Posted tagged ‘Temple’

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 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 11:11-21. The fig tree had it coming.

August 20, 2010

And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.

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.””

 Jesus has finally entered Jerusalem, acclaimed by the crowds and set at the head of an excited procession. The crowd all think that the end of history has arrived. They think that Jesus is the Jehu-like king, come to sweep away the old order. They think that it’s tabernacles time, time to rest and enjoy the full harvest. They think Jesus is the king of Ps 118, coming into Jerusalem to be crowned and to reign forever.

But Jesus is aware that his work is far from over. In one sense, his work is just about to begin. He has come at Passover time, not at tabernacles time, and he has come to die as a sacrifice for sinners.

1.      Jesus did many miracles in the course of his ministry. Why did he do them?

2.      Do you notice the structure of this passage? It’s chronological rather than thematic. Two stories are interwoven. What are the disciples supposed to learn from this?

3.      Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, went to the temple, “looked around at everything”, and then left the city for the night. The impression given is that looking around at everything in the temple was the big item on the agenda for the day. Why?

4.      After causing havoc in the temple, Jesus taught the crowds (v17). What did he teach them?

5.      In what way are the cursing of the fig tree and the destruction in the temple linked?

6.      What does this miracle, in which Jesus curses a fig tree, point to? (Hint: Of what is a fig tree a picture?)

7.      How should we apply these things to ourselves?

1.      Jesus did many miracles in the course of his ministry. Why did he do them?

Jesus did many many miracles. We read details of only a carefully selected few  in the Gospels, but we often read that Jesus was in a village or town, and that the people brought all their sick to him, and he healed them all. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus must have healed literally thousands of sick people, and driven out countless demons. And it wasn’t just healing and driving out demons. At various points he turned water into wine; walked on water; commanded the wind and waves; took bread and fish and multiplied them just like that; and raised the dead.

All of these things, Jesus did as signs. In the Gospels the miracles are often called “signs”- semeia in the Greek (which is where we get our word “semaphore”). John especially likes using this word to describe them (e.g. John 2:11, 2:18, 2:23, 3:2, 4:48, 4:54, 6:2, 6:14, 6:26, 6:30, 7:31, 9:16, 10:41, 11:47, 12:18, 12:37, 20:30). When the Pharisees want to see a miracle, they come to Jesus saying “show us a sign from heaven” (Mk 8:11). Paul will later call the doing of wonders and supernatural things, “signs of an apostle” (2 Cor 2:12).

A sign points to something. If you see a sign to the airport, it is there to tell you where to find the airport. You are not meant to sit around admiring the sign- you are supposed to go and find the airport. The sign is just a pointer. So to what do the miracles point? How are these specific miracles signs, and what do they signify?

It is more than just power or authority. Obviously, the miracles do show Jesus’ power and authority. The crowds recognise that this man commands even the unclean spirits; he speaks to them and they obey him. They are amazed. But if all that was meant to be signified was Jesus’ power and authority, then some of the miracles could have been very different. Jesus could have commanded a tree to uproot itself and fly around above the heads of the crowds- that would certainly be impressive. When he met a demonised man, he could have commanded the demon to make the man dance a jig- that would have demonstrated authority over even the unclean spirits, just as much as commanding the demon to leave the man. But those things aren’t what Jesus did. And it is hard to imagine him ever doing them. The miracles Jesus did were signs on another level too. They were demonstrations of power, but they were much more than that.

The signs that Jesus did were signs of the kingdom of God. They were to show that that the kingdom had arrived, and that Jesus was the king. They were, in fact, mini-invasions of God’s kingdom into a fallen world. So Jesus healed the sick, because in God’s kingdom, there is no illness. Jesus cast out demons, because there will be no evil in God’s kingdom. The miracles are a bit like manifesto statements- “This is what the kingdom of God looks like”. Jesus calmed a storm, because all creation will be ordered properly in God’s kingdom. Jesus turned water into wine because God’s kingdom is a place of rejoicing and rest. Twice he multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd, because God’s kingdom is a place of plenty. Jesus raised the dead to life, because God’s kingdom is life in all its fullness.

