Posted tagged ‘Mark’

Mark 14:1-11. Preparation for burial.

July 20, 2012

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, whereverthe gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.


Mark has spent a chapter telling us about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about the near, and more distant, future. It has been the longest section of direct teaching in the Gospel. Mark now brings us back to the events of the last week of Jesus’ life- the events immediately leading up to the cross.

Jesus’ death has a crucial place in Mark’s narrative. It is the climax of the book- just as it was the climax of Jesus’ life. Mark has been working up to it, recording how Jesus looked ahead to it. There are the three occasions where Jesus plainly tells the disciples that he is going to die; once in each of chapters 8, 9, and 10, all at about verse 30 of their respective chapters. But also, when Jesus told the parable of the evil tenants, he knew that the chief priests, scribes, and elders, were plotting his death (12:7). And when he spoke to his disciples in the last chapter, he spoke of a time when others would come claiming to be the Christ- a time when Jesus himself would no longer be with the disciples in the flesh.

Apart from Jesus’ own words, Mark has alerted us to the fact that various groups have been plotting to kill Jesus, some of them for a long time (3:6, 14:1). Blasphemy- the charge under which the Sanhedrin will finally condemn Jesus- was made as an accusation right at the beginning (2:7). And when Judas Iscariot was first introduced, he was identified then as the one who was going to betray Jesus (3:19). Mark knew then where he was heading, just as Jesus deliberately set himself towards Jerusalem and the final conflict with the enemies of God.

So it is that in this account, Jesus can look ahead to his burial as a fixed fact, a thing certain to take place in short order.


  1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?
  2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?
  3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?
  4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?
  5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?
  6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?


1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?

 Moving backwards out of the speech of chapter 13 and into the narrative of chapters 11 and 12, we know that Jesus has been staying near Jerusalem for a week or so now. He and the twelve were lodging in Bethany, some two miles outside the city walls. They came to Jerusalem with a huge fanfare- Jesus rode a donkey like a king, and there was a big public welcome. Crowds lined the streets and spread their cloaks on the ground for Jesus. They cut branches from trees and chanted parts of Psalm 118- a kingly victory psalm- as Jesus rode past.

From the actions of the crowd, and from the psalm they choose to sing, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was the time of year for the Feast of Tabernacles. Psalm 118 was very much a Tabernacles psalm. At the Feast of Tabernacles, people would flock to Jerusalem and live in temporary structures- the “tabernacles” of the feast’s title. They would cut branches from the trees to construct their shelters on their friends’ rooftops and in the streets. The feast was held at a time of year just after the harvest had been gathered in. It was a time for Israel to rest from their labours, to give thanks for the harvest God had given them, and to remind themselves that God had given them the very land which produced the harvest. They lived in shelters to conjure up cultural memories of the time they spent wandering in the wilderness (see Leviticus 23), and they would give thanks for God’s deliverance of his people into the land of milk and honey. The Feast of Tabernacles was a time to be thankful, to rest, and to look forward to future blessings.

This feast then was naturally the time of year most linked to hopes for the new age. Psalm 118 is a victory song, to be sung by a triumphant king and his triumphant people, looking forward to peace and plenty. The crowds thought that the end of history had arrived. They saw Jesus as the conquering king, come to sweep away the old order. They thought that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to be crowned and to reign forever. They thought the harvest had come and the work was all but done. With a king like Jesus, able to command the wind and waves, able to feed thousands with a few loaves, surely a victory celebration wouldn’t go amiss. Even if the end hadn’t quite yet come, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as king was at least the beginning of the end. And we’ve seen that the disciples thought the same thing. Jesus has just spent a chapter trying to puncture their triumphalism and set them straight.

Mark, however, is well aware that Jesus’ work is far from over. In reality, it is not time for Tabernacles, but time for Passover. Passover is a very different sort of festival. At Passover time, the people would slaughter a lamb, and smear its blood on the doorposts of their houses. They would remember the time when the blood of the lamb protected each household from the angel of death, while the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died. Passover marks the start of deliverance from Egypt, not the end. It marks the start of the long hard slog through the wilderness, not the enjoyment of the harvest.

Mark makes a point of telling us the date, because the events that are about to happen are intimately connected with the Jewish festival year. It is appropriate that Jesus should die at Passover time. The lamb was slain as a sacrifice for sinners, and so will Jesus be slain. The lamb was slain to protect Israel from the angel of death, for their deliverance out of Egypt, and so will Jesus will die to deliver his people from slavery and death. Jesus knows that his hardest work is only just beginning.


2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?

 Jesus has been walking into Jerusalem every day with his disciples and walking back to Bethany in the evening. He has taught in the temple courts every day, and has not made himself popular with the chief priests. If you remember as far back as chapters 11 and 12, Jesus has overturned the tables of the money lenders, and has made fools out of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to make a fool out of him. He has been very disruptive as far as they are concerned. Jesus is, in fact, the Lord of the temple, and can do whatever seems good to him. It is he who has the right to say what does and does not go on in his Father’s house, not the chief priests. But the chief priests don’t see it that way. They see Jesus as a dangerous man, one who undermines their authority with the people, and who is likely to bring the Romans down on the city by sparking a popular uprising. And they don’t question their idea that they are the rightful leaders of God’s people and the guardians of God’s honour. They have debated among themselves how best to deal with Jesus. They have failed in their attempts to humiliate him before the people, ending up humiliated themselves.

So the issue now with the chief priests is no longer whether or not to kill Jesus, but how and when. The statement of their hostile intent is similar to that of the Pharisees (3:6), but this is now the chief priests and their gang. They are much more dangerous, much more skilled in the arts of managing the crowds and bringing political leverage to bear. Although the Pharisees have been opposing Jesus, and plotting against him, they are not linked directly with his death- the chief priests are the more dangerous enemies.

The chief priests are wary of making their move during the feast because they fear a public disturbance. Jesus is a popular teacher- the crowds like to hear him, and if they go taking him off to be killed, the crowds might kick up a fuss. The festival season is relevant to this concern in a strictly practical sense. The population of Jerusalem would balloon during the feasts for all Israel. People would come in from all over the country, and the city would be heaving with bodies. Normally, about 50,000 people lived in Jerusalem. During the feasts, this went up around five-fold, to 250,000. The general populace were more excitable and a riot would be much easier to start and much harder to control. On top of that, the incomers would not be people who saw the chief priests a lot. People who lived in Jerusalem would be at the Temple every day, where the priests worked. But during the feasts, Jerusalem was full of outsiders. Many among the influx may know Jesus better than they know the priests. Jesus has just spent 3 years touring the country, especially Galilee. Some of the pilgrims would be from Galilee, and lots of them might be natural Jesus supporters rather than Chief Priest supporters. You see it with football teams. Which team do you support? Usually one based where you live, or where your family came from. You see it in the kings of Israel. David was accepted as king in his home tribe of Judah long before the ten Northern tribes would submit to him. The chief priests are canny, and they are wary of trying any dirty tricks with such a large and excitable crowd around, when they can’t trust the crowd to be loyal to them. They know they won’t have too long to wait before the crowds go home.

The two feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were closely linked, Passover lasting a day, and then the feast of Unleavened Bread for a further week. Passover was celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, with a ritual meal at the start of the day. Bear in mind that when we say “the start of the day”, we don’t mean breakfast. The Jews got their definition of a day from Genesis. The very first days, the creation days, started with evening “and there was evening and morning, the first day”. For the Jews, the day began at sunset, and sunrise happened halfway through. Preparations for the Passover, including the slaughter of the lamb to be eaten, took place on the afternoon of the 13th. The solemn meal was then eaten on the evening of the 14th, which would be followed by the morning of the 14th. The feast of Unleavened Bread then ran for a week, from the 15th to the 21st, with both of those end days reckoned as special Sabbaths. So this is on the 12th of Nisan, two days before the Passover, in the evening. The chief priests have only to wait 10 days, and then it will all be over and they can get at Jesus.

It is striking that, although the chief priests are aware of the festival season, they seem totally blind to the theological implications. Their concerns are strictly pragmatic. But in the end, it is the theological concerns which drive the timing. In God’s plan, it is important that the Messiah should die at this time- at Passover- because it fits with the meaning of the festival. When Judas offers to give the plotters their chance on a plate, to betray Jesus to them, to tell them where and when they could get Jesus with nobody watching, they jump at it. But by telling us that the plotters had already said “not during the feast”, Mark underlines God’s sovereignty over the whole thing. The plans of the priests are thrown out the window. In God’s purposes, Jesus would be slaughtered at Passover. And God can work things so as to change the desires of men.


3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?

 Mark is using his sandwich structure again, as with the fig tree, and with John the Baptist’s death, and with the groups of people in Ch.3. Sandwiched between the two halves of the tale of betrayal (v1-2 and v10-11), is the account of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume. Mark presents the two accounts as interwoven because he wants us to see how they relate to one another. The two stories are connected inasmuchas it seems to be the events in Simon’s house which spark off Judas’ betrayal. But more than that, Mark is comparing and contrasting the woman with Judas and the priests. All of them are making preparation for Jesus’ death. She, whether she understands what she is doing or not, anoints Jesus for burial. They plot to kill him. But she does what she does out of love, where they have only hatred for the saviour.


4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?

 One evening in Bethany, Jesus was at the house of Simon, a leper, for a meal. Simon is probably a healed leper, perhaps even healed by Jesus (leprous lepers would not be hosting dinner parties, and we never read of Jesus turning away anybody who wanted healing). As Jesus and the other guests were reclining at the table, a woman came into the room. For a dinner party, the guests would lie on couches at an angle to the table, heads towards the food and feet out. This woman came up to Jesus, between the couches, and anointed his head with a large quantity of expensive perfume. It was not unheard-of for honoured guests at banquets to be anointed with oil, probably perfumed oil (Psalms 23:5; 141:5, see also Luke 7:46). This, however, goes way, way beyond custom. It is an act of extraordinary personal devotion. The woman’s perfume is probably a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation. It is likely the single most precious possession she has. She wouldn’t have had a pension scheme, she’d have had savings. Her family would have bought valuable things which could be sold off in time of need, and this probably represents a sizeable chunk of her wealth. But she wants to give it to Jesus. So she takes it from its place in her home, carries it over to Simon’s house where she knows Jesus is eating, goes up to Jesus, breaks open the bottle, and pours the perfume out on his head- her future, her security, poured out in gratitude. The perfume is worth about a year’s wages, as people there remark.

What the woman does, although in a private house, is a fairly public act. She has walked up to the table, where everybody else is lying down, and has poured out a whole jar of perfume. It isn’t something that could be done unobtrusively- the scent will fill the room. When I was a schoolboy, I had an elderly (to my young eyes at least- she was probably actually somewhere in her fifties) lady chemistry teacher, who used to wear excessive amounts of perfume. We could tell when she came into the room, even if we had our backs turned. If she came close to you to explain some point one-to-one, the cloud of fragrance hanging around her was eye-wateringly unpleasant. Breaking open a whole jar of pure nard would have a similar effect- nobody could fail to notice what had happened. The reaction among the others in the room to this extravagance was less than warm. Some of the spectators were indignant. “If the perfume had been sold, then there would have been lots of money available, which could be used for all sorts of good things”, they said, “It could have gone to the poor, couldn’t it? But instead, there it is, soaking into the ground! What a waste!”.

There is an implicit lesson to be drawn from comparing the woman and her critics. Whatever her specific reason for doing what she did, it must have been driven by love for the Lord, a belief that he deserved everything she could give him. They rebuked the woman harshly, we are told. And the harshness of their response perhaps reflects the poverty of their own love for Jesus and their understanding of who Jesus is. They don’t see it as being worthwhile to make an expensive act of devotion to Jesus, if it does no good to anyone else. But this woman clearly does see Jesus as important.

Many perhaps can see no more interest in Christ than in what he can do for them, how he can make them happier. They have no deep gratitude because they have no real stake in what Jesus really came to do.


5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?

 Luke talks about an anointing of Jesus at a banquet in somebody else’s house, but that is a different event, taking place earlier in Jesus’ ministry and at the house of a Pharisee. There, the ointment isn’t nard, and the objection isn’t, “This is way too expensive”, but “Yuck! A sinner! Can’t Jesus tell?” This anointing in Mark could well be the same event as recorded in John’s Gospel, in which case the woman is Mary, and she is motivated by love for Jesus and by the thought that Jesus won’t ever die. John tells us that Mary was keeping the perfume for Jesus’ burial, but that she had just seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. Her thinking seemed to be, “This man isn’t ever going to need a burial. I can use the oil on him now”.

But Mark doesn’t name the woman, and doesn’t speculate on her motives. He wants us, I think, to concentrate on what Jesus makes of the incident, and thinks it would be a distraction to think about what the woman thought she was doing.

So what did Jesus say about the incident? How did he react? Jesus commended the woman. He responded with joyful appreciation, rebutting her critics and saying that she had done a beautiful thing. And then he made two more points. What are they?

Firstly, the poor will always be there to give money to. Jesus will not always be with his followers. Sure, the money could have gone to the poor, and would doubtless have done good there. But Jesus is more important than anything else. And he would only be with his followers for a while- for another few days.

Jesus’ point is made more startling when you consider his use of the Old Testament. He is quoting Deut. 15:11- “There will always be poor people in the land.” But the conclusion drawn in Deuteronomy is “therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers, and towards the poor and needy in your land.” Jesus takes the first part of the quote, but draws a conclusion almost contradictory to that of the law. He is saying that he takes first place, ahead even of the poor and needy. He made himself poor so that people like this woman might become rich, and so she gave him all that she had, because she loved him.

She put him first, made him the most important thing, gave him the most valuable thing she had. A grudging spirit towards Jesus from a professing believer is worrying. Matthew tells us that these critics are actually the disciples, but it is unclear whether the twelve are in view. In John, Judas objects to the act from Mary. Here in Mark, Jesus is speaking to those to whom he can say, “you will not always have me”, which fits well with the disciples. It is terrible to see men more interested in other things than in their master. In the Christian life, there is no holding back, no begrudging anything. Jesus gives life, in all its fullness, to the dead. How then can those who owe him their lives, not give him their all? She did what she could, said Jesus. Her critics did nothing

In the temple, what was the one thing which Jesus had found good? It was the widow who had put in the two copper coins, all she had. It is not insignificant that once again, in this passage, it is the action of a despised woman, who gives what is valuable to her, which stands in contrast to the religious leaders who hate Jesus, and to others at the meal who criticise, and to all who have no love for him. In a world where many people seem to think that the first of the two great commandments is adequately observed in the keeping of the second, we need this reminder that personal devotion to Jesus himself is of first importance. Loving our neighbour is only part of what it means to love God.

Secondly, and most importantly, Jesus says that this anointing was a preparation for burial. Maybe she didn’t realise the full significance of her act at the time, but Jesus himself didn’t miss it. He knew that he would soon have to die. Perhaps somewhere in his mind was the 23rd psalm, with the picture there of the man under God’s care, who has his head anointed with oil, who sits at a table among his enemies, and who goes confidently into the valley of the shadow of death. More directly though, he sees this as a funeral anointing. Only bodies of criminals were not anointed for burial after death. Jesus was buried in a hurry, and there was no time for those who would have liked to anoint his body to do so. By the time some of his followers tracked the tomb down and came to anoint Jesus’ body, Jesus was gone. So this is the only anointing for burial which Jesus receives. Jesus accepts the anointing as a burial ritual ahead of time.

Jesus says of this woman that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she did will be told in memory of her. This is factually true- places where the gospel is preached sooner or later end up with copies of Mark’s Gospel, and the deed of this woman is read and heard about. By her actions, this woman points us to the gospel- she anticipates the death of Jesus, who came to die that we might live.


6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?

 This particular event seems to have acted as the catalyst to turn Judas into an active traitor. It was after seeing the actions of this woman, and hearing what Jesus said about the event, that Judas went out to the chief priests with an offer too good for them to refuse.

We know that Judas was a greedy man, and had his hand in the disciples’ kitty, which could have been enlarged by the addition of 300 denarii if the perfume had been sold. But Mark doesn’t suggest the money motive here as a driving factor in Judas’ betrayal, though we know from the other Gospels that it was at least a strong influence. Mark only mentions money for Judas after he has made his decision to betray Jesus- Judas goes to the priests intending to betray Jesus, and once he’s there, they promise him money. The impression is that money wasn’t the key thing.

The other options are the woman’s devotion, and the things Jesus said about burial. Maybe Judas simply couldn’t understand this devotion, and was repulsed by it. Satan does use evidences of grace in some to harden others. But on the other hand, he- along with the other eleven- had given up house and home and family to follow Jesus. Would devotion like this really be such a shock to him?

Perhaps it is more that this incident finally convinces Judas that Jesus is serious about his death and burial. Jesus actions here would otherwise be starkly out of character. A fortune is spent in a few moments, just to make Jesus smell nice. It has no other purpose, nobody except Jesus stands to gain from it. Where else has Jesus accepted lavish gifts in the course of his ministry? In the three years Judas has known him, Jesus has been a model of self-denial. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Televangelists and pastors drive flashy cars and wear expensive suits, but they are not following the man they claim as their master. Judas holds the purse strings- he knows better than any of the disciples that Jesus doesn’t indulge himself in luxuries. He knows how Jesus and all of them frequently sleep rough and go hungry.

Passover was the time of year to give to the poor. It really would have been appropriate for the woman to sell the ointment and give the money to the poor- if there hadn’t been a compelling reason to anoint Jesus.

Maybe Judas sees Jesus accept the gift uncomplainingly, and it clicks- Jesus really does intend to die. He’d never have allowed this otherwise.

Judas won’t follow a messiah who intends to lay down his life in apparent defeat. But we know that Jesus is worthy of trust and devotion precisely because he laid down his life for those who trust him. He went down to the grave, taking the curse upon his own head, in order to redeem cursed sinners. There is nobody more worthy of love.

Mark 13:26-37. Doorkeepers in the master’s house.

August 13, 2011

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (v26-31)

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning- lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”(v32-37)

Standing on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple, Jesus answers a question asked by his closest disciples. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples’ minds are filled with questions- when will this happen? What exactly is going to happen? What do we need to do now to be ready for it? They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expect Jesus to be crowned very soon as the Messianic King, and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up in court. He also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

We can become very confused by Jesus’ answer, so although we’ve been through most of it already, if I may, I’ll just recap and briefly lay out what- and when- I think Jesus is talking about:

  •  Verses 5-8 The beginning of birth pains. Jesus is talking fairly generally about pain and suffering and false Messiahs. The four men he’s talking to will hear about these things. They are wondering about an instant Kingdom of God coming to earth. Jesus tells them it won’t be like that.
  • Verses 9-13 Suffering and persecution. Jesus goes on to say that not only will the Kingdom of God not come fully in a moment, but the disciples will undergo great suffering for Jesus’ sake. As they take the Gospel out to the nations, they will need endurance. Jesus is particularly addressing Peter, James, John, and Andrew, but we can extend his remarks to the first generation of disciples, and even to ourselves.
  • Verses 14-22 Jerusalem. Jesus is very plainly talking about the events of A.D.70, with the destruction of the Temple and the obvious cutting off of national Israel.
  • Verses 23-27 After Jerusalem. Jesus says that there will be huge upheavals in God’s dealings with the world and with the nations. And he says that the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather in the elect- which we are still seeing.
  • Verses 28-31 Jesus warns the disciples that when they see these things take place- and they will all take place within a generation- then they should know that “he is near, at the very gates”.
  • Verses 33-37 In the days when he is near, this is how the four- and all disciples- should live.

 We’ve already covered the chapter up to v25 in previous studies, so we’ll pick up at v26 this time. 

  1. Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?
  2. When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?
  3. What should the fig tree teach the disciples?
  4. Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?
  5. Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

 1.      Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?

The most obvious way to read this is just to read straight on from the previous verse. The powers in the heavens will be shaken, and they- i.e. those powers- will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

This fits perfectly with the whole thrust of the Son of Man’s coming. For us earth-centric folk, it seems natural to read the passage about the coming of the Son of Man as a reference to the second coming- to the time when Jesus will return to the earth as he promised. But perhaps that’s because in our heads, it’s all about “me, me, me”. When Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man, and about clouds and glory, the most obvious OT reference is Daniel 7:13. And that passage does not seem to be about a coming of the Son of Man to earth. In his vision, Daniel sees one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven to be presented before the ancient of days and to receive dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve him. This doesn’t sound so much like Jesus coming down from heaven to earth at the end of time as it sounds like Jesus coming into the throne room of heaven to be crowned as king of the universe. Jesus isn’t coming down to the earth; he’s going up into heavens.

Another strand of evidence on this point is that when we read here of the “coming” of the Son of Man, the word is “erchomai”, not “parousia”. Greek scholars say that “parousia” means “presence”, and is used elsewhere to talk about the return of the Son of Man to earth on the last day. “Erchomai”, on the other hand, simply means “coming”, and carries no connotations as to where Jesus is coming to or from.

Also remember that Jesus says that this generation will not pass away until these things have come to pass. That is the only point in the whole chapter at which Jesus puts a definite time-limit on anything. We ought to take note of it. The obvious meaning is stubborn. Jesus says similar things in Matt. 10:23 (the disciples will not finish evangelising Israel before the Son of Man comes) and in Mark 9:1 (some of the disciples will not die until the Kingdom of God comes). He is plainly not talking about the end of the world in either of those contexts.

 It is not the second coming, but the ascension, in view. This is Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven while his enemies are put under his feet. It is not seen by those on earth, but it is seen by the powers in heaven, who are shaken by it. And so they should be- it is a momentous event.

That whole cluster of events- the resurrection, the ascension, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the fall of Jerusalem, are all really one big event stretched over a few decades. And they are causes of and (at least the last one) symptoms of the fall and rise of nations, of groups of people, in God’s purposes.

National Israel rejects its Messiah and puts him to death, but God vindicates him by raising him from the dead and appointing him as judge and king over all the earth. He ascends to heaven, from where he will rule, sat at the right hand of the Father. He sends his Spirit down on his people from heaven. Those joined to him are a new humanity. The church takes shape. This is an unprecedented development in human history. If the powers in heaven were shaken in the fall of Pharaoh and of Babylon, then much more so in the fall of national Israel and the rise of the church of Jesus Christ.

