On Guard Duty

“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

The longest speech in Mark’s gospel (chapter 13) is the one dealing with the end of the temple and the end of the world.  While the command “Be on guard!” occurs in the same context in both Matthew and Luke, Mark focuses on it, mentioning it five times in Jesus’ speech.

The speech itself is notoriously difficult.  Was Jesus talking just about the end of the temple, or was he talking about the end of the world (or both)?  Matthew and Mark each offer clues. At one point, Jesus says: “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (vs. 30).  Some scholars suggest Jesus was not talking about his own generation, but the generation that would see the signs.  But that makes Jesus seem a bit foolish.  Obviously the generation that would see the signs wouldn’t pass until they had seen them. The easier answer is that, everything in Mark 13:1-31 addresses the end of the temple.  Verses 32-37 address the end of the world.

But the timing of neither cataclysmic event was really the point.  The point was that both are coming, and you should “be on guard.!”  For the disciples, and perhaps some of Mark’s early readers, the end of the temple would seem like the end of the world.  Whether it genuinely was or not was irrelevant. The imperative for the disciples was to be watchful with their lives.

There will be (and perhaps, for you, already have been) times when you will think your world is coming to an end. But there is something always more important than what is happening.  Are you ready to meet the Lord?  It’s a lifestyle really, to live every day in prepared anticipation of his coming.

They All Fall Down

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” (Mark 13:2)

So begins the longest speech recorded of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.

Since arriving in Jerusalem in Mark 11, Jesus has viewed the temple, cleansed it, argued in it, and now, he condemns it.  In the next verse, Jesus leaves the temple never to return.

The disciples, however, like Job’s wife leaving Sodom, do not appear eager to leave. “Look, Teacher” they said, “what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”

And the architecture was magnificent.  Josephus (who saw the building) wrote: “The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astound mind or eye.  For being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as if looking at the sun.” Another wrote: “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.” Herod built it for his own honor, but also to burnish the image of Judea in the pagan world.

Magnificent or not, God was not impressed.  People, and their behavior, are more important than architecture, and in the verses that follow, Jesus makes it clear that the temple is to be destroyed and it will be the judgment of God that does it.

It wasn’t a new value system.  Even in the Old Testament, the orthodoxy of pious people was condemned when their day to day behavior didn’t match the holiness of their calling (see Isaiah 58:1-9 and Jeremiah 7:2-11).  An enduring message is this: There is nothing we should prize more than our relationship with God, a valuing that is reflected in our obedient behavior.  Whatever gets in the way of that, no matter how majestic or noble in our own eyes, is slated, like the temple, for destruction.

All In

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . [W]herever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her”(Mark 14:6,9).

Mark’s story of Jesus is rapidly coming to a close.  There is an ominous feeling in the air.  In the longest speech recorded by Mark, Jesus has pointed to the end of the temple and the end of the world (chapter 13).  Three times the Lord has told his disciples that he’s going to be killed (8:31ff; 9:31ff; 10:33ff).  It would seem, however, that no one was really listening.

No one, that is, except the woman in this story.

As Jesus reclines at a meal on the Tuesday before his death, this woman comes in and pours an expensive perfume on his head.  She knows he is going to die.  She likely would give anything to keep it from happening, but happen it will.  There is nothing she can do and she knows it. Understanding the will of God, and accepting it, she “leans in” with a huge sacrifice of her own, anointing Jesus with an ointment worth nearly a year’s wages.
There were objections of course and unfortunately, the objections usually get the most attention, telling the woman’s story, but ignoring her and the lesson in her action.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has called people to join in his mission, to follow him, to be “all in,” all the way to the cross.  The woman who gave the two copper coins cast in “all her living.” This woman likewise did “what she could” with a huge sacrifice of her own (14:8).  She didn’t do it for the fame.  She did it for the honor of her Lord.

As we think about the resurrection of Jesus this Lord’s day, we might also think about what we are doing to honor him whose death has saved us all.

When Giving is the Greatest

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)

If you only had the gospel of Mark, you might never know Jesus ever went to Jerusalem until the time of his death. It is not until chapter eleven that he arrives there.

