There has always been a lot of interest in Jesus. Some of it has been out of mere curiosity: He is an interesting historical figure. Others, like Mahatmi Ghandi, have been motivated by his character. Some, like Friedrich Nietzsche, have been driven by contempt and others by deep conviction that forgiveness and salvation are needed from God. But oftentimes, the interest in Jesus is merely cultural. Many individuals, having been raised in a family or society where Jesus is merely assumed to be a part of one’s life, intellectually admire but do not volitionally embrace Jesus. Information about Jesus is not attended by transformation by Jesus. The sad consequence is that, though such individuals are near the kingdom of God, they are not actually in the kingdom. They are so close, and yet at the same time, so far away. That was the case with the scribe whose question we will consider in this study.
It has often been said that there are multitudes of people who will miss heaven by about fifteen inches: the distance between the head and the heart. They have sufficient intellectual knowledge but lack the essentials of repentance and faith. The mind may be informed, but the will remains defiant because the heart remains deformed. This is precisely why we instruct seekers that they need a new heart rather than merely asking Jesus into their heart.
From what we learn in the scene before us, this scribe was in this very condition. To use Jesus’ words, he was “not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). But being close is not enough. Being near is good, but it is not the gospel. We need to be not merely near; we need to be in. Only the gospel can get us in.
Admiration for Jesus is good, but we need adoration of Jesus. Curiosity about Jesus is fine, but conversion to Jesus is our need. And this is the point that Jesus was driving.
Jesus was making clear the demands of true discipleship: the demand to love God completely—exclusively—and to love our neighbour caringly—engagedly.
As we study this text, let’s ask God one of two things. If you’re merely near the kingdom, ask him to bring you into the kingdom. Ask God to save you through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If, by God’s grace, you are in the kingdom, ask God to draw you nearer to the King. Ask him to help you to love him and to love those whom he loves.
We will study this passage under four headings.
A Sincere Enquiry
The text opens with a sincere enquiry: “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?’” (v. 28).
As Jesus spent a couple of days in the temple prior to Passover, he experiences wave upon wave of attempts to trip him up. We have seen the Herodians seeking Jesus’ demise with a hot-potato political question; then the Sadducees sought his humiliation with a theological question; and now the Pharisees presented a legal question. In the parallel text (Matthew 22), we read that, after the Sadducees left Jesus, having been bested by him, the Pharisees arrived with their attempt to “test” (v. 35) him.
But there is something interesting happening here: It seems to me that the Pharisees picked the wrong man for the job!
Matthew 22 seems to depict a more aggressive approach to Jesus, whereas Mark 12 reveals the questioner to be sincere. Jesus, in fact, commended him as behaving “wisely” (v. 34) (or “with insight”). There is only an apparent contradiction here.
No doubt, the Pharisees, as a group, opposed Jesus. We have seen Pharisaical scribes opposing Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel (2:6, 16; 3:22; 7:1–5; 9:14–16; 11:18, 27). Jesus had, in fact, predicted that they would be involved in his murder (8:31; 10:33). This would come to pass soon (14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31).
But we also know from other accounts that not every Pharisee opposed Jesus (cf. John 19:38–39 w/ 3:1). It seems that this scribe was one of them. After all, the text tells us that he was impressed with how Jesus had answered the Sadducees.
Perhaps it was Jesus’ affirmation of orthodoxy about the resurrection that persuaded this scribe that Jesus was to be trusted. Therefore, since “Jesus’ answers have been good, wholesome, satisfying, [this led] the scribe to hope for an equally enlightening (not just clever) answer to his own more fundamental question”(France).
On the other hand, perhaps he approached Jesus with a desire to trap him, but, perhaps while doing so, he was compelled by the presence and persuasiveness of Jesus to change his tune.
Many have had a similar experience. Sceptics have had their doubts removed as they met the Lord.
An Important Question
The question was relevant in Pharisaic circles: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (or, which is the “first commandment”?).
There were 613 commandments in the Old Testament, 365 which were prohibitive and 248 which were positive. The Pharisees struggled with the question of how to prioritise—even summarise—the commands. The Pharisees often categorised the commandments as either “heavy” or “light,” while not assigning priority to any over another. But perhaps this Teacher could end any debate about the matter.
About thirty years before Jesus, the famed Rabbi Hillel was challenged by a Gentile that he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the whole law while standing on one leg. Hillel answered, “What you hate for yourself, do not do that to your neighbour: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary.” That is quite clever, but Jesus’ answer would prove profoundly insightful.
Before getting to that, pause and reflect on this question. Again, I assume the scribe was sincere. Perhaps he was burdened to know how to please God. Perhaps it is also true that, along with the question of the rich young ruler (10:17ff), “both the question and its presuppositions stem from a piety of human achievement” (Witherington). That is, the scribe assumed, like most people, that one could be made right with God by keeping the law.
