Marc Sims • May 03, 2021
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/741744--jesus-and-worship
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Read through and answer these questions before you gather for your small group. What are you most prone to idolize?
- What were the four main types of idolatry that Tim Keller suggested in his book Counterfeit Gods? Can you see how what you may be prone to idolize could fit under these four headings? (Comfort, Power, Approval, Control).
- Why do you think Judas betrayed Jesus?
- Why were the disciples so angry with the woman who anointed Jesus? Why did Jesus believe what she did was "beautiful," even if it meant that the poor were not helped by the money from the sell of the perfume?
- In what way is Jesus different from all the other gods and idols in our life? See Mark 14:22-25.
- Case study: Read John 12:42-43. What do some of the "authorities" think of Jesus? What are they afraid of? According to John, what do these people really love most? So, if you were to try to help these people, what would need to change in these people to fully follow Jesus? How do you change what your heart loves? Answer: (1) see the lie the idol is making--it cannot deliver and will consume you if you fail it; (2) see what Jesus offers you in the gospel--He can deliver perfect forgiveness and acceptance and will welcome you into His family, even in the midst of your failure.
When you were a child, who did you look up to? It may have been a movie star, an older sibling or cousin, a friend, or musician. Whoever it was, whatever they did or said probably had an outsized influence on your life. Perhaps you started talking differently, wearing clothes you wouldn’t normally wear, or spending your time on new activities. While in middle school (the most painfully awkward of years) I remember wanting desperately to give off a certain kind of “vibe” in the way I dressed, the way I spoke, and the way I carried myself because I wanted so badly to be like the “cool kids.” I see this even now in my young boys, with my two-year-old parroting and mirroring whatever he sees his four-year-old brother do (which instills a terrifying sense of urgency with parenting our first-born. If we screw him up, he’s taking the other one with him!).
Why is this desire to model, image, and emulate others so second-nature to us? G.K. Beale, in his book We Become What We Worship, points to the fact that human beings are image-bearers. In Genesis (1:26-27) we are told that humans are made in the image of God, which describes certain capacities and inherent qualities we possess as humans, but also describes a fundamental shape to our psyche, our souls: we are meant to image. We are designed to reflect God, to worship Him, to adore Him, and then to be transformed into being more like Him through that worship (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). But after the Fall, human beings now no longer perfectly image God; in fact, we naturally come into the world worshipping all sorts of other things, as Romans tells us: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,” Rom 1:22-23. Notice the inevitability of worship that is assumed in this passage. People do not simply stop worshipping God, they exchange their worship. Beale writes, “At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation,” (p. 16).
How do you know what you worship? Beale explains: “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security,” (p. 17). And whatever that is controls you and shapes you. You become what you worship. You identify with what you idolize, or as Beale puts it, “You resemble what you revere, either to your ruin or restoration.” In Psalm 115, after the psalmist describes the idols who have hands, but cannot feel, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, feet but cannot walk, he concludes: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them,” Ps 115:8.
You see, we are not purely rational creatures—we can know something is wrong or even detrimental, and yet still do it. This is why that friend of yours keeps throwing herself back into that destructive relationship, even though she knows her boyfriend is cruel and manipulative. This is why the porn-addict or workaholic gives himself over to what he knows is destroying his soul and destroying his family but can’t seem to help himself from stopping. This is why the student who is consumed with anxiety about the unknown cannot stop fearing what could be, even though she knows that she shouldn’t worry about it.
We need more than rational answers, cool intellectual arguments. We need to go deeper. We need to identify what it is our hearts worship, what it is that we are clinging on to for our deepest security and trust. because we become what we worship. In our text today we will see several people make what seem to be irrational decisions, decisions that seem bizarre and costly, but through them we can discover what the people worship:
It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” 10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
17 And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” – Mark 14:1-25
In our text today we see two groups of people who are willing to pay a high price for what they worship, who are willing to make shocking and seemingly irrational decisions: one group is bent on sacrificing others for their worship, and the other is bent on sacrificing themselves for their worship.
What They Want
If you are not very religious or are unfamiliar with the story of Christianity the first few verses of our text might surprise you (Mark 14:1-2). The chief priests and scribes—that is the religious authorities of the day—are actively working to kill Jesus?! Shouldn’t these people be on Jesus’ team? It was these people’s jobs, quite literally, to be prepared for the arrival of the Messiah. They were to study the Bible, search out the prophesies that foretold of the coming Rescuer who would deliver Israel, and to teach Israel to prepare themselves, and yet when He arrives this is the reception they prepare for Him?
Even more alarming, here we find that one of Jesus’ own disciples is plotting to betray Him (Mark 14:10-11). Judas Iscariot has been travelling all over the Judean country side with Jesus for about three years now. He shared meals with Jesus, worked with Jesus, and was even sent out on miniature mission trips on behalf of Jesus (Mark 6:7-13). He was one of the twelve, one of Jesus’ friends. And yet, Judas—a name we now only associate with betrayal—is seeking an opportunity to hand over his friend to be executed like a common criminal.
Friends, we can say without exaggeration, that there has never been a person who has walked this earth more loving than Jesus Christ. You don’t even need to be a Christian to recognize that. You will be hard-pressed today to find anyone from any religious or irreligious persuasion who does not, in some way, admire Jesus, even admit that much of Jesus’ teaching is attractive and commendable. And yet, despite Jesus’ love, His commitment to truth, His own goodness and humility, this is how He is treated: betrayal, hatred, and murder.
Why Do They Want It
Why do the religious authorities and Judas want to destroy Jesus? In Tim Keller’s wonderful book Counterfeit Gods, he identifies four basic idols that humans are most prone to worship: comfort, power, approval, and control. Judas and the religious authorities serve as helpful possible examples of these.
As we have read the gospel of Mark we have found Jesus being unusually sharp in His criticisms of the religious authorities, accusing them of hypocrisy, vanity, greed, spiritual blindness, parochialism, and an abandonment of God’s commands for the traditions of men. Jesus exudes an authority that challenges their position or threatens to bring down the ire of Rome upon them (cf. Mark 1:22). The religious authorities have a great deal of power and control; they are used to people deferring to them and not crossing them.
With Judas, his betrayal could have come from His desire for approval. Perhaps he assumed that being a disciple of the Messiah would be like getting on the fast track to the inner circle of the social elite, catching the eyes of al of the most important of people and earning access into the most exlusive of groups. But, the exact opposite has happened. Jesus has offended and contradicted and turned away from the elites of the day and instead has chosen to associate primarily with the lowly. Like if an individual today thought by serving on the board of some non-profit organization they would be attending luxurious galas and earn lots of social cache, only to find out that instead they would be serving the homeless in a soup kitchen. This is not what I signed up for; I thought I would be earning more acceptance from those I like, but Jesus seems only interested with spending time with social rejects, with women, cripples, and Gentiles.
There also, however, could have been an element of comfort compelling Judas to betray Jesus. Life with Jesus was difficult. When Jesus sent the disciples out on their mission trip in Mark 6, He forbid them from taking any extra supplies with them so as to teach them to rely on God to provide (6:8-9). Further, Jesus compared following Him to dying on a cross, a humiliating and excruciating form of death (8:34-35). That’s what following Jesus is like? This life of austerity, self-denial, and hardship was not a call to comfort. Further, the gospels indicate to us that Judas seemed to have a particular weakness: money.
