Jesus has come to correct small views of God, so align your thinking to his (Mark 12:18–27)

Sometimes people refer to God in a flippant way. He’s “the man upstairs.” Or (worst-case scenario) “Jesus is my homeboy.” Nearly everyone who is deeply religious bristles at such casual treatment of the one “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Unfortunately, it’s also possible to devote yourself to a small, handcrafted god who is not the God you think you’re worshiping. You may be taking the one true God too lightly.

Jesus has drawn the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. His teaching is a threat to their political power structure. So they’ve sent delegations to him to trap him in his words. Every time they do this, Jesus evades the trap and demonstrates that he is superior to his opponents.

This particular delegation from the Sanhedrin is composed of the priestly, upper-class Sadducees. They are a group that is skeptical of most of the Old Testament; they only accept the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as scripture. As a result, they deny many doctrines which the Pharisees, most Jews, and Jesus himself affirm. One in particular is the resurrection from the dead. There isn’t much Old Testament teaching on this subject (though see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:12), and there seems to be none whatsoever in the Torah. So the Sadducees believe that once you die, that’s it. If there’s any afterlife at all, it’s found in the gloomy confines of Sheol, the underworld.

The Sadducees deny the resurrection for another reason as well. They’re convinced that it’s logically incoherent. To prove their point, they present Jesus with a hypothetical situation. What if a woman marries a man who dies? According to the Jewish custom of Levirate marriage, the man’s brother is required to marry her and raise up an heir for him. The Sadducees take this to the point of absurdity—suppose seven such brothers died!—but it would only require one death for the woman to have married two husbands in this life. So “in the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be?” they ask.

Note that, once again, we have Jesus’ enemies asking a question when they’re not genuinely interested in learning from him. They just want to humiliate him. They’ve already decided they’re not going to believe.

Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush here. “Is this not the reason you are led astray, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” he tells them. Now, this is a slap in the face! The Sadducees were fanatic students of the scriptures, and they stood in positions of great political and religious power. Yet Jesus is saying to their faces that they are wayward and ignorant.

Jesus explains what he means. The Sadducees clearly don’t know the power of God because they have made wrong assumptions about the resurrection. They’ve assumed that the next life will be an extension of this one; people will get married and raise families and go on living like they do now. Jesus is telling them that God will reorder everything; those who are resurrected will no longer marry. In fact, marriage will no longer exist; it’s a temporary institution that will pass away. God is powerful enough to recreate the world in a way that exceeds the wildest dreams of man.

Jesus continues to pile it on. He quotes Exodus 3:6, in which God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—his ancestors. The eternal, self-existent I AM had chosen to identify himself with these patriarchs, to bind himself to them with an eternal covenant, to make promises to them which had not yet been fulfilled. None of this makes sense if they have simply ceased to exist. Would God really identify himself with something that no longer exists? Would his promises to Moses be reliable if he had no intention of fulfilling his promises to the (living) patriarchs? No! “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” Jesus says. Then he adds, “You are led greatly astray.” And he’ll drive his point home in the final chapter of Mark, when he himself rises from the dead.

The Sadducees are a monument built for us, a warning that it’s possible to be a devout person, to be a student of the Bible, to be in a position of power in the church, and yet to be ignorant and easily deceived. Jesus insists that all of his followers contemplate and adhere to the words of scripture—all the words, not just those which we want to believe! Jesus wants you and me to expand our understanding of who God is. When you try to grasp who God is, do not be quick to draw conclusions about what he can’t or shouldn’t do. He is powerful, and you are in no position to question him. Instead, align your thinking with his written Word, lest you stray from the path and into deadly error.

Jesus has divine authority, so don’t brush him off (Mark 11:27–33)

Living near (and working on) a college campus, I have the opportunity to interact with college students every day. Like most Americans, college students tend to hold vague ideas about religion and spiritual matters, but the majority aren’t willing to go deeper. I’ve noticed a pattern—a calculated agnosticism—when it comes to their understanding of who Jesus is. They have a lot of respect for the man, but they don’t know if he’s really God, and they’re not intent on finding out. If they did, they might have to form beliefs that will offend their peers.

Jesus faced this same attitude when he was confronted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, an informal delegation from the Sanhedrin. In Mark’s account, he has just arrived in the Holy City and has announced that the corrupt temple leadership is unacceptable. And they’re not too happy that someone is criticizing them.

Here’s the question that the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem are posing to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” They certainly haven’t given him permission. The things Jesus has been saying are intolerant and arrogant. How dare he judge them? Who does he think he is?

Now, Jesus is an expert heart surgeon. He knows exactly how to reveal what’s really going on deep inside these men. So like a good rabbi, he poses a question in response: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” The answer to his question will reveal the answer to their question.

Now, these religious leaders weren’t big fans of John the Baptist. He had appeared like a madman in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming that Israel should repent of their sins, announcing that a mightier one would come, promising that “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). And when John baptizes Jesus, God vindicates Jesus as sinless and pleasing to him and commissions him as his anointed Son.

Jesus forces the delegation to pick one of two options. There can be no in-between. If John’s baptism was backed by divine authority, then the leaders are guilty of hypocrisy, because they didn’t believe they had to repent. They’re also guilty because up till now, they haven’t been buying into Jesus either. If they’d believed John, they would have believed Jesus. Their behavior proves that they don’t really believe Jesus has come from God.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of danger in declaring that Jesus possesses merely human authority. The people believe that Jesus is a prophet; they’re enamored with his profound and challenging teaching. It’s trendy to ride the Jesus wave. Like calculated agnostics, the members of the delegation don’t want to appear closed-minded and contrarian. So they take the easy way out, telling Jesus, “We do not know.”

Mark records this thought process as a discussion among the delegation. This discussion reveals the hearts of many agnostics, or people who claim they’re “spiritual but not religious,” or anyone else who tap-dances around the question of who Jesus really is. The reality is that such people are practical atheists. They want to hold Jesus at arm’s length, leaving open the possibility that he might be from God in order to save face with the pluralist crowd. But they don’t want Jesus interfering with their lives; they don’t want to turn from behavior that he says is sinful. So they act as if he had no more authority than any other man.

How does Jesus respond to this attitude? He tells the delegation, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” This isn’t a childish response; it’s a wise response. Jesus sees that they don’t really want to know the truth. They’re looking for reasons not to buy into him. He knows it’s a waste of time to argue; his miracles are argument enough. They don’t believe because they don’t want to believe.

This deadly condition is not limited to unbelievers. You and I must be careful of the practical atheism that is rooted deeply in our hearts. If you are a Christian, you have been fundamentally changed by the Holy Spirit to serve God with a renewed heart. However, the old self has not yet rotted away; there is still a hardened core that will not relent to the absolute authority of Jesus. Watch out for the practical atheism of others, and beware of it in your own heart. Jesus will accept nothing less than total rule over your heart.