(Transcript for message dated August 29, 2021)
Good evening, Church. It’s good to see you all. I want to let you know that there have been a few changes since last Sunday. I mentioned last Sunday we were going to cover four stories in two weeks. I’m going to skip two of the stories tonight. I’m going to record an extra sermon tomorrow morning. We’ll post it online with the posting of this sermon on our website. So, we won’t miss those stories. But you will have to go back and listen to another sermon.
Here’s why I’m doing that. On Wednesday afternoon of this week, my manuscript was 34 pages long. Yeah, that’s aggressive. That’s a little much. We would have had to cut everything but me droning on for 75 minutes. We’re not going to do that. But more importantly, I had this moment where I heard myself say in my brain, “I’ve got to get through this part about the commandment” — the greatest commandment, where Jesus gives the greatest commandment. I heard myself saying, “I’ve got to get through that so I can get through all the stories.” And that put a big caution sign up in my brain. So, we’re going to focus on just that story this evening, Jesus describing the greatest commandment. We’re going to use that same outline we used last week: see the situation, see Jesus’ response, and see Jesus focus on God.
So, we’re in the fourth story, still in the temple. Believe it or not, Jesus receives positive feedback from a religious leader in the temple. It’s another Christmas miracle. Finally, it’s worked out. There’s this single scribe that overhears Jesus giving an answer to the Sadducees. That’ll be on the extra sermon. Whenever he hears Jesus respond to the Sadducees, he thinks to himself, “That guy did a great job.” And then he asks Jesus a question. And there’s no tricking or trapping in this question. It’s a real question, finally. “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Now, I want you to think of that question as “The Rabbi Challenge.” Because back in this day, rabbis, teachers, and other people would challenge a rabbi to summarize the law or the greatest commandment as briefly as they could. So, that’s the situation.
Let’s see Jesus’ response. Jesus accepts and answers the rabbi challenge, and this is how he does it. Mark 12:29-31,
“Jesus answered, ‘The most important commandment 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 other commandment greater than these.’”
Jesus takes those two things and turns them into one thing, the greatest commandment. Now, Jesus isn’t pulling these statements out of thin air and making stuff up. He’s taking it directly from the Law — Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. So, we’re going to jump back in time and look at Jesus’ source material. Where did he get his answer from? And do those contexts help us understand the greatest commandment?
Let’s work through Deuteronomy 6:1-9 first. I’m going to read it and talk about it as we go.
“Now, this is the commandment — the statutes and the rules — that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you…”
This is Moses talking. Deuteronomy is the second giving of the law to Israel. And he tells them, I’m the teacher. Why is he teaching? Moses says this:
“…that you may do [those commandments] in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD, your God, you and your son and your son’s son…”
So, he is teaching this commandment so that people do it and so that they fear the Lord and so that it’s multigenerational — that it keeps on going. So, how do we do that? How do we live out that fear and obedience?
“…by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel: The LORD, our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
There’s Jesus’ specific quote, his specific source. But Moses continues and says this:
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk, by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts [of your house] and on your gates.”
Now, this section of Deuteronomy that Jesus is using as a source is called the Shema. Shema is a Hebrew word that means “hear.” “Hear O Israel.” The Shema invaded Jewish life. Some Jews developed these things called phylacteries, which were leather pouches they would tie around their head with a copy of the Shema inside. Some Jewish homes would put a little box on their doorpost going into their home. And in that box would be the Shema. Devout Jews would pray the Shema every morning and evening and it would be brought into their synagogue services.
So, the scribe listening to Jesus quote Deuteronomy, definitely knew this passage. The Lord, our God is one. He’s the only God, period. The Lord our God is one. There is no God like Yahweh. The Lord is holy and distinct.
And yet we learn in the Shema that God is a God who desires to be loved. He is one, he’s holy and distinct. And the response he wants to that reality is love. Love him. Both Moses and Jesus agree that this love has to be all-consuming. Did you notice how Jesus spoke? All your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength — all that is you has to love God. Love of God is completely consuming to every part of who we are — our thinking, seeing, feeling, doing, reasoning, choosing, speaking, everything. When we get a picture of who God is, and we love him, that love consumes us completely.
