Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 61, Destruction Of The Temple/Persecution Of Christians/The Great Tribulation, Part Four

In our study today Jesus makes reference to a prophecy from the book of Daniel in regard to the end times. Daniel foresaw a day in which there would be a third temple and a sinful man who would desecrate it. This man has not yet been made manifest to us, but he is the one who will be known as the Antichrist.

"When you see 'the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong---let the reader understand---then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now---and never to be equaled again." (Mark 13:14-19) This time of distress cannot be a reference to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Although that was a time of great tribulation, it was not the Great Tribulation---the days of distress that are going to be worse than anything that has ever happened since the beginning of the world. Jesus has to be talking about the end times, and His use of a phrase from the book of Daniel proves it.

The prophet Daniel spoke of something that would desecrate the temple and make it unfit for use. Some critics have attempted to assert that the book of Daniel wasn't written by Daniel or even during Daniel's lifetime. They claim the book was written by an unknown Jew during the lifetime of the tyrannical Antiochus Ephiphanes, the King of Syria who conquered Jerusalem in 167 BC. He viciously persecuted the Jews, set up pagan idols in the land, and forbade the Jews to observe the rituals of their religion. In order to prevent them from bringing offerings and sacrifices to God, he desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. There is, however, no credible evidence to support the book of Daniel being written outside of Daniel's own lifetime, or of it being written in reference to Antiochus Ephiphanes. Jesus could not have quoted from the book of Daniel if this were so, for Jesus was crucified more than 130 years before Antiochus took control of Jerusalem. We can plainly see that the book of Daniel had long been considered holy Scripture by the time Jesus was born.

Antiochus Ephiphanes was an evil man and his hatred of the Jews could be compared to that of Adolf Hitler. As we noted when we did our study of the book of Daniel, both these wicked men were a type of Antichrist, or "little antichrists" if you will. Any king or dictator who hates and persecutes the Jews can be considered a "little antichrist". But Daniel foresaw the end times and had a vision of a man who will be the Antichrist, and this is what he said of him, "He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven'. In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him." (Daniel 9:27) It is believed by a number of reputable and well-respected Bible scholars and students of prophecy that the man who will be the Antichrist will broker a seven-year peace treaty in the Middle East. It may be that the two-state solution between the Jews and the Palestinians will finally come to pass and that the Antichrist will engineer a seven-year cease fire, with one of the conditions of this cease-fire being that the Jews are allowed to rebuild the temple, possibly right beside the Dome of the Rock. We can accept it as fact that a third temple will be built, for there must be a temple in Jerusalem in the last days in order for it to be desecrated.

The Antichrist will pretend to be a friend to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. He will deceive many into thinking he is a man of religious tolerance who wants everyone to have the freedom to practice his or her religion in peace. But because he is indwelt by Satan himself, the only god he recognizes is himself, and the only worship he truly finds acceptable is the worship of himself. Daniel warns, "The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods." (Daniel 11:38a) The Apostle Paul caught a prophetic glimpse of the Antichrist, the one he refers to as the man of lawlessness and the man doomed to destruction, and in that glimpse he understood what both Daniel and Jesus meant by the "abomination that causes desolation". Paul tells us, "He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God." (2 Thessalonians 2:4) After ensuring that the temple is rebuilt, at the midpoint of the seven-year treaty he will declare himself the only god and will forbid people to worship anyone but him. He will put a stop to all sacrifice and offering to the one true God, and in order to prevent God from being honored in His own temple, he will desecrate it. When Paul says this man will set himself up in God's temple, this is likely a reference to an image of himself being placed on the altar.

Satan has always wanted to be worshiped in place of God. If he cannot entice mankind to worship him in place of God, he will try and coerce mankind to worship anything else but God. In ancient times, and in some countries even today, men and women are bowing down to pagan idols instead of bowing down to the one true God. In other areas of the world Satan has managed to tempt men and women to bow to less tangible idols, which is why so many types of addictions exist. Anything or anyone we value more than we value God is an idol. If Satan can't persuade a person to bow their knees to him, he wants to keep them from bowing their knees to Almighty God. In the end times he will finally have his opportunity to be worshiped literally through the man known as the Antichrist. Anyone who does not willingly give him worship will be threatened with death. He thinks that at last he is going to have his moment in the sun, the desire of his heart, which Isaiah tells us is this, "I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." (Isaiah 14:13-14)

Lest these images strike terror in our hearts, Isaiah says of the one who exalts himself, "But you will be brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit." (Isaiah 14:15) Lest we fear evil will win in the end, the Apostle John assures us, "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur...tormented day and night forever and ever." (Revelation 20:10) Christ will throw down Satan once and for all. Christ will set up His eternal kingdom, and we who have trusted in His name will behold His face forever, and we will enjoy eternity with Him in an Eden-like world where no wickedness will ever enter. "No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever." (Revelation 22:3-5)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 60, Destruction Of The Temple/Persecution Of Christians/The Great Tribulation, Part Three

We finished yesterday's study with Jesus telling the disciples that wars, natural disasters, and deception will increase as we approach the end times. He referred to these things as "birth pains", meaning something new is going to be born out of this old world, but also indicating that before the birth the conditions on this earth will become more and more perilous. But just as a woman in labor expects to have a new baby at the end, when the birth pains of this world are over our Lord and King will say, "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away...Behold, I am making everything new!" (Revelation 21:4-5)

Before that glorious day comes, Jesus warns the disciples that they will face persecution for their faith. "You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of Me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them." (Mark 13:9) We find Jesus' words coming true when we read the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament. The apostles are going to endure many things for the sake of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But even these terrible persecutions are not a sign that the end is near. "And the gospel must first be preached to all nations." (Mark 13:10) There are going to be moments when the apostles are going to believe that surely they are living in the end times. When they are being falsely imprisoned they may wonder if Jesus is going to return at any second to set up His eternal kingdom. While they are being beaten without having committed any crime they may believe judgment is imminent for the enemies of the gospel. But before the end comes, all the world must be given the opportunity to believe on the name of Jesus. Every nation is to have the chance to hear the gospel. In my opinion, if we want the kingdom of Christ to come soon, the best thing we can do is help get the gospel out to people who have never heard His name. Supporting missionary work is a wonderful way to do this. Even in these modern times, there are still remote villages and tribes who have never heard the gospel, and we need to support the missionaries who are reaching out to them.

Jesus promises to help the disciples when they are persecuted. They are worried about what they will do and say when the time comes. They are afraid they won't be able to say anything at all, but He assures them that the Holy Spirit will guide them. "Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit." (Mark 13:11)

When these men begin boldly proclaiming the name of Christ following the resurrection, they will not be able to trust even their closest friends and relatives. "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of Me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Mark 13:12-13) There are still places in the world today where a person could be put to death by his own family for converting to Christianity. What was true in the days of the apostles is still true today: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is divisive. People who don't believe in any deity at all can usually manage to tolerate references to God or gods, but the name of Jesus Christ has the ability to stir up rabid anger and burning hatred.

Why is it this way? Because "salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved". (Acts 4:12) The name of Jesus Christ is so divisive because His is the only name by which we can be saved! Satan is at work twenty-four hours a day desperately trying to blind the world to the truth, and he will use anyone and everyone he can to persecute those who believe on the name of Jesus. If he can't shut Christians up, he will kill them if at all possible.

Satan hates God with everything he has in him, but he is unable to do anything to God. He has chosen what is the next best thing: harming the human beings that God loves so much He gave His Son for them. There's nothing the devil can do to take salvation away from those who have trusted in Christ, so he tries to prevent them from sharing their testimonies. He also wants to keep the unsaved from ever coming to Christ. But thanks be to God, Satan doesn't win in the end! In fact, Christ has already won the victory. Dark days will come on this world, and we don't know whether we ourselves may face persecution in our own lifetimes for proclaiming the name of Christ, but the Lord Jesus promises to be with us just as He was with the apostles. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength to do whatever we are called to do. The One who won the victory over death, hell, and the grave has given us the victory over all things. We will reign with Him forever. (2 Timothy 2:12) We will spend eternity with Him in a creation made new where there will never again be any more sickness or death or crying or pain. The victory is ours. Satan is a defeated foe. He can roar like a lion all he wants, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah is going to trample him underfoot.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 59, Destruction Of The Temple/Persecution Of Christians/The Great Tribulation, Part Two

Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that the temple will be destroyed. This must have been terrifying news to them. The temple in their midst is a symbol of God's protective presence with them. If the temple is to be destroyed, this must mean God is going to allow something awful to happen in Jerusalem. As they take their rest on the Mount of Olives, where they have a beautiful view of the temple, four of the disciples want to know more about the coming tragedy.