2.      When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?

When we read the word “elect”, we tend to think immediately of “Christians”. We assume that the two words are more-or-less synonymous. Those with a bit of theological nous might say, “No no, they’re not synonymous. Somebody can be elect and not (yet) be a Christian. The word elect refers to those people chosen by God. So all of them have been purchased by Jesus Christ, but not all of them are yet regenerate. Some of them probably haven’t even been born yet.” On that reading, the gathering in of the elect would mean the conversion of those whom God has chosen to faith in Jesus Christ. But although that is perfectly theologically correct, and is a natural extension of what Jesus means, it still seems pretty unlikely to be what the disciples would have understood by Jesus’ words. The disciples weren’t thinking like that at all. For them, the word “elect” didn’t conjure up images of believers from all over the globe; all races, all ages, all languages. At this stage, they had only a dim idea about the church. From Acts we can see that they had no idea about a global church including non-Jews. It seemed to take them by surprise when it happened.

So when they hear Jesus talking about gathering in the elect, what do they think he’s talking about? Who are these “elect”, and how are they to be “gathered in”, and what are they doing out at the “four winds” anyway?

The word “elect” in the Jewish mind could only really mean the nation of Israel. And when an Israelite speaks of the “elect” being “gathered in”, he is obviously speaking of a Jewish return from exile. The re-gathering of the dispersed Jewish exiles is a big theme in the Prophets, and is a big theme in Jewish hopes for the end times. In the Old Testament, to “scatter to” and “gather from” the “winds”, or “nations” or “corners of the earth”, are recurring expressions (for scattering, see Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 9:16; 18:17; Ezekiel 5:10,12; 12:14,15; 17:21; Zechariah 2:10. For re-gathering, see Deuteronomy 30:4, Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:8; Ezekiel 11:17; 20:34, 41; 28:25; 34:13). If you’re wondering why it should be four winds, rather than seven, or eleventeen, it is because the earth has four corners, four rivers, and four winds, in a Jewish conceptual geology. Gathering exiles from the four winds simply signifies gathering them from the whole earth.

The scattering of Israel to exile, or the re-gathering of Israel from exile, are events with obvious theological import. If the nation is scattered, then that can only be because they have been unfaithful to God, and have fallen under God’s judgement. If the nation fragments it is because their faith has already fragmented. And if the nation is re-gathered, then that happy event is bound up with the salvation of Israel. God has had mercy upon his children, and has gathered them back from the far places so that they might worship him in unity and truth. The prophets talk about national scattering and national gathering in this way.

In Jesus’ day, while there are Jewish communities all over the Roman world, there are also plenty of Jews in the promised land. Things don’t look like they did in Ezekiel’s or Daniel’s day, when Israel was a nation held captive in a foreign land. There is a Temple in Jerusalem. There is a High Priest. There are daily sacrifices. The law given at Sinai is held up publicly as the law of the land. On the face of things, there is no need for a return from exile. But the consistent New Testament picture is that there has never really been a complete re-gathering of Israel from the exile in Babylon. After the utter disaster of 586 B.C., Judah was scattered to the winds, just as Jeremiah had foretold. Israel (the Northern kingdom) had already been scattered by Assyria, although perhaps many of them had migrated south to Judah at that time. The scattering of the Southern kingdom though, was a much more final and absolute disaster. The Davidic kingship was cut short. The Temple was ransacked and flattened.

There had been a return from exile, when Cyrus the Persian made his decree in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, and that had been a cause for great rejoicing. The Temple was rebuilt and the gathered exiles re-covenanted themselves to God. But that had always been a faintly unsatisfactory affair. Not all the Jews wanted to return, and lots of them never did. Those who did were few and weak, and the temple they rebuilt was a pitiful shadow of Solomon’s glorious temple. Those who could remember Solomon’s temple wept for sorrow, not joy, when they saw the foundations laid for the new edifice (Ezra 3:12). And the Jews of Jesus’ day still looked for a great re-gathering of the exiles, and a restoration of the Temple to its former glory. Herod, in his attempts to be an acceptable king to the Jews (he wasn’t even Jewish, let alone from David’s line, so he had a fair bit of work to do to make himself acceptable), rebuilt the Temple and made it big and impressive. He understood that a true King of the Jews would make it his business to restore the house of God, and he tried to copy what the true king would do. Herod couldn’t do much about the exiles though. If the Jews had seen a king arise who could attract a huge number of the Jews scattered all over the Roman Empire to come back to Judea, then that would have been a big sign of God’s favour resting on the nation and her king.

So when Jesus talks about the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather in the elect, it isn’t just a prediction that each one of God’s chosen people will be individually brought to salvation. Rather, Jesus is claiming that he, the Son of Man, will be a greater and more glorious king that any before. He will bring God’s blessing on the people; he will send out God’s angels to gather in the scattered elect. It is perhaps a claim to greater glory than any mortal king had ever enjoyed- Jesus says that he will send out the angels- he will command the messengers of God. This Son of Man will be what even Adam failed to be, a real king with mighty authority, directing even the angels. Those messengers will go to the ends of the earth, to the four winds, to gather in the people of God.

But while the disciples would probably hear Jesus to be talking about a physical return of national Israel, I don’t think he really was. Bear in mind that Jesus has just said that the Temple will be destroyed, not one stone resting on another. The Temple was God’s house, where God’s people met together for worship. It had always been the visible focus of unity for the gathered people, ever since it had first been built. When the exiles returned from Babylon, Temple reconstruction was high up the list of things to do. But Jesus says that although the Temple will be destroyed, yet the exiles will be gathered in. Those two things don’t usually go together.

So what Jesus is saying is that the destruction of the bricks-and-mortar Temple does not mean permanent dispersion for the true Israel, for those really chosen of God. Rather, it means the ascension of the Son of Man to glory, and the sending out of the angels to gather his chosen people back from the four winds.

This is a continuation of Jesus’ theme of Temple destruction. The fall of the Temple means the fall of Israel and the vindication of the Messiah, which means disruption in the heavens, and the rise of a new people of God. We are to see a re-constitution of Israel as the twelve tribes under the twelve Apostles. Israel is God’s elect nation, but physical Israel is cut off, and spiritual Israel is to be gathered in, from all across the empire. And the Gentiles are to be gathered in as well, and joined to Israel.

Jesus is giving a huge re-interpretation to Israel’s future hopes. Physical Israel will be scattered, but the New Israel will be gathered in. And the focus of their unity won’t be the Temple, but will be the Son of Man himself. There will be no need for a bricks-and-mortar Temple. Something better will have arrived. Jesus himself, in his own body, will be the dwelling place of God. God’s people will meet with Jesus Christ among them, and so they will draw near to God.

 3.      What should the fig tree teach the disciples?

The Mount of Olives (oddly enough, given its name) is covered with fig trees. It is famous for them. The fig tree is deciduous- it loses its leaves in winter. And the leaves don’t grow back until fairly late in the spring. The leaves of the trees around Jesus would perhaps be poking out as he spoke, at Passover time. This is a very simple illustration, using things at hand to act as an immediate visual aid.

Given the way that the fig tree is consistently used in the Old Testament as a picture of Israel, it is very tempting to look for that sort of deeper parallel here. After all, Jesus has just drawn an extending comparison of official Judaism/Temple Judaism with an early-leafing fig tree in chapter 11. He’s acted out a parable, cursing the fig tree for bearing no fruit. But the picture just doesn’t seem to work in this chapter. The trouble in chapter 11with the fig tree that was Israel, is that it was already leafy but the leaves lied. It didn’t have any fruit on it. The use of the fig tree as a picture of Israel works because the fig tree ordinarily bears sweet fruit, and Israel should have borne fruit of justice and righteousness for God. In chapter 11, the whole comparison is to do with the fruit of the fig tree. Here, the fruitfulness or otherwise is irrelevant. The emphasis is on the timing of the appearance of leaves. I’ve looked, but I can’t really see it. When one of Sigmund Freud’s students asked him why he smoked cigars, he replied, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Here, I think a fig tree is probably just a fig tree.

We can see how Jesus’ illustration works. When the fig tree begins to show signs of life, summer is close. It’s just around the corner. We are glad to see the first signs of spring, and most of us are insulated from the effects of the seasons, having centrally heated homes and working in nice climate-controlled offices. An agrarian outdoorsy people would be much more closely attuned to the passing of the seasons than are we. The disciples would know to look out for the leaves appearing on the fig trees as a sign that spring was turning into summer.

Jesus tells them that they should be just as eager to look out for more important things. When the disciples see the things Jesus has been describing- when they see Jerusalem destroyed and they see Jesus ascend, and they see the elect beginning to be gathered in; then they will know that they really are entering a new era. They will know that the Son of Man could return at any moment to bring history to a close.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus will return immediately after the things described have taken place, but it does mean that he could. If the disciples on the Mount of Olives with Jesus were to ask themselves, “Could tomorrow be the last day?” then the answer would have to be “No”. There are too many things that still have to happen. Jesus has to die, remain three days in the tomb, rise again, spear to the disciples, ascend to heaven, and send the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem has to be sacked and the Temple destroyed. The elect have to be gathered from the four winds. But if the disciples, after all those things have taken place, were to ask the same question; the answer would be different.

 4.      Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?

Jesus’ choice of words here is astonishing. In the OT, the one whose words will never pass away is God himself. In the famous words of Isaiah, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever”. The permanence is God’s word is established in contrast to the created things which pass away. (Isaiah 40:6-8. Similar statements can be found in Psalm 102:25-27; 119:89, 160; Isaiah 51:6). Jesus uses those words, well aware that he’s borrowing his description from the Old Testament.

Just look at the way Jesus uses the Old Testament, the way he quotes some passages and uses imagery from to others in both his words and his actions. We can see that the written word of God has been his meat and drink from childhood. He has eaten and drunk and lived and breathed the Old Testament scriptures until they have become the marrow of his bones. He is able, spontaneously and constantly, to conjure up allusions to OT passages. He lives in the thought-world of the Bible like a native, and that is exactly what he is.

So when Jesus uses OT phrasing, we are right to go back and check the OT context. When we do so, we see that these words of Jesus are amazingly bold. Jesus’ claims to deity in the synoptic Gospels are deeper and more pervasive than we realise. By using language used in the OT of YHWH himself, Jesus implies that his words are on a par with the very words of God. When he speaks, it is with the voice of the eternal God. This is more than a claim to the role of a prophet. Jesus isn’t claiming merely to transmit messages from God- “Thus saith the Lord”. He says “My words…” Whatever Jesus says are the words of God, simply because Jesus says them.

5.      Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?

“That day” is an indeterminate date which is the Father’s secret. No one knows the day. It is plainly not the same day as “those days” of v24, because people do know about the day of v24. Jesus himself knows about it, and he has just been telling the disciples about it. But even Jesus doesn’t know about the day of v32.

Linguistic scholars say that the Greek of v32 is adversarial- the thrust is: “But on the contrary, concerning that day, no-one knows the day or the hour”. The day to come is set in opposition to the events that Jesus has just said will take place within the lifetime of his hearers. The days of v24 are knowable from the signs- the day of v32 is not. Jerusalem’s fall can be foreseen. Jesus’ second coming cannot. “You do not know” and “No-one knows” is the repeated theme in these final verses (v32, 33, 35).

“That day” is a phrase used repeatedly by the prophets – Amos 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11; Micah 4:6; 5:10; 7:11; Zephaniah 1:9; 3:11, 16; Obadiah 8; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 9:16; 12:3,4 – to speak of the day of YHWH’s coming, the day when YHWH would reward the faithful and punish the nations. Jesus here uses the phrase to speak of the return of the Son of Man- the day when he will not only be at the gates, but will throw them wide and enter in. Again, he is claiming that he and YHWH are to be identified. The greatest and most terrible thing about the great and terrible day of YHWH is that it was the day of YHWH- it was the day when God’s presence would be among his people directly. Israel knew that to be in God’s presence was a dangerous thing. God hid himself in clouds, and no man could look on his face and live. If God is among his people, then he will, of necessity, purify his people. He will cast out the impure, consuming away evil with fire. Jesus claims here that the presence of the Son of Man will bring about “that day”.

This is well-connected to the flow of thought within the passage. Jesus, having warned his disciples of the things that they will face before they leave this fallen world, has then told them that after they have seen come to pass the things he has warned them about, they will know that history is at an end (at least in the Francis Fukuyama sense of the term). After the great upheavals of the ascension of the Son of Man and the formation of the church as the people of God, there remain no more surprises before the great surprise. There is nothing very much left to happen before the end. The Son of Man is at the gates, and he could enter at any moment. He is as near as is summer after the fig tree has begun to sprout. So now, Jesus warns them not to try to fix a precise date on the day when the gates will be flung open. He tells them that even the angels in heaven are not party to that knowledge. The Father alone knows.  Even the Son is ignorant of the timing of that day.

On the one hand, this raises theological questions about the union of the two natures in the person of Christ. On the other, it certainly discourages speculation about the timing of the last day. Calvin puts it well- “Surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account”.

6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

The parable Jesus draws here is full of goodness. A man is going on a long journey, and he knows he’ll be away from home for a while. He’s not quite sure how long- maybe he’s got some business to take care of a long way off, and it is uncertain how long it will take him to get it all sorted out. Maybe he’s only going for the day, but he’s just not sure whether or not he’ll be home for supper. So he gathers his servants together, tells them that he’s going to be away for a while, and gives directions about how the household is to be run in his absence. Each of the servants has his own work assigned to him, and that’s what he should be getting on with. The work of the doorkeeper is to stay alert and be ready for the master when he comes back.

Jesus then tells the four disciples that they are doorkeepers in the master’s house. They are to stay awake because they don’t know when he will return. It could be at evening, or at midnight, or at daybreak, or even the next morning. If they are going to be ready for him, then they can’t afford to go to sleep on the job.

The lesson for us is obvious. We are to watch and pray. We live at the end of history. I don’t mean that in the Harold Camping sense of “Jesus will return in the next few months”. The point isn’t that he will, but that he might. There is nothing enormous left to happen. His death and resurrection have taken place. He has ascended to receive a kingdom from his Father. He has been at work, gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth. Jerusalem fell nearly 2000 years ago. Jesus may not return for another 2000 years or more. But he may return today. It would be wonderful if he did. “Even so, quickly come”, as John says. And so we need to be ready.

John Wesley was once asked what he would do if he knew that he were going to die at 12:00 midnight tomorrow. His answer was that he would do nothing different- he’d carry on with his planned schedule- go here to preach this evening, then ride there to preach the next morning, then be at this meeting, then spend the evening with a friend of his, go to bed, pray, sleep, and wake up in glory.

That’s the point. We are servants of Jesus. Of course we look forward to his return. But we have a job to do in the meantime. He has given us a job to do. And so we should be getting on with it. That’s how we remain ready- we live in such a way that if Jesus did return today, he’d find us doing the work he gave us to do. We don’t need to know when he’ll be coming- we only need to know what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime. Paul, Peter, and John, are full of the awareness that believers need to live in the light of the imminence of Jesus’ return. They can scarcely write a letter without touching on the theme (Romans 13:11-14; I Corinthians 15:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-11; Philippians 3:20-4:1; Colossians 3:4-11, 23-24; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; I Peter 1:3-9; 2 Peter 3: 11-15; I John 3:1-3.). And even a passage like this tells us what we should be doing. We’re waiting for, and actively taking part in, the Son of Man’s gathering in of Israel. That, we now see, includes us- the Gentiles- grafted in to Israel’s olive tree (Romans 11). So we should be acting like disciples, working with the angels, building the church and looking for our Lord’s return. We should be practising for life in the new heavens and new earth with all the gathered people of God. It will be community life, but with a holy community. It will be great. The best practise we can get is to look at the Son of Man now. He will be the focus of life in heaven, and should be the focus of life on earth.

Mark 13:14-25. No, Peter really wasn’t drunk.

August 5, 2011

 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be let the reader understand, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand. (v13-23)

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”(v24-25)

We’ve already looked at the first half of Jesus’ long speech to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, pronouncing the whole show to be all-but worthless, and predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples, understandably, are extremely curious about this. They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expected Jesus to be crowned and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem as the Messianic King. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up on rotten charges in court. In these verses, he also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

  1. What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?
  2. What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?
  3. Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to have seen, or actually to be, the Christ in those days?
  4. When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?
  5. No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?


1.      What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?

First, we need to understand when and where this will happen. Having warned the disciples about the days when he will no longer be with them (v5-13), Jesus then (v14-23) prophesies definite events that will take place during that period. The warnings of verses 14-15 are very clearly specific to the local context: Jesus speaks of those who are in “Judea”. He assumes that people could be out “on the housetop”- which is not something we can do here in the rainy North-West of England with our pitched roofs. The whole passage deals with events within the lives of the apostles. It can’t be about the end of all things. What would be the point of fleeing Jerusalem for safety if the whole world were about to be consumed by fire?

Jesus says that people should run for cover when the disciples (“you”) see the abomination of desolation standing where it does not belong. Mark then adds the editorial comment, “let the reader understand”. Mark is signalling to his readers that Jesus is speaking in “code” here, but he expects his readers to “get” the significance of the phrase. From the immediate context, we can see that it describes something which will signal a time of great upset, so great that the disciples should drop everything and flee.

So what event is Jesus talking about here? How do we understand this reference to the “abomination of desolation”, which Mark seems to think his readers will understand?

Look at the prophecy of Daniel. Daniel uses the phrase to refer to some future event which will occur in the Temple, and which will desecrate it utterly (8:13; 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). Both Jesus and the disciples would have known Daniel, and so to understand the phrase, we need to understand something of that book.

Daniel is a book with racy chunks of narrative which all children in Christian families know from Sunday School (what churchy child has never had a lesson on “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”?)  and equally racy but slightly confusing sections of prophecy and dreams. Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and also had dreams of his own concerning the future.  In Daniel, we read about dreams of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay; dreams of a succession of different beasts coming out of the sea; and dreams about other animals and powerful horns. These were dreams about great world empires and rulers to be raised up by God. After Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian golden head, there came the Persian arms of silver. After Persia, flourished the Greek empire under Alexander the Great. After Greece, came brutal Rome.

Between Alexander’s death (323 B.C.) and the rise of Rome, the Greek empire was split into pieces and various successors to Alexander reigned in different parts. Israel, which is where our interest lies, was ruled first by the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then by the Seleucids of Syria. Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid king, began to interfere with religious affairs in his Jewish territory. He treated the office of High Priest as a political appointment within his gift, rather than an hereditary office by Divine law. When some of his illegitimate “High Priests” began to fight among themselves, Antiochus assaulted Jerusalem, pillaged the Temple, and led captive the women and children. He then embarked on a programme of zealous Hellenisation in Israel. In effect, this meant the persecution of faithful Jews. Sacrifice was forbidden. Festivals and Sabbaths were banned. Circumcision was made illegal. In 168 B.C, Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in the Temple, and sacrificed a pig on it. This was seen as an act of sacrilege so appalling that it invited the abandonment of the Temple by God and his people.

Has anyone ever dipped into the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees? They contain accounts of this rebellion, and interestingly, the phrase “abomination of desolation” is applied to something Antiochus did on the altar of burnt offering (1 Maccabees 1:54; 6:7). The author of the book plainly (and I think correctly) regarded this as a vindication of Daniel’s prophecy.

Jesus and the disciples will not only know Daniel, but will also know what Antiochus did, and will almost certainly know 1 Maccabees. And so when Jesus himself prophesies a further fulfilment of Daniel, it is a further profaning of the Temple of which Jesus speaks. The disciples (and Mark’s readers) will understand the reference Jesus makes. It is like us hearing somebody say, “When you see the conquerors goose-stepping down the Champs Élysées (let the listener understand), run for the hills”. Westerners of our generation would immediately be thinking back to the events of 1940 and the fall of Paris to the Nazis, but we’d understand that the speaker was talking about a future defeat, a quick surrender, and a conquering army marching down the central street of the captured capital. Depending on the context of the remark, we’d apply it appropriately.

Jesus is talking about the coming siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Roman forces. In A.D. 70, the Jews rebelled against Rome, and the Romans crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was placed under siege, and the Zealots gained temporary control of the Temple. They allowed murder to take place inside the courts, and installed a clown, Phanni, as high priest. Since Jesus refers to the abomination of desolation as a “he”, standing where he shouldn’t, it is quite possible that Phanni is in view. But whatever the exact fulfilment of the phrase, it is about the desecration of the Temple, and everyone would have understood that.


2.      What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?

This desecration of the Temple will mark a time of great trouble in Judea. The moment they see it, the people had better flee to the mountains. Jesus warns that this disaster will come suddenly (v15-16). While many of the Jews will be fleeing into the city and Temple for protection, Jesus urges his disciples to flee the other way. If a man is up on his flat roof, then he should run down the stairs at the side of his house, and head for the hills. Going down the other stairs into his house, even if it is only to snatch up some food for the journey, could mean death. And if a man is in the fields, he too should run, not even going to pick up his outer garment, designed to keep off the cold at night. That garment would come in handy for a refugee, but the urgency will be too great. The destruction will be terrible and the people will become shelterless wanderers, so woe on those who are nursing children and have to deal with their infants in the flight. And woe especially if this should come in winter with harsh weather as well. It will be dreadful for the Jewish people- worse than anything before or after in the history of the world.

Some take issue with this, and cite the holocaust as the obvious example of something far worse for the Jewish people than anything the Romans dealt out in A.D. 70. But although the suffering of the holocaust ought not to be diminished, whether or not it was worse than A.D. 70 depends on the yardstick you use to measure the events. And by the Bible’s yardstick, A.D. 70 was by far the more profound disaster. We tend to think about relative “badness” purely in terms of immediate human suffering. With that yardstick, perhaps the holocaust was worse- surely the death tolls were higher. Or using the yardstick of the intentions of the perpetrators, perhaps the Nazis were more evil than the Romans. But those are secular yardsticks. They measure things purely in terms of man- man’s suffering or man’s evil. If you put yourself into the mindset of a devout first century Jew, then nothing worse than A.D. 70 is conceivable. The desecration, robbing, and final destruction of the Temple, was the high-water mark of devastation. It wasn’t just about the suffering and humiliation- it was about the unavoidable fact that God had abandoned his people, and was fighting against them. It meant everything that the exile of 586 B.C. had meant and more. Read the death-poetry of Lamentations to get an idea of the depths of suffering- not only physical and mental, but spiritual too- that the exile to Babylon caused the Jews. There isn’t much that could compare with suffering like that. When the holocaust came, it wasn’t about the loss of the promised land; it wasn’t about God abandoning his Temple and his people. It was an horrible event, but measured with a theological yardstick; it just can’t carry the same weight as the fall of the Temple. 