The scene Mark paints of Jerusalem however is not a pretty one. The temple area has degenerated into a commercial trading zone – a poor venue for prayer. The Jewish leadership – mostly religious leadership – has renewed its efforts to murder Jesus (11:18; 12:12) and Jesus has let them know, that he knows, they mean him harm. Chief Priests, Elders, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees all come to debate with him. The Lord not only defeats them, but accuses the most respected among them of taking advantage of some of society’s most vulnerable – the widows.

All of which brings me to this: Why did the poor widow continue to support such a corrupt system with her contributions?

The answer, of course, is that she wasn’t supporting a corrupt system. She was giving to God. God would hold the leaders accountable for their corruption. He would hold her accountable for her faithfulness. The widow wasn’t concerned about giving to a cause. She was concerned about giving to God. She knew that her financial giving could not be divorced from her faithfulness. She was “all in,” and she proved it by giving all she had to live on.

Ironic is it not? The religious leadership was all about taking a life. The widow was all about giving her own life. It is in her example we find Christ-likeness.

Proof of Paternity

In my Vietnam Bible class on Saturday evenings I’ve been teaching the gospel of Luke.  A week ago we looked at the temptation story in Luke 4.
The temptations of Jesus provide an easy lesson.  After all, it has the customary three points: Satan sometimes tempts us to do something good just to get us in his grasp.  At other times he tempts us to settle for less than God intends for us.  Third, he tempts us to doubt God – to challenge God to prove himself.

There are questions though: Why was Jesus in the wilderness in the first place?  He was led there by God for the express purpose of temptation – not that God tempted him, but God placed him in a vulnerable position so that Satan could tempt him.  Why?  And might God do the same to us?
A lesson I’ve often overlooked is why Luke tells us this story in the first place.

He has introduced Jesus as “the Lord,” the “son of the Most High,” the “Savior” and the “Son of God.”  God himself testified to Jesus’ sonship at his baptism.

But was he really?

Luke follows his assertions with a long section (4:1 – 9:50) filled with miracle stories – proofs of Jesus’ identity.  But the first proof is not a miracle.  It is the temptation story.  Satan tempts Jesus twice to prove he is the son of God (the first and third temptation).  Jesus overcomes the temptations by refusing to submit and thereby proves, in an unexpected way, he is the son of God.  Only the Son of God would be able to overcome the devil so decisively.

There is a lesson here for us: We too are God’s children, and there is no greater proof of our relationship with him (or lack of it) than how we too handle and overcome temptation.

“In” or “Out”?

“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

The “teachers of the law” (also known as “scribes”) are the second most often mentioned opponents of Jesus. While not of the ruling class themselves, they were none-the-less advisors to the ruling class and perhaps the most influential class in Jewish society. No one knew the law better than they did.

They may also have been the instigators and leaders of the plot against Jesus’ life (compare Mark 11:18 and 12:12). Jesus knew it, so when he says this to a teacher of the law (who had the honesty to agree with him that loving God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength – and loving your neighbor as yourself — is the greatest command), it was high praise indeed. In fact, it is the only time Jesus ever praises a teacher of the law in Mark.

But Jesus’ compliment was not just praise. It was instruction (and a bit of an insult). Not being “far” from the kingdom of God is not the same as being “in” the kingdom of God.

It’s an important point to remember ourselves. One can know God’s commands, know even the greatest of commands and all the intricacies of scripture. But knowing is not the same as doing, and the only way one can be in the kingdom of God is by doing. It’s not a “salvation by works” thing. It’s a “salvation that works” thing. The only way to come under the rule of God is to let Him rule in your life, and that means doing as He has said.

Interpretive Challenges

In Mark 12, the Sadducees came to challenge Jesus with a question about the resurrection. Theologically conservative, the Sadducees accepted only Genesis through Deuteronomy and they prided themselves on meticulous adherence to the text.

