First Things First

Is there a nucleus to the Bible? A core? A vital center and heart?

Is there any way to summarize the biblical story, to narrow its teachings down to the essentials, to get at the pith and point of Scripture?

And—in particular—is there a short and succinct way to talk about the story that saves and sanctifies us?

Unless our evangelistic approach boils down to throwing a Bible at people and telling them, “Read that!” we’d better hope there is a “crux of the matter.” And unless our approach to discipleship is little more than throwing a Bible at ourselves and saying, “Do this!” we need some trustable method to discern the “matters that matter” and to focus on the biblical bits that are at the heart of the Christian walk.

The process of sifting through Scripture in search of a core and crux is no easy affair. If all of Scripture is “God-breathed,” doesn’t that mean that every word is precious and necessary? Aren’t we treading on dangerous ground when we start to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to emphasize and which parts to downplay?

Perhaps. There is always the danger of accentuating the teachings we like and ignoring the ones we don’t. And we continually bump into our own limitations when, as fallen human beings, we try to distinguish between more and less important biblical ideas.

Having said that, I would ask you to consider three things.

A Faithful Question

First, “What are the weightier matters of Scripture?” has been a question faithful people have always asked and answered. Think about the following interaction:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard [Jesus and the religious leaders] debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk 12:28-34)

This nameless “teacher” came to Jesus with the very question we are considering: Is there a way to sift through God’s revealed word to find a central core? Can we distinguish between matters of more or less importance?

Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the man for asking this question or give him a pointed lecture about all the commandments being important. His response clearly indicates that the question is both legitimate and significant. There are more important commandments. It is possible to sort through Scripture to find teachings that have greater weight. Jesus goes straight to the heart of God’s word and identifies the essential core: love God and love your neighbor.

But he goes further. In Matthew’s version of this incident, Jesus adds: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40). It is not simply that these two commandments are “first among equals.” They are central. Everything else in Scripture “hangs on” them, depends on them. To fail at these two commandments makes all the rest moot. Loving God and neighbor must be placed at the center of Scripture (and of life) or everything else falls apart.

Just to underscore this point, notice the reply of Jesus’ interrogator. Getting these two commandments right, putting these two at the center, is “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” What? Weren’t offerings and sacrifices explicitly commanded by God? Certainly. But if you’re going to stumble at something (and we always do), this “teacher” implies it is better to miss the offerings than miss the heart.

Jesus is in heated agreement. He recognizes that the man has answered “wisely” and assures him, “You are not far from the Kingdom!”

Paul addressed and answered the same question:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures … (1Co 15:3-4)

John answered the question as well:

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. (1Jn 3:23-24)

So the first thing to consider is that looking for what is “most important” in Scripture puts us in good company (Jesus and his Apostles … and at least one inquiring “teacher of the law” who, with his question, came near the Kingdom). It is a legitimate question to ask. And, as we are about to see, it is a dangerous question to ignore.

A Vital Question

The second thing to consider is this: failing to ask and adequately answer this question about “most important” has been the Achilles’ heel of religious people in every age.

It was the characteristic failing of Israel during the days of the prophets:

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies….
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isa 1:11-12, 16-17)

Again, it is clear that God instituted the Sabbath, commanded offerings, and authorized assemblies. But first things first! It was the worshipers’ hearts that made worship holy, not the other way around. The Israelites had botched the “most important” question. They had put offerings and ceremony and assemblies at the heart of faith rather than justice and compassion and righteousness. According to “the word of the Lord,” they had chosen poorly.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day made the same mistake. They failed to discern what was most important to God. They made mountains out of faith-molehills. In the end, they couldn’t tell religious gnats from camels!

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Mt 23:23-24)

Jesus accused them of a certain kind of spiritual blindness … a blindness to the priorities of God. They decided to major in minors, to focus on tithing and ceremonial cleanliness and temple ritual: the gnats of faith. Jesus insisted there were “more important matters” for them to attend to: matters that mattered most to God. “Pay attention to the first things,” Jesus seems to say, “and the minor matters will work themselves out.”

The Judaizers in the first century church had the same problem. They insisted that circumcision and Jewish customs had as much weight as Cross and Resurrection: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Ac 15:1). Did you hear that? “Trusting in Jesus is great, but it won’t save you. Where salvation is concerned, Moses is just as important as Jesus.” The Apostles disagreed. According to Peter, what mattered was trusting that “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (Ac 15:11). And Paul was equally clear: In Christ, “circumcision is nothing” (1Co 7:19) … circumcision has no “value” (Gal 5:6) … circumcision “doesn’t mean anything” (Gal 6:15).

So the second thing to consider is this: failing to ask and answer the question of what is “most important” about faith leads to misplaced priorities, mistaken religion, and miserable theology. To paraphrase Jesus, it really is impossible to serve two masters (the major and the minor in this case). In a faith where no distinction is made between matters of greater and lesser importance, the gnats run off with the camels every time.

An Unavoidable Question

The final thing for you to consider is the very real truth that we answer this question whether we consciously ask it or think deliberately about it or knowingly choose the conclusion we reach. We decide what is most important about faith (with our behaviors and attitudes) even when we do not remember (or vehemently deny) ever making such a decision.

The Pharisees made choices about faith-priorities. Oh, they may never have said tithing was more important than mercy or sacrifice more vital than loving God. [Indeed, they would have insisted that tithes and offerings were how they showed mercy, and sacrifice was the means by which they showed their love for God.] But their actions and attitudes demonstrated their misplaced priorities at every turn. Their pride and self-righteousness and, above all, their rejection of Jesus demonstrated the choices they’d made. Because those choices were fundamentally flawed, because they put matters at the heart of faith that were not at the heart of God, they wound up preaching and practicing a profoundly perverse faith.

They made the wrong choice. They adopted the wrong priorities. And the result was a faith that allowed them to crucify the Son of God while believing they were “offering a service to God” (Jn 16:2).

When we ignore the “most important” question, when we shy away from asking it because of fear or false-humility or some misguided sense of faithfulness, we still cannot evade an answer. Like the Pharisees—like all people of faith in every age—we will fill in the blank with something. Because the answer will be thoughtless, because it is not measured consciously against the character of God, it will be the wrong answer. It will lead us to preach and practice a faith just as perverse as the Pharisaism of old.

There is only one way to put first things first and that is to ask the question intentionally, pursue the answer deliberately, and consciously employ the character of God to determine the “more important matters” on which we build our lives.

A Gospel Center?

The macro question (“What is the heart of Scripture?”) leads naturally to the micro question (“What is the heart of the gospel?”) that is our real concern in these essays. Is there a nucleus to the good news? A core? A vital center and heart?

Is there any way to summarize the story that saves and sanctifies us, to pare its fundamental ideas down to the essentials so we can get at the pith and point of the gospel?

I  am convinced these are questions that faithful people ask. They are questions we must ask. And they are questions that, left unasked, lead to misplaced priorities, mistaken religion, and miserable theology.

The following essays explore how we get at the heart of the gospel itself in a trustable and faithful way … in a way that helps us put the “most important matters” at the center of our lives and witness.

[This series of posts on “the Gospel” is rooted in a prolonged dialogue about faith I’ve been having with myself and others and is based on a series of sermons I’ve preached. If the series captures your imagination and you would like to know more about sermons, small group studies, adult education curriculum, etc., please contact me directly.]

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.