We’re turning to Mark’s Gospel Chapter 12 28-34; these are just seven verses. And I can’t think of a more appropriate word for us, a passage which puts everything into perspective. And if you’re anxious or confused, or you’re feeling foolish, this is a passage which asks the question, What is it that really matters? And it answers the question as well.
Jesus is asked a question which goes like this: What is the most important thing God wants? Sweep away everything that is secondary, insignificant, garbage, what is it that really matters?
And Jesus says, “It is a loving relationship with God and a loving relationship with a neighbour.”
Now, that’s an easy thing to say, but it not quite so easy to understand. And just to put you in the context, this is a few days before the crucifixion. Jesus is in the temple. He is surrounded by religious leaders who’re against him. They’re bombarding him with hostile questions. This is the fourth of the questions he’s being asked. And the questions are designed to corner and trap him, and ultimately to destroy him. This is the last public question that Jesus is asked in the gospel of Mark.
And when he answers it, nobody asks him another question, and I love this. I just picture the presidential prime minister confronted with a press crowd asking masses of angry questions wanting an explanation, and he’s not satisfying them.
The hands are going up, the sea of hands, “But, but, but, we’ve got another question.” Or I think of the person who’s on the television facing a very hostile audience, trying to answer questions as they come thick and fast. Here is Jesus with a very hostile, intelligent group. And he answers their questions to the point where when he’s finished; they bow their heads as if to say we have nothing else to say, we have no more questions. It’s quite remarkable.
The man’s question in verse 28 of Mark 12 is friendlier than the other questions. And maybe God is at work causing this man in the crowd of religious people to want to come to Christ. And he asked the question, which command is above everything?
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It’s a very good question. It was a common discussion in the day and maybe a continuing discussion, which of all the commandments in the Old Testament is the most important? There were 613, and so which one was the most important? He’s not asking which is the first commandment of the ten.
But he’s asking what is God’s top priority? If you boil down everything God is saying to us in the Old Testament, what does it come to? Give me the bottom line, that’s what the guy is saying.
I think even today in secular circles; people will try and pin down what really matters, especially in times of tragedy and clarity, what is it that really matters?
One of God’s kindnesses to us is to take away some of the ease and some of the success so that we actually become sensible, and wake up to things that are eternal. And C.S. Lewis says he rouses us or he wakes us. And, in fact, we’re probably in more danger when we are feeling no need of Christ, and we are bicycling away from him.
Jesus answers the question and I’ve got two points. The first is that he tells us what God seeks? And then the second thing he tells us is where we find. What God seeks and where we find?
What God Seeks
He’s just been asked the question, and he says, “The most important thing is “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. The second is this, Love your neighbour as yourself. There’s no commandment greater than this.”
So, here’s the question, what’s the most important command?
And Jesus says, “Love God, love your neighbour.” And many people would say that’s excellent. Many people would be happy with that answer. It sounds very inclusive. Not everybody would like the reference to God, they would say that’s unnecessary, and I understand in the UK at the moment that a new survey has shown that most people in the UK would be happy to remove the first four commandments. They say we only need the last six. But many people would say love God, love your neighbour is a very reasonable thing, and it’s all about love anyway. But I want you to notice that it’s not what Jesus says.
He doesn’t begin with a command at all, he begins with information about God. You may remember Jesus was once approached by some religious leaders and they said, “Come on, just tell us what do we need to do to do the work of God?” And Jesus said, “You need to believe me.” It’s like people coming up and saying, “What cheque can I write for God? You know, tell me, how much do you want me to make out for God?” And the answer comes back, “No, no, he wants you to read the cheque that he’s written for you.”
That’s the first thing. “Hear, oh, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” So, Jesus is basically saying to these people, “I don’t expect you to love God or your neighbour until you know who we’re talking about.”