But their conservatism blinded them to their own traditionalism. In rejecting an afterlife, they had accepted the notion that if there were an afterlife, it must simply be an extension of present life: marriage, children, homes and jobs. Only the location changed. So they came to Jesus with a scenario: a man dies with no heirs. His brother (being a good “law-keeper” – see Deuteronomy 25:5-6) married the widow. He too died without heirs. Another brother took her in. Eventually, seven brothers married her – all dying without heirs. Finally, the woman died. So, they asked, if there were a resurrection, whose wife would she be? If she couldn’t be the wife of them all – and they believed she couldn’t – there couldn’t be a resurrection.

Jesus accused them of being deceived and ignorant. They were deceived by a world view that had no basis in scripture (the afterlife is like this life). They were deceived by a traditional, but faulty, interpretation of Deuteronomy 25. And they were ignorant of their own scripture that affirmed life after death (Exodus 3:6).

When it comes to what we have historically believed about the will of God, we should remember that our ancestors didn’t just pull those ideas out of a hat. We should not reject them just because they are traditional. But then again, no generation has a lock on truth. Every belief must be re-examined by every generation to make sure our understanding is not colored by faulty presuppositions. And every generation is obligated to continue study, to build on foundations laid before us.

Hijacked!

“Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away” (Mark 12:12).

Mark 12 begins with a parable (12:1-12): A wealthy man creates a vineyard and does all to make it successful. Then he rents the vineyard out to others who then lay plans to steal it from him – refusing to pay the owner his share of the crop, treating shamefully his emissaries, and eventually, killing the son of the property owner. Jesus ends the parable with a warning that the vineyard workers will be put to death and then cites Psalm 118 praising the triumph of the vineyard owner – who, in this case, is God.

It’s not surprising that the Jewish leaders “got” the parable. As it begins, it sounds very much like the parable of Isaiah 5, a parable of condemnation for Israel’s spiritual barrenness. But the citation of the Psalm at the end takes the focus off of Israel and places it on the leaders who have hijacked the vineyard of God for themselves, laying plans to kill the vineyard owner’s son: Jesus.

A similar hijacking happens today when people take the Church, God’s vineyard, for themselves recreating it in their own image – an image more palatable and appealing to themselves and (they say) the world. The result however is the ruination of God’s vineyard and an exchange of the “Body of Christ” in which the blessings of heaven are found for “The Church of What’s Happening Now” in which no heavenly blessings are found.

Important to keep in mind.

Q & A

“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” (Mark 11:28)

Jesus has been quite plain to the disciples: The influence of the Jewish leadership over the kingdom of God is quickly drawing to a close, to be replaced by a servant people whose trust is supremely in God, evidenced by a life of prayer.

But he has also challenged the Jewish authorities directly with his cleansing of the temple,  to which they have challenged “Who do you think you are?”  That’s the question behind their questions.

Jesus answers with a question of his own, and in telling us the story, Mark introduces us to this very contentious section (11:27-12:44) in his gospel – perhaps the most contentious of all –  and exposes us to the dishonesty of his opponents.  The section is not about either the questions or the answers.  It’s about attitude.  Christ’s opponents are not concerned about answers, nor are they concerned with truth.  They are concerned with burnishing their image and discrediting Jesus.

I find it helpful to note Jesus gave them no answer.  Not every question deserves an answer, and not every challenge deserves a response.  Sometimes, you just have to move on.  There is wisdom in knowing when to do what.

Prayer

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).

Really?

I can just pray for whatever I want and it will happen?

No matter what? Like telling a mountain to be removed to the sea? Even that?

Yes . . . and no.

God is not a holy gumball machine into which we put a prayer and God responds with whatever we wish. If that were the case, prayer would make God our servant.

The limitations of prayer is actually the theme of a longer text beginning with the cursing of the fig tree and ending with our text verse. Spiritual fruitlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Worldliness is a hindrance to prayer (it certainly hindered prayer in the temple). Failure to forgive is a hindrance to prayer (see verses 25 and 26).

And here, faithlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Stated positively, faith makes everything and anything possible . . . subject, of course, to the will of God. The issue is always: are we willing to submit to the Lord’s will?

I’m not sure I’d want something that wasn’t the Lord’s will. I’m not sure I’d want to change God’s mind about a matter if that were possible. But it doesn’t mean that I should not make my requests known, for doing so demonstrates a reliance on God, and that, too, is what faith is all about.