“Then He began to speak to them in parables…” (Mark 12:1).
Many of us have experienced the challenge of trying to explain an unfamiliar concept or idea to someone else. In such instances, its often helpful to find a common element or shared experience that can be used to make a comparison. This approach can help provide a mutual frame of reference and establish a good basis for understanding. This idea is something that Jesus used in communicating spiritual truths to others and He delivered it in the form of one of His favorite teaching methods- a parable.
A parable is a short story that is designed to communicate a spiritual or moral truth. A parable works by taking a familiar example from everyday life and using it to demonstrate a spiritual truth that may not be so easily understood. A parable makes use of things like comparisons, figures of speech, and examples from everyday life to drive home a moral lesson, religious principle, or spiritual reality.
Because of this, Jesus’ parables often featured ordinary circumstances and common elements that were easy to understand and associate with spiritual truths that were more difficult to grasp. These parables were easy to remember and they encouraged those who heard them to consider the “message behind the message” within each story- if they were willing to do so.
This approach not only served to teach people some important truths about God but it also served to teach Jesus’ listeners some important truths about themselves. You see, Jesus’ parables provided an opportunity for any interested listener to uncover the deeper spiritual meaning behind each story. For those who were really interested in learning more about God, Jesus’ parables helped bring important spiritual truths into sharper focus. But for those who were spiritually unconcerned, a parable did very little to make those truths any easier to understand. A spiritually unconcerned person might see Jesus’ parables as a collection of interesting stories but fail to grasp the deeper meaning behind them.
So Jesus’ parables produced different effects depending on who was doing the listening- and a person’s reaction to one of Jesus’ parables said quite a bit about his or her own spiritual condition. Unfortunately for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the parable found within the opening verses of Mark chapter twelve contains one of the most scathing indictments of spiritual leadership in all Scripture and their response will go on to validate the discouraging truth found within it.
“Then He began to speak to them in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country'” (Mark 12:1).
So Jesus’ parable began with an account of a vineyard owner and a group of vinedressers or “tenant farmers.” In the days of the first century, Israel’s economy was largely agricultural and farming (along with sheep herding) served as one of the major trade occupations of that time. In one common arrangement, a business owner might lease a portion of his land to a group of vinedressers in exchange for an agreed-upon portion of the crop. This was the sort of agreement that Jesus referred to here within this parable.
The tenant farmer was generally responsible for all aspects of crop management. That would include things like plowing the fields, planting the crop, tending the vines, and harvesting the grapes when they were ready. Most farms or vineyards also featured other common characteristics that Jesus mentioned here. For instance, the “hedge” spoken of in this passage could refer to a thorny shrub set around the property, a stone wall, a fence, or any other kind of partition that was designed to protect against thieves or animals. The “tower” was a covered wooden booth that was used for storage and protection against predatory groups of robbers. The “wine vat” or “winepress” was created by chiseling a basin out of a rock where grapes could be pressed along with a slope leading to a second basin where the juice was collected for storage in jars or wineskins.
However, there was one significant difference between the arrangement mentioned here and the typical lease agreement of that time. You see, the hedge, tower, and winepress were usually built by the tenant as part of the lease arrangement. However, Jesus’ parable stated that the owner (or landlord) performed all this preparatory work. In other words, the owner was the one who built the hedge, erected the tower, and dug out the wine vat.
In this regard, Jesus’ parable is reminiscent of the creation account found in Genesis chapters 1-3. In that passage, God planted a garden and put Adam, the first human being there to tend and keep it. In a sense, the “Landlord” did all the preparatory work and gave Adam the responsibility of “managing the vineyard” so to speak. Unfortunately, Adam failed to carry out his responsibility and as we’ll see, these vinedressers will do much the same- and worse.
“…’A farmer once planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it and dug a pit to crush the grapes in. He also built a lookout tower. Then he rented out his vineyard and left the country'” (Mark 12:1 CEV).
The purpose behind the parable found here in Mark 12 (as well as Jesus’ other parables) involved the communication of some deeper spiritual truths. If we were to look at this parable as a kind of allegory (or a story with characters and events that represent something else), then it helps to provide us with a key that we can use to unlock some important spiritual applications.
To do so, we need to consider who or what these characters and elements represent. For instance, this parable introduces us to a man who plants a vineyard. We might start with the understanding that this vineyard owner represents God. The vineyard that He established would then be representative of Israel (or the world in a larger sense). This parable then goes on to say that the man “rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey” (NIV). So who are these vinedressers or tenant farmers? Well, these individuals serve to represent Israel’s religious leadership. It was the responsibility of these spiritual leaders to accurately represent God and they had the responsibility to tend to His “vineyard” to help ensure that it produced fruit.
To this point, there have been no positive or negative aspects to this parable- but that’s about to change…
“Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some'” (Mark 12:2-5).
Here we have a succession of servants sent by the owner of the vineyard. We might think of these servants as representatives of the various Old Testament prophets. These were the men that God sent to communicate with His people but who were ultimately rejected. This brings to mind Jesus’ deep lament from Luke 13:34: “…Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The city that murders the prophets. The city that stones those sent to help her. How often I have wanted to gather your children together even as a hen protects her brood under her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (TLB).