This is a ridiculous illustration, and it would never happen, but just imagine putting 12 bachelors on an island with one girl. And you expected 12 guys to just suddenly fall for one girl. It’s just unworkable. You’ve got to know something about the person before you’re going to really respond properly. And so Jesus begins with Deuteronomy chapter 6, which is actually a verse in the Old Testament, which is about God who’s made and saved his people. It’s as if Jesus says, before I tell you anything about you loving God, I want to tell you about God loving you.
So Jesus says, “The Lord.” In other words, he’s unique. There’s only one God, the God who made the world and planned salvation, who provides everything, who is faithful, there’s only one.
Then we read He’s relational, verse 29. He is our God, the God who makes relationship, who makes covenant, who initiates it because we don’t and who secures it because we can’t. And he does this at great cost to himself, and there’s very little in it for him. He is our God.
And then we read in verse 29 that he is one. We know that God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons. But what Jesus is saying is you don’t need another, there is only one. He covers everything. You don’t need a god for the sea and a god for the land, and a god for the mountains, and a god for the crops. You just have the one God; he is in charge, he covers everything.
Therefore, if you give him your heart and your mind, and your soul, and your strength, you are honouring him because he is the only God and you’re integrated.
One God, one heart. One God, one mind.
It is to his honour and to our advantage that we respond to the one God. Before Jesus talks commandments and the man is asked about commandments, but before Jesus talks commandments, Jesus said I’m going to give you the news of God, who he is and what he’s done. And there was an ocean in this little one sentence of verse 29. Who is God? before you think about what he commands. What’s he done before you think about what he wants.
If I was talking to a person who is not a believer, I would love to be able to say to them, “Before I tell you anything that God wants you to do, I want to tell you as much as I can about who he is and what he’s done.” And that may bring up a response which says, “Well, he’s worth knowing.”
You notice the very first word Jesus says is, “Hear” or “Listen.” And when you’ve heard the privileges, you will respond in the right way. I think one of the greatest challenges that faces the Church today is that we don’t have the microphone that we would love to have in order to address the world. The world has an excellent microphone for error. We just don’t have the same microphone for the Word of God.
It’s one of the great difficulties that the world hears the church moralise.
In other words, they think that all we’re talking about is a marriage issue or an abortion issue, or a euthanasia issue. And the world is so busy, and it’s not listening, and the Church is not able to speak, and we’ve got this terrible communication breakdown, and so the world thinks the Church is talking morality and we’re talking gospel. We ought to be. I understand that 49% of the world in a survey think that religion does more harm than good. But in Australia, 63% think that religion does more harm than good. But who is listening to what Jesus really says which is that the message is a message of grace, not duty.
It’s a message of privilege. So, it’s when we know his initiative that our response makes sense. We’re not asked to start the relationship; we’re not asked to invent the relationship. We’re asked to respond, to accept, and to deepen it. And the wonderful thing is that when the love of God is heard and received, it changes our heart, so it responds.
It’s as if the grace of God comes down and transforms us. And we begin in an imperfect but a real way to respond in love back to him.
I used to take lots and lots of weddings at St. Thomas’s and in the early days almost all the couples would choose 1 Corinthians 13, love is patient, love is kind. It didn’t really mean anything to them, it was just the most familiar passage, and it was kind of like music in the background. I would stand there waiting to speak and feeling impatient and angry that they’d chosen a passage that they didn’t understand and they didn’t care about, and nobody was listening anyway. And all the time the passage is saying be patient, be kind, don’t insist on your own way, be, be. And then I’d get up to speak, and I’d try to say something like this.
I’d say, “You know, that reading which we’ve just heard, I don’t know if you listen to it or not, but actually, that reading was addressed to a very self-absorbed people. It was not sent to a great bunch. It was not sent to a loving bunch. It was sent to an unloving bunch.”
Paul didn’t sit down and think, how can I write a really cutesy poem to the Corinthians? Paul sat down and sent a rocket to the Corinthians; they were nothing like 1 Corinthians 13. And I’d say to the crowd of the wedding, “And I’m nothing like 1 Corinthians 13, and you’re nothing like 1 Corinthians 13, and this couple are nothing like 1 Corinthians 13, believe it or not.”