These miracles are foretastes of what is to come. The king has arrived, he is establishing his kingdom, and so there are these signs that come with its foundation. They are points where the eternal kingdom breaks in to the cursed world and so they do work as signs to show us what the kingdom will be like. When the king returns, in his Father’s glory and with the holy angels, the kingdom will come fully. The heavens and the earth will be remade. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no sorrow, no illness, no hunger, no death, and no demonic powers.

We need that perspective on the miracles as background, so that we ask the right questions when we come to this miracle, the cursing of the fig tree. It is plainly miraculous. Jesus pronounces a curse on the tree, one morning, and the next morning, it is blasted. It is completely dead, and Peter says “look, the tree you cursed has withered!”

Now how is a dead fig tree a sign of the kingdom? How does it show us what the kingdom will be like? Will heaven be full of dead fig trees? I think not. We’ll come back to that question, but first, we need to look at what Jesus does in Jerusalem

 

2.      Do you notice the structure of this passage? It’s chronological rather than thematic. Two stories are interwoven. What are the disciples supposed to learn from this?

Matthew deals with this material thematically, grouping the whole story of the fig tree together and telling it all in one chunk, even though it happened over the course of two days. But Mark wants us to be conscious of the other things going on between the fig tree bits. Mark flicks between the tree and the temple, interweaving the themes in his structure. That’s the way it happened. That would be the disciples’ experience of it. And that’s the way Mark wants us to understand it.

Events run as follows: Jesus enters Jerusalem at the head of a procession. He is acclaimed as the king who comes to bring in the kingdom promised to David. He goes straight to the temple, which is what a king would do when he came to the city to be crowned. When he gets to the temple, he doesn’t summon the high priest and have any sort of ceremony. Instead, he spends some time looking at everything in the temple. Evening falls, and Jesus leaves Jerusalem for nearby Bethany. The next morning, they walk back into Jerusalem. On the way they see this lonely fig tree which Jesus inspects, and then curses. They re-enter the city, go back to the temple, and Jesus causes mayhem and throws everything around. Jesus teaches the crowds, apparently in the middle of all this chaos. Darkness begins to fall again, and they leave the city and go back to Bethany. The next morning they go back into the city, and they pass the fig tree again. Peter comments that it has withered up.

So we go: Temple (v11), fig tree (v12-14), temple again (v15-19), and fig tree again (v20-21). Matthew’s grouping is “neater” in one sense, but Mark shows us how the disciples would have seen the events pan out. I think that both we and they are supposed to notice the similarities between the two situations. Jesus inspects the temple, and then the next morning he inspects the fig tree. Jesus curses the fig tree, and then he goes in and curses the temple both by his deeds and his teaching. And then the next morning, the fig tree is seen to be withered. There is an unmistakeably ominous implication that the temple will soon be withered also. Mark is using the structure to underline that point.

So we’re getting towards an answer as to why Jesus cursed the fig tree. It was in some sense a picture of the temple. This miracle was a sign of the kingdom of God. When God’s kingdom comes, then all the pretend kingdoms set up by men must be seen for what they are. Especially, the fake kingdom of God- made up of those Jews who rejected Jesus as King- must be exposed as a fraud.

But the choice of a fig tree wasn’t an arbitrary designation on Jesus’ part. He could have picked, say, an almond tree to curse for not bearing nuts. But he had a good reason to curse a fig tree in particular. We’ll go a bit further and look at similarities between the fig tree and the temple, and at what Jesus was actually saying about the temple. We’ll start with the temple.

3.      Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, went to the temple, “looked around at everything”, and then left the city for the night. The impression given is that looking around at everything in the temple was the big item on the agenda for the day. Why?