"As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Him privately, 'Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?'" (Mark 13:3-4) Naturally these men wonder if the temple will fall during their own lifetimes. They wish Jesus to tell them how they will know when the sad day is about to come to pass.

As we continue on with Chapter 13 we will need to keep in mind that Jesus blends two prophecies together: the fall of the temple that will take place in 70 AD, and the dark days of the end times before He returns to rule over the earth. The fall of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD is going to be a time of tribulation for the Jews, comparable only to the Great Tribulation of the end times. As with many Bible prophecies, the prophecies of these two events are blended together seamlessly with no clear line of demarcation between them, although nearly two thousand years have passed since the fall of the second temple and the Great Tribulation is still in the future.

"Jesus said to them: 'Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in My name, claiming, 'I am He,' and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.'" (Mark 13:5-8) Several men arose in ancient Judea claiming to be somebody and gathering a following behind them. In the original Greek verse 6 is saying, "Many will come in My name, claiming, 'I Am'." This means there would be those who would take the title of God for themselves, (God called Himself 'I Am' to Moses in Exodus 3:14). Indeed there were such men, the Theudas mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5 being one of them. Theudas claimed to be God in the flesh and vowed to overthrow Rome and reclaim the Promised Land for the Jews. Jesus warns not to be deceived by such men, for their end will come, just as Theudas' end came, and their promises will lead to nothing.

Jesus was right when He said men claiming to be the Messiah would deceive many. During my own lifetime men who have claimed to be the Messiah have deceived many and led them to their deaths, such as Jim Jones who founded the People's Temple, Marshall Applewhite who founded Heaven's Gate, and David Koresh who founded the Branch Davidians. There is a satanic influence at work in those who make the false claims of being the Messiah, for we see the true intentions of Satan made manifest in the work of these cults. Satan is a liar. (John 8:44) Satan wants to kill, steal, and destroy. (John 10:10) Satan's only purpose in interacting with mankind is to bring doom upon human beings whenever possible. This is why it's so vital that we know the Scriptures! The person who knows the Scriptures will be difficult to deceive because he will immediately notice when something doesn't line up with the word of God.

Jesus also says not to be alarmed every time a battle or a war breaks out somewhere in the world. Nation has always fought against nation. Nation will keep on fighting against nation until Christ comes and sets up His eternal kingdom. War itself is not a sign that the end times are upon us.

Jesus points out that natural disasters are not a sign that the end is near. Since the beginning there have been floods, famines, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and various other major catastrophes. The world will continue to experience such upheavals until Christ returns.

He says of false Messiahs, wars, and natural disasters, "These are the beginning of birth pains." When a woman first goes into labor, her pains are not as strong or as close together as they will be right before the baby emerges into the world. The same is true for the end times. Deceivers will multiply as we get closer to the end. Wars will break out more frequently. Natural disasters will occur more often. The Apostle Paul, in one of his letters to Timothy, prophesied, "There will be terrible times in the last days." (2 Timothy 3:1)

We, as believers, need not panic over any of these things. Our job is not to watch the news fearfully every morning for signs of the end. Our job is to "go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation". (Mark 16:15) Our job is to tell the good news of Christ to a world that desperately needs Him. Seeing that an end to the world as we know it is going to come, and a judgment is going to follow, we ought to have a burning desire to help as many people come to Christ as we can. We should want to see as many people as possible saved from the wrath of a holy God.

We have a choice to make. We can read the newspaper or watch the news and wring our hands in fear, or we can get on with the commission Christ gave us. He has made it clear which one is the right choice. Let's show the love of Christ to our fellow man. Let's tell the world He loves them and gave His life for them so that they can have hope even on the darkest days.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 58, Destruction Of The Temple/Persecution Of Christians/The Great Tribulation, Part One

In Chapter 13 Jesus gives forewarning about the coming destruction of the temple, about the persecution Christians will face, and about the perilous days of the end times known as the Great Tribulation. This chapter is long and contains so much material that we will have to study it over the next several days.

"As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, 'Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!'" (Mark 13:1) This disciple speaks as if it's his first trip to town, but according to the ancient historian Josephus the temple as restored by Herod the Great was a sight to behold. He describes the gold plates and the white marble and states that the temple could be seen from a distance of "many furlongs". Some of the stones used for the retaining wall were fifty feet wide, so large that no one in Jesus' day could imagine the temple compound not standing forever.

According to Bible scholar David Guzik, by Jesus' day the temple was so great in the eyes of the people that their adoration of it bordered on idolatry. They would make oaths in the name of the temple and it was considered blasphemy to speak against the temple. In addition, as we've seen, the religious system had become corrupt because so many of its leaders had become corrupt. They had been seduced by worldly things. Jesus criticized them for being more concerned with their power and status and wealth than they were with leading the people by the truth of God's word. In Jesus' day the temple was nearing the end of its usefulness and its destruction was drawing near, so He says to the disciple who is so impressed with it, "'Do you see all these great buildings?' replied Jesus. 'Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'" (Mark 13:2)

This dire prediction, so difficult to believe at the time, came true about forty years later. The Jews began a rebellion against Rome in 66 AD, resulting in a final battle at Jerusalem in 70 AD, when Emperor Vespasian sent his son Titus with an army to take the city and put a decisive end to the rebellion. He laid siege to the city for 143 days, trapping not only the citizens of Jerusalem inside, but also the pilgrims who had come up to Jerusalem at Passover. When the walls were breached, 3,000 Roman soldiers poured into the city, slaughtering hundreds of thousands and taking tens of thousands captive. Many citizens fled to the temple for safety, believing it could withstand the onslaught because of its massive stones, but contrary to the orders of Titus the temple was set on fire by his soldiers "in a frenzy" according to Josephus. The fire was so hot that it raged for a number of days, melting the gold plates and causing the molten gold to run between the cracks in the stones. Later, when the pillaging of the temple began, the stones were literally torn apart so that the gold could be retrieved. Despite the orders of Titus, which he relayed to his generals and which they relayed to the troops, the temple was destroyed just as Jesus predicted. The will of God outweighed the will of a Roman general.

It's possible that those who fled to the temple for safety believed God would not allow it to be destroyed. This is the same thing the people believed in the days before the Babylonian invasion, mainly due to the promises of false prophets who assured them the Lord would protect His temple and His city. The prophet Jeremiah warned them against believing the false prophets, saying, "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!'" (Jeremiah 7:3-4) In Jeremiah's day, before the destruction of Solomon's temple, God reminded the people that He had taken the visible symbol of His presence away from them before, "Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears My name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors." (Jeremiah 7:12-14) Shiloh is where the tabernacle was located for about three hundred years. The book of 1 Samuel tells us that it was attacked by the Philistines and that the Ark of the Covenant was stolen at that time and later returned, but the final destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh is not described, although it definitely was destroyed because the area lies in ruins today.

The Lord has the right to remove His protective hand from any nation, temple, or church where His name is not honored and where His word is not obeyed. Our own nation, generally speaking, has fallen far from the Biblical principles it started out with. I've heard a number of preachers say that if God didn't still have so many people in this country who honor His name, and if the United States wasn't a friend to Israel, He would already have taken His protective hand off us. He still may someday allow our country to fall because of the sin that prevails, and especially if our government ever turns its back on His people Israel, for He promised to bless anyone who blesses the descendants of Abraham and to curse anyone who curses the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:3). If we want to keep the Lord's protective hand on our nation, then we who are believers would do well to heed this same advice which He gave Israel after the dedication of Solomon's temple, "If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 57, The Widow's Offering

Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts, where He has been tested by the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. He is no doubt weary, so He takes a break at this point and walks out to the area where the collection boxes are located near the Court of Women.