In Mark’s gospel, when the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus with the costly perfume we are simply told that “some disciples” complain about the prodigal waste of it, pointing to how the poor could have been helped by the sale of such a valuable item. But in John’s gospel, John identifies that it is Judas alone who complains: “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it,” John 12:4-6. You can make your life comfortable with a little more money, right? Of course, money can also serve the other three false gods—it can be a gateway to more approval, more control, and more power. In Matthew’s gospel we are told that Judas is paid 30 pieces of silver to hand Jesus over to the authorities, which would have been about four months of wages; certainly a tempting offer.
We may balk at what the religious authorities and Judas have done in the death of Jesus, but if we are honest, we probably see more of ourselves in them than we would like to admit. How many times has our heart functionally desired to have power, comfort, approval, or control more than Jesus? So, you love Jesus but also love the approval of others? You may find yourself changing like a chameleon depending on who you are around and utterly depressed when you feel like the “right” people don’t accept you. Do you love your comfort? You may find yourself making a thousand little compromises and excuses on things you know aren’t right but feel good. Do you love control? Then you will be consumed with anxiety and fear of the unknown and resent the trust that faith requires of you. Do you love power? Then you will become ever more protective and touchier at the thought of losing it and will be willing to compromise your convictions for greater and greater access to power. And we can do all of these things, all the while claiming to worship Jesus. But Jesus will brook no rivals. He will not be content to play second fiddle to our true love, to our false gods. And the religious authorities and Judas are cautionary tales for where our little pet idols want to take us—they want to so grip our hearts and poison our minds with their lies that the call to obedience Jesus offers seems so terrifying and offensive that we would be willing to wholly forsake Him.
Like our story two weeks ago with the widow’s offering, here in our story the hero is an unnamed woman. While Jesus is reclining at table, “a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head,” Mark 14:3. Alabaster was a precious stone and “pure nard” was a perennial herb that came all the way from India—this is why Mark explains that it is “very costly.” In fact, we are told just a few verses later that the sum total of such an item was “300 hundred denarii” (14:5), which would have been about a years worth of wages for the average day-laborer. An item this valuable could have been this woman’s dowry for marriage. Nevertheless, she breaks the bottle—which wasn’t necessary, she could have simply poured the perfume out the same way it was poured in—but breaking the neck of the bottle demonstrates that she is wanting to offer the whole of the gift to Jesus, not holding anything back for herself. This is an extravagant gesture, so extravagant that it, as we have seen, draws the outrage of some disciples.
“There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her,” Mark 14:4-5. But Jesus will have none of that. “But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her,” Mark 14:6-9.
It is noteworthy the way time and time again Jesus stands up for and defends and honors women. We hear much today about the dangers of patriarchy and “toxic masculinity,” but Jesus lived in a day where women were quite literally treated as second-class citizens. Their testimony was not admissible in court. Aristotle, the reigning philosopher of the Greco-Roman world, taught that women were inferior to men, too controlled by emotions and therefore needed to be tamed much in the same way an animal needs to be tamed. But in the gospel of Mark, time and time again, Jesus’ most significant interactions come with women. Those who exemplify the most commendable models of faith, are women. And those who first witness His resurrection and are told to share the news, are women. Here, Jesus takes this isolated act of worship by this woman and promises that everyone in the whole world will hear of her faithfulness. Jesus honored women. Thus, any church or Christian or leader who dishonors or disrespects women, who treats them as second-class citizens will find themselves running contrary to our Lord.
While John singles out Judas as complaining, here in Mark it seems that Judas’ complaint is at least coupled with some other disciples as well. While Judas is singularly fueled by his own greed (300 hundred denarii wasted!), perhaps some other disciples join in by a kind of misplaced piety. Think of all the good we could have done for the poor with that kind of money! But Jesus waves these accusations away and defends the woman. What she has done is “beautiful” because she has unknowingly anointed Jesus’ body for His burial, which will take place shortly. Jesus’ claim here is shocking: You always have the poor, but you don’t always have me. As in, Jesus is saying that He is more important than care for the poor. How could that be? Particularly in light of Jesus’ own teaching on the need to care for the poor? Didn’t Jesus just teach us that love of neighbor is the second greatest command in all of the Bible (Mark 12:31)? Indeed, it is, but there is one command even greater than that, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” (Mark 12:30). Friends, Jesus is demonstrating that He is the God to whom our primary allegiance and love is first and foremost to be directed towards.
And that is exactly what this woman is doing. See, she has nothing to gain from this act. She gets no power, no control, no approval from others (she is scolded!), and certainly no comfort. In a sense, she has nothing to gain and her act even elicits criticisms. But she wordlessly and quietly performs this act of devotion singularly out of love for Jesus. It is His approval that matters alone to this woman. And you see, friends, that’s how you overcome the false gods, idols, the siren-songs of your heart that put you under their spell. You find the comfort, approval, control, and power of Jesus to matter more than your worldly comforts, approval, control, and power—to the degree that you can forsake them.
Her act of devotion comes with a price, but so does all worship. The price of Judas’ worship is the haunting pronouncement that Jesus makes, “woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born,” Mark 14:21. All worship makes demands of us, all worship requires sacrifice. David Foster Wallace, the late novelist and atheist, in his famous graduation address This is Water, makes these surprisingly perceptive comments:
"In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."
All worship demands something of you, requires sacrifice. And Jesus will make demands of you as well; He will ask you to sacrifice things by repenting of sins, by forgiving others, by surrendering control of your life to Him. But what sets Jesus apart from all of the other gods, all the other options of worship is His willingness to sacrifice for you. At the close of our text we see the famed Last Supper, where Jesus grabs a hunk of bread and says, “Take; this is my body,” Mark 14:22 and the cup and says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” Mark 14:24. What is Jesus showing us? As the bread is broken, shredded, and chewed, so will His body be; as the fruit of the vine is poured into the cup so will His blood be poured out. Why? Matthew makes it plain, “…for the forgiveness of sins,” Matt 26:28.
For the forgiveness of sins, sins like worshipping at the altar of the world’s approval, of your own comfort. Every object of worship requires sacrifices from you, but only One will sacrifice for you. It is in your failure and weakness, in your betrayal, in your paper-thin commitment, in your desperate craving for the approval of others, in the binds of your addictions that Jesus, in all His power and glory and might, swoops in—and pays the price for your sins, who welcomes you in. Now, if you will come to Jesus and follow Him, He will confront your sin. He will make exacting demands on your life and summon you to repent and submit to Him alone as your object of worship. But He will also forgive your sins and welcome you, broken though you are, into His family. And that is how you change. You let the beauty of the grace of God in the gospel melt your heart, the unmerited welcome of Jesus shift the tectonic plates of your heart till you see Him as truly better, sweeter, and more satisfying than anything else in life.
We are all more like Judas than we care to admit. But how do we become like the woman in the story? Fix your eyes on what Jesus has done for you in the sacrifice of Himself.