Jesus came to the temple as Lord of the temple.  We see in v11 that Jesus enters the temple like an OFSTED inspector enters a school. We’re explicitly told that he looked around at everything. He came in order to examine the place. What do you think he was looking for? I think he was looking for fruit; the fruit of faithfulness and righteousness. Of all the cities in Israel, you’d have thought that Jerusalem would be the place where you would find true worshippers of God. Maybe you wouldn’t expect to find faithful believers in Galilee of the Gentiles, but in Jerusalem, in the holy city, surely Jesus would find good fruit. And if you were looking for faithfulness in Jerusalem, then the first place to look would surely be the Temple. You’d expect to find God being worshipped at the Temple, God’s house. This is the place where God has commanded the people to come and make sacrifice to him. It should be a place filled with those who are worshipping God, seeking forgiveness for their sins, and praising him for his salvation. But Jesus looks carefully, and doesn’t find any of that. Instead of worship, there is a marketplace there.

The temple was divided up into sections. There was the Holy of Holies, into which the High Priest went once a year. And that was inside the Priest’s court into which all priests could go- but only priests. And then there was the court of Israel into which all male Israelites could go. Then there was the court of the women, for Israelite women, and outside all of that, was the court of the Gentiles, where Gentiles were allowed. The court of the Gentiles was meant as a place where God-fearing men from any nation could come and pray, and worship the God of Israel. But in Jesus’ day, the court of the Gentiles was packed full of animal sellers and money changers, all doing a busy noisy trade. Jesus is really searching for real worship, but all he finds is greed and noise. In fact, if you read on through the Gospel, you find that Jesus only finds one thing to commend in the temple. There’s a poor woman who puts two copper coins into the collection- the legal minimum allowed. And Jesus watches her and says “She’s put in more than all the others”. All the activity, all the bustle- it counts for nothing in Jesus’ eyes. It is worth less than two pence. It isn’t real worship.

The Lord has come to his temple. And he looks for fruit, but finds only useless leaves. The temple was in the charge of the priests. It was their job to see to the running of things, but they had abused their trust. They had allowed it to become a marketplace, and specifically, they had allowed the court of the Gentiles to become a place where it was impossible to worship God. We know what a busy town centre market is like on a warm Saturday. It’s crowded. There are people everywhere, traders shouting out prices, crowds jostling their way through. You see women with buggies having real trouble getting anywhere. And that’s in our polite English society where physical contact is not normal between strangers. Imagine what it was like in a Jewish market c. AD30. It would be very difficult to concentrate, to pray in a place like that. And the priests had allowed the temple to become that sort of place. They’d given traders permission to sell sacrificial animals there. These merchants and their stocks of animals- probably mostly pigeons, but sheep and goats and bulls as well – would have made the court of the Gentiles into a Middle Eastern marketplace. Then you’d also have the money changers. The temple had its own money, the shekel of the sanctuary (Ex 30). So the people coming to offer sacrifices would need to change the Roman coins used in Israel for temple coinage.

No doubt the priests could have made arguments in favour of what they were doing. They’d have said, “Well, it’s a pity, but I’m afraid it is necessary to have animal traders there. People have come for miles to make sacrifices, sometimes from the other end of the country. They didn’t want to bring a lamb or a goat or a bull all that way. And maybe the animal would get injured on the journey, and only spotless animals without blemish can be offered to God. It was necessary to have an animal market somewhere near the temple. It performs a valuable service”. But the priests had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. It was there as God’s house, so that people could worship him there. The temple was not meant to be a place for noisy profiteering. If there had to be an animal market in Jerusalem, why not have it somewhere else? Allowing it to take place in the Temple rendered the place noisy, crowded, and impossible to use as a place of serious devotion to God. Jesus came to inspect, and he saw only an empty show of religion. The chief priests were more interested in revenue than reverence.

And so the next morning, Jesus came back to do vengeance. He came as the Lord of the temple, to purify it; as the true priest of God, restoring the temple to what it ought to have been. Malachi prophesies “‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come’, says the Lord Almighty. ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire’” And in Zechariah 14, we’re told that on the day of the Lord, there will be no trader in the temple of the Lord.

Jesus overturns the tables, and drives out the traders, and refuses to allow people to use his Father’s house for commerce. He seems to radiate power and authority. Nobody can stop him. All the processions, the singing, the sacrifices, would have to stop, and Jesus doesn’t care. He has seen that there’s no real worship going on in this house anyway.