And we are going to need a change of heart. Who’s going to change a heart that’s utterly self-absorbed? We’re going to need somebody who’s heart is utterly self-sacrificing? And somebody has come into the world who is utterly self-sacrificing and died on the cross so that we might be made new, with a new heart. And that’s why the message of Jesus, he’s so important to this couple and I would be on and on, and on, and on, and on talking like this. But that’s really the point, isn’t it? Once the love of Christ is received, the heart is changed. And that’s why Jesus goes on in verse 31 to say, “And you’re also to love your neighbour.”
He wasn’t asked for two commands. But he gives two commands, love God, love neighbour. And, of course, love for God creates love for neighbour. That’s why when you become a new person in Christ, you begin to love the people of Christ. You don’t love the people of Christ really; they’re mostly irrelevant and irritating until you become a new person. And then, of course, the people of Christ don’t become necessarily easy or perfect, but you have a new love for them. And one commentator has said there was no evidence before Jesus that these two commands, love God, love neighbour were ever put together. So, Jesus does something really very wonderful.
When we respond to God, we begin to respond to his people and to the lost with a new heart. The cross has a vertical beam and a horizontal beam. Love God, love neighbour.
Human relationships can be very loving without Christ, but you can’t have supernatural relationships without Christ. You can’t have spirit indwelt relationships without Christ.
Now, what does it mean if we’re going to love God? I could spend a lot of time on this and it would sound like a big, heavy burden to you. But I want to say to you that if you’re going to love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength, I think it means that you can’t be too grateful.
You’re going to find yourself responding so gratefully. It means you can’t be too open. There won’t be a portion of your life that you’d need to hide away from him. Some little cupboard or kitchen which is just out of bounds. There won’t need to be that because the love of God is so special, you’ll begin to open up.
And you can’t be too responsive to God. You’ll find yourself saying at the beginning of the day;
- take my life, use it today
- take my heart
- take my mind
- take my soul
- take my strength
- Use me today
What does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself? It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily find your neighbour attractive or easy. It doesn’t mean you’ll even necessarily like your neighbour.
But because you know how to care for yourself, we’re always thinking about ourselves. It’ll start to spill over into the way you think about your neighbour and what might benefit them, and your concern for them, and your care for them. Jesus gets a question which is about duty, and he answers with the gospel. It’s as if a man comes up to him and says, “Jesus, tell me what God wants me to do?” And Jesus says, “I’ll tell you what he has for you.” Okay, what God seeks? God seeks relationships.
We Find Relationship
Jesus finishes the answer to the question; the man is very impressed. He says basically to Jesus, and I don’t think it’s patronising, “That’s an excellent answer.” “I can see,” says the man, “that you’re absolutely right. That to love God, to love your neighbour, this is exactly what God is looking for.” And then he says something remarkable. He says, “In fact, this is more important than all the sacrificial system.”
What a thing to say. Standing in the temple with the sacrifices going on all over the place, the sound, the smell, the sights. And the man says, “You, Jesus, have put your finger on a relationship which is bigger and better than all the religion.” And it is.
Take away this building which we value, take away the hymns, take away the creeds, take away the collection, take away the coffee. Walk out into the middle of the garden at night, on a dark night, no stars, no moon. Look up into the sky; there is the living God, there is you. What matters? It’s that you know him, that you belong to him, that you’ve come to him through Jesus. That you’re going to belong to him forever. The shirt you’re wearing, the special shoes, the antique you’ve picked up, the holiday plans, all of that disappears. It’s a relationship, and this man can see it. And Jesus says to him, “You’re not far from the kingdom.”
