Like a Lamb to the Slaughter

53 And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. 54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. 55 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. 56 For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. 60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. 65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows. Mark 14:53-65 ESV

While the sheep scattered, the Good Shepherd was “was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7 NLT). Bound and surrounded by armed guards, Jesus was led to the residence of the high priest. We know from John’s account that Jesus was first brought before Annas, the former high priest of Israel, who was also the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the current high priest. Eventually, Jesus found Himself facing the entire Sanhedrin, the religious high council of the Jews. They were the ones who had made the bargain with Judas, paying him 30 pieces of silver to lead them to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Because Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples, he was intimately familiar with his Master’s patterns of behavior and knew that Jesus planned to be in the garden that night. By arresting Jesus in the middle of the night, the Sanhedrin avoided a possible confrontation with the crowds that usually surrounded Jesus. These men knew that Jesus was highly popular and had seen the raucous reception He had received just a few days earlier when He had arrived in their city. So, with the help of Judas, they were able to bring in this dangerous heretic without incident.

But Jesus was not entirely alone that evening. While the rest of the disciples had fled into the darkness, John and Peter had chosen to hide in the shadows, following the mob as they led Jesus to the residence of the high priest. In his gospel account, John reveals that he managed to get access into the courtyard for Peter and himself. And while Jesus was taken before the council, these two men stood just outside the door, warming themselves by a fire. And as will become evident, there would be two trials taking place that night. One involved the interrogation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. The other would have Peter facing the probing questions of his companions in the courtyard.

Mark makes it clear that the high priest and his fellow council members had only one motive: To put Jesus to death. This was an inquisition and not a trial. Uninterested in discovering the truth, these men were seeking evidence to use against Jesus so they could demand His execution by the Romans authorities. It was against Roman law for the Jews to practice capital punishment. So, if they were going to have any hope of eliminating Jesus, they would have to come up with accusations that would warrant the death penalty. But, as Mark reveals, they were not having much luck.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. – Mark 14:55 ESV

They had prearranged to have witnesses present who could testify against Jesus, but they were having difficulty finding two witnesses with corroborating testimonies. It’s likely that these witnesses had been paid for their services, but their information was proving to be useless because, according to Jewish law, the Sanhedrin would need at least two witnesses whose testimonies aligned, before they could legally charge Jesus with a crime worthy of death.

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. – Deuteronomy 17:6 ESV

But because only one witness could testify at a time, these men kept contradicting one another’s stories.

For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. – Mark 14;56 ESV

There were some who told similarly worded stories concerning Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the temple. Evidently, they had overheard what Jesus had said to His disciples a few years earlier when He had come to Jerusalem for another Passover. After having cleansed the temple of the moneychangers and vendors selling their goods in the temple courtyard, Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 ESV). And the crowd, having taken His words literally, responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20 ESV). But John revealed that Jesus was “speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21 ESV). 

Yet the rumor had spread that Jesus had claimed that He was going to destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days. And that is exactly what some of these “expert witnesses” shared.

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” – Mark 14:58 ESV

But even their versions of what Jesus had said proved to be inconsistent and contradictory. And while all of this was going on, Jesus stood before the high priest in absolute silence.

he remained silent and made no answer. – Mark 14:61 ESV

This was in keeping with the prophecy of Isaiah.

…like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7 ESV

Jesus had no interest in defending Himself. He was not hoping for an acquittal. The only thing on His mind was the fulfillment of His Father’s will. So, in anger and desperation, the high priest accosted Jesus, asking, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Mark 14:60 ESV). He couldn’t understand why Jesus said nothing to defend Himself. Most men would have been pleading for their lives. But to Caiaphas, the calm and composed demeanor of Jesus was disconcerting and frustrating. This man seemed completely oblivious to the danger He faced.

Then finally, the high priest cut to the chase, demanding that Jesus publicly declare Himself to be the Son of God.

“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” – Mark 14:61 ESV

Each of the gospel authors has a slightly different version of this question. Matthew reports that Caiaphas said, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63 ESV). Luke records the encounter this way: “If you are the Christ, tell us” (Luke 22:67 ESV). But the bottom line was that Caiaphas wanted him to commit blasphemy by declaring Himself to be the Son of God. If Jesus would just make that admission out loud and before witnesses, they would have all the evidence they needed. And Jesus did not disappoint him.

“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” – Mark 14:62 ESV

That was all Caiaphas needed to hear. Jesus had just claimed to be a co-equal with God Almighty. And as a demonstration of his disgust and outrage with Jesus’ words, the high priest tore his own garments. Then he pronounced, “What further witnesses do we need?” (Mark 14:63 ESV).

Interestingly enough, in his pompous display of feigned outrage, the high priest had violated the law of God. He had been so excited about the prospect of finding Jesus guilty, that he failed to realize that he, too, had just committed a crime. The Mosaic law strictly forbade the high priest from tearing his clothes.

“The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes. – Leviticus 21:10 ESV

But unaware of his own guilt, the high priest declared that Jesus was a blasphemer and worthy of death. And Mark records that the members of the Sanhedrin “all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:64 ESV). With His public confession of His deity, Jesus sealed His own death warrant. His admission of His identity as the Son of God would be the cause of His death at the hands of men. And the harsh and hateful reaction of these so-called religious leaders speaks volumes.

And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows. – Mark 14:65 ESV

They dared to treat the Son of God with contempt and derision. They spat in the face of the God of the universe, the very one who had created them. They mocked their maker. They lashed out in hatred, striking the face of the one who had given them life. And little did they realize that their demand for Jesus to prophesy was all in fulfillment of the prophecies of God. As Jesus stood silently suffering their abuse and disrespect, He was living out the prophecy recorded by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.

He was treated harshly and afflicted,
but he did not even open his mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block,
like a sheep silent before her shearers,
he did not even open his mouth.
He was led away after an unjust trial—
but who even cared?
Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living;
because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. – Isaiah 53:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Mixed Messages

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

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:1-9 ESV

It is Wednesday and, as Mark indicates, the celebration of Passover is just two days away. The events surrounding Jesus’ earthly ministry are quickly coming to a climax. Whether His disciples fully comprehend it or not, their Master’s days are running out. Mark makes special mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This particular feast, which accompanied Passover, was an important part of the annual celebration. It was to act as an additional reminder of the miraculous deliverance God had provided for the people of Israel.

And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days – Deuteronomy 16:2-4 ESV

Leaven represents sin. It has an invasive quality to it, that left unchecked, permeates and spreads, influencing everything with which it comes into contact. For seven days, the Israelites were to remove all leaven from their homes and eat bread made without leaven. While the original Passover provided the Israelites with divine deliverance from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, it foreshadowed an even greater deliverance to come. Jesus, by being sacrificed during the Feast of Passover, was offering Himself as the Bread of Life. He was the sinless Savior who was willing to lay down His life for the sheep.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:51 ESV

With the sacrifice of His life, Jesus would offer a way for sinful men and women to be delivered from their bondage to sin and death. But Mark’s mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread had another purpose. It juxtaposes the actions of the religious leaders who were feverishly plotting the death of Jesus. During the seven days in which they were to remove all leaven (sin) from their homes, these men were devising a strategy to end the life of the Son of God.