Mark tells us, "Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury." (Mark 12:41a) He spends some quiet time there, watching the people come in, observing how much they put into the offering boxes. The Lord knows how much we give to His work, but even more importantly He knows the spirit in which we give. He knows whether we give in order to be seen by our fellow man or whether we give in order to be of aid to God's kingdom and to His people. He knows whether our giving is a matter of trust in God or whether our giving is a matter of having so much money that we think nothing of casting large sums into the offering.

"Many rich people threw in large amounts." (Mark 12:41b) There's nothing wrong with this. This passage isn't criticizing the lavish giving done by the wealthy. While some of the nation's wealthy may have donated large amounts to the temple offering in order to be seen and praised by their fellow man (such as the religious leaders Jesus has been chastising for their hypocrisy), I am sure that a number of these wealthy donors are giving out of the goodness and willingness of their hearts. Naturally, if a person is wealthy, he has more to donate to the temple treasury. The issue of the giving in today's passage has to do with whether it is costing the giver anything.

The wealthy people passing by Jesus as He sits near the treasury are able to reach deep into their pockets and draw out large sums. They are used to spending large sums, not just in their giving to the Lord, but in their daily lives. Are they going to miss this money once it disappears into the offering box? Most likely not. This doesn't mean their offering isn't sincere. This doesn't mean their offering isn't valuable to the Lord's work. It simply means that the wealthy people He's observed at the temple aren't giving sacrificially. They aren't giving to the point that it makes them feel uncomfortable. They are giving plenty because they have plenty.

"But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents." (Mark 12:42) We can just imagine how the Pharisees would scoff at her offering. Can't you just see them turning up their noses and saying, "What are these two small coins in comparison to what we have cast into the treasury? What does she think we can do with such a small sum? Why did she even bother?" Oh, but as the saying goes, little is much when God is in it! Jesus is so impressed with what this widow does that He wants to use it as a teaching moment for the disciples.

"Calling His disciples to Him, Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, 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) This woman trusts God with her whole heart. We know that because she trusts Him with all the money in her pocket. She could have kept one of the coins, since she had two, but she decided to give them both. Jesus praises her sacrifice. He tells the disciples that her offering means more to Him than all the offerings cast in by the wealthy. Her offering cost her more. Her offering took more faith. The wealthy donors who brought large sums could easily think to themselves, "There's plenty more where that came from." They didn't have to go home and wonder how they were going to put bread on the table. But when the widow gives to the Lord she has to trust Him to supply her daily bread. She feels like she owes the Lord something for His goodness. She intends to be obedient to the laws regarding offerings and sacrifices, which do not exempt the poor from giving. She believes if she is obedient to the Lord, He will take care of her. She could have rationalized not giving by looking at the emptiness of her cupboards or by agonizing over having only two coins in her pocket, but instead she honors the Lord with what she has. In return, the Lord honors her faith. I have no doubt that God saw to it that for the rest of her life she had food on the table, clothes on her back, and a roof over her head.

There's nothing wrong with the wealthy giving large sums to the Lord's work if they are doing it with a sincere heart. Jesus isn't making little of their offerings. He's just making more of the widow's offering because she isn't holding anything back from God. She believes if she gives her whole heart to the Lord, and trusts Him with all she has, He will take care of her.

Our passage today isn't instructing us that we must give all our earthly goods away if we want to please the Lord. It's telling us that our giving, in whatever form it takes, should cost us something. King David refused to give the Lord something that didn't cost him anything. (2 Samuel 24:24, 1 Chronicles 21:24) Jesus gave an offering which cost Him a great deal: His own life. There are a number of ways in which we can give back to the Lord, whether it's in the giving of our money, or in the giving of our time to His work, or in the giving of our energy in doing good deeds for those in need, or in the giving of our talents to His service rather than achieving fame and recognition by using them in the secular world. Our giving may cost us money, time, or energy that could have been used in some other way. God honors the fact that we could have used our money, time, and energy in our own pursuits but chose instead to offer these things to Him.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 56, The Hypocrisy Of The Teachers Who Defraud Others And Who Pray Long Showy Prayers In Public

"As He taught, Jesus said, 'Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.'" (Mark 12:38-39) He warns the crowd, "These men don't have your best interests at heart. They are looking out for their own interests. They are teachers of the law, not because they possess a great love for God's word, but because it gives them status in the community. They wear the long robes that mark them out as people of high society, people who don't have to do any manual labor. They want everyone they meet to make a big fuss over them. They enjoy all the benefits of their station in life, such as the best seats in the house of God and the places of honor at the banquets. They are exploiting their position and their power over you. They should be leading you as carefully and tenderly as a shepherd leads his flock, but instead they are using you for their own gain."

Jesus now makes a harsh accusation against these men, "They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely." (Mark 12:40) A rabbi could not be paid for teaching the word of God, but he was allowed to receive gifts. Some of the rabbis of Jesus' day were swindling the public by convincing them that supporting the rabbis through their gifts was the same as giving offerings to God. Elderly widows, and especially those suffering from dementia, were easy prey for a dishonest teacher. This kind of thing still goes on in our own day. Just last week on the national news there was a story about an elderly widow who had given everything she had to a religious organization. Her family was bringing suit against the organization, claiming it had taken advantage of her advanced age and her dwindling mental faculties. Jesus says there is an especially severe punishment for those who do such things. Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, will not look with favor on anyone who takes advantage of the weak. A good shepherd gives special care and attention to the weak of his flock, but so often in this fallen world we find wicked shepherds who exploit the weak.

God Himself has this to say about anyone who takes advantage of the weak, "Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to Me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." (Exodus 22:22-24) God pronounces a curse upon anyone who defrauds the weak, "Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow." (Deuteronomy 27:19) James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, condemns the hypocrisy and cruelty he has seen among those who claim to be godly, saying, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27) In Jesus' day, and in our own day, many who should have been caring for the flock were polluted by the world, taking advantage of the weak for their own gain.

Jesus also points out that the teachers of the law enjoy making long public prayers, prayers made for the purpose of being heard by men and not by God. The gospel writer Matthew tells us that at one point in His ministry Jesus spoke this warning regarding prayer, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full." (Matthew 6:5) Have you ever, while listening to someone pray aloud, gotten the feeling that they love the sound of their own voice? Have you ever had the impression that their words are intended mainly to impress their listeners? Jesus says, "If that is the reward they seek, then they have it. Their eloquent words bring them the respect of men. God, however, is not pleased with insincere prayer."

Jesus tells us the correct way to pray, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:6) The person who gets alone with God truly wants to hear from God. The person who prays in private is seeking help from God rather than seeking the admiration of his fellow man. The person who spends private time with God wants to grow in his relationship with God. This is the type of prayer that is pleasing to the Lord. There may be times when we are asked to pray publicly, such as when blessing food for example, and Jesus isn't criticizing such things. In the Bible we find Jesus saying a blessing while breaking bread. But those prayers are intended to be short and to the point; they are not meant to be used as an occasion to pray lengthy and showy prayers in order to be admired by the crowd.

The Lord knows our hearts. It's possible to fool our fellow man, but we can't fool God. He knows our every thought and intention. He will reward us accordingly. Therefore, we should have the attitude of David, who said while making his own sincere prayer of the Lord, "May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer." (Psalm 19:14)

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 55, Whose Son Is The Messiah?

The Pharisees, Sadduceees, Herodians, chief priests, scribes, and teachers of the law have been asking questions of Jesus, testing His understanding of God's word. Today it's Jesus' turn to ask a question.

"While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, He asked, 'Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David?'" (Mark 12:35) "Son of David" was a common Messianic title. The people knew that the Promised One would come from the line of David because the prophets told them so.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the One who would "reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with righteousness from that time on and forever". (Isaiah 9:7) Isaiah knew that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, for he speaks of this One as being of the lineage of Jesse, David's father, "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him---the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord---and He will delight in the fear of the Lord." (Isaiah 11:1-3a)

The prophet Jeremiah understood that the Messiah would arise from the line of David. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jeremiah said that the days were coming in which the Lord would raise up a righteous Branch from the line of David and that He would be a King whose name is the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:5-6, Jeremiah 33:14-18)

The Lord promised through the prophet Ezekiel that the King would arise from the line of David and, like David, would shepherd the people. (Ezekiel 34:23, Ezekiel 37:24-25)

All these prophets lived after the lifetime of David, yet they foresaw another David, and they understood that this meant that the Lord intended to raise up the Messiah and King from the Davidic line, and that this King would bring peace to His people Israel forever.

