Jesus has come to judge what’s most important, so don’t challenge his authority (Mark 12:28–34)

Here’s the problem with most debates. Usually, a debate consists of two people who disagree with each other and aren’t interested in learning or changing their minds. Neither is really listening to each other; each just wants to catch the other person and vindicate himself.

Up till now in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been confronted by several factions of religious leaders who have no intention of learning from him. They’ve been trying to trap him in his words, to get him to say something unpopular so that the crowds will become disillusioned with him. It’s not working, though. Jesus has outmaneuvered them at every turn, demonstrating his command of scripture, his superior wisdom, and the hypocrisy of their hearts.

What’s about to come, however, is a bit of a respite from all this conflict.

The scribes are teachers of the law of Moses. On the whole, they oppose Jesus (see, for example, Mark 3:22). This scribe is different; he observes the disputes and sees that Jesus has answered his opponents well. So instead of trying to trap him, he decides to see if he can’t learn a few things from this surprising Galilean rabbi. “Which commandment is the most important of all?” he asks Jesus. It’s a fairly common question among Jewish scholars that invites plenty of debate.

Because this scribe has asked a straightforward question, Jesus gives him a straightforward answer. He quotes the Shema, the great commandment from the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Now, Jesus isn’t the first Jewish teacher to identify this as the greatest commandment. The Shema was central to first-century Jews just as the Lord’s Prayer is to modern Christians. The Shema establishes that the Lord is the one and only God, and thus he requires the exclusive and complete devotion of his covenant people. The rest of the law merely details what this devotion looks like.

What’s unusual is that Jesus pairs the Shema with a second commandment from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two have never been connected to one another in Jewish thought. So not only does God require the self to be devoted to him alone, he also requires a love for one’s neighbor. In other words, you can’t put yourself on a pedestal. The people around you are just as important as you are, and you are therefore to show them the same attention and dedication which you show to yourself and your own goals and dreams. Taken together, these two commandments tear down the citadel of self, the age-old lie that sets one’s self up on a throne where only the Lord belongs.

Now, when this scribe hears Jesus’ answer, a light bulb turns on inside his head. He’s been part of a temple system which emphasizes the importance of ritual sacrifices and ceremonial laws. In contrast, Jesus is saying that love is what God’s law is all about. What the scribe realizes is that Jesus isn’t pulling this idea out of thin air; it’s found throughout the Old Testament. Not only is it taught in the two passages that Jesus mentioned (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18), but in other scripture God has made it clear that he wants loving, devoted, broken-hearted followers more than he wants adherents to a sacrificial system (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalms 40:6–8 and 51:16–17; Hosea 6:6). So the scribe takes Jesus’ teaching and runs with it, saying that love for God and one’s neighbor “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” It’s what’s inside of you that counts more than your religious duties.

Jesus sees that this scribe is connecting the dots. So just as he judged what was the most important commandment, he announces his judgment of the scribe’s spiritual condition: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This is the highest praise he gives to any of the religious leaders! The scribe hasn’t committed himself to Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, but all signs seem to indicate that he will.

Now, this story tells us a lot about the law and God’s purpose for it. But don’t forget that Mark’s gospel is about Jesus first and foremost. And what we learn here is that Jesus has the right to judge the very law that God has given, to decide which commandments are most important. He also has the right to judge people as to whether or not they are a part God’s kingdom which is invading the present world.

It’s not insignificant that “after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” Jesus has demonstrated an unmatched authority and wisdom. He is not to be questioned. Rather, you and I are to live as his disciples, loving God and one another, recognizing him as the Judge of what’s most important.

