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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Jesus Enters Into Jerusalem As The Prince of Peace, Purifies the Temple, and Withers A Fig Tree With A Word (11.1-25). p> This passage in Mark is one whole, woven around the acted out picture of the fig tree. After His entry into Jerusalem Jesus goes and surveys the Temple, looking around and considering it, then He goes and surveys the fig tree and condemns it, after which He returns to the Temple, enters it and clears it of traders. Once that has occurred He and His disciples return to the fig tree and find it withered. The symbolism of the fig tree is clear. It represented Jerusalem and its false worship, outwardly promising much and making a great show, but inwardly fruitless. It was now cursed and would be allowed to wither and die, which, as Jesus will make clear in chapter 13, is also the destiny of the Temple.
On His final visit to Jerusalem Jesus first reveals Himself to the world as the coming Messiah and King by deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, Oh daughter of Zion, shout, Oh daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king comes to you. He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on an ass, even on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9.9).
But it only had meaning for those with eyes to see. Many pilgrims were arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover, and some would ride on asses, although they would be the exceptions for it was not usual for pilgrims to ride into Jerusalem at the feast. There was a tradition that at Passover time Jerusalem should be entered on foot. So Jesus was deliberately drawing attention to His uniqueness. However, at Passover time pilgrims generally would be greeted by festive crowds shouting out to God, ‘Blessed is he who comes, in the name of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26) and ‘Save now’ (‘hosanna’ - a cry for deliverance - compare Psalm 118.25)’, for it was a time of high excitement. Psalm 118 was in fact a Psalm regularly used at the Passover. ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’, was probably a further excited cry brought about by their enthusiasm as they thought about the coming expected Messianic kingdom, for it was a time when hopes were high. It was always thought possible that the Messiah might reveal himself at the feast.
Thus when the great prophet that they had heard about, and many had probably actually seen in action and had dealings with, arrived in this way, they greeted Him even more enthusiastically than they did ordinary pilgrims. But they did not on the whole realise the truth of their words, that the king was now here to bring salvation, although no doubt some probably did cherish such hopes (John 7.31). They rather described Him as ‘the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’ (Matthew 21.11). To them the whole scene was like a religious carnival. And we must not judge them too harshly, for the disciples did not realise the full significance of the entry either (John 12.16).
Mark does not mention that it was an ass on which Jesus rode, but Matthew 21.2 does, and ‘a colt’ was unlikely to be anything else in Palestine. The ass was looked on by the Jews as a noble beast. When kings rode in peace they rode on an ass (e.g. 1 Kings 1.38). Thus the prophecy, and Jesus’ action in riding on an ass, revealed that He came, not as a warrior on His war horse, but as the lowly Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6; Zechariah 9.9). Not the kind of Messiah most Jews were expecting.
Collecting the Colt (11.1-6).
Jesus now arranged for His disciples to go to ‘the village opposite’ in order to collect an asses colt that had never been broken in, for Him to ride on. It may be that it was by pre-arrangement with the owner,
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus sends two disciples into the village, and in the parallel the people in the village ask why they are loosing the colt. In ‘b’ Jesus tells them that they will find a colt tied, and they are to loose it and bring it back with them, and in the parallel they find the colt tied, and loose it. Centrally in ‘c’ the Lord has need of it.
11.1-3 ‘And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sends two of his disciples and says to them, “Go your way into the village that is over against you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no man has ever sat. Loose him and bring him. And if anyone says to you, “Why do you do this?” You say, “The Lord has need of him”, and immediately he will send him back here.”
We may probably see from this that Jesus had made arrangements with friends, either in Bethany or in Bethphage, for an asses colt to be ready and had arranged a password (‘the Lord has need of him’) for its collection. It was quite normal in such outlying villages for asses to be available for hire. Or it may be that He was making use of the custom of ‘angaria’ under which a major religious figure was entitled to procure for himself the use of a means of transport for a period of time by a simple act of appropriation. ‘The Lord has need of them’ would then be seen as indicating this.
We are in fact probably intended by the evangelists to see in the use of the title ‘the Lord’ a deliberate indication that this was an unusual situation by which Jesus’ supreme authority was being revealed. Alternatively ‘The Lord’ may refer to God, in Whose Name Jesus was acting (see verse 9 - it is not commonly used of Jesus in Mark) indicating that what He was about to do had God’s approval, for He was coming in His Name. A third possibility is that it was the title by which the owners themselves acknowledged Jesus. Whichever way it was the whole arrangement indicates that Jesus has a special significance in what He is about to do. It may well therefore be that the ass’s colt was in fact being offered for His free use as a major religious figure in accordance with the custom of angaria without previous arrangement. It is interesting that it was an asses colt on which no one had ever ridden. It was thus unschooled and not broken in. To ride such a colt would require great skill and an affinity with the colt. A famous jockey who read these words for the first time was hugely impressed and was heard to cry out, “My, what hands He must have had”.
But this ass was to be used for a sacred purpose and therefore it had to be unused and unbroken as had all that was first used in the Temple and its worship (compare Numbers 19.2; Deuteronomy 21.3, and see also 1 Samuel 6.7; ). And Jesus had clearly carefully made such an arrangement. It was an indication of the wholeness and spotlessness of the One Who rode it (Solomon rode on his father’s mule).
In spite of appearances from this Gospel, however, this was not His first visit to Jerusalem since He began His ministry. Nor could it be. We have seen earlier that there are indications that a few years have passed, and each year He would certainly have attended Passover and probably other feasts as well (as John tells us) for as a pious Jew He would seek to fulfil the requirement to go to Jerusalem at least once a year during one of the three great feasts, and Passover was seen as especially significant. And it helps to explain His great friendship with Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany which would have arisen during these visits. This also explains why He could say to Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not’ (Matthew 23.37 compare Luke 13.34). That also demonstrates that He had come to Jerusalem a number of times ,and it shows that He had been treated coldly.
Bethany (House of Dates) and Bethphage (House of Figs) were villages very close to Jerusalem, Bethany being on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. They were within a Sabbath day’s journey (Acts 1.12), and Bethany, ‘fifteen furlongs off’ (John 11.18 - but much depends where it was measured from) was treated as an overflow lodging-place for pilgrims to the Passover when Jerusalem was full. Bethphage, nearer to Jerusalem, is often mentioned as the outer limit within which sacred things could be prepared or used.
Even the password is significant. “The Lord has need of him.” By ‘Lord’ Jesus may well have meant God, or possibly even the owner (‘the master’) if the owner was seen as being with Jesus and His disciples and he had made such an arrangement with him, but Mark probably intends us to understand its full meaning and refer it to Jesus as King.
‘Immediately he will send him back here.’ Possibly a part of the message and a confirmation that the colt was only being borrowed and would be returned shortly. Alternately Jesus was saying, ‘do not worry, they will immediately respond’ (see Matthew 21.3).
11.4-6 ‘And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street, and they loose him. And some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”, and they said to them just what Jesus had said, and they let them go.’
The two who had been sent (verse 1) found things just as Jesus had described them, and returned with the colt. Matthew tells us that its mother followed, as would be expected of an untried colt. It was quite a common sight in Palestine to see a mother ass accompanied by its colt.
‘A colt tied.’ In Genesis 49.10 a colt tied is connected with a coming ruler of the house of David (named symbolically Shiloh) to whom the people will gather. But there it is the person himself who ties up the colt
‘Some of those who stood there.’ Not necessarily the owner.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem (11.7-9).
Jesus now portrayed Himself in terms of Zechariah 9.9, although Mark does not mention this latter. But in view of his descriptions, which reproduce the signs of the proclamation of a king of Israel, he certainly wants us to see it in terms of the king entering to take possession of what was His. It was, however, a view tempered by his later understanding. There is no suggestion that he sees Jesus’ ‘offer’ as rejected by the people. The people welcome Him. His emphasis will be on His rejection by the Jewish leadership.
Note in ‘a’ their action in putting their cloaks on the asses colt for Him to sit on, symbolic of the coming of the kingly rule of David in the parallel, while in ‘b’ they spread their cloaks in the way and lay the leaves of trees in the way, symbolic of the acceptance of One Who represents a king coming in the Name of the Lord (YHWH).
11.7 ‘And they bring the colt to Jesus, and throw their clothes over it, and he sat on him.’
The colt being brought they put some of their clothing on its back to make the equivalent of a saddle or to provide a softer seat. It was a sign that they were joining in with whatever He was attempting to do. They clearly saw it as having some kind of symbolic significance. Then Jesus sat on the colt and it seemingly accepted His presence without demur. Matthew tells us that its mother followed it, determined to keep her eye on her youngster, but Mark is less interested in the detail and more interested in the significance, for the future. Here was the portrayal of His kingship.
11.8 ‘And many spread their cloaks on the roadway, and others foliage (layers of leaves) which they had cut from the fields.’
Matthew 21.8 has ‘cut branches from the trees’, John 12.13 says ‘took the branches of the palm trees’, and speaks of ‘a great crowd that had come to the feast’. Luke 19.37 speaks of ‘the whole crowd of disciples’, clearly using disciples in its widest sense. Thus central to what happened were His followers, and other disciples who had joined them on hearing of their approach, but also joined by enthusiastic pilgrims. For many, however, it was all part of the festival and not a unique occurrence. They knew not what they did.
This spreading of things before Him was the regular kind of treatment offered to important personages and was a spontaneous expression of appreciation and respect. Rabbinic literature offers parallels, and Plutarch tells us that when Cato Minor left his troops they spread their clothes at his feet. When Simon Maccabaeus entered in triumph into Jerusalem he was received ‘with praise and palm branches’ and with music ‘because a great enemy was destroyed out of Israel’ (1 Maccabees 13.51). Compare also 2 Kings 9.13 where clothes were lain before Jehu in homage. But the crowd were not on the whole representing Him as the Messiah. They were using this entrance of One Whom they saw as a prophet as a means of expressing their acted out hopes. He was seen by them as prefiguring the future.
11.9-10 ‘And those who went in front, and those who followed, cried, “Hosanna (‘save now’)! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David. Hosanna in the highest.”
These cries are mainly taken from Psalm 118. ‘Hoshi‘ah na’ - save now’ (Psalm 118.25). ‘Blessed be He Who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26). These were extracts from a Psalm used at the Passover, and were regularly shouted out at visitors to Jerusalem at the Passover as they streamed into the city. Year after year the same had been done, and the coming of that kingly rule had been seen as being as far away as ever. But it was always a time of enthusiasm and fervour. And at such times there was always hope. Patriotic passions were aroused. And here it reached a deeper intensity because they saw Jesus as a great prophet, and many of them were disciples. But His entry on an ass helped to dampen Messianic expectations. Zechariah 9.9 was not a favourite Messianic passage, for the Jews did not look for a lowly king.
The words of the crowd are presented in a balanced format.
‘Hosanna’ means ‘save now’. Compare Psalm 118.25. It was a cry to God to bring about His promised deliverance. They little realised that this One Who entered was about to do exactly that but in a way that they could not even have dreamed of.
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’ See Psalm 118.26. All those who came for the feast were seen as coming ‘in the name of the Lord’. We may, however, translate Psalm 118.26 as ‘blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes’. It was a regular welcome for pilgrims. But this then constantly reminded them that one day a king would come, for ‘he who comes’ was an expression denoting the Messiah (compare Matthew 11.3). So every pilgrim they greeted was a reminder that one day Messiah would come. And who knew whether that one might be he? Indeed Luke renders it, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Luke 19.38). Thus the enthusiasm of the crowds and of the disciples turned the thoughts of many to the coming Messiah, which is why they added, ‘Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David.’ Those who were close to Him, and later very definitely saw Him as the Messiah, would later think of the shouts in those terms. But it seems that they did not at this point in time, for John declared, ‘His disciples did not understand these things at the first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him’ (John 12.16). Thus it would seem that His dampening words to them had squashed, at least temporarily, their false ideas concerning Messianic hopes (10.32-45; compare Acts 1.6). Once they did understand it, however, that day would be seen as a day to sweep away all gloom.
‘Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David.’ The people were looking forward in hope to the restoration of the Davidic kingship under the Messiah and all the festivals in which they participated brought this to the fore in their minds. Thus for most this was a cry of hope for the future rather than an anticipation of what Jesus was going to do.
‘Hosanna in the highest.’ Probably a cry to God meaning ‘save now You Who are in the highest’ or something similar. A stereotyped phrase easily shouted by the crowds as one.
We may in passing consider the effects all this excitement would have had on the untrained asses colt. Yet it apparently remained calm throughout, for the One Who rode it had authority over all things.
To summarise then, what are we to make of all this? Firstly we must emphasise it was not a general recognition by all that He was the Messiah. Had it been so it would certainly have been cited at the trial. Of course it may have been, and simply not mentioned in the Gospels, but as they were looking for solid evidence, and this would have been solid evidence if the crowd as a whole had seen Him as the Messiah, it is unlikely. Furthermore if such a crowd had really seen Jesus as the Messiah entering in triumph things would have got totally out of hand, to say nothing of the fact that an excited crowd acclaiming a Messiah would also have caused the Roman soldiers, present in Jerusalem in large numbers at the Passover, to intervene at once.
Outwardly, as Matthew makes clear (Matthew 21.11), this was therefore the welcome of a popular prophet into Jerusalem in the time honoured way, although we need not doubt that there were some in the crowd who would like to have stirred Him into Messianic action. There were very mixed views about Him (John 7.12, 26-27, 31). But that it had not raised great expectations comes out in that He was able quietly to go into the Temple seemingly without the crowd following. Most of them moved on in order to greet more pilgrims, not aware of the deeply significant things that were now happening.
To the closest disciples it was obviously more than this, but they still clearly saw it as puzzling. They knew He was the Messiah because He had virtually said so (8.29-30), but they also remembered His severe words on the subject of what was to happen to Him and what He had come to do (8.30-31, 34-38; 9.12, 30-31; 10.42-45). They must therefore have been in two minds. For they did not then connect what happened here with Zechariah’s prophecy (John 12.16), and it could hardly be seen as a call to rise up in arms. We are left to imagine what their present thinking might have been. They had been warned not to reveal Him as ‘the Messiah’, so they would to some extent be restrained, and yet they were probably both exalted and puzzled at the same time, not knowing what to make of it. However, they would have been to the feast too often to be mistaken about the mood of the crowd and the excited cries. They knew that much of it was mere festal enthusiasm. On the other hand they were aware that Jesus had carefully planned it. What then was He about to do? There can be no doubt it would have raised some kind of expectation in their hearts. That they too, however, did not associate it with Zechariah 9.9 until later, after His resurrection is clear from John’s Gospel (John 12.16).
To Jesus it was a deliberate portrayal to Jerusalem and all who would see it, that He was the King of Peace promised in Zechariah. In a sense He was offering Himself to them, and especially to the leadership, but only if they were willing for their whole approach to God being purified, as He demonstrated by what He did in the Temple. But it was not with any expectations of His being accepted, for He knew perfectly well what was going to happen and was under no illusions about the condition of their hearts, as He has already made clear. He knew that His hour had come (John 13.1). It was all part of His self revelation which to others would later mean more than it did then. He was deliberately and symbolically riding in as One Who would be rejected. Israel and its leaders must have its opportunity of recognition, but as He had been making clear to His disciples, He had no doubt as to what was to come. He knew that He was riding to His death, and all that would follow. Thus this was a prophetic sign, rather than in any sense a real offer.
The Temple and the Fig Tree (11.11-25)
Having made clear to those with eyes to see both Whom He was and the spirit in which He had come, meek and lowly and in peace as far as politics was concerned, Jesus moved on to the Temple, and there we are significantly told that ‘He looked around’. Remembering what He had previously done as a young firebrand (John 2.14-17) this gains in significance. But that is not specifically what Mark has in mind. He has more in mind an examination that looks around and is angry at what it sees (compare Malachi 3.1-2), just as He will shortly examine the fig tree in the same vein. In fact this whole passage is a mixture of symbolism and reality. He is hungry, because He sees the crowds in their hunger, and wants to meet their need. But He is angry with those who are responsible for their continuing hunger, those who see themselves as the fig tree who should be feeding His people. And He wants to demonstrate that the Temple can no longer meet the needs of the people and must be replaced by a spiritual Temple. And he does it by parallelism
For as mentioned above the Temple and the fig tree are closely interwoven here. His careful scrutiny of the temple is paralleled with His scrutiny of the fig tree, He finds fruitlessness and deadness in both, and His subsequent action in the Temple is to be explained in terms of the withering of the fig tree because of its barrenness. In a sense He was giving the leadership the opportunity to put things right. But He knew that they would not. Pruning would not be sufficient. The fig tree/Temple was only fit to be destroyed. Judgment must inevitably fall on Jerusalem because it too was withered and dead.
Note that in ‘a’ having entered Jerusalem and surveyed the Temple, He went out of the city, and in the parallel He went out of the city every evening. He had come to minister there, but the city was not for Him. In ‘b’ He was hungry, and in the parallel the people on whose behalf He hungers hear His teaching with ‘astonishment’. In ‘c’ He finds nothing but leaves on the fig tree, and in the parallel those represented by the fig tree reveal their barrenness by seeking to destroy Him. In ‘d’ He condemns the fig tree’s fruitlessness, and His disciples heard it, and in the parallel He condemns the Temple’s fruitlessness and the Chief Priests and Scribes heard it. In ‘e’ He cast out the dealers who profaned the Temple, and in the parallel He prevented from proceeding through the Temple those who profaned it by using it as a short cut. In ‘f’ He dealt with the profaner’s tools of trade.
Jesus Surveys the Temple (11.11).
11.11 ‘And he entered into Jerusalem, into the Temple, and when he had looked round about on all things, it now being evening, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’
Leaving the enthusiastic crowds behind to greet more pilgrims Jesus went into the Temple, and Mark brings out that His purpose was in order to look around and survey what was there. The Lord has come suddenly to His Temple (Malachi 3.1). He would not be surprised by what He found in it, for He had been there many times before, but it no doubt revived His feelings of righteous anger against the behaviour of those responsible for the house of God. As far as He was concerned They were preventing proper worship by the Gentiles, and He therefore knew what His intentions were. The twelve, however, who were probably with Him, had no idea what was on His mind. They simply looked around at the busyness of the Temple. However, as it was by this time evening Jesus did nothing, but left the Temple and returned with the twelve to where they were staying in Bethany, but His mind was no doubt busy over what He intended to do. The time for secrecy was over..
Jesus Surveys the Fig Tree and Declares It Barren (11.12-14).
11.12-13 ‘And on the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree at a distance with leaves, he approached to see if perhaps he might find anything on it. And when he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.’
What is now being described Mark undoubtedly saw as an acted out parable connected with His visits to the Temple. This is demonstrated by the way in which he treats the material. The fig tree and the Temple were clearly to be seen as similar. in that they made a great show for visitors, but inwardly they were fruitless and barren.
‘He was hungry.’ If this is taken literally we would probably say peckish. He may well have been up for many hours in private prayer. But Mark also recognises here another hunger. His hunger for the response of Jerusalem to His pleas, and for the crowds who are astonished at His teaching (unlike the Chief Priests and Scribes).
At what point Jesus realised that this fig tree could provide a profound object lesson we are not told. That He is mentioned as being hungry may suggest that His hunger brought the idea to His mind of a divine demonstration of what was to happen to Jerusalem, but that He expected to find figs so far out of season, unless they were dried up old figs or it was an early fig tree, is questionable. He knew as well as the next man that there would be no figs at Passover time (although this may not necessarily be so. Some do claim that figs have been known, although rarely, at Passover time).
What then was He expecting? He may rather have expected to find the barely edible green knops that come before the actual figs arrive (possibly the ‘green figs’ of Song of Solomon 2.13). But when He found none from His inspection of the fig tree it seemingly brought home to Him what He had discovered about Israel. That they too made a great outward show of godliness, but were really totally fruitless. Presumably from this point on what He really wanted to do was portray a lesson that would later be understood by His disciples.
‘On the next day.’ This links the incident with the previous verse. Such connecting links are rare in Mark demonstrating its importance as a deliberate link.
‘With leaves’ stresses that to outward appearance the tree might be expected to be fruitful. It was making a great show, just as Jerusalem was.
‘He approached to see if perhaps He might find anything on it’ just as He had entered the temple and ‘looked around’ (verse 11) at a scene which demonstrated that Israel produced no fruit. Perhaps He did hope to find on the fig tree some remnant of old figs or of something edible such as the barely edible green knops that come before the actual figs arrive. We must remember that He was used to roughing it. The absence of these would actually indicate the fruitlessness of the tree. Isaiah 28.4 mentions ‘the firstripe fig before the summer, which when he who looks on it sees, he eats it up while it is in his hand’. That may have referred to the same thing. But some claim that fig trees in Palestine have been known, to produce early figs, or that there is a particular type of early fig tree, and that therefore the leafiness may have suggested this as a possibility. Which is true we will never know.