Let me pause and ask, how seriously do you and I take God’s law? How seriously do we take his word? Though this man was mistaken about the purpose of the law, and about his ability to keep the law of God, nevertheless, he realised the importance of God’s commandments. Too many in the church of our day pay little, if any heed, to God’s commandments.
If we will enter the kingdom of God, if we will move from being near the kingdom to actually being in the kingdom, we need to begin with the right concern. We need to be asking the right question(s).
Do you realise that God is God and he has issued commandments for which you are responsible? Are you concerned about obeying his commandments? Are you concerned that you don’t keep them? Are you concerned to the point of obsession with your relationship with God? You should be. So should I.
Being close is not good enough. This man, as we will see, was near but not in—so close, and yet so far away.
A Stunning Answer
Jesus’ stunning answer is revealed in vv. 29–31:
Jesus answered, “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 other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus responded to the scribe with what was perhaps both a simple and a stunning answer. In fact, it was simply stunning.
Jesus’ responded by quoting what became known as the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4–5. The word “Shema” derives from the first word in the statement: “Hear.” This was the closest to a confession of faith which existed among the Jewish nation.
The Shema was a solemn, because covenantal, declaration that Yahweh is “one.” That is, it was a declaration that there is only one God. It was a monotheistic statement. But it was more than a statement of orthodoxy for it was also a statement acknowledging that this one God is their God.
Notice the opening phrase: “The LORD our God.” The Shema, using the covenant name Yahweh, acknowledged that the people of Israel belonged to him. They were acknowledging Yahweh’s ownership over them. They were confessing loyalty to Yahweh alone. In the words of another, the Shema was a “theological preamble followed by ethical demand.”
Jesus finished quoting the Shema by highlighting the expected response to an orthodox monotheism: “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” (v. 30). The words “with all your mind” are not in Deuteronomy 6:5 but are clearly implied. Edwards notes,
Each of the four commandments is prefaced by the Greek preposition ex, meaning “from the source of,” rather than, “by means of.” Thus, we are commanded to love God not simply with our whole heart, but fromour heart.
Jesus says that “the most important” commandment is to love God, completely and comprehensively. Every part of our being is to be devoted to God. Our lives are to be marked by a disposition of devotion to the one true God. Ferguson helpfully explains,
God is to be the object of the devotion of my heart. The centre of my whole being must be directed toward him and his glory. He must come first in my ambitions and motives. I am to love him too with my soul—so that all my affections and emotions will be in tune with his will and set aflame with a desire to serve him. Then, I must give my thought life to him, seeking to keep my mind pure, and to have all my thinking disciplined and controlled by what he has revealed in Scripture. And all my strength and energy must be his.
Reflection upon this answer is not comforting; it is convicting. After all, who does this? Further, Jesus’ answer implies obedience to all of God’s commandments. Who does this? “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). In some ways, the scribe was asking a good, but the wrong, question. He should have been asking, “How can I be made right with God since I do not love him completely and comprehensively?” This man was near, but not in, the kingdom. And you? Do you realise how far short you fall from loving God?
One reason people deceive themselves about their love for God is that we love the God we want rather than loving the God who is. We don’t love God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures (including in his law); rather, we love the god who is the figment of our own imagination.
Many who are near but not in the kingdom of God worship a false god: a god who indulges our worldliness rather than the God who stands against it (1 John 2:15–17); a god who is impressed with our arrogance and pride rather than the God who is arrayed for battle against such (1 Peter 5:5); a god who appreciates our autonomy rather than the God who calls us to submit to those who have authority over us; a god who is pleased with our being entertained by sin rather than the God who expects us to set nothing wicked before our eyes (Psalm 101:3); a god who has no rules rather than the God who has revealed many righteous rules for our good and for his glory; a god who is mute about the Christian’s need for the local church rather than the God who demands disciples to be in covenant connection with the body of Christ; a god who wants us to pursue material comfort and the ease of retirement rather than the God who demands that we seek his kingdom of God and his righteousness, in every season of our life (Matthew 6:33); a god who does not expect obedience from those who claim to be Christians rather than the God who has revealed the process of church discipline for the spiritual health of his people; a god who is okay with our setting the terms of discipleship rather than the God who demands that those who follow him deny themselves, take up their cross and leave all for him; a god who is pleased to accept the crumbs of our devotion rather than the God who “is never satisfied with anything less than the devotion of our whole life for the whole duration of our lives” (Ferguson).
I ask again, are you merely near or are you in the kingdom of God? That is, do you love God? Is the God of Scripture, revealed in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the object of your affection? Is he the one who determines your direction and your disposition? Is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ the supreme object of your devotion? Be careful before you answer.