4.      After causing havoc in the temple, Jesus taught the crowds (v17). What did he teach them?

“And he taught them”, Mark says in v17. From the way the narrative reads, and from the content of the teaching, it seems that this was done while still in the Temple. After Jesus had finished causing chaos- or rather, after he had finished putting a stop to the chaos that was already being caused, Jesus quietened people down and spoke to them. His teaching on this occasion centred around two passages from the prophets. “Is it not written ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’, but you have made it a ‘den of robbers’”, he said.

Both passages Jesus is thinking of are about the temple. The description of God’s house as a “house of prayer for all nations” is in Isaiah 56:7, and the description of it as a “den of robbers” is in Jeremiah 7:11.

Read Isaiah 56. Isaiah wrote before the exile to Babylon. But he looked forward beyond the exile, to a time when the exiles would be gathered again. He looked to a time of great blessing when God’s house would be rebuilt, and would be a place for all nations to gather for prayer. And so after the exile, Israel should have made it easy for the Gentiles to come and pray and offer worship in the temple. But Isaiah also saw blind, lazy, and greedy watchmen. The priests and elders who ran the temple had made it next to impossible for the nations to pray there, with a bazaar running in the court of the Gentiles. They were going against what God had said he wanted for his temple.

Read Jeremiah 7:1-20. Jeremiah spoke to an idolatrous people who trusted in the temple as a kind of magic talisman. They did all manner of evil, and then came to the temple to worship saying “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”, and they thought that as long as they had the temple, God wouldn’t act to destroy them for their wickedness because he wouldn’t destroy his own temple. They thought they could get away with murder- quite literally. But of course they couldn’t. Nobody can, in the end. God sent Jeremiah’s generation into exile, and their temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. It wasn’t rebuilt until the people returned out of exile.  So by quoting Isaiah, Jesus is setting out the ideal for the temple, and the reality. He’s saying “This is what you should have made the Temple. This was God’s blueprint for you after you’d come out of exile, but you’ve been blind and lazy and greedy.” And then by telling the Israelites that they’ve made the temple a den of robbers, quoting Jeremiah to them, Jesus is saying that rather than making things better, Israel have just gone back to the way things were before the exile. Just like the exiled generation, his generation are wicked and ripe to be cursed by God. They too have desecrated the temple. Their religious life is worthless, fit only to be destroyed. Destruction looms. This is harsh teaching. Jesus is cursing the temple, and cursing the whole community of Israel which focuses its life on the Temple.

5.      What does this miracle, in which Jesus curses a fig tree, point to? (Hint: Of what is a fig tree a picture?)

Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and serial adulterer*, wrote:

“Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree… This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.”

That is from his essay, “Why I am not a Christian”. It forms part of a section in which Russell argues that Jesus Christ was morally defective. In this passage, Russell paints Jesus as vindictive and petty, cursing a poor innocent tree just because it was barren and he was hungry. He reads it as Jesus being hungry, wanting something to eat, and venting his frustration on the fig tree when he doesn’t find any figs there, in a sort of temper tantrum, showing selfishness and abusing his power.

Russell simply hadn’t done his homework. He thought that “You really could not blame the tree”. Had he been a serious reader of the Bible, he would have known that the tree had it coming. Jesus had excellent reasons for cursing the fig tree.

The miracles are signs, pointing to God’s kingdom. But this miracle is obviously not like other miracles of Jesus. How is it showing us God’s kingdom? Why does Jesus kill the tree? If he’s looking for figs, then why not use his power to force a crop of figs out of it? Why curse it (to use Peter’s word)?

Now, obviously, Jesus does not curse the fig tree in a fit of pique, out of personal frustration, in a sulk. Sulking is a sin, just as much as lying and stealing are. And so is taking unnecessary offence and overreacting sinful. And so is abusing power sinful. Jesus was not doing any of those things. He had a very good reason for cursing the fig tree.