The Shema clearly communicates loving God (the great command, love God) is fearing God and doing what he says. What does it look like when we fear God? And that’s a funny thing to talk about. The way I think of fear is this, if God is who he says he is, he literally created everything we see by the word of his power. Then that is an amazing being that is very different from me and way bigger than me and immediately humbles me. That is an awesome God, awesome respect. And yet that same God is the one who looks at me and says, “Ryan, I want you to love me.” Awesome respect, amazing love slammed together. That’s the fear of the Lord. And Moses wants us to do what he says — love God, fear God, and do what he says. Train your kids to do it. It needs to be in front of you all the time. Do this commandment.
Doing what God says out of love for God has not changed. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” So, we can summarize Jesus’ first response of love God as this: Love of God demands obedience to and fear of God. Love of God demands obedience to and fear of God.
So, let’s go back to Jesus and the scribe. The scribe asks his question, Jesus answers first love God. And then he comes with this other part from Leviticus 19:18 about neighbor. But this is what’s interesting. In the Leviticus passage, Jesus quotes the very last part of a whole section, a whole description of what it looks like to love neighbor. And I want to read it all even though it’s the law, and it’s Leviticus. I want to read it all. And here’s what I want you to do. I want you to listen and see if any of these examples of loving neighbor are applicable right now where you are. Ready? Here we go. Leviticus 19:9-18.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to the edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner [the foreigner]: I am the LORD your God.
“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
Loving neighbor in the Law is generous, true, considers the disadvantaged, acts justly in civil matters, does not hate on the inside, reasons through arguments to prevent sin, doesn’t take vengeance, doesn’t hold grudges. Why? Because God says, “I am the LORD.” Very similar to the refrain in Deuteronomy, the Lord, our God is one. Why don’t you do these things? Because you see me for who I am, you love me, and it doesn’t make sense to do that to other people.
Jesus combines Deuteronomy and Leviticus into “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.” And this combo deal becomes the single greatest commandment to all of God’s people. The Law gives those descriptions, and we could land on several of those for a long time, but I think it’s interesting; both Moses and Jesus give us an odd or unique model of how we love other people. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Have you ever tried to think about that one? What does that actually mean? This is my best way to explain it about me. I’m allergic to bees, especially pointy bottomed ones. They want me to die. They want to kill me and stop my breathing. So, if you see me around any type of bee, I make a hasty exit or I do the flailing, “I’m afraid of bees, get away from me” move. It’s just natural. Why do I do that? I love me. I don’t want me to die. I am not, however, allergic to pastry. I’ve told you guys this before, doughnuts, cheese strudel, my love language. When I buy those for me and give them to me, I do that because I love me, and I’m telling me that I love me by giving them to me.
Have you ever carried something heavy or messy, and you drop it, and you do that kind of instinctual, weird, throw your legs out behind you move to try to not get it all over you or not drop on your toe? Why do you do that? You love you. We eat, sleep, exercise, drink coffee, have dinner parties, hang out, play games, and that list could go on and on and on and on. Why do we do those things? We love us. What a unique model for us to consider how we love other people. Love them the way you care for you. Care for them, protect them, cherish them, bless them, treat them to something — the way you care for you.
So, Jesus responds to the rabbi challenge this way: “Love God with all of you. Love others like you love you.” Love God with all of you, love others the way you love you. And right after Jesus does his summary, the scribe really overtly responds and says, “Great job, excellent! That is amazing what you just said. I totally agree with you. Loving God and loving neighbor is even better than sacrifice.”
Now remember where we are. We’re in the temple where sacrifice happens so that people are right with God. And the scribe is like, “I agree, it’s way better than what’s happening right over there, than sacrifice.” This guy knew his Old Testament. I’m studying Hosea right now, and in Hosea 6:6 God says this.
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering.”
God wants people who love him, not sacrifices. God wants people who really know who he is, not people who burn things. Mark tells us that at this point, Jesus is now looking at the scribe and thinks to himself, “This guy answered really wisely.” And then Jesus says this,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Is that good or bad? The story starts so good. Honest religious guy in the temple, telling Jesus he did something well, asking an honest question, agrees with Jesus. And then at the end, Jesus says, “You’re not far from the kingdom.” What’s the difference between being “not far from” and being “in”? I’d put it this way: the scribe recognizes accurate teaching but does not accurately recognize Jesus. The scribe recognizes accurate teaching. What you said, Jesus, I agree with you. But he doesn’t accurately recognize Jesus. The scribe doesn’t challenge the authority of Jesus like the Sanhedrin did last week. Nor does he affirm the authority of Jesus, like the blind man sitting on the side of the road who says to Jesus, “Have mercy upon me son of David!” Rather, the scribe just compliments his theology. Edwards writes this:
“One draws near to the kingdom of God not by proper theology but by drawing near to Jesus.”