If you quickly answer in the affirmative, perhaps you are merely near but not in the kingdom—like Paul before his conversion. A mark that one loves God is humility. It seems that those who love God are not quick to boast about it. Rather, they will boast in him. Those who love God reveal it in their deeds more than in their declarations.
There will be plenty of people in churches today declaring their love for God. Demonstrating it will be quite another matter. As someone has said, “The gospel is not only to be proclaimed by our lips but it is to shape the contour of our lives” (Witmer).
Jesus made it very clear that the most important commandment (not suggestion!) is to focus our lives on loving God; our entire disposition and duty driven by devotion to the LORD who by his grace is “our God.”
Do you love his word? Do you love his commandments (Psalm 119)? Do you love his rule and therefore his rules? Do you love his person? Do you desire to know him? Do you love righteousness and hate unrighteousness?
All of these are tests given to us in 1 John and elsewhere, so we can examine whether we are merely near, or truly in, the kingdom.
God is to be loved completely and totally (v. 30) because he, and he alone, is God and because he has made a covenant of love with his people. In the covenant God gives himself totally in love to his people; therefore he expects his people to give themselves totally (“soul,” “mind,” and “strength”) in love to him.
Jesus gave an answer that exceeded the question. It also exceeded any prior answer to this common question.
The Jewish people lived and died by the Shema. They began and ended their day quoting it. Their synagogue service always opened with it. It was often on dying lips.
So if Jesus had ended his answer with this, it would have been deemed “orthodox” but not exceptional. But Jesus didn’t stop here. He added, “The second is this: ‘You shall love you neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In quoting Leviticus 19:18, Jesus moved the Shema from the theoretical to the practical; from being merely a statement of faith to the nitty gritty of whether one truly believes their confession. In effect, Jesus was saying, “Do you truly possess what you profess?”
In this master stroke, Jesus did something that no one had ever done before. He summarised what it means to love God by combining the first four of the Ten Commandments with the last six. He was saying that loving God is practical. In the words of James Edwards, “Jesus’ answer avoids the danger of any mysticism, which results in a detached and disembodied love of God; as well as the danger of humanism, which acts toward humanity without reference to God.”
Simply put, if you love God, you will love your neighbour. The only way you can truly love your neighbour is to first love God. For since God is love, he defines what love for our neighbour looks like. As Cole summarises, “In this summary, the heart of true religion is seen to lie, not in negative commands, but in a positive loving attitude to God and others.”
Jesus knew how to count. He said that loving our God and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves are “two commandments,” not three. I am weary of people saying that Jesus commanded us to love ourselves. He did nothing of the sort! In fact, this is our problem!! He was saying, “It is a given that you love yourself; now apply that love to others.” When we add to Scripture, we make a mess of things, for ourselves and for others.
A Serious Impossibility
Jesus’ simple, scriptural and straightforward answer is also a scary one, at least for those who take his words seriously.
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. 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.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
No one can do this completely, completely, or comprehensively. For someone to move from being near the kingdom all the way into the kingdom requires an understanding of the human impossibility to do so. At this point, this scribe did not yet see this. Do you?
An Admirable Response
The scribe’s response (vv. 32–33) was admirable. “You are right, Teacher” is not the standard answer from a scribal interaction with Jesus. In fact, Ben Witherington notes, “This is the only example in the Gospels where a scribe actually agrees with Jesus!” But, of course, Jesus was indeed right. He always is. If we want to enterrather than be merely near the kingdom of God, we need to listen to Jesus. He is the way, the truth and the life and, yes, no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6).
The scribe was impressed with Jesus. He grasped the old covenant truth that there is more to being right with God than merely external observation. (Perhaps his understanding this was behind his question? Perhaps he jostled the other scribes to be able to approach Jesus in order to settle this matter in his own heart?) He seemed to understand the truth of 1 Samuel 15:22 and Hosea 6:6.
In other words, he seems to have had insight that more than ritual was required to bring a person into a right relationship with God. This religious man saw somewhat into the heart of what it means to love God. O that more in our day understood this!
There is more to faith in Jesus Christ than mere formula. The facts are essential, but they are not sufficient. This is such a basic truth, yet it is missed by so many who are so close and yet so far away.
This man gave a hearty amen to Jesus’ answer. But from Jesus’ follow-up response, it is also clear that the scribe did not seemingly grasp the impossibility of keeping this “most important of all” the commandments. It appears he did not fully grasp his sinfulness and his need for the Saviour.
Our amen too may indicate we are near the kingdom, but, as with him, it will not get us in. In fact, Jesus’ answer leaves us convicted and condemned; it leaves us outside the kingdom of God.
John Wesley was a man who knew this. He studied the Bible, engaged in theological debate, was ordained to pastoral office, and shared the gospel with many people but realised that he never believed the gospel he preached. For so long, he was near the kingdom but not in it. One day, he randomly opened his Bible to Mark 12:34 and realised that the verse spoke directly to him. It drove him to search the Scriptures prayerfully before, one night, he came to true faith in Christ.