And yet, says Jesus, as bad as the coming tribulation for the disciples may be, it won’t last forever. There will be an end to it for the sake of the chosen, whom God loves.


3.      Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to be, or to have seen, the Christ in those days?

Because they’d be wrong. He isn’t going to be there in those days. When the Romans come in force, the only sane option is escape. There would be carnage, and sufferings would be indescribably cruel, and, crucially, this would not mean that Messiah was about to appear.

The only reason why a sensible man might not flee, would be if he believed that God was going to defend Jerusalem- if the Messiah was going to arrive in the nick of time like the U.S. cavalry and drive the Injuns away. So Jesus makes a special point of saying that when this happens, nobody should be looking for the Christ, the anointed saviour, to show up. If anyone says that the Messiah has appeared, don’t believe it.

The statement in v21-23 looks like a repetition of Jesus’ earlier statement in v5-6; a warning against false Christs who will lead people astray. But this warning is made in the specific context of the siege of Jerusalem. This is connected with the warning to flee. There were those living in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 who predicted the coming of the Messiah. Jesus says they’ll say, “Look, here is the Christ!” And if the disciples at that time had believed that Jesus was coming back to defend the city, then they’d have stayed in Jerusalem to enjoy his protection. But Jesus is warning that he won’t be protecting Jerusalem from the Romans. If anyone claims to be the Messiah in that day, then they’re a liar and a fraud, no matter what magic tricks they’ve got up their sleeve. False messiahs will come and do fake signs and wonders to lead people astray, but they won’t stop the Romans and they won’t stop the destruction of the Temple. Figures like this did arise during the first Jewish-Roman war- try Googling “Simon Ben Giora”- but any who hoped in them, hoped in vain.

Jesus tells the disciples this ahead of time, so that they won’t be taken by surprise. And tradition has it that many of the Christians in Jerusalem did head for the hills when they realised that the Romans were coming, and so escaped with their lives.

Maybe it’s getting boring having the point hammered home, but Jesus cannot be talking about the end of all things, when flight will be useless (Rev 6:15-17).


 4.      When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?

 Jesus says that in “those days, after that tribulation”, the sun will go dark, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the heavenly powers will be shaken. The “what tribulation is he talking about?” part is the easy bit. In v24, Jesus is following on from his comments about the fall of Jerusalem in v14-23. The fall of Jerusalem and the final destruction of the Temple are the tribulation in view. Those things took place in A.D. 70, as one might expect given that Jesus says (v30) that the disciples’ generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. But in these verses, Jesus says he is talking about events post-A.D. 70. The question remains, “exactly how long post- ?”  Jesus talks about falling stars and darkened sun, which sounds very much like the end of the world to our ears. But doesn’t he then say that “this generation will not pass away” until all these things have taken place?

I don’t think we can wriggle out of the force of what Jesus says in v30. He closes by saying that the things he’s been talking about will happen before the generation of the disciples passes from the earth. Some commentators manfully argue that the Greek word γευεα, usually translated as “generation”, actually means “race” or “people”, and so the time-span in view can be extended indefinitely, or at least for as long as there are still Jews around. But that doesn’t really wash. It certainly isn’t consistent with Mark’s and Jesus’ use of the word so far in the Gospel (Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19). In those verses, Jesus uses the word to mean his own generation, which is wicked and sinful like the generation that died in the wilderness. So on a face reading, these cosmic signs have already taken place- they happened during the disciples’ generation.

That leaves us with an obvious problem. The historical accounts of the fall of Jerusalem (mostly from Josephus) make no mention of un-natural darkness or falling stars. It seems very unlikely that these things could happen, and yet go un-noticed and unremarked in the histories. Did everybody blink at the same time, and miss it? Or did people think “ho-hum, there goes the sun. Oh, and the stars, too. Still, I’ve got more important things to write in my journal for today”?

To find the answer to the problem, we need to look back to OT, and see the way this cosmic language is used there. The OT reader who hears that language immediately thinks of Isaiah 13, and of similar passages (Isaiah 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Amos 8:9; Joel 2:1; 3:15).

In Isaiah 13, we have Isaiah’s oracle concerning the coming fall of Babylon. Isaiah says that “the Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle.” He says that “the day of the Lord is near.” He says that God is stirring up the pitiless Medes against Babylon. He says that Babylon, in all her splendour and pomp, will be destroyed “like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.” He’s talking about huge geo-political upheaval. Babylon would be the Top Nation of the time. It would seem unthinkable that the Babylonian Empire could be destroyed. As Isaiah says, it was the glory of kingdoms. But fall it did, almost overnight, defeated by the Medo-Persian Empire. The key thing for our purposes though, is that as Isaiah describes the fall of Babylon, he says that God declares “the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not give its light”; and “I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place” (Isaiah 13:10, 13). When we read of the sun being blotted out and the earth being shaken out of its place, that doesn’t sound an awful lot like the fall of an earthly empire, does it? It sounds like something an awful lot more serious. It sounds like the end of everything. And yet Isaiah is not talking about the end of the world, but about a change in world-government. He can talk about the fall of Babylon, and tell us that the heavens will tremble when it happens. In Isaiah, the celestial language is not meant to be about the enormous nuclear fusion reactions out in space. It is nations that are blotted out, not the sun.

Or take Ezekiel 32, where Ezekiel raises a lament over Pharaoh and Egypt, having just prophesied Egypt’s fall to Babylon, and the death of Pharaoh. In that chapter, God says to Pharaoh that when he destroys Pharaoh by the sword of the Babylonian king, then he will cover the heavens, make the stars dark, cover the sun with a cloud, stop the moon from giving its light, and make all of the bright lights of the heavens dark. But the astral disaster was a metaphor for the political downfall and death of Pharaoh. This is a characteristic of prophetic literature- cosmic sympathy and correlation. So in Isaiah and Ezekiel, so in Judges where the stars in their courses fight against Sisera (Judges 5:20), and so with the language Jesus uses here- almost quoting Isaiah.

 If you wonder whether this is all a little bit too obscure- whether the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem when he spoke of celestial disaster- just look at Peter’s use of Joel in Acts 2.

Joel had said to Israel that a day would come when God’s Spirit would be poured out “on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions… and I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28, 30-32).

When Peter is there in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and the disciples begin to speak in foreign languages, which the Jews of the dispersion who are gathered for the festival can understand, some men in the crowd begin to accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, and he says that these men are not drunk- it’s too early in the morning anyway. Instead, says Peter, what is happening is a direct fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel- and he then quotes the chunk from Joel 2:28-32.

We can see immediately how the part about God’s Spirit being poured out is true of the disciples. But Peter doesn’t say that only that part is fulfilled. He talks about the sun being darkened as well. We have no hint that that is actually physically literally happening as Peter speaks. But the crowd don’t turn on him and say “The moon turning to blood, eh? Ha! You ARE drunk”. Again, this is only intelligible if we read the cosmic darkness as a metaphor for the downfall of a political body, and also take it as read that the Jewish crowd shared this understanding. In Acts 2, the political downfall is that of Israel; this outpouring of the Spirit sounds the death-knell for her national privilege. God is at that very moment speaking to her in tongues of foreigners because she wouldn’t listen to him speak in her own language, as Isaiah had predicted (Isa 28:11-13). God’s people are now no longer defined as those people who can trace their descent to Jacob, or who are circumcised and who keep the law like good Israelites. God’s people are now as defined as the body of people joined to God’s Messiah. No longer the natural children of Abraham, but all who share Abraham’s faith. This is the biggest change in God’s dealings with men since the fall, perhaps even since the creation. If cosmic language isn’t appropriate here, then where would it be?


 5.      No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.

Well, maybe. But I still think it has got to be about the events of the disciples lifetime; the changes in God’s purposes that separate the Old and New Covenants.

And there might even be a way for it to be both literal and about those changes, even though nobody at the time actually experienced a black-out. That way would involve answering questions like “So what actually is an angel?” and “What are the principalities and powers Paul talks about in Ephesians?”, and, “When Isaiah talks about the “Day Star, son of Dawn…You who said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God’”, who does he mean?”

I don’t intend to do that now because

a) I’ve gone on long enough.

b) We’ve had more than enough weird for one day.

c) I’ve not really thrashed it out in my own mind yet.

But basically, I think that earth is an image of heaven, that realities on earth mirror the heavenly realities, and that there is a connection between earthly powers and heavenly powers- between stars, kings, nations, and angels. It would make admirable sense of all the passages quoted in the previous question. To most of us, brought up in a materialist society, it sounds very odd indeed. Perhaps the thing in our experience that it sounds most like is the ramblings of some New-Age hippie whose rational faculties have been fried by LSD. So I should probably add here that I am no more drunk than was Peter. And I have never taken, do not take at this time, and never intend to take, illegal drugs. But at least it stops me sounding like a liberal.


6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

Jesus is in total control of all history. In the last week of his life, before he went to the cross, he knew what his death would accomplish. He knew that it would mean unimaginable pain for himself. He knew that it would mean turmoil and confusion for Israel. But in all that, with all those concerns in his mind, Jesus is still concerned for the good of his disciples. Anybody else, thinking about the rise and fall of nations, might think themselves justified in ignoring their friends. Any other man, knowing his own death to be near, might have been selfish and preoccupied. But Jesus, all through this chapter, is putting the needs of his disciples first. They will be confused and in danger. So Jesus tells them the things they will need to be able to remember.

He does these things because he is the image of the invisible God, and God cares for his elect and works all things together for their good. How can we doubt it, when we see Jesus?

Mark 13:3-13. Birth pangs aren’t death rattles.

August 5, 2011

And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v3-4)

And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (v5-8)

But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (v9-13)


Through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been revealing himself to his disciples. He has shown them that he is God’s king. He has shown them what the kingdom of God will be like by forgiving sins and healing the sick. He has shown them on the mount of transfiguration that he is more than just a human king. He has taught them that he has come not as a conquering king, but as a suffering king.

Over the last week, Jesus and the disciples have been in and out of the temple, and Jesus has claimed it as his house. He has driven out those who had no right to be there. He has restored it to its original purpose. He has taken on those who claim power in Israel- the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees, and has defeated them all.

Then to close the temple section, Jesus has said that an offering of two small coins from a widow is worth more than all the rest of the temple offerings put together, and he has said that the Temple building will be torn to the ground. The disciples ask him about that…


  1. What are the disciples asking? What do they expect to see happening very shortly? Why is this an important question for them to ask?
  2. Why does Mark tell us where Jesus sat?
  3. Why does Jesus need to tell the disciples to watch out for those who claim to be him? They know Jesus well. They know what he looks like and how he talks. Why would they be in danger of being fooled?
  4. Jesus talks about “birth pains”. What does this picture mean?
  5. What is Jesus talking about in v 9-13?
  6. How are we supposed to use this passage?


1.      What are the disciples asking? What do they expect to see happening very shortly?

We’ve already seen that the disciples have some serious misunderstandings about what is going on. They are Jewish men, steeped in the OT scriptures, but viewing things through their own filters. They are sure that Jesus is the Messiah. They are sure that he is God. And so they expect to see him ride to victory and restore God’s people.

A Gentile man, not knowing the scriptures, would be totally bemused by Jesus. A Jewish man would see all sorts of significance in all sorts of things Jesus did and said- but would get it wrong much of the time. You’d expect the disciples to have serious misunderstandings.

We see this happen again and again. We’ve read of Peter’s offer on the mount of transfiguration to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (9:5). Knowing the scriptures and viewing things through his filters, when Peter saw Jesus transfigured with glory and talking to Moses and Elijah, he thought that the final kingdom of God had arrived. In terms of the Jewish festival calendar, the final feast of Tabernacles had just begun- it was time for the full harvest and for total rest and rejoicing. The rule of God through Jesus was about to start on the mountain, all Israel coming to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, for judgement. That was a natural enough assumption on Peter’s part, but it didn’t happen, and Jesus told them to keep quiet about what they’d seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

We’ve seen the disciples join with the crowd who waved their palm branches and threw down their cloaks on the ground to welcome Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem like a king. Again, they thought that the time had come for Jesus to take his throne.

We’ve seen Peter shocked when he saw the withered fig tree- he understood something of the symbolism there, and understood that this was about judgement falling on Israel.

 And so here, when the disciples ask “When will these things be?”, we need to understand their mindset. They are talking about what Jesus has just said in 13:2. He’s just told them that the Temple will be destroyed utterly, with not one stone left on top of another. They understand that this isn’t just a local disaster much like any other- a gas explosion or an earthquake into which we shouldn’t read any great significance. They know that the destruction of the Temple has a deeper meaning than simply the dismantling of a physical structure. At the very least, it means that God has abandoned Jerusalem. They know their history. They know why Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar- it’s all there in Jeremiah and Lamentations and Ezekiel, books they’ve heard read many times over.

They ask, “When will these things (plural) happen. What is the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” They are not just asking about the destruction of the Temple. In their minds, the Temple being destroyed is inextricably linked with great upheavals. If God allows the Temple to be destroyed, it means that he no longer sees it as his dwelling place. It means that he has abandoned his people to their enemies.

And they know that Jesus is the Messiah. So when Jesus, whom they know to be God’s Messiah, leaves the Temple, predicting its fall; what are the disciples supposed to think? They’ve seen Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. They’ve been astonished at the sense of destiny he so plainly had (10:32). They know that he has come to Jerusalem with some great purpose in mind. They have for a long time thought that he is going to set up God’s eternal kingdom very soon. Now, they surely think that God is about to unleash wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and set his King to rule on Zion’s holy hill. So they ask when they can they expect to see it all start? Today? Or if not today, perhaps tomorrow? Or maybe there are a few more things to organise first, and the battle lines won’t be drawn until later this week?

 It is crucial to see that this chapter is embedded in this context. The words Jesus speaks in reply to the disciples- words about coming trouble and suffering- do not come out of nowhere. The temptation for us is to read Jesus’ words as the words of a prophet, setting out a vision of the distant future. But to do so is to ignore the context. Jesus is not some 2-dimensional figure in a cheap novel, free to divorce himself from the reality around him and indulge in a long monologue addressed to distant readers. Jesus’ words are spoken in reply to a direct question. There are real men in front of him as he speaks, and they have real fears and hopes and questions in their minds. Although Jesus is a prophet and more than a prophet, he is also a pastor. He is shepherding these men. His words are a genuine answer to their question.

 Though the passage is often interpreted as a prediction of the end of the world, the immediate context makes it clear that Jesus is talking about the fall of the Temple and related events; event the disciples expect very soon. And the broader context- the fact that this conversation comes at the end of a series of conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders over the Temple- also indicate that this is all about the Temple in Jerusalem.



2.      Why does Mark tell us where Jesus sat?

Mark tells us that Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives (v3). The Mount of Olives is a significant place in Jewish prophecy, especially in prophecy concerning the Temple. It is the place where the Lord comes and stands on the day of destruction and restoration (Zechariah 14). If you turn to the strange vision Ezekiel sees in chapters 9 to 11 of his book, then you’ll see that the Mount of Olives is the place to which the Lord moves when he abandons his temple because of the wickedness of Israel. First, the Lord leaves the inner most place of the temple, and stands at the door. Then he moves further, to the doors of the outer walls. And finally, he leaves the temple altogether for the mountain to the East of it. The Temple stands empty; it is God’s dwelling no longer.

There are parallels here. Jesus is the Lord, and he has just left his Temple, prophesying against it. He has gone out to stand on the Mount of Olives. This is all part of the setting for the disciples’ question, isn’t it? The disciples are wondering what happens now. Will Jerusalem be destroyed now? Will foreign armies suddenly appear to reduce the temple to rubble, kill the wicked, and leave only the Godly standing, before Jesus brings back all true worshippers from all the lands where they are scattered? Whether or not the disciples understood all this at the time is debatable. They at least understood that the Mount of Olives was an important location when it came to the coming Kingdom of God. Mark certainly understands the background in Ezekiel, and sees Jesus as following the movements of God there  described.



3.      Why does Jesus immediately tell the disciples to watch out for deceivers?

In v5-6, Jesus seems to be envisaging a time when he will not be with the disciples, and when they will be looking for his return to them, and not sure exactly what to expect when he does appear. They will therefore be vulnerable to frauds who will come claiming to be sent by Jesus, or actually to be him. If Jesus were still with the disciples, then they wouldn’t be deceived by anybody claiming to be Jesus- they’d say, “You’re not him. Look, he’s just over there”, or “We know Jesus, and you don’t even look like him”. But after the resurrection, when Jesus did appear for 40 days before the ascension, the disciples didn’t recognise him immediately. Maybe his physical appearance wasn’t precisely the same.

That is important because the disciples still have not got it into their heads that such a time will come. They still don’t think that Jesus is really going to die. They think he’ll take the throne of David, still in the earthly body he has as he speaks to them, and begin his everlasting reign. The disciples have read the OT prophets, and they’ve listened to Jesus’ teaching on the matter, and now they think they know a thing or two about the kingdom of God. But their minds are still locked in to a not-fully-accurate understanding. The disciples expect things to happen quickly, but Jesus replies to their question not with a timeline, but with an extended speech. And he tells them that things might not happen so very quickly. He seems to take it as read that there will be a delay between his ascension and his second coming, whereas the disciples have not even grasped that there will be a crucifixion and resurrection.

When you go walking in the mountains, and you see a range of hills many miles away, all the peaks look as though they are the same distance away. They are all on the horizon. It looks as though you will arrive at them, and there they will all be, all at once, part of the same ridge. If you were to prophesy about the day when you arrive there, based on your current vision, you might talk in terms of “On that day, when we arrive at the distant peaks”. But when you do actually arrive at the beginnings of the horizon, the range you saw as one event resolves itself out into a fresh vista and a new horizon. You then see that what you once saw as a string of peaks all the same distance away, is actually a range of hills that will take many days to traverse. The OT prophets spoke as men looking at distant hills. They were given visions of things to happen in the future- the coming of Messiah, the founding of his kingdom, the gathering in of the Gentiles, the final judgement- and they saw all these as happening at once. The disciples still have this mindset. They see only two ages to the earth- now and then. “Now”, they live in a fallen world, but “Then” Messiah will arrive, and everything will be changed. Everything. All at once. Living after Jesus came, we know that this is not the case, that there is an overlap of ages, a time when the kingdom has come, but before the fallen world has been consumed- a time when the “now” and the “then” are both true at once, and when God’s people live kingdom lives in a fallen world.

This is often confusing for us, and for the disciples it is bewildering. They know that Jesus is the Messiah, and they constantly expect him to do something final and decisive. So when he leaves the temple, predicting destruction, and goes out onto the Mount of Olives, they expect things to happen quickly. But Jesus knows that he is going to leave them. And he knows that they need this sort of instruction. He warns them against a false sense of imminence, and urges vigilance in the turmoil through which they will live. The disciples would have struggled to understand any of the details. But they will remember it, and will understand it after the resurrection. Obviously they did remember: how else did Mark know what Jesus said? And after Jesus had left them, they would have been helped by this teaching. False Messiahs did come. Perhaps Simon Magus, in Acts 8, was one such figure, with people saying that he was God on earth. And he did lead many astray.



4.      Jesus talks about “birth pains”. What does this picture mean?

In v7-8, Jesus talks about wars and earthquakes and famines. He says that these things are not very important- that they tell you nothing about when the end of the age will come. He says that there will always be troubles and wars, conflict between nations, famine and so on, and that these things are only the birth pains.

Well, if you think about it, these things are precisely what the disciples would have been looking for. Their script for the end of the age, the coming of Messiah, and the start of the Messianic kingdom, involves a massive battle, from which Messiah emerges the victor. They are expecting armies to converge on Jerusalem. Wars and rumours of wars will interest them deeply. They are precisely the things which the disciples do think of as signs of the end of the age. But Jesus tells them that these things do not indicate the end. The end is yet to come. The disciples are reading from the wrong script. Again, Jesus seems to have a longer term view of things. He sees a long period where life goes on as it has since the fall- with wars and famines and natural disasters which don’t mean that the world will end in the next few months. They are not signs of the end, they are birth pains. The wars and suffering simply point to the fact that the world is fallen, and under God’s judgement. They don’t indicate anything beyond that.

But Jesus does describe them as “birth pains”. Birth pains are a common image of God’s punishment on the wicked (Isaiah 13:8; 26:17; Micah 4:9f; Hosea 13:13; Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 49:22; 50:43). The phrase fits into a broader stream of Biblical theology. It is an appropriate image of fallen-ness because of the origin of birth pains. Where are birth pains first mentioned in the Bible? They are part of the curse pronounced on Eve. Eve had taken part in the rebellion of Genesis 3; the overturning of God’s authority and the turning upside-down of all the other authorities derived from God. Especially, she had disregarded the way she was supposed to relate to her husband. She had listened to the serpent, and taken action independently of Adam. She and he were supposed to function as a single unit, and she was supposed to be his helper. She wasn’t meant to strike out on her own, without his blessing. And so the curse spoken to her rested particularly on her marriage and family life. Children are perhaps the most obvious physical expression of the one-flesh union enjoyed by a married couple. The couple share their lives, and their lives flow together, and children- derived from both parents- spring from that union. In a fallen world, the experience of childbirth is marked by intense pain for the woman. But after the pain, new life comes forth. The woman gives birth, the pain is over and soon forgotten, and the enjoyment of new life begins.

This picture of the birth pains then works on two levels. On one hand, it is a picture of God’s wrath on the disobedient. Wars and famines and earthquakes are a consequence of the fall, just as are birth pains. The prophets use the picture that way. And Jesus says that the things the disciples will see are only “the beginnings” of the birth pains. Events of greater intensity and significance can be expected.

But on the other hand, the wars and turmoil are not the point. A child will be born when the birth pains are over. The birth pains are not the childbirth. Life has yet to come. Wars and rumours of wars are a constant feature of life in a fallen world, as are famines and earthquakes. But they are not the childbirth- they only show us that a child is to come. They don’t even put a definite timescale on the child’s arrival, other than “soon”. So when the disciples see the turmoil that is to come to Jerusalem, when they see the Temple torn down, they shouldn’t expect the immediate return of Jesus. But they should pray urgently for his return.