And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” – Mark 14:1-2 ESV

They didn’t view their actions as being sinful and, therefore, they saw no need to purge their lives of greed, anger, malice, jealousy, or hypocrisy. In their twisted minds, they were in the right and fully justified in their hatred for Jesus. They truly thought they were doing God and the nation a favor.

But with the image of the heavily “leavened” religious leaders fixed in our minds, Mark refocuses our attention on Jesus, the bread from heaven. He has joined His followers for a dinner hosted by Simon the leper. The location is Bethany, located just east of Jerusalem, the same town where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. In the middle of the meal, an unidentified woman walks into the room, opens a flask containing expensive and aromatic oil, and begins to anoint the head of Jesus. While similar to the story recorded by John, this appears to be a different scene altogether. John’s story takes place six days before Passover and the woman involved is Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. – John 12:1-3 ESV

We are looking at two different anointings, one that took place on Saturday, at the beginning of the week, and the other on Wednesday. And because both Matthew and Mark leave the second woman unnamed, it is unlikely that it is Mary. In this case, an unidentified woman makes her way into the room and anoints the head of Jesus with a costly and highly aromatic oil. As soon as she broke the flask, the scent of the oil must have permeated the room, attracting the attention of all the guests, including the disciples of Jesus. And they immediately expressed their disapproval.

“Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” – Mark 14:4-5 ESV

Without realizing it, these men had responded after the manner of the Pharisees. In doing so, they exposed their own obsession with earthly rather than spiritual things. Appalled by what they believed to be a wanton display of wastefulness, they rebuked the woman. They were incapable of seeing the rich symbolism behind her actions. But Jesus reprimanded them, saying, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6 ESV).

Just a few days earlier, when Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her own hair, Judas had expressed a similar disdain for her excessive waste of resources. But Jesus had told him, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 ESV).

In both cases, these women were anointing the one who was about to offer His life as a sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. While they were unaware of the import of their own actions, both Mary and the unidentified woman were preparing the body of Jesus for burial. And Jesus makes this quite clear.

“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” – Mark 14:8 ESV

The religious leaders were obsessed with putting Jesus to death. The disciples were preoccupied with temporal concerns. But this unnamed woman was focused on the Savior. Her love for Him was displayed by her willingness to make a tremendous sacrifice on His behalf. He meant far more to her than money or possessions did. And Jesus tried to help His disciples understand the vital lesson behind her actions.

“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” – Mark 14:7 ESV

Time was running out. In just a matter of days, they would witness the crucifixion and death of their friend and Master. And not a single one of them had done anything to show their gratitude or appreciation for all that He had done for them over the last three-and-a-half years. They were hours away from eating their final Passover meal with Jesus. And at that event, He will take on the role of a slave and wash their feet. The Savior will sacrifice His glory for their good. He will humble Himself so that they might be made clean. The Son of God will offer His life as a ransom for many.

The Pharisees plotted His death. This woman anointed His head.  The disciples questioned her actions. But in the midst of it all, Jesus remained committed to His calling and fully prepared to fulfill His Father’s will.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Exposed and Condemned

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 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.”’

37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.

38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Mark 12:35-40 ESV

Up until this point, it has been the Jewish religious leaders who have been asking all the questions, but now Jesus turns the tables on them. In verse 34, Mark indicated that, as a result of their three failed attempts to entrap Jesus, “no one dared to ask him any more questions.” They simply gave up. But they didn’t go away.

As Jesus continued to teach in the temple, He posed a question of His own. Matthew indicates that He directed it at a group of Pharisees standing nearby. This was probably the same group who had shown up with the scribe who asked Him which was the greatest commandment. These men are still standing close enough to hearJesus but are most likely plotting their next move against Him. They have completed discounted any notion that Jesus might be the Messiah. This fact is important because it sheds light on the question that Jesus poses.

“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? – Mark 12:35 ESV

It’s interesting to note that the three gospel writers who cover this event each word Jesus’ question slightly differently. Matthew reports that Jesus directed His question at the Pharisees, asking them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 23:42 ESV). And Luke has Jesus asking, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son?” (Luke 20″41 ESV). It seems likely that this was a series of questions that Jesus posed. First, He asked the Pharisees what they believed about the Messiah or Christ. After all, these men were the religious conservatives of their day and were supposed to be highly knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures.

According to Matthew, these men quickly responded, declaring that the Christ would be “The son of David” (Matthew 22:42 ESV). Jesus then asked the Pharisees to explain how the scribes, the experts in the Mosaic law, would justify their belief that the Christ would be the son of David. All of these men were supposed to have a strong grasp of the Old Testament Scriptures and they shared a common belief that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David. But how would they justify it from God’s Word? One of the passages they would use was 2 Samuel 7:12-16, which records a promise that God had made to King David.

“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

While this promise was fulfilled in part with the birth of Solomon, the Jews believed it had longer-term implications that would ultimately come about through the arrival of the Messiah, the anointed one of God.

Keep in mind that Jesus has already publicly shamed these men, declaring them to be ignorant of God’s Word and strangers to the power of God.

“…you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God.” – Mark 12:24 NLT

Their understanding that the Messiah would be a descendant of David was what drove their expectation that He would be a powerful king and ruler just like His predecessor. They were fully expecting the Messiah to arrive on the scene and wield a sword just as David had, conquering the enemies of Israel and restoring the people of God to their former position of prominence in the Middle East.

But Jesus turns to the Old Testament Scriptures in order to teach a vital truth regarding the Messiah. He quotes from the opening verse of Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David himself.

The Lord says to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.” – Psalm 110:1 ESV

Through His ongoing confrontations with the religious leaders, Jesus has been subtly revealing the justification for HIs authority. This whole situation had begun when the chief priests, scribes, and elders confronted Him over His unacceptable behavior in cleansing the temple. They demanded to know, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28 NLT). And in every subsequent conversation Jesus had with these men, He had gave them glimpses of who He was by revealing His knowledge of God’s Word and declaring Himself to be “The stone that the builders rejected” (Mark 12:10 ESV). Through use of a parable, Jesus had described Himself as the son of the master of the vineyard. And the Pharisees had fully understood His meaning,

But here, Jesus uses the words of King David to make an important point about the Messiah that these learned men had somehow missed in all of their studies of the Scriptures.

Jesus notes that, in the psalm, David refers to his coming descendant as “my Lord.” In Hebrew the text reads, “Jehovah has said to my Lord (‘adown).” In other words, David records that God had spoken a promise to his future descendant. But Jesus wants to know why David would call this man his “Lord” or Adonai, one of the most common names in the Old Testament Scriptures used to refer to God Himself.  So, Jesus wants to know why David used this particular word to refer to a man. And why would God offer a mere man a position of prominence at His side?

Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet?” – Mark 12:36 ESV

There was more going on in this passage than the scribes and Pharisees understood. Jesus is revealing that the Messiah would not only be the son of David, He would be David’s Adonai (Lord and Master). The Messiah would be the Son of Man and the Son of God, the God-man who was fully divine and fully human. Even King David understood that his future descendant would have a unique relationship with God that was greater than anything he had ever experienced.

And Jesus summarized His point by asking these experts in the Hebrew Scriptures to explain how this could be.

David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” – Mark 12:37 ESV

But they refuse to answer. They had already discovered that their attempts to debate with Jesus had left them looking like fools. Yet Mark indicates that the crowd who overheard this conversation loved what Jesus had to say. To a certain degree, they probably enjoyed watching the public humiliation of these arrogant men, who prided themselves in their vast knowledge of the Bible and flaunted their superior righteousness. And, to their delight, Jesus dropped another bombshell.

“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 honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” – Mark 12:38-40 ESV

Mark presents a very abbreviated recounting of Jesus’ teaching, leaving out the seven “woes” that Matthew records. After putting up with a constant barrage of condemnation from these religious leaders, Jesus turned the spotlight on them. And, according to Matthew’s account, Jesus essentially told the crowd to “do as they say, but not as they do.”

“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Matthew 23:2-4 NLT

In other words, these man taught the law of God, but failed to live up to it. They could proclaim the truth of God’s Word but had no desire to let it influence the way they lived their lives. And in Matthew’s account, He records that Jesus called these men hypocrites and blind guides. They were frauds. And, not only that, they were like blind men futility attempting to provide guidance to others.

Jesus declares that these men were more interested in their reputations than they were in living according to God’s will. They loved being recognized for their fine robes and coveted their status as celebrities. They were addicted to honor and recognition. It was all about them. And Jesus declares that these men will receive greater condemnation. God would hold them accountable for their pride and arrogant mistreatment of His people.

These men had no right to question the authority of Jesus. He was the Son of God and was doing the will of God. But they were supposed to be the servants of God, caring for the flock He had placed under their care. Yet, they had failed miserably.

But Jesus, the Son of David and the Son of God, would faithfully fulfill the the will of His Father, sacrificing His life for the sake of His Father’s flock.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Religious, but Not Righteous

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. Mark 12:28-34 ESV

The Sadducees faired no better than the Pharisees and Herodians. Jesus had handled their carefully crafted question with ease, revealing that their misunderstanding of the doctrine of the resurrection was based on their ignorance of the Scriptures. These men were supposed to be the brightest and the best that Israel had to offer. They were considered the spiritual rock stars of their day. The people revered them for their knowledge, power, and influence. Yet, Jesus had exposed them as pretenders who were ignorant of God’s Word and unfamiliar with His power.

“Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? – Mark 12:24 ESV

The Jewish high council had two strikes against them, but they were far from ready to concede defeat. Matthew records that they quickly assembled a third team made up of Pharisees, one of whom was a scribe, an expert in the Mosaic law.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” – Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

According to the Rabbis, the Mosaic Law contained 613 commands, 365 positive and 248 negative. It was a common practice among Israel’s religious scholars to categorize these laws according to their weight, classifying them as either heavy or light. Some laws were considered more important than others, and these men enjoyed debating which of the 613 laws was the most important.

By posing this question to Jesus, the scribe was attempting to put Him on the spot by forcing Him to reveal what He considered to be the greatest of all the laws of God. But without a moment’s hesitation, Jesus responded by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This was a very well-known passage among the Jews because they were expected to recite it two times a day. It was known as the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for “Hear,” the first word in the verse.

This passage was to be a reminder of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and His chosen people. He was to be their only God and they were expected to give Him their full and unwavering allegiance. Every aspect of their lives was to reflect their faithful commitment to Him. It’s fair to assume that this scribe considered himself to be in full compliance with this command. And Jesus seems to know that the scribe and the rest of the Pharisees who sent him, all shared an overinflated sense of their own adherence to this particular law. So, He added a second part to His answer. This time, Jesus quoted from another part from the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that they so greatly revered.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18 ESV

Not only were they to love God, but they were to show love to their neighbor as well. And this second part of Jesus’ answer was intended to expose a flaw in the thinking of these self-righteous religious leaders. They could easily proclaim their love for God, but it was far more difficult to prove their love for others. And Luke records an earlier encounter Jesus had with another scribe. This man had come to Jesus wanting to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus had responded to his question by asking him what the Mosaic law said. And the man had responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:27 ESV

Jesus commended the man for his answer, telling him to “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28 ESV). But this led the man to seek clarification. He wanted to know what the law meant by “neighbor.” In essence, he was asking Jesus to narrow the definition so that it made compliance to the law feasible and doable. But Jesus had answered him with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable Jesus described a man who had been attacked by thieves and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both encountered the man lying on the side of the road, but chose to ignore his plight. But when a Samaritan saw the man, he stopped and administered aid, even covering the cost of his convalescence at a nearby inn. And when Jesus asked the scribe which of these three men “proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV), the scribe answered, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37 ESV). And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 ESV).

The Leviticus 19 passage required that the Jews love their neighbor in the same way they loved themselves. And God had provided no room for them to determine who their neighbor might be. This wasn’t about loving the lovely or showing affection to those who loved you in return. Jesus had earlier told His disciples, “Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!” (Luke 6:32-33 NLT).

And the apostle John would later expand on this idea, declaring that the failure to love others was evidence of a lack of love for God.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

So, when Jesus combined these two commandments together, He was indicating that it was impossible to love God without expressing selfless love for others. That is why He told the scribe, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31 ESV). These two laws went hand-in-hand. They were inseparable. But the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of expressing their deep love and affection for God while treating their “neighbors” as second-class citizens. They  looked down on the lower classes, viewing them as ignorant and incapable of living up to God’s holy standards as revealed his His law. These very same men had regularly attacked Jesus for associating with tax collectors and prostitutes. They viewed His love for these people as sin. And yet, Jesus was telling them that a failure to love the unlovely was evidence of a hatred for God.

The answer Jesus gave left the scribe with no other choice than to agree with Him.

“Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” – Mark 12:32-33 NLT

But Jesus sensed that the man was beginning to see the light. He had heard what Jesus said and it had made sense to him. So, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34 NLT). Jesus was commending the scribe for his willingness to listen and learn. He had shown an openness to the truth, which was a critical first step in coming to an understanding of who Jesus was and what He had come to offer.

For the third time, the religious leaders had swung and missed. They had failed to trap Jesus with their cleverly worded questions. Instead, He had exposed them for their hypocrisy. By using the Scriptures against them, Jesus had revealed their ignorance of God’s Word which explained their inability to comprehend God’s power. The Son of God stood in their midst, but they failed to recognize Him. The Old Testament Scriptures they studied so diligently had predicted the Messiah’s coming, but because of their hardness of heart, their eyes were blind to His presence among them. The Kingdom of Heaven was near, but they couldn’t see it or enter into it.