Marc Sims • April 26, 2021
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/738130--jesus-and-the-end
Sermon Discussion Questions
- What stood out to you most? What part of Mark 13 was most puzzling to you?
- Why was Jesus unimpressed by the Temple?
- Marc compared the "near" and "far" fulfillment of everything Jesus prophesied in Mark 13 to a mountain range. Can you explain what that meant?
- Read 1 Pet 4:7-11. What does this text command us to do when "the end of all things is at hand"?
- Marc concluded with saying that Mark 13 shows us we should be patient, discerning, enduring, and confident. Which of those was most helpful to you and why?
In the 1950’s, at the dawn of the Cold War with USSR, America worked diligently to create a missile detection system that would alert us of incoming Soviet attacks. An array of radars were stationed at likely places that missiles would pass over en route to the States. If an incoming missile was detected, the protocol was for an immediate launching of our own nuclear salvo (it had to be immediate, of course, because once Russia’s warheads dropped it would send America back to the stone age, leaving us no ability to retaliate), creating what is popularly known as “mutually assured destruction.”
In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg (himself an architect of our nuclear defense program and now an advocate for nuclear disarmament) tells the story of an early detection system set up in Alaska. One day, shortly after the radars were up and running, alarms began blaring, alerting the command that their worst fears were realized; a Russian missile had been detected and was flying to America. Technicians quickly pulled out the keys that had to be simultaneously turned to open the glass shield around an ominous button. Panicking, they radioed soldiers stationed at the radars themselves to confirm if they could see the inbound missiles. Every second was a gamble—if they waited too long to respond, their missile launching capacities may be incapacitated once the Russian warheads detonated; but if they fired, they would likely kill every living person in the USSR. They waited, fingers poised shakily over the button, weighing their duty to their country with the sheer magnitude of the consequence of pressing the button.
Well, since we are all here, not in the grips of a nuclear ice age or locked in WWIII with Mother Russia, obviously the commanding officers decided to wait. But what happened? As it turns out, the missile detection system, still very new and prone to malfunction, had taken a flock of Canadian geese flying overhead to be a nuclear warhead. And because the soldiers and commanding officers were willing to exercise discernment in interpreting the alarm signals—even in a moment of extreme pressure!—we are all still here. In our text today, we see Jesus give us the resources we need to exercise discernment, to interpret signs rightly, to know how to respond to great calamity. Turn with me now to Mark 13:
1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 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.”
3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19 For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mark 13:1-37
The text begins with the disciples exclaiming to Jesus: ““Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1b). It is hard to overstate just how magnificent the temple complex was. Construction on this temple began just fifty years before Jesus by Herod the Great, and was actually still under construction during Jesus’ time (it was not completed till 63 AD), but it was nonetheless staggering in appearance. Herod’s temple was far larger than Solomon’s or the second temple built under Nehemiah and Ezra. You could fit 12 football fields in the temple complex alone. The entire exterior was either covered in a white-wash or plated with gold. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century, writes:
The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either 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 from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white. Some of the stones in the building were forty-five cubits in length, five in height and six in breadth. – Josephus
One commentator writes: “In the latter part of the twentieth century, a large stone on the second tier of the western foundation wall was discovered whose dimensions are approximately 42 feet long × 14 feet wide × 11 feet tall,” (Stein, BECNT). Everything about the temple, from its beauty, to its sheer size, to its solemnity made it appear to be totally permanent. But Jesus thought otherwise.
“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.
Mark 13 begins with the innocuous comment: “And as he came out of the temple…” Mark 13:1a. It reminds us that the entire previous episode we have been studying has taken place within the temple: starting back in Mark 11, with Jesus’ triumphal entry and subsequent cursing of the temple, to the repeated debates and arguments with the temple authorities in Mark 12, right up to this moment. Towards the beginning of Mark 11 we saw Jesus cursing the fig tree as a sign of the judgment to come on the temple (11:12-22) and here at the end of Mark 13 we find a parable of a fig tree about the coming judgment on the temple (13:28-31), forming two brackets to tie this unit together as a whole.
Mark’s comment that Jesus is “coming out of the temple” could be a simple statement about Jesus leaving the temple grounds. Or it could be a prophetic act demonstrating that God’s presence has now departed from the temple (cf. Ezek 10). This seems more likely particularly because of the location Jesus walks to immediately afterwards: the Mount of Olives (Mark 13:3). This mountain was directly to the east of the city and gave those who sat on it a commanding view of all of Jerusalem, but especially the Temple. In the book of Zechariah, there was a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and “on that day [The Lord’s} feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives,” (Zech 14:4). The Lord is not in the temple, in Jerusalem, but standing outside Jerusalem as its judgment comes. Jesus, before His incarnation, was the One in the temple. But now, He stands outside of it, standing over it on the Mount of Olives. The temple in Jerusalem is no longer the dwelling place of God, instead it has become a dwelling place of robbers and false religion (cf. Mark 11:17).
Alarmed by Jesus’ statements, the disciples ask Jesus: ““Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4). This is critical to rightly understand this whole chapter; the controlling question here is: when will the temple be destroyed, and how will we know ahead of time when that will be?
In verses 5-8 Jesus explains signs that do not mean the temple is about to be destroyed: wars, famines, and earthquakes. These problems are part and parcel of living in a fallen world; they are “birth pains” (cf. Rom 8:22). Jesus’ advice is: “do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet,” Mark 13:7.
In verses 9-13 Jesus gives more signs that do not necessarily mean the temple is about to be destroyed: persecution. Because Jesus Himself was persecuted and “no servant is greater than His master” Christians have always experienced persecution. Jesus wants His disciples to know that this is to be expected, but God will also provide strength and aid to them as they share the gospel to all nations.
But in verses 14-23 Jesus gives His disciples what they are looking for: a sign that the destruction of the temple is imminent, “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains,” (13:14). The “abomination of desolation” is a phrase taken from the book of Daniel (Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) that describes a wicked ruler who brings an end to sacrifices in the temple, destroys Jerusalem, exalts himself above God, and desecrates the temple with “abominations.” The reason Mark includes that interesting comment (“Let the reader understand”) is because for most Jews, they assumed that this event had actually already happened. Nearly 190 years before Jesus gave the Olivet Discourse, a Seleucid general named Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled over Palestine, brutally squashed a rebellion in Jerusalem by destroying much of Jerusalem, entering the temple, and stopping all sacrifices. He then set up an idol to Zeus in the temple, and allegedly offered up a pig for sacrifice (an unclean animal according to kosher laws). This event is recorded in the Jewish historical book 1 Maccabees (1 Macc 1:54, 59) and was understood by all Jews to be the “abomination of desolation” that Daniel spoke of.