“At the time of the grape harvest, he sent one of his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers grabbed the servant, beat him up, and sent him back empty-handed. The owner then sent another servant, but they insulted him and beat him over the head. The next servant he sent was killed. Others he sent were either beaten or killed” (Mark 12:2-5 NLT).
Unfortunately, this was not the first time that the imagery from this parable had been used to describe God’s displeasure with those who claimed to represent Him. Writing around 725 B.C. the prophet Isaiah used many of the same elements found within this parable (a vineyard, a tower, a winepress, and a hedge, among others) to identify His dissatisfaction with the fruit that His “vineyard” had produced (see Isaiah 5:1-7).
In both instances, God did not receive the return that He should have expected to receive…
“Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:6-8).
If the vineyard owner represents God in this parable and the owner’s servants stand for the various Old Testament prophets, then it should be pretty easy to guess the identity of the vineyard owner’s son. The son is none other than Jesus and the fact that He was rejected, killed, and cast out of the vineyard prefigures the kind of death He would suffer just a few days later. In addition to this representation of His eventual death, Jesus’ parable also provides us with some insight into the character and nature of these vinedressers as well.
For instance, it appears that these tenants were under the impression that if the vineyard owner’s heir was killed then they would maintain control of the now “ownerless” property. If this was true, then these individuals showed themselves to be little more than interlopers in place where they had no right to belong. It’s also possible that these property managers took the appearance of the owner’s son as a sign that the owner was dead, powerless, or too far away to do anything about their response. If that was the case, then they were about to be proven terribly wrong.
“Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:9).
In Luke’s account of this passage, we’re told that Jesus asked these religious leaders, “…’Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others.’ And when they heard it they said, ‘Certainly not!'” (Luke 20:15-16). But despite these leaders’ refusal to believe that such a thing could actually take place, that’s exactly what happened.
You see, beginning in AD 69 and continuing on into AD 70, the Roman general Titus (who would later become Emperor) and his army marched on the city of Jerusalem. Titus had four Roman legions -an army of 30,000 soldiers- at his disposal and his mission was to eliminate any remaining pockets of resistance against the Roman Empire from the people of that area. Titus attacked the city of Jerusalem with his army for five months. During this time the Roman army burned the city to the ground, completely destroying the Temple along with practically everything else within the city. Over one million men, women and children lost their lives in this military action.
This event took place approximately forty years following Jesus’ death and resurrection and from that time until May 1948, the nation of Israel did not exist. It was during this period that God began to work through His church, a group that largely consists of non-Jewish people and a work that continues even to our current day. So these “others” are comprised of people from all nations, backgrounds, and cultures who now have the responsibility of proclaiming that peace with God is possible through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.
Finally, the rejection of the vineyard owner’s son was actually a rejection of the vineyard owner himself. As Jesus Himself pointed out in John 5:23, “…all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” The well-known speaker Charles Spurgeon made a similar observation in commenting on this passage…
“…if you do not hear the well-beloved Son of God, you have refused your last hope. He is God’s ultimatum. Nothing remains when Christ is refused. No one else can be sent. Heaven, itself, contains no further messenger. If Christ is rejected, hope is rejected!” (1)
(1) Charles H. Spurgeon The Pleading Of The Last Messenger pg. 4 http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols31-33/chs1951.pdf
“Have you not even read this Scripture: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?'” (Mark 12:10-11).
Its difficult to come away from a study of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark without being impressed by the manner in which He challenged those authorities who claimed to be something that they were not. For example, Jesus might have phrased His response to these religious leaders in a more accommodating manner but He instead chose to preface His statement by saying, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures…” (NLT).
Since these men were the established leaders in their field, a statement like this implied that they had failed to grasp the basic fundamentals of their job. For a group that was used to being treated with the respect and deference that accompanied such positions of authority, this was bound to come as a shock- and Jesus will have even more to say along these lines later on in Mark chapter twelve.
In this passage Jesus also mentioned something called a “cornerstone.” A “corner-stone” of course, is a stone that joins two walls together at an angle. But more than that, the chief cornerstone was the first stone placed during the construction of a building during that time. It was important for this stone to be cut perfectly straight and level since it served as the foundation for the rest of the stones used during construction. If a building lacked the chief cornerstone, the remaining structure was sure to become uneven, irregular, and unstable.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see the point that Jesus was trying to make: He was the stone and the religious leaders were the builders who had rejected Him. But despite this rejection, Jesus would go on to become the chief cornerstone of a new building- the worldwide church that had it’s beginning in Acts chapter two. This would have important implications for the men to whom Jesus was speaking…
“As the Scriptures say, ‘I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem, chosen for great honor, and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.’ Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him.
But for those who reject him, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ And, ‘He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them” (1 Peter 2:6-8 NLT).
“‘…The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?’ And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away'” (Mark 12:10-12).
We shouldn’t leave this passage of Scripture without stopping to make one final observation. When reading through the Scriptures (and especially when reading Jesus’ parables), its always helpful to ask the following questions:
- What does this say?
- What does this mean?
- How should I apply this in my life?