With their latest setback, the religious leaders called off their attack. They no longer posed any more questions to Jesus. But their hatred for Him did not dissipate, so they were forced to come up with another strategy to plot His demise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Render Unto God

13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Jesus’ ransacking of the temple courtyard had caused quite a stir. And, as a result, His already strained relationship with the Jewish religious leaders took a dramatic turn for the worse. These men questioned His authority as well as His sanity, having earlier claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon and in league with Satan. But when they met Him face to face, they found that He was anything but crazy. Jesus proved to be a formidable debater who, although an educated Rabbi from Nazareth, could stand toe-to-toe with the best and brightest members of the highly trained Sanhedrin. These professional religious scholars and experts in the Mosaic law found Jesus to be no pushover. And in today’s passage, we find the Sanhedrin taking a tag-team approach, sending wave after wave of their best thinkers to do mental battle with Jesus.

In chapter 11, Mark records the first onslaught. He described the chief priests, scribes, and elders confronting Jesus in the Courtyard of the Gentiles. But their attempt to trap Jesus didn’t turn out so well. Which led the Sanhedrin to send another team made up of Pharisees and Herodians. Now, this was a particularly strange alliance because these two groups were normally diametrically opposed. The Pharisees were a highly conservative religious sect, while the Herodians were essentially a political party that, as their name suggests, supported Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Israel. To the Pharisees, the Herodians were sell-outs, whose support of Herod and willing tolerance of Roman rule greatly compromised Jewish independence.

Yet, these two opposing groups found unity in their shared hatred for Jesus. So, they made an unholy alliance, joining forces in an effort to trap Jesus. And Luke adds that these “spies” were driven by a desire to find condemning evidence that would result in Jesus’ arrest.

The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. – Luke 20:19-20 ESV

As soon as the Pharisees and Herodians begin their questioning of Jesus, it becomes clear why the Sanhedrin had decided to pair these two groups together. The entire scene is a set-up that begins with false flattery. They try to lower Jesus’ defenses by attempting to stroke His ego.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” – Mark 12:14-15 NLT

Their reputation as enemies was well known, and that was part of their scheme. They led Jesus to believe that they had come to Him for help in settling a dispute. The issue was the Roman poll tax. This was an annual tax imposed upon the Jews by the Romans that the Pharisees found in violation of their own laws concerning the sabbatical year. This was a head-tax that every Jew was required to pay every year, with no break during the seventh or sabbatical year. To the religiously-minded Pharisees, this tax was unacceptable. But to the Herodians, who supported the Roman government, it was a cost they were willing to pay because it helped maintain the peace.

But this entire “debate” was a ploy. The Pharisees must have assumed that Jesus was conservatively minded, just as they were, and would side with them. If He did, this would provide the Herodians with more than enough evidence to accuse Him of fomenting revolution against the Roman government. Their ultimate goal was to get Him in trouble with the civil authorities.

But “Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’” (Mark 12:15 NLT). He was not fooled for a second. Their motives were painfully transparent, and Jesus refused to step into their poorly conceived trap. Instead, He was that they show Him a denarius, which was a Roman-minted coin. Jesus was about to turn their question regarding taxation into a lesson on veneration.

When they presented Him with the coin, Jesus asked a simple question: “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” (Mark 12:16 NLT). And they quickly responded, “Caesar.” And what Jesus said next would leave them in a state of amazement.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Mark 12:17 NLT

This had not been what they expected to hear. With His response, Jesus neither favored nor opposed the poll tax. Instead, He turned the whole debate into a lesson on loyalty and spiritual faithfulness. The Herodians placed a high priority on keeping the law of the Romans. The Pharisees countered that the laws of God had greater precedence than those of men. But Jesus was driving home the point that both groups were guilty of worshiping the wrong thing.

“The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor as the semi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia and bore the (abbreviated) inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’ on the obverse and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ on the reverse. Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honors.” – Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. New International Commentary on the New Testament

For Jesus, this had nothing to do with taxation or Roman occupation. It had to do with the focus of the heart. Both of these groups were guilty of false worship. In a sense, the Herodians worshiped Caesar because they believed he provided them with protection and allowed them to enjoy their relative power and freedom. On the other hand, the Pharisees worshiped their oral and written laws, treating them with greater veneration than the One who had originally given them to Moses.

In a sense, Caesar required coins that bore his image as payment for services rendered. His troops kept the peace. His government provided social order and stability. And those who benefited from these amenities were expected to pay for them.

Jesus had no problem with rendering unto Caesar what belonged to him. The coins bore his image, so they were rightfully his. But mankind bears the image of God and, therefore, rightfully belongs to Him. That is why Jesus said, “give to God what belongs to God.”

God doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t even need our feeble attempts at religious rule-keeping and pharisaical posturing. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were guilty of going through the motions and only pretending to revere and worship God.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-8 NLT

In a sense, Jesus is taking the conversation back to the issue of authority. Because of his position and power, Caesar had every right to demand a tax from the people over whom he ruled. But God also had the authority to demand worship from those whom He had made. Every man and woman on the planet bore the Imago Dei (the image of God) and were expected to give God what rightfully belonged to Him: Their lives and their worship.

Yet, as the apostle Paul discloses, even since the fall, mankind has repeatedly refused to render unto God what is rightfully His.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

And for Jesus, the issue was the failure of the religious leaders to honor Him for who He was – the Son of God and the Savior of the world. To the Herodians, Caesar was like a god, worthy of their veneration and willing subjugation. And the Pharisees had made their religion their god,  placing all their hope in the rules and regulations that governed daily life, and provided any hope they had of salvation. But both had failed to recognize that God was in their midst. He had come to dwell with them. And all He asked was that they give Him what was due Him: Their lives and allegiance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

It Is Marvelous In Our Eyes

1 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. 10 Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 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. Mark 12:1-12 ESV

The chief priests, scribes, and elders of Israel had just confronted Jesus in the temple courtyard, demanding to know by what authority He had ransacked the place the day before. In an explosion of righteous indignation, Jesus had singlehandedly destroyed their little money-making venture of selling sacrificial animals and currency exchange. The greed and graft of these religious leaders and their total disregard for the holiness of His Father’s house had been more than Jesus could stand. And the fact that they had set up the entire operation in the Courtyard of the Gentiles had infuriated Jesus further.

The actions of Jesus had proved costly for these men – in more ways than one. The temporary shutdown of their sales operations had hit their bottom line. But it was their egos that had suffered the greater loss. Jesus had directly challenged their authority and, in doing so, He had diminished their standing among the people. That’s what prompted them to confront Jesus about His arrogant display the day before. But Jesus had refused to answer their question, choosing instead to remind them that they had refused to accept John the Baptist’s authority as well. These self-righteous and self-appointed leaders of Israel had a habit of rejecting anyone who spoke on behalf of God. In their minds, Jesus had no authority to do what He did. He was nothing more than a rural Rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth. He had no education or credentials. He was not from a wealthy family and had no standing in their community.