Jesus brings up the subject of the Messiah being the son of David because He wants the people to stop and think about who the son of David must be in order to reign forever. Can the Messiah be merely a man as David was? If so, how could He reign forever? David has been dead and buried for close to a thousand years by the time of Jesus, and if the Messiah were merely a man, He would someday also die and be buried. So He must be something more than a man, which is why Jesus asks His next question, "David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: 'The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at My right hand until I put My enemies under Your feet.' David himself calls him 'Lord'. How then can He be his son?" (Mark 12:36-37a)

Jesus very plainly and logically says something like this, "David called this King who will come from his line 'Lord'. Would a man call any of his descendants 'Lord'? Would you call any man on the face of the earth 'Lord'? It would be blasphemy to call anyone 'Lord' but God. Therefore, if David calls the Messiah 'Lord', He must also be God."

The Messiah is a human being descended from the line of David, and at the same time He is God with us. Unless a man fulfills both these requirements, he cannot be the promised Messiah. Jesus is the only one who can fulfill these requirements. His lineage is given to us by the gospel writers Matthew and Luke, with Matthew providing us with His genealogical record through Mary and Luke providing us with His genealogical record through His step-father Joseph. Both lines go straight back to David. (Although Jesus was not Joseph's biological son, an adopted son had all the legal rights of inheritance as a biological son.) The Messiah is also the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), the One whom God called His Son when He spoke from heaven (Luke 3:22, Mark 9:7), the Child who was born and the Son that was given whose name is Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6), and the virgin-born child whose name is Immanuel, "God with us" (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).

Many in the crowds believe Jesus is the Messiah and King of the line of David, but not all of them understand that He is also Lord and Savior. He cannot be one without being the other. He is trying to lead them, as a shepherd leads a flock, to the truth.

Mark tells us, "The large crowd listened to Him with delight." (Mark 12:37b) If we don't listen to the words of the Lord Jesus with delight, perhaps we have not made Him the Lord of our lives. If you do not already know Jesus as Lord, but you would like to, you can pray this simple prayer of salvation below. If you are already a child of God, but would enjoy praying this prayer to honor Jesus on this Christmas day, you are welcome to do so.

"Jesus, I believe You are the Son of God. I believe everything about You in the Bible is true. I am a sinner (because every human being is a sinner) and that means I have broken the laws of a holy God. I believe that You came into the world to save me from my sins and to make me right in the sight of a holy God. I believe You went to the cross and gave Yourself, as a sinless and spotless lamb, in my place. I believe You rose from the dead and that You are alive forevermore and that You have the power to save my soul. I want to accept You as the Lord of my life. I want You to be my Savior. You did something for me that I couldn't do for myself, and I accept Your sacrifice on my behalf. I ask You to come into my life and heart and to guide me with Your Holy Spirit. Help me to grow in the Christian faith and to learn of You through the Scriptures and through prayer. Be my Lord and King. I ask this in Your own name, the name above every name. Amen!"

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 54, The Greatest Commandment Of All

In our passage yesterday the Sadducees came to make sport of Jesus by asking Him a ridiculous question about a resurrection they don't even believe in. Jesus shows them the errors in their thinking. A teacher of the law comes on the scene and probably enjoys seeing Jesus put the Sadducees in their place, since the beliefs of the Sadducees are at odds with the beliefs of the Pharisees. The Sadducees not only believe there is no resurrection, but they also ignore the oral law, sticking strictly to Moses' writings. The Pharisees believe in the resurrection and they consider the written and the oral law as two parts of one whole.

The teacher of the law hears how Jesus answers the Sadducees and he is impressed with what he hears. "One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, 'Of all the commandments, which is the most important?'" (Mark 12:28)

Jesus begins by quoting the verse that is the creed of the Jewish faith, "'The most important one,' answered Jesus, 'is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.'" (Mark 12:29) Some translations of the Bible render this verse from Deuteronomy 6:4 as, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one Lord." It reads more smoothly this way and it relates the proper meaning. The basis of the Jewish faith, and the Christian faith, is that there is one God: the God of Israel. Everything hinges on this one fact: the God of Israel is the one true God; there is no other.

Jesus now adds Deuteronomy 6:5 to His discourse, "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) There is one God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth. We owe Him our allegiance. The first and best way to prove our allegiance to Him is to honor Him with our love. More than anything else, God wants our hearts.

Loving God is going to have a positive effect on our lives. Loving God is going to influence how we treat our fellow man, so Jesus combines a law from Leviticus 19:18 with the commandment to recognize God as the only God and to love Him with everything we've got. "The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:31) A common rabbinical practice is to expand the laws and to study their every word and their every applicable meaning. It's also a common practice to contract the laws by summing them up in one short sentence. The teacher of the law who asked Jesus his question is doing something that would have been very familiar to rabbis and their students. Jesus' answer amazes the teacher of the law. Jesus perfectly and beautifully sums up the whole law in very few words. The law, like the ten commandments, deals with how we are to honor the Lord and how we are to treat our fellow man. His answer is brilliant. The teacher of the law is amazed.

"'Well said, teacher,' the man replied. 'You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.'" (Mark 12:32-33) This man's answer is brilliant as well. I believe he has a sincere heart for the Lord, for he displays a humble and teachable spirit. I don't know whether his original question of Jesus was intended to test Him as the Pharisees have been testing him. Some scholars think this was his intention while others believe he asked his question because he is impressed with what he's heard Jesus say so far. His attitude toward Jesus seems respectful, so I like to think he asks his question because he honestly wants to hear Jesus' answer. His reply to Jesus echoes the words of the prophets Samuel and Hosea. Samuel said to the rebellious King Saul, "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." (1 Samuel 15:22) Hosea said that the Lord told him, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6) When we love God, we naturally want to obey Him. When we love God, we are able to love our fellow man.

Jesus is impressed with the teacher's answer and He gives him credit for his wisdom. "When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God.'" (Mark 12:34a) This man is so close to the truth. He has great faith. He has a sincere love for the Lord and for His word. He has only one step left to take, and that is accepting that Jesus is who He says He is. We don't know the fate of this teacher. We don't even know his name. We don't know whether he believed on Jesus after He rose from the dead, but I hope he did.

Mark concludes today's passage with this information, "And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions." (Mark 12:34b) The enemies of Jesus give up on their plan to discredit Him in front of the people. He can't be discredited. He can't be trapped. He can't be put to shame. Jesus is the Word of God, and everything He says is perfect.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 53, Marriage At The Resurrection

Today it's the Sadducees who come to taunt Jesus. They do not believe in the resurrection, so their question is intended to ridicule the very idea of the resurrection of the dead.

"Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him with a question. 'Teacher,' they said, 'Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.'" (Mark 12:18-19) The Sadducees mainly follow only the laws of Moses contained in the first five books of the Bible. They consider Moses the ultimate authority, largely disregarding the remainder of the Scriptures. In their question to Jesus they refer to this passage from Deuteronomy 25:5-6, "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel." This practice was known as "levirate marriage" from the root word "levir" which means "brother-in-law". This law helped to carry on the family name and it prevented properties from passing out of the family line.

The Sadducees do not interpret any of the writings of Moses as supplying any evidence for the resurrection from the dead, so they reject the idea. They make up a ridiculous scenario when asking Jesus their question regarding the resurrection, "Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?" (Mark 12:2-23) Though they don't believe in a resurrection, when they try to imagine it the Sadducees can only picture it as a continuation of life as we know it.

"Jesus replied, 'Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?'" (Mark 12:24) The Sadducees believe they know the Scriptures, or at least the only Scriptures they recognize as having any authority. They have rejected the idea of a resurrection and therefore cannot recognize any references to it in the books of Moses. They have blinded themselves to the truth. Jesus says, "If you truly knew the Scriptures, you would know there is a resurrection. If you had any inkling of the awesome powers of Almighty God, you would not doubt He is able to give new life to the dead."