So, let’s see Jesus focus on God. He does that in two ways. First, God’s Son, not the Law, opens God’s kingdom. God’s Son, not the Law, opens God’s kingdom. And then the second is, God’s greatest commandment is love God and love others. God’s Son, not the Law, opens God’s kingdom. What do we do with Jesus when he focuses on that? Well, I say this kindly and in a general way, but North Hills, I think we’re kind of a church full of scribes. And what I mean is, we have a long history of people who know God’s Word, know theology, grew up in church, Christian education. And all of those things are great. But I want us to be careful of believing that all of those things are equal to us recognizing the authority of Jesus because he clearly says it’s not.
I think in a very religious part of the country like Greenville and in a churchy church like North Hills … And what I mean by that is, I’ve taught Connections for fifteen years. I ask the same question every time we teach it. How many of you have been in a gospel-preaching church longer than ten years? And the minimum is 85% of people. So, we are a churched place. I think that calls us to look at this scribe as a warning. I think we have to ask ourselves the question: Are we close to or in the kingdom? And the only way you can answer that is to know your core belief about the authority of Jesus. Remember, this whole section is about the authority of Jesus. Does your life reveal that Jesus is your authority? Remember the Shema. Loving God results in fear of God and obedience to God. That’s the first focus.
The second is the greatest commandment. Before we get into that, let me share with you one confession and one fear before we talk about it.
Confession: The greatest evidence in my life, to me, that Jesus is real, and that I follow Jesus is that I can say I love people. There are people in this church who have known me for 30 years. There is one couple, they are the reason I’m at North Hills, who met me when I was 18 years old, and they know a different version of me that hated and hurt people. Others in this church (I’ve been here 28-1/2 years) have been on the receiving end of my unkindness, my personality, and my sin.
Now my hope and belief would be if you’ve asked those long term friends or if you asked my wife or if you asked my kids, “Hey, does Ryan really love people? Does Ryan really give a rip about people?” I hope and believe they would answer, “Yes, he’s way different than he was in college.” I hope my wife would say, “Yes. I mean, he’s not perfect by any stretch, but he does live a life that loves people.” I hope my kids would say something like, “Yeah, our dad tends to like different people, but he really loves North Hills people.” So, as I apply this part of “love others,” I have to be honest that this is a work that has been done in me for years and God will continue to do in me.
Second, this is my fear. I am afraid to apply “love others” to others because of the current climate in our church, because of what’s going on in our culture, primarily in three areas: politics, pandemics, and platforms (social media platforms). I’m afraid, because I don’t think I can say something about application without someone thinking I’m singling out a person or a group of people. If I say Democrat, Republican, Facebook, Instagram, posting tirade, mask, no masks, vaccination, no vaccination, then someone who’s on the other side of any of the number of things that I just said is going to be angry. I’m going to stop there.
So, this past week, I did a little mini-survey through email and discussion asking this: Where do you think “love neighbor” is most needed right now in our church? Where does it need to be applied most? Across the board: our words in our homes, our words with family, our words with people that we disagree, primarily in those hot-topic issues. My tension is, the most pressing place is the place that is just a fearful place to go.
So, I went back to why do we preach? What do we teach about preaching? We teach that preaching is speaking with the authority of the text. God said, “Love him and love neighbor,” not me. We teach that preaching is truth poured through personality. So, Peter would teach the same principle out of this passage in a different way. Why? Because he’s Peter, and I’m a Ryan. We’re going to look at it differently. And we preach to the needs of the people, which in this moment, brothers and sisters, is to talk about loving God and loving neighbor in politics, pandemics, and platforms.
So, with my confession and fear on the table, here’s what I believe Jesus would have us do. We’re just like the scribe. He would look at us and say, “Love God with all of you.” And what I want you to do is, are you willing to take an inventory of all of you to see how you’re loving God? There are some of us who are much more wired towards — my brain. I love theology, I love reading, I love God’s Word, I love to study it. I love to know. Would you take inventory of your emotions and your body? And are you loving God with all of you? Because that’s literally what Moses and Jesus say. Those aren’t just metaphors. It’s examples of everything about you loving God.
Then there are those of us who maybe are a little bit more wired towards our emotion and our feeling and our passion and our body, and we wish that this church would jump and dance and shout a whole lot more than it does. For those of you who are like that, are you willing to look at your brain and go, am I pursuing loving God with my brain so that I know who he is from his Word, so that all of this action is informed by a great big picture of this God that I love? Are you willing to take an inventory of yourself? Are you all in with all of you to love all of God? That’s my question. Are you willing to do that? Love God with all of you.