So, Jesus is saying: when something like that happens again in Jerusalem, you need to get out of the city as fast as possible and flee to the mountains because a judgment is going to fall on Jerusalem that us unlike anything else it has experienced in its total brutality. And this is exactly what happened. Thirty years from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, political tensions between Jerusalem and Rome had boiled over to a screaming fever pitch. More and more would-be Messiahs began to arise, more and more began to resort to acts of violence to throw off the Roman yoke, and more and more did Rome increase the burden of its yoke on the Jews’ necks. By 66 AD, the Zealots—an extreme fanatic movement of Jews—organized a rebellion against Rome. At the same time, however, a fierce civil war broke out between the different Jewish factions, with the Zealots eventually gaining ascendancy and taking forcible possession of the city. They instituted a reign of terror in the city, quickly executing anyone who questioned them, and set up their headquarters inside the temple. Driven far more by a hatred of Rome than a genuine love for Yahewh, they deposed the current high priest and set up their own high priest (Phanni) who knew nothing whatsoever was required of being a priest and was unqualified. They executed their political enemies in the temple square and permitted criminals to enter into the holy of holies, and thus desecrated the temple.
After this occurred, the church historian Eusebius details how the Christians who were residing in Jerusalem fled, remembering Jesus’ teaching, and so their lives were spared. In the Spring of 70 AD, the Roman general Titus during the Jewish celebration of Passover besieged the city. Rome, aggravated by the decades of growing hostility from the Jews, wanted to make an example out of this small nation and so crushed the with an absolute brutality. After months of waiting the people out till they were all near death due to famine, the Romans breached the walls and slaughtered nearly everyone in the city. They crucified thousands of Jews outside of the city and burnt the city to the ground before they plundered then destroyed the temple. Josephus, the Jewish historian was present when this happened and wrote that the dead were so numerous that ground could not be seen anywhere in the city, only corpses. The gravity of Jesus’ warning is thus fitting: “But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand,” (13:23).
But Jesus’ teaching seems to extend beyond just this moment in history. As we read Mark 13 we see that Jesus also is informing us of a greater event that looms larger than the destruction of the temple alone. He describes the climactic return of “the Son of Man.” He explains:
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” – Mark 13:24-27
What is described here is the climactic conclusion to history. The sun and moon darkening, the stars falling from heaven is a prophetic description of creation itself being unraveled, as if Genesis 1 is going in reverse (cf. Isa 13:10; 34:4; Ezek 32:7-8; Joel 2:10). The coming of the Son of Man riding the clouds is an image from Daniel 7:13-14 that describe the consummation of the Kingdom, where God the Father gives to this Son authority and power over every enemy, and then the Son shares His authority with God’s people (Dan 7:27). This is detailing something much more than just the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but is looking to the second coming of Jesus where He will destroy all His enemies and usher in the New Heavens and New Earth. But, how are we to understand the relationship between the destruction of the temple and the final judgment?
Two things are happening here in Mark 13: (1) Jesus is understanding the destruction of the temple to serve as a paradigm through which to understand what the end time judgment will look like (Paul seems to understand this and points to an event similar to the abomination of desolation as being a precursor to the second coming in 2 Thess 2:3-4). (2) Jesus sees the destruction of the temple as something that opens the door to the final judgment and His second coming.
When you look at a mountain range from a distance, it looks like all of the mountains are standing right next to each other. But when you get close, you discover that one mountain may actually be a mile further behind the other mountain. From your vantage point, the space between the mountains looks non-existent. This is often what happens in prophecy in the Bible—the future is viewed as a single event and described as such, when in reality there may be large gaps of distance in time between the events. For Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem and His second coming are bound together—after the destruction of the temple the Son of Man comes. But, what we now know is that there has been an expanse of two thousand years and we still are awaiting the second coming. Surprisingly, Jesus Himself explains that He does not know the timing of the end: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” Mark 13:32. If you’re thinking: Wait, how can Jesus not know something? You might ask yourself: Why did Jesus need to sleep? He was a human being, and in His humanity there were certain things that He was simply ignorant of. In His deity, this is not true of course. If you are befuddled by that, then feel free to come ask me questions about it afterwards.
But this dual-lens view of the destruction of the temple (near) and the end judgment (far) is how we can understand Jesus’ statement that “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” Mark 13:29-30 (Note: the “these things” and “all these things” mirror the disciples question in vs. 3, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” Thus, the “things” being accomplished refer to the destruction of the temple). And Jesus says, once that happens, you know “He is near.” One commentator explains, “Both Jesus’s resurrection and Jerusalem’s destruction are end-time events that are completed only by the [second-coming] of the Son of Man. Like engagement and marriage, they are necessarily connected, even though a time period separates them. So for Mark the events of AD 70 and the [second-coming] are united and yet separated in time,” (Stein, BECNT).
This is why all of the New Testament authors understand anyone living on this side of the resurrection to be those living in “the last days” (Heb 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20; 4:7; Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 7:31; 1 John 2:10). Thus, Jesus’ short parable of the master going away on his journey and who may return at any time is a picture of the eager expectation we need now to have. As Peter reminds us, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed,” (2 Pet 3:10). At any moment, the end may come. In light of that, Peter then asks us this question: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,” 2 Pet 3:11. Let’s briefly consider that now:
1. Patient. It might feel odd to think, “How can we be in the “last days” for two thousand years now?” Peter anticipates this problem: “knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”… But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” 2 Pet 3:3-4, 8-9.
2. Discerning. Much of Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples—and to us—in Mark 13 is to be careful about being misled. It is ironic that Jesus explicitly tells us here that “wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes” are not a sign of the end, and yet nearly every time war breaks out, Christians (American Christians particularly) think that it most certainly is a sign that the end is near. And when we get riled up into a fever of “doomsday prognosticating” we then will be more susceptible to false prophets and false messiahs who through signs and wonders, political analysis, end-times chart making, and biblical origami try to lead astray the elect. In 1988 a book came out called 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988, giving cooky half-baked explanations for why Jesus would return (one of them: in 1988 it would be the 212th anniversary of America and 100th session of congress, and water boils at 212 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius, and America was now at a boiling point). That, of course, sounds ridiculous now—but that book was a huge seller in America. We need to be very discerning. If we give ourselves over to "end-times" fervor, we will constantly be set up to be duped and swindled and have a strange kind of vanity that assumes that our moment or location in history is always fraught with the most supreme of importance. If we were Christians living in the 700's and heard that muslim armies had taken over Jerusalem and built a mosque on top of the Temple Mount, it would be tempting to think: This must be a sign that Jesus is returning soon. If we lived in medieval Europe in the 1200's and 1300's and saw the bubonic plague (Black Death) ravage our villages and cities, killing nearly a third of the population, leaving stacks of dead bodies piled up in our streets, wouldn't it be tempting to think: Surely, this must be a sign that the final Day is near! We should be slow to assume that we are at the doorstep of the end times, slow to be jumping to conclusions; we should be discerning.
3. Enduring. Jesus assumes that the posture we need to have is one of alert readiness: “Stay awake!” he charges us. You might be tempted to spiritually doze, but don’t! As we consider the length of time we are awaiting for Jesus’ return, our urgency might slip. Think of how sleepiness comes over you at a time where you need to stay awake: you know you shouldn't, but you feel warm, your eyelids are heavy, your head begins to nod, and it just sounds so nice to lay your head back and slip into the bliss of unconsciousness. And Jesus is hear clanging a loud bell and shouting: Don't! STAY AWAKE! To resist the temptation to become spiritually lackadaisical, to resist the lusts of the flesh and desires of the world that want to lull us into a slumber, we need endurance. But notice the particular way we are told to endure in verses 9-13? We should endure through persecution. Apparently, we should expect that as we seek to obey the Great Commission, to preach the gospel to the nations, it will result in persecution: “And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved,” Mark 13:13. Jesus simply assumes that His disciples are taking the gospel to any and everyone, even if it comes at the cost of our comfort and our own lives. But in our persecution, we have the comfort that the Holy Spirit Himself is with us, supplying everything we need (Mark 13:11) and that if we continue to endure to the end we "will be saved."
