This week, Carol and I will head for California to celebrate my in-laws 60th wedding anniversary. Imagine that I drive to the airport but decide to camp out in the parking lot. Have I arrived? What if I board the airplane but it remains on the runway? Have I arrived? Imagine that I fly to LAX but decide to remain in the terminal? Have I arrived? What if I drive to my in-laws’ home and live in my car on their driveway? Have I arrived? By now you’re thinking, what kind of idiot would settle for traveling but never arriving? We would all agree that I have not truly arrived until I enter the house and give my in-laws a hug.
Pastor and author R. Kent Hughes stated, “It is possible to be within an inch of Heaven, yet go to Hell.” Mark 12:28-34 tells the story of a religious leader who came “oh so close” to the kingdom of God. This account is the fifth of seven controversies (Mark 11:27-12:40). The Sanhedrin, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and Scribes take a tag-team approach trying to trap Jesus. They each ask their favorite questions in an attempt to back him into a corner.
On this occasion, a scribe asks Jesus the penetrating question, “Teacher, of all the commandments, which is the most important?” The religious leaders had compiled all the commandments in the law into a list of 613. There were 248 “Thou shalt” and 365 “Thou shalt not.” They further divided the list into “heavy” or more important commands, and “light” or less important ones.
It’s difficult to know if this is an honest question or simply a diversionary tactic. In Matthew’s account (Matthew 22:34-40), it appears to be one more trap, while in Mark’s account (12:28-34), it appears to be a sincere question.
Borrowing a phrase from today’s business lexicon, Jesus tells the lawyer or scribe that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is to love God with every ounce of your being—heart, soul, mind, and strength (29-30). In so doing, Jesus refers back to the great shema of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:4-5. We are to love God with our intellect, our emotions, our will, and our energy. Rather than compartmentalize our lives, we are to love God with everything we have.
Jesus goes on to say that there is a second main thing. Not only are we to love God, we are to love people (31). We demonstrate love for people by giving them our time when we listen to their concerns, care for their needs, pray for their burdens, and serve them. We show our love by practicing the “one another” commands in the New Testament.
These two commands—loving God and loving people—sum up the entire law (Exodus 20:3-17) in a succinct phrase. It demonstrates that Christianity is a relationship, not a ritual, which the scribe wisely observes (32-33). As Christ later teaches (Matthew 25:31-40), we love God BY loving people.
However, knowing the answer to the question, “What commandment is the most important?” is not enough. The answer alone won’t get you into heaven. The scribe rightly understands that Jesus spoke wisely, and yet Jesus tells him he is only on the doorstep. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
In R. Kent Hughes’ commentary on Mark, he points out: It is possible to have grown up in church, to have consistent, godly parents, and never come to a saving knowledge of Christ. It is possible to have studied theology and never become a true Christian. It is possible to have heard the grace of Christ preached all your life and still be resting on your own goodness. It is possible to become gospel-hardened, and so seal your damnation even within the church. It is possible to fool everyone and have the preacher preach your funeral and assure everyone that your soul is resting in Heaven when it is really in Hell. It is possible to be within an inch of the Kingdom of God and miss it completely. “It is possible to be within an inch of Heaven, yet go to Hell!”
Don’t settle for “Almost There.” Receive Christ as Savior & Lord Today!
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on November 22, 2015. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.