5.      What is Jesus talking about in v9-13?

Having spoken of trials and troubles and false saviours being part and parcel of a fallen world, Jesus goes on to warn his disciples about some of the trials and troubles specific to them. As believers in him, as those who live as citizens for the kingdom of God, who look for its full arrival, and who tell others about it, they can expect persecution from the fallen world.

It is easy to apply this to ourselves, and to assume that Jesus was talking directly to us. In a way, he was, but only in so far as we are made the heirs of the apostles, building on the foundations they laid. Jesus is talking immediately to Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They have asked him a question about their concerns, and Jesus is dealing with those concerns. As we’ve said, it is a real human situation, and Jesus isn’t about to go off on one, turn away from the people in front of him, and start speaking “for the historical record”, or “to future generations”. He is speaking to the men who will lead the first century church on earth after he has ascended to heaven. He says that the disciples will be delivered to the courts, flogged in the synagogues, and taken before governors and kings. He promises them that the Spirit will give them utterance when they are forced to testify. Jesus says that families will divide over him during the first generation of the church, and people will hate the apostles because of him. These sayings might be more broadly applicable, but they are certainly given in the first place to the apostles.

Read the book of Acts, and we can see the start of that 2-stage application. It is plain that all that Jesus says here came to pass. It was true for Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They were hated by the Jews. Peter and John stood before the rulers. And they did this to bear witness to Jesus; they said that he was the Messiah, come to die, raised to life, and ruling from heaven until he comes again. And it was true also for Stephen, Paul, Barnabas and Silas, who weren’t there on the Mount of Olives in Mark 13. Paul and Barnabas and Silas took the Gospel to the Gentile nations (an idea firmly rooted in the Old Testament- Isaiah 42, 49, 52, 60; Psalm 96).

The disciples can be reassured that when Jesus has gone, they will have another helper. The Holy Spirit will come to them, and will speak through them. The division between the disciples and the world will be severe- even splitting families apart. The hatred of unbelievers for believers is so strong that it can cause the unbeliever to hand over to death even his own brother or his own father. But although all the world will hate those who are on the Lord’s side- yet they must endure. For if they endure, they shall surely be saved.



6.      How are we supposed to use this passage?

Bearing in mind that the disciples have serious misunderstandings, Jesus is at the very least trying to smash their triumphalism. They expect the end of the age and then an everlasting glory. Jesus is trying to warn them that this is not yet on the menu. They face the shock of Jesus’ own death, a long period without Jesus, the destruction of the Temple and the abandonment of the Jews to the Romans. They face persecutions and trials, hatred from the world at large and even from their own families. If they knew what lay ahead, they would tremble and cry out for help. Their eager expectation is wrong-headed.

If we are Christians- if we believe what these men believed, trust as they trusted, and do as they did- then we can expect the same treatment as they received. We’ve seen Jesus’ predictions about Jerusalem come to pass, nearly 2000 years ago. We’re still living through the birth pains, still praying for the saviour to come, and still proclaiming the Gospel to all nations.

A passage like this teaches us how to live in our world, waiting for the return of Jesus. We should be building his church and preaching his gospel. And we should expect to be treated as he was and as his apostles were. We shouldn’t be looking for honour and respect from the world, for the praise of the learned or the famous or the wealthy. We can expect to be hated by all for Jesus’ sake.

And if that makes us tremble and cry out for help, then good! We should be asking for God’s help. We have here promises that help will be forthcoming. Jesus sits in heaven, at his Father’s right hand, and he sends us the Holy Spirit, who makes us into witnesses for him.

Especially, we need to be praying for his return. When we cry out to God in pain or sorrow or frustration- when a loved one dies, or when we feel overwhelmed by enemies around us, or when we are tempted to despair at our own wickedness, or when we struggle to break sinful habits- and we cry out for deliverance; then we can be sure that all of those prayers will find their ultimate answer in Jesus’ return to rule. He will banish all of those things to the uttermost.


Mark 12:35-13:2. Hungry for houses.

January 22, 2011

And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”


 Ever since Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, all the action in Mark’s Gospel has focused on the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple looking for fruit, and has found only green leaves. The place looks alive, but it is dead inside.

Jesus has spent a great deal of time in the temple, teaching the crowds who have come to worship. He has publicly criticised the Jewish authorities who run the Temple, telling them they’ve made God’s house into a hideout for criminals, and comparing them to wicked tenants trying to steal a vineyard. Group by group, these authorities have come to Jesus and tried to humiliate him by asking him questions, grasping for control of the Temple. Jesus has defeated them all. At the end, Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions.

Now, having taken questions from the chief priests, scribes, elders, Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees; Jesus asks a question of his own.

 1. What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Christ isn’t supposed to be descended from David after all? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

 2. Why does the question about the Christ become a warning about the scribes?

 3. What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

 4. How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 5. Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?


 1.      What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Messiah isn’t supposed to be descended from David? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

The most recent of the questions asked of Jesus through chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel seemed to be different in character from the others. The scribe who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment seemed to be genuinely seeking an answer, not merely trying to trip Jesus up. The final question is different again. It is not asked to Jesus, but asked by Jesus.

Mark says in 12:34 that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. Having faced all comers and defeated all those who dared to challenge him, Jesus now takes the role of questioner himself.

Back in chapter 8, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, and they replied that he was the “Christ”. The word simply means the “anointed one”, being a Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah”. Jesus then repeatedly tried to correct their misunderstandings about Messiah and his kingdom by talking about his coming sufferings and death and drawing out the implications for his disciples and the way they should think and act. The question in this chapter is in the same vein, attempting to correct popular misunderstandings about the Messiah.

Jesus takes up the common teaching of the scribes that the Messiah will be the “son of David”, and suggests that this may not be the whole truth. It certainly is true that the Messiah will be of David’s line, but there is more to it than that. The teaching is firmly grounded in the writings of the prophets. In this instance, the scribes have got their teaching spot-on. God told David that he would raise up seed from David’s own body, and establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12). Isaiah wrote (and you’ll find it just after the well-known “unto us a child is born” bit) that Messiah would sit on David’s throne and establish his kingdom with justice for evermore (Isaiah 9:6-7). Jeremiah prophesied about a righteous branch raised up for David who shall reign as king (Jeremiah 23:5), and about a time when Israel shall be freed from slavery to serve, “the Lord their God and David their king (Jeremiah 30:9). Ezekiel, while pronouncing woe on the selfish and greedy shepherds over God’s people, also says that God will set up over them, “One shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (Ezekiel 34:23). We could multiply examples. The prophets look forward to a time when David will rule as king over God’s people in peace and righteousness.

At first glance, the prophets may make little sense to us. Surely Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel knew that David had died and was buried with his fathers, didn’t they? Did they expect David to be raised from the dead and to rule as king again? Or are they just using metaphor- do they use “David” to mean “A king like David.”?

I think that the answer is “Neither of the above”. In a sense, the prophets are looking for a king like David, but they are talking about more than just similarity. The prophets knew well that David himself is dead, but they also knew of a sense in which David lived on in his children. If you take a look at Hebrews 7, the writer argues that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek. Levi wasn’t yet born when this happened. It was Abraham, Levi’s great-grandfather, who paid the tithes. But, says the writer, Levi was there in Abraham’s loins. Levi derived his life from Abraham. So if Abraham paid tithes, then Levi paid tithes in Abraham. And if you can look at Abraham and see Levi, then to work that argument in reverse, you can look at Levi, and say “There’s Abraham. Or at least, there’s something of him”. So with David and the Christ. If the Christ were descended from David, then it would be legitimate to look at the Christ and say “There’s David.”

The prophets longed for a king to come who would be descended from David physically, and who would share David’s spiritual life too, showing the same devotion to God. They looked for a time when this king would do what David did, under God’s blessing, and when Israel would be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression and would enjoy the sunshine of God’s smile.

Israelites in Jesus time had taken the prophecies to heart. Those in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles were looking for Messiah to come from Bethlehem, David’s city (John 7:42). When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, what did Bartimaeus cry out? “Son of David, have mercy on me”. When Jesus came into Jerusalem at the head of a great procession, what were the crowd shouting? “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”. They were looking for a Messiah like David, a national hero, a great warrior, to slay giants and deliver God’s people from all their woes.

And Jesus isn’t denying that the Christ has to be David’s son. That is taken as read- it’s what the Old Testament clearly says. But Jesus plainly thinks that the scribes haven’t got it 100% correct. From what Jesus says here, it seems clear that the scribes think of Messiah as somehow defined by David- limited by David’s example. The problem is that the scribes thought that a son couldn’t be greater than his father. Levi couldn’t outrank Jacob, Jacob couldn’t outrank Isaac, Isaac had to defer to Abraham, and so on all the way to Adam. Adam is the head of all of us. He was the first, and so he takes precedence.

There’s a great deal of truth in that. We derive our lives from Adam, not the other way round. God breathed life into Adam’s body. Eve shared that life, being made from Adam’s body. Cain, Abel, and Seth also shared that life, and we still share it today. The things Adam did affect all of us, because our life came from him. We can’t be something he wasn’t. We can’t make ourselves more than human, because we come from Adam, the man. And because he sinned, we are sinners. That only works forwards, not backwards.

The Jews were mindful of this, and it seems that the scribes had applied that principle where it shouldn’t have been applied. They took the prophecies about Messiah being David, and said that since a son can’t be greater than his father, Messiah could only follow where David had led. So Messiah couldn’t do anything David hadn’t already done- couldn’t be the sort of king David hadn’t already been.

But when Messiah comes onto the scene, the principle of physical descent can’t govern everything. The scribes were inconsistent here. Jesus and the scribes both agree that David wrote Psalm 110, and that he wrote it about a Messiah figure. David probably had Solomon in mind when he wrote. And so the point Jesus wants to make, from Psalm 110, is that David himself called one of his own descendants, “Lord”. David owned the Messiah as his master. And if Messiah was David’s Lord, greater than David, then Messiah can’t be constrained by David’s limitations. Yes, the Messiah will be a king, like David was. David was pulled up out from obscurity and anointed by God. David inflicted amazing unexpected defect on God’s and Israel’s enemies, led the armies of Israel to victory, slew his tens of thousands, and ruled wisely, establishing a golden age. And Messiah could do likewise. But the scribes’ Messiah is too small. They don’t expect a cosmic Messiah, merely a national hero. They had never grasped the greatness of the Messiah. They looked to his coming, but thought of him as less than he actually was, subordinate to David. Jesus is pointing out to them that Messiah is not defined by David. In fact, the reverse is the case. David himself looks up to Messiah. The point is that Messiah can be David’s son, and can still be greater than David, and if you want the authority for a claim like that, then, well, David himself knew it, and he said so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 The people hear Jesus gladly. Perhaps for some of them, it was as though they were vaguely aware that the teaching they had from the scribes was not very good, that there was something important missing, awry. But when they hear Jesus, it makes them glad. They hear him explaining so clearly what has been dark and perplexing to them before. Things begin to fall into place. They feel as though they are getting somewhere, finally.

Maybe for others, they’re just glad to see the scribes knocked down from their high horses.

For us, we should be glad to see Jesus in this way- the eschatological king.


 2.      Why does the question about the Messiah become a warning about the scribes?

Jesus asked the question in order to correct the teaching of the scribes. It then naturally moves into a warning about the scribes themselves. Jesus tells the people to watch out for them, and he gives reasons why they shouldn’t be trusted. All of those reasons point to the same basic problem with the scribes- they are hypocrites, outwardly concerned with God’s honour, but really concerned about their own honour.

The scribes are keen religious men, acknowledged teachers. They wear the teacher’s long robe, so that everyone will know about their qualifications, and too many of them take an unhealthy pleasure in the sense of importance that they get from knowing and teaching the scriptures. They like to be greeted in the marketplace- people honour them and take notice when they walk past. People rise respectfully to greet them in the streets, and address them with titles like “Rabbi”, “Father”, even “Master”. They sit in special seats in the synagogue, facing the congregation, because they consider themselves more important. They like to have the best seats at banquets. We’ve seen from other parts of Mark’s account how complicated Jewish social protocol was, how when you held a party, you would consider very carefully who to invite, and where to seat them according to how important they were. Scribes were given top seats.

And these scribes devoured widows’ houses. There were old poor women who felt an obligation to support the scribes, because they were the teachers of God’s law. The scribes sponged off them heartlessly, exploiting them until all their money was gone. The scribes pray, and pray at length- but their long prayers are a pretence. They seem to be directing their words to God, but their real audience is the bystanders. Instead of directing men to God, they want attention for themselves. They ought to encourage Israel to serve God humbly, but they can’t do that properly, because they are not humble themselves. The scribes care more about their own reputations and the esteem they receive from men, than they care for God’s name. Their pompous self-serving attitude obscures the God they are supposed to serve.

Notice that here, Jesus tells the people to beware of the scribes. He’s not telling them to beware of the leaven of the scribes, as he tells them elsewhere to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (Mark 8:15). Immediately, the warning isn’t to beware of the scribes’ teaching, but to beware of the scribes themselves, as men. The scribes are dangerous enemies to have. They will bitterly oppose the followers of Jesus, will persecute them and try to have them killed. Jesus isn’t directly warning his hearers to beware of scribal attitudes creeping into their own hearts. We should certainly beware of those attitudes in our own hearts, and we should endeavour to kill those sins before they grow, but that isn’t exactly what Jesus is saying here. We could infer it, but it would be an inference.

Jesus’ warnings still stand for us. We see the same sort of religious rulers around today. The scribes devoured widow’s houses; and we have televangelists, unscrupulously asking for money from people who can ill afford to give, so that they can have flashy cars and big houses. The scribes were fond of their long robes, and loved the adulation they received. We are not short of spiritual healers and gurus who dress in gleaming white suits, and who obviously love standing in front of the crowds and being looked up to. God is not interested in that sort of religion, and it only serves to give God a bad name. Theirs is the greater condemnation, and we should be very wary of them.


3.      What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

The short answer is that no, it isn’t. The slightly longer answer is that yes, it is, but it’s about so much more than that too.

 We may be used to hearing sermons from this text on the topic of whole-hearted giving. Those may be very good sermons, but to get to any application, we first need to go back and see the context.

Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the temple opposite the treasury. They are looking at the offering boxes, against the wall of the court of the women. According to Jewish tradition, there are 13 boxes there, with trumpet like funnels going into the boxes. People would come with their coins- no paper money then, just coins- and would pour them into the trumpets. If you were making a sizeable offering, then the coins would ring out as they hit the trumpets, and would clatter down noisily into the boxes. So if you were wealthy, you could afford to put on quite a show for the onlookers. It would be very obvious that you were giving a large sum. And conversely, if you were poor, and couldn’t afford to give an awful lot, everyone would know about that too. They would hear only a few coins going in.

As Jesus and the disciples watched, a poor widow came up to the boxes, and threw just a few small coins in- these were the lowest denomination of coins in circulation, and historical sources say that you weren’t allowed to throw in any fewer than two coins. So this woman is making the smallest offering it was possible to make. But she wasn’t doing that out of carelessness for the things of God. Jesus could see that she gave as much as she was able- that her offering cost her.

The widow is pious, of course, and that is a good and lovely thing. But in context, the point isn’t about her- it’s about the scribes. Jesus has just accused the scribes, who are associated in some way with the Temple authorities, of devouring widows’ houses. Jesus has been condemning the Temple ever since chapter 11, and one of the things rotten about it is that instead of providing food for widows and orphans (as required under the festival laws of Deuteronomy),  the Temple system sucks the life from devout widows, eating away all their substance instead of feeding them. This widow is plainly meant to be identified as one of the widows who are having their houses devoured. She has just given all she had to live on to the bloated vampire Temple. It is beautiful in a way, although it can’t be all that heart-warming to watch a widow having her house devoured. It’s lovely of her, but it’s a disgusting spectacle overall.

Jesus called his disciples to him, sitting there, and told them that God did not value the money pouring into the coffers as much as he valued the gift of this poor widow. She had shown real, albeit undiscerning, devotion to God. And to Jesus, who had come to the Temple wanting to find fruit, her love for God was worth more than all the rest of it put together.

 Does God need our money? Of course he doesn’t. God is already the owner of everything. He needs nothing. He can accomplish whatever he wishes with or without money. He doesn’t need us to give back to him what he has first given to us out of his limitless treasury- and we can only give to him what is his already. The reason for our giving to God isn’t primarily economic, but rather relational. Of course we know that God ordains means to accomplish his chosen ends, and we know that money is therefore useful, and used by God. But we can also be sure that a lack of money doesn’t ultimately prevent God from achieving his purposes. We are like children giving a parent a Christmas present. The child can only give the parent something bought with the parent’s own money. But the point isn’t in the gift itself, as much as it is in the giving. The gift matters because it represents devotion.

It’s not what you give, it is what you keep. What you keep shows more truly how much you love God. This widow loved God with all her heart, because she gave him everything she had. The rich men who made a show out of giving sums far larger than this widow had given in all the offerings of her life put together, were actually giving less. They could give a lot, and still afford to buy for themselves whatever they wanted. They did not have to make any sacrifices to give. And so their giving did not show much love for God. God doesn’t care for money or offerings as things in themselves. He cares for love. So in that sense, the passage is about real religion, humble devotion of everything to God; versus pretend religion, which uses God’s name as a cover for pride and self-importance. It’s about what real fruit looks like, compared to useless leaves.


4.      How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 This passage fits into the structure of Mark’s Gospel as part of a frame. The opening scene Mark gave us in the Temple was back in 11:11, where Jesus was looking around at everything, like an inspector gathering evidence. The closing scene in the Temple is this one, where Jesus sees the widow throwing money into the box, calls the disciples over to have a look, and teaches them. In-between those two scenes, we have had the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, and the long string of questioners trying to embarrass Jesus in the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple as to his own house, confronted his enemies on what they think of as their territory- although it is nothing of the sort- and they have grown to hate him more and more. After Jesus has spent the better part of a week in the temple, seeing everything that goes on there and talking to the men who think they run the show, we close the drama in the Temple with the section about the scribes and the widow. This scene represents Jesus’ final verdict on the Temple and all its works.

We started off with the comparison of the temple to the fruitless tree, which was cursed for its lack of fruit. The scribes, the chief priests, the elders and all the others are just like the temple they love so much. The temple too is outwardly impressive, looks great, and makes people honour it. But it is empty to God. He finds no pleasure in it, because those who run it are no longer interested in him. In fact, it is redundant, and will be destroyed. With the background of the rest of the section, the key thing in the story is the comparison Jesus makes between the widow and all the other givers. What she has done is the only thing Jesus has seen worth seeing in all his time at the Temple. Everything else has been empty and without value.


5.      Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?

We’ll come to chapter 13 next time, but it is worth, very quickly, seeing the connection between that chapter and the previous section. Chapter 13 is confusing, but whatever we make of it, it needs to be rooted in the conversation Jesus and the disciples are having about the Temple. Mark wants us to see that the disciples haven’t understood anything that has been going on around them. Where Jesus has seen barrenness and a sterile empty façade of religion, the disciples have seen great impressive godly stuff. They need to open their eyes.

They leave the Temple with Jesus’ words about the widow still in their ears- “See her? She’s the most real worshipper in this place.” But they walk out saying “Oh, I love it here. So impressive and solid and holy. When you come to the Temple, you just know you’ve been in God’s presence, know what I mean? Oh, the history of this place, the significance in God’s great purposes. It’s wonderful”

We can walk into a big cathedral, and it’s impressive- dizzying, even. But where there’s no justice and righteousness, God isn’t bothered about the buildings.

Mark 12:28-34. The greatest commandment(s).

November 8, 2010

“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?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 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. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. “


Mark has been showing us Jesus in conflict with the Jewish authorities. Jesus has come to the Temple as the heir of the place, and has begun to assert his authority. Pretenders to his authority have come to him, group by group, and tried to tear him from his throne. The chief priests, elders, and scribes came with a question about authority. The Pharisees and Herodians came with a question about taxes. The Sadducees came with a question about the resurrection. And group by group, Jesus has defeated them all. Now a single individual comes to Jesus with another question- the last one anybody will dare to ask him.

 1. This man is a scribe. Who are the scribes?

 2. Others have asked Jesus questions to trap him. Why did this man ask his question?

 3. What is the scribe’s question about? Is it a much debated point among the scribes?

 4. What does Jesus mean by his answer? Where is he getting his answer from? Is it something revolutionary? Why does it have two parts?

 5. Is the scribe’s rejoinder surprising? Bear in mind where this all takes place. In response, Jesus says that the scribe is “not far from” the kingdom of God. What does he mean?

 6. Where does this passage sit in the flow of Mark’s Gospel? Why does Mark tell us that nobody dared ask Jesus anything else?

 7. What should we take from this passage to apply to ourselves?


1. This man is a scribe. Who are the scribes?

The scribes are a group who enjoyed authority in Israel. Essentially, they are a set of scholars. Specifically, they are legal scholars, experts in the tradition of Jewish jurisprudence. They are something like a professional guild, something like our lawyers, and something like our academics. Scribes were not the exclusive property of Israel- other ancient peoples had them for the transmission of religious, legal, and historical documents. If there had been no copyists or teachers, then ancient texts would have been lost. Professional, well-trained, scribes were essential.

Jewish scribes, however, were particularly concerned with the scriptures. And those who did the work on the transmission of the text of the law and the prophets and other writings, quickly became authorities when it came to questions about what the texts said. The best-known scribe from the Old Testament is Ezra, who was also a priest and a powerful religious leader. In Jesus’ time, the scribes were the acknowledged experts on law and theology in Israel, trained in the principles of OT law, and in the techniques of interpreting it and debating it. They were thought of as the authoritative voice of what God says about a particular matter. If you had a legal question, then you’d go and ask a scribe to solve it for you. The scribe would be able to quote to you all the relevant parts of the law, and then what a dozen rabbis have said about the matter, and what other rabbis have said about the comments of the first rabbis, ad infinitum.

The scribes weren’t a sect, so much as a profession. Being a scribe didn’t mean that you couldn’t also be a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, or an Essene, or anything else. Each of those groups would probably have had their own “in-house” scribes. But the Scribes as a group in Jesus’ day were dominated by Pharisees. Both Mark and Luke talk about “Scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16, Acts 23:9), and all the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself) feel it appropriate to talk of “scribes and Pharisees”, as though the two groups go together. There is a natural fit between the scribal profession, and the Pharisaic concern for the law. And it is unsurprising to find that the scribes (by-and-large) come down in support of the Pharisees.