Since we’ve already considered these first two questions, let’s move to the application portion. If we were to apply this parable on a personal level, we might do so by associating the vineyard of Mark chapter twelve with the people and events that we encounter throughout the course of our daily lives. For instance, our personal “vineyard” might include those co-workers, classmates, family members, or others with whom we have influence or authority. God has given us the responsibility of tending this vineyard so to speak, and He will eventually return to determine the kind of fruit we have produced with those He has entrusted to our influence- just like the landowner that we read of here in Jesus’ parable.
This is important because there may never be another person who can fulfill the individual responsibilities to which we are called. While its true that God is never limited by our choices, its also true that there may be certain unique opportunities that are open to one person and no one else. These opportunities could include almost anything, depending of course, on our willingness to be available for God to use us in the work that He desires to accomplish. Since there may be no one else who can fully take advantage of the open doors that God provides, this potentially makes every individual Christian very important in His plans.
As we’re reminded in the New Testament epistle of 1 Peter…
“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:10-11 NIV).
“Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words” (Mark 12:13).
We last met the Herodians in Mark chapter three when we read how “…the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against (Jesus), how they might destroy Him” (Mark 3:6). The Herodians consisted of a group of influential Jewish leaders who favored the continued occupation of Israel by the Roman government. Their name provided an easy association with the Herodian leadership of that day, a group that included Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa the First, and Herod Anitpas, all of whom are mentioned within the pages of the New Testament.
While the Herodians probably didn’t share the same religious misgivings regarding Jesus that the Pharisees held, they were presumably concerned that Jesus’ actions might lead to some unwanted attention from the Roman governing authorities. This led to the opportunity to open a working relationship with the Pharisees who also had an interest in silencing Jesus as well. So while the Herodians and the Pharisees had little in common aside from their shared cultural heritage, the old saying that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” certainly applied when it came to their mutual contempt for Jesus and His teachings.
Since these leaders had failed to prevail against Jesus both theologically and rhetorically to this point, it was clearly time for a different approach. The problem was that Jesus’ popularity with the general population had rendered it impossible for them to simply eliminate Him. However, if these men could turn the tide of public opinion against Jesus in some way, the people might then accomplish what they had so far failed to do- and there was one subject that was sure to drive a wedge between Jesus and the multitudes that came to hear Him…
“When they had come, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?'” (Mark 12:14-15).
You don’t need to be very spiritual to see the duplicity contained within these verses. The irony is that everything these men said of Jesus was true, though not in the way they meant it. Jesus was (and is) a perfectly fair, just, and truthful teacher of God’s Word, just as they said. He is also highly skilled in dealing with those who might attempt to entrap Him as He will demonstrate in due course.
“‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'” (Mark 12:14 NLT).
So these leaders opened with an insincere preface that was designed to provide them with a tactical advantage. A look at how some other translations handle this attempt to set Jesus up help to reveal just how disingenuous these statements really were…
- “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity…” (NIV)
- “(You) defer to no one; for You are not partial to any…” (NASU)
- “(You) sincerely teach the ways of God” (TLB)
These men were clearly attempting to lure Jesus into a false sense of security that would leave him ill-prepared to defend against the question that they were about to spring upon Him. While this type of flattery is sometimes seen as an effective tool to help people get what they want, the Scriptures provide us with some “inside information” regarding what these men were trying to do…
“Pretty words may hide a wicked heart, just as a pretty glaze covers a common clay pot. A man with hate in his heart may sound pleasant enough, but don’t believe him; for he is cursing you in his heart. Though he pretends to be so kind, his hatred will finally come to light for all to see” (Proverbs 26:23-26 TLB).
This represented the approach that these men took with Jesus. These leaders were obviously less concerned about Jesus’ answer and more concerned about how they might utilize His answer against Him. It was a trap and as we’ll see, Jesus was fully aware of it.
Now the question of whether it was right to pay taxes to Rome may sound innocent enough but in reality, the correct answer posed a real potential problem for Jesus. You see, the Romans were viewed as an occupational force in the land of Israel during that time. While the Jews and the Romans maintained a relatively peaceful coexistence (at least at this point), the Romans were still viewed as a people who didn’t belong. Because of this, the local citizens hated paying taxes to Rome. There was also some question as to whether Caesar’s image and inscription on Roman coinage represented a “graven image” specifically spoken against in the Ten Commandments (see Deuteronomy 5:8).
It appeared that Jesus only had two options in answering this question- and neither one was very good. We’ll look at those options next.
“They went to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are honest. You treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. And you teach the truth about what God wants people to do. Tell us, should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?'” (Mark 12:14 CEV).
So here was the problem that Jesus faced in answering the question of paying taxes to Rome:
- Should Jesus say, “Pay the tax to Caesar” and run the risk of infuriating a population that deeply resented Caesar and everything he represented?
- Or should He say, “Don’t pay taxes to Caesar” and risk having these men report Him to the authorities who were certain to arrest Him for advising the people to evade their tax responsibilities?
Well in reality, this question really posed no problem at all for Jesus- here’s how easily He handled this attempt to entrap Him…
“But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, ‘Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.’ So they brought it. And He said to them, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at Him” (Mark 12:15-17).