Jesus’ obedience is mine

The pattern of my life is not pleasing to God.
But Jesus pleased him to the fullest extent possible. (Mark 1:11)

I don’t make much of an effort to spend time alone with God. I don’t think praying with God is a good use of my time.
But Jesus got up early and left everything to be with God. He was convinced that God would lend his limitless power to those who pray. (1:35; 9:29; 11:22–24)

I want people to think highly of me. I want to get them to do the things I want so that I will feel happy and fulfilled.
But Jesus put other people first and saw himself as their servant. (9:33–37; 10:35–45)

I like to supplement God’s law with a few of my own.
But Jesus refused to accept any manmade law that interfered with God’s will. (7:1–13)

I’d rather keep my life back for myself instead of giving it to God.
But Jesus gave up his life, submitting to the will of God. (8:34–38)

I like using my time and money in intelligent and practical ways.
But Jesus prefers inefficient and awkward displays of devotion to him. (14:3–9)

I only like to do God’s will if it’s easy.
Jesus was willing to do God’s will even if it meant being abused and forsaken by everyone he knew and loved. (14:36)

I tend to get focused on the daily grind, on projects and goals and minor details.
But Jesus cared about people and wanted to save them. (1:17)

I prefer simple, rigid rules and laws.
But Jesus understood that God’s law is all about giving people what is good for them. (2:23–28; 3:1–6)

I don’t want to allow suffering people to complicate my life.
But Jesus acted out of pity for them even if it inconvenienced him. (1:40–45)

I like being around attractive, well-mannered people who have their lives together.
But Jesus would much rather be around dirty, messed-up sinners. (2:13–17)

I don’t think about other people’s needs; I’m obsessed with my own needs.
Jesus was concerned about other people’s needs for food and rest. (6:31; 8:2)

I don’t worry much about people who have no spiritual leader.
Jesus longed to fill the void for people who didn’t know he was the Good Shepherd they should follow. (6:34)

I focus on physical problems more than the real problem of sin in my life. I don’t think it’s a big deal.
But Jesus knew that sin was the most fundamental problem that people have. He was horrified at the danger which sin posed to people and the judgment they would face for it. (2:4; 9:42–50)

I tend to think of myself as a pretty decent person who sometimes does bad things.
Jesus knew that people are rotten deep down and that bad things come from bad hearts. (7:14–23)

I keep thinking I can get eternal life by being a well-mannered, well-meaning person.
But Jesus knew that only humble, childlike, desperate people will enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:13–31)

I want to exclude people who don’t belong to my church or theological tradition.
But Jesus knew that God’s kingdom includes people who aren’t just like me. (9:38–41)

I don’t like it when people challenge my ideas about who God is and how he acts.
But Jesus loved to turn people’s beliefs about God upside down. (12:35–37)

Sometimes I get into arguments with stubborn people who refuse to change their minds.
But Jesus knew when it wasn’t worth the fight. (8:11–13)

I shy away from demanding change from people who need to change.
But Jesus was bold in proclaiming repentance and the gospel. (1:15)

I’d rather back down when confronted by spiritual forces that hate me and people who don’t want me around.
Jesus beat up the spiritual forces and rescued a suffering man. (5:1–20)

I often don’t know how to respond when people challenge my beliefs about God.
But Jesus knew exactly how to challenge the mindset of his accusers. (11:27–12:34)

I’m easily impressed by religious people and powerful institutions made by men.
But Jesus couldn’t stand religious people and declared that the kingdoms of man would be torn to the ground. (12:38–13:37)

I sometimes worry that the church will eventually be smothered by the world.
But Jesus was confident that he is stronger than Satan. (3:23–27)

I don’t get upset when people treat casually the things God says are holy.
But Jesus became incensed when he saw the temple treated as a marketplace. (11:15–17)

I treat marriage casually, as simply another important relationship in life.
But Jesus insisted that marriage was God’s special creation. (10:1–12)

I’m not so sure that God will always be there to rescue me.
Jesus wasn’t bothered by little things like life-threatening storms. (4:35–41; 6:45–52)

I doubt that God has much power to heal people who are sick or raise the dead to life.
Jesus himself has the power to heal chronic illness and raise the dead. (5:21–43)

What wondrous love, what mysteries
In this appointment shine:
My breaches of the law are his,
And his obedience mine!
—John Newton

Jesus has come to be lowly, so his disciples must submit to God’s will for marriage (Mark 10:1–12)

Mark records many of Jesus’ teachings that make you and me feel awkward and uncomfortable. Today, Jesus is going to say something that would deeply offend almost everyone in the world.