4. Confident. Interestingly, during the crucifixion of Jesus we see some of the elements of judgment that Jesus describes here. Mark explains that in Jesus’ final hours, "when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,” Mark 16:33. The sun stops shining. Matthew explains that at the moment Jesus dies, on top of the great darkness, there is a massive earthquake that splits rocks in two, that tombs open up and that dead saints come to life (Matt 27:51-53). And both Matthew and Mark explain that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil of the temple is torn in two (Mark 15:38). It’s like a miniature display of the destruction of the temple and the final judgment is happening in the death of Jesus. Why? Because that is exactly what is happening. The judgment day is coming, but it is coming into Jesus. The end times, earth-shattering, cataclysm of condemnation is rending creation--but the bullseye of this wrath is aimed at the man from Galilee hanging on a cross. The future has been pulled back into the past; the Final Day is happening today, in Jesus. Jesus is taking on the judgment that the sins of everyone who has put their faith in Him deserve, so that now for those who have trusted in Christ, there is no condemnation left (Rom 8:1). Our "Judgment Day" has already happened, two thousand years ago at Golgotha. And now when we die, we will receive the blessings and welcomes that Jesus' spectacular, law-fulfilling life had earned. And that is the kind of confidence we need to face down the persecutions of this world, to endure the temptations, to be discerning, and to be patient.
Marc Sims • April 20, 2021
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/734960--jesus-and-the-widow
Sermon Discussion Questions
- What stood out to you most?
- Do you know of anyone who has left the church because of accusations of hypocrisy? What should we say to such a person?
- Read Mark 12:38-40. What do the scribes love? What might this look like today? Are there ways you are tempted by this?
- How does the widow's offering point us to Jesus? (See 2 Cor 8:9)
- Read 2 Cor 8:1-15 and 2 Cor 9:1-15 together. What does this teach us about the Christian's responsibility to generosity?
Over the past few weeks many Christian leaders have been discussing a recent Gallup poll that has caused some stir in evangelicalism: church membership has declined in America to under 50% for the first time ever. Why has this happened? Could it be…
- The death of cultural Christianity? As America has become less favorable towards classic Christianity, people who had be inhabiting the church out of cultural expectations—rather than genuine belief—have begun to decline. (This is what I usually tend to believe is happening)
- Difficulty accepting the ethical teaching of Christianity, particularly around areas of sexuality and identity?
- Difficulty accepting the miraculous?
It could be a mixture of all of those—though fewer and fewer people are raising arguments against the spiritual and miraculous. Many people have presented different takes on this phenomena, but this week Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the SBC, wrote a perceptive article noting that he has found that more and more younger Christians are abandoning the church not because they find Christian teaching to be too restrictive or unbelievable, but they believe that the Church does not actually believe or practice what it teaches. Moore writes, “The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.” Young people aren’t becoming more secular, but think we are becoming more secular. Certainly, many of you here know of someone who has abandoned the church because they claim that they have seen hypocrisy and abuse taking place within the church.
What are we to think of such stories? In our text today we will find a woman who has been abused and taken advantage of by religious authorities, yet see her persist in a sincere devotion and costly faith, despite her suffering. And in and through her example we will see a model of our very Lord and Savior, who when abused and taken advantage of, continued to give of Himself to the highest and most ultimate degree.
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 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.” – Mark 12:38-44
Jesus begins by issuing this warning: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers,” Mark 12:38-40a. We have heard of the Scribes often in Mark’s gospel, with almost every encounter being negative (Mark 1:22; 2:6; 2:16; 3:22; 7:1; 7:5; 8:31; 9:14; 10:33; 11:18; 11:27; 12:35; 14:1; 14:43; 14:53; 15:1; 15:31). The Scribes, usually paired with the other Temple officials (chief priests, elders) or the Pharisees, as a whole believe that Jesus is a false Messiah, possibly under the influence of demons (cf. 3:22ff). They have been actively working to find a way to destroy Jesus, and are one of the main parties responsible for Jesus’ arrest and execution. The one exception to this has been the single scribe who just recently approached Jesus to ask about the greatest commandment (12:28-34). So, if we have read the gospels before we know that scribes are dangerous.
But, we must remind ourselves, that this warning may have sounded strange to Jesus’ original hearers. Scribes were respected Bible scholars. They were the ones responsible for copying the Hebrew Bible down with meticulous precision and teaching the Law to the people (cf. Mark 1:22). Were Jesus giving this warning today, it would sound like, “Beware of the seminary professors…beware of the learned Bible teachers…” Why should Jesus’ disciples watch out for those kinds of people? In the last story with the wise scribe, Jesus reminded us that the greatest command of God could be summarized in loving God with everything we have, our whole life, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And who better to exemplify and model those commands than the experts and teachers of the Law, the scribes!
But in Jesus’ eyes, do the scribes love God? No. They love being recognized, they love the approval and status and respect they get from their station. They wore special robes that let everyone know who they were as they walked down the street. “When a scribe walked down the street or passed through a marketplace, everyone (with the exception of laborers) was expected to rise before him,” (Edwards, PNTC). They loved seats of honor in the synagogue and at dinners and they loved making ornate, long prayers for show.
Do they love their neighbor? No. They devour widow’s houses. The scribes should have been the ones teaching and enacting the care for widows. Alongside the fatherless and the sojourner, widows were most frequently set aside as a vulnerable class of individuals in the Old Testament that required special care, provision, and protections from being taken advantage of. Sins against widows incur God’s special anger (Ex 22:21-24; Deut 14:29; 24:17ff; 27:19; Isa 1:17; Jer 7:6-7; 22:3; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5; Ps 146:9). The scribes, teachers of the Law, of course knew this! And yet, they prey on these vulnerable women, using their status and privilege in some way that leads to these already disadvantaged individuals becoming even further destitute, coaxing them out of what little financial security they had.
While we see a poor model in the scribes of how to interact with widows, we need not look far in the Bible to realize that we should care for widows today: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” James 1:27 (cf. 1 Tim 5:3-16). While the triumvirate of “widows, fatherless, and sojourner” in the Bible shows us that God commands us to care for whoever is most at risk in society to be taken advantage of, we need not work hard to think of how to apply this command. Here, in our church we have several widows who deserve our special attention and care. Let us not grow callous and cold like the scribes, who ignore the plain commands of our Lord.
What does the false religion of these scribes look like today? It’s hard not think of some smarmy televangelist, using their platform and appearance of godliness to dupe the impoverished into even further depths of poverty: Donate to our ministry and God will bless you! We should, rightly, beware of such people.