In v12, we find Jesus hungry. He goes along and sees a fig tree which promises fruit, but when he goes up to it, he doesn’t find any fruit on it. He finds only leaves, because it is not the season for fruit. The fig tree bears fruit, so the commentaries say, from May to June. Jesus is in Jerusalem in Passover season, in April. If it had been tabernacles time, as the crowds thought, then the tree would have been full of fruit (“Take choice fruit from the trees” Leviticus 23:40). But although it is too early for figs, this tree looks as though it could be fruiting early; and it is the time when you might expect some early first fruits on the fig tree. It has leaves, it looks green and alive. But Jesus goes looking for fruit, and finds none. He is disappointed by it. So Jesus speaks to the tree. And as he spoke to the wind and the waves, and they heard him, so the fig tree hears him. He says “May no one eat from you again”, and the next morning, when Jesus and the disciples pass that way again, they see the tree dead from the roots. Peter says that the fig tree that had been cursed is now withered.

We’ve seen already that the fig tree is meant to be linked to the Temple. We are supposed to see this as related to the destruction of the temple. But is there any reason to do so other than the way Mark recounts the events?

It becomes clearer when you remember that the fig tree, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a picture of God’s people, Israel. We see it in Hosea 9:10, the flavour of this association. God says “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree”. And also in Micah 7 where the speaker hungers for figs, but finds only corrupt men, the best of them like briers and thorns. And again in Jer 8:13; 29:17, Israel are to be like a fig tree. The idea is that they are to be sweet, to bring pleasure to God. In Israel, people didn’t have sugar in bags like we do. If they wanted to sweeten something, they’d have to use something else sweet. Honey would be the single sweetest thing they would know. But they wouldn’t eat honey all that often. And so some of the sweetest things they would usually eat were the sweeter fruits like figs and grapes. The fig tree and the vine are then natural pictures of something that brings pleasure. And it makes sense to hear God speak in this way about his people. Perhaps most strikingly in Luke 13:6-9, Jesus tells a parable where Israel is like a fig tree. God has planted this tree, and cared for it, and God expects it to bear fruit. He has given Israel the law, sent her prophets, and holy men to tell her and show her how to live. God has delivered the nation from Egypt, given her the land, protected her against her enemies. It is reasonable for him to expect Israel to live lives of devotion, and to be sweetness to him. But instead, the nation is barren. When God comes to Israel- when Jesus, the God-man comes- does he find the sort of fruit he is looking for? There are some signs of life there on this tree in Mark 11. There are lots of green leaves, the tree is not dead- but there are no figs. It seemed full of life, it seemed promising, but on inspection, it was seen to be utterly barren. It is a tree that looks as though it could have fruit to give, but which bears nothing useful. God looked to Israel for fruit, but found only an outward show, and no real worship of God.

So when he curses the tree, Jesus is acting prophetically. Some of the Old Testament prophets were commanded by God to perform actions, which had meanings. The prophets were to speak to Israel by doing things, and Israel were to see the significance of those things (Isa 20:1-6; Jer 13:1-11; 19:1-13; Ezk 4:1-15). So Jeremiah is to wear a garment, and them bury it, and then dig it up again and find it spoiled, and no good. And it is meant as a picture of Israel, who should be a garment for the Lord, resting on him for support, and being an adornment for him, a people to bring him praise and honour. But they are a spoiled garment, good for nothing. Isaiah and Ezekiel also carry out prophetic actions. What Jesus was doing in this action, was announcing God’s final rejection of faithless Israel.  God had made this people his own, had set them apart to be his own, had borne with them over hundreds of years of backsliding and idolatry as he sought to bring them back to faithfulness, love, service and obedience. But now, their Messiah has come, and they still have not turned back to God. In fact, they will turn away from God, rejecting his Messiah. It’s ironic in v18, that the chief priests seek a way to destroy Jesus. He’s just called them murderers, quoting Jeremiah, and they say “He can’t call us murderers! We’ll kill him.” He says that the Temple will fall, and they plot to destroy the real temple, his body.

For a barren fruitless Israel, the game is over. They have brought the curse upon themselves. The word “cursed” is significant. It is a covenant word. Remember Deuteronomy, chapters 28, the blessings and cursings on Israel. Obedience brought blessings and curses were invited by disobedience. Bless, bless..bless..bless, and curse, curse, curse. .are repeated over and over again. Jesus, by cursing the fig tree, symbolically announces his final cutting off of a disobedient people, a people who have every reason to be faithful and obedient, but who are religious hypocrites. This is a sign.