He continues, "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." (Mark 12:25) While we live in these mortal bodies, there is a need for us to "be fruitful and multiply". (Genesis 1:28) The human race would quickly have died out if no one had married or conceived children. But in the resurrection there will be no need for us to be fruitful and multiply. We are going to live forever in immortal resurrected bodies and we will no longer be governed by the laws of a mortal life.

Jesus now uses the words of Moses, whom the Sadducees consider the ultimate authority on all things, to prove His point that yes indeed Moses believed in a resurrection of the dead. Moses believed in it because he believed the words of the God who spoke to him. "Now about the dead rising---have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.?' He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:26-27) God said to Moses, "I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob." This one little word "am" proves that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still living. God cannot still be the God they worship and serve if they are not still alive to worship and serve Him. In Moses' day the bodies of these men were dead and buried, the souls of these men were alive and well in the presence of the God who created them.

If the Sadducees intend to follow the words of Moses, then they must take to heart what God Himself said to Moses. The God who created Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob created them with eternal souls. Those souls are with God. If God is able to do this, He is certainly able to raise their bodies from the dead. If God was able to create Adam from the dust of the ground, He is certainly able to call from the grave bodies that were once alive.

The Sadducees came to Jesus hoping to make sport of Him, but He has used the very Scriptures they treasure against them. As always, Jesus gets the best of His enemies. As always, He uses God's word to do so. God's word is the end to all arguments because God is the ultimate authority. His word is true and it will stand forever.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 52, Render To Caesar What Is Caesar's; Render To God What Is God's

Jesus' enemies want Him arrested and executed, but under Roman rule the Jews are not allowed to carry out capital punishment. They feel Jesus has broken their own law of blasphemy by claiming to be God, but Rome could care less about that. If told that Jesus is going about the countryside claiming to be God, Roman officials would conclude these are merely the ramblings of a mentally ill carpenter from Galilee who is suffering from delusions. They won't take it seriously. The religious leaders understand this, so have decided to try and make Jesus look like an enemy of Rome by getting Him to say something against the government, and in particular to say something against paying taxes. Such a thing earned the death penalty for a man named Judas the Galilean (sometimes referred to as Judas the Gaulonite) who was a leader in the Zealot party and who proclaimed that Israel recognized no king but God. Therefore, Israel owed nothing to anyone but God, an opinion with which Rome harshly disagreed. It is not known exactly how Judas the Galilean was put to death, but the historian Josephus relates that both Judas' sons were crucified, and it's highly likely Judas himself met the same fate.

This is the same Judas mentioned by the Pharisee Gamaliel in the book of Acts when he urges the Sanhedrin to be careful how they treat the followers of Jesus, saying, "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:35-39)

Jesus' enemies hope to persuade Roman officials that He is a threat to the government, so they come to Him on the matter of taxes. "Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch Him in His words. They came to Him and said, 'Teacher, we know that You are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by others, because You pay no attention to who they are; but You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn't we?'" (Mark 12:13-15a) Their fake flattery is sickening. They address Jesus as Teacher (Rabbi), although we know they don't take any of His teachings to heart. They call Him a man of integrity, although they've accused Him of being a sinner and of receiving His powers from Satan. They credit Him with teaching the word of God in truth, yet they've never missed an opportunity to call Him a blasphemer.

At last His enemies believe they've presented Him with an impossible dilemma. If He says that it's against the word of God to pay tribute to Caesar, they can have Him charged with sedition against the government by claiming He intends to lead a rebellion. Considering He has thousands of followers and His name is as famous as any celebrity's in modern times, Rome may well take this charge seriously, whereas they are likely to ignore His claims to be God. If He upholds the paying of taxes, the religious leaders believe the citizens will turn against Him, for the taxes are so heavy they amount to extortion and robbery in many cases, especially the poll taxes. If He loses His followers, He will cease to become a threat to the religious establishment, for He will either fade into the background like so many "kings" and "messiahs" before Him.

Jesus' brilliance is stunning in its simplicity. He's always practical and easy to understand. "But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. 'Why are you trying to trap Me?' He asked. 'Bring Me a denarius and let Me look at it.'" (Mark 12:15b) Apparently the pockets of Jesus are empty. He has no coin to display for them. "They brought the coin, and He asked them, 'Whose image is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's,' they replied. 'Then Jesus said to them, 'Give Back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.' And they were amazed at Him." (Mark 12:16-17)

The coins of the Roman government declared the divinity of its emperor. On one side the denarius said, "Tiberius Caesar, The Divine Augustus", and on the other side it said, "Pontifex Maximus", meaning "High Priest Of The Roman Empire". Such a thing was blasphemy to the Jews. Such a thing is blasphemy, but since the Jews were living under Roman rule they were forced both to use these coins and to pay taxes back to the government that minted them. They hated using money with blasphemous words and the image of a heathen king on it. They believe Jesus' reaction will most likely be, "There is no God but the God of Israel!"

Bible scholar James Coffman says this about Jesus' wise reply to His enemies, "The stunning implication is that since the money was already Caesar's, there could certainly be no harm in giving it back to him!" Caesar minted the coins. His name and face are printed on them. His government put them into circulation. His government uses the tax money to supply many of the things the Jews enjoy, such as well-maintained roads and law and order. The Roman government, as much as the Jews hate it, actually protects the nation from those around her who would like to see her wiped off the map. Jesus sees nothing sinful in obeying the laws of the land by paying taxes, by giving back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

In the same way, Jesus says we are to give back to God what belongs to God. Who gave us our lives? Who gave us minds? Who gave us hearts? Who gave us souls? God did all these things! And we owe them back to Him! In His reply, Jesus clearly recognizes the authority of God over all earthly kings, but at the same time He upholds obeying the laws of the land. Jesus answers in such a way that no one can find fault with Him. Caesar's government rules over the nation politically, but God rules over it spiritually. At the same time the citizens can, with a good conscience, pay their taxes to the one who by military force protects and provides for the nation, and give their worship and allegiance to the God who by supernatural force protects and provides for the nation.

You and I pay taxes to our government. We may not always agree with the decisions our politicians make, but we must obey the laws of the land. The government mints the money, the government maintains many of the things we enjoy and even take for granted, and the government protects us from invaders. We don't like paying taxes, but we owe something to "Caesar" for what "Caesar" does for us.

Above all this, we owe something to the God who gave us life. We owe something to Christ who gave His life for us. We owe something to Him far more precious than money....we owe ourselves.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 51, A Parable That Symbolizes The Prophets And The Son Of God

Jesus is still teaching in the temple courts at Jerusalem. Today He tells what is known as the parable of the tenants. When Mark says Jesus speaks to "them", he means that Jesus' words are aimed at His enemies who have just finished questioning His authority.

"Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: 'A man planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.'" (Mark 12:1-2) Jesus' listeners would have recognized the similarity between His words and those of the prophet Isaiah, who used a vineyard to symbolize the nation of Israel when he said, "I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit." (Isaiah 5:1-2) In both these parables the man who planted the vineyard is God and the vineyard represents the nation of Israel. The tenant farmers who are tending the vineyard symbolize the religious leaders of the nation.

In Jesus' parable God has sent a servant to collect from the tenant farmers, and He says, "But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed." (Mark 12:3-5) These servants are the prophets God sent to the nation, many of whom were ridiculed and shamefully treated. Some were even martyred for their faithfulness to the word of God. The tenant farmers (the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes) should have wanted the best for the vineyard, but they have rejected the servants sent by God. In rejecting the prophets, they have harmed their own people by keeping them from hearing and obeying the truth.

"He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.'" (Mark 12:6) Jesus is obviously speaking of Himself. The tenant farmers have shamefully treated all the prophets, so now at last the owner of the vineyard sends his son. Or as the Apostle Paul puts it, "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word." (Hebrews 1:1-3a) In Jesus' parable the owner of the vineyard is distressed by the way the tenant farmers have treated his servants, but he thinks perhaps they will respect his son. An adult son sent on business for his father possesses all the authority and status of his father. A son is to be treated with the same respect with which anyone would treat his father. But we find the tenant farmers unwilling to accord the son any respect. They treat him as poorly as they've treated all those who came before him

"But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard." (Mark 12:7-8) The tenants in this parable may have assumed the owner of the vineyard was dead and that the son had inherited the land. Or they may have believed the owner was unable or unwilling to come and take possession of his land, hence the sending of his son. Or they may think that once the son is killed, the owner will give up his claims on the land because he is grief-stricken and defeated. In killing the son, the tenants hope to keep the vineyard for themselves. Jesus' enemies are well represented by these tenant farmers, for they resent the authority Jesus holds. They fear the disruption of their own power over the people. They want the vineyard for themselves, and if it takes killing Jesus to keep it, they consider that a small price to pay.