Yet, I doubt many of us in this room are tempted to be deceived by that. Where might we encounter this kind of show religion? We can find this anywhere we find someone who is more in love with themselves than God or neighbor, who use God simply as a way to achieve their ends:
- The teenager recording some good deed just to post it on social media to earn the approval of others.
- The husband who treats his wife and children with love and respect while at church, but explodes in anger as soon as they are home.
- The student who uses Bible verses to publicly defend their political tirades, but does not seek to apply any of those Bible verses to confronting their own sin.
Do you use your spirituality or knowledge of the Bible to impress other people? If you had the opportunity to care for someone or practice your faith, but knew that no one else would ever know about it, would you still be just as incentivized to do the good deed? Jesus elsewhere warns us:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matt 6:1-4
Beware—these scribes are a picture of where that sin wants to take you. Jesus warns of the consequence of this lifestyle: “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Mark 12:40b. Have you heard that all sin will be treated the same on the judgment day? It is true that any sin constitutes the breaking of God’s Law and thus earns us judgment (James 2:10-11). But here we see that there are some sins that earn a “greater condemnation” than others. Jesus seems to be particularly outraged by people who use their religious standing and position to abuse those who are under them.
After Jesus finishes teaching he then sits down in the temple court opposite of the treasury. In the temple court there were thirteen chests for various offerings that helped support and furnish the ministry of the temple. Since it was Passover week there was likely a large crowd drawn in to bring offerings and to worship. Jesus is simply sitting, observing what is going on. He notices that many wealthy people approach and offer large sums, “And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny,” Mark 12:42. While it was possible for women to own their own businesses and so support themselves (see Acts 16:14-15), it was still rare. So when a woman’s husband died she relied on her children or community to support her. If she had no children or her community turned from supporting her, she was left totally destitute. We don’t know the background of this woman other than the fact that she is a “poor widow.”
But, the fact that Mark has placed this story directly after Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes, who “devour widow’s houses,” seems to nod to the fact that this woman’s poverty has been brought about or exacerbated by the scribes’ rapacity and greed. A friend of mine describes this woman as a “carcass” picked over by the vultures and wolves of the temple. And yet, here she is at the temple, offering her two small coins to worship—knowing that those two small coins would likely go into the hands and care of those who have devoured her. The widow sees beyond those crooked leaders to the God whom she loves and her piety, devotion, and gratitude compel her to bring her offering nonetheless. What a model of love of God!
Friend, I wonder if you have been hurt by people in the church? I wonder if the hypocrisy and double-standards and compromise you have seen have given you pause on your participation in the church? And, in a way, it makes sense for someone to have hesitations about the church: the church is a total mess. We know that wolves have crept in and used their position and status to abuse, to exploit, and to get rich. This is one of the reasons why God gives shepherds (pastors) to churches, to protect the flock and chase away wolves (Acts 20:28-30). And Jesus leaves no doubt in our mind that wolves like these scribes will receive their final comeuppance at the judgment day, where they will receive a more severe punishment for their abuse. God does not take spiritual abuse lightly.
But even still, aside from intentional malicious wolf-like activity, the church still often fails to live up to its ideals. We have good intentions that we don’t follow through on; we are quick to devolve into factions, making minor issues major ones; we can be hypocritical, judgmental, and self-important. The church is a mess because we are a mess. But, to steal a line from Ray Ortlund, we are Jesus’ mess, and—wonder of wonders—He doesn’t think He is too good for us.
One of the things that should set the church apart from the world is not its preening and posturing to look better than everyone else, but our admission that we are totally broke without the help of Jesus. I knew one pastor who spoke with a successful businesswoman about Christianity, only to hear her say, “The church is a den of vipers—they are total hypocrites!” He pondered, and replied, “Yes, you’re right. But is it really any different outside the church?” Surprisingly, she was taken aback, “No…I guess it really isn’t.” After explaining the gospel to her, he boldly but gently offered, “There’s always room for one more to slither in.” The only people who can inhabit a church are sinful people because all people are sinners. We can gather together as a church, imperfectly and flawed and sinful though we are, and yet still truly and sincerely worship God and love one another. We don’t worship our leaders, or our institutions, or our ideas of what the community should be like: we worship the glorious and gracious God who is so kind and patient to deal with messy people like us.
The widow’s offering shows us that even in the worst cases of spiritual abuse, we can still come to God because it is Him, not His flawed servants, whom we are worshipping.
Jesus, upon seeing the widow’s offering, “called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box,” Mark 12:43. Now, strictly speaking, this woman did not put in more than anyone else. She put in the smallest possible amount. Why does Jesus say this? “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,” Mark 12:44.
The wealthy people putting in large sums count little to Jesus because they are contributing out of their abundance. It is the extra that they scrape off the top; it does not affect their life in any way to give. But the widow’s offering? It is stunning because (1) it is given while the woman was in poverty, and (2) in her poverty she put in everything she had, all she had to live on. She could have thrown in just one copper coin, but she didn’t. She could have said, “I’m not in a good financial situation to be giving money away right now,” but she didn’t. She could have reasoned, “These crooked scribes have swindled me so I don’t need to give them a dime,” but she didn’t.
If you remember Jesus’ last conversation with a scribe where he explained that the most important commandment was: “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,” Mark 12:30. All (pas) is repeated over and over again. And here Jesus explains that this woman has put in everything, all she had (pas). Jesus is showing us a living, breathing example of someone who is obeying the greatest commandment and loving God with everything she has. The final phrase, “all she had to live on” could more literally be translated, “her whole life,” (bios). This shows us:
Little is much in the hands of God. Jesus points out that because of the woman’s heart, her devotion that has led her to contribute everything she had while in the midst of such extreme poverty, she has actually contributed more than anyone else. God doesn’t need sacrifices and offerings. He isn’t strapped for cash or talent. So the dollar amount of our offerings matters less than our hearts behind it. One thinks of the young boy who brought his few loaves and fish to Jesus, who multiplied them to feed thousands. Do you feel like you have little to offer God? Like you lack the gifts, the knowledge, the abilities, the finances, or the time that others have? I can only offer up weak prayers, I can only stutter out a few Bible verses, I don’t have much to offer God. Friend, be encouraged: God desires your heart, your devotion—He can take care of multiplying our loaves and fish.
Pursue serious generosity. Jesus did not care for the gifts of the wealthy because they gave out of abundance. In 2 Samuel, David is wanting to purchase a plot of land for an altar to God. When he speaks with the man who owns the land, he offers to give David the land and oxen to offer for the sacrifice for free. But David will not accept them, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing,” 2 Sam 24:24. If God doesn’t need our offerings, then why does He require them of us? Money is the key that opens up so many things that our hearts desire: comfort, approval, power, control. Money can seemingly buy you all of those things, and all of those things can become subtle replacements for our devotion and worship. Where we put our money reveals and exposes what we love most, and God wants to check our heart: What do you love most?
When we give out of our excess, that requires no reordering of our priorities, that requires no cost to us, that requires no trust in the Lord. You can still continue to proverbially worship at the altars of those other false gods.
