Christmas and the Great Commandment
A sermon on Mark 12:28-31 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/12/04
What does Christmas have to do with missions?
This morning we watched a video introducing the course, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Was that a distraction from thinking about Christmas? Or should we focus on missions during the Christmas season?
I think you know how I’m going to say that the Perspectives video is exactly what we should focus on during this season. I say that for two reasons:
Missions is about crossing cultural boundaries. If all Christians were incredibly successful in spreading a passion for the supremacy of God among people from their own culture, there would still be billions of unbelievers, people who live in cultures untouched with the Gospel. We must send cross-cultural missionaries if we are to fulfill God’s plan – to bring worshipers to Himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
So missionaries are those who cross cultural boundaries to spread the Gospel. But who is the greatest cross-cultural missionary of all time? Jesus Himself! For Jesus crossed the greatest cultural divide imaginable, leaving the throne room of God to enter the womb of a young woman; turning His back on the glory and adoration and praise He received from cherubim and seraphim, and being laid in a feeding trough for cows. We’ll talk more about this next week.
So we should focus on missions at Christmas, first, because Jesus is a great example to us of someone who crosses a huge cultural divide to spread the Gospel. But He is not only an example. The very purpose of the incarnation is to purchase a people for God’s own possession – a people made up of all the peoples of the earth. Jesus becomes man and redeems some from every people group so that all will see that no cultural barrier is strong enough to keep people from God. Jesus ensures that God will be praised in every language. At the last day, no one will be able to say, “It was just too hard for me to believe – my culture was too resistant!” God will blast holes in every cultural wall separating people from the Good News, and leave all unbelievers without excuse. He will see to it that the purpose for which He created humanity – to bring glory of His Name – will be fulfilled by the whole array of humankind.
So for a true believer in Jesus – as opposed to someone who is simply a cultural Christian - Christmas should be a time of particular focus on the task that God gives us – the task similar to Jesus’ own cross-cultural journey: Spreading the Gospel to those who have no witness to Jesus Christ among their own people; taking on the discomfort of crossing language and cultural barriers; going to hard places, to hard, resistant peoples; going to dangerous, uncomfortable places. Why? For our joy and the joy of the nations.
Thus one primary objective of Desiring God Community Church is to lift your eyes! Lift your eyes so that you might see the worldwide vision of God!
So many think that Christianity is about finding:
I hope if you’ve attended DGCC even one Sunday, you no longer believe any of that – if you ever did.
I have nothing against making friends, or learning to be a better marriage partner. I have nothing against teaching children the truths of God’s Word, and helping parents to love their children and raise them. We try to make DGCC a place where all those happen. I don’t even have anything against unwinding – though I don’t think listening to me preach helps anyone unwind.
But our purpose is much greater than any of these.
We thus are not a church with a small, achievable vision. We have a HUGE, biblical vision of the task God gives the church.
When you hear this, you might respond: I can’t do that personally! We can’t do that corporately!
That’s a good response – because there is an important sense in which it is true. There is no way we can accomplish that mission through our intelligence, through our experience, through our money, through our organizational skills. Human effort will never fulfill that mission.
But don’t stop with that response and despair! Ephesians 3:20 says God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Think about that: He is able to do more than we ask. Asking is important. Jesus says, “Knock and the door will be opened for you.” When God commands us to do anything, we must ask for His help in accomplishing that task. And He answers.
But statement means more than that: God is able to do more than we imagine. God is so great, so mighty, so creative, that our best efforts at imagining what He is able to do are far beneath His capabilities. So He not only commands us to make disciples of all nations; He guarantees that He will bring that about through us in ways that will surprise us and glorify Him. He not only commands us to be the light of the world, but He guarantees that He will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.
And what else that we can’t imagine might God do?
William Carey was born in 1761 into a poor family in England. He had little schooling, being apprenticed to a shoemaker at age 16. But God called him to Himself during those teen years. Carey began to study the Bible voraciously, and then to preach. For several years he served as pastor of tiny churches, while still supporting himself and his family through shoemaking. In 1792, the 31 year old Carey preached at a meeting of Baptist ministers. His text was Isaiah 54:2-3:
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.
Do you see the picture? Note that the word translated “curtain” is used for the material that makes up the walls of a tent. So God is saying, “Your tent is too small! Pull up the stakes and lengthen the cords! Get stronger stakes! Sure, it’s a pain to pull up stakes and to make your cords longer. It will be disruptive, it will be difficult. But do it! Why? You will spread abroad! Your offspring will possess the nations! You need a lot more room in that tent – far more than you can imagine!
Carey was preaching to pastors who had thought their only task was ministering to their people and evangelizing their villages. He was telling them God called them to target all the nations! A few small Baptist churches in a small city in England!
Carey exhorted them: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
So they sent him off to India as a missionary. And there were many years of frustration and difficulty and tragedy. But in the end he was the translator or publisher of the Bible in 40 different Asian languages. He is rightly called the father of modern missions.
As Ruth Tucker writes, “Carey’s life profoundly illustrates the limitless potential of a very ordinary individual. He was a man who, apart from his unqualified commitment to God, no doubt would have lived a very mediocre existence.”
I don’t want to live a very mediocre existence. You don’t want to live such an existence either.
So we put Carey’s words in the Desiring God Community Church vision and values statement: “Each person [is] encouraged to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God, as God develops the gifts He gives to each believer.”
Expect great things from God – because He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all you ask or imagine! You do not have a millionth of the passion for God’s glory that He does! So imagine how God might use you for His glory!
And then step out! Attempt great things for God, by His power.
William Carey had to leave his beloved congregation, his beloved England; he had to override the protests of his wife. It was hard. But he trusted God. He stepped out. And God used Him far beyond his greatest dreams.
Just so, we must step out. But how can you step out – when you’re shackled by the customs of your culture? How can you think outside the box, and expect great things from God, and then attempt great things for God?
That only happens when you move toward fulfilling the Great Commandment. (See, I didn’t forget my text for today.) Please turn with me to Mark 12:28. The Pharisees and Sadducees have been trying to catch Jesus in a trap, trying to get him to say something that either will offend the crowds, so they will turn away from Him, or offend their Roman rulers, so that they will arrest him. But Jesus has bested them again and again. One of scribes is impressed, and comes to him not laying a trap but seeking truth:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 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.' 31 The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32 And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 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 oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew 22:40 He says, all the law and prophets depend on, or hang on, these two greatest commandments.
During the next several weeks, I’ll preach a series of sermon on the Great Commandment. Today we’ll look at what this commandment means. For the next several weeks we’ll focus on how we love God. For this is our greatest challenge:
§ How do we go about raising our affections for God?
§ How do we come to love God more than we love our ease and comfort?
§ More than we love our jobs and salaries and 4 bedroom houses?
§ More than we love our health insurance and retirement benefits?
§ More than we love our Toyotas and Hondas?
§ Indeed, how do we come to love God more than we love our fathers and mothers?
§ More than we love our sons and daughters? (Matthew 10:37)
If we are to love God, we must know Him. We must know what He is like. And as we come to know him better, we should love Him more.
Beth and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in 17 days. When we first married I thought I loved her. And I’m sure, in a sense, I did. But that love pales in comparison to the love I have for her today. For in the last quarter of a century I have come to know her much more deeply than I knew her before our marriage.
I know her now in a way I could not have known her 25 years ago. And so, I love her much more profoundly.
That must be the aim of every person: Christian and non-Christian: To know God! Yes, even for the non-Christian. If you are not a Christian, you must ask yourself, “Might there be a God? If so, what is He like?” It’s only logical to ask such questions. All must ask such questions, or just float through life in ignorance. If there is even a possibility that God exists, asking such questions is vitally important.
For the Christian: God commands us to know Him and love Him. Paul writes, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ,” and then he summarizes his desires by saying, “I want to know Christ.” (Philippians 3:8,10). Hosea is even more explicit:
“Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD.” (Hosea 6:3)
So how can we do this? In the sermon series we’ll examine four ways to know and thus love God more and more fully:
Knowing and Loving God through the Incarnation
Knowing and Loving God through Prayer
Knowing and Loving God through His Word
Knowing and Loving God through Loving our Neighbor
I trust that this series will help you start 2005 with the commitment to know God better, and thus love Him more fully than in 2004.
Today, I want to make two points about what loving God means in the Great Commandment:
God commands us to love Him with ALL, not part, of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This means will all of each component of our being, all the time.
Let’s look at these four aspects of our being one by one.
In today’s text, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5. But if you look at that passage in any English version, you won’t see the word “mind”. That verse tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
Did Jesus misquote the verse?
For the Israelites, the concept of “mind” was included in the Hebrew words we’ve translated “heart” and “soul.” But for the Greeks – and for us! – mind is considered a separate aspect of our being. If we were told to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, we might very well think that we weren’t commanded to love Him with our mind. So in Mark’s gospel – written particularly for Greek culture – “mind” is included, to show that the command is to love God with our entire being.
Thus, I think it makes sense to begin with mind, and then move to the other three.
What does loving God with our mind mean? We are to learn about God. We are to discipline ourselves and organize our time in such a way that minds so that will be diligent in learning more about God. This includes setting aside time to read God’s Word, and to listen to solid preaching. This includes discussing the things of God with others, both believers and unbelievers. Indeed, consider the verses in Deuteronomy that immediately follow the Great Commandment:
6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, 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. Deuteronomy 6:6-7
Thus, we are to fill our minds with the Word of God, always. We must not let other thoughts push God out.
We try to help you do that:
If we are to love God with all our minds, we must fill those minds with the things of God. Talk and think about them when you are in your house, when you walk, when you lie down, and when you rise. Make use of these resources to do that.
We must love God with all our minds.
The knowledge we get through filling our minds with the things of God must translate into love. We are to love God with all our minds, not just think about the things of God. Charles Spurgeon: speaks of those who know Christian doctrine and enjoy arguing about correct doctrine, but “their religion is like a dead fish, cold and stiff, and when you take it into your hand, you say there is no life in it; their souls were never stirred with it; their hearts were never thrown into it.” Thus, loving God with all our minds is intimately related to loving God with all our heart.
Jonathan Edwards says:
Although to true religion there must indeed be something else besides affection; yet true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them. He who has no religious affection, is in a state of spiritual death. . . . If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart. The reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things, as they often hear and read of, in the Word of God, is undoubtedly because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible, and utterly inconsistent with human nature, that their hearts should be otherwise than strongly impressed, and greatly moved by such things.
We are spiritually blind if the knowledge of God does not move us to love of God. Thus as important as knowing God is, we don’t call ourselves “Knowing God Community Church”, but “Desiring God Community Church.” Our mission statement is not “to spread a knowledge of the supremacy of God in all things” but “to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things.“
Knowledge is important. Knowledge is vital. But knowledge must translate into affections. We must love God with all our heart.
The soul is the inner being, what makes you you. This includes all your special quirks and preferences.
Think of the things you love – particular things that distinguish you from most other people. For me:
But if I love God with ALL my SOUL, I must love God more than these.
Now, if I love good, healthy things, I may not have to make a choice between loving God and loving these other activities. But following God may mean giving up these things. If I love Him with all my soul, I will do so joyfully, not reluctantly.
We must love God with all our soul.
The command to love God with all our strength shows that genuine love for God shows itself in our lives – it is not just an inner attitude. Consider: How does strength manifest itself? When do you say someone is strong? Do you look at someone lounging on the couch watching the Panthers game and say, “Wow! He’s really strong!”
No. Strength shows itself when the strong person completes a difficult task – a task a weak person could never accomplish: Running a fast race, lifting heavy weights, climbing steep, tall mountains. Strength manifests itself in actions.
Thus our love for God concerns what we do, not only what we think. Love for God concerns not only what takes place in our study, but what takes place every minute of every day: what you do, how you respond to those around you. We must love God with all our strength – meaning we must step out and do difficult things because of our love for God.
This leads to directly to two implications of our love for God:
Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength means we will obey Him. Jesus makes this clear in John 14:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (v14)
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. (v21)
Why does love for God imply obedience? There is much we could say, but this morning I want to emphasize only two brief points:
God tells Abraham to leave all he knows, all his family, all his career. He promises to show him the land, and promises him blessings. Abraham knew God, and so trusted Him. He stepped out in faith.
William Carey saw God’s promise to “enlarge the place of your tent,” and rightly understood that passage to refer to God’s bringing all the nations to Himself. He knew God through his diligent study of Scriptures, and so believed God, trusted God, loved God – and stepped out in faith.
Just so with us. To love God, we must know Him. To really know Him is to trust Him. Trusting God, we will obey Him. If we are disobedient, fundamentally we do not know and love Him.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18
To see Jesus Christ – to really see Him - is to become like Him. We look to Him, learn of Him, love Him – and He transforms us into His image. Seeing is becoming.
But also – obedience is becoming. In several sermons I’ve used the phrase, “Obedience is its own reward.” When we love Jesus Christ, we want to be like him. And when we obey, we are becoming like Him:
Obedience makes us like Jesus Christ. And that indeed is a great reward. Thus we love God with all our strength.
So we’ve seen some of the extent and implications of the Great Commandment.
How are you doing?: Can you put “fulfilling the Great Commandment” on your to-do list, and then check it off for today?
You might be able to fool yourself into thinking you can check off the Ten Commandments: If you don’t understand all their implications, you might say, “Nope, didn’t make any graven images today. Didn’t murder anyone. Oh, and I didn’t steal. Didn’t commit adultery. Didn’t bear false witness. Hey, I’m doing pretty well!”
But how about, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”? No one can check that off. This command shows us that we sin every day, every hour.
Thus, in response, we should throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus Christ. We should see clearly that we don’t deserve His love, His patience, His persistent calling of us. And thus this commandment must humble us before Him.
In conclusion, I want to address three groups of people here this morning:
We’re so glad you’re here: Stay with us. Ask questions. Indeed, ask the hardest questions you can think of. Come back. See what the Bible says about God. Learn who Jesus claimed to be. Study His life.
Our goal is not to get you to join our club. Our goal is to present Jesus Christ to you, in all His beauty and glory. The most important decision you will ever make, the most important topic you will ever study is: Who is Jesus? So don’t be distracted from that topic! Investigate the Christ of Christmas. And as you see Him for Who He is, as you see yourself for who you are before Him, we pray that you, by God’s grace, will come to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Those of you who thought you were Christians when you walked in, but don’t see this kind of love for God in your heart.
Some of you may be wondering: Am I really Christian at all?
If that’s the case, then say with Paul, “I want to know Christ!” Don’t wait for my sermons on prayer, or on the Word - Pray to see Him! Fill your mind not with Christmas TV specials, but with the special Christ of Christmas! Meditate on God’s Word. Submit yourself to Him. Confess your lack of love. Confess your unbelief – and pray that God would use His Word, both read and preached, to open up your heart to know Him and love him with all your being.
Do you understand the great privilege you have? The privilege of being adopted into the family of the King of the Universe? You, too, say with Paul: “I want to know Christ!” You too discipline yourselves to set your mind on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
And as you know him – step out! Dream! Dream about what God might do in and through Desiring God Church.
What might He do? Plant another church within 18 months? Have a major impact on a particular unreached people group? Bring about a major movement to Himself in the neighborhoods surrounding this campus?
Loving God with all our being has implications even for tonight’s business meeting. We’ve proposed a large budgetary increase for next year. It is tempting for us to ask: Is this increase too big? My question is: Is this too small? Are we expecting great things from God? Are we attempting great things for God?
I share with John Piper the fear he stated in last week’s sermon: At the end of my life, when I appear before God, His looking at me and saying, “Your ambitions were too small. You didn’t ask for enough. You didn’t expect great things from me. You thus didn’t attempt great things for me.”
Small ambitions, not asking enough, come from not loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.
So what is God calling you to? I encourage you: Take the Perspectives class, or, if you’ve already taken it, attend several of the lectures again. Take to heart this biblical, God-entranced vision of all things.
Don’t be satisfied with creaturely comforts. Love God above all.
And dream about how you might glorify His Name
Follow the cross-cultural example of the Christ of Christmas. Spread the Good News of the salvation bought by the baby in the manger.
Imagine. Dream. And then pray, “Lord God! What does loving you with all my being mean in my life? Open my eyes! Help me dream God-sized dreams! Use me for your glory!”
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/12/04. John Piper’s sermon from 12/5/04 was very helpful in general, and led me specifically to speak of Jesus as a cross-cultural missionary and to discuss William Carey and Isaiah 54. It is available online at http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/04/120504.html. Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on Mark 12:40 was also helpful; it is available at http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0162.htm. The Jonathan Edwards quote is from Religious Affections, Part 1, Section 3, available online at http://www.jonathanedwards.com/text/RA/RAPart1-3.htm. The Ruth Tucker quote is from From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Zondervam. 1983), p. 114.
Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, (send email), c/o Desiring God Community Church, PO Box 620099, Charlotte, NC 28262.