God, the owner of the vineyard, is not dead. He will come in judgment against the tenant farmers. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." (Mark 12:9) The giving of the vineyard to others may represent the gospel going out to the Gentile world. Or it may foretell of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome, which will mean the collapse of the power and authority the religious leaders hold over the citizens. We find the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of the Lord in regard to a coming judgment upon the vineyard. In Isaiah's day the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to Assyria as a judgment for idolatry; the southern kingdom of Judah was soon to fall to Babylon. The Lord says through Isaiah, "What more could have been done for My vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it." (Isaiah 5:4-6) Isaiah prophesied the destruction of the nation and the temple if the people kept rejecting his words and refusing to repent. This came true when Babylon defeated the nation, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and took most of the citizens captive to a foreign land. Jesus is prophesying another destruction of the nation and the temple after He has been rejected. This came true about forty years after the crucifixion when Rome defeated an uprising, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and took many citizens captive as slaves or to be used in the arenas for sport.

"Haven't you read this passage of Scripture: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?" (Mark 12:10) Jesus is the stone the builders rejected, but God the Father intends for all things to hinge on Him. Killing Him won't put an end to Him, though His enemies think it will. Killing Him will have the opposite result: He will become the cornerstone upon which everything that matters is going to be built. He is the foundation of our faith (1 Corinthians 3:11), the author of eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9), and the Living One who was dead but now is alive forevermore. (Revelation 1:18)

Jesus' enemies have already decided to kill him. They would prefer not to do it at Passover while Jerusalem is bulging at the seams with pilgrims, but they make up their minds they must act quickly to find some charges to bring against Him. "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) They want to arrest Him privately, away from the crowds whom they fear will attack them if they lay hands on Him. An opportunity will soon present itself, for there is a traitor among the disciples who will be willing to sell out his Master for thirty pieces of silver as foretold by the prophet Zechariah. (Zechariah 11:12) The traitor will lead them to a garden at night where Jesus goes to pray, and they will arrest Him there. They will present false charges against Him before Pontius Pilate, who will find no evidence to substantiate their claims, but he will eventually give in to their demands because he is a politician concerned more with his position than with truth and justice. The religious leaders understand that Jesus has spoken the parable about them, but they fail to understand that in killing Him the parable will come true: their authority will be taken away and given to Him. They will not take the vineyard for themselves, for He is the heir. He will become the cornerstone, the very thing His enemies never wanted Him to be.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 50, Jesus' Authority Questioned

Jesus might as well have His picture hanging on the wall of the post office with the caption "Wanted Dead Or Alive, Preferably Dead" printed under His face. The religious leaders are determined to have Him put to death, but instead of hiding from them He has come boldly to Jerusalem. His death is imminent, but He openly offers Himself to the fate that awaits Him. Since arriving at Jerusalem, He has thrown the money changers and the sellers of doves out of the Court of Gentiles at the temple, cleansing His house of the "leaven" of sin just as a homeowner would cleanse the house of literal leaven before Passover. He spends His nights at Bethany and His days walking and teaching in the temple courts, making the most of His final opportunities to appeal to the nation through the truth of God's word.

Many of the average citizens believe in Him. The Apostle John tells us that even quite a few of the leaders in the community believe in Him, but out of fear of the Pharisees they won't openly confess their faith. (John 12:42-43) At this point the Pharisees are putting people out of the synagogue for confessing Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and John says that the upper crust of Jerusalem's society desires the approval of man more than the approval of God, so they keep their opinions of Jesus' identity to themselves.

Jesus knows the thoughts of those in the crowds who come to hear Him. He knows which ones believe and are willing to boldly confess their faith. He knows which ones believe but fear the religious leaders too much to speak up. And He knows the ones who thoroughly reject every word He's said and every miracle He's performed. John tells us, "Then Jesus cried out, 'Whoever believes in Me does not believe in Me only, but in the One who sent Me. The one who looks at Me is seeing the One who sent Me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should stay in darkness." (John 12:44-46) Jesus plainly declares that God the Father has sent Him into the world. Because Jesus is God's Son, He looks like God. Because Jesus is God's Son, His words are God's words. He has the same authority. He has the same power. He warns the populace, "If you reject Me, you are not only rejecting Me, but God Himself. You are rejecting everything God has said about Me through the prophets. You are rejecting the witness of the God who spoke from the heavens at My baptism. If You don't believe what I say, you don't believe the God who sent Me."

Mark tells us that on a particular day while Jesus is teaching the religious leaders come to Him and once again try to set a trap for Him. "They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the teachers of the law and the elders came to Him. 'By what authority are You doing these things?' they asked. 'And who gave You the authority to do this?'" (Mark 11:27-28) They want to know, "Who do You think You are, driving money changers and dove sellers from the temple? Who do You think You are to speak to the nation with such a tone of authority? Who said You could do these things?" Well, Jesus has plainly been telling them for three years upon whose authority He does all things, but the Pharisees and chief priests and scribes have covered their eyes and ears to the truth. They ask Him these questions in front of the crowd, hoping to somehow trap Him in His own words.

As usual, Jesus answers with great wisdom, in such a way that His enemies can make no legitimate reply. "Jesus replied, 'I will ask you a question. Answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism---was it from heaven, or of human origin. Tell Me!'" (Mark 11:29-20) This is a sticky situation, an impossible situation, for the religious leaders. They rejected John's baptism as thoroughly as they rejected Jesus' authority, but to say so in front of the assembly would be to invite ridicule or even physical assault. They know the people count John as a prophet. They know John and his disciples baptized thousands, many of whom are now standing in the crowd. It would have been bad enough to say something publicly against John while he was alive, but now that he's been beheaded he's considered a martyr for the faith. They dare not make the statement that John's baptism was of human origin.

They also dare not make the statement that John's baptism was of heavenly origin, because that begs the question, "Why then did you not believe his testimony about Jesus? John plainly identified Jesus as the Son of God. If you believe John was called by God to be a prophet, why do you not also believe Jesus is who He says He is?"

I picture the religious leaders asking for a time out at this point, withdrawing to a distance where they can whisper to each other about how to solve their dilemma. "They discussed it among themselves and said, 'If we say, 'From heaven,' He will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin'...(They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) So they answered Jesus, 'We don't know.'" (Mark 11:31-33a) How humiliating this must have been! The men who claim to know everything about all matters religious have been bested again by this rabbi they hate. Everyone assembled in the temple courts hears them admit, "We don't know the answer." Jesus has presented them with an opportunity to reason things out, to come to the knowledge of the truth, but yet again they close their minds like a steel trap and shake their heads. They'd rather admit to ignorance, humiliating though it is, than admit that John was right about Jesus or that Jesus is who He says He is.

"Jesus said, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.'" (Mark 11:33b) Jesus is not concealing anything from them by refusing to state once again that He is the Promised One sent by God. He has clearly demonstrated His identity through both words and deeds for three years now. Further proclamations aren't going to suddenly produce confessions of faith from the Pharisees. There's no use in Him repeating Himself to them over and over, for they have made up their minds not to believe anything He says, and His time is better spent interacting with those who actually want to hear Him. His time on earth is drawing to a close and He doesn't want to get caught up in arguments with the Pharisees while there are people who desperately need His help. He is going to spend His time teaching those who want to be taught and helping those who are willing to accept help.

To those who deliberately cover their ears to His words and purposely close their minds to the truth, He has this to say, "If anyone hears My words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not accept My words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on My own, but the Father who sent Me commanded Me to say all that I have spoken. I know that His command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told Me to say." (John 12:47-50)

We will be judged according to whether we believe the words of Jesus or not. If we accept what He has said about Himself, we are saved by faith. If we reject what He has said about Himself, we will be judged by the very words we refused to accept. I've quoted the following words by C.S. Lewis in a previous Bible study, but because they fit so beautifully with our passage today, I will close with them, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic---on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg---or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 49, Praying In Faith/Why Our Prayers Aren't Always Answered

Jesus cursed the hypocritical fig tree in yesterday's passage. Because it deceived people by being in full leaf without any fruit, He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." The next time He and the disciples passed by the tree, it had withered from the roots up. Peter was astonished, exclaiming, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!" Jesus uses this as another teaching moment for His disciples regarding prayers and why prayers aren't always answered.