Jesus would look at us and say, “Love others like you love you.” Well, what does that look like? We could look at those descriptions in Leviticus, and some of those are hard-hitting. I hope you felt them. We could look at the life and teachings of Jesus. How did he live? But I had this thought: If Jesus provided us a worst case scenario to love our neighbor, the absolute hardest moment ever to love our neighbor, could we look at that moment as a guide? Say to ourselves, okay, if it looks like that way out there, in the worst case scenario, I can back up to here and look at my life right now and go, okay. If that’s what it looks like there, I can at least do that here where it’s easier.
And Jesus does do that. He talks about worst case scenarios of loving neighbor in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5. I want you to picture Jesus in your brain right now, standing up on a mountain. Remember, Jesus is Middle Eastern. See him in your brain. See him in front of a whole bunch of people that look just like him. And he’s going to teach us something about loving our neighbor in the worst case scenario. Jesus says this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
He’s quoting the law there. You repay in kind.
“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Violence is not returned in kind. Love neighbor.
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
If someone sues you (and in our language) takes the shirt off your back, Jesus says, go into your closet, grab the matching jacket and give it to him. Love neighbor.
“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”
This is actually Jesus’ response to oppressive and occupying government. Occupying Roman soldiers could command a Jew to carry their armor for one mile. Jesus is saying, the ethic of his love is so powerful that when you get to the end of a mile, you look at your oppressor and say, “Hey, I know I can stop here, but I’ve got you for another mile.” Love neighbor.
“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Risk your money and risk your possessions. Love neighbor.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [why?] so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, he sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [Don’t the worst people in all of Jewish culture do that? If you do what they do, how different are you really?] And if you greet only your brothers [if you greet only people that are just like you], what more are you doing than other [people]? Do not even the Gentiles do that? [Don’t even people who don’t have Jesus live that way?] You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So, in multiple worst case scenarios, Jesus teaches love of God, energizes love of neighbor, so that followers of Jesus risk personal injury, do not return violence in kind, embrace being defrauded risk, money and possessions, love their enemies, and pray for persecutors. And why do we do that? So that we are the sons of the Father. So that we act like who we really are, sons and daughters of the God most high. So that we act like Jesus, the literal Son of God, who did every one of the things that he just taught.
Jesus risked and endured personal injury. Jesus received extreme violence and did not reply with violence in kind. Jesus embraced being defrauded by giving up his divine rights. Jesus risked money and possessions by never having any. Jesus loved his enemies, religious and rebellious. Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, literally moments after they slammed 8-inch nails through his hands and feet into a wooden beam. If that’s the worst case scenario of loving our neighbor, all those things Jesus said, then brothers and sisters, certainly we can love brothers and sisters in Jesus who differ with us in politics, pandemics, and platforms.
If we can’t, if we can’t love — and it means love, not tolerate — if we can’t love and peacefully interact with a Christian who differs from us politically, then how in the world will we allow someone to hit us across the face a second time?
If we mock someone else’s views of masks or vaccines, whether that’s pro or con, and we do that privately or publicly, how in the world will we pray for someone who literally physically persecutes the Church of God?
If we use our social media platforms to vent our spirits about brothers and sisters in Christ, how in the world will we ever be able to look at a true enemy of Jesus and hater of Christians and the church and look at them and say, I want you to know I love you? The ethic of Jesus is for me to love you.
If we can’t love others in these three simple areas, how will we ever be ready to handle the worst case scenarios? How sad for us to miss a love that is so powerful, it will allow us to do that. Brothers and sisters, that’s actually how you can live because you’re in Jesus.
Jesus’ greatest commandment is telling us to set love of God and love of neighbor as the bullseye of our obedience. Whatever it is I’m doing, I’m doing it with the mindset of loving God (It’s the greatest commandment), loving neighbor at the same time. That’s where I’m headed. And if my actions in life aren’t informed by the greatest commandment, I’ve got a real likelihood of doing something wrong. If my love can’t create space for my brothers and sisters to differ with me, how can my love create space to love a persecutor of me? Loving God and loving neighbor is the filter through which we live. May God give us the grace to follow the example of Jesus that’s found in 1 Peter 2 and 3.
North Hills Church, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly … Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may [receive] a blessing. For ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their [cry]. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”