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he? When his disciples want him to explain his teaching, hoping that he will add a few caveats, he only gets more extreme.

This is hard stuff. Anyone who has seen nasty marriages and family conflict must feel sympathy for people in those situations. How could anyone object to such a divorce? We all want our friends and family to escape suffering, don’t we?

This was the way Jesus’ countrymen thought as well. They turned to Deuteronomy 24:1–3 to demonstrate that God permitted divorce if a man “has found some indecency” in his wife. While some (more conservative) Jews argued that this meant adultery was the only ground for divorce, most agreed that these verses allowed divorce for any reason. Regardless, all agreed that divorce was permissible.

Some of these Pharisees must suspect that Jesus holds radical views on this issue (and boy, are they right). They want to undermine Jesus in some way, and they know that if he places any restrictions on the right to divorce, he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” Of course, they refer him back to Deuteronomy.

Now, here’s where Jesus brings down the hammer. The Deuteronomy passage didn’t command divorce; it acted as damage control in case of divorce—which it assumed was already taking place. It prevented God’s people from being defiled by forbidden forms of remarriage. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, Deuteronomy doesn’t reveal God’s ideal plan for marriage. God was being flexible with his stubborn people; but Jesus hates hardness of heart, and he holds his disciples to a higher standard. So he tells them what God really thinks of divorce.

In order to establish God’s original plan for marriage, Jesus goes back earlier than Deuteronomy. He goes all the way to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. He reminds the Pharisees that “God made them [man] male and female” (Genesis 1:27). They were created incomplete; God intended for them to be paired together. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 here and establishing it as the foundation for marriage. God created man and woman to be paired together, and marriage is what weaves them together. It’s an act of God’s creation. For this reason, Jesus warns, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

In other words, divorce is man’s attempt to undo God’s work of uniting husband and wife. It’s an attempt at uncreation, at tearing apart God’s created order. Jesus insists that divorce is an act of rebellion against God, an attempt to usurp divine authority. Jesus has come to serve and submit to God, so he is adamant that his disciples not participate in such a power play that stands in total conflict to his mission.

What makes this teaching so hard is that divorce doesn’t feel like rebellion; it doesn’t feel like a power play. It feels like a painful and desperate attempt to escape an awful situation. That’s why Jesus’ disciples question him afterward. They’re shocked by how radical and insensitive his teaching is. But Jesus only gets more extreme: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Apparently, divorce is not only an attempt to usurp divine authority, but it’s a failed attempt to usurp divine authority. God refuses to accept man’s efforts to undo his act of creation. From his perspective—the only one that matters—a “divorced” couple is still married. He will not permit man to be victorious over him.

As Christians argue about divorce, the debate often centers around possible “exception clauses” found in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. These are important discussions. However, it’s easy to make the mistake the Pharisees made, to focus on finding a loophole to get out of a bad marriage. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to suffer as he suffered. Divorce is an easier path, but Jesus has not called his followers to an easier path. He wants them to explore other options.

This may be the most difficult saying of Jesus for me to stomach. It seems cruel not only for people in bad marriages, but also for people who are already divorced. Are they doomed to remain lonely if they aren’t able to return to their previous spouses? The fallout from Jesus’ teaching is terrible. It would have been just as terrible in his day as it is now. Yet he said these words anyway.

This leads us, I think, to the question, “Would Jesus ask his followers to suffer for his sake?” Would he dare to ask them to suffer through painful marriages? Would he dare to ask them to remain single for the rest of their lives if need be? I think we can say that yes, he would.

Jesus wants disciples who, like him, will remain in suffering if that’s what it takes to follow him. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He was willing to suffer if that’s what it took to submit to the will of God. If you join him, he will be glad to call you his own when he comes in glory.