But while Jesus refused to answer their question, He did take time to tell them a parable. In fact, according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told them a couple of different parables, each meant to address their question about authority. But more importantly, these two parables were designed to expose the religious leaders as rebels against God. Their refusal to accept Jesus was nothing less than a rejection of God Himself. It’s important to note that Jesus told this parable in the middle of the crowded temple courtyard, surrounded by foreign pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. But His primary audience was the religious leaders who had arrogantly questioned His authority.

Jesus begins His parable by describing a man who planted a vineyard, complete with winepress, protective fence, and watchtower. Once the vineyard was complete, the man rented it out to tenant farmers who were expected to cultivate and care for it. Since the landowner had incurred the cost of constructing the vineyard, he expected to receive a share of the production and profits. But when he sent his servant to collect his portion of the first year’s harvest, the tenants beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed. So, the landowner sent a second servant, who was treated just a violently and shamefully. And the rebellious tenants, unwilling to turn over any of the fruit of their labor, murdered the third servant whom the landowner had sent. And Jesus indicates that this scene went on for some time.

Others he sent were either beaten or killed, until there was only one left—his son whom he loved dearly.” – Mark 12:5 NLT

By this time, Jesus had the crowd hooked. They were totally enthralled with His story and anxious to know what the outcome would be. In their minds, they would have been debating what the landowner should do to the murderous tenants. And the thought of the man risking the life of his son would have been appalling to them. But, according to Jesus’ story, that’s exactly what the landowner did.

“The owner finally sent him, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’” – Mark 12:6 NLT

And it’s likely that the people in the crowd gasped at the father’s blatant display of naivete. After all these evil tenants had done to his servants, how could this man be so blind as to think they would show his son any respect? They knew exactly what was going to happen and probably wanted to scream at the landowner, “Don’t do it!” But as Jesus completes the story, their worst fears are realized.

“But the tenant farmers said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him and murdered him and threw his body out of the vineyard. – Mark 12:7-8 NLT

And knowing that His audience has been blown away by the dark ending to His story, Jesus asks them, “What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do?” (Mark 12:9 NLT). Their minds had already gone there. They had already been to think about what they would do if they were the landowner. And their thoughts included nothing about forgiveness or clemency. They were focused on revenge and retribution, hoping that these wicked tenants were going to get exactly what they deserved. And much to their relief, Jesus finishes the story with the ending they were hoping for.

“I’ll tell you—he will come and kill those farmers and lease the vineyard to others. – Mark 12:9 NLT

The bad guys lost, and justice prevailed. The story, while sad, had a happy ending. Everything turned out okay. But what the crowd failed to realize was that the story had a far deeper meaning. And Jesus revealed the more spiritual dimension of its message by quoting Psalm 118:22-23.

The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord‘s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.

This rather abrupt shift in topic was intentional. Jesus was quoting from the very same Psalm that the crowds had quoted from during His triumphal entry.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! – Psalm 118:26 ESV

That Psalm declares that the Messiah will come in the name of the Lord, but it also states that He will be rejected. Yet, it is all “the Lord’s doing.” It is all part of God’s plan. This rejected stone will become the cornerstone of a great house that will bring glory and honor to God. And not long after Jesus would be rejected and crucified, Peter and John would stand before the high priests, scribes, and elders of Israel, declaring:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” – Acts 4:11 ESV

The very same men who stood in front of Jesus in the Courtyard of the Gentiles would later hear a message from two of His disciples, telling them, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). And Peter would pick up this theme of the cornerstone in one of his later letters.

For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and

“A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.” – 1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

Jesus would be rejected by the religious leaders of Israel. Just like the rebellious tenants in Jesus’ story, they would refuse to accept the Son sent by the Father. They would treat the Son with disrespect, rejecting His authority and claiming His inheritance as their own. In the parable, the vineyard was meant to represent Israel and the tenant farmers were the leaders to whom God had assigned the care of possession. Israel, as represented by the land, was always intended to be the inheritance of the Son. It did not belong to the leaders. They were merely its caretakers. But in their greed, they had treated Israel as their own, growing powerful and wealthy at the expense of God’s people. The servants in the story represent the prophets that God had sent throughout the centuries, calling His people to repentance. But the leaders of Israel had killed the prophets, refusing to relinquish their authority over the inheritance. And finally, God had sent His Son. But they would end up rejecting Him as well, putting Him to death in an effort to steal His rightful inheritance.

But their efforts would fail. They could kill the Son, but they would not end up taking what belonged to Him. The rejected stone would become the most valued cornerstone of a grand temple made up of those who placed their faith in Him. The apostle Paul reminds us that the rejection of Jesus has resulted in an incredible building made up of people from all walks of life and from every tribe, nation, and tongue.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV

The high priests, scribes, and elders could reject the authority of Jesus, but they could not put a stop to the redemptive plan of God.  As the psalmist stated, “This is the Lord‘s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

To God Be the Glory

27 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, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 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.” Mark 11:27-33 ESV

For the disciples, it probably didn’t take long before the image of the withered fig tree was replaced with the thought of being able to wield power that could cast mountains into the sea. These men had a habit of hearing only what they wanted to hear when Jesus spoke. The true meanings behind most of His lessons tended to escape them. And this one had been no different. When they had heard Jesus say, “I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours” (Mark 11:24 NLT), they were probably thrilled. The very thought of having their every wish fulfilled, only by asking God, would have been a dream come true. And it’s fair to assume that the initial ideas that filled their heads were not what Jesus had in mind.

So, as they left the withered tree behind and continued their trip into the city of Jerusalem, the disciples were probably deep in thought about all the incredible implications behind what Jesus had just told them. But soon, they found themselves back in the temple courtyard, standing in the very place where Jesus had staged a one-man riot the day before. Less than 24-hours earlier, Jesus had ransacked the booths of the vendors selling overpriced sacrificial animals. He had overturned the tables of the moneychangers who were charging high fees to the thousands of foreign pilgrims who needed temple currency to purchase their sacrificial offerings. Driven by righteous indignation and motivated by zeal for the holiness of His Father’s house, Jesus had turned the carnival-like atmosphere of the temple courtyard into chaos and confusion.

Now, He had returned, and the first people to greet Him were “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 11:27 ESV). These were the representatives of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. This august body was comprised of some of the most wealthy and influential men in the city of Jerusalem. They also happened to be members of the primary religious sects within Judaism: The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Some were experts in the Mosaic Law. And all were knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were powerful men who wielded great authority and saw Jesus as a threat to their way of life. And His little escapade the day before had been a public attack on the entire system of greed and graft for which they were responsible.

So, when they saw Jesus, they immediately confronted Him, demanding to know the reasons for His unacceptable and costly actions the day before.

“By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” – Mark 11:28 ESV

By this time, the damage Jesus had done the previous afternoon had been repaired, and things had returned to normal. These men were probably there to protect their investments and to ensure that there would be no repeat performance of the previous day’s disruptive and costly episode.