In what ways are you being generous that costs you, that requires you to trust in God the way the widow was trusting in God to provide for what she needed to live on? Paul demonstrates for us what it looks like to be generous in such a way that you depend on God to provide what you need:
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. – 2 Cor 9:10-12
God will provide everything you need so that you may “be generous in every way.” So trust in God to provide what you need! This is what was produced in the churches of Macedonia that Paul describes to us:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. – 2 Cor 8:1-4
The Macedonian church in “extreme poverty” were begging Paul that they could use what little finances they had to help support other struggling churches. Friend, if you are waiting till you are just a little bit better off before you start being generous, you will never be generous. Sometimes it is good to be the recipient of generosity. Sometimes we need to be on the receiving end and to simply and humbly accept help. But God has called us, wherever we are and with what we have, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength—with everything (including our finances) we have.
If everyone else in our church followed your model in their tithes, in their financial support of missionaries and other local ministries, would our church be thriving, our missionaries, and our ministry partners be thriving? If everyone else in our church followed your model of hospitality, generosity, and benevolence, would our church be growing in fellowship, would the needs of our members be cared for, and would the poor be cared for?
How do you do this?
As we reflect on the hero of this story, the widow, we might be left thinking: how on earth does someone live like that? Well, as we consider the widow we see in her a model of the greater hero: Jesus. As Paul continues to teach in 2 Corinthians, he points the Corinthians to Jesus’ model of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” 2 Cor 8:9. We are told that the widow, in giving her offering, has thrown in “her whole life”—her whole bios.
Jesus likewise gives everything He has—but only He isn’t poor, He is infinitely wealthy. He is the King of the Universe, the almighty and eternal God who leaves His heavenly wealth, in order to come down and become impoverished. He takes on flesh, limits Himself by taking on a human nature, and lives a human life. And as He lives His life, His obedience to the Law and righteousness earn Him a heavenly reward, the blessings promised to those uphold the Law. But Jesus, having this wealth, further impoverishes Himself by going to the cross and taking our spiritual debts with Him, suffering the penalty our sins deserved through His death, and resurrecting three days later to demonstrate that our debts had been fully paid, fully satisfied, and death conquered. And now, anyone He who will turn to Christ and trust in Him can receive the wealth of Jesus’ righteousness credited to their account.
It is only when we see what Jesus has done for us, how deeply He has given for us, how painfully He sacrificed for us so that we could be forgiven and restored, that we find the power to be generous likewise.
So, friend, do you desire to grow in your generosity? Consider the abundant generosity you have been shown in Jesus Christ.
Have you been hurt by the church? Look to the gracious and kind God who is still worthy of your praise and devotion.
Have you been using your religion as a charade of your own self-righteousness? Drop the exhausting act and come and rest in grace and forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ.
Marc Sims • April 13, 2021
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What stood out to you most from the sermon?
- Why did Jesus answer with two commandments when asked to list just one?
- How can some commandments be more important than other commandments? (see vs. 33) Aren't all commandments equally important?
- "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matt 22:40. What does this mean? (See section "centrality of these commands").
- How does the command to "love God and love neighbor" affect how we use our time? (See Eph 5:15-16)
- How are love of God and love of neighbor connected? (See 1 John 4:19-20) What would it look like today for someone to claim to love God, but not love their neighbor? To claim to love their neighbor, but not love God?
- Read Luke 10:25-37. Who is your neighbor? What did "love of neighbor" look like in this story? What does this teach us today?
- Close in prayer, reflecting on any area of your life where you feel like you have not been loving God most in. Confess these to one another and pray for each other.
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 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.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. – Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes overhears Jesus’ response given to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection and is impressed with Jesus’ answer. He poses to Jesus a typical question of the day: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Rabbis of the day had counted a total of 613 commandments in the Old Testament and had spent time dividing the laws into “heavy” and “light” categories. Jesus seems to affirm this differentiation when he warns of relaxing even “one of the least of [the] commandments” (Matt 5:19) and rebukes the Pharisees for tithing out of their garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” (Matt 23:23a).
This division of the law into these categories, however, wasn’t a way of saying some laws were unimportant or didn’t need to be obeyed. In fact, in Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees of paying attention to the lighter commandments and neglecting the weighty, He concludes: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others,” (Matt 23:23b). One commentator notes, “..it is best to understand this question as an attempt to identify not which commandments are unimportant and need not be kept but rather which commandment is the most fundamental one from which all the other commandments arise,” ( Stein, BECNT). This is the Scribe’s question.
Jesus responds with the most well-known verse in the Old Testament, “The most important is, 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,” Mark 12:29-30. This citation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was known as the Shema because the first word of the verse “Hear” in Hebrew is Shema. It was recited morning and evening by all pious Jews. Many famous rabbis had concluded that this was, indeed, the most important command in all of Torah. But Jesus goes beyond the questioner’s original intent and instead of sharing just one command He shares two: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” Mark 12:31 (citing Lev. 19:18).
Jesus is asked which is most important, but He gives two. He labels the first commandment as “1st” and the next as “2nd”, seeing that the second commandment is subordinate to the first. But then he concludes by stating that there “is no other commandment greater than these,” setting them both apart in their significance. These two commands are foundational to the whole of the Old Testament’s Law.
The Scribe responds, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Mark 12:32-33. This response is surprising; all of the Scribes interactions with Jesus thus far have been negative (see Mark 3:22-30, 7:1ff), but this Scribe responds positively to Jesus, agreeing with Him. He agrees with Jesus’ estimation, and even adds that these two commands are more important than “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
In the Old Testament it was God who had commanded burnt offerings and sacrifices—they were not unimportant. There are huge sections of the books of the Old Testament that give precise, painstaking details about burnt offerings and sacrifices. Without burnt offerings and sacrifices the entire system of temple worship was virtually rendered obsolete—it was through sacrifices and offerings at the temple that God was praised, worshiped and sins were forgiven. But the danger was that it was possible to participate in them without loving God and without loving neighbor. In fact there are several instance in the Old Testament where this happens. In the prophet Hosea, God explains, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” Hos 6:6. Or in 1 Sam 15:22, ““Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” Participating in sacrifices and offerings to the Lord while our hearts are far from Him does nothing and God is not pleased. Further, making offerings to God while we fail to love our neighbor earns us similar displeasure from God, as Micah the prophet warns us:
“6 With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8 (cf. Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:18-24; Eccl 5:1; Prov 15:8).
What does God want from you? In the ancient world, what mattered most to the gods were sacrifices and offerings—it was through these offerings that the gods were appeased and satiated. In Hinduism today, food offerings are still presented to the gods to replenish their strength. But in the Bible we see that the God described here is very different; He does not command sacrifices and offerings because He needs them, like other gods do (see Ps 50:9-15). What God desires more than anything is obedience, is love.
The Scribe is a good student of the Bible and sees that love of God and neighbor outweigh everything else. And Jesus agrees. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Mark 12:34. After this, no one dares ask Jesus any further questions.
