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Jesus Scorches the Scribes

January 20, 2013 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Christian Living Passage: Mark 12:35–40


This passage reminds me of a scene in the first Ironman movie where Tony Stark, suited up in his Ironman outfit, is being fired on by a group of terrorists. After a while, seeing that their bullets are bouncing harmlessly off his iron suit, the terrorists give up, helplessly lowering their weapons. Ironman then calmly says, “my turn” and powerful flamethrowers jet out of his hands, scorching the terrorists.

That's exactly what we have here in Mark 12. Well, maybe not exactly, but pretty close. From the end of chapter 11 to this point in chapter 12 Mark records a series of confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders and up to this point it’s been the religious leaders who have been on the offensive, as they have tried to challenge Jesus, bait Jesus, trap Jesus, flatter Jesus, stump Jesus, and embarrass Jesus. But each time they come in for the kill, their bullets bounce harmlessly off Jesus and finally they stop shooting and lower their weapons. Verse 34 says,

After that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Now in verse 35 Jesus says “my turn”. And with a question and a warning, he scorches the scribes who had just taken their best shots at him. First Jesus scorches them with a question from the scriptures – their field of expertise – about the Messiah. Then he scorches them with a searing warning to the crowds about their pride and hypocrisy. Let’s consider these scorching counter attacks one at a time.

I. Jesus scorches the scribe’s pride in their knowledge of the scriptures (vv. 35-37)

The scribes were the experts in the law, the teachers of the scriptures, and they were primary opponents of Jesus and, along with the chief priests, would soon play a central role in the trial of Jesus. Some scribes were Pharisees, but many were not. They were the experts, the pro’s, and were admired and looked up to for their expertise in all things pertaining to the law and the scriptures.

So Jesus turns the tables on these “experts in the scriptures” by asking them a riddle from the scriptures concerning the Messiah. Look with me at the question again beginning in verse 35:
“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” 37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”

The scribes claimed (rightfully) that the Messiah (or Christ) would be the son of David. But in Psalm 110, a passage universally recognized by scribes as messianic, David, inspired by the Holy Spirit says, “the Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (Adonai, meaning the Messiah), sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”

The dilemma in the question is that in the Jewish view descendants were never considered greater than their ancestors. Sons were never greater than fathers, fathers never called their sons “Lord”. Deepening the riddle is that the word Adonai was forever linked in the Jews mind to God because when the Jews read scripture aloud in the synagogue, they would substitute the word Adonai for the tetragrammaton YHWH. And whenever scripture uses the phrase, “the Lord God” the Hebrew is Adonai Yahweh. So Adonai, while not exclusively used for God, is most often used referring to God.

Jesus isn’t denying either truth – that the Messiah would be the son of David, or that the Messiah would be David’s Lord – he’s just asking the scribes how they can explain how both can be true. The scribes have no answer to Jesus’ question – they get scorched – and the crowds loved it! They probably didn’t understand it but they knew the scribes got humbled real bad and they loved seeing them squirm!

But Jesus’ objective was deeper than embarrassing the scribes. The scribes expectation of the Messiah was that he would be a son of David and that he would establish the throne of David by doing what David did, leading the nation of Israel to overthrow its national oppressors and establishing its political and military might in the world. The Messiah would be a military and political figure who would lead them in victory – and the scribes expected to be prominent in the new and glorious political reality.

What they didn’t – and probably couldn’t - understand was that the Messiah would be far greater than a king like David. He would be David’s son, but he would be much more. He would be a king, but much more. His majesty would be far higher than David’s and the father would one day bow his knee and confess his son “Adonai” – Lord. The Lord who sits at the right hand of God and has all enemies put under his feet.

The religious leaders hated Jesus in part because of the claims he made about himself – they hated the way he taught with authority, they rejected as blasphemy Jesus’ claim to forgive sins, they accused him of casting out demons by the prince of demons. What bothered the religious leaders about Jesus was more than a theological or intellectual difference with him, it was his Person, the sense of transcendence, the aura of absolute authority, the “Lordship” of Jesus that bothereded the religious leaders because it threatened them and their position. And they hung their rejection of him on the scriptural expectation that the Messiah would be a conquering king. But if they had calibrated the truth of Psalm 110 into their thinking about the Messiah – that David called the Messiah Adonai – they would have recognized that the Messiah would be far more than an earthly king and their hearts might have been more open to the claims and works and authority of Jesus. The experts in the scriptures mishandled and misread the scriptures when it came to the Messiah.

The reality is, no one could have perfectly known the answer to this riddle of how this seeming contradiction fit together until after the cross and resurrection. Jesus was God Incarnate – the son of David and the Son of God - and he came to conquer a far greater enemy than Rome. Through his death and resurrection he came to defeat sin, Satan, and death and set us free.

II. Jesus scorches the scribe’s pride in their religious prominence (vv. 38-40)

Jesus then turns to the crowds and warns them to beware of the scribes pride and pretense. The scribes were men of prominence in society: they wore long, white robes that were instantly recognizable from the attire of the average citizen and when they walked on the street everyone was expected to rise respectfully as they passed by. They were given the most prominent places at the most important feasts and in the synagogue they sat in the front in full view of the congregation with their backs to the chest containing the Torah.