Their question to Jesus revolved around authority. In essence, they were asking Jesus to explain why He thought He had the right to do what He did. And they seem to fear that He might try to do it again. The actions of Jesus had been a direct assault on their authority as the religious leaders of Israel. In their minds, Jesus had invaded their territory and begun a war on their way of life. And as the supreme rulers over the nation, they saw His actions as nothing less than insurrection. He was attacking their right to rule, and they wanted to know what possessed Him to do such a thing.

Jesus could have answered their question by declaring Himself to be the Son of God. He could have told them that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. He was “the anointed one” (Hebrew – mashiyach). But He knew they would refuse to accept those answers. In their minds, they had already determined that Jesus had no authority. He was a loose cannon, operating on His own initiative and in direct opposition to their authority. And nothing Jesus could say would change their minds.

So, Jesus made them a proposition. He offered to answer their question, but only if they could answer one He had for them.

“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” – Mark 11:30 ESV

Jesus subtly changes the focus from Himself to John the Baptist. But notice that He kept the emphasis of His question on the topic of authority. By shifting their attention to John the Baptist, Jesus was forcing them to consider the true source of all authority.

John had burst onto the scene more than 33 years earlier. This strangely dressed man had suddenly shown up in the Judean wilderness, preaching a message that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and calling the people of Israel to repentance. And a large part of his ministry involved the baptism of all who were willing to repent and confess their sins.

People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. – Matthew 3:5-6 NLT

John had attracted large crowds of people, who believed him to be a prophet of God. Even Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed puppet-king of Israel, had understood John’s reputation among the people.

Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet. – Matthew 14:5 NLT

Herod ultimately put John to death, but even this did nothing to diminish John’s standing among the people. So, when Jesus asked the religious leaders to state the source of John’s authority to baptize, He knew they would refuse to answer. No matter what they said, they would find themselves in a no-win situation. These men had no love affair with John. After all, while he had been alive, he had treated them with disrespect and disdain. At one point, he had publicly humiliated them, calling them a “brood of snakes” and exposing them as spiritual frauds.

“Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:8-10 NLT

But if they gave the answer they wanted to give and said that John was operating on his own initiative, they faced the ire of the people. On the other hand, if they tried to placate the people by admitting that John’s authority was from heaven, it would reveal that their opposition to John had really been aimed at God.

After weighing all their options, the religious leaders decided that an admission of ignorance was the safest route to take. But when they failed to answer Jesus’ question, He refused to answer theirs. Their silence condemned them.

John had been a prophet sent by God. Everything he said and did was on behalf of God. His entire mission had been to herald the coming of the Messiah.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:23 ESV

And yet, the religious leaders of Israel had rejected his mission and message. When John had announced Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV), the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had refused to believe it. They attributed the miracles of Jesus to Satan. They condemned Him for His association with sinners. They accused Him of being a drunk. They spread rumors that He was illegitimate. They declared Him to be guilty of blasphemy for repeatedly claiming to be the Son of God. And this charge had led them to try and stone Him to death.

These men refused to accept Jesus because they could not bring themselves to believe that His power and authority were from God. While they were unable to explain how Jesus did all the things He did, they refused to even consider that He might actually be the Messiah. To do so would require that they relinquish their own authority, and their over-inflated egos wouldn’t allow them to do that.

Since they were unwilling to answer His question, Jesus responded, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mark 11:33 ESV). He owed them no explanation. He had provided them with ample evidence that He was who He claimed to be. His miracles had spoken for themselves. And yet, time and time again, these stubbornly self-righteous men had refused to recognize and acknowledge the God-given authority of Jesus. And one of the greatest assessments of the sheer stupidity of their spiritual blindness came from the lips of a man who had been the undeserving recipient of Jesus’ divine authority.

“He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” – John 9:30-33 NLT

Now, back to the lesson of the withered fig tree. When the disciples had witnessed the remarkable power of Jesus to condemn the tree to death, they had been amazed. And when He had told them, “you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen” (Mark 11:23 NLT), they had been thrilled. He was offering them access to the same kind of authority He had. All they had to do was ask, and anything was possible. But there had been a caveat. Jesus had told them to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 ESV). This was not about their authority; it was about God’s. All that John had accomplished had been by God’s authority and for God’s glory. The same was true of Jesus. And the same was to be true of His disciples. The availability of God’s authority would be so they might accomplish God’s will and display His glory. The scribes and Pharisees were in it for their own glory. And Jesus was trying to help His disciples understand that faith in God was the key to bringing God glory, rather than self.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fruit and Faith

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:20-25 ESV

When Jesus departed the temple, He and the disciples returned to Bethany for the evening. The next morning, which was probably Wednesday, they made their way back to the city of Jerusalem. After His symbolic exit from the temple the day before, it is likely that Jesus chose to enter the city through the Lion’s gate rather than the Golden Gate, which led directly into the temple complex. They would have taken the same path through the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane, so eventually, they came to the spot where Jesus had cursed the fig tree the day before. And to the shock of the disciples, the fig tree was “withered away to its roots” (Mark 11:20 ESV).

Just the day before this same tree had been in perfect health, covered in green leaves and full of life. But despite its outward appearance of vitality, it had been missing one important thing: Fruit. This tree, unlike all the other fig trees in the garden, had bloomed early. Under normal conditions, the presence of leaves would have been an indication that there would be figs present. But when Jesus had approached the tree the day before, He had found it completely barren. So, He had cursed it.

Peter was the first to recognize the dramatic difference in the tree’s appearance. And he recalled the statement Jesus had made to the tree 24 hours earlier: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14 ESV). Surprised by the tree’s sudden demise, Peter felt the need to let Jesus know that His curse had worked. He called out, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21 ESV). Overnight, the once lush tree had dropped all of its leaves and lost every ounce of life-giving sap. It had withered away, from the roots up.

There is so much going on in this scene. The tree is the obvious focal point, and Jesus is going to use the opportunity to convey two different messages to His disciples. One will have to do with fruit and the other with faith. The reason the tree was dead was that it had failed to bear fruit. It had given all the appearances of fruitfulness but, upon closer examination, it was discovered to be barren. For Jesus, the tree was an apt symbol for the fruitlessness of the nation of Israel. Keep in mind that the city of Jerusalem was literally overflowing with pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover. They were a people who practiced all the prescribed feasts and festivals. They regularly brought their tithes and offerings to the temple. They attempted to keep the Mosaic Law and, when they failed to do so, they counted on their sacrifices to assuage the anger of God.

Three years earlier, John the Baptist had confronted a group of Pharisees who had shown up in the wilderness of Judea where he had been preaching and baptizing. When John had seen them, he responded in prophetic anger, stating, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV).

As the religious leaders of Israel, these men were thought to be icons of virtue and the symbols of moral rectitude. But John had recognized them for what they were: Withered and lifeless trees incapable of bearing good fruit. Their flowing robes and outward displays of righteousness were nothing more than “green leaves” that gave the impression of fruitfulness but without nothing to show for it.

Jesus would later pick up on this same theme, warning His disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets. And He told them exactly how to spot these dangerous charlatans.

“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NLT

And Jesus had also warned His disciples that only those who abide in Him can bear good fruit. And all those who refuse to abide in Him and fail to produce fruit will be dealt with severely by God.