If Jesus was really who He claimed to be, then we would expect Him to have the ability to answer such a seemingly impossible question- and He did so brilliantly. You see, a denarius was a type of coin that was in circulation at that time. Embossed on one side of this coin was the likeness of the Roman Emperor (most likely Caesar Tiberius). The other side of the coin contained the words, “Pontifex Maximus” a Latin phrase that identified Caesar as the high priest of the Roman Empire. Jesus used this coin as an object lesson to say in effect, “If this coin has Caesar’s image on it, then it must be his. Render to him what belongs to him- but render to God those things that belong to God.”
In this context, the word “render” means “to give or provide” (1) and it implies the existence of a responsibility or an obligation. While the Emperor was worshiped as a god by many Roman citizens, Jesus reminded His listeners that anyone who demanded such divine honor was not obligated to receive it. Such worship and recognition belong exclusively to the one true God and it is right to give God those things that belong to Him.
(1) submit World English Dictionary http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/render?r=75&src=ref&ch=dic
“Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him…” (Mark 12:18).
This passage introduces us to a new player among the cast of characters found within the Gospel of Mark: the Sadducees.
The Sadducees were a group that consisted of many of the most prominent men in Israel and they were largely found among the priests, merchants, and aristocrats of that time. Many of the most powerful and influential members of the priesthood were Sadducees and they held certain core beliefs that set them apart as a distinct group. Unfortunately, these core beliefs were diametrically opposed to many of those held by another important group of religious leaders: the Pharisees.
The Sadducees had at least two significant areas of conflict with the Pharisees. The first of these conflicts concerned the observance of those long held standards and beliefs known as the Tradition of The Elders. As mentioned earlier, the Tradition of the Elders represented the teachings and commands of well known religious leaders from the past. These traditions included many detailed interpretations of the Old Testament law that spelled out what was permissible and impermissible in various situations. These customs and practices were strictly followed by the Pharisees but the Sadducees declined to attach any degree of importance to such observances.
The second area of conflict had to do with the Sadducees’ denial of certain aspects of the spiritual realm, including the existence of things like heaven, hell, and the idea of a bodily resurrection. Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees accepted the Law of Moses as authoritative but unlike the Pharisees, they did not recognize the remaining books of the Old Testament as such. Since the Sadducees claimed that the concept of an afterlife was not contained within the revelation that Moses received from God, the whole idea of a spiritual realm was therefore irrelevant to daily life. In fact, the New Testament book of Acts will later go on to mention this particular belief when it tells us that,“The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (Acts 23:8 NIV).
In their denial of the existence of life after death, the Sadducees were not unlike those who hold similar beliefs today. As we’ll see, these men will go on to question Jesus on this point and His answer will hold great importance for those who also deny the existence of an afterlife today.
Since the Sadducees denied the existence of life after death, its easy to understand why they presented Jesus with the following question…
“Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s brother dies, and leaves his wife behind, and leaves no children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife; and dying, he left no offspring. And the second took her, and he died; nor did he leave any offspring. And the third likewise. So the seven had her and left no offspring. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife” (Mark 12:19-23).
We might recognize this question as something that academics refer to as reductio ad absurdum (or “reduction to absurdity”), a philosophical term that relates to an argument with a conclusion that is inevitably ridiculous or absurd. To put it another way, these men wanted to illustrate their conviction that a belief in the afterlife invariably led to a preposterous result- and hopefully discredit Jesus in the process. To do so, they utilized a portion of the Mosaic Law contained within the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy…
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.
And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)
In a sense, the Sadducees presented Jesus with a kind of parable-in-reverse and in the time honored tradition of long-winded public speakers, these men took five verses to ask a very simple question: “Suppose a woman had seven husbands in this life and each of them died. Whose wife would she be in this so-called ‘world to come?’” Much like the earlier example concerning the question of paying taxes to Rome, this was designed to force Jesus into an answer that was certain to alienate one or more groups of people. But just like the Pharisees before them, the Sadducees were about to find out that it is impossible to put Jesus in a no-win situation.
“‘Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife.’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:23-25).
So Jesus provided His answer to this question in a multi-part format by informing His questioners that their premise was all wrong: “…when the dead rise to life, they will be like the angels in heaven and will not marry” (GNB). If we were to paraphrase Jesus’ response in this passage, we might do so by saying, “You are under the assumption that things are going to be the same way in heaven as they are on earth. That’s not correct. The current model of marriage is not going to continue in the heavenly realm. Men and women will be like angelic beings in the sense that angels do not enter into marital relationships.”
So how had these men come to such an incorrect conclusion? Well, Jesus addressed that as well: “You don’t know what the Scriptures teach. And you don’t know anything about the power of God” (CEV). Like the Sadducees, it’s sometimes possible for those who don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God to reach some astoundingly mistaken conclusions.
For instance, people who don’t know what the Scriptures teach are often easy prey for what the Bible describes as “…the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14 NIV). One good way to help avoid this danger can be found through prayerfully reading and applying the Scriptures on a daily basis.
In addition, people who don’t know the power of God may not be aware of His ability to help us overcome the challenges and difficulties we sometimes experience in life. But in a larger sense, these two concepts often go hand in hand. Those who view the Scriptures as little more than a subject for academic study are unlikely to ever experience the power of God at work in their lives. On the other hand, those who seek the power of God without a knowledge of the Scriptures are prone to develop a shallow, unstable, unbiblical faith that fails to represent God accurately.
