Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

166. No more questions (Matt. 22:34-46; Mark 12:28-37; Luke 20:40-44)

The Pharisees and others had persisted in plying Jesus with hard questions, evidently because the method had been found to work so well as a means of exposing other self-accredited teachers. With Jesus they stopped (were muzzled; Mt.22 :34; Dt.25 :4) only when they found that they were giving him excellent opportunities for further victories.

So the great discussion in the temple court, for which the rulers were gathered together (Mt. quotes Ps. 2 :2 LXX), now took a new turn. Present amongst the Pharisees, but of a very different temper from most of them, was a doctor of the law whose memory has been perpetuated in the gospels as a scholar willing to humble himself to learn from Jesus of Nazareth. Here was no patronising spirit, no carping criticism or malevolent scheming, but a sincere desire to learn from one who was palpably qualified to teach. And apparently, (Lk.) he spoke as representative of a group of others.

The AV phrase: "tempting him," presents a difficulty. The bad sense of the modern word must not be allowed to dominate this text. Here, along with enquiry, there was doubtless a curiosity whether Jesus could pronounce with such splendid convincing authority on questions of a very different character. It may even be that this genuine seeker after truth was being used as a stooge by his more wily colleagues. Such tactics are not unknown among unscrupulous men.

The First Commandment

"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"

More precisely, the questioner asked:, "What kind of commandment . . .?"-moral, ritual, sacrificial? which? On an earlier occasion (Mt.15 :1-20) Jesus had talked about getting one's religious priorities right.

It is surely remarkable that Pharisees should be concerned about such a problem as this, for their mentality normally gave as much emphasis to "little" as to "great" commandments (e.g. Mt.23:5,23,24,25).

The same question had also been put to Jesus by another scribe (Lk.10 :25). But a careful comparison of the circumstances and details soon establishes that there is little possibility of equating the two.

As soon as the question was put Jesus knew that here was one with no disposition to quibble, so he gave a direct unequivocal answer, which struck right at the roots of Jewish obsession with food laws, outward forms, temple service and offerings:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy might. This is the first and great commandment" (Dt.6 :4,5).

As originally given, this commandment was associated with a promise of prosperity in the Land (6 :2,3). But now Jesus re-enunciated it as a commandment to be kept for its own sake. Only indirectly did he indicate a heavenly blessing to the man who dedicates himself to this ideal (Mk.12 :34).

No precept can be more fundamental or more searching. Let a man learn to live his life recognizing God his Maker as the source and spring of all its good and evil and as the One on whom all his thoughts and activities must gladly centre, and his whole life is transfigured, and life's highest ideal is almost within his grasp.

The Second Commandment

"And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (cp. 1 Jn.4 :20,21). By "neighbour" did Jesus mean himself? It was the lesson he had once sought to illustrate and inculcate by his parable of the Good Samaritan (Study 121). James calls this Second Commandment "the Royal Law," given by the King (2 :8). And L.G.S. has commented very wisely: "As only God can judge, the whole law rests on a foundation of faith in the invisible God".

"On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Jesus added very emphatically, almost as though he were challenging his hearers to find any others that could be set alongside these two (cp. Jn.14 :15). For many of those who heard this declaration it must have proved a most bewildering saying. Long chapters of laws and ordinances were here compressed into a few phrases. The variegated Old Testament story of Israel's history through long centuries taught these two supreme lessons. The fulminations and inspired visions of the prophets were all shot through with these essential principles. And Psalms and Proverbs expressed them with all possible diversity of praise and precept.

"There is no commandment greater than these." Let a man have the fulfilment of these as his will and satisfaction, and all other things will fall into place. The keeping of all other commandments will be, so to speak, a byproduct (cp. Mt.7:12;Gal.5 :14).

It is worth while to observe that, by implication, Jesus here declared the greater importance of some commandments compared with others. A truth of this nature is easily overlooked. There are not a few occasions in life when different requirements of the law of God are in conflict-as, for example, when the government of the country calls on a man to help fight its wars. At such a time: "Resist not evil. . . love your enemies" can hardly be fulfilled seriously if also there is obedience to: "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers." In such circumstances the disciple of Christ has to decide to break one commandment in order to fulfil another which is certainly greater (Acts4 :19).

Good response

The scribe appreciated the spiritual insight of Jesus in the answer given. "Of a truth, Teacher, thou hast well said that he is one; and there is none other but he (this is Dt.6 :4 LXX): and to love him with all the heart, and with all the (spiritual) understanding, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." Was there a school of thought among the scribes that sacrifices were more important than these?

This man had his priorities right. How many Jews of that day would have come so readily to such a conclusion?

Jesus was much encouraged. "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God," he said in tones of warm approval. (Is there here an implication also that those without this discernment are far from the kingdom?). Only the day before he had declared: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you (Jews), and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Mt.21 :43). As a nation Israel were put out of fellowship. Any who sought reinstatement must make individual application. Now here was one showing every sign of being a suitable applicant.

Yet what a shock these words of Jesus must have been to his scribe colleagues standing by. "Not far from the kingdom"! They thought they were guaranteed it by the way of life they had chosen. However, that "not far," spoken to one of them, seemed to imply that most of them were far from the kingdom!

From this point on, no one was disposed to meet Jesus in discussion any further. His tone of authority, his masterly handling of Scripture, his incisive presentation of arguments-and without prior notice too-in all these respects he was more than a match for the concerted efforts of the ablest men in the nation.

David's Son, David's Lord

So, taking the initiative, he now invited their attention to a singular paradox concerning the Messiah. "In what line is the Christ to be born?" he asked them. To this there was only one possible answer: "In the family of David;" and they gave it reluctantly, for they all knew well enough that Jesus himself had the blood of David in his veins. The great cry at his Triumphal Entry still rang discordantly in their ears.