‘He found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs.’ This does not necessarily indicate that Jesus was expecting to find figs. It simply explains to the overseas reader why He did not. It was because there was ‘nothing but leaves’. Mark is not concerned to show what Jesus was looking for. He is concerned to bring out the significance of the event, that the outward show did not fulfil its promise. So he explains to the reader that it was without fruit or edible material, just as, on Jesus’ inspection, the Temple, and thus the centre of the Jewish religion, had revealed itself to be. (The last phrase was simply an explanation to Mark’s readers who did not know Palestine).
Jesus probably intended that by His action they would remember His parable of the fig tree (Luke 13.6-9) when a man who had planted a fig tree came looking for fruit on it and found none. At that stage it was to be given another chance to see if it would produce figs. But now it was too late. The fig tree had been given abundant opportunity. Now its probation was over. It had failed to produce figs.
11.14 ‘And he answered and said to it, “No man eat fruit from you from now on for ever.” And his disciples heard it.’
There are no grounds for suggesting that Jesus was angry. It was a straightforward declaration. Nor did he ‘curse’ the fig tree in any bad sense. Rather He destined it to failure because of its outward profession which was not accompanied by fruitfulness. It may well be that He recognised that the fig tree was past its best and would no longer produce fruit. But what He was wanting to portray justified His performance of the miracle in His hastening its end by His word. He wanted to portray the most solemn of messages, the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (chapter 13). In Jeremiah 24.2 good and bad figs depicted blessing on the captives in Babylon and punishment on those who remained in the land (compare also Micah 7.1). While the application is different it illustrates the use of the product of a fig tree to denote judgment on ‘Israel’.
‘Now and for ever.’ Temple worship would never rise again. It was finished.
‘And his disciples heard it.’ Mark wants us to know where his own information came from. It came from the disciples. But the phrase also parallels ‘and the Chief Priests and Scribes heard it’ in verse 18 indicating a connection of the ideas.
Jesus Enters the Barren Temple and Purges It (11.15-20).
Having declared His sentence on a barren fig tree, Jesus now turns His attention to something even more barren, Jerusalem and The Temple.
11.15 ‘And they come to Jerusalem, and he entered into the temple and began to cast out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold the doves and he would not allow that any man should carry a vessel through the temple.’
‘And they come to Jerusalem.’ Presumably the fig tree had been outside the boundary of Jerusalem proper, which was seemingly Bethphage. But Mark wants us to recognise that Jesus is ‘coming to Jerusalem’ because the whole city is under sentence. It is Jerusalem as a whole, what men called the holy city, that is the object of Jesus’ attention (which is partly why He symbolically leaves it each night. Perhaps there is a hint here that He does not want to be too closely identified with it).
In the light of what He had observed the previous afternoon Jesus now entered the Temple and began to drive out those who were trading there by the sheer force of His personality and stern eyes and words. This time He did not need a scourge, for He did not drive the animals out. This action was not because He disapproved of the sacrificial system as a whole, which was God ordained, but because of His concern for the holiness of God’s house and because of the nefarious practises being carried on. As the Sanhedrin rightly recognised this was a claim to unique authority from God (11.28).
This was the second time that Jesus had purged the Temple. John 2.13-17 tells us of the first time, early in His ministry, when His prime concern had been the treating of God’s house like a marketplace and a stable. Then His main opponents were the traders, and His aim had been to drive out the cattle as well. He had wanted to clear the house for prayer. It had not been a direct attack on the leadership. That may well have been treated as the spontaneous action of a young hothead, a demonstration, which some even approved of to some extent, (especially the people). But when He came to Jerusalem again the next time they would have been on their guard. However, as year succeeded to year He had not done it again and they had no doubt felt able to relax. Thus they were simply unprepared for it when it happened again.
The fact that this first cleansing is not mentioned by the Synoptics is not surprising. They ignore the whole of Jesus’ original ministry in Judaea. And the position of this one at the end of His ministry indicated symbolically what they wanted to convey.
But here His accusations reached much deeper than in that first clearing of the Temple. Here He called it not just a marketplace but a ‘haunt for rogues’. He was now, by implication, involving the Chief Priests themselves in it. On the first emptying He had possibly not known of the chicanery that would certainly have been going on, but had only been aware that they were using it as a marketplace. Now through His ministry He had learned more of what was happening there. He had learned of the skulduggery that was the talk of the marketplaces.
‘Those who sold and bought in the Temple.’ Those who came to the Temple would need to have suitable sacrifices that could pass the test of being unblemished. Thus sacrificial animals and birds were sold in the Temple by traders commissioned by the chief priests with a certificate guaranteeing that they were satisfactory, together with such things as wine, oil and salt, . And this was done in the Court of the Gentiles under the sanction of the authorities with little regard for what it meant for worshippers. It was not a far cry from this to making the test very stiff for sacrificial beasts brought in from outside by individuals so as to ensure that they often failed the test, so that the prospective worshippers had then to buy certificated beasts or birds at ultra high prices, with suitable commissions paid to the authorities. And this undoubtedly happened regularly, or at least was rumoured to do so. No doubt the ‘rejected’ beasts were included in the price as part exchange and some no doubt were later sold on again as certificated beasts.
‘The tables of the moneychangers.’ The Temple tax (Exodus 30.12-16; compare Matthew 17.24) had to be paid in the Tyrian two drachma piece which was the nearest available equivalent to the Hebrew half shekel. (This was the equivalent of well over a day’s wage). This was because it had no image of man or beast on it. Thus moneychangers sat at tables and accepted other currencies in exchange for it, charging a comparatively large fee for the exchange and a further fee if change had to be given, while the chief priests again claimed their commissions. The noise of typical Middle Eastern negotiation and haggling would have been deafening, and the whole process was designed to extract as much money as possible from the unfortunate pilgrims, many of whom were poor, and to line the pockets of the chief priests and their cronies. When Jesus overturned their tables and their beloved money went rolling round the floor, it would have been to the delight of the crowds. They at least would be on Jesus’ side.
The result of all these practises was that those who came into the court of the Gentiles of the house of God, instead of being filled with awe and a realisation of the presence of God, found themselves in a busy, hectic marketplace, with buyers and sellers arguing and disputing loudly and furiously, prospective sacrificial animals and birds adding their own particular protests, and moneychangers calling out their rates. But such potential worshippers were only Gentiles and so it did not matter.
‘He would not allow that any man should carry a vessel through the Temple.’ The Temple courts were also being used as a thoroughfare to provide short cuts for those moving about that part of the city. Jesus, no doubt with the help of His disciples, prevented such movements. This emphasises that His main concern in both cases was for the purity of the Temple. It was for worship, not for convenience. The later Rabbis cite a provision that a man ‘may not enter into the Temple Mount with his staff, or his sandal, or his wallet, or with the dust on his feet, nor may he make of it a short by-path’. Thus in this He was probably following what was strictly the law, which had seemingly fallen out of use through carelessness and neglect, or lack of policing.
11.17 ‘And he taught and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a brigands’ cave.”
In John His action had merely been to clear the Temple, telling them not to turn the Temple into a shop, but here He not only did that but also ‘taught’ and drew the attention of people to the full situation. The quotation is a combination of two Scriptures, made up of Isaiah 56.7 ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ and Jeremiah 7.11, ‘is this house, which is called by my name, become a brigands’ cave in your eyes?’ ‘For all the nations’ was particularly relevant because it took place in the Court of the Gentiles. That was where the God-fearers, non-circumcised Gentile believers, could come to pray.
Jesus’ first concern was thus that the Temple was intended to be a house of prayer where all people could come and meet with God. But what chance were the Gentiles being given here?
However, to call that part of the Temple a shop, as He did the first time, was one thing (no one could really deny it), to teach that it was ‘a brigands’ cave’ was quite another. That involved the very highest authorities in dishonesty. They were being accused of swindling the people. How far the swindling and profiteering went we do not know for certain, but some of the High Priests had a reputation for greed and avarice, (one 1st century High Priest, Ananias, was called ‘the procurer of money’ by Josephus) and anyone who suggests that all was straight dealing does not know human nature, especially as regards Jewish businessmen. In fact Rabbinic evidence points to the excessively high price of the doves, and the avarice and hatred in connection with the Temple is mentioned in T.Menahoth. Everyone, of course, knew of the feared brigand’s caves in the country between Jerusalem and Jericho. It would not be a nice thought to be associated with them.
11.18 ‘And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought how they might destroy him, for they feared him, for all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.’
The chief priests, who ran the Temple and controlled its ministries, were inevitably angry because He had hit at their pockets and at their reputation. And the problem was that they knew that everyone believed it was true. The scribes here might be Sadducean scribes who naturally sided with the leading Sadducees, the chief priests. But we need not doubt that many scribes of the Pharisees were also willing to side with them as well in this particular case. Jesus’ teaching was getting too uncomfortable and as a result some of the people were beginning to question their authority. There was only one answer, and that was to destroy Him. Mark has already described the same intention in Galilee (3.6). Now the rot had spread through the whole country.
‘They feared Him.’ Because He was undermining their authority and revealing the inadequacy of much of their teaching.
11.19 ‘And whenever it was evening He went out of the city.’ This was necessarily so because their camp was on the Mount of Olives near Bethany. But in Mark’s eyes it probably also symbolises His unwillingness to be fully identified with Jerusalem. He would not accept the hospitality of those whom He had sentenced.
‘Whenever.’ Each night He returned with His disciples to where He was staying in or just outside Bethany (verse 12; Matthew 21.17), on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives (Luke 21.37). In view of their number they may well have set up camp there. Each day they again entered the city and passed the fig tree. During the day He was preaching in the Temple (see Luke 19.47; John 12.17-50). One can imagine the feelings of the authorities every time He arrived as they waited on tenterhooks for what He would do next.
The Lessons Of The Fig Tree Which Has Withered (11.19-25).
When Peter calls Jesus’ attention to the fact that the fig tree has withered, Jesus uses the fact to draw a number of lessons. Firstly that anything is possible to the one who has faith, secondly that even the mountain that they could see before them (symbolic of the withered Temple) could be cast into the sea (symbolic of judgment) by faith, and thirdly of the necessity for forgiving and being forgiven if they too were to avoid becoming withered.
Note that in ‘a’ Peter calls attention to the withered fig tree, withered because it represents the unspirituality of Jerusalem, with its unforgiving and arrogant behaviour towards sinners and Gentiles, and in the parallel Jesus provides the basis on which the ‘new Jerusalem’, His church, can avoid becoming withered, by being based on the twin pillars of forgiveness and being forgiven. In that way it will avoid the curse that has come on Jerusalem. Forgiveness was always intended to be central to God’s deliverance and salvation (compare Matthew 6.14-15; 18.15-35; Isaiah 43.25; 44.22). In ‘b’ He tells them to have faith in God, and in the parallel He exemplifies this by describing how faith works. Centrally He depicts the downfall of Jerusalem and the Temple as flowing from His faith as expressed in the destruction of the fig tree.
11.20 ‘And as they passed by in the morning they saw the fig tree, withered away from its roots.’
‘They passed by.’ Possibly, but not necessarily, the day after the cleansing of the Temple. The point is that they saw it when they were re-entering the city whose end it portrayed, which was probably the next morning.
‘They saw the fig tree withered away from its roots.’ It is emphasised that its roots were dead, just as the supposed source of religious sustenance for the Jews was dead.
11.21 ‘’And Peter, calling to memory what had happened, says to him, “Rabbi. See. The fig tree which you cursed is withered away.’
As usual it was Peter who spoke up on behalf of the group, even though they had no doubt been pointing it out to each other (for Jesus replied to ‘them’). Note that it is Peter, and not Jesus, who speaks of the fig tree being ‘cursed’. That was the ‘popular’ way of looking at it. Interestingly the lesson that Jesus draws from this is one of the power of faith, and He supplies an outstanding example of what faith can accomplish. It can enable the casting of ‘this mountain’ into the sea. Overtly this is just an example of a remarkable accomplishment of faith, but a moment’s thought brings out that it goes deeper than that. For ‘this mountain’ is probably the Temple mount, and being ‘cast into the sea’ is pictorial of judgment (compare 9.42; Luke 17.2 where the one who causes little children to stumble would be better to be thrown into the sea, which suggests that being ‘cast into the sea’ was a symbol of judgment (compare Exodus 15.4; Jonah 1.15; 2.3).
Notice that Peter saw Jesus as having cursed the fig tree, although neither Matthew or Mark actually say that Jesus cursed it. Jesus’ quiet word of power was clearly seen by His disciples as a curse, bringing out the awe in which the disciples now held Him. Little did they then at that stage realise that by it He had in fact ‘cursed’ Jerusalem.
And later Jesus will draw attention to the fig tree which had a great show of leaves but was barren. For in 13.28-29 He says, “Now from the fig tree learn her parable. When her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near, even so you also, when you see these things happening (including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple) know that He is near, even at the doors. Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things be accomplished.” Once again the fig tree and its leaves were to be seen as a sign, a sign paralleled with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
11.22-23 ‘And Jesus answering says to them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you that whoever will say to this mountain, ‘be you taken up and cast into the sea’, and shall not doubt in his heart but will believe that what he says happens, he will have it.’
Jesus’ reply to Peter and the others was that, as He Himself had demonstrated, they must have faith in God. He was pointing out the lesson of what faith can accomplish. The one who truly has confidence in God can not only wither fig trees but can even remove mountains. This general idea of moving a mountain was one that Jesus used fairly regularly. See Matthew 17.20 (but not there cast into the sea); and compare Luke 17.6.
This kind of faith was in complete contrast with those who had turned the house of prayer into a haunt for brigands. They had turned from faith to worldliness, and that was why they could be seen as withered. Any true faith was dead. But the faith that had enabled the withering of the fig tree was available to all who truly believed God. So if the leaders of the people were preventing the Temple from being a house of prayer, His disciples must not make the same mistake. Rather they must demonstrate their faith in God, and it is prayer of this kind that will prevent them from withering. Then impossible things will be possible. For when men trust God fully they will be able to cast a mountain into the sea with a word.
Certainly we may see His promise here as including the fact that their Father could deal with any and all difficulties that they met, if their faith was strong, and Jesus may well have had in mind Zechariah 4.6-7 where for Zerubbabel ‘the great mountain shall become a plain’ through the action of God’s Spirit. There the idea was of the great mountain was of difficulties removed. And so, He promised, it will be for all who serve Him fully and pray believingly. There may also be some truth in the comparison often made with Jewish writings where a great teacher who explained difficulties in Scripture was called a ‘mountain remover’. They too would through faith in God become ‘mountain removers’.
But in this context we must see it as pointing to more that that. For when He said ‘this mountain’ He may well have indicated the Temple Mount. Isaiah 2.2 had spoken of ‘the mountain of the Lord’s house’, and Isaiah 2.3 had paralleled ‘the mountain of the Lord’ with ‘the house of the God of Jacob’. This would indeed explain why He spoke of it being ‘cast into the sea’ (there was no sea near enough to be significant), for being cast into the sea was a picture of judgment. In 9.42; Luke 17.2 to be cast into the sea was the fate envisaged for sinners (compare also 5.13; Exodus 15.4; Jonah 1.15; 2.3). So in the context of the withering of the fig tree and His actions in the Temple He must surely have been hinting here at the future that lay in store. This mighty Temple and this great city were to be ‘cast into the sea’ of judgment because they were spiritually barren. And it was at His word, as He had demonstrated with the fig tree. Jerusalem would be destroyed and its house would be left to it desolate (Matthew 23.38; Luke 13.35).
To ‘have faith in God’ in this way is to trust God fully, it is to walk in His ways and be fully taken up with His will. This promise is not therefore for the sensation seeker but for those who are dedicated to Him and will shy from asking for anything that is not in accordance with His will.
Note what is required. ‘Shall not doubt but will believe that what he says will happen.’ There is no doubt that Jesus knew that He could have cast the Temple into the sea had it been necessary, but that would have been contrary to His mission. He had not come to do the spectacular. Rather His prayers would carry forward into future history when the Temple would indeed be destroyed. Nor was He suggesting that others should do so either. His point is that nothing is impossible to the one who truly prays. But in the end it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the destruction of the Temple was in Jesus’ mind, for the mountain is ‘cast into the sea’.
11.24 “Therefore I say to you, All things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received them and you will have them”.
This and the following verse could well be a teaching of Jesus which Mark knew of and put here in order to provide it with a context. It could be seen as a more general saying rather than as fitting the context directly. In that case it is a promise to the dedicated follower of Christ that whenever, in His service for God, he or she has a great need, they can come with confidence to the Father to meet that need. But note that their spiritual state must be such that they can come with confident faith. Then their confidence will be reflected by the certainty that they have that their prayer will be answered, and thus it will be. This is no promise to be used lightly for personal benefit or for trivialities. It is for those who are seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness.
But again it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its context indicates that included in the idea of the response to faith as exemplified here was what Jesus had Himself demonstrated, that just as the fig tree had withered at His word, so also finally will the Temple.
11.25 ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone, that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’
This is another saying of Jesus which at first sight appears to be even more ‘unattached’. Looking at it from this point of view it is a reminder that if we want our prayers to be answered our hearts must be right with God, and that means having a right attitude towards our fellowman. As we have the heart to forgive, so will we be forgiven (compare Matthew 6.12, 14-15, and note the reference here to ‘your Father Who is in Heaven’ which connects with the Lord’s Prayer). And the corollary of this is that those who are unforgiving cannot expect God to answer their prayers, for they are unable to receive the forgiveness of God. The centrality of such an idea for prayer comes out in that it is such an essential part of the Lord’s prayer.
But if we think about it further we can see that Jesus may well have a specific purpose in mind in bringing in the need to forgive here. For such willingness to forgive, together with its parallel of being forgiven, is elsewhere central to Jesus’ view of what He requires from His new people. It is stressed in connection with the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6.14-15), and it is seen as basic to His instructions to the new community (Matthew 18.15-35). Thus in the context of the idea of the spiritual failure of Jerusalem there is good reason to see this as being the alternative that could succeed in enabling the church to triumph where Jerusalem had failed. They were to be the house of prayer. And the secret of true spirituality and prayer lay in forgiving one another and being forgiven by God. Such people would never suffer under His curse, and would be able to pray in faith, knowing that they would be heard.
Members of The Sanhedrin Challenge His Authority (11.27-33).
Mark has made abundantly clear the stir that Jesus has caused since approaching Jerusalem. He has been demanding that all notice His arrival, and He is doing so as One with the right to proclaim Himself and to exercise His authority. He is making quite clear that He has come from God as God’s chosen One, with a view to setting right what was displeasing to God. It was therefore inevitable that the religious leaders would challenge Him. Indeed they could hardly have allowed these events to pass without comment. So at this point the whole Sanhedrin come to challenge Him.
Note that in ‘a’ they ask for His authority, and in the parallel because of their refusal to answer His question He refuses to give His authority as they have proved themselves unable to judge it rightly. In ‘b’ He puts His question and calls for an answer, and in the parallel they admit that they are unable to supply an answer. Centrally in ‘c’ are their grounds for being unable to do so.
11.27-28 ‘And they come again to Jerusalem, and as he was walking in the temple there come to him the chief priests and the scribes and the elders, and they said to him, “By what authority do you do these things, or who gave you the authority to do these things?” ’
We must see this as at least a semi-official approach from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body, and probably as an official deputation, for the Chief Priests, representing the priesthood and the Temple, the Scribes representing both Sadducees and Pharisees, and the Elders, as important lay people representing the people generally, were constituent parts of the Sanhedrin and were responsible for overseeing Jewish affairs.
They had clearly been waiting for Him and they came to Him as He was walking in the Temple. He was there to pray and to teach. He did not try to hide Himself. His challenge was now open. But they came there deliberately in order to show Him up before all the people, for they knew that it was necessary to get the support of the people for what they wanted to do to Him. And their first aim was to demonstrate to the crowds that he had no authority.
Their question seemed reasonable. It was their responsibility to check the credentials of any who claimed religious authority and they were also responsible for public order, especially in the Temple, and He had undoubtedly caused some disarray. But they had had plenty of opportunity for questioning Him and weighing Him up before, and they could first have spoken with Him in private. The way Jesus dealt with them demonstrated that He saw their challenge now as hostile, not neutral.
That their approach was over more than just His actions in the Temple comes out in the strength of the deputation. His act in the Temple could have been dealt with by the Temple police. It was His whole activity that was in question and the hidden claims that He thus made.
