The Law accomplishes two things. First, it tells us who God is and then it tells us what God wants from us. When the Pharisee challenged Jesus by asking which command was the greatest, he did not sin. Jesus did not rebuke him or become indignant. Instead, Jesus answered his question directly because his question was of the utmost importance. If the Law tells us who God is, then the greatest command is going to describe God best. If the Law tells us what God wants from us, then the greatest command is going to best describe what it is that we can do to please God. So Jesus appreciated the question and answered it by showing both the heart of God and what he wants from us.
Jesus first answered the Pharisee’s question by first quoting The Shema. He said the greatest commandment was this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30) But then Jesus quickly added: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.” (v. 32). The Pharisee had heard the Shema thousands of times, he likely recited it daily. But what was surprising here was in the way Jesus clarified the great command. It was this second command, to love your neighbor as yourself that took the greatest commandment to love God with all your being and brought it down to the simplest, most practical level. Jesus brought the theoretical down to the practical by demonstrating that love for God must manifest itself outwardly and not by nice thoughts or kind words.
And so you can see the progression of Jesus’ answer flow something like this:
Jesus, what is the greatest command?
To love God with all your being.
What does it mean to love God with all my being?
Love your neighbor as yourself.
But what does it mean to love my neighbor?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In his answer, Jesus is directly tying love for one’s neighbor as love for God himself, which was a distinction that was not lost on the apostle John when he wrote in his first Epistle:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in himto make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him – 1 John 2:9-11
You are not Far
To the Pharisee’s credit he affirmed Jesus’ answer by saying that to love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself is more important than any monetary or material offering, and to this Jesus commended the wise answer by replying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (v.34).
What’s remarkable about this response is the possible double entendre. The man was not only close to the Kingdom of God in his understanding of the Law, but in proximity. In a real sense, the Kingdom of God stood in human flesh right before this Pharisee, who was the embodiment of love for one’s neighbor as divine destiny hurtled him towards his cross. Here before the Pharisee was God himself, answering his question about the Law, the most fundamental and foundational thing in this man’s life, and he stood before the man as the epitome of unselfish, sacrificial love – the embodiment of the Law the Pharisee had pursued almost all his life.
But access to Christ comes only by faith, and it comes accompanied by an understanding of what God wants: a sacrificial love of one’s whole being that pours itself out for others, and all for the sake of magnifying his great Name.