Earlier in the ministry some of them had been willing enough to sneer openly at what they chose to regard as the doubtful origins of Jesus. But even so it was not possible to doubt his Davidic descent. Jesus now set out not only to cope with this slander but also to show that the applauding crowd, far from exaggerating his status by hailing him "Son of David" had understated the honour due to him.

"In the book of Psalms David was inspired by the Holy Spirit (the Hebrew text of Ps.110 :1 implies this) to write about the Messiah in these words: 'Jehovah said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thy foes thy footstool'. Why should David refer to one of his descendants as "my Lord?"

The point was simple and effective. No man addresses his son or his grandson as "Sir". Then why should David? What could possibly give a descendant of his a higher status than David himself?

The words of God Himself in the psalm: "Sit thou on my right hand," supply a clear answer: Messiah, besides being Son of David, is also Son of God. The form of the question: "Whence is he then his son?" was intended to spotlight the correct answer, which had already been declared to David in the great promise of 2 Samuel 7: "I will set up thy seed after thee which shall proceed out of thy bowels... I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (v.12,U). The factual truth and essential doctrine of the Virgin Birth was implicit in the argument he presented.

The Lord knew right well that nothing would bring these scribes to agree openly to this explanation to which he had steered them, for in almost all his discourses in Jerusalem had he not constantly insisted, but in vain, that he was the Son of God? "My Father's House ... I proceeded forth and came from God ... Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am... This is the Heir, come, let us kill him ..." Now in his last, as in his first temple discourse (Lk.2:49; Jn.2:16), he asserted that God was his Father.

These claims to be Son of God, familiar enough to them all, were thus entirely in accordance with Scripture. They harmonized also with the facts these men had learned about the origin of Jesus. He may have been known as the son of Joseph the carpenter, but their enquiries had led them to different information about his birth.

"Sit thou at my right hand, till I put thine enemies underneath thy feet." From this prophecy what a lot these scribes could learn about Jesus (and probably did, though they spoke no word of it). His human weakness is implied. But so also is his power to crush the head of the serpent under his heel-and themselves also if they persisted in their hostility towards him. His exaltation to the Glory of God is also foretold. And the rest of the psalm goes on to hint at resurrection and a new priesthood and authority in judgment. Could this preacher from Nazareth have such a mighty destiny awaiting him?

Foreshadowed in David's time

A few weeks more, and the Holy Spirit, through Peter this time, was to expound and clarify the Messianic work of Jesus risen from the dead (Acts 2 :34-36), using the same text.

Today learned men are as reluctant as ever to concede the force of the Lord's claim made through Psalm 110. That it is not a psalm of David is one of their most "assured conclusions." Jesus declared that it was, and that it was written by the Holy Spirit. Then further confirmation of this conclusion is unnecessary. The sparrow does not teach the eagle how to fly.

Yet how the historical background to the psalm illuminates its language, once the Lord's authority regarding this is accepted. When David brought the ark to Zion, his zeal for Jehovah expressed itself rather astonishingly in an unrebuked assumption of priesthood: "He sacrificed oxen and fatlings ... he was girded with a linen ephod ... As soon as David had made an end of offering burnt offerings and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord. And he dealt (s.w. Lk.22 :17) among the people ... to every one a cake of bread, and a good piece of flesh, and a flagon of wine (as Melchizedek did with Abraham; Gen.14:18; see Notes)."

Here, very remarkably, in four respects. David the king became also David the priest, like Melchizedek who was also God's king in Jerusalem. And evidently he recognized, as he certainly did at other crises in his experience, that he was enacting beforehand the work of a greater Melchizedek priest-king whom God would raise up. Hence Psalm 110, the details of which clearly have their roots in David's own life but which are just as clearly a prophecy of Messiah, Son of David.

When Abraham comes again to Jerusalem (Mk.12 :26) he will again meet a Melchizedek King-Priest who will bring forth Bread and Wine and impart a matchless blessing.

Even the words: "Sit thou at my right hand until I make thy foes thy footstool" are appropriate. "King David went in and sat before the Lord" (2 Sam.7 :18)-and the next chapter, like Psalm 110, catalogues the king's astonishing victories in battle through the blessing of God.

Thus, in more ways than one, the Messiah is "the offspring of David." But by his higher status as Son of God and by his great redeeming work, which blesses his illustrious forefather also, he is "the root of David" (Rev.22 :16).

How far towards these conclusions, one wonders, were the Pharisee critics of Jesus able to follow him?

Notes: Mk. 12:28-37

Heart. In both O.T., N.T. 'heart' is not associated with emotions or inclinations to the extent that it is in modern usage. Rather, it means one's thinking (seeStudy 121 Notes).

With all thy heart. Gk: ek, from, out of. But in Mt: en, in or by means of. Which did Jesus use?

Mind. InN.T. usually means spiritual insight rather than brain-power.

Strength normally means physical strength. A man is not to be afraid to drive himself in the service of his Lord.
Answered. Was the old slander about the Lord's birth (Study 110) being revived?
The translations of 2 Sam.6 :19 vary. Literally: "And a portion, and a pressing." The last word might apply to figs, dates, raisins, or to wine pressed out.

Sit thou at my right hand. The words also imply: 'Even if your plot against me succeeds, I shall rise from the dead and ascend to heaven.'

Until I make suggests the human weakness of Messiah.

Thy enemies. Not a few of them then present with him in the temple court!

Thy footstool implies a sharing of the glory of the Father; Ps.99 :5.

Previous Index Next