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 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