This morning my wife was reading through the sermon text to prepare for the service today. As I was walking out she pointed something out that I simply hadn’t paid attention to: the scribe in his response to Jesus cites an additional Scripture to the ones Jesus cites. He weaves together 1 Sam 15:22 and Hos 6:6. It is after this that Jesus understands that the man answers “wisely.” Where does wisdom come from? God’s Word.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes; - Psalm 19:7-8
Friend, where do you look for wisdom in life? Do you want to be wise? Look to God’s Word, saturate your mind and your heart in God’s Word. Life is complicated. Politics, parentings, singleness, familial conflict, disappointment--how do you respond to all of these situations in all of their circumstantial complexity? If you read the Bible you will not find chapter and verse telling you who to marry, what job to take, or how to encourage your depressed child--but you will formed into a person of wisdom, and wisdom is what you need in life. So devote yourself to God's Word, surround yourself with God's Word, and let it shape and mold you into a wiser person.
What does this passage mean?
The centrality of these commands
Every command in the Bible could be summarized under the heading of either “love of God” or “love of neighbor.” In Matthew’s account of this story he concludes: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” Matt 22:40. The “Law and Prophets” was just another way of describing the Old Testament. So the ten commandments, the clean/unclean laws, the food laws, the teachings on sex and marriage, and every other command we come across in the Bible—they all are branches that shoot out of the trunk of “love God and love neighbor.” This is why Paul can say: “love is the fulfilling of the law,” Rom 13:10 and why Jesus can say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15. This means underneath all of the commands runs these two commands: love God and love neighbor. When we are confronted with a command from God, how we respond to it reveals what you love.
Think of the issue of time management. A seemingly “small” command. Paul exhorts us: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” Eph 5:15-16 (cf. Col 4:5). Make the best use of the time. How do you use your time? At a time where our opportunities for entertainment, leisure, and distraction are legion, where the word ‘binge’ has become commonplace, what does God’s command to use our time well mean? Well, we understand that God has called us to many, many noble tasks: to work diligently at our vocation; to be fruitful and multiply and so raise our children in the discipline and instruction of our Lord; to share the gospel with the lost; to care for the widow, the orphan, and the poor; to help our fellow church members grow in their discipleship; to use the gifts God has given us for the good of the church; to pray without ceasing; to work for the good of our city; and to rest, relax, and enjoy the many good gifts God has given us in such a way that our hearts are warmed to the Lord. If we look at all of those commands and say: No thanks, I really need to catch up on my shows,or I can’t do that, Billy made the travelling team this year, or I’m sorry, but I must impress my boss so I have to use all my time to work, then we look at God and say: You are not important enough to be obeyed, I love these things more than you.
The connection of these commands
Why did Jesus present two commands when asked about just one? Jesus was asked which commandment—singular—was the most important. In a way, Jesus answers the question: the most important, the first, is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But why does Jesus add the second? Why not just leave that off? Because we demonstrate our love of God through our love of neighbor. John explains: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen,” 1 John 4:19-20.
It is impossible for us to love God and not love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor with loving God, since loving God is the first and greatest commandment. This guards us against two errors: loving God without loving neighbor, or loving neighbor without loving God. Let me share two stories with you to illustrate this.
Once when I was younger I was speaking with a girl who was a Christian that I was hoping I could ask out. So, naturally I told her that I was a Christian too—I was not, but in my defense, I really thought I was. I just had no idea what that actually meant. Later in the day, while she was nearby, a friend of mine ran by and did something to me that I cannot even remember but found it extremely irritating and obnoxious, before sprinting away laughing. I exploded in anger and shouted a long, ugly string of profanities after him. The girl was shocked and looked at me: I thought you said you were a Christian? I was genuinely baffled by her response. “I am!” I responded, slightly offended. “Well, Christians definitely don’t talk like that.” I rolled my eyes and laughed at her.
(Unsurprisingly, she was no longer interested in a date).
What I had assumed—and what was so obviously wrong to the girl—was that being a Christian really required very little from you. It was just an interesting detail about your life, like your genealogy or your family traditions around the holidays, but it didn’t demand anything more than your tacit awareness and token rituals. It was merely a private, personal reality. But these commands say otherwise. The faith of the Bible is a faith that makes demands of you, and those demands extend outside of your personal, internal world. They dictate how you treat others. So much so that, as John as told us, if we claim that “we love God” but do not love our brothers, we are deceiving ourselves.
Years after becoming a Christian I worked as a server at a restaurant here in town. It became known that I was a Christian and had aspirations of becoming a pastor someday, so everyone knew I took my faith very seriously. One man (who insisted on calling me “Father Marc”) got into a lengthy discussion with me one day during a slow afternoon. In between wiping down tables he asked why Christians cared so much about sex and why we were not content with simply letting two people who loved each other to do whatever they pleased. We often hear the slogan today: “Love is love.” What that tautology and my co-worker were trying to communicate was that if two people love each other, then who cares if their expression of love looks different than traditional morality? I responded by trying to affirm that the Bible puts a very high premium on “love” and the Bible actually says that all of its ethical commands can be summarized by love. But, the Bible also defines “love” for us. To “love” someone is to be committed to their good, and what is “good”? The highest and must supreme good is God alone. So, if I try to define “love” in such a way that runs contrary to what God has commanded, then I am not actually loving. In Paul’s great chapter on love he explains, “love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth,” 1 Cor 13:6. So if our “love” tries to cut against the grain, if it does not flow out of and lead into a greater love for God, then it is not love. In other words, we cannot love our neighbor at the expense of loving God.
The culmination of the other commands
When the scribe points out that these two commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by that? If you remember, Jesus understands the kingdom of God to have come in His arrival. The Gospel of Mark opened with Jesus’ pronouncement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” Mark 1:15 The kingdom of God is what was lost in Eden, what the kingdom of David was a foretaste of, and what every Jew in the Old Testament up to Jesus’ day had been awaiting. In the Kingdom all of God’s promises would be fulfilled, God would restore His people, and overcome all of their enemies. Jesus teaches that the wait is over and the Kingdom is here. Of course, Mark has taught us that the arrival of the Kingdom has been surprising, not what anyone would expect, but nevertheless the Kingdom had come in the person of Jesus.
But why does Jesus tell the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom here, specifically after the scribe says that love of God and neighbor is more important than sacrifice? Further, why would there be so many places in the Old Testament that teach that sacrifices and offerings are less important than other commands? Because what the sacrifices and offerings pointed to had arrived in the person and work of Jesus. Under the old covenant, to have fellowship with God, for your sins to be forgiven, you went to the temple and offered sacrifice. But Jesus has come to usher in the new covenant, a new way to commune with God, a new way for sins to be forgiven. Under the new covenant, it is not a lamb or bull who is sacrificed, it is the Son of God Himself. Jesus’ blood is establishes the new covenant, and thus renders the old covenant and its obsolete.
So now, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament connected to the Temple are exhausted and fulfilled through Christ, and the “lighter” matters of the law fade away.
God wants all of you. When we are told to love God with our “heart, soul, mind, and strength,” it is just a way to describe every nook and cranny of our lives. Our desires, our affections, our ideas, our thoughts, our will, our actions—there is not one square inch of our lives over which Jesus does not rightfully claim ‘Mine!”
But isn’t it interesting that we are commanded to love God—in other religions, what is the most important command? God doesn’t just want servile subjects—He desires a relationship with you. He desires your love. As a husband desires all of his wife’s heart, so too does our God desire all of us.