“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” – John 15:2 NLT

The Jewish people were to have been God’s choice vine, but they had failed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And when God had sent His Son, the people of Israel had rejected Him. So these fruitless “branches” would be cut off, completely eliminating any hope that they would ever produce good fruit.

The apostle Paul would later elaborate on this “cutting away” of the fruitless branches. In writing to the Gentile believers in Rome, he reminded them that they were branches that had been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. But at the same time, some of the natural branches had been removed.

Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. – Romans 11:17-20 NLT

With the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was making a statement about the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. And His foray into the temple complex the day before had revealed just how spiritually fruitless Israel had become. They were rotten to the core, down to the very roots. Their religious leaders were exactly what John the Baptist had declared them to be: A brood of vipers. And their venom had poisoned the people, leaving them just as withered and lifeless as that fig tree.

But none of this was on the minds of Peter and his companions as they stood looking at the dead tree. They were fixated on how quickly it had died after Jesus had cursed it. And Jesus knew that they were more interested in His display of power than they were in any lesson He might be trying to teach them. So, rather than expounding on the fruitlessness of Israel, Jesus took the opportunity to teach His disciples about faith.

“Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart.” – Mark 11:22-23 NLT

First, He pointed them to God. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that God Almighty must be the focus of their faith. The reason the people of Israel had become fruitless was that they had failed to remain focused on God. Remember what Paul said: “They [Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [Gentiles] stand by faith” (Romans 11:20 NLT).

The real point behind Jesus’ lesson was the power of God. The reason we place our faith in God is that He is all-powerful. Nothing is impossible for Him. And Jesus uses an impossible scenario to describe the unfathomable power of God. If the unlikely situation arose where a mountain needed to be moved from one place to another, God could make it happen. The lesson Jesus is trying to teach has nothing to do with getting whatever we pray for. He is not suggesting to His disciples that they have a blank check from God to fulfill their heart’s desires. The focus of their faith was to be God, not the thing they wanted from Him. Having the power to curse a fig tree would end up being a curse in and of itself, if God was left out of the equation. God is not to be viewed as a source of power to accomplish our desires. He is to be the focus of our faith and the object of our affections. His power is not why we love Him, but it is always at the disposal of those who do love Him.

Fruitfulness is the byproduct of faith. As long as the disciples kept believing in God, they would experience His power flowing through their lives and resulting in the good fruit that only He can produce.

But Jesus also wanted His disciples to understand that while their access to God would place His power at their disposal, it came with conditions. The privilege of entering into God’s presence through prayer could prove dangerous. Attempting to avail oneself of God’s power for selfish reasons is always a risk. That is why James wrote, “you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2-3 NLT).

But there is another, and even more dangerous tendency to avoid. God’s power is not to be used to seek revenge on your enemies. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25 ESV).

Jesus didn’t use the power of God to wither the fig tree because He was angry. He did it to teach His disciples a lesson. Jesus never used the power of God to seek revenge or call down divine wrath on His enemies. Yet, He knew that this would be a temptation for His disciples. In fact, just days earlier, as they were making their way to Bethany, Jesus had sent a few of His disciples into a Samaritan city to find accommodations for the night. When they returned, they announced to Jesus and the other disciples that the Samaritans wanted nothing to do with Jesus. This news infuriated James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and they asked Jesus for permission to use divine power to destroy the entire town.

“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” – Luke 9:54 ESV

But Jesus rebuked them for their spirit of revenge and their desire to use the power of God for self-centered purposes. This was not what He had taught them.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45 ESV

Faith and fruitfulness. These two vital characteristics are inseparable. Without faith in God, it is impossible to produce fruit. And the absence of fruit is evidence of a life devoid of faith in God. But as Jesus had previously told His disciples, God was going to be glorified by their future fruitfulness. And the key would be their faith.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:7-8 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

An Insincere Welcome

1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

11 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. Mark 11:1-11 ESV

According to John’s gospel account, when Jesus and His disciples arrived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem, they attended a dinner given in His honor. It was held in the home of Lazarus, the man Jesus had recently raised from the dead. John indicates that there was a large crowd who had gathered outside the home where the dinner took place, hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus and Lazarus, who had become somewhat of a celebrity because of His unique death-to-life experience. And John adds that while Lazarus’ newfound fame came with adoring fans, it had also earned him some serious enemies.

the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. – John 12:10 ESV

It was now just six days until the Feast of Passover and Jesus had His sights set on the task at hand. He knew He was nearing the final days of His earthly life and would soon be facing the prospect of a horrific death by crucifixion. The events that took place in Bethany and Bethpage were preparatory in nature, setting up all that was going to happen in the days ahead. Even at the dinner in Bethany, Mary had anointed the feet of Jesus with costly nard, a humble act of gratitude for what He had done for her brother, And when His disciples had expressed concern over what they believed was Mary’s wasteful use of the expensive ointment, Jesus had told them, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 ESV).

The next day, Jesus sent two of His disciples on a rather strange assignment to the nearby village of Bethphage. They were given specific instructions to locate a donkey’s colt on which no one had ever ridden. When they found it, they were to take it and bring it back to Jesus. If anyone questioned what they were doing, they were simply to respond, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately” (Mark 11:3 ESV). Matthew adds that the disciples were instructed to bring the colt and its mother, which indicates that the colt was not yet weaned. And Matthew also indicates that this entire episode was in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah.

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” – Matthew 21:5 ESV

Looking back on the events of that day, Matthew understood that everything Jesus had done had been purposeful and in keeping with the long-standing plans of God.

The disciples found everything just as Jesus had predicted, and soon as they returned, He mounted the young colt and began the last leg of His journey into Jerusalem. As He made His way, the crowds grew. Some had come with Him from Bethany, while others were some of the many pilgrims who lined the streets leading into the city.

There would have already been a festival-like atmosphere because of the close proximity of the Passover holiday. Throngs of people would have been making their way into Jerusalem, eager to participate in the Passover celebrations. But suddenly, all eyes seemed to fix on this strange scene of Jesus riding on a very undersized donkey. It is likely that one of the disciples led the female donkey and the colt simply followed its mother wherever she went. This entire scene must have been somewhat of an embarrassment to the disciples. Despite what the prophet Zechariah had written, this was not how a King should enter His own royal city. All along, the disciples had expected Jesus to enter Jerusalem as a military hero, riding a white horse and leading His army in victory over the Roman occupying forces. But here was Jesus, making His way into Jerusalem “mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9 ESV).

And yet, what happened next must have taken the disciples by surprise. As their little procession made its way from Bethphage to the gates of the city, people in the crowd began to take off their outer robes and cast them down in the road before Jesus. Others cut palm branches and used them to pave the path into the city. The disciples must have been shocked and pleased by what they were witnessing. These displays of homage to Jesus would have been totally unexpected and when the disciples heard what the people were shouting, their hearts must have soared.