Unfortunately, the Sadducees’ premise concerning the future state of marriage was not the only thing they had wrong- and Jesus will go on to correct another one of their mistaken ideas next.
“But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken'” (Mark 12:26-27).
In these verses, Jesus puts forth a logical argument from the Scriptures to show the Sadducees where they had gone wrong in their beliefs. In looking at Jesus’ response, we can express His argument in three parts…
- God spoke to Moses in the present tense when He said, “I am the God of your father — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (see Exodus 3:6).
- However, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all passed away long before the time of Moses.
- Therefore, for God to say, “I am… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” can only mean that these men must have lived on after their physical deaths and that God continued to serve as their God in the afterlife just as He had throughout their physical lives.
The point was this: if there was no such thing as a resurrection from the dead and these patriarchs ceased to exist upon their physical deaths, then God would have said to Moses, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Therefore as Jesus pointed out, “you are greatly in error” (BBE).
The distinction between “I am” and “I was” is especially important when we consider Jesus’ statement in light of the choices we make in life. For instance, let’s take a modern-day example of a Sadducee, a person who believes that physical death brings an end to our existence. Such a person might elect to make certain choices based on the belief that “you only live once” and there are no eternal consequences associated with our decisions.
On the other hand, the person who believes in an afterlife and believes that everyone will eventually have to explain his or her actions to a perfect, just, and holy God is likely to make some very different choices than the person in our first illustration. So what we believe about the future is certain to impact the way we live in the present- and Jesus’ statement to the Sadducees here in the Gospel of Mark reminds us that the end of our physical lives does not represent the end of our existence.
The manner in which Jesus handled the questions put to Him in Mark chapter twelve began to have a positive impact on at least one of the members of a group that had opposed Him- and unlike his predecessors, he went on to present Jesus with an honest and sincere question…
“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?'” (Mark 12:28).
This was not a reference to the first commandment in numerical order but to the first commandment in terms of importance. Here was Jesus’ response…
“Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.
And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).
So Jesus answered by quoting the Shemah, the confession of faith found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” And even though he didn’t ask for it, Jesus gave this man a two-for-one response by providing the second most important commandment as well: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18 NIV).
These commandments are first in importance because they help establish a fundamental truth regarding the God of the Scriptures. While there may be many different viewpoints regarding the kind of gods that may (or may not) exist, these verses establish that there is only one true God.
In addition, the person who follows these two commandments will naturally begin to start keeping the others as well. Some related concepts can be found in Deuteronomy 10:12 where we read “…what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…” (NIV) and in the book of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6 NIV).
The important point is to put God first in all things. Doing good things does not necessarily lead to knowing God, but knowing God and putting these commandments into practice will lead to doing good things.
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord'” (Mark 12:29 KJV).
Jesus’ message from Mark 12:29 provides us an opportunity to consider the doctrine of the “Trinity” or the triune nature of God. So what exactly are we talking about when we use the word “Trinity” in relation to the God of the Scriptures? Well, by “Trinity” we mean that God is three persons in one Being or three distinct Persons in one God. This term refers to God’s tri-personal existence in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although the word “trinity” does not appear within the Scriptures, it helps provide us with an easy and convenient way to describe this Biblical concept.
This fundamental truth about God is developed in various places throughout the Scripture where we’re told that God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that the Father is God (Ephesians 5:20 and Jude 1:1), the Son is God (Hebrews 1:8 and Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 3:17). These passages have led us to the understanding that the God of the Scriptures is a unity subsisting in three Persons. So two Biblical truths regarding the nature of God are evident from these passages:
- There is one God.
- There are three distinct persons who are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When we put these two Biblical truths together, we emerge with the doctrine of the Trinity. While this concept can be difficult to grasp, a look at the very first book of the Bible may serve to make things easier. You see, Genesis 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This means that God is not a part of creation but is separate and distinct from it. Unlike those who believe that “God is everything and everything is God,” the Scriptures confirm that God is a Being that exists apart from the created universe.
While Genesis 1:1 may not appear to provide much information on the triune nature of God, the original language used to author the book of Genesis gives us some important insight regarding this subject. For instance, the word translated “God” in Genesis 1:1 is the Hebrew word Elohim, a word that’s used over 2700 times in the Old Testament and more than thirty times in Genesis chapter one alone. We’ll take a closer look at the significance of this word next.
“Yeshua answered, ‘The most important (commandment) is, ‘Sh’ma Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad’ [Hear, O Isra’el, the Lord our God, the Lord is one]” (Mark 12:29 CJB).
The word translated “God” in Genesis 1:1 is the two-part word Elohim. The first part of this word, (“El”) means “strong, great or mighty.” The “im” portion indicates a plural quantity and is somewhat similar to our use of the letter “s” in a word to indicate an amount that is greater than one. One of the interesting things about this plural word is that the Scriptures use it in a singular manner when speaking of God. Because of this, Elohim has been referred to as a uniplural word- it refers to “one” but more than one.
