What is a saint? Is it a really holy person? Is it someone who made it to the Christian hall of fame?
Let’s examine the biblical meaning of saint and the popular meanings given the term by the eastern and western churches.
We will look at the biblical definition of a saint and examine the simple two-edged rule that defines what a saint does in Mark 12:28-34.
Mark 12:28 One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
32 The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. 33 And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”
34 Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
(Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)
613 Commandments (vs. 28)
A scribe asked Jesus a question. He could have been either a Pharisee or Sadducee. One of the scribes’ jobs was to make copies of the Bible by hand. The Dead Sea Scrolls, probably written from 408 BC - 318 AD, are a witness to the accuracy of the methods used by the scribes to check and recheck their copies. Asking about the most important commandment, we could assume he meant of the Ten Commandments. That may not always be the case. For example, let’s look at Mark 12:28 where Jesus was asked which is the most important of all the commandments. There are about 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact Jesus responded by not even mentioning one of the Ten Commandments, but other commandments from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, to love God and neighbor.
The Principle of Law (vs. 29-31)
Christians and Jews can trip over fastidious attention to the letter of the law. Either divine law or human interpretation which becomes religious law can be used in a legalistic way not intended by God. Then as now there are teachers who understood that the principle or spirit behind God’s law is more important than the letter. The Shema Yisrael is still a morning prayer, named after the first Hebrew words in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “shemah Yisrael” (“Hear O Israel…”) and it teaches us to “love the Lord your God.” Well-known ancient godly leaders also taught that the principle of love of neighbor summarized God’s law. Love of God and neighbor are inseparable because love of God necessitates love of those whom God loves, regardless of human differences. The love God and neighbor is God’s nature and makes us saints.
Saints and saints
The Greek hagios means reverend, holy, set apart for God. Saint John means Holy John. Every Christian is a saint (small s), someone made holy directly by the authority of heaven, whereas a Saint (capital S) is someone recognized by local tradition or authorities on earth. Until 993 AD inclusion in a list of Saints was not formalized. Then the western or Roman Catholic Church began formalizing the official list with the canonization of Ulrich of Augsburg. As an interesting aside Saint Patrick is so-called because of popularity and has never been formally canonized as a saint. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to acknowledge Saints recognized by local tradition in most cases. Many Protestants also use the term for famous saints to varying degrees. All Christians are saints, not by their own righteousness, but because God has made them holy.
Not far From the Kingdom (vs. 32-34)
The phrase there is only one God is the essence of Deuteronomy 4:35. The law expanded on the practical application of love in civic responsibility. Even simple laws like placing a fence around a flat roof were a way to show love by regarding the safety and health of others. Jesus response to a teacher’s statement, This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law, was to say that he was not far from the kingdom of God. It could be interpreted as an insult or a compliment, or both. Did Jesus mean that the man was almost there? Did he mean that he still had some way to go or that the man was closer than others? It definitely caused people to think and Jesus’ enemies were silent.
All saints are far from perfect, fellow human beings. As Christians they are set apart by heaven to follow a simple double-edged rule, love God and neighbor.