"'Have faith in God,' Jesus answered. 'Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.'" (Mark 11:22-23) The Jews of Jesus' day often used the figure of speech "moving mountains" to indicate the removal of difficulties. A rabbi who was particularly gifted at explaining the laws of God might be called a "mountain mover" because he was able to help his students understand things that previously were too difficult for them. Jesus isn't telling us that if we only have enough faith we can walk outside, stare at a nearby mountain, and command it to move to another place. But He is telling us that faith has the power to remove many of the obstacles that hinder us in our lives.

In order to bring our problems to God, we must believe "that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him". (Hebrews 11:6) The prayer that we fling out into the universe, hoping some deity is out there who hears us, is not the prayer of faith. We have to believe in the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the personal God who wants to have a relationship with mankind, the God who desires to act on behalf of those who honor His name. The prayer of faith is a prayer made to the God whom we "earnestly seek", meaning we have a desire to know and interact with Him. Our earnest seeking is not meant to be a habit of bringing requests to Him only when we have problems. Our earnest seeking is meant to be a daily habit of seeking the presence of God in our lives. Who wants to deal with a person who only comes around when he needs something? Would we consider a person like that a true friend? Would we feel as if a person like that really loves us? Can we truly say we love God if we only seek His presence when we need a mountain moved? If we are only talking with the Lord when we need something but are not interested in forming a genuine relationship with Him, He is within His rights to say no to our requests.

The problem must be one we can bring to God with a good conscience. Sometimes we ask for things that are wrong, and we aren't to bring sinful requests to the Lord with the expectation that He will grant them if only we have enough faith. God is holy and righteous. He will not violate His laws. No amount of faith is going to override the principles He has laid down for mankind. We do sometimes obtain the sinful desires of our hearts, but we do so through our own will and effort, not because God has granted our unholy requests. Jesus is not telling us we can have anything and everything our hearts desire when He says, "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (Mark 11:24) I believe He's saying something like, "If you know that your prayer request lines up with the will of God, and if you believe God is able to do what you have asked, and if you believe He going to be true to the promises He has made in the Scriptures, you can expect to see your prayer answered."

The Lord's brother James, who believed on Him following the resurrection and who became a leader in the church at Jerusalem, breaks it down for us like this, "You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2b-3) James says, "Sometimes the reason you don't have what you want is because you lack the faith to ask God for it. Other times you fail to receive what you want because you have bad intentions for it." James warns us about being double-minded, about being people who are not sure of what we believe, when he says, "But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do." (James 1:6-8) If we think we believe in God one day, and then the next day we aren't so sure, God is not likely to grant requests we make in this frame of mind. A person who can't make up his mind about what he believes is generally inconstant in other areas of his life, and God does not have to reward such weak and variable faith. In addition, James says we may have the faith to believe our request will be granted, but the motive behind our request is wrong, and God will not honor a request made in the wrong spirit. An example of this would be praying for God to bless our work and our bank accounts so that we may only heap up treasures for ourselves and satisfy the desires of the flesh by living in excess. An example of a prayer God can honor is that He would bless the work of our hands so that we can provide for our families, give to the church, and give to those in need.

Sometimes God says no to our requests not because they are sinful, but because they are not His will for our lives. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us we should be led by the Holy Spirit. When we come to God for help, we should be open to receiving whatever the Holy Spirit has to say, for He "helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God." (Romans 8:26-27) Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes pray our own will rather than the Lord's will. As much as we might want to submit to the Holy Spirit, our human weakness sometimes causes us to ask for things that aren't sinful but that just aren't right for us. The Holy Spirit knows what is God's will for our lives, so He intercedes on our behalf, praying that God's will would be done. Countless times I've been thankful God said no to something I wanted. The thing I wanted might not have been sinful (such as a particular job that sounded really good, for example) but He knew this particular thing wasn't best for me. It wasn't going to lead me in the direction He wanted me to go. There are going to be occasions where we have the faith to believe our prayers will be answered, but God will have other plans for our lives, and we have to be willing to say as Jesus said, "Not my will, but Yours, be done."

In closing, Jesus provides us with another reason our prayers may not be answered. "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25) That one stings a bit, doesn't it? Or at least that's the effect it has on me. I am still struggling to forgive a particular thing from my past that cut me especially deeply. Forgiving is hard, and the deeper the wound, the harder it is to forgive the one who wounded us. Jesus is saying we are as hypocritical as the leafy fig tree without any fruit if we eagerly desire the forgiveness of God but refuse to extend that same forgiveness to our fellow man. So we see that harboring unforgiveness in our hearts can be a barrier to receiving good things from God. This could be the reason mountains aren't moved. When praying in faith to the God who is able to grant our requests, we should examine our hearts to see whether we are clinging to unforgiveness. If so, maybe God isn't moving our mountains until we get our hearts right. Maybe He's withholding the answer to our prayer because we are refusing to do what Jesus has told us to do. As sinners (and we are all sinners) we have offended a holy God. We have broken the laws of the Maker of all creation. If someone of His greatness is willing to forgive those who have sinned against Him, who do we weak and mortal human beings think we are to refuse to forgive those who have sinned against us?

Lord, help us to come to You in faith, believing wholeheartedly that You are there and that You desire to know us and to be known of us. Help us to believe You are able and willing to answer our prayers. Help us to desire not only Your help, but Your presence and companionship. Guide us by the Holy Spirit to pray for the things that are right for us according to Your will. And Lord, help us to be more like You, so that we can extend to others the forgiveness You so freely extend to us. Help us to be like Jesus, who said from the cross, "Father, forgive them." Father, forgive those who have sinned against us. Help us to do the same. In the name of Jesus, whose work on the cross made salvation and forgiveness possible for us all, we ask these things. Amen.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 48, The Cursing Of The Fig Tree

In yesterday's study we skipped over the first half of the incident regarding the fig tree so we could study it along with the second half today. We back up a little bit this morning to find Jesus and the disciples leaving Bethany, where they spent the night, for Jerusalem, where Jesus cleansed the temple.

"The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went out to find if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.' And His disciples heard Him say it." (Mark 11:12-14) We have to understand from the very beginning that this fig tree is a metaphor for a fruitless life. It also stands for the hypocrisy of looking righteous on the outside while being empty on the inside. The tale of the fig tree is a solemn harbinger of bad tidings for Jesus' own nation, which He has cultivated for three years, but which has not borne fruit. And it's a warning to anyone who has heard the truth of the gospel but who has rejected it and has not allowed it to bear fruit in their lives. 

Figs begin to sprout before the leaves, so naturally a fig tree in full leaf would be expected to have ripe fruit on it, even though it's a little too early in the season. A fig tree normally produces one early crop and then one or two later crops, and it is this early crop Jesus is looking for. But when He inspects the tree He finds it has advertised itself falsely. Its barrenness symbolizes its failure to be what God intended it to be. Something is wrong with it. Some essential process that should have taken place has not taken place. It has managed to miss its purpose in life, and because it has had every opportunity to fulfill its destiny, Jesus curses it for not doing what it was meant to do. 

Those who believe Jesus will not judge the world are clinging to the idea of a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild". They are ignoring all the Scriptural references to a day of wrath. They are ignoring the fact that at His second advent He is portrayed as a conquering king who will destroy His enemies and establish absolute authority over all nations. Jesus can and will judge the world by the word of God, just as thoroughly as He judges the fruitless fig tree in today's passage. 

Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem when He speaks words of doom to the fig tree. At Jerusalem He finds the outer court of the temple filled with the evidence of man's greed and hypocrisy. The religious leaders of His day are putting on a false front of righteousness while being empty of godliness on the inside. Their outward appearance indicates they should be bearing fruit, but they are barren. Because they are barren, they deceive the citizens. They have left the citizens as sheep without a shepherd. Their job is to lead the populace according to the word of God, but instead they are taking advantage of their own countrymen. They are hurting them instead of helping them. They are just like the fig tree that is all leaves but no fruit. 