The approach was high handed and officious. ‘By what authority -- who gave you this authority?’ Their first hope was that He would have no answer and be caught unprepared. Then the people would see He was a charlatan. Alternately they were hoping to make Him declare Himself, and say something ‘foolish’, and whatever He said they would use against Him. They would accuse Him of self-exaltation, or worse, of being a Messianic claimant and a rebel. Was He claiming to be a prophet? Was He the Messiah? Was He the coming Elijah? And if He was not claiming to be anyone important how could He claim to have God’s personal authority? Compare 6.15; John 1.19-25. This was what they wanted to know.
‘These things.’ In context this includes the cleansing of the Temple but only as one example of a wider activity, including the preaching and miracles in the Temple, and His public entry into Jerusalem.
11.29-30 ‘And Jesus said to them, “I will ask of you one thing (Greek - ‘word’), and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John. Was it from heaven or of men? Answer me.” ’ .
Jesus knew what they were up to and His reply was subtle. All knew that He had been associated with John the Baptiser. Thus if John, who had acknowledged Him, was from God, He was from God. And His question deflected the emphasis from His own claims to the claims of another, to one of whose credentials the crowds had no doubt and who had proved it by martyrdom. But if they declared John and his work to be from God (‘heaven’ was a euphemism for God), they would be validating His own claims, and He could go on to point out what John had said about Him. And if they did not they would be discredited before the crowds. The very question was an indirect demand for recognition that He was sent from God.
‘The baptism of John.’ Even more subtle. They were surrounded by people who had been baptised by John, who would not be pleased to have their cherished baptism called in question, and it would remind many that Jesus and His disciples had baptised alongside them.
11.31-32 ‘And they reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we shall say, from heaven, he will say, why then did you not believe him? But should we say from men -” - they feared the people, for all truly held John to be a prophet.’
The deputation knew what the crowds believed about this, and they did not know how to answer. So they began discussing the matter among themselves. The reasoning was probably muttered and whispered. The sudden break and words unspoken are psychologically effective. They dared not even think of the consequences of not acknowledging John as a prophet before all these people. It would infuriate them. Yet they could not admit that John was sent from God, for that would mean that they had to believe what he had said about Jesus, and would lay themselves open to the question as to why they had not believed in him. But to deny that he was ---, they dared not even think of it because of the temper of the people. For the people were in an excitable state because of the feast and their confidence in the fact that John was a prophet was unquestioned. As they pondered the question they could see that the crowd were already won to Jesus’ side.
11.33a ‘And they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”
It was they who had been caught on the hop, and their reply demonstrated that they were admitting that they did not feel able to make a spiritual judgment in such matters. Of what use for Jesus to answer their question, then, if they were unable to make a judgment about the matter of authority? How angry they must have been. They had been made to look utterly foolish. They had come with a great show of authority in front of the crowd, who had always looked to them for religious guidance in the past, and now had had to admit that they could not tell whether someone was from God, even when it was such an obvious case to the crowd as John the Baptiser. And they knew that by implication Jesus’ authority had been vindicated in front of the crowd. All knew that He and John had ministered alongside each other.
11.33b ‘And Jesus says to them, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” ’
Jesus’ final refusal to answer because of their failure would win the crowd over to His side even more, for they were disillusioned with the answer they had heard. And His reply held within it a certain level of contempt. These ‘authorities’ had shown themselves not worthy to be given an answer on such matters, for they were not willing to face up to what all knew to be true. By His reply Jesus was setting Himself up as a higher authority, answerable only to God, because they had demonstrated that they were incapable of judging. The whole incident was reminding the people of what John had said about Him. It was a veiled reminder that He was the Coming One, a reminder that He then goes on to amplify in the parable of the wicked tenants and vinedressers.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenant Farmers (12.1-12).
In the section chiasmus this parable parallels the story of the blind man who saw Jesus as the Son of David, had his eyes opened, and took the way of discipleship. In this parable the tenants, who represent the Jerusalem leadership, prove in contrast themselves to be ‘blind’ and are unwilling to acknowledge ‘the son’.
The idea of Israel as a vineyard is found regularly in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5.1-7 we have a similar opening to this. And there the choicest vine was planted and it produced wild grapes, so that it was ripe for judgment. And that vineyard and vine were Israel and Judah (Compare also for the idea of Israel as a vineyard Psalm 80.8-16; Jeremiah 2.21-22; Hosea 9.10). The difference here is that the emphasis is on the sinfulness of the leadership.
Any sensible reading of this parable must recognise certain detailed applications within it. It was hardly possible for an outstanding teacher and prophet like Jesus to tell it without His listeners recognising that it was based on a number of Scriptures, demonstrating that detailed application was required, and that it led up to Himself as the son.
The differences between the parable as presented by each of the three Synoptics probably indicate that the parable was told a number of times in slightly varied form as Jesus continued to teach the crowds that week. He was continually teaching every day, and as with the disciples, but in more vague form, by it He was preparing the people for His coming death. It was a lesson that He would want emphasised by repetition. We already know from the way in which He has earlier repeated ‘parabolic ideas’ in different contexts that He favoured repetition, and the huge amount of teaching that would otherwise have to be seen as left inexplicably unrecorded demands it. Thus to seek an ‘original form’ is both unnecessary and a waste of time. What we should rather notice is the different emphases.
Note that in ‘a’ he lets out the vineyard to tenant farmers, and in the parallel he takes it from them and gives it to others. In ‘b he wants to receive the fruit of his vineyard, but his servant is expelled from the vineyard, and in the parallel his son is killed and his body is thrown out of the vineyard. In ‘c’ they embark on a policy of killing, and in the parallel they plan to kill the heir. Central in ‘d’ is the beloved son whom the own expected would be treated with due honour because of who he was.
12.1 ‘And he began to speak to them in parables, “A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it, and dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower and let it out to tenant farmers and went into another country.’
‘He began to speak to them.’ In context this clearly means to the deputation from the Sanhedrin (see verse 12). But as the whole incident had taken place in front of crowds of people it also included the crowds all around (see also verse 12; Luke 20.9).
‘In parables.’ That is ‘parabolically’, in a riddle, here a story with a hidden meaning.
The owner planted a vineyard, and then in anticipation of its fruitfulness gave it a protective hedge, dug a pit in the rock where the grapes could be trodden to produce the wine, the juice flowing into a specially prepared cavity, and built a tower as a store room and to be used as a useful watchtower so that the vineyard could be well protected against jackals and thieves. Then he let it out to tenants. This detail would remind His hearers of the similar detail in Isaiah 5, where Isaiah demonstrated that the vineyard was Israel, that the owner was God Himself and that its fruit would be ‘wild grapes’, although the grapes are not taken up in this story. By Jesus the responsibility is put on the vinedressers. His concern here was with the behaviour of those who oversaw the vineyard, and the crowd were actually on His side.
The initial detail of the parable was in order to stress that God had made full provision for His people. We can take the lesson for ourselves that when God begins a work He makes ample provision for it. Any failure can therefore only be blamed on those who misuse it.
In the Targum of Isaiah (the Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Scriptures) the tower is interpreted as the Temple. Thus many of His listeners would recognise the association of what He was saying with the Temple, and that His words thus included those who ran the Temple.
12.2-5 “And at the season he sent a servant to the tenant farmers so that he might receive from the tenant farmers some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him, and sent him away with nothing. And again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head and handled him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And he sent many others, and some they beat and some they killed.”
Jesus now built up a picture of the growing animosity and sinfulness of the tenant farmers as servants were sent to collect the owner’s share of the produce, his ‘rent’, and their treatment of them grew worse and worse - ‘beat -- wounded in the head -- handled shamefully -- killed’ - until it became a habit and was carried on almost randomly. No one listening would doubt that the prophets and other such men of God were in mind, including John the Baptiser whose fairly recent death would be still well remembered. They too had come to call men to account for what they owed to God, and had been shamefully treated.
‘Sent a servant.’ See Jeremiah 7.25-26 - ‘I have sent unto you all my servants the prophets -- but they made their neck stiff and did worse than their fathers’, and 2 Chronicles 24.19 - ‘yet He sent prophets to them to bring them again to the Lord’. (See also Matthew 23.30-36). For the maltreatment of successive men of God see also 1 Kings 18.13; 22.27; 2 Chronicles 24.20-21; 36.15-16; Nehemiah 9.26. The consequences that followed are also clearly described.
There is here then the basic lesson of God’s patience. He did not just send one or two He sent many. He gave the leaders of Israel every opportunity to rethink their position, but all they did as a consequence was to add to their crimes.
12.6-7 “And he had yet one, a beloved son. He sent him last to them saying, ‘They will treat my son with due honour’. But those tenant farmers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ ”
Here Jesus made His most clear public statement yet that He was the Messiah, and more than the Messiah, and yet He did it in a way that could not be used against Him. He was confirming that He was ‘God’s beloved Son’ (compare 1.11; 9.7). For the owner ‘sent his own beloved son’. Now Jesus was making clear that a greater than the prophets was here (Matthew 12.41; Luke 11.32), one who was totally unique and was related to God as no other. He was their last opportunity. The change to ‘son’ would certainly be noted by the members of the Sanhedrin, eager as they were to pin any charge they could on Jesus.
‘They will treat my son with due honour.’ This emphasises the distinction between the slave-servants and the son. It is inconceivable that they could be so degraded as not to pay due honour to the son, for he is both distinct from the servants and has an authority which is singularly his own. Here is one who is like no other, having a unique relationship with the owner and a right to the vineyard which belongs to him by right of inheritance.
But the tenant farmers, instead of treating the son with honour, plotted his death, just as these members of the Sanhedrin present knew in their own hearts that they were doing as they sought to find a way to bring about the death of Jesus.
‘Those tenant farmers.’ The ‘those’ points back to what we know of the tenant farmers, and is filled with contempt. It indicates ‘The ones I have described’. It is strongly disparaging.
‘Come let us kill him.’ The words are those used by Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 37.20 (see LXX). Jesus was likening these men to Joseph’s brothers, full of hate and jealousy as they attacked the one whom God had chosen to honour.
‘And the inheritance will be ours.’ Not by right of inheritance but by possession. There would be no one left to challenge them. They would be able to go on illegally holding it in spite of their rejection of the owner. (They did not think he would trouble to come himself, and there were certain land laws that enabled the takeover of land held by tenants undisturbed for a number of years). So in the same way the leaders of the Jews had convinced themselves that once they had got rid of Jesus they would be able to carry on in their position as religious leaders of the people without interference.
12.8 “And they took him and killed him and threw his body out of the vineyard.”
Ominously Jesus now declared the certainty of His forthcoming death and the ignominious treatment they would plan for Him. He would be killed and His body tossed out of the vineyard. He would be treated like those criminals whose bodies were tossed out of Jerusalem onto the fires of the Valley of Hinnom. This was the bitter fruit that the owner received from his vineyard.
It is a sign of the authenticity of the parable that this did not actually happen as a direct result of the subdued fury of Pilate and the intervention of Joseph of Arimathea. It was certainly their intention for Him. It described what was intended. And it parallel, ‘and will deliver Him to the Gentiles’ (10.33), that is, those who are outside the vineyard.
12.9 “What therefore will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenant farmers and will give the vineyard to others.”
‘The lord of the vineyard’ here is the owner and the outcome is exactly what anyone would expect. He would come and destroy them. What else could the owner do? (The tenants had clearly hoped he would not think it worth the trouble).
Strictly the meaning here is simply that those responsible for God’s people will be judged and replaced. It is not the vineyard that is to be destroyed but the tenant farmers. Jesus’ point was that it was necessary that these be replaced. God would not leave them still in control.
This was a stark warning to the Jewish authorities. Did they really think that God would stand by and do nothing when they continually rejected His prophets and finally His Son?
And although they did not yet realise it He was already making provision for their replacement with the training of His disciples. He knew that they would shortly take over the responsibilities of the Jewish religious leadership, for that was why He had trained them. Then, for those who responded to Jesus, the authority of those Jewish leaders would be destroyed. It was they who would be ‘cast out’.
But this would also later be seen as fulfilled in a much more powerful way in the cessation of the priesthood because of the destruction of the Temple (although that had not happened when Mark was writing). The main idea, however, was of the passing over of the authority to the Apostles. That was the whole purpose of training them (see also John 13-16).
The Scriptural Lesson and the Fury of the Leadership (12.10-11).
Jesus then applied the lesson of the parable by an appeal to the Scriptures in typical Rabbinic manner.
Note that in ‘a’ He challenges them with the Scriptures, and in the parallel they recognise that He has spoken the parable against them. In ‘b’ He refers to the stone which the builders rejected, and in the parallel their rejection is made clear. In ‘c’ that stone becomes the head of the corner, which in the parallel is ‘marvellous in our eyes. Centrally in ‘d’ the whole is ‘from the Lord’.
12.10-11 “Have you not read even this Scripture, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner. This was from the Lord and it is marvellous in our eyes.’ ”
This method of finishing off a parable with a Scripture quotation is regularly found among the Rabbis.
The quotation is taken from Psalm 118.22-23 LXX, which was the same Psalm shouted out by the crowds when Jesus entered Jerusalem. Even at that time these words must have come into His mind as He contemplated what lay ahead for they were so apt. ‘The stone which the builders rejected’. The same verb is found in 8.31; Luke 9.22; 17.25. Originally the verses probably referred either to Israel, rejected by the nations as insignificant, but to be restored in God’s purposes to the place of supremacy, or to their ruler whose restoration would bring about the same, or to both seen in combination. The Targum (Aramaic translation and interpretation) cites these words in terms of ‘the sons of Jesse’.
But as Isaiah had pointed out, Israel and her rulers had failed in this purpose, so that while originally the Servant of Isaiah was meant to be Israel, and then the true Israel (Isaiah 49.3), he was consolidated into one man, the Suffering Servant who would die for the sins of the people (Isaiah 50 and 53). Thus the promises made to Israel were the promises to be fulfilled in the Suffering Servant, who had king-like qualities (Isaiah 52.13). So Jesus stood there as the representative of Israel (compare Matthew 2.15; John 15.1-6). See also the Son of Man in Daniel 7 who also represented both Israel and Israel’s ruler, and there too the emphasis was on Him as the One Who represented them.
Now Jesus applied the Psalm specifically to Himself. The stone was probably to be seen as rejected because it did not seem to fit anywhere. But when the time came it was found that it made an ideal cornerstone, or more probably the keystone which completed and held together the building. Thus the stone that was rejected turned out to be the most one important of all. It is clear that Jesus was here referring to Himself, and the implication was Messianic, as the whole previous parable was. For He was pointing out that He was the beloved son (Aramaic ‘ben’) and the supreme keystone (Aramaic ‘eben’) around which all else was built. The word play was probably intended and the Targum actually translates the word for ‘stone’ as ‘son’.
This was all a warning to the Jewish leaders to consider well what they were rejecting. It was unwise for them to reject Him just because they could not see how He fitted in to God’s plan as they saw it. Bit if they did reject Him, let them not doubt that He would yet prove to be the keystone of God’s plan of deliverance. The Son may be killed and cast out, but He would finally become God’s keystone (compare the similar basic idea in Isaiah 53.11b-12a). In the light of His coming death this was a veiled promise of resurrection, the two parables together thus illustrating His previous warnings to His disciples.
For further application of this verse to Jesus see Acts 4.11; 1 Peter 2.4, 7; and compare Romans 9.32-33; Ephesians 2.20. Its early use in Acts by Peter confirms that we would expect to find that the application was based on the teaching of Jesus.
‘This was from the Lord and it is marvellous in our eyes.’ It will all be God’s doing, a marvellous revelation of how He goes about His purposes, and something to be wondered at. The cognate verb of ‘marvellous’ occurs regularly in Mark as referring to Jesus (see 5.20; 6.51; 12.17; 15.5, 44). The whole work of Jesus was seen as marvellous from start to finish.
12.12 ‘And they sought to lay hold on him, and they feared the crowds, for they perceived that he spoke the parable against them. And they left him and went away.’
‘And they sought to lay hold on him.’ This was precisely what had happened in the parable. There they had laid hold of God’s servants. Here the listening authorities were in two minds. They wanted to arrest Him. Possibly ‘sought’ indicates that they discussed the matter with the leaders of the Temple police and were advised against it at this stage. Possibly the police even came out with this intention, and heard mutterings in the crowds and backed down. So ‘they feared the crowds’. Their fear of the crowds held them back. They would do it at some stage, but not yet.
‘They perceived that He spoke the parable against them.’ They knew exactly what He meant. Thus they had no excuse for their actions. Had their hearts been right they would have responded to Him. But their minds were closed. They did not want Him. His demands were too great, for He actually expected them to do what God wanted. He was an outcast. The problem was that they feared that the crowds also knew what He meant.
‘And they left Him and went away.’ In a sense they were like Satan himself (see Luke 4.13; Matthew 4.11). Defeated they were prepared to leave Him for a while. But they would be back, just as Satan would be. They were just beginning their campaign.
Jesus Deals With The Final Challenges With Which The Jews Seek To Entrap Him (12.13-44).
In this last part of Section 4 Jesus is faced with attempts to entrap and discredit Him. They come from various sources, the Pharisees and Herodians, the Sadducees, and a Scribe. In each case He emerges having confounded His adversaries. The picture is of Jesus against the establishment, because the establishment have all gone astray.
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus calls for the people to give God what is due to Him, and in the parallel points out the woman who gives more than her due. In ‘b’ Jesus declares that God is Abraham’s God, and in the parallel that the Messiah is David’s Lord, and brings out the distinctiveness of both. Central in ‘c’ are the two great commandments which sum up all the commandments and are at the heart of Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingly Rule of God.
The Pharisees and Herodians Are Sent to Entrap Him (12.13-17).
In order to fully understand this incident we need to have some background to it. Many years before, Herod the Great had ruled Palestine as its tributary king, paying homage to the Emperor of Rome. But when he died (between about 5 and 0 BC) Palestine was split up. Archelaus received Samaria, Judea, and Idumaea, Herod Antipas received Galilee and Peraea and Herod Philip received the wild country in the North East around Ituraea, Trachonitis, Gaulanitis, Batanaea and Auranitis (including Caesaria Philippi).
But Archelaus was a failure, and as a result Rome took over direct rule. His lands became an annexe of the province of Syria. Most of such provinces were ruled by proconsuls responsible to the Senate, but troublesome parts, which required the permanent presence of cohorts of the legions, were ruled by a prefect or procurator, who was directly responsible for their peace to the Emperor. Judaea was one of these troublesome areas, and was ruled henceforth by a prefect/procurator of equestrian rank, a military man who cared little for Jewish sensibilities. Tribute was therefore gathered by him and paid directly to the Emperor.
All rulers were, of course, expected to gather tribute for the Emperor, but the exaction of the poll tax on Judaea when it became a Roman province resulted in a rebellion by Judas the Galilean (c. 6 AD) whose dictate was ‘external taxation is no better than an introduction to slavery’, and whose watchword was ‘no tribute to Caesar’. He was, of course, defeated and killed but his watchword became a permanent rallying cry. Thus paying tribute, especially the ‘poll tax’ (tax per head), was seen by the Jews as something to be done grudgingly, and by some extremists even as treason. The majority, however, paid it but hated it.
Meanwhile Roman silver coins were issued for the area with Caesar’s head on them. Coinage was seen as demonstrating who ruled an area. Any new king would issue his own coinage, often with his head on it, for it was evidence of his rule. And in a sense the coinage was looked on as his. But within the Roman Empire such kings could only issue bronze coinage which in Palestine at this time had no image on it. All silver coinage, however, was issued by Rome, bearing Caesar’s image and titles. It was because such coins had Caesar’s image on them that they could not be used to pay the Temple tax which had to be paid with a coin bearing no image. As a result of all this coins with Caesar’s head on them circulated widely in Judaea. Such was the denarius. Smaller coins could be issued by the procurators and bore in mind Jewish sensibilities (e.g. the widow’s mite), but the poll tax had to be paid with a Roman denarius. It was not only a means of revenue, but a declaration of loyalty to the Emperor.
Note that in ‘a’ they sought to catch Him in His talk, and in the parallel they marvelled greatly at Him because they had not succeeded. In ‘b’ they flattered Him by suggesting that He only taught the way of God, and in the parallel He tells them to make sure that they therefore give to God what is God’s. In ‘c’ they ask whether they should give tribute to Caesar, and in the parallel He asks whose the image is that is on the coin and is informed that it is Caesar’s, demonstrating that it is his. Centrally we learn that He knows that they are putting Him to the test.
12.13 ‘And they send to him certain of the Pharisees and courtiers of Herod that they might catch him in his talk.’
The courtiers of Herod would be in Jerusalem for the feast and would be disturbed that a Galilean was causing trouble in Jerusalem. We know that they and the Pharisees had previously banded together to try to destroy Him (3.6). Now they had banded together again for the same purpose. But they recognised that they had first to discredit Him before the people prior to acting against Him, for His influence was huge and the crowds in Jerusalem were in a fervent state. It may well have been felt that the presence of Herodians in connection with such a question would cause Jesus to either over-react or be careless, for their careless attitude towards coins with Caesar’s head on them would be well known.