It is also relevant to note that the scribes were supported by rich patrons. They were full-time students and teachers of the law, not holding down other jobs to earn money. They were financially dependent on the wealthy, which might have bearing on their allegiance to the status-quo.


2. Others have asked Jesus questions to trap him. Why does this man ask Jesus a question?

Is this man an enemy of Jesus; or is he neutral, even friendly? Matthew tells us that the scribe was one of the Pharisees, that he was in cahoots with a larger group of Pharisees, and that he asked his question in order to test Jesus, having just heard Jesus silence the Sadducees (Matthew 22:34-35). Mark simply tells us that the scribe asks his question because he has just heard Jesus answer other questions well. Mark and Matthew are not contradicting one another, but it is nevertheless very difficult to arrive at a settled view on whether or not this scribe is hostile.

When Matthew says that the scribe was was “testing” Jesus, are we to give that word the full conceptual freight it could carry from the Old Testament, where we read of Israel putting God to the test? Or do we read it to mean that the scribe was simply asking to see how Jesus would answer, “testing” him in that sense; which is perhaps not a good way to behave, but is certainly not malicious?

Again, when Mark tells us that the scribe asked because he had heard Jesus answer the Sadducees well, we can imagine two very different interpretations. Perhaps the scribe heard the answers Jesus had given to the Sadducees, immediately learned to value Jesus’ wisdom, and therefore sought his help to answer a hard question. On the other hand, maybe the scribe heard Jesus answer the Sadducees, was perturbed that the Sadducees seemed to have failed in their attempt to unseat Jesus, and so jumped in with a question of his own.

And again, when the scribe says to Jesus, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him” , do we read this as an acknowledgement of Jesus authority- after all, he calls Jesus “Teacher”, and admits that Jesus is right? Or is it a patronising and self-serving remark, repeating Jesus’ statement and then making a little addition of his own, as if to say “Yes, your teaching is coming along nicely. Keep at it, and you could do very well indeed. Of course, you haven’t quite understood this little point…”?

Yet again, when Jesus tells the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of heaven, is that supposed to be a commendation or a rebuke?

Still on the same conundrum, when Mark tells us that the scribe answered wisely, surely that is a commendation. But when Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask any more questions, doesn’t that imply that they were scared off by what Jesus had just said to the scribe?

These are not easy questions, and perhaps the text simply reflects the ambiguity of the situation. If we take it that the scribe was listening to Jesus dispute with the Sadducees, then it makes sense that he was both pleased and disappointed with Jesus’ answer. On the one hand, he is a member of groups hostile to Jesus, and would like to see Jesus humiliated. But on the other hand, the Sadducees have been trying to make Jesus look silly with a question about the resurrection- a question that could easily be turned on the Pharisees- and the scribe would have been impressed at the authoritative way in which Jesus answered.


3. What is the scribe’s question about? Is it a much debated point among the scribes?

The scribe asks about the greatest commandment. This is a massive massive debate among the scribes. The Old Testament is full of commandments, perhaps most famously “The Ten Commandments”, written on tablets of stone by the finger of God, and given to Moses. But the scribes had identified 613 separate commands in the law books of the Old Testament. Some of these laws were reckoned weighty, and others of them light. Some were important and central, and others carried less significance. This scribe wants to know which of the laws is the greatest.

Now some folk have read this as a fairly bizarre request, as though the scribe wanted Jesus to construct a “Top 10” list of the best and most important laws, and read out the number one. But if we take a look at the scribal debates, we can see that this wasn’t quite the case. The desire of the scribes wasn’t to produce a list of 613 commandments in rank order, just for the sake of it. Rather, the search of the scribes was for one law to bind all the others together- one law which was so big and weighty and profound that it encompassed the whole law- all the other commands being merely outworkings of this one great law. The scribes were looking for an organising principle, for one big simple law to structure all the other laws and tell them how to behave in any given situation.

This man was an expert in legal ethics, and it worried him that his ethics seemed to be a long list of do-s and don’t-s. It seemed arbitrary, and he wanted a coherent system. He could read laws that told him to build a parapet round the roof of his house, to avoid shellfish, not to reap his field up to the edges or to glean it after reaping, and not to wear clothes of mixed fibres. But at first glance, there doesn’t seem much those laws have in common. And the scribe knew that God is not random; that God has good reasons for everything he does and everything he says. He wanted to know why he shouldn’t reap his fields up to the edge, why he shouldn’t wear clothes of mixed fibres. He wanted to know God’s reasons, to know if there was one great concern, from which all these various laws sprang. He was not suggesting that the lesser laws could be ignored as long as the other, more important, ones were kept. Rather, he was asking for Jesus to tell him what was the fundamental purpose and character of the law.

Hillel, the famous rabbi, had already given his answer, saying (to a Gentile who apparently challenged him to summarise the whole law while standing on one leg!), “What you hate for yourself, do not do for your neighbour: This is the whole law; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Hillel’s answer had evidently failed to settle the debate.

This wasn’t a merely academic question. We can easily think of real-life situations in which such an understanding would have been very useful. Last week, we took a quick look at the laws concerning levirate marriage- which make it plain that if an Israelite’s brother died childless, then the man was expected to marry the widow left by his dead brother and to raise up a son for the dead man. That law is drawn from many places, but is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25. In Leviticus 18, however, among other commands concerning marriage, we can read a prohibition on a man marrying his wife’s sister as another wife, while his wife still lived.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a situation where those two laws clashed. Such cases might have been rare, but they were certainly possible. Imagine a small isolated community out in the Israelite sticks. There are only two families with young children in the place, and those families grow up as close friends of one another. One family has two boys, and the other family has two girls, and the children are all happy playmates together. When they grow up, the boys work on the family farm, and the girls also stay put, living in their father’s house. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the time comes to think of marriage, the two families intermarry, twice. Each brother marries one of the sisters. But then tragedy strikes. One of the brothers is involved in an accident on the farm, and is killed. He dies childless. What should the remaining brother do now?

If he looks to Deut 25, he can see that it is his duty to marry his brother’s wife and raise up a son for his brother. But if he looks to Lev 18, he is forbidden from marrying his wife’s sister, or any close relative of his wife. The problem is that in this case, his brother’s wife and his wife’s sister are the same woman. He’s got to break the law in order to obey it. The question is- which of the two laws should he obey?

What he really needs to know is which of the laws is more important. On what principles are they based? What ideals are they trying to protect? Which is more centrally connected to the most important things? Is there one law which best captures the biggest most important idea in the whole law? If there is one great governing principle, to which all the individual commands are subservient, then it might help him to find a path through this sort of moral maze. People would come to the scribes with this sort of question, and the scribes therefore debated how to answer.


4. What does Jesus mean by his answer? Where is he getting his answer from? Is it something revolutionary? Why does it have two parts?

Jesus says that the greatest law, the thing that the law is really all about, is this: Love God. God is one, and his people should love him with a whole heart. Everything they have should be given to loving God. Heart, soul, mind, strength- everything. Sure, not all the knotty questions will melt away in the light of this principle, but many of them will.

In his answer, Jesus is quoting words from the Old Testament which would be very familiar indeed to any Jew. They are taken from Deuteronomy 6 where Moses addresses the people, saying “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”.

Those verses from Deuteronomy are from what was known as the “Shema”, from the Hebrew for “hear”. Faithful Jews would recite the Shema daily. It didn’t render the rest of the law impotent or unnecessary, but was part of a longer instruction to remember God, and never to forget all the things he’d done for them and said to them.

The second command Jesus adds is drawn from Leviticus 19:18, again from Moses, and again about love; You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”

It is evident from the context of Leviticus that this law is meant to be a summary-command. It comes at the close of a set of other laws which deal particularly with how Israelites are to love their neighbours. These laws are interpolated with the phrase, “I am the Lord”, to indicate that in keeping the law, a faithful Israelite was behaving in a Godlike manner. Israelites should leave gleanings in their fields, shouldn’t steal or lie, should show mercy to the helpless, should ensure justice is done in the law courts without partiality, and should keep themselves from harbouring vengeance; because that is what God is like.

In giving these commands as the answer to the scribal debate, Jesus isn’t teaching anything revolutionary, but he is teaching something very penetrating. God is central, and the law is a reflection of God’s character. And so the greatest commandment is that we should love God, and the second is that we should love our neighbours. The second will inevitably flow out of the first.


5. Is the scribe’s rejoinder surprising? Bear in mind where this all takes place. In response, Jesus says that the scribe is “not far from” the kingdom of God. What does he mean?

We are already aware that this scribe could well be different from the others who have questioned Jesus. In his reply, he becomes more different still. He calls Jesus “Teacher”, which (depending on his tone and the circumstances) could mean that he accepts Jesus’ authority and esteems his wisdom. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already addressed Jesus by this title, but it is clear that they didn’t mean it seriously. The scribe also says that Jesus is right, and that he teaches truly- sentiments that flout the received wisdom of the great and the good in Israel, however patronising they might be.

But just look at what he goes on to say: “and to love… is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is a seriously subversive statement. The scribe is standing in the Temple courts. All around him there is the smell of blood and burnt animals. Thousands of people come here every day to make sacrifices to God. But this man says that obedience to the commandments- in this case, to love God and to love your neighbour- is better than sacrifice. And he says it right in the heart of the sacrificial system.

Jesus saw that the scribe’s answer was wise, and commented that the scribe was not far from the kingdom of God. This scribe has “got” stuff which the great authorities have no chance of getting. He is willing to consider that Jesus might be right. He sees the bankruptcy of the official way into the kingdom touted by the official Jews.

The scribe might not be “in” the kingdom- he doesn’t yet seem to see that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s not like others, who came seeking forgiveness, and left full of joy that they had found it. But he’s a scribe who doesn’t dismiss Jesus out of hand, and he’s a scribe who is ready to recognise that wholehearted love for God matters more than any of the Temple ritual.


6. Where does this passage sit in the flow of Mark’s Gospel? Why does Mark tell us that nobody dared ask Jesus anything else?

This is the last question Mark tells us about. And he wants to be sure that we know why. It isn’t that lots of people asked Jesus questions, and Mark has picked a few representative ones for our instruction, and this happens to be the last of them. Mark tells us about this question last of all, because it was the very last; and it was the very last because it fits in that position. The point made by all the questions, collectively, is that Jesus is truly the Lord of the Temple. All his enemies come to knock him down, and they all fail. Now, finally, a man comes who ought to be an enemy- he’s a scribe- a member of a profession more likely to be on the side of the Pharisees than standing with Jesus. But instead of this man coming with yet another entirely hostile question, we see that even Jesus’ enemies are being impressed by his wisdom. Even a scribe begins to bow the knee to Jesus, and is brought near to the kingdom.

Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask Jesus anything else to underline that point. Jesus’ enemies are vanquished utterly. They have no more shots to fire. They’re spent. This man was the last of them, and he wasn’t even a full-blooded enemy. The tactic of trying to alienate the crowd from Jesus by making him look foolish has failed miserably. Far from Jesus losing support, he has gained support, and gained it from those who would be his natural antagonists. The enemies are cowering in their trenches, afraid to peek over the parapet.


7. What should we take from this passage to apply to ourselves?

We should certainly read the passage in context- all too often we take a passage in isolation and look at it as a single tree, failing to spot that it is actually part of a wood, and that we need to see the whole wood. Here, we need to see that Jesus is Lord, and that his enemies are hopeless and doomed to failure.

But on the other hand, we wouldn’t want to spend so much effort trying to see the shape of the whole wood that we fail to recognise that it is made up of trees. We can usefully meditate on the way Jesus does summarise the law for us.

Two brief thoughts:

Firstly, it is a convicting thing to read Jesus’ words here. Which of us loves God like this? With our whole hearts, with all our souls, with every last brain cell we possess, with every ounce of strength? Is every thought we have captive to God’s glory? Do we spend our energy and time for God’s kingdom? Do we think often on God’s character and perfections?

And which of us loves his neighbour as himself? We are fallen, selfish, creatures. I can’t imagine what it would be like to enter into somebody else’s thoughts and feelings so completely that I genuinely loved them as much as I love myself. When I walk into a situation, I think first of myself, my desires and emotions; and only then (if then) do I consider those of others. We need to repent of our disobedience.

Secondly, it is a cliché in Christian circles to set the law up in opposition to love- to argue that love is what matters, and that the law somehow hampers love, that the law is restrictive. But that isn’t how Jesus thought of the law. He thought that love and the law went hand in hand. He could summarise all the law under the commands about love. If we truly want to love God with everything we have, if we want, Christ-like, to love God with all we have, then we need to look to the law to show us how to do it. If we want to love our neighbours properly, then how should we go about it? The law tells us. We shouldn’t think of the law as a set of chains to chafe and weigh us down; but as wings to set us free to fly. We can give thanks that we have a saviour who will change us and make us more like himself. And we can look forward to life in a city where everyone really does love God, and love his neighbour as himself.

Mark 12:18-27. One bride for seven brothers?

September 27, 2010

And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.

There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”


Jesus has been teaching in the Temple for a while now. His teaching began with quotes from Isaiah and Jeremiah, accusing those who had charge of the temple of turning into the kind place that robbers use to hide from the law.

He didn’t back down from that position when challenged. The rulers came to him to ask him who he thought he was, saying things like he’d said. Jesus asked them questions instead, and wound up accusing them of being tenants if the temple, refusing to make way for the proper owner of the place.

Pharisees came to him, trying to test him with a question about taxes, but they were sent away looking foolish and petty.

Now we have another wave of attackers, trying to drag Jesus down, to find a chink in his armour. They ask a playground question about marriage in heaven…

1. Who are these Sadducees? What do they believe?

2. What is the background to their question? Why do they think it’s a tough one?

3. Why must there be seven brothers? Wouldn’t two make the point just as well?

4. How does Jesus respond initially?

5. What does Jesus mean by talking about angels? What are angels? How will we be like them?

6. Why does Jesus then appeal to the “passage about the bush”? What is his reading of that passage, and how is it relevant?

7. What can we take from this passage in Mark?


1. Who are these Sadducees? What do they believe?

The Sadducees are a religious party within Judaism. They are not a popular party, with widespread grassroots support- not like the Pharisees. They are mostly upper class- the Jewish aristocracy. The priestly families tend toward the Sadducaic. They are often wealthy, with old money. Maybe a bit like Episcopalians in the US- they tend to be educated, well-off and influential. But where they differ sharply from the Episcopalians is that the Sadducees see themselves as religious conservatives. This can be confusing for us, because our categories of conservative and liberal in doctrinal terms don’t map onto the Jewish theological history.

In one sense, the Sadducees were like our liberals (like the Episcopalians in fact). They were pretty much anti-supernaturalists. Mark says here that they denied the resurrection. They thought that this life was your lot, and when it was over, your number was up. After death, there was nothing, only the grave- Sheol. Luke tells us in Acts 23 that they said there was no resurrection, and also that they said there were no angels or spirits. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the day, tells us similar things. Those seem to be some of the key flashpoints between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Remember how Paul stirs up arguments between them by saying he is a Pharisee and is on trial because of his belief in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). The Pharisees all start cheering and defend him, saying that maybe an angel or a spirit has spoken to him.

But although the beliefs of the Sadducees were what we might call extremely liberal, and in fact not orthodox Judaism at all, they would defend themselves fiercely against the charge of heterodoxy. They would claim to be originalists. They would say that they were the faithful Jews, rejecting all the superstitious accretions of later years, rejecting the fanciful doctrines of the Pharisees, and going back to Moses. Some people say that they rejected the writings of the prophets and the later histories and the wisdom literature of the OT, holding only to the Pentateuch, the first five books- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, all thought to be written by Moses. That may not be quite true. They might not have totally rejected all the other writings. But certainly Moses was their big authority, and they would claim to be going back to Moses and believing what Moses believed. Later books may have had their value, but they weren’t on the same level as Moses. The Sadducees would accuse the Pharisees of being the liberals, the modernisers, inventing new teachings.


2. What is the background to their question? Why do they think it’s a tough one?

The argument between the Sadducees and the Pharisees lies behind their question. They think of Jesus as being more similar to the Pharisees than to themselves. They’re probably right in that. And so they come to Jesus with a question about this disputed doctrine of resurrection. Now they’ve had years of squabbling on this point with the Pharisees. They’ve rehearsed their arguments over and over, and this- they think- is one of their best hostile questions. It’s their best shot.

And, naturally for the Sadducees, it’s based on what Moses taught. Moses laid down the law about levirate marriage. Levirate marriage, by the way, has nothing to do with Levi or the Levites. It gains its name from the Latin word for brother-in-law- “levir”. In Israel, there was a law mandating levirate marriage. The Sadducees here summarise the law very neatly and accurately, but you’ll find the law given in full, by Moses, in Deuteronomy 25, saying,

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”

So this law arises out of the promises made to Israel- that they would inherit the land, that their children would dwell in it, that a great nation would be made of them. The thing driving this particular law is the concern that a man’s seed should not die from Israel. The land will be divided up by families. Each family will have an inheritance. When the father of the family dies, his inheritance will be divided up among his sons. If he has no sons, his daughters can inherit, under certain restrictions.

There’s also a test case given by Moses in Numbers 26, 27, and 36, concerning the daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad was a Manassehite who had only daughters, and then died. The five sisters went to Moses to appeal to him to give them the inheritance, for their father’s sake. Their concern was that if the inheritance be given to others- perhaps to Zelophehad’s brothers or other relatives- then their father’s name will be blotted out of Israel, just because he didn’t have any sons. And they plead that their father wasn’t the sort of rebel who deserved to have his name blotted out. Moses agreed, and ruled that the line of inheritance ought to be first sons, then daughters, then brothers, then the next nearest living kinsmen. Later, men from Manasseh appealed to Moses that if these property owning women marry outside the tribe, everything will be mixed up because Manasseh will lose part of his inheritance. Moses again agreed, and amended the law to include a provision that these five women may only marry men from their own tribe.

We can see that the issue of children and inheritance was pressing for the Israelites. And out of that concern came this legislation- if a man dies married, but childless, then his wife inherits his property, and she is the only one who bears his name. It is then obviously her duty to seek to continue his family line. And it is also the duty of the man’s brother, or the man’s nearest relative if no brother is alive. The woman’s first child will then be raised as though he were the son of the dead man. He will carry the dead man’s name and inherit the dead man’s estate. Any other children will be counted as the son of the living brother.

Most Israelites would be keen to do that- they would certainly want it done for them if they died childless, and most brothers are concerned for one another, and wouldn’t want each other’s lines to die out. But some would be reluctant, so there is a penalty attached for shirking this duty. The woman can complain to the elders, and the unwilling brother will be hauled up before the court. He’ll be given one last chance to change his mind, and if he refuses, then he’ll be publicly shamed, and shame will attach to his house. His children and grandchildren will suffer for it. He can’t brush it under the carpet.

We have a pre-test case for this with Judah’s sons in Genesis 38. Onan is told by his father to raise up sons for his dead brother. He doesn’t refuse outright, but secretly spills his seed on the ground each time before he goes in to his brother’s widow, so she never has any children. He thinks he can get away with it, but God sees him, and punishes him for it. He dies for his callousness and his lack of concern for the promises God had made.

We have an example of it working well with Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a Moabitess who has married an Israelite, and her husband died childless. Boaz was Ruth’s husband’s kinsman. There was actually one nearer kinsman, but he was happy to let Boaz take Ruth on, and do the duty of a brother-in-law. Boaz clearly wanted to marry Ruth for her own sake, but see how he framed it before the elders- Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”

He’s not lying. It is important to him that the line of Mahlon be continued. And all of this legislation- in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Ruth-  is driven by the desire to perpetuate family lines, and keep inheritances where they belong. It’s a big part of the Israelite national pysche.

So- getting back to Mark- the Sadducees’ point is this: “Moses, and all Israel, believed that a man should marry his dead brother’s wife and have children for him. That’s not just a minor point of law- it’s a big one. It’s pretty central to our whole national identity and culture. And it’s incompatible with a belief in resurrection, isn’t it? You resurrection-mongers haven’t thought it through, have you? You think we can all be raised from the dead, and it will be fine. But it can’t work like that. Life is too complicated, and death complicates everything beyond redemption. The dead are dead. Everyone knows that. We know they’re not coming back. We behave as though they’ll never come back. When a man dies, his wife isn’t reckoned as still married to him- she is free to marry another. In fact, it’s her duty to marry another. If everyone’s going to be raised, then what do you do with a woman who has been married to more than one man, eh? Whose wife will she be? It matters, because of the promises God made to us about our inheritance.


3. Why must there be seven brothers? Wouldn’t two make the point just as well?

Two brothers would make exactly the same point, but seven brothers change the tone of the question. We know already from the context that this is a hostile question, an attempted ambush. But this just underlines that point. The Sadducees go with seven brothers because seven is funnier than two. The example is just about possible, but it’s pretty outlandish. It’s the sort of question Sadducee children would ask to taunt Pharisee children in the playground; “Hey Pharisee, if you think you know all the answers, answer this one. You can’t, can you?”It’s a reductio-ad-absurdam, or perhaps a propagatio-ad-absurdam.

Seven, of course, is the number of completeness in Jewish thought- seven days make a week and so on. So it’s a natural number for the Sadducees to choose. But they only want a big number because this is not a serious question. They call Jesus “Rabbi”, but they don’t really want to listen to his teaching. If they actually wanted to know how people who believed in the resurrection thought it would play out with real life situations- if they wanted Jesus to explain his views to them- then they’d have asked the question more humbly than this. They don’t give a more realistic scenario.

If someone came to you, claiming to be interested to know what Christians thought about things, and especially to be interested in the idea of a physical resurrection, and they asked a question along the lines of…

“You know the resurrection of the body? You Christians really look forward to it, don’t you? Well if you’ve just recently died, and your body lies there in the grave, still recognisably you, then I can see that the resurrection of the body seems a pretty simple affair- like it was with Lazarus, or Jairus’ daughter.

But how does it work if a missionary goes to a remote island inhabited by cannibals, preaches to them, and they hate what he says, kill him, and eat him? His body’s all mangled up and bits of it are inside other people. Doesn’t that complicate things a bit?