They manipulated poor people like widows to give beyond their means to support them by teaching that giving to the scribes was one of the greatest acts of piety a person could do. And they prayed long, public prayers, not because they loved God but because they loved to be thought of as loving God. They were pretenders. They took their outward acts of devotion towards God and bent them all back on themselves. The hypocrisy of it all is that they looked like they were obeying the greatest commandment to love the Lord our God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, when the truth of it was that they loved themselves, not God, with all their hearts.

Pride, prominence, and religion

Now at this point I would love to unload on the scribes for their pride and hypocrisy and have us all thank God that we’re not like them. But the truth is, I know that all too often I am tempted to be a lot like them, and I bet a lot of you are too. It is so easy for our hearts to bend our religion backwards towards ourselves, and that’s why Jesus’ warning is so relevant to us.

“False humility is a mask behind which we do our business.” – Cornelius Platinga

I would add that false devotion to God is also a mask behind which we can do our business.

The humility award

When I graduated from Pastor’s College in 2002, they had a very meaningful graduation ceremony, and we had some close friends drive a long distance to be there and share the evening with us. So at one point in the ceremony they were giving out awards for different categories of achievement, and deep in my heart I found myself hoping I would get an award. So the best student award came and went and I didn’t get it. And then the award for showing the most leadership qualities came and went – didn’t get it. And then the most improved student – nope. Finally they came to the most humble student (as voted on by the fellow students), and I’m thinking, “that wouldn’t be a bad award to get -I’d be proud to get that one.”

Thankfully I didn’t get it either (got no awards) – but my point is that a certificate that says “most humble” isn’t the same as a humble heart. Having a reputation of loving God isn’t the same as having a heart that loves God. Being known as “radical for God” or having a heart for the lost can simply mask a heart that wants to be known for loving the lost or being radical for God. Our hearts are deceitfully wicked as Jeremiah writes, and it’s really impossible for us to fully know the deepest motivations and undercurrents of our own hearts. I can preach on humility and have a heart filled with pride. You and I are terminally bent by sin towards ourselves and religion can become a marketplace for selling ourselves. And it’s impossible for us to cleanse our own hearts of it all, apart from God’s help.

Uninstalling pride

I have a program that does a deeper job of uninstalling software than the built in uninstaller, and often after it uninstalls a program, it then shows deeper files that escaped the initial uninstall and need to be deleted. That’s how pride is – even when we are trying to uninstall it, there are deeper files and folders that hide in our hearts and still prompt and press our hearts, often without our knowing it. We need the searching light of the Holy Spirit to convict us and change us.
How do we get to the deeper folders and hidden locations that pride resides? I believe Jesus gives us two weapons here in Mark 12, one in this passage, one in the passage that follows.

1. Walk in the fear of the Lord
2. Walk in humble devotion to the Lord (next week)

1. Walk in the fear of the Lord

How do I get “walk in the fear of the Lord” from this passage? Jesus opens this scorching of the scribes by saying “beware” and he closes it with these terrifying words: They will receive the greater condemnation. (vs. 40) It’s a strict warning not to be influenced by the scribes pride and hypocrisy because they are on their way to condemnation – a condemnation made all the greater because they masked their sin with devotion to God.

Jesus is urging the crowds to fear God and His condemnation. The fear of the Lord is a good thing – for the Christian the fear of the Lord is not abject terror that makes us want to flee God, it’s a deep reverence and a holy fear that makes us grateful that we’ll never have to face His wrath because of the cross, and that presses our hearts to be honest with God. The fear of the Lord makes us afraid of pretense and instills in our hearts a desire to be genuine. We won’t be perfect, our hearts won’t be totally free of these deep impulses of sin, but we will seek to be genuine. The fear of the Lord has a purifying effect on us.

I wrestled with using the term, scorch, in reference to Jesus. Maybe you’ve wrestled with my using it. You can picture Ironman frying terrorists, you have a hard time picturing Jesus frying scribes. God is loving, but He is also fearsome and He does judge with fire. Listen to Isa. 66:15-16:

“For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many. Isa 66:15-16

And John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, when he sees a group of Pharisees and scribes standing at the edge of the water, says this to them in Matthew 3:7-12:

7“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. …11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:7-12

The fear of the Lord is a good purifying agent in our hearts because it leads our hearts to true repentance and faith. It leads our hearts to trust in the grace of God to save us. Only one Man ever walked this earth in perfect fear of the Lord, in pure devotion, in love for God unpolluted by pride and pretense. And he gave his life to save us. There is no ground on earth that is more scorched than the hill of Golgotha, where Jesus hung on a wooden cross and endured the fire of God’s fury. As we come to the scorched earth of Calvary, where Jesus endured the wrath of God for our sins, we receive forgiveness. And in that forgiveness, we also receive the grace to be genuine in our faith. Not perfect, but genuine. When we sin, we bring that sin to the light – we walk in the light as the first letter of John chapter one says, and we receive forgiveness for our sin, but we also find our sin being purified.

I want us to close with a time to do business with the Lord. To invite the Spirit to reveal and purify us of hypocrisy and pretense and help us to grow in a true devotion to the Lord. To give up anything that is hindering us in our devotion to God. To repent of any clinging sin. To ask and allow the blood of Christ to cleanse us from all sin and unrighteousness. To press our hearts towards loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. The Lord is here to help us to do just that.