‘They send to Him.’ ‘They’ may be indefinite, or it may refer to the previously mentioned members of the Sanhedrin.
The courtiers of Herod would not be too worried about coinage with images on them, while the Pharisees would have been more wary. The Pharisees did not like them but they had to tolerate them, at least for paying the tribute, and teach the people to do the same. So they paid their poll tax to Caesar without open demur, otherwise they would have been discredited in the eyes of Rome, but they did not like it and resented it. Thus their approach in this way was hypocritical.
12.14-15a ‘And when they were come they say to him, “Teacher. We know that you are true and show deference to no one. For you do not regard the person of men, but of a truth teach the way of God. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”.’
The nerve of these men was outrageous. The last thing that they believed was that He taught the way of God in truth. But, aware that the crowds were listening, they were seeking to flatter Him and push Him into a corner. They were making it impossible for Him to refuse to speak without losing His prophetic authority with the people. On the other hand this is precisely how Mark saw Jesus, and wanted his readers to see Him.
‘We know that you are true and show deference to no one.’ They were pretending that they looked on Him as totally honest and therefore as one who would answer regardless of the consequences. They were saying that they believed that His answer would therefore necessarily be His direct view on the question in the sight of God without being swayed by what men would think. They were setting Him up to give a straight answer to a trick question, the answer that would condemn Him. It would be the answer that they wanted. They did not want Him to be able to evade their question this time.
‘For you do not regard the person of men.’ Again they stressed that they knew that He would not let the fear of man influence His answer. They wanted to guard against Him giving His answer having regard to the viewpoint of men such as the Pharisees, who did pay the poll tax because of their regard for men. (The Rabbis would have answered by quoting the traditions of the elders in their support. The past could take the blame). They are emphasising that if His answer suggests that He is fearful of what men will think or do, all will despise Him. Let Him therefore speak without fear or favour, (and thus they hoped condemn Himself in the sight of the Romans).
‘But of a truth teach the way of God.’ If they believed that they would not have been questioning Him. But all these words were meant for the crowds. They were putting Him in the position whereby He must answer or lose face, and whereby His answer will be seen to indicate what He believed to be the exact mind of God on the matter. They were doing to Him what He had done to the members of the Sanhedrin, asking a question He dared not answer unless He was prepared to face the consequences. And they were egging Him on to face the consequences by making it impossible for Him to hold back.
‘The way of God.’ That way in which God teaches men to live (Deuteronomy 8.6; 10.12-13; Psalm 27.11).
‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?” This was the crunch question. Was it right in God’s eyes to give tribute to Caesar or not? The question had been carefully thought out by some of the keenest brains in Jerusalem. If He replied ‘no’, they could immediately go to the authorities and charge Him with treason and with trying to persuade people not to pay their taxes. If He said ‘yes’ they knew that He would be discredited in the eyes of the people both as a prophet and as a potential Messiah, for while most of them paid their poll tax they did it grudgingly believing it to be wrong, and they would never believe that a true prophet of God would tell them that it was right to pay it. And certainly if He was the Messiah He would be here to release them from obligation to Rome, not to enforce it.
‘Is it lawful?’ That is, is it in accordance with the Law of God?
12.15b ‘But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you put me to the test? Bring me a denarius that I may see it.” ’
Not surprisingly Jesus could see right through them, and hypocrisy was the only word to describe their behaviour. They had said things about Him that must have made them cringe inside, for they believed none of it. So He first let them, and the crowds, know that He recognised that they were trying to test Him, and then He called for a denarius to be brought to Him. It is significant that neither He nor His disciples had one (compare Matthew 17.24-27 which shows this to have been the normal situation). But one was soon produced from these men, probably from an Herodian, who were pretending that they wanted to know whether it was right in God’s eyes to pay the poll tax.
12.16-17a ‘And they brought it. And he says to them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”. And they said to him, “Caesar’s”. And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s.”
As we have noted earlier, a sovereign’s issued currency was seen as belonging to that sovereign. And to possess such currency was to admit obligation to the monarch. Thus, He said, those who possessed such currency should give it back to Caesar, for it belonged to him and by their possession of it they were showing that they were his subjects. And that it did belong to him was shown by the fact that his head was stamped on it, and the writing on it was with his authorisation and further evidenced it as his. So let them give it back to him.
The reply was brilliant. The crowds would recognise that as a prophet of God He did not carry such currency, but that these His opponents did. And they would wholeheartedly agree with Him that such currency should be despised and rejected, and not carried. Indeed God did not want it, and men who did carry it merely demonstrated that they were Caesar’s men, not God’s. Thus the Pharisees and courtiers of Herod stood condemned by their own question, while Jesus was exonerated and vindicated in front of the crowd.
Meanwhile Jesus had in their view correctly stated that all things apart from what was stamped as Caesar’s, and was thus idolatrous, was God’s. There was here a quite clear declaration of God’s superiority to Caesar. In all things that mattered men must look directly to God. Caesar’s rule was limited. He had rightly judged.
Yet the crowds would have had to acknowledge, if they were honest, that sometimes they did have to handle the hated coinage, when they paid their poll tax. Thus by their very act of doing so they were acknowledging Caesar’s right to it. They would also have to acknowledge, when they thought about it, that even much of the other coinage they used was issued in Caesar’s name, so that when it came to money they held it under Caesar’s authority, and while they did so they therefore owed a duty to him. The alternative was to have nothing to do with anything Roman and face the consequences. His answer allowed them to do compromise.
There is, of course, the seed here of the later view that the powers that be are ordained of God and should be respected accordingly. But that was not really what Jesus was saying here. Nor was He splitting the world into two, part of which belonged to the state and part to God. He was rather emphasising that all things are God’s, except things of which He disapproves, and must therefore be used accordingly
This would certainly include paying one’s dues. And for those who used Caesar’s coinage that would include paying their taxes. They could not take the benefits and reject the responsibilities. So He did countenance obedient response to the state where it was not against God.
12.17b ‘And they marvelled greatly at him.’
They were baffled. He had brilliantly avoided their trap and they could only be amazed. They had thought that they had got Him this time. But they had been wrong. And they looked at Him with grudging admiration. His ways were marvellous in their eyes.
A Second Direct Attempt to Discredit Jesus (12.18-27).
It was now the turn of the Sadducees to approach Him. They knew that the crowds as a whole believed in the resurrection of the dead, following the teaching of the Pharisees. But the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (verse 18). Their main emphasis was on the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, and they claimed that there was no mention of the resurrection in them. While they did also almost certainly acknowledge the writings of the prophets to some degree, their ideas were mainly centred on the cult and its importance for prosperity in this world. The Sadducees came mainly from the leading lay members of the aristocracy, and the Chief Priests may well mainly have been Sadducees although we know so little about the sect that we cannot be certain. They tended to be proud, harsh, worldly and wealthy, attitudes which went with their belief. For their view was that they prospered because God was pleased with them, and that others did not because they were unworthy. Most would be involved in ensuring the maintenance of the activities of the sanctuary in one way or another, making them feel very superior.
So they sought to demonstrate in front of the crowds that Jesus taught the resurrection from the dead, but could not evidence it from (Old Testament) Scripture. Thus He should not be listened to.
12.18-19 ‘And there come to him Sadducees who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s brother die, and leave a wife behind him, and leave no child, that his brother should take his wife and raise up seed to his brother.” ’
This provision of the Law is found in Deuteronomy 25.5-10. The purpose of it was to ensure that land remained within a family, and to ensure continuity of the line. Men lived on in their children. Thus it was looked on as a brotherly duty to ensure that a man who died without children had children provided by the seed of his brother being planted in his surviving wife. The child was then looked on as being the child of the dead man and inherited accordingly.
12.20-23 “There were seven brothers. And the first took a wife and dying, left no seed. And the second took her and died, leaving no seed behind him. And the third did the same. And the seven left no seed. Last of all the woman died as well. In the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven, for the seven had her to wife?”
The Sadducees had a very materialistic view of the resurrection as taught by others. They saw it as being intended to suggest the introduction of a new life which was simply an idealistic improvement on the present life. In that they were like the crowd, for popular views of the afterlife tended to make it an extension of this life, with whatever men long for in this life being provided more abundantly. Scripture, however, reveals things differently. It says, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into man’s heart, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him’ (1 Corinthians 2.9), and reveals that God’s Heaven is thus not just a continuation of earth with the bad things removed, but something new altogether.
12.24 ‘Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason that you err, that you know not the Scriptures, nor the power of God?”
Jesus’ attack was twofold. Firstly that they failed to understand the true meaning of the Scriptures. Secondly that they failed to appreciate the power of God. They thought that the resurrection was impossible. But they needed to recognise that God could do the impossible.
12.25 “For when they shall rise from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven.”
Their ‘problem’ arose from their misunderstanding which resulted in the idea that heaven was like earth. But Jesus declares that it is not so. In heaven men become spiritual beings like the angels and are not affected by physical desires and requirements. Nor would there be any need for reproduction for none would die. All would live for ever. Note that He was not saying that resurrected men become angels, only that they would share the same essential heavenly nature because, like them, they were made ‘in His image’.
12.26 “But as touching the dead that they are raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the place headed The Bush, how God spoke to him saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You do greatly err.”
Having dealt briefly with the nature of the resurrection life Jesus then dealt with the matter at the heart of the controversy, the resurrection as indicated in the book of Moses.
The essence of His argument was that God, as ‘the living God’, is such that He could not be described as someone’s God in the present if they were not still in some way still alive. He was known in Moses’ day as ‘the God of Abraham’. But unless Abraham still existed at that time such a title would be meaningless. He would be being presented as a God of the dead, a God of nothingness. What kind of encouragement would it be to say, ‘I am the God of a shade’. So the very use of the title indicated that Abraham was still in some way active and alive. The same applied to Isaac and Jacob. It probably, however, goes further than this. It was not only a rational argument but an argument directed at the heart. They knew that God is the living God. They boasted in the fact. Then let them ask themselves how such a God could describe Himself in terms of death and nothingness. It would be impossible. As the living God He could only describe Himself in terms of what lived.
Nor could a God of the dead have meant much to Moses. He very much needed a God of the living, a God of the present not of the past, the One Who could say ‘I am what I am’, the eternally present, not ‘I was what I was’. So as His being the ‘I am’ is paralleled with the fact of His being the ‘God of Abraham’ in the present, He is suggesting that Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) must still exist in some way. Thus they would enjoy the resurrection (for there was no other form of afterlife acceptable to the Jews).
There may also have been the further thought that God is the God of covenant. He was ‘the God of Abraham’ precisely because He had entered into a living covenant with him. Abraham had loved and served Him, and had enjoyed His favour. He had shown His love to Abraham time and again. That was what His being ‘the God of Abraham’ indicated. Did the Sadducees then think that the living God would forget that covenant and that relationship when Abraham died? That He would just ‘drop him’ and overlook him and let him sink into nothingness, while still claiming to be his God? Never! For then He would cease to be the God of Abraham. He would simply be the God of the present generation. He would cease to be the faithful God towards those with whom He was in covenant. And that could not be. So Abraham must still exist in some way.
Jesus’ argument was thus twofold, based on the nature of God. Firstly that He is the living God, bringing and maintaining life where He is, with all with whom He is genuinely in covenant, and secondly that He is the faithful God Who will ever be faithful to those with whom He has entered into relationship. And this to be seen as demonstrated from Scripture by His name, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (with all of whom He made covenants). This was similar to the experience of the psalmist, who had the same instinct. ‘Nevertheless I am continually with You, You have held my right hand, You will guide me with your counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory” (Psalm 73.23-24). He too knew that the God Who had been so close to him within the covenant could not desert him in the end.
A third factor which might have appealed to the Sadducees (and the Pharisees) was the use of the tense (assumed), ‘I (am) the God of Abraham ---’, thus bringing the relationship into the present and signifying that Abraham existed now. But we must not see Jesus as using semantics to prove His point. Rather He was using the argument of God’s ultimate faithfulness and love towards His own.
‘In the place headed The Bush.’ For convenience in the Synagogue the Law was divided into sections, each of which was given a heading. The heading of this section was The Bush (compare ‘the section headed Abiathar the High Priest’ in 2.26; compare also Romans 11.2 RV margin).
“You do greatly err.’ Jesus considered their rejection of the resurrection to be a great error.
The Approving Pharisee and The Law of Love (12.28-34).
The idea that God is the living God now leads on to an incident which demonstrates that at least one Rabbi was prepared to give genuine credit to Jesus and even to learn from Him. It showed that not all Rabbis were necessarily in the same mould (compare Acts 5.34 on). Matthew suggests that he was sent by a group of Pharisees who had come together to see if they could do better than the Sadducees (Matthew 22.34). He would not be the first to be sent for the wrong reasons and finish up convinced. There are often genuine men among questioners, and he would be chosen because he was of high repute.
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is questioned having answered questions well, and in the parallel none dared question Him again. In ‘b’ Jesus declares the two great commandments, and in the parallel the Scribe expounds on them. Central in ‘c’ is the fact that God is One, and that there is none other but He.
12.28 ‘And one of the scribes came and heard them questioning together, and knowing that he had answered them well, asked him, “What commandment is the first of all?”
‘Knowing that He had answered them well.’ The scribe had heard the dispute and was greatly impressed. Matthew says that in his question he was testing Jesus (Matthew 22.35) but that need not necessarily be taken in a bad sense (compare Luke 10.25). It may have been in order to bring out that Jesus stood up well to testing. Many a student who respects his teacher also seeks to test him. He may have genuinely wanted to know how reliable Jesus was.
“What commandment is the first of all?” The Rabbis attempted to differentiate the importance of different commandments, separating them into ‘great’ or ‘heavy’ and ‘little’ or ‘light’, and would often seek to trace them back to a general principle. Thus Hillel is said to have summed up the Law as ‘what you hate for yourself do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Law. The remainder is commentary. Go and learn.’ This did not, of course, signify that he did not see the remainder of the Law as important, for he saw it as God’s revelation to man.
But others frowned at seeking to select out one Law and considered all were important. There was none that could be omitted. So important was this principle considered to be that the Laws from the book of Moses were listed and they produced 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. They believed that every one of these had to be treasured and obeyed. But that this could lead to a cold, stern obedience lacking in love is obvious. And it took the eyes off God. In the light of all this Jesus was thus being called on to supply an answer which might solve the problem.
12.29-31 ‘Jesus answered, “The first is, hear Oh Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” ’
Jesus answered willingly by turning men’s eyes back on God, and to the Scriptures. While He saw the whole Law of God as the word of God (7.13) He was not hidebound about the equal importance of each detail. He recognised that what was of most importance was the attitude of heart required by Scripture. Significantly Jesus puts God first. To Him relationship to God was of prime importance. He would have had no truck with those who said that our attitude towards our fellow man was all important. (That is our fellow man’s view). On the other hand the immediate inclusion of the other commandment demonstrates that He nevertheless did consider that it too was of great importance. He did therefore also consider that man’s relationship with man was important. For as John would later say, ‘he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God Whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4.20). The two commandments thus went together in Jesus’ eyes as one, but with love for God primary.
The first commandment as here stated by Jesus, is taken from Deuteronomy 6.5 (where ‘with all your mind’ is excluded) and was repeated by strict Jews daily. It was carried around in the phylacteries worn by Pharisees, especially at the time of prayer, and also fixed to their doors in small tubes (see Deuteronomy 6.8-9, which they interpreted literally). They would not have doubted its great importance. The second is taken from Leviticus 19.18. As its context reveals it especially had in mind complete honesty, fair judgment, non-talebearing, and avoiding hatred, vengeance, and the bearing of grudges, but allowed for rebuking a neighbour, although without permanent rancour (Leviticus 19.13-18). In sum the two commandments cover both tables of commandments as given to Moses, attitude and behaviour towards God and attitude and behaviour towards men.
Matthew 22.37 excludes the opening words, in his much abbreviated summary, but it is doubtful if a Jew would orally have repeated the command without them.
We note in passing that Jesus splits man’s make-up into four, heart, soul, mind and strength, a warning against taking such divisions too strictly. Paul divided man’s make up into three (spirit, soul and body - 1 Thessalonians 5.23). The purpose in both cases was not in order to analyse and define man but in order to cover every aspect of a man’s being. It was not an attempt to strictly define his make up and divide it up, for man is a unity.
It is true that the general idea of what Jesus said is found in the Testament of the Twelve patriarchs (1st century BC). ‘Love the Lord and love your neighbour, have compassion on the poor and weak’ (Issachar 5.2). ‘I loved the Lord, in the same way also every man with my whole heart’ (Issachar 7.6). ‘Love the Lord through all your life, and one another with a true heart’ (Dan 5.3). But the ideas were not new there either. They were found in the Law of Moses. They simply summarised the ten commandments.
Yet as far as we are aware Jesus was the first to bring these two commands together as one. The incident in Luke 10.25-37, where the Pharisee cites them, may indicate that the combination was well known, but it may equally be that he had heard Jesus citing them. The question is not of great importance. What is important is that Jesus declared that they summed up the Law, and that that meant that attitude of heart was more important than detail.
The commands begin with a declaration that there is only One God, and that is the Lord God of Israel. It then declares the requirement for totality of love for Him with the whole being. God is to be all important and all absorbing. Man’s first consideration and desire should be to know Him, to love Him and to be pleasing to Him as a loving son is to his father (Malachi 1.6). And this immediately challenges us. We have only to consider our own response to this to recognise our own sinfulness. We know we should be like this always but so often we are not. It was an impossible demand. That is why Paul could say, ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23). It was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, and to continually make us depend on Christ.
Then follows the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is a lower love to that which we have for God. We are not to be totally absorbed in either our neighbour or ourselves. But we are to love them with a true heart, and as Jesus made clear in Luke 10.25-37 our neighbour is anyone whose heart is right toward us, whatever their religion, race or colour. It is a practical love, a love which acts. We may not feel gushing towards them, but we are to behave towards them as God would, and in a way that pleases Him. (That Luke 10.25-37 is a separate incident from this comes out in an examination of the detail).
‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’ While Jesus in the end required total perfection, He recognised men’s weakness (how gentle He was with His failing disciples) and therefore the importance of the need for them to understand what their aim should be. As the Pharisees had proved for themselves, the task of keeping every smallest Law, with its ramifications in the tradition of the elders, was beyond them even from a memory point of view. It was much better therefore to concentrate on prime laws, laws of relationship, while using the others as a guide. Let any man be like this then and it would reveal that he was truly one who had been blessed by God, for he could not do it otherwise.
12.32-33 ‘And the scribe said to him, “Teacher, you have well said that he is one, and there is none other but he. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself is much more than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” ’
The scribe was thoughtful and even more impressed. In his response his attitude reflected that of Isaiah 1.10-20; Hosea 6.6; compare also 1 Samuel 15.22. Sacrifices and whole offerings were required, and when offered from a true heart were good, but without rightness of heart and behaviour they were nullified. Obedience truly was better than sacrifice for it indicated a genuine response towards the One Who was worshipped, which, if missing, made the ritual empty and meaningless.
‘You have well said that He is One, and there is none other but He.’ This idea combines Deuteronomy 6.5 with Deuteronomy 4.35. The lack of actually mentioning ‘God’ is typically Jewish and a sign of authenticity. The oneness of God was a basic tenet of the Jewish faith and all important to them. The scribe liked Jesus’ emphasis on it. But he also demonstrated that his own heart was genuine by his recognition of the need for love towards God and neighbour, and of its primary importance, a love without which religious ritual and ‘law-keeping’ was meaningless.
‘Whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ This covered the whole of the sacrificial system, the sacrifices wholly offered to God and not partaken of, and those of which men were allowed to partake.
12.34a ‘And when Jesus saw that he answered thoughtfully, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingly Rule of God.”
Jesus recognised that this Scribe was genuine and that his thinking was along the right lines, and declares that he is very near to knowing the genuine truth about God and coming under His kingly rule in the new age about to begin. The fact that the scribe answered thoughtfully and not dogmatically demonstrated his genuineness. He was not there to argue, but to think and learn. The next step was for him to recognise Jesus for Whom He was, that God was beginning His new work by the Spirit, and that the Kingly Rule of God had drawn near in Jesus. Then he would be able to enter the Kingly Rule of God (John 3.2-6), that eternal life for which the Pharisees vainly strove.
We should note how the incident of the rich young man highlights Jesus’ words here, for while Jesus had initially pointed him to commands which called on him to love his neighbour, He had ended up by challenging his love for God. He had shown him that his love for God was deficient by calling on him for a true and practically expressed love of his neighbour. Thus he went away not only aware that he did not love his neighbour, but also that he did not love God sufficiently.
