Monday, September 08, 2008

Not Far from the Kingdom of God: Mark 12:28-37

Audio here


It’s almost that time of year when fairs will roll into towns around our area. People will attend the fair to ride rides, eat different kinds of food, and play games to win prizes. Once upon a time in American fairs, cigars were given out as prizes for the carnival games. If you won the game, you got a cigar. If you didn’t win, you didn’t get a cigar—not even if you came close to winning. Hence our expression, “Close, but no cigar.”[1] But being close does count in some things. Most famously, perhaps, is the game of horseshoes. In horseshoes, if you throw a ringer, you get three points. But ringers are hard to throw, so there’s another way to score points in horseshoes. If you are closer to the stake than your opponent, you get one point. This gives rise to another famous saying, “Close only counts in horseshoes.” Now along the way, some genius determined that close also counts in something else: hand-grenades. If you throw a grenade, you don’t have to hit your target to get the desired result, you just have to throw it close. So now we say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades.” Of course, we all know that close counts in other things as well in life.

But in many areas of life, close is not close enough. If you don’t know how to swim, it makes a great difference if you can actually touch the bottom, or just come close to touching the bottom. If you work in sales and have a quota to reach, your boss may not think that close is good enough. When you are at the checkout counter and discover that your total exceeds your ability to pay, the cashier will count being close as good enough. The police officer who pulled me over in Old Fort, North Carolina a few years ago didn’t seem to care that I came close to stopping at the stoplight. A few years ago, I boarded a plane in New York to return home from a trip to West Africa. About fifteen minutes before landing, the pilot said, “In a few moments we’ll be touching down in Greenville.” I looked at the passenger beside me and said, “Did he say Greenville?” And he said, “Well, isn’t that close to Greensboro.” Alphabetically, I guess, but not geographically. I had either come close to getting on the right plane, or the pilot had come close to landing at the right airport. But for me, close in that case was not good enough. Fortunately, he had misspoken, and I thanked God as I saw the familiar scenery of the Triad upon our descent.

When it comes to your doctor, your pharmacist, your mailman, the driver in the lane beside of you, and any number of other individuals, you hope that they are not operating under the assumption that close counts. There are some things in life where close counts, and other aspects of life in which close is not good enough. Close counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades, but it doesn’t count when it comes to heaven. To come close to entering heaven is to end up in hell. There is no comfortable buffer zone between the two.

In our passage today, one of the scribes comes to Jesus with a question about which commandment is the foremost of all. Now, who are the scribes? They were people who trained in the copying, preserving, interpreting, and teaching of the Word of God. They were consulted by people to solve Scriptural dilemmas and to issue authoritative interpretations of God’s Law pertaining to various aspects of life.

The scribes had determined that there were 613 specific commandments or mitzvot in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. Now, lest you think that they went through the Old Testament with a fine tooth comb to number them all, here’s how they came up with that figure. In Hebrew, numbers are represented by letters. The word Torah, or law, contains four Hebrew consonants: Tav, which represents 400; Vav, which represents 6; Resh, which represents 200; and Heh, which represents 5. Add these together and you get 611. But they also calculated that two of the mitzvot predated the Torah. These are: “I am the Lord, your God,” and “You shall have no other gods before Me.” That adds up to 613. And since that figure was established, there have been numerous attempts to determine what the 613 commandments actually are. The most widely accepted list of the 613 commandments among Jewish people today was compiled by the Rabbi Maimonides of 12th Century AD, nearly 1200 years after the time of Christ. The point here is not to determine how many commandments there actually are in the Torah, for we would all agree there are many. The point of the scribe’s question is, however many there are, which one is the most significant, which is foremost?

In response to this question, Jesus answered profoundly. And the scribe received Jesus’ answer well. He said, “Right, Teacher.” He affirmed the truth of Jesus’ answer. And the attitude of the scribe was such that Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” In other words, this scribe was close. But entry into the Kingdom of God is not like horseshoes or hand-grenades. Close is not enough. And with these words, Jesus sought to prompt the scribe to take yet one more step and enter in.