*Yes, yes, I know. Ad hominem is bad form. But in this case, although Russell’s being a serial adulterer has no bearing on whether or not Jesus was a good man, it certainly does have bearing on whether Russell himself is qualified to make the comment he does. Read the quote again. Where does Russell get off, criticising Jesus? There he is, pontificating that Jesus ranks a little below Buddha and Socrates, but what on earth makes him think he’s a decent judge of moral character? He couldn’t even keep it in his pants.

 

6.      In what way are the cursing of the fig tree and the destruction in the temple linked?

Really, we’ve already answered this question. The two threads of the story are so plainly interlinked. The temple was like the fig tree. The latter was covered in green leaves, but devoid of fruit. The former was a bustling place, full of people, full of life- but empty of real devotion to God. Just as the fig tree looked as though it should have fruit, but had none, so the Temple looked as though it was full of worship, but it was empty. It was a hollow sham. The fig tree was useless, it brought no pleasure to Jesus when he came hungry and looking for figs, and Israel were a useless people, bringing no pleasure to God when he looked on them. The fig tree was cursed, and the unrepentant Israelites were cursed.

 

7.      How should we apply these things to ourselves?

So what does this mean for us? Jesus came to the temple some 2000 years ago and cursed it. And 40 years later, God’s final judgement fell on it when the Romans destroyed it in AD 70. It was all over long ago, wasn’t it? This passage speaks to Israel as the descendents of Abraham, a theocratic nation state. How is it relevant to us, to members of Christian churches?

Both incidents highlight to us that the one who knows us and sees us absolutely, who sees the heart, does not accept the outwardness of religion. Jesus is cursing religion which appears to offer much, but which is actually barren and empty. The temple was magnificent. It looked as though it honoured God, and it ought to have done. It bore God’s name. People called it the house of the Lord. But it only honoured God with its lips. Its heart was far from him. Jesus curses wicked religion which does not produce the fruit of righteousness. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.  

We could be reminded of the words in Revelation 3 where Jesus, inspecting the churches as he inspected the temple, says to Laodicea “You say ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Jesus sees the truth- the church in Laodicea is a spiritual disaster. What does he see in our churches? Does he see leaves or fruit? When he looks at our lives and our minds, what does he see? Does he see a pretence of religion, or the fruits of real religion. Does he see a real trust and faith in him, that clings to him as its hope? Does he see a heart’s desire to keep his commandments and walk in his ways, to be separate from sin, to put it away and not to play with it? Does he see a desire to love the brethren as Christ himself loved us? Are we willing to put their needs above our own, willing to forgive seventy times seven, knowing that we ourselves have been forgiven? Do we see ourselves as poor and needy in God’s eyes, humbled by our sins? Or do we secretly think we are rich?

Jesus sees through all the outward show of our religion. Jesus is the one with whom we have to do, who sees past the pretence of things and inspects our hearts. We can fool even ourselves, but we can’t fool him. Jesus has been appointed as your judge. He will come, and he will judge justly.

And yet he is gracious. He is slow to anger, and abundant in mercy.  In Micah 7 “Who is a God like you who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” Jesus is the perfect image of the Father. There is nothing un-Godlike in him, as there is nothing un-Christ-like in the Father. He delights to show mercy. To that church in Laodicea, Jesus doesn’t just make threats and issue warnings- although he does do that. Jesus makes promises. Jesus says that he rebukes those he loves, and that he is standing at the door ready to eat with them. Jesus came to the temple genuinely looking for fruit. He wasn’t coming just seeking a pretext to destroy the place. He really wanted to find worshippers there; just as he really wanted to find figs on the tree- he was hungry. And he really wants to find worshippers still. He is ready to forgive the sins of all who come to him, seeking his mercy.

And he has destroyed the temple because it is no longer needed. Because the sacrifices which God ordained there are now fulfilled at Calvary. And although national Israel are cut off, God will raise up for himself a true Israel- has raised and is raising up for himself a true Israel, a people who will be everything that OT Israel was not. He puts His Spirit within them, and gives them hearts that love him and want to see his name honoured.