After throwing out the money changers and the sellers of doves, Jesus taught the people, at which time the religious leaders decided their murderous plans for Him must be put into action immediately. They can see how the people hang on Jesus' every word. The people are drawn to Jesus because finally a Shepherd is feeding them! Finally a Shepherd is leading them to the still waters where they can thirstily drink in the righteous words of a holy God. Jesus' enemies see Him as a threat to their authority and to their way of life. He is turning everything right side up that has been upside down for a very long time, and they don't like it. They want things to go on as they've been going on. Moreover, they fear an uprising against Rome. The people are drawn to Jesus by the thousands, so much so that the religious leaders think the populace will declare Jesus the king of Israel, incurring the wrath of the Roman government which has the power to come in and take away their temple and the freedoms they currently enjoy. Jesus has never spoken against the Roman government or tried to incite a rebellion or portrayed Himself as a political threat to Caesar, but the religious leaders aren't going to let that keep them from presenting Him to the authorities as one who intends to gather an army and lead a rebellion.

After cleansing the temple, Mark tells us, "When evening came, Jesus and His disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!'" (Mark 11:19-21) Most scholars interpret the tale of the fig tree in regard to the nation of Israel. For three years Jesus has been cultivating the nation, but it has not borne fruit. The religious establishment looks alright on the outside (it is leafed out) but Jesus found no fruit on it. Because He is about to be rejected by the Pharisees, scribes, priests, and teachers of the law, judgment is coming on the nation. Within forty years a rebellion against Rome actually will arise, and Rome will stomp down on it with all her might. Jerusalem will fall. The temple will be destroyed. More than a million people will be slaughtered, with tens of thousands more taken to the Roman arenas for sport or sold into slavery. Because Jesus did not find the early fruit He was looking for in Israel, scholars feel that the tale of the fig tree is an ominous sign of things to come.

I would say that in our times the tale of the fig tree, in a larger sense, applies to every person of every nation. If we have been given the opportunity to bear fruit (we have heard the gospel) but are barren (the gospel has had no effect on us), judgment is certain. If we are hypocrites who say and do all the right things and are "leafed out" on the outside, but are empty of godliness on the inside, wrath will fall on us. When we put on a form of godliness but are barren on the inside we hurt not only ourselves but those around us. We become blind leaders of the blind. We become a bad influence on those who believe we are the real thing. Jesus had much to say against the hypocrites of His day, and a great deal of His criticism had to do with the way the hypocrites were harming those around them. It's bad enough for a person to destroy himself by rejecting the truth of God's word; it's an especially grievous sin when a person drags others down with him. 

If we are the true fig trees of Christ's garden, we should be bearing fruit. We should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk. We should be filled with love for God and for our fellow man. If we inspect ourselves and don't find any of this fruit, we need to reevaluate whether we are truly His. If we are bearing no fruit, we must take stock of the condition of our souls, for only in Christ can we bear anything worthwhile. In the words of Christ Himself: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing." (John 15:5) 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Gospel According To Mark. Day 47, Jesus Cleanses The Temple

Jesus has just completed what has come to be called "the triumphal entry". He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as foretold by the prophet Zechariah while the people shouted His praises and cried out for Him to save them now. In other words, "Thy kingdom come now, today." What He does upon reaching Jerusalem must seem a bit anticlimactic to the crowds who no doubt expect Him to perform some major feat.

"Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve." (Mark 11:11) I picture Him calmly walking around in the temple courts, silently viewing the activity there. Then He leaves the city with the Twelve to spend the night at Bethany, probably at the home of His friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. It was the raising of Lazarus from the dead that put the seal on the death warrant of Jesus. It was at that point that the religious leaders decided the only way to stop Him was to kill him. When, upon the command of Jesus, Lazarus came forth from the tomb after being dead for four days, "The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. 'What are we accomplishing?' they asked. 'Here is this man performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.' Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, 'You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.'" (John 11:47-50)

The Apostle John tells us that because of this meeting of the Sanhedrin, Jesus could no longer freely move about in public, for the chief priests and elders had given orders that anyone who saw Jesus in Jerusalem was to report it immediately so He could be arrested. (John 11:54-57) Everyone was speculating whether or not He would come to Jerusalem for Passover, Passover being one of three yearly festivals which Jewish males were required to attend if at all possible. Suddenly, He comes to Jerusalem openly. He comes riding into the city on a donkey, the animal of kings, and He allows the crowds to praise Him and to address Him with Messianic titles. These are not the actions of a man who is trying to escape death. These are the actions of a man who is determined to accomplish His mission on earth. In Jesus' case, that mission happens to be dying for the nation....dying for the world.

Our chapter contains a miracle regarding a fig tree, and it's divided into two parts with the cleansing of the temple in between. What we are going to do is study the miracle of the fig tree as a whole tomorrow, so for now we are going to skip over the next few verses in order to study this happening as one continuous narrative. Today we are going to look at the cleansing of the temple.

Mark tells us this happens the next morning. "On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts." (Mark 11:15-16) The outer courtyard, known as the Court of the Gentiles, has taken on a flea market atmosphere. Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem had to pay a temple tax at Passover, and it could only be paid in shekels, so this meant they had to have their money changed. The money changers should have operated outside the temple complex, but likely it was more convenient for them to do it inside, plus once a pilgrim reached that point and realized he had no currency in shekels, it was probably quite difficult to work his way back outside to the streets because of the crowds pouring in. This allowed the money changers to charge a higher fee than was fair for changing the money, but at that point they had the pilgrims right where they wanted them, and it was easier for a pilgrim to pay the fee than to seek other money changers in the city.

Sacrifice had to be made, hence the sellers of doves, but this was another thing that should have been done outside the temple complex. It's understandable that pilgrims coming from many miles away might not want to transport animals from a long distance, so it was easier to purchase an animal upon arrival. Because the priesthood had become corrupt, they had found a way to make money off these sacrifices. They would find fault or blemish in any animal brought in from outside, deeming it unfit for sacrifice. Then they would say, "The doves here in the courtyard have already passed inspection. You should purchase one of these."

Jesus is angry because people are being taken advantage of by the system that should be protecting them. We were told earlier in Mark that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6:34) The religious leaders have let the citizens down. They'e failed to set a godly example. They've failed to lead the nation in the ways of the Lord. The very ones who should have been looking out for the best interests of the citizens are swindling them when they come to worship at the temple. Like a person cleansing the house of all leaven at Passover, Jesus cleanses the temple of the leaven of the religious leaders at Passover. After demonstrating how much He hates unfairness and thievery, Jesus teaches in the temple courts. "And as He taught them, He said, 'Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?' But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" (Mark 11:17)

He quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, prophets who lived in a time when the priesthood was corrupt, prophets who called on the people to repent or else the nation would fall. Their words fell on mostly deaf ears, and the nation did fall, and the temple was destroyed. Jesus' message is ignored by the religious leaders of His day, and as a result the nation will fall again and the temple will be destroyed again. Any nation can fall, especially when it falls far from the Lord. This should be a lesson to all of us today. We who trust in the name of the Lord need to remain faithful to Him, for the Lord may continue to bless and protect the United States for the sake of those who fear His name.

Jesus' enemies decide now is the time to put their murderous plot in motion. They must capture Him while He's near, lest He somehow escape their clutches. "The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill Him, for they feared Him, because the whole crowd was amazed at His teaching." (Mark 11:18) The fear they feel is not a reverent fear. It's a fear that Jesus will upset the status quo. It's a fear that He will usurp their authority. And it's a fear that He will manage to bring the wrath of Rome down on the nation, because they fear the wrath of man more than they fear the wrath of God. They want things to keep going on as they've been going on. Jesus is a thorn in their side that they desperately want to pluck out. They will pluck Him out, but not in a secret assassination as they hope. They will be forced to appeal to Rome to have Him crucified publicly, at Passover, for all the world to see. The One who dies for the sins of the world will not die in the night with a knife in His back, as the religious leaders would prefer, but He will die in the sight of all those, both Jew and Gentile, whom He came to save.