Like this scribe, there are many whom we know today of whom it could be said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God. You’re really close.” We are not so naïve to ignore the possibility that it could be said of some who are in our midst today. There are certain right attitudes that we may have about God, about man, and about Jesus that bring us close to the portal. But close is not far enough. We must cross the threshold. So, in our study of this passage, we want to examine how it is that some come so close without fully entering, and what step remains before entry is granted.

I. You are not far from the Kingdom of God when you have a right attitude toward God. (vv28-30).

Jesus said that the foremost commandment, the one that supersedes all others in significance for humanity, is this: “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; 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.” Here Jesus is quoting the well known passage of Scripture found in Deut 6:4-5, referred to by the Jews as The Shema. “Shema” is the Hebrew word that is translated “Hear” at the beginning of the passage. When Moses spoke these words to the people, he followed them with this instruction: "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons 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 up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” And so, many Jewish people recite it every morning and every evening. It is spoken at the beginning of nearly ever synagogue service. It is written upon tiny fragments of paper and enclosed within the phylacteries, the boxes that are strapped upon the forehead and forearm of the Orthodox Jews when they pray. Copies of the Shema are encased in the mezuzah, the ornamental container that pious Jews affix to their doorways.

The words of the Shema inform us of the nature of God. He is One. We do not worship a pantheon of deities as the pagans do. He is One, He alone is God, and He is Lord – the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all that is. And the most fitting response to this divine Being is love. The text does not say that our primary response to God should be obedience or service, for those things can be feigned or even compelled. The appropriate response to God is love, a response that cannot be artificial or the result of compulsion. The one and only God of the Universe desires to be the recipient of our love.

Love is a misunderstood concept. Most often, we associate it with a feeling or emotion. But, as I am sure you notice, the word love is a verb. It is not something we feel or have. It is something we do. In the Greek language there are many words used for the idea of “love.” The word phileo speaks of the love that friends share, a strong, brotherly bond. The word eros describes the romantic affections that lovers share. But the word used here is different. It is a form of the Greek word agapao, the perfect and unconditional, self-giving, self-sacrificing love that is characteristic of God Himself. This is the kind of love that God has for humanity, and the kind of love that Jesus says should be rendered unto God.

To love God in this way is to place Him above all other affections. It is to choose Him over all else that would compete for our attention and allegiance. It is to be in a personal, joyful relationship with Him. All acts of true obedience and service to God flow forth from this relationship of love. Apart from love for God, any attempt to labor for God would be meaningless. So before we can ever do anything for God, we must enter into a relationship of love with God.

And how shall we love God? Jesus says, “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” In other words, we are to love God with our entire being, with every faculty with which God has endowed us.[2] All of our emotions, all of our spiritual devotion, all of our intelligence, all of our will and effort are to combine and cooperate in expression of love for God. God has love us wholeheartedly, and our only fitting response to Him is to return that love to Him in a wholehearted way.

This, Jesus said, is the foremost commandment of all. And the scribe found himself in agreement with Jesus about this. “Right, Teacher,” he says, You have truly stated this.” And in saying this, the scribe demonstrates that he has a right attitude toward God. He understands His nature, and he understands that the most fitting, most primary, and most worthy response we can make to God is to love Him. And it is for this reason that Jesus says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Many there are in our own day who understand these truths about God. They know He is there, and they know that He loves us, and we should in turn love Him. They have an accurate view of who God is and how we should relate to them. And this right attitude toward God has brought them close to the Kingdom of God. But it has not yet brought them inside.

II. You are not far from the Kingdom of God when you have a right attitude toward man. (v31)

Jesus was only asked for the single foremost commandment. But He went on to respond with the second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18. Now, leave it to human beings to turn this commandment up on its head. We read this and say, “See, it is important that we first love ourselves, so we can love our neighbors in the same way.” No, no friends. This is not a command to love ourselves. There is, in fact, no command in Scripture to love ourselves. The fact is, the love of self is natural to all of us. We cherish ourselves, we hold ourselves dear and precious in our own sight. We act habitually and even sacrificially out of self-interest and self-preservation. We are prone to place ourselves above others in our attitudes, affections, and actions. If anything, this commandment is a call to put that love for self aside and extend it to others instead. It is to say, “You know the way you are concerned for yourself, the way you protect yourself, provide for yourself, care for your own needs – extend that to your neighbor.”

