Jesus has come to expose pretentious “disciples,” so don’t be too impressed with yourself (Mark 12:35–44)

If you want to show off the strength of a movie hero, you have his opponents launch brutal attacks on him which he easily deflects, then have him crush them with his own blows.

The gloves are about to come off. It’s time for Jesus to take the offensive against his opponents.

Up till now in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, the religious leaders of the Jews have been trying to find ways to disgrace Jesus. They feel threatened by his popularity, and they (correctly) suspect that he believes himself to be the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah or anointed king sent by God himself to rule on the throne of his ancestor, David.

Unfortunately for them, everything Jesus says and does has been unimpeachable. “He has done all things well!” the astonished crowds are saying (7:37). He has been perfect in every way. So they’ve tried to trap him in his words, getting him to say something that will expose him as a fool or as a threat to their Roman overlords. But Jesus has answered their questions wisely and uncovered their own ignorance.

Now, Jesus shifts tactics. His opponents are too afraid to interrogate him anymore. So he begins teaching the crowd in the temple, the seat of his enemies’ power. He quotes for them a verse from Psalm 110, which describes the coronation of God’s anointed king:

The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”

This psalm was written by David, and it features the Lord God speaking to the king he will appoint. Now, so far, this fits well with what the scribes (the religious teachers) have told their people about the Messiah. He is a king descended from David. But Jesus then points out, “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” You don’t call your son your master.

So, as Jesus has asked, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” His point isn’t that the Christ is not a descendant of David. Rather, his point is that he is more than that. He is not just a great king; he is the great King. The scribes haven’t accounted for this. They’re supposed to be able to recognize the Messiah, but how can they possibly recognize him if they are clueless about who he really is? Jesus has exposed the scribes, shredding their supposed knowledge; they have an inadequate grasp of who the Messiah is. It’s no surprise that they’ve rejected Jesus.

Not only do they have an inadequate grasp of the Messiah, but the religious leaders also behave in wicked ways. Jesus continues, “Beware of the scribes!”—and lists a series of charges against them. They behave in an arrogant manner, wanting others to look up to them. They even take advantage of the financial resources of widows. Jesus declares, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” For a Jew, this would have been a shocking statement. Most Jews looked up to the scribes as holy and learned men. But Jesus is telling the crowd to beware of them! They have been placed in a position of great privilege, having a tremendous knowledge of the scriptures and a deep respect from the people. But they’ve abused their prestige. And all who associate themselves with the scribes, imitating them rather than being wary of them, will find themselves sharing in their condemnation.

The religious leaders not only behave in wicked ways, but even their supposedly righteous deeds are not as impressive as they appear to be. We next find Jesus sitting in the outer court of the temple, watching people drop their donations into the offering box. There are plenty of rich people pouring huge sums of money into the box, but it’s a poor widow who attracts Jesus’ attention. She drops in two lepta, copper coins that were nearly worthless. Jesus pulls his disciples together at once and tells them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.”

Now, if that’s not an upside-down statement, I don’t know what is! Jesus explains, “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

This woman’s act of severe generosity exposes the religious leaders as frauds. Even if they were to donate huge sums of money to the temple, they could never match the piety of this poor widow, who gave her whole life to the Lord. And they will never be able to match Jesus himself, who will give his whole life as a sacrifice before the week is up. Their good deeds are just not that impressive.

You can become a leader in your church, graduate from seminary, teach from the Bible, earn the respect of your whole church and community, and still be a clueless and evil wretch, a false disciple who consistently opposes Jesus. The guy at your church who flips burgers for a living may be a much more holy and righteous person than you are. And no matter what, you can never match the righteousness of Jesus. When placed next to the cross, nothing you do is really all that impressive.

Deep within your heart is a stubborn pride which wants people to recognize you for what a great person you think you are.

But you’re not Jesus.

Jesus has come to condemn external religion, so you must rely on God (Mark 11:12–25)

Here is a short list of people whom Jesus is going to offend today:

  • Religious people
  • Businessmen
  • Salesmen
  • Merchants
  • Treehuggers

The guy never bothered to read Dale Carnegie’s book, did he?

It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of these “sandwich stories” that Mark includes in his account of Jesus’ life. He starts with Story A, then interrupts it with Story B, then concludes by finishing Story A. The interrupting story (Story B) helps you and me understand what is going on in Story A.

Here, Story A begins with Jesus walking to Jerusalem. Apparently, he missed his breakfast that morning, so he’s hungry. He sees a leafy fig tree in the distance, walks up to it, finds no figs to eat, and curses it. If that seems a little arbitrary and vindictive, Mark only makes the problem worse; he explains that the reason Jesus found no figs on the tree is that “it was not the season for figs.”

So what’s the deal here? Did Jesus wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?

We quickly find the answer when Mark shifts to Story B: the “cleansing” of the temple. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and begins clearing out all the salesmen and moneychangers who have set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, which is where non-Jewish people can enter to pray to God. He also prevents people from using this Court as a shortcut when carrying things from one side of the city to the other. He thunders, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” He’s quoting to them a couple of passages from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah 56:7, where God invites foreigners to worship him at the temple. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are permitting salesmen to interfere with this purpose of the temple, just so they can make a quick buck. That’s one reason why Jesus is quoting the second passage of scripture. It’s from Jeremiah 7:11.

Now, in the context of Jeremiah 7, the Lord God was condemning the people of Israel for their unjust and idolatrous behavior. They were convinced that they were safe from punishment because they had the temple with them; they believed that their religious system would protect them from harm. They were viewing the temple the way criminals view their hideout. But the Lord threatened to destroy the temple as the holy city of Shiloh had been destroyed. And now Jesus is implying a similar threat to the religious leaders of his day, who think that their external religion will cover up the wickedness inside their hearts.

Needless to say, Jesus doesn’t make a lot of friends today. Mark tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him.” Why? “They feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” Jesus is speaking with divine authority, and it’s mesmerizing the people who hear it. Of course, the words of God always threaten those who rely on the power structures of this present world. If Jesus had come to modern-day America, we would have killed him, too.

Now, we get back to Story A and find out that the fig tree has withered. Aha! we realize. The fig tree symbolizes the temple establishment. Jesus is cursing those who are abusing the temple as a means to financial gain and as a religious hideout for their crooked hearts. Just as the fig tree has “withered away to its roots,” so the temple will be destroyed, so that “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

But the temple was the place where God came down and lived with his people. If the temple and its crooked leaders are to be done away with, will Jesus’ disciples be cut off from God? No! Remember, the fig tree withered at Jesus’ words. God still has power and is still eager to hear the prayers of his people. “Have faith in God!” Jesus encourages them. “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.”

Is Jesus giving us a blank check to get whatever we want when we pray? No, this is clearly contradicted by other biblical teaching (e.g. James 4:3). What Jesus is doing is using hyperbole to encourage you and me. He knows that it’s easy to think that God is far away and doesn’t care about us. Without a physical building like the massive Jerusalem temple, it’s hard to believe that God is near. So he reminds us that God is eager to do great things for us. Most amazing of all, he can forgive the sins you’ve committed against him—grievous though they are—as long as you are forgiving others (v 25). He is absolutely worth your trust.

You belong to one of two camps. Perhaps you are trusting in a religious system or some other man-made scheme to justify yourself before God. You think that it will protect you from his wrath. But he will curse your external religion and your self-righteousness. Your stubborn resistance against him will give him no choice but to destroy you.

Or perhaps you trust in God to protect you and to forgive you for your rebellion against him. Then you will find that he will do impossible things for you. He will bend heaven and earth to bring you close to him.