Jesus was in Jerusalem for the last time before his betrayal and crucifixion. Every way he turned, it seems, he was confronted by one or the other of the sects of the Jews – all wanting to catch him in some contradiction or inconsistency so they could discredit him or worse – find something to charge him with so they could kill him. Matthew tells of one incident during this time that is quite interesting.
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.‘” (Matthew 22:35-40).
The Pharisees were a relatively small sect of the Jews who wielded influence far beyond their number would indicate. They were, according to Paul, the “strictest party of our religion.” He should have known. He had been, before his conversion, a member of that party (or sect).
It is worthy of note here that, like all legalists, the Pharisees in spite of being professedly loyal to the law of God, were in fact quite ignorant of the most fundamental truths of that law. They were strict in terms of their interpretation of the law, but had very little comprehension of what the law was all about. They saw only the letter of the law and failed to grasp the principles behind the law and so had completely missed the spirit of it as well.
This was what Jesus was talking about in the sermon on the mount when he told his disciples that
“…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).
“Exceeding” does not mean that his disciples would have to have a superior performance record, but that they would be required to understand and live by the principle behind the words (letter) of the commandments. To illustrate what he meant by their righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, he cites some of the commandments and their sectarian misunderstanding and misapplication of those commands. He deals with anger, lust, divorce, oaths, vengeance and loving one’s enemies. In every instance he goes deeper than their literal – letter-keeping concept into what was in the mind of God in the giving of those laws.
When Jesus responded to the lawyer on this occasion, by Mark’s account he began his answer by reciting the “Shema” (Deut. 6:4), “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” (Mark 12:29), the words that began the morning and evening prayers of the Jewish people. Then in Mark’s account there followed the “greatest commandment.” Thus they had a constant reminder of the one God and of their unique relationship with him.
When God gave the law at Sinai he prefaced the ten commandments by saying…“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2). God wanted these people to be constantly reminded that he was the source of the law. Divine law is not an arbitrary abstraction. It was not made up out of thin air. It has within it and behind it the person of the one God. It has in evidence within it the very character of the one God. Every time they consciously did something in obedience to God they were to think about him. Obedience was not to be a mechanical, rote performance, but a personal response of a human heart filled with love for the divine.
While at Sinai Moses told the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:20). Moses first tells the people not to fear because God had come among them that the fear of him may be among them. There is no contradiction in this statement. The scene they were witnessing was enough to cause them to be terror stricken. The mountain shaking, lightening and thunder, smoke and fire and the voice of God in the midst of it all. God wanted them to learn to revere – to respectfully adore him – that they may not sin. It is that same kind of reverence toward God that we must have today in order of fulfill the greatest commandment.
God is a loving God. It is the doing of what he commands in response to that love in spite of our ability to understand what all that obedience entails. We simply do what he commands because he commands us to do it. It is our response to the love of God motivated out of our love for him that he is looking for from us. He is not looking for a response motivated by selfish pride – or abject terror – or any other reason.
Why should we respond to him in love? Obviously, because he first loved us. We are not the originators of love. In fact, a man in sin is quite incapable of a heart filled with love for God. It is only when we have experienced HIS love for us that we can respond in even the feeblest likeness to his love for us. It is only when we know the depth of his love by realizing our own forgiveness that we can love him in return.
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16).
We also are to love and obey him because he is the source of refuge, strength, glory and all things that are of real, eternal value. Paul says that there is a reward for those who seek what he offers…
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:6-8).
To attempt to find these things from any other source is idolatry. We must be satisfied in him and with the blessings he supplies us. To be dissatisfied with him or with the blessings he supplies is to hold him in less than first place in our hearts. To do anything for any other reason than to glorify him is to exalt ourselves. Paul, in 1 Cor. 10:31 says “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Tomorrow: “THE SECOND IS THIS”