Of course, it’s natural to question how something like this could be possible. How could God possibly be one yet more than one at the same time? After all, isn’t it a contradiction to say that something can be one yet more than one at the same time? If so, then how can we make sense of what seems to be an obvious contradiction?
Well, if we were to say that God is one and more than one at the same time and in the same way, then that would certainly result in a contradiction. But if we were to say that God is one in substance (or essence) and one or more in persons, then a contradiction no longer exists. By saying that God is one in essence and three in Persons, we mean that God is one “What” and three “Whos.” The three Whos (or persons) each share the same What (essence). So God is a unity of essence with a plurality of persons. Each Person is different, yet they each share a common nature.
To help make this a little clearer, it might be useful to look at what the Trinity is not. For instance, the Trinity is not the belief that God is three persons and one person at the same time and in the same way. That would result in an inherent contradiction. Instead, the Trinity holds that there are three persons in one nature. While God is one and more than one at the same time, he is not one and more than one in the same sense. He is one in the sense of his essence but more than one in the sense of his Persons. (1)
(1) Some portions of this post were adapted from the study materials found at PleaseConvinceMe.com
“‘The first and most important (commandment) is this,’ Jesus replied—‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. No other commandment is greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31 Phillips).
Let’s look at a few more examples to help illustrate the concept of the Trinity in relation to the nature of God. While no illustration of the Trinity is perfect, some are more accurate than others and it may be helpful to consider what the Trinity is by looking at a few more illustrations of what it is not. (1)
For example, the Trinity is not like a chain with three links. While a single chain does contain a number of separate links, anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle knows that a chain can sometimes be broken. This means that a chain is insufficient to represent the triune nature of God because God is not separated nor is He separable. We can also say that a Biblical understanding of the Trinity does not consist of three separate gods acting as one- that would be an error called tritheism, the belief that there are three distinct gods with separate powers who all work together.
God is also not like a single actor playing multiple parts. You see, God is simultaneously three Persons, not one person playing three different roles or one actor wearing three different masks. A similar error can be found in likening the triune nature of God to the three states of water: solid, liquid, and gaseous. This illustration fails because water is not found in each of these states at the same time while God is always three Persons at the same time. These analogies reflect a heresy known as modalism, the belief that holds that God becomes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at different times.
Perhaps the most well known and accurate illustration of the Trinity is the triangle. One triangle has three corners, each of which are inseparable from, and simultaneous to, one another. If we remove one of the corners of a triangle, it ceases to be a triangle. Each corner of the triangle is separate and distinct but in it’s essence, it is one triangle. In this illustration, we have three “things” (three corners) and one “what” (a triangle). This is not a perfect example because a triangle is finite while God is infinite, but it is probably the closest and most accurate analogy we can develop to illustrate the triune nature of God.
(1) Some portions of this post were adapted from the study materials found at PleaseConvinceMe.com
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength'” (Mark 12:30 NIV).
In this passage, Jesus references a number of important elements that should characterize our relationship with God. While each of these elements may appear to be commonly understood at first glance, its possible that we know may less about these essentials than we may think.
For example, take the first item mentioned here: love. When you think about it, “love” is one of those words that can be utilized in many different ways. For instance, someone might say, “I love my spouse,” “I love ice cream,” “I love my pet,” and “I love surfing.” While its possible for someone to truthfully use the word “love” to describe his or her feelings in each of these instances, it’s fairly certain that most people do not love other human beings in the same way that he or she may love surfing.
In the original language used to author the Gospel of Mark, the word used for “love” in this passage is the word agapaoo. One source defines this word in the following manner: “When used of love to a master, God or Christ, the word involves the idea of affectionate reverence, prompt obedience, grateful recognition of benefits received.” In addition, this word “…denotes to take pleasure in the thing, prize it above other things, be unwilling to abandon it or do without it.” (1)
So Jesus taught that the primary job description for every human being is to love God,“…with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” This means that our first, greatest, and highest-ranking love should always be for God. Anything that displaces that love is called “idolatry.” As mentioned earlier in the section concerning the rich young ruler of Mark chapter ten, an “idol” doesn’t have to be a statue or an image crafted from wood, clay, or metal. An “idol” can be anything that someone loves, respects, fears, or depends on more than God. It can also refer to anything that takes the place of God in someone’s life. Once someone or something becomes more important than God in someone’s life, that thing (whatever it is) then becomes his or her “idol.”
This means that the prime directive for humanity is love for our Creator- and anything that takes the place of that love is nothing more than a cheap substitute that trades a Person for a thing.
(1) NT:25 agapaoo, agapoo; Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.
“and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30 ASV).
So Jesus taught that our fundamental responsibility as human beings is to love our Creator. After establishing this essential element in our relationship with God, Jesus went on to characterize the ways in which that love should be expressed. He began by using the word heart. This word is taken from the Greek word kardia and it forms the basis for our modern-day English word “cardiac.” When used in this context, the word “heart” refers to someone’s innermost being in a physical, emotional, or spiritual sense. Based on the context in which Jesus uses this word, we can say that it means that we should love God with our feelings, emotions, and affections.
Because human beings are made in the image of God, we have the ability to interact with Him in a way that is meaningful. For example, God has a personality and each human being maintains his or her own distinctive personality as well. God possesses things like knowledge, will, and desire, attributes that human beings also possess. God also has the ability to love on an emotional level and humanity resembles God in the sense that human beings also possess this capacity as well.