A Hopeful Response
“And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). That is hopeful.
This is the only occurrence of the word translated “wisely” in the New Testament. It means “to use the mind to good effect” or “to have and use discretion.” We might say that Jesus saw that this scribe “had a mind of his own.” He was different to many of his peers in this regard.
This man exemplified what a person needs if they will have any hope of entering the kingdom of God: honesty, humility, and courage to stand against one peers.
And for this reason Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom”—the very kingdom Jesus came proclaiming (1:14–15) and over which kingdom over which he is King.
But why did Jesus say that this man’s insight merely brought him near the kingdom? After all, since he understood what Jesus was saying, certainly all he needed was to obey. Right? He simply needed to start loving God comprehensively and his neighbours selflessly. Correct?
If that is what you think, you might be near the kingdom, but you are not yet in it. For this commandment is a human impossibility—at least for fallen, sinful human beings.
I believe that the impossibility of keeping these commandments (and therefore the impossibility of keeping all the commandments) is what underlies Jesus’ response. He saw that this man was willing to separate himself from the spiritual and traditional trajectory of his peers, but he didn’t see that there was more to the Shema than merely saying it. In fact, the second commandment that Jesus stated makes it quite clear that loving God with all of our being is impossible. For who loves his neighbour(s) as himself. Who prioritises others over own needs?
It is precisely because we do not love God and others comprehensively that Jesus had to come and die and be raised from the dead for us.
The point of this teaching is to help lost sinners to despair of self-salvation so they will seek the Saviour. Then, and only then, will they be able to enter the kingdom. Ask the well-known Pharisee of that day: Nicodemus (see John 3:1–8).
Christian, the point of this teaching is not to make you despair of improvement. But it is to remind us that having entered the kingdom of God by the grace of God, we are responsible—and privileged!—to love God and to love others (see Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8–10). The point is to once again remind us that, because Jesus Christ did always perfectly and comprehensively love God and his neighbour, we are accepted by God. In Christ, we meet the standard. In Christ, these commandments have been fulfilled on our behalf (Romans 8:1–4). But further, as Paul reveals, because they have been fulfilled in Christ, and because we have been born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we can make progress in loving God and one another.
Don’t miss this major point: Those in the kingdom are characterised by love for God and for their neighbour. And for a Jew, their nearest neighbour was a fellow-covenant member of their community.
So, how is your love for the Body of Christ? Your answer goes a long way toward identifying whether you are in or merely near. If you don’t love the church—the local church—it is to be concluded that you do not love the Lord of the church. After all, how can you say you love God whom you cannot see when you do not love brothers and sisters you do see (1 John 4:20)?
A Tragic Ignorance
The text closes on a tragic note: “And after that, no one dared to ask him anymore questions” (v. 34). How sad. The sound of their silence screams rejection.
Jesus’ response to the scribe was meant to call forth reflection and repentance. We don’t know what happened to this scribe. We don’t know if he ever entered the kingdom of God. But, on the surface, it strikes me as deeply saddening that, having been so close, he apparently did not ask, “How can I get in?” Perhaps he did. Perhaps he was converted and became a member of the church in Jerusalem. But it is equally possible that he remained merely near. And what about you?
Alexander Maclaren writes, “The abiding truth is, convictions not acted on, die; truths not followed, fade; lingering can become a habit; obstacles increase with time; and we can either go in or go further away.” He adds that too many “are on the verge of the ‘great surrender’ but they do not go beyond the verge, and so they perpetuate ‘the great refusal.’”
Be careful. To be “not far from” is still to be outside. If you die outside, you will be forever outside. Stop with the procrastination. Stop with the lingering. Repent and enter now!
Though we hope that this scribe believed on Christ, we also know that the majority of the scribes and other religious leaders would reject the King and his kingdom. They would call for his execution. How tragic. How perversely ironic.
Think about it. Jesus, the only person to ever fully obey the Shema, would be crucified for it. The only person who ever fully loved God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbour as self, would be crucified for it. The only person who ever fully and comprehensively obeyed Leviticus 19:18 would be crucified for it.
But this is also a glorious irony for, by his death, the curse upon us for trespassing these commandments was taken away from us and placed upon him so that we can love God and our neighbour! The gospel is gloriously ironic and powerful.
By this good news of a crucified law-keeper on our behalf, vindicated by his resurrection from the dead, we who are lawbreakers are brought into the kingdom. You see, “One draws near to the kingdom of God not by proper theology but by drawing near to Jesus” (Edwards). Have you come to the Lord Jesus Christ?
Are you weary of being merely near the kingdom? Then repent, confessing your inadequacy, and trusting the one who is adequate. Enter the kingdom today. Enter the kingdom now. And then, by the power of the King, live like it.