In Luke 10:29, a teacher of the Law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a parable about a man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest was passing by, and not wishing to be encumbered in the matter, passed over to the other side of the road and went on about his way. A Levite came by and did the same thing. But along came a Samaritan – one of those half-breeds that the Jewish people despised and considered unclean and impure – and he had compassion on the half-dead victim. He treated and bandaged his wounds, and transported him to a nearby inn and continued caring for him. Out of his own pocket, he provided for the ongoing care of this man. And Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?” And the teacher of the Law said, “The one who showed mercy toward him." So Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same." So, you see, the question is not “Who is my neighbor,” as if to say, “Who am I required to love in this way?” The question is rather, “Who may I be a neighbor to?” I am to be a loving neighbor to anyone whom God providentially places in my path for compassion and help.[3]

Now, why is the love of neighbor so important that Jesus mentions it here, when He’s only been asked for one commandment? It is because your neighbor is the image-bearer of God. He or she has been made in the image of God, and the way we regard one another is a reflection of our love for God. We demonstrate our love for God as we show love to others, and the only way we can love one another is we have comprehended, received, and allowed the love of God to flow through us toward them. “We love,” John says in 1 Jn 4:19, “because He first loved us.”

The love of God and the love of one’s neighbor, Jesus said, are the two greatest commandments. He said, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” In Matthew’s account, He adds, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” In other words, every other commandment of God is fulfilled in the outworking of these two. Take the Ten Commandments as a test case. If one loves God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, then one will not have other gods before Him, make or worship idols. We will not take His name in vain or violate His Sabbath principle if we love Him in this way. And if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will honor our mothers and fathers, we will not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet what belongs to our neighbor. So we don’t have to go through life with a checklist of 613 (or however many there really are) commandments and prohibitions – we just have these two: love God completely, love your neighbor selflessly. You do that, and all the rest takes care of itself.

And to this, the scribe says, “Right Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else 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 himself is much more than all burn offerings and sacrifices.” There is no ritual or deed we can do that surpasses the primary responsibilities we have of loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus perceived the scribe’s response to be an intelligent one according to v34, and so He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Many people you know are intelligent enough to understand that religion that does not benefit humanity is no true religion at all. They understand that human beings have an obligation to one another. They have the right attitude toward man, and on that basis, we might say of them that they are not far from the Kingdom. They’re really close. But close isn’t close enough.

III. You are not far from the Kingdom when you have a right attitude about Jesus (v32-34)

When Jesus heard this scribe’s response to what He had said about the commandments, He “saw that he had answered intelligently.” We might translate that phrase as, “He saw that he had answered as one who had a mind.” You see, though Mark’s Gospel does not demonstrate any animosity in this scribe’s approach to Jesus, Matthew sheds a little different light on the encounter. From Matthew’s Gospel, it appears that this scribe has come to Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees. Most of the scribes of Jesus’ day were Pharisees. You recall that the Pharisees were at constant odds with Jesus over His teachings and actions which called into question their authority and their traditions. While they were certainly pleased that He had just silenced their arch-rivals, the Sadducees, they still despised Him and wanted to get rid of Him. And if this scribe has been sent as a delegate from the Pharisees, then it is unlikely that he has come for information purposes only. This question about the foremost commandment, like the others Jesus has faced in the preceding sections of Mark’s Gospel, was likely a loaded one, and one which they hoped would trap Jesus with His own words. But it didn’t work. When this scribe heard Jesus’ response, he couldn’t top him. In fact, he even agreed with him. Oops. That wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s not why the Pharisees sent this guy to Jesus. But, this man didn’t let the Pharisees tell him how he should think about Jesus. He had a mind. And he knew truth when he heard it, and Jesus had just spoken it.

