Pastor Matthew R. St. John’s last Sunday at Bethel.
The suspense of Psalm 23:4 provides a beautiful place for David to affirm His complete trust and dependence on his heavenly Father. The valleys and shadows paint a colorful picture reminding the reader of life’s dark moments. In David’s day, the valley was the place where dry stream beds would quickly flash flood. The shadows provided shelter for lurking bandits and wild animals. The threat to the traveler was real. The fear was palpable. All of us experience the real or imagined shadows of fear, danger, and suffering. David points us to a place of utter dependence on our Heavenly Father who loves us and offers us relationship with Him where we can find peace, rest, and joy in the midst of life’s trials.
Jesus clearly taught that when He returns in victory all of creation will shudder. These natural and supernatural convulsions will be like nothing we’ve seen before. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the terror of Rome murdering thousands in a day will all pale in comparison to the terror and destruction that will occur when Jesus returns. This terrifying reality stands in contrast to Jesus’ invitation to joyful obedience in spite of a world falling apart. The stars, moon, and sun will all melt as Christ returns gathering up His people and bringing His kingdom into victorious fullness. Some take Jesus’ teaching about his soon return to mean they should check out of life and ministry so they might huddle up and wait. Jesus’ return is not an excuse for passive waiting. The opposite is true. Jesus’ soon return is cause for His followers to stay alert, on mission, ready to serve with joy.
Mark recorded a rather innocent comment about the beauty of the Jewish temple and Jesus’ puzzling response. Jesus warned His disciples that this temple and all it represented was being replaced with a new covenant where the people of God would represent Him throughout all the earth. No longer would God’s people primarily gather in one place to meet with God; the disciples would be scattered to the ends of the earth on mission for Jesus until He returns. The temple as they knew it would be torn down and destroyed. Jesus picked up a common theme in Jewish history of temple destruction and restoration from the Maccabean Revolt of 167-160 BC. From the disciples’ perspective, Daniel 9 was fulfilled in the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC who profaned the temple and ordered observant Jews to worship Zeus as the supreme God. Jesus understood there was a future fulfillment yet to come. We learn in Mark 13 that as bad as 167 BC was, what is coming will be much worse.
The disciples were surprised by Jesus response when He didn’t join them in celebrating the beauty of the temple in Mark 13. In so many ways, the temple represented the patriotic and religious symbol of the day. Restored and rededicated in 164 BC after the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes, the temple was annually celebrated in Israel during the Feast of Dedication. To the citizens of Rome, the temple was one of the wonders of the world. The temple was decorated with a solid gold covering over the outside causing the structure to glimmer and dazzle from a distance. Truly, this was a magnificent engineering accomplishment. As one of the disciples commented on the beauty, Jesus’ response was not what he expected. Once again, he forewarned His followers that this temple would be destroyed. The judgments of Mark 11 and following indicate that a new system is being established. The tone of Mark 13:1-13 is one of a loving shepherd warning His sheep that a new day is coming and inspiring them to stay on mission in the midst of trials to come.
All three gospel writers include Jesus’ debate with the scribal leaders. The scribes and Jesus shared an appreciation for God’s Word but had two very different opinions on the ethics of obeying God. The scribes distorted God’s law to the point that they regularly took advantage of the weak to the benefit of the socially strong. As society’s legal experts, the scribes served as academics that could out reason nearly anyone for their own sake. While God’s word teaches we are to care for widows and orphans, scribal legal experts had begun to take advantage of these people. The family was responsible for the care of widows. When there was no family, it became the priests’ job to care for them. All of this was to maintain the widow’s dignity. Scribes regularly took advantage of widows by manipulating their understanding of scripture leading her to give up her resources and follow their teaching leaving her financially destitute. This scandalous attitude and behavior sets the stage for Jesus’ very scathing and public rebuke of the scribes.
The crowds were intensely curious and interested as Jesus debated the scribes within the shadow of the temple in Mark 12. It was generally understood that the Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel from the hands of her enemies would be a son in the lineage of King David. In fact, Mark has already set the scene that many in the crowd believed Jesus was the Messiah. They cried out in Mark 11, “Hossanna!” and made references to Jesus as the son of David. This must have frustrated the scribal leaders because they remained skeptical of Jesus. We learn in these short verses (12:35-37) that their view of Messiah as one from the lineage of David was true but insufficient. With only a few questions, Jesus disrupts their understanding. Using Psalm 110:1 as a springboard, Jesus introduces to the crowds that David understood Messiah would not be like the kings before but would be someone even greater. In fact, the language suggests that the coming Messiah would be both in the lineage of David and have the DNA of deity. Jesus fulfills both as fully God and fully man.
As a modern reader of Mark 12 we may miss the common language presented by the scribe at the end of the chapter. Most likely, this scribe is a man of influence. The text tells us he is impressed with Jesus. This scribe watched while the Pharisees and Sadducees have battered Jesus with hard questions. As a scribe, we can assume this man was well educated in the law. As a legal professional he would have studied the various points of view maintaining a professional freedom to navigate between major camps of thought. This made him an ideal candidate for the final challenge Mark records in chapter 12. The Pharisees and Sadducees came up short. Maybe this legal expert could prove once and for all that Jesus was not who He claimed to be. Throughout the scribal tradition, they regularly challenged one another to find a guiding principle for the 613 laws established by Moses in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The man comes with a favorable attitude toward Jesus; he found Jesus’ answers were satisfying. They weren’t simply clever but were wholesome answers that satisfied the questions. The question, and his attitude, proved to the crowds that this man was close to the Kingdom of God.
It would be dangerous to gloss over the sense of urgency in Mark’s letter to his church, the Gospel of Mark. History tells us that the Roman government regularly killed Christians because of their faith. Every day Mark’s young church faced the life and death decision to follow Jesus or deny Him. Choosing to believe that God loved them and sent His Son, Jesus, to rescue them from sin and death was for many a choice to leave this earthly life as a martyr. While others sung the praise of the emperor, Mark’s church sung about Jesus. They placed their faith, not in the government but in the person of Jesus. Wanting a sense of purpose and meaning, they turned to Jesus. When the world told them their desires could be satisfied in the temporary, they turned to the eternal. Pride and possessions were no match for the hope they found in Jesus. The regular, persistent threat of life surfaced many questions for pastor Mark. His answer to their questions about life after death can be found in the controversy stirred up by the Sadducees in Mark 12 as Jesus responds to an absurd accusation.
When Jesus was a toddler a group of zealous men rebelled against the Roman government believing that when they paid taxes they were violating the commandment that no one should make an engraved image of God. The “Zealots” as they became known, were quickly stamped out. By the time Jesus was in his 30’s the Zealots were heroic in the minds of many Jews wanting to live the spiritual life while suffering under Roman oppression. Knowing this reality, the Pharisees teamed up with their much hated enemies, the Herodians to seek to destroy Jesus. If they could trap Jesus saying the Zealots were wrong the super spiritual would label him a Roman sympathizer. If Jesus says don’t pay taxes then he will face the same death of the Zealots. Setting the scene, the Herodians and Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for one to pay taxes. The tax they asked Jesus about in Mark 12 was a reaction set in place by the Romans as a reminder the Zealots were put down. In fact, the language on the coin was so inflammatory that a “true” Jew would hate to carry it in his pocket. Jesus foils the trap and pronounces judgment on those who believe themselves spiritual elite while following the ways of this World.