OK, you say that doesn’t pose a problem to your God. You say he can sort out mangled bodies and pull bits out of other people’s stomachs, and put them back together again with not even a bite-mark. But even then you could still be left with a problem.

Suppose one of those cannibals who ate the missionary is struck by the “truth” of what the missionary said, and becomes a Christian himself.  But the rest of the tribe see that as a betrayal, and they turn on him and eat him. Another cannibal, one who’s had bits of the missionary for breakfast, and bits of the convert for tea, is himself converted, and he’s also put in the pot the next day. And then yet another cannibal, moved by the example of the three martyrs, is converted and they gobble him up in his turn.

Say this happens seven times, and the final cannibal-Christian-convert dies, having already digested meaty chunks of the previous six victims. Come the resurrection, how will that last man’s body be raised? Will his liver belong to him, or will part of it belong to cannibal number four? Whose body will his left leg belong to? Which of the seven can lay claim to the bits which once belonged to each of them?”

I think you’d know that it wasn’t a serious question. Sure, there is a real question in there, but the basic way the question is phrased, and the example chosen, make it ridiculous.

The Sadducees are deliberately trying to be funny. They’re playing to the crowd, playing this one for laughs. And that’s meant to add to Jesus’ embarrassment. He’s not supposed to be able to answer it, and he’s supposed to be left looking stupid as a result. They are trying to deny him any chance of a dignified retreat. He can’t just stroke his beard and say, “Well, that’s a very good question. Very interesting, how the resurrection will work out in practical terms like that. Yes, I’ll give it some thought and get back to you. Perhaps we can talk tomorrow.” People would laugh at him. He’d look foolish. If he can’t come up with a snappy retort, he’s sunk.

Bear in mind that the strategy of Jesus’ enemies at this point is to undermine his popular support. They would love just to arrest him, lock him away, and kill him on the quiet. But they can’t, because the crowds are always around him. So they first need to put a sizeable dent in his popularity. The Pharisees and Herodians had a go a little earlier, and now it’s the turn of the Sadducees. They are coming in waves, like the attackers of some ancient city, trying to overwhelm the defences by persistence, each group having its own shot at glory, and as a consequence giving Jesus no let-up.


 4. How does Jesus respond initially?

The best defence is often an attack, and a wrongly hostile question doesn’t deserve a polite answer. The course of wisdom might be to give a polite answer anyway, but that isn’t always the case. It’s not what Jesus did here.

Jesus turns on the Sadducees and tells them that they’re ignorant- they “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”. They’re ignorant even of the books of Moses which they claim to view so highly. And more than that, they’re ignorant of the power of God. They are men who don’t know God, Jesus tells them. They don’t know him experientially. They’ve never really known his power. They’ve never talked to God, face to face. They are men like Jacob was pre-Bethel; believing in God, believing in the covenant, wanting to be part of it, but never having met with God. The Sadducees are playing with fire, and not feeling the heat. They talk about religion, but they don’t know God. They are unregenerate men, and Jesus tells them so, bluntly. It is an answer that will certainly antagonise these men, who are used to being treated with deference and honour.

Sometimes, an inflammatory answer is wise and necessary. When you have someone who claims to be a Christian, but who is mocking fundamental Christian truths- like the resurrection, for example- then he’s not a Christian no matter what he says. Having a scholarly debate with the guy is probably fruitless. Having that debate in public undermines your position. It will look like you think his viewpoint is legitimate, that you think he’s really a Christian, and that you have a few minor differences which you can work out together. And that’s a false impression. Someone who denies the resurrection is someone who doesn’t know God. And that should be made clear.

Jesus doesn’t just level accusations at them though. He does answer their question. He gives them two answers, one involving angels, and the other involving the patriarchs. The tone of those answers is consistent with accusation of ignorance.

Jesus first argues from analogy to the angels. He says that the dead, when they rise, will be like angels. Not that they will be angels, but that they’ll be like them. We’ll look at the substance of that argument in a moment, but first just think about the response it’s intended to provoke. The Sadducees (in Acts 23) “say there is no… angel”. If Luke means that they denied the existence of angels, then Jesus’ answer to them here is meant to antagonise them further. He’s telling them that in the resurrection, we’ll be like some beings they don’t believe exist. But since the crowd mostly do believe in angels, the Sadducees are going to be stuck for an answer. If they come back with, “Angels, schmangels. What do we care for that kind of rubbish?”, then they’ll do themselves no favours with the people. They came to turn the crowd against Jesus. They could end up turning the crowd against themselves.

Jesus secondly argues from Moses. We’ll look at the substance of that argument in a moment too. But again, first look at the tone. Jesus opens by asking, sarcastically, if the Sadducees have ever read the books of Moses- if, perhaps, they are unfamiliar with the passage about the bush (surely among the better known passages in Moses). That sort of sarcasm is not the accepted way for a young rabbi to address these luminaries of the Sadducees.

And Jesus closes by saying “You are quite wrong”. He hasn’t softened towards them at all. He isn’t trying to persuade them, saying “So don’t you see, Moses actually did believe in the resurrection. And levirate marriage isn’t such a big problem as it might easily seem. And Moses’ writings do tell us that he thought the dead still lived in some sense. I think we can all really learn from this. So thanks for your question.” These are short, rude, almost angry answers. The Sadducees aren’t open to being convinced- they are out to humiliate Jesus by holding him up for mockery. So Jesus deals with them appropriately, pointing out their basic unbelief, and mocking them in turn, as well as showing that their question doesn’t pose an insuperable problem. These men are rank unbelievers, and are scoffing at Jesus. Of course, they could listen to Jesus even now. Jesus’ answer has substance to it. But first, they would have to repent and swallow their pride.


5. What does Jesus mean by talking about angels? What are angels? How will we be like them?

So what are angels like? Angelology is complicated, and attracts lots of vain discussion. The word angel simply means “messenger” in Greek. Angels are God’s messengers, God’s agents, doing God’s will. That’s the way we read of them in Genesis. I’m not sure how the Sadducees could take a high view of Moses and deny angels, because you have them there from the start. Angels come to meet with Abraham, and eat with him, and one of those angels actually is the Lord. Jacob sees a staircase up to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. There is traffic between heaven and earth, with angels going both up and down.

Angels aren’t like men. They have bodies of a sort- they can walk and speak and eat. But they don’t seem to be limited the way we are. They can appear suddenly, and disappear suddenly. An angel can come to Zechariah in the holy place in the Temple, and it seems that nobody saw him go in. An angel can appear inside Peter’s prison cell, without alerting the guards standing sentry, or the guards to whom Peter is locked.

And, importantly, angels don’t seem to have blood ties to one another. Mankind is like a big tree, with Adam as the root and trunk. That’s a helpful Bible picture of us. We’re all related to Adam- we grew out from him. What he does, affects us all. Angels aren’t like that. They don’t marry, and aren’t given in marriage- those are the words Jesus uses here. We marry- men take women as their wives, exclusive to them, and enter into union. We are given in marriage- a father gives his daughter away to her husband. That is necessary, because she’s on one branch of the tree of humanity, and her father, the bigger branch from which she grows, needs to authorise her being shifted onto a different branch. Angels don’t have those sorts of family ties. And in the resurrection, neither will we.  Jesus is arguing that in the resurrection, the complications surrounding earthly inheritance and marriage ties just won’t exist. The world won’t be the same.

Perhaps more important though, is the relation angels bear to God. For the holy angels- the “angels in heaven” about whom Jesus is talking- God is their focus. They exist to serve him. Their faces are always turned towards him. Perhaps the point is that in heaven, the redeemed will have their hearts full of God. They will be full of love and worship and adoration to God. It’s not that we won’t love other people; it’s that we’ll love God first and foremost.

There is marriage in heaven. But it’s the great marriage, the marriage of which our human marriages are merely shadows and reflections. At the resurrection, Jesus Christ will take his bride, the church, to live with him forever. That swallows up everything else. The Sadducees are way too limited in their ideas of what heaven could be like.


6. Why does Jesus then appeal to the “passage about the bush”? What is his reading of that passage, and how is it relevant?

“The passage about the bush” is in Exodus. Specifically, Jesus is quoting Exodus 3:6. The Scriptures Jesus had weren’t organised into chapter and verse. The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles, and the section headings, are later additions to the inspired text. Jesus, and the early Christians, referred to passages by their content. So Jesus here refers to the “passage about the bush”. And Paul writes to the Romans, and says “Don’t you know what the scripture says in the passage about Elijah” (Rom 11:2).

In the passage about the bush, Moses met God for the first time. Moses was out tending his father-in-law’s flock when he turned aside to check out a peculiar bush, which was on fire but wasn’t being burnt up. When he drew near to the bush, God spoke from the bush, and identified himself by saying “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Jesus’ point is very simple. He emphasises the word “am”. When God says this, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have all been dead for years. But there must be some sense in which they live before God. Otherwise God would have said “I was the God of Abraham, etc.”.

There are plenty of other scriptures which teach the doctrine of resurrection much more strongly and directly than this one. One thinks of Daniel 12:2- “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…”, or of Isaiah 25:8- “He will swallow up death forever”, or of Isaiah 26:19- “your dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

But Jesus is aware that he’s talking to Sadducees. He’s already argued from the angels, in whom they don’t believe. Now he argues from Moses, whom they do believe. If he’d quoted Isaiah, then although the Sadducees would be answered publicly, they wouldn’t go home and have to think about what Jesus had said. They would just dismiss it among themselves, saying that Isaiah has got to be subject to Moses.

By arguing from Moses, Jesus is forcing the Sadducees to think about his answer, and he’s also humiliating them in public. These men claim to hold Moses is the highest possible esteem, and to cling to his writings as the only real revelation from God. But Jesus first sarcastically asks them whether they’ve even read Moses, and then shows them that they’ve never understood Moses. Moses wrote this down- that God saw Abraham as living, though he was dead. Death wasn’t the end for Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob.


7. What can we take from this passage in Mark?

We can take all sorts of things legitimately- like teaching on the resurrection and on how things will be in the next world. But Mark’s overarching concern here is to show us how mighty Jesus is. There just aren’t any realistic challengers to his authority. He is God’s anointed. He’s the king. His enemies will be put under his feet. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Here, even though the cross is yet to come, we see Jesus’ victory prefigured. He has come to the temple as the rightful heir. The temple is his Father’s house, and he has come to claim it. A bunch of mere men think that they own the temple. They think they have the right to make of it whatever they choose. They think they should get to dictate to Jesus what he can and can’t do and say in the Temple. And Jesus utterly humiliates them all. They attack him all at once. They come at him group by group. They give him their best shots, desperately trying to dethrone him, scheming and plotting with hearts full of hatred and envy. But when the dust settles, Jesus remains undefeated. He is the Lord of the Temple.

Mark 12:13-17. Should we pay taxes?

September 10, 2010

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marvelled at him.

Mark began this section with the entry into Jerusalem. Jesus came in on a colt, the foal of a donkey- in deliberate fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah. The king was come. The salvation which people longed for will take place here in Jerusalem, now. But it will not be like they expect. It will not take place through war and force of arms to establish an earthly throne for Messiah. It will take place through meek obedience, submission, and sacrificial death.

And Mark has gone on to show Jesus as the rightful king- as the Son of God. Jesus has gone to inspect the temple- his Father’s house. And when he has found it disorderly, he has cleared it out, castigating those who had made the house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves.

When questioned about his authority, he has refused to submit to the authority of the questioners, instead assuming authority himself and asking them a question. He has told a pointed parable against the chief priests, saying that they are evil tenants of God’s vineyard- they have not cared for Israel as faithful servants would have done, and that God will come in vengeance upon them for rejecting him, the Son and heir.

 1. Who are “they” in the first line? Why do they send other men instead of coming to Jesus themselves?

 2. What are the Pharisees and Herodians trying to achieve by coming to Jesus, and why?

 3. The Pharisees and Herodians pose a question to Jesus. Why do they think it’s a tough problem to answer?

 4. How do the Pharisees and Herodians frame their question to make it harder?

 5. What does Jesus mean by his first response, and why does he give it, instead of simply answering the question?

 6. Why does Jesus bother to answer the question at all, once he’s given his first response?

 7. What is the answer to the question?

 8. What does Jesus add to his answer, and why?


1. Who are “they” in the first line? Why do they send other men instead of coming to Jesus themselves?

“They” are the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law from 11:27. We looked at them last time- who each group was and what their interest was in the Temple. They are the official Jews, the ostensible rulers of the Temple. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and started acting like the Temple belongs to him- he’s turned over tables, and driven out traders. He’s taught the crowds that the Temple has been turned into a robber’s hideout. These rulers have already tried to exert their authority over Jesus, and have failed miserably. They came to Jesus in person, asking him where he thought he got the authority to do the things he’d been doing. As an attempt at intimidation, it was a miserable failure. Jesus wasn’t intimidated at all, and the rulers ended up looking rather foolish.

But they’re not foolish enough to have another go. They can see how that would end. They didn’t get to be rulers without possessing a modicum of cunning and foresight. So they send some other men in to bat for them. They have influence, and can pull strings, and make other people think it would be a good idea to go and harass Jesus.

Their stooges in this instance are the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians are supporters of Herod, a client-king for the Romans. In point of fact, Herod is not a legitimate king for Israel. Real kings ought to be of David’s line, and Herod is not even a proper Israelite- he has Edomite blood in him. The Pharisees are members of a lay Jewish holiness movement, concerned with rigorous law-keeping. These two groups are not natural bedfellows to say the least. Herod himself is a butterfly with hedonistic tendencies. He will almost certainly dislike the Pharisees and they will despise him. Herod’s followers are pragmatists, interested in wielding authority, and willing to sacrifice principle for it. The Pharisees are principled (about some things) to the point of pig-headedness. The Herodians see Herod as their passport to power. The Pharisees see Herod as an illegitimate disgrace.

But Mark shows us that these two groups work together, and work on behalf of the chief priests et al., because all of them hate Jesus so much. They consider that any enemy of Jesus, no matter how repulsive to them, is an ally. This is Psalm 2 in action- the nations rage and the kings of the earth “conspire together against the Lord and his anointed”. They forget their own quarrels, because they recognise (accurately) that the really big quarrel is with Jesus. God’s anointed has come, and whatever hatred his enemies have for each other is swallowed up by their hatred of him.


2. What are the Pharisees and Herodians trying to achieve by coming to Jesus, and why?

“Conspire together” is about right. This bears all the marks of a conspiracy. The Pharisees and Herodians already hate Jesus. They have already allied against Jesus, and have been looking for ways to kill him even as early as chapter 3. Now, in Jerusalem, they continue that line of behaviour, in cahoots with the chief priests and rulers and scribes. They meet together and discuss what they ought to do about Jesus.

The ruling coterie has a problem, doesn’t it? They would like to arrest Jesus openly, give him a show trial, and put him to death. But they fear the crowds. Jesus is too popular to be done away with in public. And Jesus is always in the Temple and surrounded by crowds. So they meet together and have a think about how to deal with Jesus. They decide that the reason they can’t just kill him, is because the crowds love to listen to him and they can’t get at him without the crowds seeing it. So they come up with a cunning strategy: they’ll try to make the crowds go off Jesus a bit. If they can make Jesus look foolish in front of the crowds, if they can show that he isn’t so wise after all, then the crowds will dwindle. People will become interested in something else- people are fickle like that. And when the public eye has turned elsewhere, they can arrest Jesus and have him put to death.

So they think about how to make Jesus look like a fool. And they decide to engage him in debate, to ask him questions he can’t answer. The chief priests, scribes, and elders, have already failed, so they need to send others to do their dirty work and discredit Jesus in the eyes of the crowds. The Pharisees and Herodians take first turn, coming to Jesus with a question which had caused much debate among themselves.


3. The Pharisees and Herodians pose a question to Jesus. Why do they think it’s a tough problem to answer?

This question is the result of long meetings and discussions. They’ve talked about how to stump Jesus, and some bright spark has piped up, “I know! Let’s ask him about taxes!”

Their thinking ran like this, “If we ask him whether we should pay Roman taxes or not, then what will he say? If he says that we shouldn’t- well then we can tell the Romans, and let the Romans deal with him. They’ve permanently and violently silenced dissidents before. And if he says that we should, then that isn’t going to go down well with the crowds. Nobody likes having to pay money to the conquering Gentiles” And everyone in the meeting agrees, “Brilliant! That’s got him.”

Why do they think that this question is so unanswerable? Because they themselves can’t answer it. The Herodians like the Romans. Herod is propped up by Roman authority. He is a puppet king, controlled by the Emperor. So the Herod-party supports the influence of Rome, and willingly pays taxes. They’re pragmatists, and the Romans currently give them what they want- so they’ll be quietly pro-Rome.

But the Pharisees hate the Romans. For them, the very presence of Gentiles in the land is an outrage, and these Gentiles who actually rule over them and demand money from them… Every time they pay taxes to Rome, it is a reminder to them of how low Israel has fallen. They are not actually freedom fighters, like the Zealots. They are not agitating for violent revolution. But the Roman occupation is still an insult to their religion- they must see it as a sign of God’s displeasure on the nation, that God has allowed the Gentiles to rule over them. This is almost like the exile- except that they’re still living in the land. They can’t have their own king, can’t set their own laws. They risk brushing up against unclean foreigners in the marketplace daily. The Romans are a Bad Thing. And apart from that, they dislike giving money to Gentiles anyway. They do pay taxes, but they do so grudgingly, and find it a difficult pill to swallow.

So this group have got cheek- give them that. They come to Jesus and ask him a question to which they have very different answers. They turn their internal differences into a weapon. Whichever way Jesus answers, some of them can accuse him.

The people generally are in agreement with the Pharisees. That is why the tax-collectors were so hated in Israel. They were collaborators with the enemy, traitors to God’s people. The word “taxes” is actually “census”- it denotes a particular tax levied on all people and paid directly to Rome. There were riots in Israel when it was introduced (Acts 5:37). The Romans suppressed the riots, but the tax is still very unpopular. Josephus sees it as one of the main causes of Zealotry (Antiq. 17.1.1&6). So if Jesus says to pay this tax, he will alienate the crowd, and that is exactly what the Pharisees and Herodians want. If Jesus loses the crowd, then maybe they can move in and arrest him.

But on the other hand, if Jesus says not to pay taxes, he will get himself into trouble with the Romans. After all, he is a popular leader. He has influence over the people. The Romans have already had to crush tax riots, and they don’t want to have to do it again. Judea has a bad reputation in Rome as a rebellious ungoverneable province. If Jesus starts spouting sentiments that could be perceived as anti-Roman, then the Jewish leaders will be quick to ensure that the Romans hear about it. And the Romans will be quick to act against any perceived threat to their authority, any potential flashpoint for a rebellion. If they see Jesus as a threat to their attempt to keep the lid on Jewish discontent, then they will have no qualms about making him disappear. And that too is exactly what the Pharisees and Herodians want. They’d be quite happy for the Romans to do their dirty work for them.


4. How do the Pharisees and Herodians frame their question to make it harder?

These men have seen Jesus deal with questions before. Only in the last segment, Jesus left the professional politicians reeling. They want to make sure that Jesus gives a straight yes-or-no answer to their question, but they know he’s smarter than a carpenter’s son has any right to be. So they try to make doubly sure that he answers according to their script. “We can’t let him wriggle out of it, or change the subject”, they’ll have said.

You can see, from the way they ask the question, that they are trying to manoeuvre Jesus into giving an immediate and simple answer. They first flatter Jesus, and tell him that he has a great reputation for being straight with people, that they are quite sure he wouldn’t try to dodge a difficult issue, because they know that he doesn’t care what people think of him, but only cares for God. Now all those things are true, but they are not saying it because it is true, they are saying it because they want to make sure that Jesus answers the question they are about to ask. It would be very embarrassing for a man to give a politician’s answer to a question, when he’s just been praised for his straightness- “O great teacher, we know that we can trust you to give us honest answers and not to be afraid of what the crowds think. We know that you fear only God, and so you are always plainly spoken. Now answer us this simple question…” So they give their preamble- and then they come in with the question, and they put it forcefully, asking it twice, as if to demand a forceful direct answer. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” How can you respond to that with anything other than “Pay taxes” or “Don’t pay taxes”? You can almost see the smirks on the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ faces as they ask it. They’re thinking “Now we’ve got him”.


5. What does Jesus mean by his first response, and why does he give it, instead of simply answering the question?

Jesus first says, “Why put me to the test?” He knows very well that this isn’t really a proper question. The Pharisees and Herodians aren’t interested in Jesus’ answer or his reasoning; they just want to put him on the spot. They won’t take any notice of his opinion- this is just a test. So Jesus says that out loud. He points out that this is just a low politician’s tactic and not a genuine question. Now who looks stupid? It isn’t Jesus. He looks like the mature adult, and the Pharisees and Herodians look like the petty and spiteful childish men they are.

That would be true however Jesus has expressed the thought. But the words he chooses- “Why put me to the test?”- are significant. Those words will ring bells in the heads of some of the listeners. Jesus is using the language of the law and the prophets. Israel “put God to the test” when they failed to trust him in the wilderness, demanding that Moses give them water at Massah and Meribah. Moses asked the people “Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17, see also Deuteronomy 6:16; 33:8; Psalm 95:9). Jesus subtly casts himself in the role of God, and his questioners in the role of faithless Israel. The Israelites demanded water because they didn’t trust God to bring them safely through the wilderness, and their hearts were drawn back to Egypt and idolatry. God wanted to give them a great deliverance, out of the house of bondage to the promised land. Israel thought they rather preferred the house of bondage. Centuries later, the Herodians and Pharisees are like them; an unbelieving generation, asking Jesus trick questions because they don’t want him to be their Messiah. Israel didn’t want God to be their saviour. The Pharisees and Herodians don’t want Jesus to be their saviour.


6. Why does Jesus bother to answer the question at all, once he’s given his first response?

Jesus recognises that the question is not a real question. It is not asked because the questioners actually want to know the answer. Given that fact, he doesn’t really need to respond at all. He’d be quite justified if he were to ignore the question and press the accusation that they were testing him. But at the same time, taxation is a real question for some Israelites. People really do have this dilemma. It is a tough issue for God’s people living in an anti-God state. Should faithful Jews pay taxes to Caesar? After all, Caesar has conquered their nation violently, and is only in a position to demand taxes by virtue of his superior force. Is his government a legitimate one? And furthermore, the taxes he gathers will go to fund the Roman Empire, which is a greedy monster, treading the nations underfoot with iron feet. Can any good Jew, with a clear conscience, support an evil empire with tax money? And on top of that, there are the concerns (examined under question 3 above) particular to Israel, with her status as God’s nation.