The problem is that human love often falls far short of what it could and should be. For example…
- Human love may sometimes contain an element of manipulation.
- Human love may sometimes be selfish. In other words, something that we may identify as an “expression of love” may actually represent nothing more than an expression of our own personal desire- especially if we insist on expressing that love in a manner that makes someone else feel uncomfortable.
- Human love may arise out of a hidden need for self-gratification instead of seeking out another person’s highest good.
- Human love is sometimes based on physical attractiveness instead of other, more important characteristics.
- Human love is often emotional and changing as opposed to God’s love, a love that is stable, devoted, and unchanging.
If Jesus had responded to this question by simply saying that we should “love the Lord our God with all our hearts” then we might have a difficult time discerning such inappropriate motivations. However, Jesus provided a few additional elements that help regulate these emotional expressions and ensure that we truly express love as God intended- and we’ll look at one of those elements next.
“And you are to have love for the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30 BBE).
In responding to this question concerning the greatest commandment in importance, Jesus followed with another element that should characterize our love for God by using the word “soul.” The word used for soul in this passage is the Greek word psuche, a word survives today as the root of such modern-day words as psychology or psychoanalysis. In this context, the soul refers to the human being as an individual personality.
For instance, the soul serves to represent our individual preferences- those things we like and dislike. This word also carries an emotional component as well and helps encompass those things we love, hate, or feel indifferent about. The soul embodies our talents, skills, and abilities- those we were born with and those we have developed. Finally, this word refers to the will, intellect, and everything that distinguishes an individual human being from every other human who has ever lived or ever will live. In short, the soul represents the “you” inside your body.
The soul is the essential feature that helps make every legitimate expression of love unique, truthful, and real for every individual human being. Unlike a piece of software that is written and programmed to respond in a certain manner, the soul represents that human element that uniquely associates genuine, sincere, and authentic expressions of love with each individual person. This is why every individual human being has the potential to enjoy a unique relationship with his or her Creator that is different from that of every other human being.
When it comes to our interpersonal relationships with others, it can sometimes be challenging to express love in a manner that is genuine and consistent with our individual personalities, especially if there is pressure to conform to expressions that aren’t truly reflective of who we are. In such instances, it’s important to practice discernment and keep an important piece of Scriptural advice in mind: “…give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10 NASB).
Another important concept can be found in 1 Corinthians 10:24 where we read, “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.” A person who gives recognizes and gives preference to another person’s desired expression of love and affection at the expense of his or her own individual preference is someone who puts these Scriptures into practice.
“So love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 GW).
The word translated “mind” in this verse refers to our faculty of understanding, reasoning and knowledge. In this sense, the mind represents our insight, comprehension, and the part of every human being that says, “Oh now I get it” whenever we figure out a difficult problem.
While we are to love God with our emotions and individual personalities, it’s important to recognize that our personalities may not always reflect the God-honoring attributes we should possess. In addition, our emotions are often capricious, changeable, and inconsistent. This is why it’s important to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. You see, a relationship that is merely rooted in an emotional attachment to the Creator may result in a shallow acquaintance that amounts to little more than a warm, fuzzy, “feel-good” experience. In a similar manner, a person who maintains a soul-oriented relationship with God may experience a “personality clash” with his or her Creator over time.
A person who loves God with all of his or her mind has the “knowledge base” to effectively regulate these aspects of our being and bring them into an alignment that consistently honors God. Israel’s King David illustrated this concept when he wrote, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11 NIV). In this instance, David’s mind counseled his soul to maintain his hope in God despite his emotional discouragement.
So in a sense, a mind that is informed by the Spirit of God (Romans 12:2) is the “enforcer” that helps maintain the kind of relationship with God that fully honors Him. Here’s how one theologian explains this concept…
“We are to be transformed, not conformed… That transformation is to come to pass through a renewed mind. When the mind is renewed, the heart and spirit are renewed as well. Scripture says that you get to the heart through the mind — as the mind better appreciates the Word of God, its instruction trickles down into our souls. Some people today think that we can bypass the mind to appeal to the soul or heart, but the Lord wired us so that the road to our hearts goes through our minds. Of course, it is possible to get information into the mind and not into the soul, and we must be careful about this. Nevertheless, when man is truly transformed in mind, he will also be transformed in heart, by the Word of God.” (1)
(1) R.C. Sproul, 2010 Ligonier Conference [question three] http://www.ligonier.org/blog/2010-ligonier-regional-conference-ask-rc-sproul/
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment” (Mark 12:30 KJV).
We’ve already looked at the heart, soul, and mind portions of Jesus’ message here in Mark 12:30 and now it’s time to examine the final characteristic that should define our love for God: strength.
While an examination of Biblical words can often yield certain nuances that help us understand the Scriptures better, the word used for strength in this passage is a word that pretty much means what it says. As you might expect, this word refers to the capacity of ability, force, or might. (1) While the heart, mind, and soul are largely conceptual in nature, this final characteristic represents an aspect of our love for God that is much more tangible, visible, and measurable.