Again he says this to him in the temple, “You would think that by being in the temple, the man was pretty safe. You’d think the fact that he has some clues he’s pretty safe.” And Jesus says to him, “You’re not far from the kingdom.” Well, it’s possible to be a secular person and a long way from God. And it’s possible to be a religious person and a long way from God. It’s possible, isn’t it, we know to be part of a church, turning up, playing a part, and never enter into a heart-to-heart relationship with God. I mentioned once that if a landlord has two tenants and one is a very neat and tidy tenant, but one is a really trash-the-room tenant, but neither of them responds to the tenant’s letters or the landlord’s letters, neither of them respond.
Neither of them respond to the phone calls, neither of them paid the rent. Which one should the landlord evict? The answer is he should evict them both. Because it’s not a matter of being tidy or trashy. Many people will say, “You know, I’m quite a tidy person, I’m a good person. What more could God want?” Well, the answer is he’s looking for relationship. He wants you to take his word seriously, he wants you to call to him. He wants you to believe and belong, not just live in His world, in His block of units. And this man came to see that the heart is the key.
God has poured out his heart for us; we are to give our heart to him. He’s not interested in dead religion; he’s not interested in empty ritual, he’s not interested in pious rules. He is a groom calling to us, “I will.” And we, like a bride call back, “I will.” That’s what he’s looking for.
But Jesus says to the man, “You’re not far. You can see what’s important, but you don’t yet have it.” There is the man standing in the temple right next to the King of kings, and he’s not yet belonging to the King of kings. This little phrase, ‘not far’, is not a crabby thing for Jesus to say, it’s not an unkind thing. It’s not as if Jesus looks at him and says, “Not good enough.” You know, not good enough. Not at all like that.
Jesus is saying to the man, “You’re so close, you’re so close. I long for you to come across.”
I preached on this text Mark 12:34 one Christmas. And my text was, “Not far”. And I preached it because I wanted all the people who’d come to the Christmas service to hear this tremendous invitation, you’re so close. You’re hearing; you’re getting it. Now, take hold of Christ. A lady said to me as she was leaving, she said, “We’re never good enough, are we?” It wasn’t really what I was saying. I was trying to say you’re so close; you’re so close. But you see, Jesus won’t mislead the man either. He won’t say to this man who is outside the kingdom, “All is well, you’re a nice person.”
He won’t say to him, “You’re standing next to the aeroplane, that’s fine. You’re standing next to the car, that’s fine.” No, he wants the person in, he wants the person in the kingdom. He says to him, “You’re not far, you’re so close. Come.” And, of course, he means “Come to me.” That’s how you become a person in the kingdom, you come to Christ.
What do you do to get into the kingdom? I wonder if anybody could answer that question, how do you get into the kingdom? And the answer to that is found in the first chapter of Mark where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, it’s very near you, repent, turn around, and believe the good news.
Repent means that you turn to him, you’re not against him. You’re not bicycling away from him. You’re not blocking your ears and saying, don’t tell me anything I don’t want to know.
You turn around and listen and say I want to go in your direction. And I’ll drop anything which will prevent me from having a relationship with you, that’s repenting. And you’re going to be my King; you’re going to be my Savior from now on, that’s repenting. And believe the good news means that there is a Savior who can solve the past and take hold of you in the present and carry you forward into the future. There is a pardon, and there is a welcome, and there is a place. And that’s all that really matters.
The priority of Jesus Christ is that you have a relationship with him. And the price of that relationship is something that he will pay.
So Jesus talks to a man and in seven verses, he turns the conversation from rules to relationship, from duty to grace because nothing is more important to him.
Jesus is a welcomer. He says to the person who’s lost, “Repent and believe the good news.” He says to the person who is seeking, “You’re not far.” And he says to the person who trusts him, “Welcome home.”
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you for this window into the character of the Lord Jesus. We see in this window somebody who desires relationship. We don’t deserve it but it’s been wonderfully provided for us, and we ask that you would receive our thanks. So many of us are here today because you initiated the relationship, you called us to respond. And we pray, heavenly Father, that all who are within the sound of this voice would enjoy and embrace the King of kings, and be one in the kingdom forever. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.