time to examine the words – and ask the question, “am I living up to it?”

All your heart

The Greek word is kardia (from whence cardiology); to the Greeks it meant not only the physical heart but also the thoughts and feelings. The Hebrew word which is being translated here is lebab, which also means the physical organ but carries with it the idea of courage. We still tell people to “take heart.” It is frequently used in the New Testament as a metaphor, most commonly for

·         The idea of the will, the conscious conduct of man. The old King James would use the expression, “he purposed in his heart…” where we might say, “he made up his mind.”

·         The idea of the feelings of a man, the emotions. We still use the heart as a metaphor for the deepest feelings we have.

·         The idea of the conscience. We still speak of people being troubled in their hearts about something they’ve done; we often call it a heartache.

So the question: are you training your will, your feelings and your conscience to the love of God?

·         When you “make up your mind,” do you do it with God in mind?

·         Do you train your feelings to follow after God? How do you react to song in worship, for example?

·         Do you keep a pure conscience, or do you let things slide? (Do you grieve the Holy Spirit?)

All your soul

Interestingly, the word has changed meaning quite a bit. The word in the Greek is psuche, from which we get our word “psychology.” It means breath and is usually taken as a metaphor for sentient life, life which is aware of itself. The Hebrew equivalent is nephesh, which means breath also; the root word for it is “throat.” It means physical life, but mostly in the sense that you are a unique person. It would be used personally. It is not “life in general” but my life that is spoken of as my soul. Whatever it is that is essentially me, that is my soul, in this sense.

So the question is, do you love God with this? Do you devote what is essentially you in this life to God?

·         How about those physical possessions which are most dear? Maybe it’s the golf clubs, maybe it’s model trains, maybe it’s cars, but do they come ahead of God?

·         The same question can be asked of your physical relationships. My wife is my soul mate; does our relationship to God come ahead of our love life?

·         Whatever it is that defines you as a human being, have you given it to God?

All your mind

The Greek word here is dianoia, which means the imagination, the mind, the understanding. Literally, it means “deep thought.” Interestingly, the word does not appear in the Hebrew text which Jesus is quoting. He is translating from Hebrew into Greek, and he finds it necessary to add this phrase to convey the original meaning. This is not surprising. The Hebrews were not the philosophers the Greeks were, and the languages show it. There is no unique Hebrew word to translate this concept.

We understand this in the sense of being an intellectual Christian (it is not sinful to be an intellectual Christian, only unusual). There is the sense in which we think things through in the light of God’s revelation and then determine what to do. Most commonly, we see this in the idea of ethics. Ethics is (or should be) the application of God’s mind to the problems we encounter on a day to day basis. It is the discipline of the mind.

So I ask the question: do you love God with your mind? Do you discipline that mind in what you read, see and hear? More to the point, do you think through your decisions, consciously taking into account what God has commanded you to do?

All your strength

The Greek here is ischus, meaning force, power or strength. It is the closest Greek word to the original Hebrew meod, which is a most unusual word. It is rarely used as a noun, and when it is it can be translated “vehemence.” It’s usually used as an adjective or adverb, and we might translate it therefore as “vehemently” or “vigorously.” The concept is not one of doing pushups in church, but rather of doing everything for God with all the force of character you have – vigorously, vehemently.

So I ask the question: are you lukewarm? Do you give God a polite, half-hearted effort, or do you throw yourself into everything you do for Him with everything you have?

And your neighbor as yourself

John the Apostle points out that the test of loving God is how you love your neighbor.[7] The struggle from the earliest days of this commandment has been against turning it into a set of rules. You know, “a neighbor shall consist of any person living not more than ….” The idea, of course, is to evade the intent while keeping the letter, for the intent is damaging to my pride.

How do I love myself?

C. S. Lewis provided us with an interesting concept here. Despite all the things I have done in my life (and some of them are pretty dreadful) I have no real difficulty in loving myself. In fact, I think that I’m really a wonderful person, great to be around, fun to be with, life of the party and intellectual highlight of the day. God – of all persons – could be thought to object to such drivel. But (in grace) he doesn’t. He does, however, insist that I apply the same standard to everyone else. So if I see my neighbor doing some of those same awful things, I am to apply the same standard. This most of us find hard to do. Me included.

The standard you carry around with you.

The convenient thing about the concept is this: you carry it around with you. You don’t need to consult some involved commentary to determine the right thing to do; you just ask “what would I want someone to do if I were in that circumstance?” Then why is the world such an unloving place, even among Christians who say they do this?

·         Because of our lack of integrity, our oneness. This method requires that we look at ourselves and ask the question, “what grace would I like to receive?” Instead, we look at others and ask, “what do they deserve?” Integrity is required if love is to prevail!

·         Because we will not love with all of our selves. We want to do part of the job, not all of it. We are lukewarm. God is not, and we should imitate him.

The Good Samaritan

Jesus was asked this question in another context, and gave in reply the story of the Good Samaritan.[8] Consider how the Samaritan reacted:

·         He loved with all his heart; for he reacted without fear of the bandits who had beaten the traveler. (Perfect love casts out fear)[9]

·         He gave, without stinting, from his time, money and effort – with all his soul.

·         He did so with his mind, for he overcame the barriers of prejudice of his day.

·         And when he told the innkeeper that he would pay whatever it costs, he did it with all his strength.

The question is, would we do likewise?

Whose son is he?

Jesus now finishes the question. All these words would be nothing but those of a passing rabbi without authority, and authority has run through all these debates. So Jesus now puts the question to them:

(Mark 12:35-37 NIV) While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, "How is it that the teachers of the law say that the Christ is the son of David? {36} David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: "'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."' {37} David himself calls him 'Lord.' How then can he be his son?" The large crowd listened to him with delight.

There is a certain delight to the question, but we must understand their culture to get the point. In their eyes, unlike ours today, a father was always considered greater than a son. The father had the right to rule over the son. Solomon would call David lord, but not the other way around, even though Solomon was the wisest of kings. How then, could David call one of his descendants “Lord?”

What Christ is trying to get them to see is that the Messiah (which is to say, the Christ, the Anointed One) cannot be merely a physical descendant of David (though he must be that). He must somehow be superior to David. This can only be true if the Messiah is more than just a man. The dilemma is resolved only in the person of Jesus, both God and Man. God is one in essence and substance but three in persons.

This being so, then, the command given here carries with it the force of God. It was so in the time of Moses; it was repeated in the time of Christ; it needs to be repeated to the Christian today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength – and your neighbor as yourself.

Hear, O Church, the Lord your God is One.

[1] Matthew 22:34-40

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[3] Numbers 15:15-16

[4] 1 John 1:5

[5] John 4:24

[6] 1 John 4:8

[7] 1 John 4:20

[8] Luke 10:25-37

[9] 1 John 4:18

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