12.34b ‘And no man after that dared ask him any question,’
The challenges to Jesus now ceased. His replies had floored His enemies. They recognised that all that they would do by asking questions was discomfort themselves even more, vindicate Jesus’ teaching and set the crowds more against them. Now it will be Jesus’ turn to ask the awkward questions.
A Comparison of the Son of David with the Messiah (12.35-37).
The context of this incident is not given by Mark apart from saying that He was teaching in the Temple, but it does seal off what has previously been said about Him as being the Son of David, and expands on it. Matthew sees it as partly addressed to the group of Pharisees who had sent the Rabbi just mentioned to question Him (Matthew 22.41). We must presume therefore that they were part of the crowd gathered round, eager to see how it went. In Luke they are described as a vague ‘them’. Perhaps Mark wants us to see His words as being partly directed at the Rabbi who was ‘not far from the Kingly Rule of God’. The point, however is that having made clear that Jesus is ‘the Son’ he now wants to clarify in men’s minds as to how that ties in with Jesus’ Messiahship, as Jesus Himself had done.
The context is revealing. To the Sadducees Jesus has stressed that God is the unique God of Abraham and that He is the God of the living. In enunciating the two great commandments Jesus has stressed that ‘God is one’, and the Scribe’s reply has brought out His oneness, and stressed Jesus’ belief in it. The context is thus very much that of the oneness of the living God, portraying a high view of God. It must therefore be seen as significant that Jesus now introduces a remarkable statement that makes the reader and the crowds see another side of things, and that is that the coming Christ (‘Anointed One’) is not just the son of David, but is also David’s Lord. And all knew Who David’s Lord was.
His question may be directed at a Rabbinic idea that the Christ was ‘merely the son of David’ and therefore not superior to David, nor to the religious leadership, thus making him purely political and secondary. Or it may simply indicate a statement of fact. But Jesus certainly wanted to bring out that the Messiah was not only superior to David, but was of a totally higher status. In fact that David addressed Him as ‘my Lord’.
Note that in ‘a’ He taught in the Temple, and in the parallel the people heard Him gladly. In ‘b’ He asked how (in view of the Scripture that He will now point to) the Scribes can say that he is merely the son of David, and in the parallel asks how that can be so. In ‘c’ He stress that David called Him Lord, and in the parallel declares the same. Centrally in ‘d’ He emphasises the exaltation by God of the Messiah in order that He might express His Sonship by sitting Him at His right hand.
12.35-37 ‘And Jesus answered and said as he taught in the Temple, “How do the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself said in the Holy Spirit, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, you sit on my right hand until I make your enemies the footstool of your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. In what sense then is he his son?” And the common people heard him gladly.’
‘As He taught in the Temple.’ Jesus’ ministry to the people continued unabated.
“How do the Scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” The term Son of David was used in a Pharisaic writing called the Psalms of Solomon which was written prior to the time of Jesus in the 1st century BC, so that while it was not a commonly used description of the coming Messiah it was certainly in use as such by some. And it is in fact possible that some Rabbis, especially perhaps with Jesus in mind, were downgrading ‘the Messiah to come’ into a kind of lesser David, a mere ‘son of David’, in contrast with the glorious figure often presented in apocalyptic literature (for all would have agreed that the Coming One would be the son of David in some way as the Old Testament makes clear - e.g. 2 Samuel 7.13, 16; Isaiah 9.2-7; 11.1-4; Jeremiah 23.5-6; 30.9; Ezekiel 34.23-24; 37.24; Hosea 3.5). We have no record of the Pharisees actually seeing Jesus as the son of David, indeed there is evidence that they refused to do so (Matthew 21.15-16), presumably because they could not accept that He was the Messiah, about whom there were, in fact, many differing views, as is especially witnessed by the Dead Sea Scrolls where the Messiah of David appears in some ways to be inferior to a Messiah of Aaron. Others thought in terms of the coming of a teaching Messiah.
Jesus was neither directly denying that He was the son of David, nor was He directly here referring to Himself as such. But both Matthew and Luke have already made clear in their genealogies that He was the Son of David, while Mark has brought it out by its use elsewhere (10.47, 48). What He was arguing against was that that was all that the Messiah was. As we have seen earlier (on 10.47) ‘Son of David’ was not a prominent Messianic title at this time, although undoubtedly used by some as is evidenced by its use in the Psalms of Solomon.
‘David himself said in the Holy Spirit.’ It is clear from this that Jesus accepted the divine inspiration of the Psalms as ‘prophetic’ books. He is referring here to Psalm 110 which is headed ‘a psalm of David’. Reference to the institution of ‘the order of Melchizedek’ (verse 4), referring to the old King of Salem in Genesis 14, suggests that it was written not long after the capture of Jerusalem by David, when it would have been suitable for pacifying the Jebusites and incorporating them into the covenant, and yet before a time when it would be looked on as heresy. David and his heirs were to be seen as priest-kings in Jerusalem, acknowledged by the Jebusites there, even if nowhere else. This would have aided their assimilation into the faith of Israel.
There are good grounds for stating that this Psalm was interpreted Messianically in the pre-Christian period. This is confirmed by the Midrash on Psalm 18.36 where Psalm 110.1 is quoted by way of illustration in a Messianic sense. Later the interpretation was dropped by the Rabbis because the Christians had taken it over. Now, said Jesus, if David wrote this Psalm with a future king in mind, now interpreted as the Messiah, he was addressing the Messiah as ‘Lord’. And he was not only addressing Him as Lord but was portraying Him as God’s right hand man. That being so he must have recognised the Messiah to be far superior to himself.
Psalm 110 is constantly quoted Messianically in the New Testament. See Acts 2.34, of His ascending the throne of God as both Lord and Messiah; Hebrews 10.12 where, after offering one sacrifice for sins for ever, He ‘sat down at the right hand of God’; and with regard to the Melchizedek priesthood in Hebrews 6.20; 7.17, 21.
So Jesus was here concerned to bring home to His listeners in His usual veiled way that His status far exceeded that of David and that He was destined to sit at God’s right hand with His enemies subdued before Him (compare 14.62). This idea also contained the idea of Sonship, for in Judah it had regularly been the son who acted alongside his father in ruling Judah, but also of essential unity. He spoke as representative of the throne.
‘And the common people heard Him gladly.’ His popularity with ordinary people continued unabated, no doubt to the chagrin of the authorities. All their efforts to diminish Him seemed to be in vain.
Jesus’ Criticism of Certain Rabbis and The Contrast Made By Him of A Widow’s Generosity (12.38-44).
Having been challenged by the different leading parties in Judaism, and having given them a final weighing up, Jesus now feels a responsibility to warn the people against the Scribes, whose influence over the people was so great. The ideas here are expanded on in Matthew 23. Mark’s rendering gives us very much a summary. There is a threefold contrast in what follows. Firstly, the Rabbis are described as those who devour widows’ houses, that is, as those who persuade them to give them gifts far beyond their means. They are depicted as greedy to receive such gifts. Secondly in what follows the widow is described as giving all that she had to God. Her unacclaimed generosity is seen as in strong contrast with the greed of the Scribes. Thirdly the disciples are meanwhile seen as admiring the Temple, and its adornments when they should have been admiring the widow’s two mites. Only Jesus sees through to what is essential.
Note how in ‘a’ they are to beware of the Scribes, because is the parallel they deserve condemnation. In ‘b’ they desire to walk in long robes to be seen of men, and in the parallel they pray extended prayers for a similar reason. In ‘c’ they like being saluted in places of business and activity and the places where people go, and in the parallel demonstrate their own unseemly ‘business’ activity by taking undue advantage of helpless women in the places where they live, while centrally in ‘d’ they love to be honoured in their religious activities.
There is an interesting contrast here between the requirement made to the Scribe earlier to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, in every aspect of life, and the picture of these men who love themselves with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, in every aspect of life.
12.38 ‘And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes who desire to walk in long robes, and to be saluted in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and chief places at feasts, they who devour widow’s houses and for a pretence make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”
He continued His ministry to the common people by warning them against certain types of Scribe. A number were godly and wise men but many had become spiritually proud and self-seeking.
‘Long robes.’ This refers to the festal gowns of the day which were particularly ostentatious and possibly had longer tassels (long robes). At times like the Passover they walked around in them seeking the admiration of the people because of their obvious piety and importance.
‘To be saluted --.’ The people would hail them as ‘Rabbi’ (‘my great one’) with great respect, and they loved it and sought it, compare Matthew 23.7-12.
‘The chief seats.’ They sat in the special seats which were placed for them at the front of the synagogues facing the people where all could see them and admire them.
‘Chief places at feasts.’ They would sit there at the highest level so that even their compatriots would think that they were important, and sometimes had to face the humiliation of being ‘demoted’ (Luke 14.9). Like many they had come to think of themselves more highly that they ought to think. This is a common danger for men in any group where some are seen as more important than others (compare Romans 12.3), something which Jesus constantly warned against (10.42-44). So those who are called to serve in the church need to ask themselves whether their real aim is humble service, or whether it is to have a prominent place. If the latter they take up their position only in order to receive condemnation.
‘They who devour widow’s houses.’ Probably by abusing their generosity, although it may have included failure in trusteeship. Rabbis would be looked on as trustworthy executors, even though they were often poor. Widow’s could be especially vulnerable in the face of their religious grandeur and seeming piety, and easily persuaded to give hospitality (being ‘eaten out of house and home?’) or donations beyond their means, even possibly to the extent of giving their houses to subsidise the Temple worship. All who seek donations to a religious cause should heed this warning. It is true that the Rabbis were not allowed to receive money for teaching, but there were always ways round it for those who were unscrupulous. (This is in deliberate contrast with the widow who freely gave more than she could afford. But that was of her own free will, not because she had been manipulated).
‘And for a pretence make long prayers.’ Ever a danger in spiritual circles. They thought that the length of their prayers denoted the level of their spirituality. Instead it often demonstrated their arrogance and hypocrisy. Perhaps the long prayers were in order to impress the widows and play on their generosity.
‘These will receive greater condemnation.” They claimed to be teachers and therefore they have no excuse for their failure (compare James 3.1). Note the assumption of s degree of punishment greater than for ‘common people’, because they are using a pretence of piety in order to achieve unworthy ends.
The Poor Widow Who Gave More Than Everyone Else (12.41-44).
In contrast with the greed of some of the Scribes (verse 40), and the love of money of the rich young man (10.22), we now have drawn to our attention the generosity and self-sacrifice of a humble poor widow. Here was ‘true discipleship’ from one who was not yet a disciple. And the main point that comes out from it is that God sees her as having given more than everyone else because He measured all their giving by what they had left.
Note that in ‘a’ many threw gifts into the Treasury, but in the parallel only one threw in all that she had. In ‘b’ the rich dropped in large amounts, and in the parallel they did so out of what they had to spare. In ‘c’ the widow dropped in a tiny amount, and in the parallel she was seen as having dropped in more than all of them. Centrally in ‘d’ His message was directed at the disciples.
12.41 ‘And he say down opposite the Treasury and watched how the crowd dropped money into the Treasury, and many who were rich dropped in large amounts.’
‘The Treasury.’ This probably referred to the thirteen trumpet shaped receptacles which were placed against the wall of the Court of the Women, the actual closed box being presumably behind the wall. Each had a separate purpose. One was for the purchase of materials for sacrifices, one was for the upkeep of the Temple, and so on. Alternately it may have been an opening on the outside of the Treasury making possible gifts to the Treasury.
‘He sat down opposite -.’ He wanted to watch men as they gave so that He could bring home a lesson to His disciples from it. No doubt some of the richer walked up ostentatiously with large sums of money and publicly dropped them in. They were no better than the Rabbis previously described. They were buying publicity and respect, not giving to God. And then there were others, humbler and truly expressing gratitude to God.
12.42 ‘And there came a poor widow, and she dropped in two mites which make a fraction of a penny (a cent or two).’
And lastly there was a poor widow. No one apart from Jesus noticed the poor woman who crept unobtrusively up to the trumpets and dropped in her two mites, with no display at all (Mark uses a Roman term for the coins (‘quadrans’) which was commonly in use in Palestine). The ‘two should be noted. She could so easily have kept one. But she did not feel that she could withhold it from God. She knew, of course, that her gift was hardly worth noticing and would buy little, especially as compared with the magnificence of the Temple. Did I say no one would notice? Jesus noticed, and God noticed as well. Only two among so many. But what a two! And the trumpets of heaven blared, and the angels stopped what they were doing and looked at each other (even though the woman never knew). For here was a gift that was almost worthy of God. And no one else on earth ever knew, but she had laid up a rich treasure in Heaven. It is probable that there would be no food on the table for her next meal, but she would one day feed sumptuously at Messiah’s table (10.41). Note that in the section chiasmus this parallels the self-seeking of the disciples (10.33-35). No wonder Jesus now draws attention to it.
12.43 ‘And he called to him his disciples, and said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow dropped in more than all those who are dropping money into the Treasury, for they all dropped in of what they had to spare, but she of her want did drop in all that she had, even all that she had to live on.” ’
There is a deliberate contrast here between the Rabbis who ‘devoured widows’ houses’ (verse 40), and the widow who unselfishly gave all that she had to God. There is also a contrast with the rich and wealthy ostentatiously giving their gifts (how else did Jesus know?) while she gave unobtrusively. And there is the verdict. That she was the one who gave the most. For God judges our giving, not by how much we give, but by how much we have left. She alone received the Messiah’s commendation. And although she did not realise it she was being watched by the One Who would Himself, by the offering of Himself, give more than any other ever could.
There is a further contrast. As they leave the spot the disciples will point out the splendours of the Temple. They had not been too impressed by the widow’s gift, but the Temple was something else. It had so taken up their attention that Jesus’ words had almost passed them by. However, God did not see things as they saw them. He was not concerned about the Temple. His gaze was still focused on the woman’s gift. For the fact was that while what the woman had given would last for ever in men’s memories and in the record of heaven, God would arrange for that splendid Temple shortly to be razed to the ground and become almost forgotten because it had rejected His Son.
The Advancement of the Kingly Rule of God In The Midst Of The Battering of History: Preliminary Troubles - The Good News Proclaimed Among All Nations - The Coming Destruction of Jerusalem - The Coming of the Son of Man in Glory. The Temple Is To Be Replaced By God’s Elect - All Are Therefore To Watch (13.1-37).
Having provided a glimpse through the withering of the fig tree of what God was going to do, Jesus announces that the time is coming when the great Temple of Jerusalem will be torn down stone by stone. This results in questions from His disciples, as a result of which goes on to describe the events which will follow and will lead up to the destruction of the Temple in the way that He has described, but alongside this the Good News of the Kingly Rule of God will go out to all nations, in readiness for the coming of the Son of Man in glory. For His elect will survive all that occurs. But they need ever to ready for most of what He describes (‘these things’ which will portend His coming) will occur within their generation, although He then explains that He does not have knowledge of when that actual coming will be.
Note that in ‘a’ the sudden and unexpected is to happen when the stones of the Temple will be torn down, and in the parallel they are to watch for when their Lord suddenly and unexpectedly comes. In ‘b’ the question arises as to signs and when these things will be, and in the parallel the signs when these things will happen are illustrated. In ‘c’ we have the indications on earth of what is coming in terms of false Messiahs, and wars and devastations, and in the parallel we have indications of what is coming in terms of terrible tribulation and false Messiahs, followed by heavenly events and the coming of the true Messiah. In ‘d’ there will be heavy persecution which will result in a testimony before kings and governors, and in the parallel there will be heavy persecution, help from the Holy Spirit in their testimony when under judgment, and those who endure in their testimony will be saved. Centrally in ‘e’ the Good News of the Kingly Rule of God will be preached among all nations.
Excursus on the Background to the Chapter.
There has been much discussion about this chapter. On one extreme it is used to bolster up certain theories about the second coming by manipulating what is there to fit in with whatever views are held, on the other it is said to be a composite production of which only part is the teaching of Jesus, and turned into ‘a little Apocalypse’, even though it actually contains little of apocalyptic language and ideas. The former views at least accept the words as the words of Jesus. But the latter argue for their own position by pointing out on the one hand the stress in parts on the suddenness and unexpectedness of the coming of Christ, which they contrast on the other with the signs that indicate that much is to occur before that coming.
The fact, however, is that this tension between imminence and delay is a tension that continues throughout the New Testament. The Book of Revelation is a prime example. On the one hand the churches are to watch expectantly in anticipation of Christ’s coming, on the other there is to be an outworking of history that is essential before His coming. And the same is true in Paul’s letters. On the one hand, we have expectancy and imminency, and on the other, the description of events which must occur before the end, including eventually his own death. So this discourse is really no different in the problems that it presents from the remainder of the New Testament, although they are not really problems, for the aim in all cases is to produce alertness, while at the same time warning that the time may not be yet.
It is true there was a great deal of ‘apocalyptic’ teaching around in the time of Jesus, insomuch that many far fetched ideas were introduced, but it is a mistake just to read those in here. For the fact is that Jesus did not just blandly accept apocalyptic ideas that He had heard. Rather He simply thought about them, as He thought about many things, and occasionally used some of the thought forms to convey the message that He wanted to convey.
The Gospels indeed reveal that Jesus was a deep thinker, second to none. He was not someone to be swept along by dreams and visions. We must not therefore interpret Jesus by apocalyptic. Rather the case is the other way round. He took from it what He thought was applicable, moulded it, and used it in order to proclaim His particular message.
So as we consider the chapter step by step, seeking to interpret it in its own terms rather than to fit in with any theory, we believe that its internal consistency will be revealed, and its differing paradoxes will fall into place. But we must tread lightly, for we are dealing with the mystery of the future.
End of Excursus.
It will be noted that the whole chapter can be divided into two, 13.1-27 which leads up the coming of the Son of Man in glory, and 13.28-37 which stresses the need to take heed to what has been depicted. 13.1-27 can be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ the disciples were looking at the glory of the Temple, and in the parallel it is the glory of the Son of Man Who has replaced the Temple that will finally be revealed. In ‘b’ the stones of the Temple are to be thrown down, and in the parallel it is the stars of Heaven. In ‘c’ they question Jesus and are to take heed lest they be led astray and in the parallel they are to take heed because they have been told beforehand in answer to their questions. In ‘d’ many will come in His name and will lead many astray, and in the parallel false Christs and false prophets will lead many astray. In ‘e’ are depicted wars and devastations, and in the parallel the great war against Jerusalem and the devastations from which they are to escape. In ‘f’ they will be delivered up to different judicial authorities for His sake, and in the parallel they will be delivered up by relatives and be hated by all men for His name’s sake. Centrally in ‘g’ the Good News will be preached among all nations, and the Holy Spirit will act as Advocate for His people.
The Disciples Express Their Admiration of the Temple And Receive Some Astonishing News (13.1-2).
The disciples had just been called on to consider the widow who gave her two mites and now they were confronted by this magnificent sight, this splendid Temple, still incomplete and yet majestic in its splendour and hugeness and seemingly everlastingly permanent. And the disciples were awestruck enough to draw Jesus’ attention to it. The two mites were forgotten. But Jesus looked at it with calm indifference for He knew its destiny. He was still awestruck at the giving of the poor widow, by which they appear not to have been impressed, and dismissed the Temple with a few succint words. To Him it was her gift which was everlastingly permanent. The Temple was under the judgment of God.
Note that in ‘a’ reference is to the stones, and in the parallel the stones will be thrown down. In ‘b’ reference is and to the buildings, and in the parallel Jesus draws their attention to the buildings.
13.1 ‘And as he went forth out of the Temple, one of his disciples says to him, “Teacher, look, what manner of stones, and what manner of buildings!’
As they left the Temple His disciples said to Jesus ‘What manner of stones, and what manner of buildings.’ They were drawing attention here to what this chapter is to be mainly about, the Temple and its destruction. Indeed in verse 3 & 4 Mark will restrict his words to indicating this remarkable fact.
But first, before we go on, let us consider the Temple, with its stones and buildings. It was a huge edifice built on top of the Temple mount. Its building commenced in 19 BC and the main structure was completed as a result of ten years hard labour, but the finishing touches went on and were still in progress at this time, not being finished until 64 AD, just in time for its destruction. It was enclosed by a wall of massive stone blocks, each block on average about 1 metre high and five metres long. And there were stones in the Temple measuring 20 metres by 2.5 metres by 2.25 metres (68 feet by 9 feet by 7.5 feet). The Temple area was about 450 metres by 300 metres. All was on a vast scale. The large outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, was surrounded by porticoes built on huge pillars. It was in these colonnades that Rabbis held their schools and debates (Luke 2.46), and the Temple trading took place (11.15).
The inner area within that outer court was raised slightly above it and was surrounded by a balustrade on which were posted the signs warning death to any Gentile who trespassed within. (Two of these inscriptions have been discovered). The first court beyond this balustrade, accessed by steps, was the Court of the Women in which were found the thirteen trumpets for collection of funds for the Treasury. A further court, raised above the court of the women and accessed by further steps, was the Court of Israel, and beyond that, and even higher, was the Priests’ Court which contained the great Altar built of unhewn stone.
Within the Priests’ Court, raised above all, was the holy shrine itself, entered through a porch that was 100 cubits high and 100 cubits wide (a cubit was 44.45 centimetres or 17.5 inches). Theoretically it was entered through a first curtain as it had been in the Tabernacle, although in fact doors had been introduced over which the curtain hung. The doorway that gave entry was 40 cubits high and 20 cubits wide, and then another door, half the size, led into the Holy Place. The Holy Place was 40 cubits long and 20 cubits wide, and separated from the Most Holy Place by further doors over which hung another curtain (the inner veil). The Most Holy Place was 20 cubits square and 40 cubits high. But the height of the sanctuary was increased by an additional empty room above it which raised the height of the whole to 100 cubits.
But it was not only large, it was magnificent. Josephus described the holy shrine and its magnificence in this way. ‘Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look on it turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this Temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for as to those parts of it which were not gold they were exceeding white.’ Some of these great white stones have in fact been unearthed within the last few decades.
This then was the magnificence that so drew the attention of the disciples. While they had seen it before they never ceased to marvel at its massiveness. No wonder then that the widow’s mite seemed unimportant to all but Jesus, and God.
13.2 ‘And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There shall not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.”
Jesus dismissed the magnificence of the Temple with a few words. Like Jeremiah before Him (Jeremiah 7.1-15; 26.1-24; compare Micah 3.10-12) He had recognised that the Temple could no longer be accepted as viable because of the behaviour and attitudes of the religious leaders and those who followed them. They could not be allowed to go on. He had pronounced woes on Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matthew 11.21; Luke 10.13). How much more was the Temple deserving of woe. And He had already made it clear in His actions with the fig tree, and within the Temple itself, that it was rejected by God. Only one thing could be done with ‘a brigand’s cave’ like this. It had to be visited and destroyed. Compare how He had elsewhere already declared the desolation of Jerusalem’s ‘house’ (Matthew 23.38).
The picture Jesus drew was one of total desolation. ‘Not one stone upon another’. While this was hyperbolic and was not intended to be taken absolutely literally, it was certainly intended to be a description of complete devastation, and today there is not a trace of that great building apart from a few remnants of the outer walls and what we occasionally dig up. But the thought must have been appalling to the disciples, and almost considered impossible, that is, if they could even begin to take it in at all. However, Jesus, Who had caused the fig tree to wither, had also by His words spoken to the fig tree basically prayed for this mountain to be ‘cast into the sea’, that is, to be judged and destroyed. (It is worthy of note to remember that this was written down well before the destruction occurred). Indeed the destruction of city and sanctuary after Messiah was cut off was prophetically necessary, as God’s judgment on them, in order to fulfil Scripture (Daniel 9.26).
The Temple had failed in its function, which was in any case approaching its end. Instead of lifting the nation up to God it had become to most of them a guarantee of their worldly security, leaving them to carry on as they liked. They thought that God would not allow the destruction of His house (even in its last moments they could not believe that God would not intervene, a belief which resulted in extreme fanaticism). So the Chief Priests were able to sit tight in their complacency, and even the disciples were impressed by its seeming permanence. But once Jesus had offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin its sacrificial function would in fact have ceased to have significance. Its end was therefore inevitable. By then it would have become simply a hindrance. ‘This mountain’ had to be got rid of that men may worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4.20-24).
Jesus Begins His Response To The Disciples’ Questions By Describing The Dreadful Events Which Are Initially To Come (13.3-8).
Undoubtedly shaken by what Jesus had told them, but confident that what He had said must be true, the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John, came to Him to ask for further details. Their main interest was in when this destruction of the Temple would take place, and what, if any, signs would precede it. But Jesus gave far more than they asked as He began to outline the future, and their part in it, beginning with the serious troubles that would occur in the world, which would be like labour pains, which would issue in the Temple’s destruction. The very seriousness of these labour pains serves to highlight how significant an event the destruction of the Temple was going to be.
Note that in ‘a’ they seek the signs of when the destruction of the Temple will take place, and in the parallel they are told that what He has said are the initial signs which are similar to the first birth pains of a woman in labour with still some time to go. In ‘b’ He is fearful lest in their spiritual hunger they are led astray, and in the parallel there will be famines. In ‘c’ He is concerned that false Messiahs will arise and like a spiritual earthquake in the church lead many astray, and in the parallel there will be earthquakes in many places. In ‘d’ there will be wars and rumours of wars, and in the parallel nation will rise against nation. Centrally in ‘e’ all this must necessarily happen, but it is not the sign of ‘the end’.
13.3 ‘And as he sat on the mount of Olives opposite the Temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately.’
The group had now left the Temple and returned to their camp on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. The view from the mount of Olives enabled the Temple to be seen clearly and reminded the disciples of what Jesus had said. Two things demonstrate the accuracy of the account. Firstly that the change in scene is described when, if it was not true, it was not necessary. They had moved to the Mount of Olives. In fact we could argue that there would have been more impact if His words had occurred on the spot with the great stones near at hand. And secondly in that Andrew has joined up with the Inner Three. There may be the thought here that these were the ones whom He had called first (that is, in Mark, see 1.16-20) and that they now learned of their future, but if Mark had wanted us to see that he would surely have said ‘Peter and Andrew, and James and John’. Here Andrew was therefore an added extra to the Inner Three, tacked on the end simply because he was there.
On the other hand the mount of Olives was a good spot for such revelations for it was a spot which was seen as having an apocalyptic future. It was the place where God was going to reveal His powerful and personal activity on behalf of His people, ‘His feet will stand in that day on the Mount of Olives’ (Zechariah 14.4), and we should note that the feet of Jesus were undoubtedly there. But this may simply be one of those divine ‘coincidences’ which also occur elsewhere in the Bible, for Mark draws no attention to it, although he might well have expected those who knew their Scriptures thoroughly to draw their own conclusions. Others have connected it with the movement of YHWH from the Temple on to a mountain east of Jerusalem, from which point He would presumably watch the destruction of Jerusalem as found in Ezekiel 11.23. There may even have been a hint of that in Jesus making His camp there.
13.4 “Tell us, when shall these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?”
The disciples then asked when all these things were to be, and what signs would warn of their approach. Certain points should be noted here.
However it was such a devastating idea that both he and the disciples, with their limited insight, would undoubtedly think of it in the same terms as the coming final consummation. They had after all no conception at this stage of the many centuries still lying ahead before Christ’s second coming. But Jesus, although He dealt with both aspects, did not specifically differentiate them. They were two ‘mountains’ that lay ahead. The distance between them was irrelevant. He was also aware of the coming age of the Gentiles that would follow the destruction of the Temple (Luke 21.24) although He did not know how long it would be.
So in Mark there were two questions. Firstly, when will these things be? Jesus then went on to describe the events that would take place in the years that were coming, and then finally assured them that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these thing are accomplished’ (verse 30).
Secondly, what will be the sign when all these things are to be accomplished? Jesus answered by outlining the events which would precede it and then depicted the final sign, that of ‘the Desolating Abomination’, a combination of destruction and blasphemous idolatry inflicted on the holy city itself, fulfilled when the Roman legions first surrounded and then poured into the city with their idolatrous standards (Luke 21.24) and Titus entered the Holy Place just before it was destroyed by fire (probably with his standard bearer). The Jews were appalled and infuriated, and fought fanatically but hopelessly. To them it was certainly the Desolating Abomination. (With regard to Titus we should remember when reading Josephus that he wanted to vindicate Titus. Other near contemporary historians were not so kind to him).
Then Jesus finally sealed off the matter by describing cataclysmic events as following this, which would lead up to His own return, the date of which He clearly stated that He did not know (13.32).
Now while it is true that Matthew opens up a wider field (24.3), Mark deliberately does not do so. He thus made clear that, in his view as an inspired writer, the destruction of the Temple before their eyes was the main thing in Jesus’ mind. Luke agrees with Mark. Thus we do well to heed the words of Scripture.
Jesus then outlined the coming dreadful cataclysms (verses 5-8); the coming persecutions on the people of God and the success of the Gospel (verses 9-13); the Desolating Abomination itself (verses 14-20); followed by even more cataclysm (verses 21-25); and then the coming of Christ in glory (verses 26-27). As Jesus specifically stated in context that He did not know the time of His coming that is to clearly to be excluded from the ‘these things’ of verse 30. Thus Jesus did go beyond answering their question, but only once He had answered it fully and in detail.
What follows is mainly general until we come to the destruction of Jerusalem itself. It happened in the days prior to that destruction, and it continued after that destruction for it is simply the outworking of history. It is mainly the result of what man is and of the effectiveness of the Gospel.
The Coming Dreadful Cataclysms But The End Is Not Yet (13.5-8).
Tacitus, a first century Roman historian, after referring to the horrors, calamities, disasters and portents, of the period, went on to say ‘never has it been better proved, by such terrible disasters to Rome, or by such clear evidence, that the gods were concerned, not with our safety but with vengeance on our sins.’ It is clear from this that to a contemporary the first century AD was a time of terrible troubles, including dreadful wars, earthquakes and famines, for the Roman Empire of which Judaea was a part (although not necessarily moreso than some other centuries).
Jesus’ first warning is against His people being led astray by the devastating events that are to happen. They must not wrongly take them as signs of ‘the end’, even though many would wrongly take them as such.
13.5-7 ‘And Jesus began to say to them, “Take care that no man leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say ‘I am the one’ and will lead many astray. And when you will hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be troubled. These things must necessarily happen, but the end is not yet.”
Jesus considered that they needed to be warned against two things, firstly, those falsely claiming to be Messiah, and secondly, being deceived by world events. The mention of false Christs coming ‘in His name’ may have in mind Jewish Messianic claimants, or it may refer to those who would later, after His resurrection, claim to be Jesus returned. They are to beware, and to teach others to beware, of any who make such claims. Even Christian Jews could be caught up in the fervour of a Messianic claimant against the Romans. But let them not be deceived. These claimants would be false and would simply lead them to captivity and death. For they must recognise that when Jesus does return His return will be unmistakable, it will be with great power and glory (verse 26). Thus any other who might claim to be Jesus can be safely ignored and rejected.
This statement is further confirmation of His Messiahship. It is because Messiah has already come that they can be sure that there can be no future Messiah.
We do not know how many local leaders arose and made Messianic claims. Knowing human nature we can be sure that there were some, although they never made the headlines. But every rising in Palestine, every popular movement against the Romans, would have had Messianic connections and would almost certainly have engendered whispers about a Messiah. And there were always those who for a brief moment of fame would exalt themselves, or be exalted by others, above what they were. We can consider here those mentioned by Josephus such as another Theudas, and ‘an Egyptian’ (compare Acts 21.38), and his reference to those with ‘purer hands but more impious intentions (than the Sicarii) -- deceivers and impostors under the pretence of divine inspiration’. Barcochba certainly made the claim directly in 132 AD. Unfortunately we are dependent on Josephus for much of our knowledge of this period and he was not reliable on matters like this, for he appears mainly to have avoided reference to Messianic ideas (he wanted to appease the Romans).
In view of the words ‘in my name’ it is possible that this was also a warning against the rise of future heretics. The point being made finally about those whom Jesus was talking about, was that they pointed to themselves as having a unique and supreme position. There have always been such. There are still such around today. And we must equally beware of them.
The second warning is - not to be deceived by cataclysmic events in the world. They may hear of wars with their accompanying desolation, and rumours of wars which would sound even more desolating, but they should not be troubled into thinking that ‘the end’ was near. By ‘the end’ here Jesus may in context well be meaning the end of Jerusalem and the Temple, for that is what is primarily in mind in the discourse. Or He may have had the consummation of all things in mind. But one point being made is that it is only when they see war in Palestine that they must expect the end of Jerusalem and the Temple.
‘Saying, “I am the one”.’ Compare Simon Magus in Acts 8.9. History is filled with people who have said, ‘I am the one’.
‘Do not be troubled.’ Jesus quite recognised that even His disciples could be disturbed at the thought that days of trouble were approaching.
‘These things must necessarily happen.’ Why? Because of what man is and because it is within God’s purpose. The two ideas intertwine. It is regularly because of what man is that God so purposes, but in the end it is His purpose that triumphs.
13.8 “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in many places. There will be famines. These are the beginnings of birth pains.”
Jesus then explained further. Wars between nations will necessarily come, for that is what man is like. Earthquakes and famines will occur, as they have throughout history, for that is what nature is like. But these will only introduce what is to follow. And certainly we know that in the first century there were a number of wars, devastating earthquakes and terrible famines. For the dreadful famine in the time of Claudius see Acts 11.27-30, and Jerusalem experienced a number of earthquakes, including one around the time of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28.2). Laodicea, for example, was destroyed by a terrible earthquake which shook the whole of Phrygia in 61 AD. Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by volcanic action not long after. But Jesus was warning that these must not be seen as direct portents. What He was basically saying was that the troubles of a troubled world, portentous though they may seem to those involved, should not cause excessive speculation about the future. They would simply be reminders that there will be yet more troubles to come.
‘Birth pains.’ A woman’s birth pains were a common illustration to suggest the introduction of further trouble. All were aware of the initial contractions which were an early signal of a coming birth. Jesus may have had in mind what the later Rabbis called the Messianic birthpangs which would precede the Messiah and introduce the end of the age, but probably not, for He stressed that these did not introduce anything, ‘the end is not yet’, and furthermore He knew that the Messiah had already come. Birth pains are regularly used as an illustration in Scripture (Isaiah 26.17; 66.8; Jeremiah 22.23; Hosea 13.13; Micah 4.9-10) where they simply mean the start of trouble.
His People will Be Successful But Persecuted (13.9-13).
Jesus now made clear to His disciples something of the future that awaited them amidst the tumults in the world. They had witnessed the opposition to Jesus and the powerful emotions that had been aroused against Him. They had seen what had happened to John the Baptiser. But now they were to recognise that the same would happen to them as well. And it would not be long before it was so. These words were as much preparatory for the future as John 14-16, which included similar thoughts (John 15.20-21; 16.2-3).
Note that in ‘a’ they are to beware for themselves, while in the parallel they are to ensure that they endure. In ‘b’ they will find that their fellow Jews persecute them, and in the parallel this will even be true of their close families. In ‘c’ they will be brought before governors and kings to give testimony, and in the parallel when they are delivered up they are not to fear, for the Holy Spirit will guide their testimony. Centrally in ‘d’ the Good News (of the Kingly Rule of God - 1.14-15) will be proclaimed among all nations.
13.9 “But beware for yourselves. For they will deliver you up to councils and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony to them.”
We should note by these words that Jesus was indicating how successful their work was going to be, (kings and governors only have drawn to their attention things that are important), but warning that it would be accompanied by constant censure. They were going to draw attention to themselves in the eyes of the authorities. Their ministry would be such that it would not only bring them to the attention of the local sanhedrins and the synagogues, resulting in the usual beating given to heretics, but would also disturb governors and kings. And this would all be part of their testimony. The descriptions give the idea of a widespread ministry reaching even to exalted circles. The book of Acts reveals how accurate Jesus’ words would prove to be.
‘A testimony to them.’ Through their trials even great men would hear the word of life. And that word would either begin to enlighten them or would testify against them at the Judgment.
These words parallel those spoken by Jesus in the passage where He sent His disciples out to preach (Matthew 10.17-22). There too they had been successful and had drawn attention to themselves and their message, and we need not doubt had been beaten in synagogues and brought before local councils (Luke 12.11-12). But in those words Jesus had also had in mind their later wider ministry, as depicted here, for they were to be ‘a testimony to the Gentiles’ (Matthew 10.18). Thus it seems that by this time if not before Jesus had recognised that there would be a ministry among Gentiles (but compare Matthew 8.11 which suggests a recognition long before). Matthew had very much in mind the gradual turning to the Gentiles.
13.10 ‘And the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.”
In spite of these tribulations the Gospel would reach out to all nations. (By this time the disciples must have been astounded at what they were hearing, and nothing more astounding than this. Their cosy lives were over). For the Good News was for the world. Probably at this stage the disciples with their prejudiced minds were thinking in terms of the Jews spread throughout the Roman world (compare ‘Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2.5)) but Jesus had His eye on the Gentiles as well, as they would shortly learn. To the disciples at that stage ‘all nations’ would mean primarily Jews in all nations within their knowledge. To Jesus it was probably intended as an indication of the widespread success of the Gospel, without stress on the particular, but including the Gentiles. Compare how at Pentecost those present were seen as ‘from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2.5), and Paul could tell the Romans that their faith was spoken of ‘throughout the whole world’ (Romans 1.8). To that extent this was well fulfilled long before the invasion of 70 AD.
However history has demonstrated that there was a wider meaning. That indeed literally the whole world as indicating a larger world was in God’s mind, as in fact the Old Testament had partly made clear. But to the disciples there was the Jewish world, and then the Roman world, and then a vague world outside without any notion of its extent, and their view would initially be limited.
‘To all nations.’ It was an axiom of the prophetic teaching that in the end all nations would be brought under God’s rule. The Servant was to ‘bring forth justice to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 42.1) and indeed be ‘a light to the Gentiles, that you (the Servant) may be my salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49.6 compare Isaiah 42.6). ‘The nations’ would seek to the root of Jesse (i.e. a son of the Davidic line - Isaiah 11.10), and ‘will come from the ends of the earth -- and will know that My name is Yahweh’ (Jeremiah 16.19, 21). Compare also Malachi 1.11; Psalm 22.27-28; 96.10, 13 and many other references).
‘Must first.’ That is, in context (although Matthew has a wider context), before the following events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is clear that Jesus did therefore see that event as a turning point in history leading on to events that would follow of uncertain duration (Luke 21.24) resulting finally in the end of time and His second coming. To us that destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is just a blip in history, only remembered because of what Jesus said. But to the Jews and the Jewish Christians in the first century it was an occurrence of vast proportions that turned their worlds upside down. And its significance was huge. To the non-Christian Jews it was a signal of God’s displeasure. To Jewish Christians it was an indication that the final break with the Temple had come. So Jesus knew that certain events must follow on the destruction of the Temple, but what He did not know was how long they would last.
13.11 “And when they lead you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you will say, but whatever is given to you in that hour, that speak, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit.”
Although they would be brought before powerful men they need not be anxious as to what they would say. For God would provide them with words. The Holy Spirit would be in them. Thus they must concentrate on their essential message even while detained, and trust God through His Holy Spirit to provide them with their defence when it was needed. Compare again Matthew 10.19-20 and Luke 12.11-12. This is ever true for His people. At the hour of their great need He will direct their words. Here we have a similar promise of the Holy Spirit as a Helper to that in John 14-16.
‘Whatever is given you.’ That is, ‘whatever God gives you’ but avoiding mentioning the divine name.
13.12-13 “And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child. And children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all men, for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved.”
These words surely bring a chill to the heart. Jesus did not hide from His disciples the intensity of feeling that being a believer might cause. It had already been spoken of in Micah 7.6. ‘For the son dishonours the father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies are they of his own house.’ Such would be the intensity of feeling aroused by the Gospel that blood relatives would feel bitterly towards their kin who had believed, to such an extent that they would be prepared to betray them and bring about their death either through anger or fear. That this was sadly true in 1st Century AD and has been sadly true throughout history is unquestionable. It is often literally true in Islamic countries today when a Muslim becomes a Christian and is baptised, and among many other religions as well. The pastor of a local church where I live is a former Hindu who has been cut off by his family.
See Matthew 10.21-22 where we find similar words. Jesus may well have been aware of disciples who had already received threats and family persecution, and have recognised from it the severity of the opposition that His disciples would have to face in the future, seeing it in terms of Micah 7.6. He did not want them to be in any doubt about the possible severity of such opposition. It is usually assumed that Matthew very much had in mind the future after Jesus’ death when He included these words in Jesus’ message there, and that they were hardly applicable to the mission of the Twelve at that time. But the truth is that we know almost nothing about the lives and background of most of His Apostles, some of whom might already have been threatened by their families, just as Jesus knew that they would be in the future. He had after all Himself experienced something of it in Nazareth (see Luke 4.28-29). So dogmatism is ruled out. The only history that we have of the Apostles and disciples of Jesus is in Acts, and in that there was persecution a-plenty.
The hatred that the Gospel aroused in men would be incredible (see Matthew 5.11; John 15.18-20; 17.14; 1 John 3.13; Matthew 10.22). The message of Christ would make men uneasy, for it undermined their cherished and deeply held beliefs, and it pulled down much of what they had built their lives on, and this would especially be so in such a hotbed of fanaticism as Galilee. And later non-believers would not like the way that Christians kept themselves separate from the normal ‘joys of life’ such as the games and idolatrous feasts. And so they hated the message bearers. When Tacitus accused Christians of hatred of the human race he was really depicting the state of his own heart. He would call Christianity ‘an accursed superstition’. He never dreamed that one day it would irrevocably alter the Roman Empire.
‘But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved.’ Compare Matthew 10.22. This was further encouragement to endurance in faith and obedience that was going to be greatly needed. They could face all that came with the certainty that in the end they would triumph. Those who stood against them would face the judgment, but they themselves could anticipate deliverance and salvation (compare 10.26), and would through it find eternal life (see 8.35).
‘Enduring’ is necessary and is required (compare 2 Timothy 2.12), but it need not cause fear and despair. Elsewhere we are assured that they would endure because it would be God Himself Who would enable them to endure (1 Corinthians 1.8-9; Philippians 1.6; 2.12-13; Jude 1.24), and we may have the same confidence. The guarantee of endurance is an essential part of what it means to be ‘saved’. We rely on the faithfulness of the Saviour.
‘To the end.’ Not the end of time but the end of their need to endure, whenever that came.
The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Sacrilege in the Temple (13.14-190).
What the following words mean are made clear firstly by reference to what Jesus said at the beginning of the chapter (verse 2) with the resulting question (verse 3), and secondly by comparison with the book of Daniel. It is from there that the idea of the Desolating Abomination comes in the same passage that speaks of the coming destruction of ‘the city and the sanctuary’ (9.26) (Daniel 9.27 LXX has the same phrase except that ‘desolation’ is in the plural. Compare Daniel 11.31). And the original ‘Abomination of Desolation’ involved the capture of the city and the desecration of the Temple (Daniel 11.31).
Note that in ‘a’ we have the one who is called the Sacrilegious Desolater, and in the parallel the result of his desolating actions as he stands against the God of creation. In ‘b’ those in Judaea are to flee to the mountains, and in the parallel they are to pray that the flight is not in the winter. In ‘c’ men are to flee the roofs of their houses without waiting to collect anything, and in the parallel women involved in child birth and child nurturing are to flee their homes just as they are. Centrally in ‘d’ those working in the fields are not even to bother about their cloaks because of the urgent need to escape.
13.14 “But when you see the Desolating Abomination standing where he ought not.”
The original Desolating Abomination (Abomination is the Jewish view of idolatry and the phrase in Hebrew can mean ‘the desecration that appals’) was when Antiochus Epiphanes (168 BC) raised an altar to Zeus in the Temple and slew a pig on it deliberately in order to offend the Jews, and thus caused the cessation of true sacrifices (Daniel 11.31). This was looked on as the sacrilege that it was, and as a ‘Desolating Abomination’, a desolation that appalled. But it became a phrase which could be applied to any such action and was expected to occur again in the then far future (Daniel 9.27). Thus the Desolating Abomination, the Temple and the cessation of sacrifice were closely connected in Jewish minds (see also Daniel 12.11), and if you were to say to a Jew of Jesus’ time ‘Desolating Abomination’ he would immediately think of sacrilege, the profaning of the holy city and the Temple and of cessation of sacrifice, with general desolation also included (Daniel 9.27).
Furthermore if he thought of it happening at that time he would have thought of Rome. Under its procurators Rome had already made attempts at such sacrilege. Pilate had introduced his troops’ Roman standards into Jerusalem by stealth at night. These were looked on as idolatrous because they often bore a representation of Caesar on them and soldiers offered sacrifices to them. But the sense of horror that this aroused comes out in that a huge crowds of Jews besieged Pilate day and night in his palace at Caesarea demanding their removal, and when he sent his soldiers with bared swords to threaten them they bared their necks and said they would rather die than allow what he had done. The people’s fierce resistance, and their fortitude to the point of offering to lay down their lives in passive resistance, was so great that Pilate at last withdrew. This brings out vividly their sense of the holiness of the whole city, not just of the Temple.
So the people were constantly on their guard against such attempts by Rome, and viewed them with great horror. Note also that it was not only the Temple’s sanctity that the people sought to preserve, it was also the sanctity of the city they saw as ‘the holy city’ (Nehemiah 11.1, 18; Isaiah 48.2; 52.1; Daniel 9.24). (Later the mad Emperor Caligula would order the erection of his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem, and demand accompanying worship, and this was only forestalled by his death, something Mark’s readers would also have been very much aware of).
So the ‘Desolating Abomination standing where it ought not’ would indicate the actual preparation for the introduction into the holy city of idolatrous emblems and actions. Luke confirms this quite clearly. Instead of mention of the Desolating Abomination he wrote, ‘When you see Jerusalem compassed with armies then know that her desolation is at hand (21.20)’. This is found in exactly the same place in the discourse (note in both cases the previous and following verses - Mark 13.13 = Luke 21.17; Mark 13.14b = Luke 21.21). The entry of these troops with their standards and idolatrous worship would be the Desolating Abomination. The holy city would be profaned. And once they approached the holy city they would be standing where they ought not. Furthermore Titus would enter the Holy Place itself, quite probably with his standardbearer who would follow close behind, thus profaning it also. Josephus claims that rather than see the Temple profaned it was the Jews themselves who set fire to it. But that may simply have been propaganda.
Some commentators are dissatisfied because Jesus did not actually mention the destruction of the Temple at this point. But we know that Jesus constantly said things and left the rest for the mind to think over. Those whose hearts were receptive would understand. The same is the case here. He was never prosaic. He was answering a question about the destruction of the Temple, and about not one stone being left on another, and therefore these words and their consequences would mean exactly that in the minds of those who considered His words. The coming of the Desolating Abomination (with its close connection with destruction of city and sanctuary in Daniel 9) and the resulting idea of great tribulation would be seen as including the destruction of the Temple. To have actually said it in so many words would have been to take away the mystery, and have been contrary to His habit of teaching in parables. It might also have opened the words to the charge of being accusatory against Rome, for although they were private words to the four disciples they were words which were intended to be passed on.
13.14-16 ‘But when you see the Desolating Abomination standing where he ought not (let him who reads understand), then let those who are in Judaea flee to the mountains, and let him who is on the housetop not go down, or enter in to take anything out of his house, and let him that is in the field not return back to take his cloak.’
So dreadful would the subsequent events be when the Desolating Abomination was beginning his action against Jerusalem (the ‘he’ refers to their leader) that immediate action would be required. No delay should be considered. If they were on the roof of the house they should immediately take to their heels without even collecting their belongings from inside, speeding down the outside steps, or leaping across the roofs. If they were in the field they should flee as they were, not even going back to collect a cloak. The emphasis was one of extreme and over-exaggerated urgency. The situation was desperate, and was to be escaped from at all costs with no delay.
In reality the majority of the people did the opposite when the time came and fled into the city, there to endure unbelievable suffering, and finally to brutally perish. But some would no doubt escape, even at the last minute as the Roman standards approached Jerusalem, if they had heard and remembered Jesus’ words, and certainly tradition tells us that many in the Jerusalem church previously fled to Pella.
‘The Desolating Abomination’. That is, Titus and his Roman armies with their idolatrous standards. They brought sacrilege with them and would commit greater sacrilege on the holy city and Temple, introducing their standards and their gods and desolating the city and the sanctuary and laying them waste. And they above all claimed to represent a god, Roma, to whom they no doubt made their offerings in Jerusalem.
‘Standing where he ought not.’ The figure is personalised, probably in terms of the leader as so often in Daniel. The place was one where he should not be, for he was not only challenging the Jews, he was treating God with contempt. As the representative of the god emperor he was the ‘anti-God’ who had no right to be standing on the sacred ground around Jerusalem.
‘Let him who reads understand.’ These may be the words of Jesus referring His listeners to the Book of Daniel so that they may read it and understand what He was saying. Or it may be a comment by Mark conveying the fact that the meaning of the words was disguised but discernible to the spiritual eye. The reader might well have been reading it to a largely illiterate church, and it may be that the idea was that he should be able to explain what it meant.
‘Then let those who are in Judaea flee to the mountains.’ All in the surrounding area, in Judaea, are advised to flee. The thought may well be that they should do so as soon as the threat became apparent. There was in fact plenty of warning as there was an earlier assault on Jerusalem which failed. And when later Roman reconquest of the land began it began in Galilee. But even at that stage all were aware that Jerusalem would be the main target, and it was in order to defend it with their dying breath that all the bloodiest insurgents of the day finally gathered there.
‘Flee to the mountains.’ Mountains were always a hiding place in times of trouble. David and his men fled to the mountains away from Saul. Compare also Ezekiel 7.16; 1 Maccabees 2.28. And there were mountains on the far side of Jordan away from the central troublespots. According to Eusebius the Christian church in Jerusalem did in fact flee to Pella in Decapolis, guided by ‘a prophet’ who may well have heeded these words, although that was not in the mountains. It was, however, following the principle behind the words.
‘The housetop.’ The reference is to the flat roof of the house where a man could find quiet. But suddenly he is roused by the news and must flee immediately and urgently by the outside staircase, or by jumping from roof to roof. The point, however, is to stress urgency, not in order to indicate a particular way of escape.
‘To take his cloak.’ This is the cloak that he would need to keep him warm at night. But the urgency would be so great that he must not return for it to wherever he had left it.
13.17 “But woe to those who are well gone in pregnancy and to those who are breastfeeding in those days.”
The reasons were because it would be so much harder for them to flee quickly, and because living conditions would become so terrible, and because of what it would involve for their babes (see Luke 23.29).
13.18 ‘And pray that your flight be not in the winter.’
The winter was a time when there might be flooding preventing their escape, when the mountain paths would be a sea of mud, and when the night cold could be piercing. At such times living rough would be more difficult.
13.19 “For those days will be tribulation such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never shall be.”
Here is the reason for fleeing. For to be caught up in what was to happen would be to suffer the unimaginable. This both limits the tribulation (they can escape from it by fleeing) and stresses its intensity. This was not worldwide tribulation but tribulation restricted to a particular locality. It was initially restricted to in and around Jerusalem and Judaea. Note the phrase ‘and never shall be’. This demonstrates that the tribulation was not to be an indication of the end, and that there was still to be a future following this. The impression is in fact given that time will go on for a considerable period. This is in contrast with Daniel 12.1 where there was to be no future. Then it was ‘even to that same time’, with no reference beyond that. There the ‘time of trouble’ is also excessive and the worst ever of its kind, but it is of a different kind. It is not one restricted to a doomed city like this. We cannot just equate the two. This tribulation is not specifically the same as that one.
Jesus was here emphasising the dreadfulness of the suffering of those who would be caught up in the final invasion in extreme terms. And the actual accounts given of the siege and capture of Jerusalem, which because of its nature had to be stormed section by section, including the final resistance within the Upper City and the Temple itself, and including the starvation, the sufferings of the people and their dreadful cruelty even to each other, the crucifixions and mutilations of any caught by the Romans, the earlier internecine fighting, and the final decimation, do convey a picture so awful that they are unimaginable, made even worse by the hopeless recognition of the desecration that was coming on their holy city. They were a people doomed by man’s inhumanity to man and because of their own sin and their final rejection of God in the crucifixion of Jesus. But it should be noted that they brought it on themselves by their own fanaticism. If only they had listened to Jesus it would never have happened.
Comparison with Daniel 12 and Jeremiah 30.6-7 suggests that Jesus is using the idea of ‘the time of trouble’ to come at the end of time as a pattern on which to mould His description of the destruction of Jerusalem here. But compare also Exodus 9.18; 10.14; 11.6; Joel 2.2; Revelation 6.18 which demonstrate the hyperbolic nature of the description.
It should perhaps be pointed out at this stage that things were in reality not even quite as simple as this. It sounds incredible but in the three years in which the final war raged the worst fighting took place between Jewish factions fighting each other without mercy, including in Jerusalem where, even while the enemy were approaching, the inhabitants were busy slaughtering each other. They even destroyed the enormous stores of grain in the city in case a rival party got hold of them which explains why starvation began to take over so quickly. Only the final attack partly united them. It was a case of fanaticism gone mad.
‘From the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never shall be.” Note the stress on the fact that it was God Who ‘created His creation’. He had created it as good, but now this had happened, the culmination of all the evil that had come on the world. Such is the final result of the fall of man.
“For those days will be tribulation such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never shall be.” Initially the tribulation refers to what will happen during the siege itself, and then to the tribulation that will fall on those who survive the siege and are crucified, or are taken into captivity to be sold as slaves or to be led in chains into Jerusalem in the triumph of the victors, but it then includes the tribulation that will continue on after the siege is over, and the initial punishments have been meted out, for all the survivors. Matthew calls it ‘great tribulation’.
Luke amplifies on it in more detail. For he sums up the days following the destruction as follows. ‘And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem will be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’ (Luke 21.24). According to Luke, then, Jesus forecast the future that lay ahead after the destruction of the Jerusalem (after the Abomination of Desolation) in terms reminiscent of the previous destruction of the Temple in 587 BC, the carrying away of the Jews captive among the nations, the treading down (ruling by force) of Jerusalem by the Gentiles, and the period of Gentile domination following. Thus their tribulation will continue into exile. These events would all again follow the destruction of Jerusalem and, by implication from the questions asked at the beginning, the destruction of the Temple. This all followed the pattern of the first Exile on which Jesus’ words appear to have been based, and would result in a second, permanent exile.
These ‘times of the Gentiles’, then of unknown duration, we now know would last 2000 years, but, as far as the disciples listening were concerned, it could have indicated a fairly short period like the ‘seventy years’ following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC (Jeremiah 29.10), although the ‘seventy sevens’ of Daniel 9 would have been a reminder that it could be far longer in God’s timing. This full glory of this period, and the wonderful truths on which it was based, were unknown to the prophets, a mystery made known to the Christian church (Romans 16.26; 1 Corinthians 2.7). They saw the shadow, but could not appreciate the sun.
Accompanying the times of the Gentiles would come signs in the heavens ‘and on the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken’ (Luke 21.26). This may be referring to events taking place during the times of the Gentiles, a description of history as a whole, or to the ending of the times of the Gentiles which would result in the final days of the age, when there would be the time of trouble as depicted in Daniel 12.1, or both. Zechariah 10.11 refers similarly to ‘the sea of affliction’ (compare Psalm 65.7; Isaiah 5.30; 54.11; Jeremiah 51.42).
Mark on the other hand sums all this up in typical Old Testament apocalyptic language, ‘the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken’. So Mark’s language here is covering even more briefly the same events as outlined by Luke. It is saying briefly that for the Jews especially, and for the nations as a whole, there would be extremely eventful times, the length of which is unknown.
To the Jews taken into captivity, and it did happen to them in large numbers, or to those led out to be crucified, the sun would indeed become dark and the moon would not give her light, for they would be living in a darkness so appalling that nothing could bring relief. All that they had hoped and lived for had collapsed. This would be part of ‘the great tribulation’ of Matthew 24.21, begun in the battle for Jerusalem and continuing on through time to the present day. The idea of ‘stars falling from heaven’ combine with these pictures, and seemingly indicate as well the same as the distress of nations in Luke, unless they are intended to indicate supernatural activity resulting from the downfall of Satan through the cross (Revelation 12.4).
This language is typical of language used in the Old Testament of times of crisis. Compare the parallel in Isaiah 13.10, ‘the sun will be darkened in his going forth, and the moon will not cause her light to shine’, which depicts the earth shaking events when the Medes conquered Babylon (Isaiah 13.17-19). So again at this time there will be earth shaking events, the kind of which history has been full.
The falling of the stars from heaven probably refers to Isaiah 34.4 which in LXX reads ‘all the stars will fall as the leaf falls from the vine and as a leaf from the fig tree’, which may represent a slightly different Hebrew text from the Massoretic. Again it was metaphorical language, in this case describing God’s judgment on Edom and the nations round about. For them there was not even a glimmer of light.
Otherwise there is no real parallel in Scripture to the stars falling from heaven apart from in Revelation 12.4. Compare Revelation 9.1 and see Luke 10.18. The idea here therefore may alternatively be of the activities of heavenly visitants of the worst kind producing the tumult on earth described by Luke as a result of their defeat on the cross. Compare Daniel 10.12-13, 20.
Note that Luke 21.26 and Mark 13.24-25 both end in ‘the powers of the heavens will be shaken’ demonstrating that their content up to that point refers to the same events. This phrase too might indicate the activity of heavenly visitants affecting events on earth, or may refer to general tumult which men would see as resulting from portents in the heavens. Having put the ideas in context we will now consider this section in Mark verse by verse.
God’s Concern For The Elect During and Following The Destruction of Jerusalem (13.21-23).
Jesus now reveals God’s concern for His ‘elect’ over this period, for some of them will be involved in the siege, and many will have to resist the machinations of false Messiahs, prophets and teachers. But they need not fear because for their sake He will shorten the days, and will keep them from being deceived.
Note that in ‘a’ things will be so bad that if the Lord had not shortened the days no flesh would be saved, and in the parallel they are therefore to beware, because He has told them beforehand. In ‘b’ the days have been shortened for the elect’s sake, and in the parallel there will be false Messiahs and prophets demonstrating such wonders that if it were possible even the elect might be deceived. The assumption is, of course, that it is not possible. Centrally in ‘c’ they are not to believe anyone who suggests that the Messiah is on earth.
13.20 ‘And unless the Lord had shortened the days no flesh would have been saved. But for the elect’s sake, whom he chose, he shortened the days.”
The destruction and killing would be so bad that if the Lord did not intervene none would remain alive. But we are told that He would shorten the days ‘for His elect’s sake’. Even though many of the Jerusalem church had fled there would still be in Jerusalem those given by the Father to Jesus, and the idea is that many of them would be preserved, and others would therefore be spared with them. We can compare how God marked off His own in Ezekiel 9 at a time when the previous city and Temple were to be destroyed. The thought may even be that God stayed the hand of Rome to some extent so that some would survive and become Christians as a result, having awoken spiritually during the siege. Thus would good come from this final destruction. The parallel with verse 13 suggests that we are to see in this more than just physical survival. ‘When God’s judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the earth learn righteousness’ (Isaiah 26.9). It must, however, also include physical survival.
The idea of ‘the elect’ is prominent in this passage (verses 20, 22, 27). It does not occur elsewhere in Mark. But here they are those whom He chose, and it therefore clearly refers to those who have been ‘given to Him’ by His Father (John 6.37; 39; 44). They are those who behold the Son and believe on Him (John 6.40). They are His new nation (Matthew 21.43), His new ‘congregation’ (Matthew 16.18), living branches of the true Vine (John 15.1-6). For the idea of God ‘shortening the days’ of His judgment compare 2 Samuel 24.16, where He stays the hand of the avenging angel; Isaiah 65.8 where He declares that He will not destroy all for His servants’ sake.
13.21-23 “And then if any man will say to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah’, or ‘Look, there’, do not believe it. For there will arise false Messiahs and false prophets and they will show signs and wonders so that they may lead astray, if possible, even the elect. But beware, see, I have told you all things beforehand.”
The warning now was that during and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple there would arise false claimants to religious status, whether as Messiahs or prophets. It must be seen as quite possible that some of the fanatical leaders in Jerusalem at the time of the siege, or their followers, did indicate their Messianic status. They certainly feigned ‘kingship’, And history has later been full of such. This was inevitable. The vacuum left by the end of the Temple and the aspirations of the Jews, once they were over the first disaster, could be expected to result in such activity, while the world is always looking for some superman to fulfil its own aspirations.
The most obvious from the Jewish point of view was Barcochba who raised a rebellion against the Romans and specifically claimed to be the Messiah in 132 AD. Others did not raise the same public interest, but there would no doubt have been many. (We must remember that we actually know very little of the detailed general history of that time, and indeed of much of the time since, for the sources are few and limited. History is written by the few books and monuments that survive as well as by the victors). And they had to be warned against, for they would lead many astray. History reveals how false prophets did continually disturb the Christian church right from the beginning and John had to warn against many antichrists (1 John 2.18-23).
‘They will show signs and wonders.’ Just as the Egyptian magicians did in the time of Moses (Exodus 7.11, 22). Magic and trickery have ever been a source of signs and wonders and by them many have been deceived. Compare Revelation 13.13-14 of the activities of Roman priests on behalf of the Emperor. And some do at times seem to have mysterious gifts of healing which can be wisely used or can be exploited. By this means the false Messiahs reveal their falsehood, and they will be the sign of Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2.9) whoever he may be. The word means someone who sets himself up as a rival to Christ. The true Messiah did not use such means to vindicate His claims. It is interesting that John did not consider that Antichrist need be just one person but was an idea that could be fulfilled by the many. Antichrist was a symbolic representation rather than one person (1 John 2.18).
‘Deceive -- the elect.’ They would be so deceptive that if it had been possible they might even have deceived God’s chosen. But fortunately that is not permanently possible.
‘The elect.’ The defining verses for this description are Luke 18.7; John 6.37, 39; 10.26, 29; 17.6, 9, 24. It is those who cry to God constantly, those whose prayer and action reveal their love and trust in Him, and those who are given to Him by the Father and therefore believe in Him.
‘But beware, see, I have told you all things beforehand.’ The ‘you’ is emphasised. The disciples are to be the guides of the new movement.
Following The Siege And The Destruction of the Temple Will Come Continuing Tribulation And Political Tumult Until Finally The Son Of Man Will Be Revealed In Glory In Order To Gather In His Elect (13.24-27).
The tribulation of the Jews would continue on during the times of the Gentiles, eventually leading up to periods of political disturbance and unrest which He describes in apocalyptic language taken from the Scriptures. The darkening of sun and moon, and disappearance from the heavens of the stars are symbolic of the awfulness of what is being described, although whether the heavenly bodies will actually be affected is open to question. It may just be that they will seem to be affected as a result of savage warfare causing atmospheric effects, earthquakes and volcanic action. But it would be foolish to exclude the possibility of the effects of climatic changes resulting from such things as global warming. All this, however, will be preliminary, leading up to the glorious appearing of the Son of Man, with His angels, to gather His elect.
Note that in ‘a’ there will be both earthly and heavenly effects, and in the parallel reference is made to both earth and heaven. In ‘b’ there are strange happenings in the heavens, which may include the supernatural activity of angels (compare Revelation 12.4, 9), while in the parallel we have the supernatural activity of Christ’s angels fulfilling His purpose of gathering the elect. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the picture of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory.
13.24-25 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken.”
As we have seen above this briefly summarises what Luke gives in more detail and includes or concludes the scattering of the Jews, the times of the Gentiles and the periods of tumult and fear that he describes, based on the words of Jesus.
We must remember that to Mark, who specifically draws attention to the fact that ‘these things’ were said about the Temple and its destruction, the destruction of the Temple was still in the future, although how far in the future he did not know. And to him what would follow that earth shaking event could await the future. His next main concern would be with the second coming of Christ.
This is the first real example we have of apocalyptic language in the passage (as opposed to apocalyptic ideas) apart from the Desolating Abomination, and we do well to note that Jesus’ words in this respect are firmly rooted in the Old Testament. His words have suffered much from the application to them of ideas which were probably far from His mind, as is evident in many commentaries. But He was not an enthusiastic Apocalyptic even though He did occasionally borrow its language, and that mainly from Daniel and the prophets.
To repeat what we have said above, the words about the sun and moon are taken from Isaiah 13 describing the cataclysm of a Medan invasion of Babylon, and the description of the stars falling from heaven may come from Isaiah 34.4 LXX describing God’s judgment on Edom and its neighbours which took place in history, or from Daniel 8.10 referring to political activity. They thus speak of great political events and how they are seen in men’s eyes, and the effect that they have on them. At such times it seems as though the heavens are falling in. The stars falling from heaven may, however, indicate supernatural activity behind the affairs of the world, as may the shaking of the powers of the heavens (compare Revelation 12.4, 9; Luke 10.18). Alternately they too may indicate similar events to the sun and moon. What they are certainly saying is that there will be events beyond the power of man to control which will be devastating for man.
13.26-27 “And then will they see the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory, and then will he send forth the angels and will gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.”
‘And then they will see --.’ While on earth the Son of Man had been as it were veiled. The few had recognised Him, the remainder had ignored or rejected Him. But now they will have no choice. They will see Him, even those who pierced Him (Revelation 1.7), and will cry to the mountains and hills to hide them from His wrath (Revelation 6.16).
‘The Son of Man coming in clouds’ undoubtedly has in mind Daniel 7.13 where the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven (without glory) into the presence of God to receive dominion and authority and glory. But the idea is extended, for now, having received that dominion and authority and glory, and His rule having earlier been revealed in power on the earth (9.1) from Pentecost onwards, He will come to earth ‘with power and great glory’ accompanied by heavenly attendants for the final consummation (compare 8.38). The clouds stress that this is a heavenly visitation, not a further incarnation. The glory stresses the visibility of His appearing. In the Old Testament the appearance of the ‘glory of God’ regularly represented a theophany in which His glory was visibly apparent to His people.
His first act on ‘coming’ is, through His angels, to gather together His own from all parts of the world (compare 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 - where they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air). For ‘from the four winds’ compare Zechariah 2.6 where it refers to the fact that God had spread them abroad widely; for gathering from the uttermost part of heaven compare Deuteronomy 30.4 where it means from the furthest extent possible. None will be omitted. This idea of His gathering His own is a fulfilment of the old promises of the gathering and restoring of His people (Deuteronomy 30.4; Zechariah 2.10; and often) but now it is to a ‘better land’ and a ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ (compare the similar inference in Hebrews 11.10, 16; 12.22-23; Galatians 4.25-26).
‘He will send forth the angels.’ They have accompanied Him and do His bidding, for He is Lord of all. Here they are seen as gathering together His chosen ones. The usual stress is on their activities as instruments of judgment (2 Thessalonians 1.7; Matthew 13.30, 41). But they are also ministering spirits who serve the heirs of salvation (Hebrews 1.14).
So the question of the destruction of the Temple has led on to the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. The connection is in fact a very important one. The destruction of the holy city and the Temple was not just something that happened in history, it was a unique event in the history of the world. It could be seen as finally closing the period when the old age, and the new which began with the coming of Jesus, existed alongside each other. Certainly for the Jews it was earth shattering. But along with the resurrection of Christ it was a necessary event before His coming. What lay between that destruction and His coming was the continuation of what He had previously described, war, earthquake and famine, Christian testimony and persecution, (the powers of Heaven being shaken), and then the end.
The Old Testament constantly drew attention to the significance of the Temple. When God’s anger against His people had reached its climax, the Temple was destroyed. This was the message of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When He sought to restore them the Temple again gained prominence through the activities of Haggai and Zechariah. The Temple of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40 onwards), which was metaphysical and indicated that God was invisibly there in Palestine awaiting His people, was in fact the archetype of the Temple in heaven (Hebrews 12.22; Revelation 11.19; 14.15; 15.6; compare 22.1-5 which parallels Ezekiel 47), the guarantee of God’s future mercy and compassion to His people. And the destruction of the Temple here signified that God was no longer to be approached on earth but in heaven itself (Hebrews 10.19-22; compare John 4.20-24). His people were no longer to be an earthly people but a heavenly people.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. The destruction of the Temple was a symbol of extreme importance which is why Jesus drew attention to it.
Thus when Jesus spoke of the certain destruction of the Temple He was issuing in a new age free from the trappings of the past, a new age which would be tumultuous but would finally lead up to His coming, of which the destruction of the Temple had to be a major part. It was because the temple was doomed that the new Temple of God which was His body, consisting of all who participated with Him in His body, could be established as its replacement. We should note in this regard that this time He does not come to re-establish the Temple and the holy city, but to gather together His elect.
We should perhaps also note that in fact once He had recognised, and indeed determined, that the destruction of the Temple was inevitable, there is nothing in this message of Jesus that could not have been worked out by a deep thinker such as He was from a combination of Scripture, knowledge of God and of the behaviour of men, and a deep insight into human nature. He was not a Nostradamus speaking mysteriously in a way that could be interpreted to suit the circumstances, He was a prophet, and more than a prophet, speaking of what He knew would be through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
EXCURSUS. What Does Jesus Mean When He Speaks Of ‘Coming In The Glory Of His Father With The Holy Angels’?
This passage raises the question as to what “And then will they see the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory and then will He send forth the angels --”, refers to, and closely associated with it is the parallel verse ‘when He (the Son of Man) comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels’ (8.38). In both verses there is a reference to a glorious appearing, and in both it is as accompanied by angels.
There are two possible main interpretations. The first, which is the majority one, is that it refers to the second coming of Christ. What then are the arguments in favour of that interpretation?
Thus the nearest parallels clearly support the idea here that what is being referred to in 13.24 is the second coming, although it must be admitted that none of these references actually refer to ‘the holy angels’, even though Zechariah 14.5 (‘the holy ones’) and Jude 1.14 might be seen as implying it. (On the other hand the failure to refer to ‘the holy angels’ is even more true in Daniel 7, for there the ‘holy ones’ are the people of God, and the angels are otherwise referred to. We cannot limit our interpretation to Daniel 7).
The second possible interpretation is that this refers to the ‘coming’ of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, Who in Heaven is surrounded by the innumerable company who minister to Him, in order that He, the Son of Man, might receive Kingly Rule, glory and dominion (Daniel 7.14), something which will be manifested to the world in what follows. In this regard it would parallel 14.62 which does mean this (see on that verse). The idea then is that it refers to Jesus’ enthronement, followed by His gathering of His people through the witness of His servants, assisted by the angels in accordance with Hebrews 1.14. It could be argued that those in the crowd who knew their Scriptures would, if Jesus had said nothing further about it, probably have seen in Jesus’ words ‘when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels’ as a reference to that Scripture in Daniel 7.
(But while there the Son of Man (7.13) would come into the presence of the innumerable company who minister to the Ancient of Days (7.10), and would be brought by them into the Presence of the Ancient of Days (7.13), and would then be given all glory, dominion and power (7.14), the glory there occurs after the coming on the clouds of Heaven. There is a totally different emphasis from the one here).
The claim then might be that to those in the crowd who knew the Scriptures these words would not therefore have been seen as speaking of ‘the second coming’ (of which they perhaps knew nothing), but of the coming of the Son of Man to be crowned in Heaven in the presence of the heavenly court, because judgment had been pronounced on those who opposed Him. The weakness in this argument, however, is that in Daniel the glory is only referred to after the coming in the clouds of Heaven, while the only verse in the Old Testament Scriptures which actually refers to ‘coming with holy ones’ is that in Zechariah 14.5, which must surely therefore be the one more likely to come to the minds of the crowd (especially as in Daniel 7 the ‘holy ones’ are not angels but are ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ who possess the kingdom, that is, the people of God). Thus we could argue that it is that Scripture in Zechariah that they would most likely have in mind, especially as boosted by apocalyptic ideas.
What conclusion then can we come to? The arguments in the latter case are undoubtedly attractive, and as we shall subsequently see have some truth in them. They almost certainly do apply, for example, to 9.1 where the coming is not with the holy angels but with power, and in 14.62 where again the angels are not mentioned. Neither mention glory. But in our view they fail in 8.38 because of the mention of the holy angels and of the glory, and in 13.26-27 because of the stress on His coming in power and great glory, clearly along with angels. In the Old Testament glory always spoke of specific outward visitations by God. Here then would be the final great visitation.
For it cannot be doubted that the prominent verse in the Old Testament Scriptures which speaks of ‘coming with the holy ones (as the angels)’ looks forward to the consummation (Zechariah 14.5), something confirmed by Matthew 25.31 where the glory is introduced, while the idea of a coming in glory does not obviously arise from Daniel 7.
(There is in fact a reference to YHWH coming from His holy ones in Deuteronomy 33.2, but it is very doubtful whether that is of relevance here except as providing general background)
End of Excursus.
The Disciples Are To Watch For His Coming (13.28-37).
Jesus now stressed the inevitability of ‘these things’ that He has described as needing to happen before His return, and that they must thus observe these things as they occur, live in the light of His coming and be ready for His return, for all, apart from what is directly connected with His coming (the time of which He does not know), will occur within that generation.
a “Now from the fig tree learn her parable. When her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves you know that the summer is near. Even so you also, when you see these things happening, know that He is near, even at the doors” (28-29).
Note that in ‘a’ the occurrence of what is described in verses 4-23 (‘these things’) is to be observed so that they will know when He is ‘at the doors’, and in the parallel they are to watch for His coming at whatever time it occurs whether it be sooner or later. In ‘b’ ‘these things’, including especially the destruction of the Temple (verses 2, 4), will occur within that generation, for they are based on His words which are more sure than the continuance of heaven and earth, and in the parallel they are therefore to watch and pray in His absence while He is gone from them, observing all that happens. Centrally in ‘c’ no one, apart from the Father, knows when that time will be, not even at this time Himself.
Certainty and Uncertainty (13.28-32).
Jesus now points to what is certain and what is uncertain. Certain is the fulfilling of all that He has described in verses 2-23 during that generation, uncertain is the time of all that is directly connected with His coming. They must therefore ever be on the alert, confident of the fulfilment of His final purposes, and of the words that He has spoken.
Note that in ‘a’ summer is seen to be near, but in the parallel no one but the Father knows the day or the hour when summer will come (compare 2 Peter 3.8-9). In ‘b’ they will see ‘these things’ (the signs of summer) happening, for in the parallel they will happen within a generation, and are as certain as creation.
13.28-29 “Now from the fig tree learn her parable. When her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves you know that the summer is near. Even so you also, when you see these things happening, know that He is near, even at the doors.”
The fig tree had taught them one thing earlier (11.20-25), now it has another lesson to teach. When it turns from a seemingly dead tree to a tree with flourishing leaves it indicates that summer is approaching. So should the things He has described, when they occur, indicate to them that the time is drawing near for Him to come, that He is ‘near, even at the doors’. It was at the door that Jesus stood for the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3.20). But for most there He waited in vain. And He has been at that door for all who would respond ever since.
Luke 21.29 adds ‘all the trees’. This demonstrates quite clearly that the fig tree is not here to be seen directly as Israel, for all the trees will be bearing leaves. The fig tree was prominent because it was the most common non-evergreen tree in Palestine.
‘These things happening.’ Compare verse 4. The main reference is to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but includes the other aspects which Jesus has mentioned. It necessarily excludes what is directly connected with His coming for they are to point to that.
‘Near, even at the doors.’ Once ‘these things’ were fulfilled nothing would remain to prevent His coming, thus expectancy must increase. It will be as though He were at the very doors. The purpose of these signs was to remind them that He would come. But it is important to note that He did not mean that they were necessarily to see it as soon, only as imminent, with nothing further needed before He comes, for He stated quite firmly that He did not in fact know the time of His coming, which was known to the Father alone (verse 32). The statement that He did not know when His coming would occur was so startling that it was clearly intended to indicate that the actual time of His coming was not necessarily included within ‘these things’ which must happen within a generation. Nothing could be more clear than ‘I do not know’. The idea of being ‘at the door’ occurs in Revelation 3.20 where it indicates a continuing process of unknown length resulting in continuous response from His true people.
13.30 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things are accomplished.”
Again ‘these things’ refer to the signs preparatory to His coming, the world troubles, the preaching, the persecution, the destruction of the Temple, distress of nations. And they did all happen to sufficient extent within that generation. Those who seek to turn all this into a prophecy of the end times take ‘generation’ either as referring to the generation which sees the final signs (but for that we would have expected him to write ‘that generation’), or translate as ‘this race’ meaning the Jews, but both are unnatural interpretations and a little forced. (Indeed we may ask ‘which race?’, for none has been mentioned in the context). The natural reference is to the generation of Jesus’ day.
For the significance of ‘these things’ see verse 4, where it primarily refers to the destruction of the Temple, but also incorporating verses 14-19 which are prior to that, and verses 5-8 where it refers to the wars among nations and accompanying natural disasters. As Jesus states quite clearly that He did not know the time of His coming He could hardly have rationally included that, and anyway ‘these things’ are indicators of the imminence of His coming (verse 29) and cannot therefore include that coming itself.
13.31 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Once again we are pulled up with a jolt by what seems a simple statement. Who is this Who can claim that His words are so important that they are longer lasting than creation? That indeed they are more important than creation? By this we know that He is the Lord of glory. And what He was stressing was that what had just been outlined to them was more certain than the continuation of the world, because His words are eternal.
‘Heaven and earth will pass away.’ Once the Lord has returned eternity will take over from time. There will be a new Heaven and a new earth (see Revelation 21.1 and compare 2 Peter 3.7, 10, 12). This was in essence declared by Isaiah 65.17 although in his day he was unable to understand the full significance of what he was saying, for they had then no conception of anything beyond this life. Contrast Isaiah 51.6 where it is His salvation and righteousness that will not pass away (see also Isaiah 54.10), and Isaiah 40.7-8 where it is ‘the word of our God’ which stands for ever. But here it is what Jesus has said that will endure for ever.
13.32 “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father.”
These words put the timing of the second coming into its proper light. It is unknown to all but the Father. It is only known in the secret councils of God Himself in eternity. Thus even the fulfilment of all the signs will be no guarantee that it will then soon come, for the One Who proclaimed the things that had to happen did not know the time of His own return. Placed where it is this is a clear warning that men must not be presumptious about His coming. All the warnings to be ready are because no one does know when it will happen. Nothing is therefore to be taken as certainly indicating the closeness of it.
Note that even the participants in the final events are kept in the dark about it. The angels of heaven will have their task to do then (verse 27), but must await God’s timing and God’s instructions. Meanwhile they must carry on with their present responsibilities, not knowing when it will be. Even the Son while on earth has not been party to the information. Like all men He had to walk in faith depending on the Scriptures. It was an essential, if startling, part of the incarnation (compare Philippians 2.6-8). But it is known to the Father. For all is known to Him from beginning to end.
This verse is a key verse from a critical point of view for in it Jesus calls Himself ‘the Son’, unique and distinctive from all others, higher than the angels, and thus as the Son of the same being as the Father. And yet nothing can be more certain than that the phrase is genuine for no one would have invented the idea that Jesus did not know the time of His coming except for someone who wanted to degrade Him, and a degrader would never have introduced the title ‘the Son’. The more divine someone thought He was the less likely that they would say such a thing. Thus its genuineness is as sure as anything can be.
13.33-37 “Take heed, watch and pray. For you do not know when the time is. It is as when a man, temporarily living in another country, having left his house and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, also commanded the porter to watch. Watch therefore for you do not know when the lord of the house comes, whether at twilight, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning, lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say to you I say to all, watch.”
This final exhortation seems at first to contradict what has gone before. But it is not so. It is a warning to be ready. The servants are not to gather at the door, they are to carry on with their work. It is the porter who must watch, for that is his job. It is all very practical.
But the man had gone to another country. Clearly certain events would have to take place before he returned. It was as time passed that expectancy would increase. And so it was with the signs Jesus had given. But most of them could have been seen as fulfilled in a comparatively short time, and only those living in the vicinity of Jerusalem would be sure of the situation there. Many events would arise that might indicate that an invasion could take place shortly and swiftly, such things for example as Caligula’s determination to erect a statue of himself in the Temple. And news took some time to filter through. So there was ever reason to be in sensible readiness. This sense of imminence continually exists alongside statements that indicate delay throughout the New Testament.
‘Take heed, watch and pray.’ Men’s prayers must be in the light of His coming. As they plan and pray they must remember that the time is short. They have but a little while. And they must watch continually. If only we would take this to heart. If we measured each prayer against the fact of His coming how different would be the things we prayed for. (‘Lord at your coming, how glad I shall be, that the lamp of my life has been blazed out for Thee’). And Jesus said, ‘beware, take heed!’ Make sure you do this. Watching means ever being ready for His return and doing all that will ensure that when He does return we will be ready and not be caught out (compare Philippians 4.5; Hebrews 10.25; James 5.8). It does not mean simply waiting and looking. Even the porter had his job to do. And one of the main things we must do in readiness is to pray (1 Peter 4.7), pray that His name may be hallowed by the fulfilling of His purposes (Ezekiel 36.23), pray that His Kingly Rule over men might come about, and pray that His will might be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
The parable tells us that the lord has left each servant his task to do and the authority to do it. They must therefore concentrate on that task to ensure that if he returns unexpectedly they will not be caught out. The porter, as is his job, will watch. This watching does not mean just for the returning lord, it also means for anyone who may come who requires attention. He too must do his job properly.
So there is no tension between working and watching. Indeed the one who is watching will demonstrate it by the way he works. For when the lord comes they want to be found working and in readiness (Luke 12.35-36), not peeking out of the window, or dallying (1 Corinthians 7.29), or asleep.
‘Twilight - midnight - cockcrowing - morning.’ These are the four watches of a Roman night. Once the time is approaching it could happen at any time. So there must be constant readiness. But if these words apply to the parable and are taken literally it would mean that no one in the household would ever be able to sleep. It therefore rather indicates that it may be soon or there may be delay. The night may drag on. But they may be sure that if He has not returned before, the morning will come and then He will return (compare Romans 13.12). So they are to watch by being ready at all times. That is the test of the loyal worker, he always works and lives so that if the Master comes he will not be ashamed. Note how the four alternatives make clear possible delay. The whole night may have to pass before He comes. No one knows, not even He. All He knows is that it will be before the Morning.
‘And what I say to you I say to all, watch.’ The message is for all, and is to be passed on at a suitable time. For all are to watch.
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