Ordinary Jews will be perplexed over the issue, and will want guidance, leadership. So Jesus deals with the Pharisees while giving a straight answer to a bent question. We can give thanks that we have such an answer, as it answers many of the concerns we too may have. We live under a government which freely spends tax money on things of dubious legitimacy.


7. What is the answer to the question?

Jesus asks for a coin. They bring him one. And on it, he points out the image. Whose image is it? Jesus knew what sort of coin he’d be brought- it’s the coin everyone in Israel uses, the Roman denarius. And everyone knows whose image is on the coin, as well as we know the Queen’s image on our coins. Caesar’s head is stamped on the coins, and everyone knows it because it was the common currency. Israelites used the Roman coins every day, carried them around in their purses. The answer comes back immediately- “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”… “Caesar’s.”

The emperor of the time was Tiberius (AD 14-37), and his denarius bore his image. Interestingly, the most common coin represented him as the semi-divine son of Augustus, who had been made a god. The inscription read, “Ti Caesar divi Aug f Augustus”, or “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus”. The reverse read, “Pontifex maximus” Both inscriptions were rooted in emperor worship, and are claims to divine honours.

We don’t know precisely which coin Jesus was brought, but Jesus can be confident that it will be a coin bearing Caesar’s image. Everyone knows that it is Caesar’s head on the coin, and so Jesus says ‘Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” If the Jews are going to use Caesar’s money, then they can’t complain about paying Caesar for the privilege. They want to take part in trade with the rest of the Roman Empire. They want to benefit from the stability of the Roman currency. So they should pay their dues to Rome.

Why does the denarius have value? How can people be sure that it is worthwhile working for a day to be given this piece of metal? How can they be sure that the bread merchant and animal seller will accept this piece of metal as payment? Because Rome backs the whole system up. The same is true of our money. Look at a £10 note. It says on it “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds”, and it is signed by the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England- when the note in my hand was issued, a man called Andrew Bailey- and he has signed it on behalf of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England. In itself, this note is only a piece of paper. It’s not made of gold or silver or anything intrinsically valuable. But I can go into any shop in England, and swap this piece of paper for clothes, or food, or anything else I want to buy with it, up to the value of ten pounds. Now, I have lots of paper in my house. I could take a piece, and write on it “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds” and sign it myself. But imagine what would happen if I tried to take that piece of paper into the shops and spend it. Both pieces of paper are just I.O.U.s. But one is an I.O.U from me, and the other one is an I.O.U from the Bank of England. The shopkeepers can trust the Bank of England in a way they can’t trust an individual British subject. Currency has to be trusted to be worth anything.

Roman currency could be trusted, because it was produced by the richest and most powerful nation that existed. And the Jews used that currency. They benefited from it in countless ways. It brought them economic stability and prosperity. They couldn’t expect to get all that for free. It was right that they should pay something back to Rome. If Rome demands taxes, then they should pay up. Morally, unless they were opting out of the Roman system completely- which they were not- they ought to pay.

Just like us. I use the hospitals, the electricity, the train system, the roads, the telephone lines- all the infrastructure of the country. And that infrastructure is possible because we have a stable government working to keep it all ticking over. So I ought to pay taxes. If I don’t want to pay, then I should not use the roads, or the pavements, or the streetlights. If I don’t want to be part of the system run by Her Majesty’s Government, then I certainly shouldn’t use the money with Her Majesty’s picture on it. I might disapprove of a great deal of what our government does, and I might be wholly justified in my disapproval (and I do, and I am); but that doesn’t give me the right to withhold taxes. That man is a hypocrite who rails against the system, and gives the injustices and evil perpetrated by the system as his reason for not paying his tax bill; but who simultaneously uses the benefits of that system.

Jesus gives the unpopular answer- but does it in such a way that his case is so obviously right.


8. What does Jesus add to his answer, and why?

But. But but but. “Render unto Caesar” is only half Jesus’ answer. He has said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, and he then goes on to say “and to God the things that are God’s.” Now, extending the argument about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s- what should we give to God?

Where do we find God’s image? Answer: Everywhere. Life without the government would be tough. But life without God wouldn’t have happened. We owe the government for all sorts of things. I couldn’t imagine how much harder life would be if I tried to do without cash, or roads, or a police force. But life without money, without roads, and without a police force, would still be life. Hard life, but life nonetheless. Without God, we would have nothing. There wouldn’t even be a “we” to have nothing. Who made the planet we live on? God did. Who made the air we breathe? God did. Who makes his sun to shine on the just and the unjust? God does. Who made us? God did.

The council built the pavement we walk on, and we pay council tax for the privilege. But God made my feet and my legs. Can I live as though I owe God nothing? It would be a monstrous injustice. We owe God everything. Everything we’ve ever seen bears his stamp. The council made the pavement, but they’ve only reshaped raw materials provided by God. There was nothing until God called matter into being.

Civil government gives wealth and economic stability- and we who buy into the system, accepting wages in coinage from the Royal Mint, owe our rulers something in return. But there are things we have that Caesar hasn’t given us. Life. The world. We owe God. Ultimate allegiance is owed not to Caesar, but to God.

And where is God’s image found especially? Man especially is made in God’s image. Man bears God’s likeness. All creation owes God praise, but Man should praise the loudest.

Mark 11:26-12:12. The question is, who is to be master?

September 3, 2010

“And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”- they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?” And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.”

Jesus entered Jerusalem like a king, acclaimed by the crowds. He went straight to the Temple- not to worship, but to inspect. What he found did not please him. We’ve looked recently at the way Jesus cleared the Temple courts, teaching that those in charge of it had made it into a hideout for robbers. At the end of chapter 11, and on through chapters 12 and 13, Mark continues to describe Jesus’ ministry in, around, and about, the Temple.

Election time is nearly upon us (this study written just before the 2010 UK General Election- Ed). Already, the newspapers are full of the doings and sayings of our leaders and would-be leaders and the airwaves are saturated with politics. Already, the image consultants are on overtime. The PR agencies are busy, and the spin doctors are dizzy.

If you’re a realist (hopeless naïfs like to call us “cynics”), then you’ve long ago learnt to detect when a politician is lying. If you haven’t yet acquired this ability, then I’m happy to reveal the secret. The trick is to watch the mouth very carefully. There’s a give-away sign, and if you’re paying close attention to the politician’s mouth, you can nearly always pick up on it. When the mouth moves- the politician is lying.

 Here, Mark introduces us to a bunch of scheming lying politicians. They come to trap Jesus into making a damaging admission, and Jesus treats them as they so richly deserve.

 1.      Who are the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders”? How do these folk relate to other groups who come to confront Jesus in this chapter?

2.      What do they mean by their question? What are “these things”, and what authority do they expect Jesus to claim?

3.      Is Jesus’ “answer” merely an evasion? Do these men have the authority to question Jesus?

4.      Why is John the Baptist a relevant figure to mention?

5.      Jesus then tells a parable. How are we to interpret the meaning? How does the quote from Psalm 118 add to the parable?

6.      When the Jewish leaders hear Jesus’ parable, they clearly interpret it as hostile to them. Are they right? How does Jesus view these men?

7.      Why does Mark tell us that “they left him and went away”?

8.      How does this passage fit into Mark’s developing story?

9.      What should we take from this passage?


1.      Who are the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders”? How do these folk relate to other groups who come to confront Jesus in this chapter?

There are several key groups here. Mark mentions three distinct groups, but the three groups all come together and speak with one voice when they address Jesus.

The chief priests come from 5 or 6 dominant Israelite families. These are all Sadducee families; they are aristocrats, bluebloods. They have old money. They are wealthy and powerful. They’ve held the levers of power, notably controlling the office of high priest, for at least decades.

The second bunch Mark mentions, the scribes, are the teachers of the law. They are a professional outfit, made up of men with the relevant qualifications. They are the “guild of expert theologians”. They have been trained in the OT law, and in the techniques of interpreting it and debating it. They are thought of as the authoritative voice of what God says about a particular matter. If you ask them a legal question, then they will be able to quote to you all the relevant parts of the law, and then what a dozen rabbis have said about the matter, and what other rabbis have said about the comments of the first rabbis, ad infinitum. The Scribes will be full-time students and teachers of the law. Rich patrons will support them in that work.

Being a scribe didn’t mean that you couldn’t also be a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, or an Essene, or anything else. Each of those groups would probably have had their own “in-house” scribes. But the Scribes as a group were dominated by Pharisees. Both Mark and Luke talk about “Scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16, Acts 23:9), and all the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself) feel it appropriate to talk of “scribes and Pharisees”, as though the two groups go together. And there is a natural fit between the Scribal profession, and the Pharisaic concern for the law.

The elders, the third group here, are just that. They are elders. Mostly older men, elders are those who govern a particular community. Every town in Israel would have its elders, who would sit at the gate and judge cases brought to them by the townsfolk. The particular elders in view here are the elders of Jerusalem, and so they are correspondingly grand and important. They will be respected men of considerable standing in the city.

The three groups mentioned were the groups from which the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, was drawn. The idea is that these are the “official Jews”. Jerusalem (and especially the Temple) is the official centre of the nation, and these are the Israelites who collectively control Jerusalem (and especially the temple).

In the rest of the chapter, Jesus is asked questions by the Pharisees and Herodians, the Sadducees, and a Scribe. But here, in the first instance, the three most important groups come all at once, and they speak with one voice, all asking the same question.


2.      What do they mean by their question? What are “these things”, and what authority do they expect Jesus to claim?

What are the “official Jews” demanding here? They want to know who gave Jesus the authority to do as he is doing, but what has Jesus done that is so outrageous that they need to see his credentials? When they come to confront him, Jesus is walking about in the Temple- that’s all. Although of course that isn’t the whole story. Earlier this week, Jesus has come as the judge of the Temple, and has turned over the tables of the money changers and animal sellers, and has taught the crowds gathered in the Temple. We’ve looked at the content of his teaching. He said that the Temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, but that “you”- whoever “you” are- have made it a den of robbers. Jesus explained, from the OT, that the Temple was meant to be a place where people from all over the world could come and meet with God. Egyptians and Syrians and Romans- all of them could come here to pray to the God of Israel. That was the idea. But “you”- levelled primarily at those in charge of the Temple, and secondarily at the whole nation who had allowed it to happen- had made the place into a den of robbers. It had become a hideout for wicked men, the place where they go to escape from the consequences of their law-breaking.

That’s what the chief priests, scribes, and elders are talking about. They are outraged that Jesus has disrupted the Temple services, and they are furious that he dares to teach such things about the Temple and about those who govern it. He has made serious accusations against them. He has denigrated their authority. So they demand to know on what authority he dares to do such things. What are they trying to do here? They are already plotting against Jesus. This question does spring from their outrage that Jesus would dare to accuse them of wrongdoing, but it is not an immediate reaction. It is not a gut-level response, and eruption of rage coming straight after they’ve heard Jesus teaching against them. This question comes at least a day after Jesus cleared the Temple courts. The rulers of Israel have had time to confer and plan. This challenge is cleverly designed to force an admission out of Jesus that he sees himself as the Messiah, the king in David’s line. Jesus has been careful never to claim Messiahship openly. He has done so to his disciples, but he has kept it fairly quiet. He has even told men and demons to be silent when they would have identified him as the Holy One of God.

But recently, Jesus has publically acted like the Messiah, riding into the city in the way he did. And now these smooth experienced leaders want him to say something like “On whose authority?? I am the king of the Jews. This is my father’s house. I’m in charge here.” This question is a dangerous one. If Jesus had been naïve, he might have given an answer like that. And then his feet wouldn’t have touched the ground. He’d have been straight into the courtroom before Pilate, accused of supplanting Caesar.


3.      Is Jesus’ “answer” merely an evasion? Do these men have the authority to question Jesus?

I put the word “answer” in inverted commas, because it’s patently obvious that Jesus doesn’t really answer the question at all. In one sense, he’s not evading the question- the question he asks does answer their question, at least implicitly. But Jesus has no intention of sitting there and answering them, as though they had the right to demand answers from him. What is going on here is actually a very subtle power struggle, which Jesus wins hands down. Notice that he fails to answer their question, and instead asks them a question. Now, if Jeremy Paxman had Alistair Darling on Newsnight, and asked him a question, and Darling said, “Well, that’s a good question, but what I’d like to know is…” and then asked a question of his own; would Paxman let him get away with it? Of course not. Paxman would ignore Darling’s question, and say “Come on, Chancellor, answer the question”. But that doesn’t happen here. Jesus won’t tell them straight where his authority comes from. Instead, he simply asserts his authority by asking them a question. And apparently it doesn’t enter the heads of these men to say “Look, we’re asking the questions here, thank you so very much. And we just asked you- where do you get the authority to behave like this?” Jesus asks them a question, and they actually attempt to answer it- they treat it seriously. Now if these men had real authority, they’d sweep Jesus’ question aside as impertinence, and demand that he answer theirs. But they can’t. They just submit to Jesus’ authority without even realising they’ve done so.

And their answer shows them up to be shallow politicians. Notice that they are not actually interested in the truth of the matter at all. Once they try to answer Jesus question, they don’t do it right. They are not asking themselves, “Was John, in fact, a true prophet or a false prophet?” All they care about is how their answer will play in the public arena. For them, the important question is “What will the people think?” As it happens, they didn’t believe John’s message. But they are not thinking about how to answer the question truthfully at all. They are born spin doctors. They care only about politicking. They don’t care whether John or Jesus is a true prophet. They go for expediency, deciding that “We don’t know”, is the safest answer. Mark is scornful of them, which is great- “They feared the crowds”– you can hear the sneer.


4.      Why is John the Baptist a relevant figure to mention?

Of course, the implication in the question Jesus asks is that his authority comes from the same place as John’s. He serves the God John served. And John said that he was only the best man at the wedding, and that the bridegroom was yet to come. So in a way, the question originally asked is answered. But not in a way that will make any sense to a Roman court.

It’s very clever. Jesus says more than he could have said by a straight answer, but also less than he would have said by a straight answer. He doesn’t give his enemies an opportunity to haul him up on charges, but by mentioning John, he tells them that his authority is from God, and that their authority is a sham.

John, of course, had excommunicated all these men. As far as John was concerned, the whole Temple system was a bust. John was born of a priestly family, the son of Zechariah the priest. He himself could have taken his place, by right, among the priests. But he threw all that over. He didn’t go to minister in Jerusalem, the religious heart of the nation. Instead, he went out into the desert and expected the people to come to him. John declared that Israel was no longer God’s people, unless they all repented.  He baptised people- which was what you usually did to Gentile proselytes seeking to worship with the Jews- but John baptised good Jews. As far as John was concerned, the only real Jew was a Jew who had been baptised by him. He preached that the whole nation had become corrupt, that every Jew needed to repent and become a Jew all over again, and that God’s judgement was surely not far off for this wicked nation- “the axe is even now at the root”, he said. John was saying “It’s no longer enough to be Jewish. Messiah is coming, and he’s looking for faithful Jews.” He baptised at the Jordan, the original entry point to the land, as though the land was still full of Caananites and needed to be conquered all over again. Everything John did and said worked towards the goal of preparing a new Israel, ready for Messiah. And in doing so, he implicitly declared that everything the official Jews were doing at the Temple was worthless. It was all pomp and show, and no reality.

There may also be echoes of suffering here. John, let us not forget, had his head cut off for being a preacher of righteousness. If Jesus is continuing where John left off, then what lies in store for Jesus?


5.      Jesus then tells a parable. How are we to interpret the meaning? How does the quote from Psalm 118 add to the parable?

Jesus talks about a vineyard in the hands of tenants. The tenants are corrupt and greedy; they refuse to give the owner of the vineyard his due, and they kill his son and heir. Given the context, the interpretation is rather obvious. We’ve just had the acted-out parable of the fig tree. Then we’ve had the Jewish leaders demanding to see Jesus’ license for Temple-wrecking. And then Jesus has asked them about John- who was put to death for his ministry. So now Jesus tells in words the story he’d acted out with the fig tree.

Both the fig tree and the vineyard were pictures of Israel. Figs and vines are both naturally symbolic of prosperity and plenty. In the Israel of Jesus’ day, you didn’t have sugar (we didn’t have sugar in this country until around the time of the Crusades). So there were none of the sweet foods we eat today. Fruits and honey were the sweetest things around, and especially sweet fruits were figs and grapes. A farmer would grow corn or wheat or vegetables as stock crops to make sure he and his family had enough to eat; he would keep animals to eat on special occasions; and if he still had money and land, he could grow fig trees or vines, and have figs to eat and wine to drink. Fig trees and vineyards were supposed to bring joy. So Jeremiah, prophesying of the coming invasion by Babylon, says “behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar, O House of Israel, says the Lord… They shall eat up your harvest and your food… They shall eat up your flocks and your herds, they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees.” The figs and vines are in a different category to the other crops.

The parable draws on many parts of the OT. There’s certainly an echo of Isaac there with the “beloved son” who is killed. But it’s based most heavily on a song Isaiah sang- in chapter 5 of his prophecy. In brutal summary of that song: God had a vineyard. It was unfruitful despite every effort from God. God destroyed it. In more detail: God planted a vineyard, Israel. He tended that nation, cared for it, as a man cares for his vineyard. A careful farmer will make sure that his vine is well fertilised, well drained, well watered. He builds a hedge around it to protect it from animals who would trample on it and eat the grapes. He gets ready to enjoy the crop, carving out a wine vat in which to tread the grapes into wine. And in like manner, God cared for Israel. He rescued them from Egypt. He gave them the law. He gave them a land for their own. He separated them from the Gentiles who would have dragged them down into idolatry and wickedness. He put them on the path of righteousness. He defended them from their enemies, gave them priests, Nazirites and prophets to show them the way they should go. God did everything Israel could have wanted. And yet this vine bore no fruit. God looked for a nation who feared him and loved him, but he found a stiff-necked and disobedient people.

Jesus introduces an important twist into Isaiah’s story. He makes the prophets and the Jewish leaders into key players in his drama. Israel is still God’s vineyard, the place where God looks to find sweet and delightful fruit. But we have some new characters too. The prophets are the ministers of God, sent to collect the fruit from the vineyard. The Jewish leaders are the tenants; the men who ought to be caring for the vineyard and making it bear fruit for God. But as Jesus sees it, the tenants have been a bunch of crooks and cheaters. They haven’t been tending the vineyard on the master’s behalf at all. They’ve been looking out for themselves. And so they beat the prophets up and wound them in the head. Maybe Jesus intends particular prophets to be brought to mind here- John the Baptist is an obvious candidate. But Jesus’ point is that all down the centuries, the Jewish leaders have used Israel as their own personal property. Jesus skewers their thinking exactly. They think of their positions as rulers as theirs by right, to be used for personal profit and comfort. And when they see Jesus, they are worried that he has come to take the vineyard off them. So they will kill him in order to keep “their” vineyard.

Jesus warns them; their plans will come to nothing. They might kill the Son, but the Father will be angry and will destroy them and give the vineyard to others. Jesus prefigures his own death, and the giving of God’s people into the care of his apostles. But the immediate point is to predict that these leaders won’t change their attitude just because a son has come rather than a servant. They rejected a prophet like John and disbelieved his message- they say so here. And now that Jesus has come, they are not about to repent of their course of action.

Just in case they might have missed it, Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 118- “the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” Who are the builders? The chief priests, scribes and elders were the builders, building Israel as God’s house. But they were rotten builders, and the house they were building was a rotten structure- because they had rejected the most important stone. They were not building according to Gods blueprint. Jesus was the keystone to Gods plans, and they refused to recognise him. Jesus is God made known, he is the outshining of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1:3). Those who know him, know the Father, as he himself said (Jn 14:8f). Jesus is the sacrifice provided for sinners to come to God. He is central to any true knowledge of God. Nobody comes to the Father, except through him. And when the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus, they rejected God. Men who set themselves against God are like men who jump from the cliffs onto the rocks far below, and think that they will break the rocks apart and walk off unscathed. God destroyed those men, and gave the vineyard to others.


6.      When the Jewish leaders hear Jesus’ parable, they clearly interpret it as hostile to them. Are they right? How does Jesus view these men?

They can’t really miss it, can they? It is very hostile. Which shows us Jesus’ attitude towards them. He wasn’t trying to be nice to them. He wasn’t trying to win them over. They were wicked men, and Jesus simply condemned them for it. If they wanted to repent at this point, they still could. But Jesus knows they won’t, and he isn’t going to plead with them to see sense.


7.      Why does Mark tell us that “they left him and went away”?

Because Jesus has just won. This has been a battle. The question they asked about authority was a perceptive one. They were manoeuvring to get Jesus to make a damaging statement. But actually, the question of authority is key. Jesus, remember, is in the Temple. He is slap bang where they think their power rests. If these official Jews are in charge anywhere, they’re in charge in the Temple. But Jesus walks in and starts acting as though he’s the boss. They come to cut him down to size, but the encounter ends with them beating the retreat. They leave Jesus and go away. Jesus is still in possession of the disputed territory. He is still Lord of the Temple.


8.      How does this passage fit into Mark’s developing story?

In all sorts of ways. It is a ratcheting up of hostility, and a prefiguring of things to come.

It shows that the suffering is certainly not over, just because the crowds acclaim Jesus as the Davidic king. The crowds might all be on Jesus’ side for now- but the crowds were on John’s side too, and it didn’t do him much good. The fact is that the official leaders of Judaism- the chief priests, the legal experts, and the rabbis, are all against Jesus. They are actively out to get him. Jesus can make them look foolish with ease, but sooner or later, their hatred will hurt him. These men hated John, and that made it easy for Herod to do away with him- he knew there would be no objections from the ruling elite. If John had had the support of the Jewish elite, Herod would almost certainly not have dared to cut off his head. Jesus saw John’s execution as the responsibility of Israel as a whole, not Herod alone- “They did to him as they pleased” (Mark 9:13).

And it gives us a preview of Jesus’ death. Jesus has already told the disciples three times that he is going to Jerusalem to die. But now he says it to a wider audience- albeit in parable form. The tension mounts.