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” – Mark 11:9 ESV

This must have been music to the disciples’ ears. The crowds were shouting the praises of Jesus, clearly indicating their belief that He was the Messiah, the son of David and the rightful heir to the royal throne. This was exactly what the disciples had been hoping for all along. At this point, any thoughts about Jesus’ suffering and dying must have disappeared. The disciples must have been euphoric, joyously taking in the thrill of the moment as they walked alongside their triumphant King.

The people, who would have been singing the Psalms of Ascent as they made their way to Jerusalem, began shouting the words of another psalm, proclaiming Jesus to be its fulfillment.

Save us, we pray, O Lord!
    O Lord, we pray, give us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! – Psalm 118:25-26 ESV

Hosanna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew phrase, hosi ah na, which means “Lord, save us!”

When we read the gospel accounts of this remarkable scene, we envision Jesus as the focal point of the procession, like a celebrity on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But it could be that much of what the gospel writers describe is nothing more than the normal activities of the pilgrims making their way into the city. There would have been singing and celebration taking place because this was one of the mandatory feasts of Israel that took place every year. Their shouts of Hosanna would have been a normal part of the occasion because Passover was a celebration of God’s past deliverance of His people from slavery and subjugation. As the throng of travelers caught sight of the gates of Jerusalem, they would have shouted with joy, crying out to God for yet another deliverance from their enemies.

Had Jesus been the main attraction that day, the actions of the crowds would have garnered the attention of the Romans. But evidently, the Roman authorities noticed nothing uncommon taking place. It was all just part of the annual activities surrounding the Jewish celebration of Passover.

It almost appears that Jesus was taking advantage of the usual frenzy surrounding Passover in order to accentuate His entrance. While the people were shouting and proclaiming the salvation of God, the Son of God was riding in their midst. He was entering the city of David, mounted on a lowly colt of a donkey. Their salvation had arrived, in the form of the Savior of the world. But despite all the throwing of cloaks, the casting down of palm branches, and the shouts of “hosanna,” the people failed to recognize Jesus as who He truly was. And it appears that as soon as Jesus entered the city, the crowds quickly dispersed. Much to the disappointment of the disciples, Jesus was no longer the focal point of the moment. He was just another pilgrim walking the crowded streets of the city.

Some of the hype surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem can be explained by the presence of those who had come with Him from Bethany. According to Matthew, these people who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem were the ones who started the shouts of “hosanna!” And when the crowds began to ask for an explanation as to what was going on, they were told, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:11 ESV). And we know from Luke’s account that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke His disciples for stirring up the crowds. But Jesus had told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV).

But Luke also adds that Jesus was aware that the people were unaware of the significance of what they were saying. Their shouts were meaningless and their cries for deliverance would go unheeded because they would not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. And Luke indicates that Jesus wept over the city, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 18:41 NLT).

They were oblivious to what was taking place around them. And despite all the hoopla surrounding His entrance, Jesus quickly became an afterthought, lost in the hustle and bustle of the season. He was just another Jew among the tens of thousands of pilgrims crowding the streets of the city. So, Jesus was able to make His way to the temple without any trouble and free from any further fanfare. And Mark indicates that after taking stock of the scene taking place at the temple complex, He returned to Bethany with His 12 disciples.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

License to Lawlessness

1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:1-12 ESV

In chapter 10, Mark begins his record of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having completed His lecture to the disciples regarding greatness in the Kingdom, Jesus departed Capernaum in Galilee for the last time and headed to “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 19:1 ESV). This would have put them in Perea, a region just east of the Jordan River. What makes this location so significant is that Jesus was returning to the area where His ministry had begun more than three years earlier. According to John’s gospel, this was the place where Jesus had been baptized by John.

These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! – John 1:28-29 ESV

Jesus has come full circle. He has returned to the place where He received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the verbal commendation of His Heavenly Father.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:17 ESV

And as always, Jesus immediately found Himself surrounded by large crowds. His reputation had grown and wherever He went, the news of His presence spread and attracted people like moths to a flame. And Jesus didn’t disappoint. He gave the crowds what they had come to expect: insightful teaching and miracles of healing. But there were others in the crowd that day whose interest in Jesus was more sinister in nature. Mark indicates that the “Pharisees came up and in order to test him” (Mark 10:2 ESV). These men had persistently pursued Jesus, following Him everywhere He went and hoping to expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be. They were unimpressed by His miracles or message. They denied His claims to deity and debunked His miracles by claiming He did them by the power of Satan. But the one thing the Pharisees had been unable to do was to break Jesus’ captivating hold over the people. It galled them that He had become a celebrity among the lower classes, and they were constantly looking for ways to destroy His popularity. That’s why Mark indicates that they came to “test him.”

And this time, they chose to broach the particularly controversial topic of divorce. It should not go unnoticed that this entire scene takes place in Perea, a region under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. He was the Roman-appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Perea and the self-proclaimed “king” of Israel. This was the very same man who had put John the Baptist to death for having publicly criticized his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife (Mark 6:17).

Perhaps these men were hoping that Jesus would take a hardline stance just as John the Baptist had done, forbidding divorce for any reason whatsoever. If so, this news could be used against Him. After all, Herod had already put to death one trouble-maker for his more conservative view of divorce.

But there is a far more likely motivation behind their question to Jesus. Divorce had become commonplace among the Jews because of their interpretation of the Mosaic Law. They believed that God had given them a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. And it was based on the following command found In the book of Deuteronomy.

“Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. When she leaves his house, she is free to marry another man. But if the second husband also turns against her, writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away, or if he dies, the first husband may not marry her again, for she has been defiled. That would be detestable to the Lord. You must not bring guilt upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NLT

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to understand that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. But God had not intended this law to provide men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. Yet, that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

So, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they were hoping He would say no. This would have put Jesus at odds with the prevailing opinion of the day. And He would be contradicting the Mosaic Law. But Jesus saw through the thinly veiled ploy and answered their question with one of His own:

“What did Moses command you?” – Mark 10:3 ESV

And they quickly respond with their preferred interpretation of the Deuteronomy passage.

“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” – Mark 10:4 ESV

In a sense, they were saying that what was good for Moses was good for them. Their justification for no-fault divorce was written in black-and-white ink right in the Mosaic Law. But they were missing the whole point. And this would not be the first time Jesus addressed this topic. He had done so in great detail in His Sermon on the Mount. But in that case, He tied it directly to the topic of adultery.

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-30 NLT

And Jesus followed this up with another closely related and equally abused law of God.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 NLT

Now, here was Jesus having to address this very same issue again. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong but they had separated the idea of adultery from divorce. Yet Jesus would not allow them to do so. For Jesus, this entire discussion revolved around the condition of the heart. That’s why He told them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5 ESV). The law concerning the certificate of divorce had been provided because of the sinfulness of men’s hearts. The fall of Adam and Eve had resulted in the contamination of the entire human race with sin. And even the people of Israel, chosen by God and set apart as His people, could not stop sinning and satisfying their own selfish desires. 

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce.

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral justification for the divorce. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to a perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that it was permissible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is that unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson