“Sanctify them in the Truth; Your Word is Truth.”
What a powerful statement! Jesus lays out two great truths for us in this little statement…first, that it is by the means of the Truth that we should be sanctified and that the Word of God (Scripture) is Truth. Yet, we need to lay out some definitions here to make sure we understand the depth of this statement.
The first question we really need to ask is what does the word “sanctify” mean. In Greek, the term sanctify is the word, aJgia/zw (hagiazw), which is related to the term a¢gioß (hagios), meaning “holy” or “set apart for sacred use.” The Hebrew equivalent to this term is vwødDq (qadosh); God regularly sets apart his people (Leviticus 19:2, 20:26), his priests (Leviticus 21:8), and implements or items of worship (Leviticus 27:30,32) as hÎwhyÅl v®døq (qodesh layahweh)—“Holy to the Lord.” Thus, getting back to aJgia/zw (hagiazw), sanctification is the process by which God makes us holy as He is holy. It is a process by which he refines us as by fire (1 Peter 1:6-7), scraping off the dross and refining us for his work here in this world and to be ultimately purified as we are prepared to enter into his eternal presence in glory.
Thus, if we are sanctified in Truth and the scriptures are the revelation of God’s word, then how are we sanctified in the Bible? To begin with, let us state up front that the efforts of man in this area avail him nothing if not indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not talking here about those who do not have new life, but he is talking about the born-again believer in Jesus Christ. Also, it should be noted that Jesus did speak many other words and do many other things than are recorded in the Bible (John 21:25), so some would argue that the Bible is not synonymous with God’s Word. While there is some truth to that claim, it is clear that the Bible is the only revelation of God that has been written down and preserved for us through the ages (through the superintending of the Holy Spirit). Certainly, there are many texts that claim divine or apostolic authorship as well as prophetic authorship, but these texts have clearly been shown to be much later additions, written under pseudonyms, and are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It has become popular in this age to drag out these texts and create false theologies based on them, but such is the work of false teachers whose condemnation was designated and written about long ago (Jude 4). Look to the fruit of such teachers (Matthew 7:15-20) and who pervert the grace of God into sensuality and deny Jesus Christ (Jude 4 again). The second century church fathers refuted them when they were writing, we should heed their warnings and not stumble into the errors of these charlatans.
As we move, then, back to the Bible—God’s revealed word and the source of all Truth, then how is it that the Bible is a tool in our sanctification? John Calvin made the argument that there are three purposes to the moral law as it is contained in scripture—the first was simply to set before us a moral code so that we can live together in society without killing one another. Simply spoken, how different our world would be if every human being on our planet lived by those ten basic commandments! Secondly, the Ten Commandments are designed to teach us our inability to live a holy life before the Lord. The simple fact is that try as we may, we cannot keep the commandments of God and thus as we survey the world around us, it is filled with idolatry, crime, adultery, greed, lust, etc… Thus, the law teaches us we need a savior to redeem us from our wicked state. Then finally comes the third use of the Law, which is as a tool of sanctification (what Jesus is talking about here) not for all mankind, but for the believer. As we seek to live according to the Moral Law of God out of a desire to honor our Redeemer and God, we grow more and more like the one who fulfilled that law for us, Jesus Christ.
Jesus said that if we love him, we will demonstrate that love in obedience to his commands (John 14:15). In addition, in the great commission, Jesus commands the Apostles to go out and make disciples. What are the marks of a true disciple? First, they have been baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But, secondly, they have been taught to obey “all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Thus, we can infer that it is not just the Moral Law that believers are to seek to obey, but all of God’s word as he lays it out before us. This is not to suggest that we are to obey all of the sacramental laws of the Old Testament, Jesus has fulfilled them for us once and for all time (Hebrews 10:10) nor is it to mean that the civil laws of the Old Testament are to be applied as they were applied in the Old Testament—Jesus himself forgave sins punishable by death (John 8:11)—such laws were given for a people who were structured into a Theocratic kingdom, now we are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9) and thus have a priestly function while living within the nations of others (just as the Levites did in Israel and just as Abraham did while living as an alien in Canaan). We can certainly glean some moral principles from these case laws in the Old Testament, but their application is a moral guide and not civil law.
The heart at what Jesus is getting at, though, is that we must be taking God’s word and applying it to every area of our lives if we are to grow like him. How do we do this, though, if we are not immersing ourselves in our Bibles and studying it—recognizing it as Truth? What does it say about our hearts if we go to the Bible, yet it does not change us? In Christ we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), being changed—transformed even—into the image of Christ through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2)—and how is that renewal to take place? It takes place through the application of God’s word to every area of our lives—indeed, as our Lord prayed, we are sanctified according to his Word. Christian, pursue that end.
“And one of the scribes approached, hearing them disputing, and seeing that he replied well to them, put a question to him: “which commandment is first in the whole?”
Matthew and Mark both include this dialogue between Jesus and the Scribe/teacher of the Law with very few variations. Luke relates a similar account, but the context and the question were entirely different. In Luke 10:27, Jesus is being asked what one must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response is to give the same answer that he does in this passage, but also to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate who one’s neighbor happens to be. In addition, Luke then records the event with Jesus at Mary and Martha’s house to help illustrate (through Mary’s actions) what it looks like when you love the Lord God with all of your heart, strength, and mind.