9.      What should we take from this passage?

We can see Jesus here. We can see him being wise and deft in handling hostile questions, and we can love him for that and try to imitate his wisdom to know how to deal with enemies, and how to tell when somebody is a real enemy.

But more than that, we can see his love for us. God still has a vineyard, he still has a people. But he has taken it from the corrupt leaders, and given it to others. Pre-eminently, Jesus himself is the keeper of the vineyard.

Jesus is the son of the parable. But although the son in the parable didn’t know what was going to happen to him, Jesus did. And he came to the vineyard anyway. Knowing that wicked men would lay hands on him and put him to death, he came anyway. He loved his people so much, that he came to die for them. And he still cares for his church. He gave her faithful leaders, the apostles and those who came after them.

Some of us are leaders in our churches, and our responsibility is the greater. We can be warned not to think of the church as our personal property. If we can be said to hold it at all, we hold it in trust for one who loves it jealously.

All of us are members of churches. We can all remember that Jesus loves his church, and so seek to bear fruit, and to help others to be fruitful.

Mark 11:20-25. Whatever? Really?

August 27, 2010

“As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

 Jesus has finally entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, acclaimed by the crowds singing psalms and saying, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David.” He has come as the rightful heir of David, to claim the kingdom. But he begins in Jerusalem by inspecting the Temple, turning over tables in the Temple courts, and teaching the crowds there that the whole system was corrupt- that the Temple had become a den of robbers. Woven together with that account, is the account of how Jesus cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit. Jesus wanted to find fruit in Israel, but found nothing sweet and pleasing, not even in the Temple.

The day after the white-knuckle ride in the Temple, as Jesus and the disciples walked back into Jerusalem from their lodgings in nearby Bethany, Peter pointed out the cursed fig tree, which had withered from the roots. Jesus then made a few comments. Read them carefully. Then read them again.

1.      Do we have any good reason to assume that Jesus’ words must be coherent and connected?

  • Do Jesus’ words here represent a coherent line of thought, or are they a series of disconnected statements?
  • Do Jesus’ words have any connection to the withered fig tree?

2.      Jesus tells us that mountains can be cast into the sea- if we believe that God will do it when we pray for it. He then says that whatever we ask for will be given us- if we believe we’ve received it. So if we ask and don’t get, is that because we didn’t believe well enough?

3.      Seriously, what is there in this passage to prevent that kind of interpretation?

4.      In the OT we find mountains being moved (e.g. Isa 40; Zech 4:7; 14:4-5). What theme connects these passages?

5.      Where in the OT do we find things being cast into the sea?

6.      How does the immediate context help us to understand this passage in Mark?

7.      Why are we told to forgive whenever we stand praying? What is the connection of that clause to the rest of Jesus’ statement?

8.      This sort of sensible exegesis might guard us from all sorts of error, but guarding from error isn’t enough. What should we take from this passage?

  • What is Jesus actually promising us?
  • What is Jesus telling us to do?


1.      Do we have any good reason to assume that Jesus’ words must be coherent and connected?

  • Do Jesus’ words here represent a coherent line of thought, or are they a series of disconnected statements?
  • Do Jesus’ words have any connection to the withered fig tree?

The passage we have here almost reads as if it could be a disconnected stream-of-consciousness. What has faith in God got to do with the fig tree? And what has forgiveness got to do with believing prayer? Jesus says thing, but doesn’t always join the dots for us. And sometimes we’re left wondering whether the dots actually make a picture at all.

Peter has just seen the withered fig tree, and he catches Jesus’ attention, and says, “Look! See that fig tree? That’s the one you cursed yesterday, and now it’s withered.” But Jesus doesn’t say “Wow! You’re right!”, and he doesn’t say “Well, what did you expect, Peter?” Instead, he teaches the disciples about prayer and faith. He says “Have faith in God. And pray for completely impossible things- like mountains being thrown into the sea. And when you pray for impossible things, believe that they will be done, and so they shall be. And also when you pray, be sure that you’ve forgiven other people, so that God may forgive you”. “Have faith in God” is good advice, for sure. But it isn’t obviously connected to anything Peter’s just said- what does any of this have to do with the fig tree and the Temple? And it isn’t even that obviously internally connected from one end to the other- is the bit about forgiveness of sins just tagged on as a helpful thought at the end, or is it necessary to the whole?

This is the sort of passage that contributes to the popular perception of Jesus as a kind of spaced-out peaceful hippie dude. You know the kind of thing- where people imagine Jesus wandering about in sandals and a long clean white robe. He’s got long flowing hair, and a gentle voice. It’s probably a pleasant sunny day, and he’s got a crowd gathered round him, in a nice grassy area, maybe under a tree, and he’s teaching all about peace and love. He’s doing this by making cryptic statements so that his followers can think for a while and then go “Mmmmmmm. Deep, man. Deep”.

But I think we have good reason not to read it as though it were the musings of a spaced-out guru. Jesus attracted as followers, not pretentious middle-class university students who were trying to find themselves, but blue collar fishermen, worldly tax collectors, and hot-head political firebrands. He wasn’t some ineffectual hippie with barely two serious thoughts to rub together. If you read the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t come across as a man with his head in the clouds, a man with no sense of reality. It is a good starting point to assume that what Jesus said must be intelligible and coherent, and then to work from there. If we don’t see the connection between Peter’s observation on the fig tree, and Jesus’ comments, then maybe that’s because we don’t see it, not because it’s not there. So we need to work at seeing it.

And in order to see how all the parts are connected into one whole, we need to consider the parts severally. We’ll start by considering what the passage doesn’t mean…


2.      Jesus tells us that mountains can be cast into the sea- if we believe that God will do it when we pray for it. He then says that whatever we ask for will be given us- if we believe we’ve received it. So if we ask and don’t get, is that because we didn’t believe well enough?

Ever fancied a relaxing holiday for three weeks in the sun? How about a shiny red motorbike? Or an elegant mansion in a rolling green estate? Or an offensively enormous yacht? Or why not all of them at once? If you think you would like those things, then why don’t you just pray for them and trust that they will all be yours? After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”?  What’s the matter? Don’t you believe Jesus?

Just remember, even the devil can quote scripture to his own ends. And even though Jesus did say the words above, his “whatever” was quite a specific whatever. So if you’ve just started praying for the holiday, and were wondering whether to stop off in town on your way home to buy sunglasses and shorts; don’t.

Seriously though, this really is the way this passage is used in some circles. The Word-Faith movement, the Prosperity Gospel, the name-it-and-claim-it theology- all these are terms used to describe this interpretation. And it’s huge. The biggest “churches” in the world believe versions of it. The biggest church in America, Lakewood Church in Houston, averages over 40,000 weekly attendees. The senior pastor and church figurehead is a man named Joel Osteen, whose books have repeatedly made the New York Times bestsellers list. And he preaches this kind of theology. The largest church in the world, Yoichi Full Gospel Church in Korea, is led by Paul Yonggi Cho. 800,000 people listen to him every Sunday. And he teaches that Jesus Christ is what can only be described as a grown-up version of Santa Claus. This isn’t a fringe movement of a few hundred deluded nutcases. This is mainstream.

Basically, the interpretation of these verses in that kind of church would be that if you just ask for something, and if you believe you’ll have it, then you will have it. Maybe there are a few qualifications to that rule; maybe you have to visualise it, or maybe you have to really really want it. But if you learn the trick of the thing, then God will give you whatever you ask.

That sounds dangerous and loopy to me. Osteen would probably tell me that it’s my own mental limitations which stop me having whatever I want to have, and that I need to stop being so negative. This is the first page of the first chapter of his recent book- “Your Best Life Now”.

 “I heard a story about a man on vacation in Hawaii with his wife. He was a good man who had achieved a modest measure of success, but he was coasting along, thinking he’d already reached his limits in life. One day, a friend was driving the couple around the island, showing them the sights. They stopped to admire a gorgeous house set high on a hill. The property was replete with beautiful palm trees and lush green gardens in a picturesque, peaceful setting with a panoramic view overlooking the ocean.

As the man gazed at the magnificent home, he commented to his wife and friend, “I can’t even imagine living in a place like that”

Right there, something inside him said, Don’t worry. You won’t. You will never live in a great place like that.

Startled at his own thoughts, he asked himself, What do you mean?

As long as you can’t imagine it, as long as you can’t see it, then it is not going to happen for you. The man correctly realised that his own thoughts and attitudes were condemning him to mediocrity. He determined then and there to start believing better of himself, and believing better of God. It’s the same way with us. We have to conceive it on the inside before we’re ever going to receive it on the outside. If you don’t think you can have something good, then you never will. The barrier is in your mind. It’s not God’s lack of resources or your lack of talent that prevents you from prospering. Your own wrong thinking can keep you from God’s best.

 Osteen goes on to talk about how you must see yourself through the eyes of faith- by which he means you must picture yourself succeeding. He gives examples, including his wife Victoria, who wanted a really nice house and got one by following his methods.

Do genuine followers of Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head, obsess about having an expensive house? There’s plainly something wrong there, but Osteen appears to think it’s a mark of godliness to desire and have riches in this world. He equates “God’s best” for you with success in this life. This is madness. It’s quite plainly not what Jesus meant to say to Peter in the verses from Mark’s Gospel about believing and having.

And besides, it’s a form of unkindness. Osteen tells us that “It’s not… your lack of talent that prevents you from prospering”. He argues that it’s only a lack of vision or ambition that limits us. But plenty of people are limited not by their ambitions, but by their abilities. It’s cruel to persuade them otherwise. If somebody doesn’t have the promotion he or she wants because, frankly, they wouldn’t perform very well at a higher level in their company, then why encourage them to believe they deserve better than they’ve got? They might like to believe their position is down to their attitude, but that’s because changing attitude is easier than changing ability. It does people no favours to tell them that the key to success is simply to visualise the success they desire.

Worse even than unkindness, it can be a form of tyranny. Sometimes, when the wide-eyed trusting subject tries to believe, and remains unsuccessful, he comes back to the teacher to complain. And too often, the teacher ends up saying something that amounts to: “Well, it should have worked. Maybe you don’t have enough faith, brother.” Imagine a believer with cancer, who desperately wants to be healed? Is it a kindness to tell them that if they pray for the removal of the cancer, then God will surely remove it, if they only believe hard enough? What happens if they pray, and really do believe, and yet they die anyway? What if that is the way in which they can best glorify God? God has not bound himself to do anything we want him to do, and it is shameful to pretend otherwise.

3.      Seriously, what is there in this passage to prevent that kind of interpretation?

To answer that, we need to go a bit deeper into the passage, and study what it was that Jesus said…

4.      In the OT we find mountains being moved (e.g. Isa 40:3-5; 45:2; 49:11; Zech 4:7; 14:4-5). What theme connects these passages?

5.      Where in the OT do we find things being cast into the sea?

When Jesus says to Peter- “Have faith in God, and mountains will be thrown into the sea”, it’s a metaphor. It makes sense as a metaphor for something impossible being accomplished. But it’s more than mere metaphor; it’s Biblical metaphor. This metaphor has a background, a history. And Peter knows that history. He knows Isaiah and Zechariah. So when Jesus starts talking about mountains being moved, Peter knows roughly what Jesus is talking about. And it isn’t a shiny new fishing boat for Peter. It is the fulfilment of God’s salvation for his people. There is plenty of OT prophecy about mountains being moved or removed. We have Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness, crying out “make the mountain a plain”; we have Zechariah’s mountain becoming a plain before the royal heir; and we have plenty of other passages. All these passages have some reference to the outworking of God’s great plan of redemption.

 “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

 “Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. 7Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zechariah 4:6-7)

 “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)

 Look at the first reference in Isaiah. It is quoted in the first chapter of Mark, and Mark plainly sees it as being fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark recognises that it is a metaphor. John didn’t come driving a JCB to move a literal mountain, or to lay down tarmac for a physical highway. Rather, he came to make the way ready for Messiah. And the way he did that was to gather together a repentant people, a new Israel, ready for Messiah to save them. There was a mountain in his way, but it wasn’t a physical mountain. It was the mountain of Israel’s sins. Israel was wicked, and most people didn’t want to hear John’s message. But John was a man of faith- which meant that he obeyed God regardless of the consequences- and so he preached about the wrath to come, and preached repentance, and preached that Messiah would come soon and sort everything out. And God removed the mountain. There were many who came to be baptised and join John in the desert. The metaphor of mountains being moved has similar meaning in all the other references too.

The most relevant of all the references, given the context of this particular saying with the recent events in the Temple, is Zechariah 4. Zechariah is seeing visions meant for the returned exiles who are rebuilding the temple after Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it. Those exiles are led by Zerubbabel, who is the Davidic prince. He’s never actually crowned, but he’s the heir to the throne, the man who can trace his descent from David. The exiles are also led by Joshua, the high priest- and those two leaders come as a pair. We can read about the history of Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Zechariah in the book of Ezra. In Zechariah’s book though, he records visions. Zechariah saw a vision (Zech 3) of the high priest being accused by Satan. Joshua is wearing filthy clothes, and the point is that he’s defiled. He is unclean and unfit to be a priest. Satan’s accusation is that God is allowing these people to rebuild the temple, when they are not holy! God’s answer is to say “remove his filthy garments, and give him clean ones”, and God tells Joshua “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you”. Then in the next chapter, it is Zerubbabel who faces an obstacle. There is a huge mountain before him, stopping him rebuilding the temple. But God says that the mountain shall become a plain, and Zerubbabel shall carry the top stone forward while the people shout “Grace, grace to it”. The obstacle faced by Zerubbabel is the same as the obstacle faced by Joshua. The mountain in his way is the uncleanness of the people.

In Micah 7:19. It is the sins of God’s people that are cast into the sea. Jesus deliberately brings the Micah quote into the frame, because the mountain that is cast into the sea is a mountain of sin. That’s clear enough anyway, simply from Zechariah 3 and the accusation Satan levels against Joshua. But I think Jesus is making it more clear. In every age, the great obstacle is the guilt of God’s people. That’s the mountain to be moved. How can a house of prayer be built while the people are still sinners? How can a defiled people meet with God? It is impossible, and yet it must happen if God’s purposes are to be fulfilled. If God is going to save his people, then here must be a place for them to meet with him and pray. But how can they do that, while they are sinners. Their sin is a great obstacle in the way, a mountain that only God can move.

So back in Mark, Jesus has just come into the city as David’s heir, as the final king in the line of which Zerubbabel was part. Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, set up the top stone, and God moved mountains of defilement out of his way so that he could do it. And Jesus too is rebuilding a temple. The Temple that stands is not a proper temple at all. The king has just pronounced his curse on the fig tree and on the Temple- it’s a den of robbers. There’s no fruit there. The Temple is not fit for purpose. It’s worse than useless. It has to go, just like the Solomon’s temple had to go in the end. But if the temple isn’t a house of prayer, does that mean that there is now nowhere for God’s people to gather and pray? No temple at all? No place for God and his people to meet? Of course not. If Jesus’ words bring about the destruction of the old Temple, then Jesus’ words and the words of his disciples will build a new temple. If Peter has faith in God, then he will move mountains. Peter’s job is going to be the pronouncement of forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.


6.      How does the immediate context help us to understand this passage in Mark?

Maybe before we understand Jesus’ remarks, we must first understand Peter’s remark. I would argue that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, the disciples understood what he was doing. They knew this wasn’t just a fit of pique- it was representative of the judgement coming on Israel. Jesus clears out the temple, and they understand on one level at least, that Israel is unfaithful. They still don’t understand what is going to happen. They don’t understand that Jesus is going to die. They are very impressed with the outward appearance of the Temple. But they understand that there is something rotten in the state of Israel, and they understand that the tree is a picture of Israel. So when Peter says “Rabbi, look! The tree has withered!” he isn’t merely making a passing and inconsequential observation. His tone of voice is not the light surprise we use when we say “Look! An air-balloon”.  You can catch Peter’s tone of excitement, “Rabbi! Look!”

Peter had seen Jesus do many miracles. I don’t think he could have had any doubts that Jesus was capable of causing a tree to wither. The fact that the tree had died was not the cause for his surprise. Rather, I think that it was the speed at which the tree had died. Peter is surprised that it has happened so fast. Perhaps he is worried that Israel will now wither like that too. He looks around and sees very few people following Jesus. He can see the mountains in the way of salvation for Israel; mountains of unbelief and hard-heartedness; mountains of sin.

I think we have to read Peter’s statement that way, precisely because of the response it calls forth from Jesus. If we understand Peter’s worries when he sees the withered tree, then we understand why Jesus says what he does. Peter is thinking, “Rabbi, this is serious. The tree has withered already. Is Israel that far gone in wickedness?” And Jesus replies, “Peter, do you think God can’t deal with that? Have faith in God. He can move those mountains. He’ll cast them into the sea, when you ask him to.” Jesus’ words are not about impossible things generally. They’re about a very particular sort of impossible thing- the removal of sin from God’s people.

If we’re even approximately right in our reading of v23, we understand something of the breadth and the narrowness of the promise in v24. Some want to make it very broad indeed- “Ask and you’ll receive! Visualise the blessings and they’re yours. Believe and receive. Fancy a new BMW? Well, why don’t you ask? What’s that? You’ve not had it yet? Well, you clearly didn’t believe very hard, were you?” That is extremely irresponsible exegesis. All the whatsoevers, whatsoever they may be, are firmly in the context of the sin-mountain. It’s that which staggers Peter. He can’t see any way round that mountain. So the faith Jesus tells him to have isn’t just a free-floating thing, faith in anything at all, faith that you will get that promotion or lose those extra few pounds. Rather, it’s faith that God will work his purposes out and will build his church, and will forgive his people’s sins. Peter struggles to see it. He’s been a good Jew all his life, and he’s just learned that the actual Temple is fruitless. Wow. What hope is there for God’s people then? Even the Temple is a den of robbers. But Jesus wants him to see that God is greater than the temple. God will build himself a house. All mountains will be removed except the mountain of God, the holy mountain (Zech 14).

And this forgiveness will be brought about by the effective faithful praying of the disciples. They are to pray that God would save sinners, and God will. They are to pray that God will build a holy temple, and God will build himself a temple, a house not made with hands, a house of living stones. The wickedness of those living stones will be taken away and cast into the depths of the sea. God’s house will be a holy house, a tree which does bear fruit. There are mountains in the way, but there will be a faithful people of God, a people whose sins are forgiven. And it will all happen through the disciples’ prayers. If the disciples trust God, then God’s power is the only limitation on how he will build his church through them. If God is ready to respond to the faith which cries out to him, what cannot be done?

7.      Why are we told to forgive whenever we stand praying? What is the connection of that clause to the rest of Jesus’ statement?

Some people see v25 as a tag-on, a fragment added into the tradition at this point. Jesus said similar things during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14-15) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:37), and some commentators think that Mark thought that this was a statement worth including in his Gospel, and so put the words on Jesus’ lips here. But we can’t seriously hold to such a view and claim to be Bible-believers. If Mark is willing to play fast and loose with Jesus’ words like that, then nothing in Mark’s Gospel can really be trusted. Mark is recording the words Jesus actually spoke on this occasion, and those words make perfect sense without assuming that they are snuck in here from another place.

The idea of forgiveness is central to the whole idea of mountains being moved by prayer. The disciples are to pray that mountains will be moved, which is the same thing as praying that God’s house will be built, which is the same thing as praying that sins will be forgiven. Well, if they’re going to pray for that, they will have to forgive others for the sins committed against them. This is indeed a theme Jesus has stressed elsewhere, but it makes sense to stress it again here. On the one hand, all our prayers are prayers for forgiveness (in the end), and we can’t pray unless we are forgiven ourselves. And on the other hand we’re hypocrites if we pray that sort of prayer without being willing to forgive others. We’re participants in God’s economy of grace. It all works by forgiveness. If we won’t forgive, it grinds to a halt.


8.      This sort of sensible exegesis might guard us from all sorts of error, but guarding from error isn’t enough. What should we take from this passage?

  • What is Jesus actually promising us?
  • What is Jesus telling us to do?

Jesus is promising us that he will build his church. And we are told to pray for it, and work for it. We might not see it happening. We might see the mountains in the way, but God is able to remove any mountains. “There is too much unbelief. People are too hard, too much in love with their sins.”

 “How can my colleague possibly, ever be saved? He takes no thought for God at all. It’s not that he’s hostile, he’s just not remotely interested. He cares about his family, and going on nice holidays, and getting his kinds into decent schools. God doesn’t feature in that picture. If I asked him to church, he’d be bemused. I just don’t see him being saved.”

Well, if he’s one of God’s elect, he will be, because God will build his church. God will remove the mountains of that man’s sin, of his indifference and hardness. Pray for it to happen. Pray for God to draw his people together, and form them into his house, a house of prayer for all nations, and it will happen. That’s a promise. Wesley was already there years back; “Give me the faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain. Give me the childlike praying love, which longs to build your house again” He saw that the mountain removal was connected with the rebuilding of God’s house. That’s the sort of solid insight you get in great hymns.

The building of God’s holy temple, his church, is intimately connected with the removal of sins. If we want to pin down what sin Jesus here has in mind, then we probably need to talk about the whole elect community. Conversion is about individuals, but it is the community together that form the temple of God. What prevents that whole community from being the temple of God? Answer: their sin does. It doesn’t need nuancing. If the sin is removed, and the way is made a plain, then the temple can be built.

We need to keep on praying that God will remove sin, even from believers. In one sense, our sins were forgiven when Jesus died. In another sense, our sins were forgiven when we were justified, but in yet another sense, our sins are forgiven daily. John can write to believers and say “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins”. We do have continuing sin and continuing guilt. In eternal terms, we’re forgiven. Once for all, and amen to that. But in terms of our ongoing life stories, we need to pray for ongoing forgiveness. In one sense, the temple has been built, sins have been forgiven- Christ is raised and the whole church is raised with him. But these things are already and not yet. So we pray to experience the things we already have.

And if we are to be God’s holy people, then we need to behave like God’s people. We ourselves have been forgiven. If we’re God’s people, part of his church, then we are forgiven people. That’s the only way we can approach God in prayer at all. So we must be willing to forgive others their sins against us. We can’t harbour grudges. We can’t count off seven strikes, and then the guy’s out. We need to be ready to be reconciled with others.