The Lord Jesus, having arrived in Jerusalem, experienced opposition on all fronts. Challenges came from different sources: chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees. Each challenge also had a different emphasis. Spiritual, Political and Doctrinal challenges have already been answered. The next challenge was:
A Moral Challenge: the Question about the Law (12:28-34)
“And one of the scribes came …” (v28). When the “chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders” came as a group to challenge the Lord (11:27), there was no sincerity. However, this individual scribe was different. Just as one Pharisee distinguished himself from others (Joh 3), so one scribe stood out as sincere and received the Lord’s commendation, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). Notice:
The Scribe’s Approach (v28)
As an expert in the law, this scribe had listened carefully to the Lord’s responses to His challengers. He “heard them reasoning together” and he knew that the Lord “answered them well” (v28). Thus, he felt at liberty to ask his own question: “Which is the first commandment of all?”
The Lord’s Answer (vv29-31)
As ever, the Lord did not fudge on an answer. He answered directly: “The first of all the commandments is …” (v29). The Lord did not state that every single command in God’s Word had the same importance. There are “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Mat 23:23). All Scripture is authoritative but not all truth is of the same weight.
The Lord first cited the Shema, a well-known passage from Deuteronomy which was recited twice daily by devout Jews. The Attention of Israel was gained. “Hear, O Israel” emphasises that what follows holds great importance. The Identification of Israel’s God was essential because only He was the legitimate object for the love demanded. His name, relationship to Israel, and distinction from idols are stressed: “The Lord our God is one Lord.” Finally, the Obligation is stated, “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment” (vv29-30; cf. Deu 6:4-5).
The “Lord thy God” was to be the supreme object of love and devotion. This love is a choice. It governs a person’s decisions (heart), desires (soul), deliberations (mind) and deeds (strength). It envelops the volitional, emotional, intellectual and physical life. The whole person is yielded unreservedly to God. The practical outworking of this was fully seen only in the life of the Lord Jesus, who said, “I do always those things that please him” (Joh 8:29).
The Lord again stressed, “This is the first commandment.” It was foremost and foundational. If a person was devoted in this fashion to God, all other commandments would be properly understood and wholeheartedly observed.
The Lord then cited another Old Testament passage, this time from Leviticus: “And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (v31; cf. Lev 19:18). Again, there is a choice in this love. The thought is not that we like everyone or, still less, that we affirm every sinful lifestyle; it is rather that we determine to seek the highest good of all. The “neighbour” includes any other human being with which we are brought into contact (cf. Luk 10:25-37). That which is of ultimate good for us (as revealed in God’s Word) we should desire for, and bestow upon, others.
The Lord concluded, “There is none other commandment greater than these” (v31). No other command of God is of greater importance or more foundational than these two pillars upon which “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mat 22:40). In our understanding and application of the Word of God we must remember that neither of these laws should be nullified. Our goal should always be to glorify God and to bless the people God brings into our lives.
The Scribe’s Agreement (vv32-33)
This scribe, unlike others of his group, was not determined to find fault. He admitted, “Well, Master, thou hast said the truth” (v32). He agreed with the Identification of God: “There is one God; and there is none other but he” (v32). He agreed with the Obligation of people: “And to love him … and to love his neighbour … is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v33).
Summing up all of the ritual of Judaism under the expression “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” this scribe showed his proper understanding of what is important to God. Wholehearted devotion toward God and genuine compassion for fellow human beings is of far greater value than all external religious observances. The scribe understood that spiritual and moral practice was far more important than ceremonial or ritualistic observances.
The Lord’s Approval (v34)
The Lord saw that this man “answered thoughtfully” (NET). There was no mockery or levity with this scribe. The Lord’s ability to answer well had first drawn the scribe to ask his question. Now, the question being answered, he would think carefully about it. And the Lord said, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.”
When a person sincerely faces the challenge of God’s character and does not hide behind ritual and ceremony, that person is near to the kingdom. A true acceptance of the standard set by these two commands would surely lead a person to acknowledge their sinfulness before God and to seek His grace for a work of God in the heart (cf. Jer 31:33-34; Eze 36:25-28; Joh 3).
The conclusion is that “no man after that durst ask him any question.” The discussion with the scribe had pricked the conscience and opened up the big question of entrance into God’s kingdom. This silenced the people as the law did its convicting work in the heart (Rom 3:19-20).
A few lessons can be gleaned from this incident. First, almost all sincere questions are raised by individuals rather than groups; we should be attentive to such. Second, not all of God’s commands have the same weight. Greater stress should be placed on spiritual and moral character than the observance of certain traditions or rituals. Third, God’s greatest goal for our lives, practically, is that we love Him wholeheartedly and seek the good of others consistently for His glory.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.