He is not far from the Kingdom because he has formed his own opinion about Jesus instead of bowing to the pressure of his peers in their hatred of him. Notice that the scribe speaks in agreement with Jesus. “Right.” It can be translated, “Excellent” or “Beautiful.” He sees the value of the words of Jesus. And he is correct to refer to Jesus as a Teacher, for such He is. And he is right to affirm the truth of what Jesus has said. It’s little wonder that Mark says, “After that, no one would venture to ask Him anymore questions.” Not only had they all failed in their efforts to trap Jesus with their questions, but now one of them has actually started to change his mind about Jesus. They don’t want that happening, so … no more questions! This guy is close. He has the right attitude toward God, the right attitude toward man, and he is even beginning to develop the right attitude toward Jesus. He’s not far at all. But he’s still not inside the Kingdom. And like him, many speak highly of Jesus and affirm the wisdom of His teaching. They see Him as a good moral person, a wise sage, a powerful prophet even. They respect Him. They’re not far from the Kingdom because of their attitude about him. But they aren’t close enough yet.

IV. You enter the Kingdom when you recognize Jesus as Lord. (vv35-37).

After Jesus tells this scribe that he’s not far off, He began to say to the large crowd gathered ‘round Him, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?” The scribes knew their Bibles better than most. It was their field of expertise. They knew that the promise of the Messiah was that He would come from the lineage of David. He would be like David in many ways, and would lead them to great days of shalom, the blessed and blissful state of God’s peace. They knew the Scriptures, and they knew that Messiah was to be a son of David. But they missed something in their study of the Scriptures. Jesus points to Psalm 110, the most frequently quoted verse of the OT in the NT. In so doing, He affirms the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, indicating that what David wrote there was inspired by the Holy Spirit. And what did David write, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet.” Everyone who read these words understood that they referred to the coming Messiah who would vanquish every foe and establish a Kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace. They are right to learn from the Scriptures that the Messiah is a son, or descendant of David. But they have missed a very important fact about the Messiah.

Jesus said, “David himself calls Him Lord.” Now, in the Hebrew of Psalm 110, the first case of the word Lord is the divine name YHWH. And the second is the Hebrew word Adonai, which was frequently applied to God, but could also be used to refer to another person as a term of respect. However, in ancient Israelite society, no father would refer to his son or even his more distant descendants as “Lord.” A son may refer to his father or to an elder in his family as Adonai, but the older would not address the younger with this term. And that is Jesus’ point: David spoke of his messianic descendant as “my Lord,” indicating that David understood Messiah would be greater than himself, and more than just his physical offspring. Jesus was indeed a descendant of David, as the genealogies in Matthew and Luke both demonstrate, but He was more than David’s son. He was David’s Lord. And though the scribes understood the lineage of Messiah, and though this scribe in particular had high personal regard for Jesus, they had not come to the point of recognizing Him as Lord. And for that reason, this scribe remains just “not far from the Kingdom of God.” But if he will take yet one more step, and surrender his life to Jesus as his Lord, then he would enter into that Kingdom.

Close counts in some things, but not when it comes to the Kingdom of God. You are either in or you are out. Jesus said in John 10:9, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.” And we enter that door as we recognize Him by faith as Lord and receive His promise of salvation from sin. So, what about you? Have you entered that door? Is Christ Lord of your life? You may have high regard for the things of God and act on your responsibility to your fellow man, and even have a deep admiration for Jesus. If so, then you’re not far off. But have you taken that final step to surrender your life to Him as Lord? If this scribe is to enter the Kingdom, He must take that step, as must each of us. The door is opened, and the offer is extended. Receive Him as Lord, and be not content to be close, because when it comes to this, close doesn’t count, and the consequences are eternal. Many of you have entered in, and looking over your shoulder through the portal of the Kingdom, you see others whom you know who are not far off. Are you praying for them? Are you loving them? Are you inviting them, urging them, to enter in with you? God may be laying someone on your heart today whom you need to confront with a simple question: “Is Christ Lord of your life?” He died for your sins, and for the sins of that one who is not far off, and He conquered death through His resurrection. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” There are so many who are close, but not close enough. One step yet remains. Call upon the risen Jesus as your Lord today and be saved. Beckon others to call upon Him and be saved as well.



[1] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/close-but-no-cigar.html, Accessed 9/4/2008.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 493.

[3] Hendriksen, 494.

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