Jesus knows the law won’t help you (Mark 7:14–23)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

If you’re the father or mother of a teenager, then you’ve probably had to face the implications of this verse. When children are younger, you can develop a whole system of rules to keep them in line. Often, this helps give them the structure they need to develop and learn right from wrong. By the time they’re teenagers, however, they chafe against these rules. What’s sad is that sometimes parents respond by clamping down even harder, binding their children with rule upon rule to keep them under control. The parents’ intentions are good; they want to keep their children safe from harmful external influences. But they don’t realize that the problem is not something outside of their children but something inside their children’s hearts.

Jesus has just finished lambasting the Pharisees for supplementing God’s law about keeping ceremonially clean with their own man-made rules for washing before eating. He’s told them that when we make our own laws like this, we’re setting ourselves up as moral lawgivers, which is God’s place, not ours. Not only that, but we’re trying to dethrone God by pushing his rules aside to make room for our own. Replacing God’s law with human tradition is an act of insurrection against God. Ironically enough, the usual culprits of this crime are religious people. They think they’re worshiping God by supplementing his law with their own, proving their great dedication to him, but in reality they are hypocrites. They’re actors; they’re worshiping themselves and their tradition rather than God.

Now Jesus delivers the coup de grace. Not only are such legalists replacing God’s law with they’re own, they’re also making a fundamental mistake about the purpose of the law. Jesus gathers a crowd together to hear a short message. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” he says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Now, apparently this “parable” wasn’t clear enough for his disciples, because they approach him afterward to ask about it. Jesus gets a little frustrated here and exclaims, “Then are you also without understanding?” His disciples may not be inventing their own laws like the Pharisees are doing, but they’re still thinking about the purpose of God’s law in the same way as the Pharisees.

Jesus explains that food can’t make a person ceremonially unclean, since it simply passes through the body and is expelled. It doesn’t affect the core of who a person is—the heart. So Mark observes, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This is very significant, because Jesus isn’t just condemning the Pharisees’ man-made laws. He’s also canceling the ceremonial regulations in the law of Moses that identified many foods as unclean. Jesus is nullifying the law, exactly as the Pharisees just did! How can he not be a hypocrite as well? The only way he can declare that all foods are clean is if he has divine authority, as the Author of the law, to rewrite it. If this comes as a surprise to you, you obviously haven’t been paying attention as we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel!

After this, Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” He lists a litany of wicked attitudes and behaviors—sexual sins, violent sins, sins of speech, sinful habits of thinking. He says that these sins come “from within, out of the heart of man.” And when they do, they defile the person who commits them.

The Pharisees thought that the primary problem was outside of a person. They believed that if you could put him or her in the right environment, free from evil influences, then he or she would turn out a good person. All you need is to separate people from the corrupt Greco-Roman culture. To the Pharisees, the law was a tool to make people holy. And apparently, the disciples bought into that way of thinking, because Jesus’ perspective is completely foreign to them.

We can’t come down too hard on the disciples. From birth, we’re raised to think just like Pharisees. We’re told that people are basically good deep down, and that if children are raised in the right environment and surrounded by the right people and given the right education, then they’ll turn out okay. And of course, these things do help. However, they don’t change the reality that the human heart is a fountain of evil desires. Our culture’s presuppositions are wrong: people are corrupt and depraved, down to the very core of their being. Trying to make people holy by tying them down with rules—even God’s law!—just won’t work. The cancer is within us; it’s genetic, and we can’t cure it. Our own good behavior won’t help. There is no hope.

We’ve seen that Jesus is the only one who knows how to interpret and use God’s law with wisdom. He knows that the law is a reflection of God’s character. It tells us who he is—that he is holy—and it commands us to be like him (Leviticus 19:2). And Jesus knows that this is a lost cause; we can’t do it.

If there’s any possible way to be accepted by God, that way is going to have to be through Jesus. It’s obvious that he is a singular piercing light in a dark and hopeless world. If there’s any way out of our slavery to sin, it will have to come through the gospel—the good news that Jesus brings.

Run, John, run, the law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands;
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
—John Bunyan

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.