In this context, we find Jesus during his last week of earthly ministry, often referred to as Jesus’ Passion Week. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem during this time and has been publicly teaching and facing the challenges of the Jewish authorities. In terms of the immediate context, this dialogue most likely takes place that Tuesday, two days before his arrest, and he is facing a string of legal and philosophical questions that are designed to trap Jesus into siding with one religious party or another—a trap that Jesus refuses to fall into. Hence, unlike the account in Luke, there is no genuine interchange of ideas nor does Jesus tell any parables to illustrate his point; he is being challenged and the statements that come out of the mouth of our Lord are made with emphasis and with clarity.
Earlier this day, the Sadducees had sent a group to question Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and to clear it of those who were selling in the courtyard. After the Sadducees leave the Pharisees step in only to be followed by the Sadducees once again. Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with one another. The Sadducees were the remnant of the elite priestly ruling class that went back to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had begun in Judea roughly 170 years earlier. When Judah Maccabees and his brothers overthrew the Seleucids, who controlled the area at the time, his brother Simon would end up ruling over the then free Jewish state (Judah had died). Simon combined the office of King with that of the High Priest, making the priestly office one of privilege and reputation and not one of Levitical service. These “Royal Priests” would become known as the Sadducees. During this era, two reform groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Essines. The Essines were a radical group that withdrew from the cities into what were essentially fortified monasteries. They studied and trained to become the army of the Messiah when he would come. The Pharisees were a less radical group, but one that pushed personal piety and who challenged the hypocrisy of the ruling order. Sadly, by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had reduced themselves into a legalistic view of what it meant to be a believer and had become very hypocritical themselves, obeying the law (as they nuanced it) but missing entirely the purpose behind the law. With this history in mind, it is easy to see not only the tension between the two classes (Pharisees and Sadducees), but also the way each group was looking to try and get Jesus to take sides so that they could discredit him.
Thus a scribe approaches Jesus and puts him to the test—which commandment would Jesus say was first amongst the whole of the law, or, as we usually put it into language today, which is the greatest commandment? Our idiomatic English translation does us a little bit of an injustice, though, given our mindset. When someone poses the question to us of which commandment or which law is the greatest, we think back, and in our minds, treat the commandments of God as separate commands that can be isolated from one another. As westerners, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing everything, and while on some level this is useful for acquiring and applying knowledge, it also creates a perception that the commandments of God are not intimately interrelated—or more specifically, are a unified whole. One of the great points that James makes is that if you break one of the commands in the Ten Commandments, you are guilty of breaking the whole law because the whole law is one (James 2:10). It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus answers this question by summing up the spirit of the law in two categories rather than elevating one aspect of the whole. Which is first in the whole, Jesus is asked? “Love God” is his answer. Which is second? “Love man.”
While many of us who have grown up in the Protestant traditions are accustomed to this kind of language, essentially dividing the Law of God (the 10 Commandments) into two sections, or two tables, one being our obligations toward God and the second being our obligations toward man, we must not assume that such is the same way the ancient minds approached the Law. In fact, there were and continue to be many schools of thought amongst Jewish and Christian thinkers as to how the Decalogue should be divided up. Some have suggested that there are five and five, drawing thematic parallels between the first and the sixth, the second and the seventh, and so forth. For example, the line of thinking is that the first commandment (no other gods) is connected with the sixth (not kill) because when you take the life of another you put yourself into God’s place, essentially making yourself to be a god and breaking the first commandment as well as the sixth. Though Jesus does not divide up the law in this way, it does help illustrate the inter-connectedness and unity of the Ten Commandments of God.
In Jesus’ day, gematria had become a popular way of looking at the Law. Gematria is a means by which the numerical value of words or phrases was calculated (remembering that letters in ancient times represented the numerical system, so “a” would be equal to 1 and “b” would be equal to 2, etc…). Then, the laws which represented the highest numerical value was considered to be most important. Another way that was popular was to look at the penalty that was connected to disobeying the law. The harsher the judgment against the sin, the more important that rule was considered to be. This concept was later picked up by the Roman Catholic church and provided some of the foundation for their division of mortal and venal sins along with isolated passages like 1 John 5:16-17 and Hebrews 10:26). By Jesus’ day, the rabbis had extended this debate outside of the Ten Commandments to reflect the whole council of God’s command. They had identified (in what we refer to as the Old Testament scriptures) 613 commandments of God (248 positive commands and 365 negative commands). Others weighted commands more heavily depending on how far back in the scriptures that they were recorded as having been given, thus emphasizing the Sabbath command or the Circumcision. Yet, once everything was said and done, they missed the purpose of the law—to demonstrate to us the holiness of God and to make us painfully aware that based on human efforts alone, we cannot come close to that holiness—or, in other words, to drive us to our knees in the midst of our sins and make us realize how desperately we need a redeemer. The Law was not designed to be parsed and made into a checklist; it was meant to drive us to Christ!
With this now before us, we have a far better picture of what the religious authorities were trying to do with Jesus. They were trying to put him into a box or a category, and then once defined by men’s terms, they could give him a label. Once labeled, they could have worked to discredit him in the people’s eyes. This scribe is essentially seeing where Jesus is going to fall in this matter, but our Lord does not allow himself to be put into a box. Our Lord never allows himself to be put into a box, but oh, how we so often try. We want to define God on our terms and according to our own understanding of how we believe God should think and behave, but God refuses to be dealt with on human terms. Beloved, how we must always endeavor to submit ourselves to God’s terms. Let God define our theology and our ideas according to his word, do not try to make God work to support your pet preference. This way of thinking and living is a harder road to travel, but it is the only road that honors God with your heart, mind, and whole life.