You see, a person who claims to love God with all of his or her heart, soul, and mind will eventually demonstrate the truth or falsity of that claim- but only indirectly and usually over a period of time. However, a person who displays his or her love for God through hard work, personal dedication, and an energetic commitment to those responsibilities that God has entrusted to him or her provides a much more discernible (and often immediate) confirmation of what he or she claims to believe.
To illustrate this idea, let’s take the example of a person who genuinely loves to play baseball, football, basketball (or any other sport) and is truly committed to achieving his or her personal best as an athlete. Such a person will demonstrate that love and commitment through practice, weight training, and/or conditioning- things that require physical strength, endurance, and commitment. Such efforts are generated by a sincere love for his or her chosen sport and a commitment to exert the physical effort necessary to be the best.
The point is that -given a choice- people generally do not work very hard or very long at something they don’t really love or believe in. A person who is energetically motivated by a sincere love for God will demonstrate that love through the strength that God provides. While it is possible to labor long and hard under the mistaken belief that God will accept us if we work hard enough on His behalf, a person who truly loves God will authenticate that love through his or her best efforts- or as we’re told in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “…the love of Christ compels us…”
(1) NT:2479 ischuos ability, force, strength, might (from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 ESV).
While it’s important to understand the meaning behind this passage, the implications of Jesus’ statement in Mark 12:30 may be even more important. You see, this passage tells us that we have a responsibility to love God- not just some of the time, or whenever it’s convenient, or whenever we happen to be in church. It means that we are to love God seven days a week, non-stop, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. For fallible human beings, this represents a commandment that is truly impossible to follow.
This illustrates an important consideration for those who may feel tempted to say, “I think I’ll go to heaven when I die. I’m not as bad as so-and-so” when compared to others who are presumed to be less virtuous. For instance, it’s probably fair to say that most people generally consider themselves to be “good people” who haven’t really done anything wrong or offensive to God. Of course, this is likely to be true in the sense that most people aren’t mass murderers or evil tyrants.
The problem is that while we may be “better” than someone else, “better” is a relative term. You see, “better” does not necessarily mean “good enough.” The real question is not how well we compare when measured against someone else; the real question is how well we do when measured against God’s standard- and God’s standard is, “…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.”
Much like the Ten Commandments found in Exodus chapter twenty, Mark 12:30 serves to remind us just how far off the mark we really are from what God intends for us. When we realize the utter impossibility of carrying out our responsibility to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we can appreciate the need for a Savior, or someone who can deliver us from the penalty we deserve for failing in this responsibility before God. This is where Jesus comes in, for as we’re told in Galatians 3:24 “…the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
So, the question is not “are you better than someone else.” The real question is, “do you love God completely with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” If not, you need a Savior.
“And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30).
One of the best ways to understand and apply the meaning of the phrase, “…love your neighbor as yourself” is to look at an occasion when Jesus entertained a similar question from a member of the religious establishment and then went on to explain His answer by way of a parable…
“And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’ So he answered and said, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ” And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead'” (Luke 10:25-30).
Travelers along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho spent much of their time journeying along a number of desolate, mountainous passageways. In addition to the physical challenges represented by this route, travelers also had to be alert to the threat of thieves and predatory animals along the way. Unfortunately, the man on the road to Jericho in this parable fell prey to a merciless band of criminals who robbed him so thoroughly that they even stole the clothes he was wearing.
This powerful image of a bloodied, beaten, naked victim helped set the stage for what happened next…
“Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32).
In Jesus’ day, a priest served as the minister who represented the people before God and conducted the various rituals necessary to atone for their sins. The “Levites” were the descendants of Levi (one of the heads of the original 12 tribes of Israel) who served as assistants to the priests. Now we’re told that these leaders knew that there the needs of this wounded man but did nothing about it. Fortunately for the injured traveler in Jesus’ parable, that was about to change.
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you'” (Luke 10:33-35).
When Israel was conquered by the nation of Assyria around 722 B.C., the Assyrians relocated most of the inhabitants of that area except for some of the very poorest people. Over time, many of those who had been left in Samaria subsequently lost the ability to document their Jewish heritage. Because of this, the people of Jesus’ day often sought to disassociate with those who lived in Samaria and sometimes chose to avoid traveling through that area entirely just to avoid them.
This background information is important in considering this parable for it tells us that the Samaritan man had compassion on the injured traveler despite the fact that their respective population groups did not get along. The Samaritan didn’t stop to consider the wounded man’s race or nationality- he simply saw the need and addressed it with his own time and resources. Unlike the others who encountered this beaten and bloodied traveler, this man saw the problem and chose to do something about it.
He began by offering some first-aid in the form of oil and wine. The alcohol content of the wine would help to act as an antiseptic while the oil acted to soothe the man’s wounds, much as we might put some petroleum jelly on a burn today. Next, the Samaritan bandaged the man’s injuries and placed the wounded traveler on his own animal. This, of course, meant that the Good Samaritan had to walk the rest of the way.
He then took the man to an inn and paid for his expenses. Two denarii would have been enough to provide the injured man with a good opportunity to recover but if that wasn’t enough, the Good Samaritan also left with a promise to the innkeeper to make good on any additional expenses that might be necessary. So it’s clear that the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable was extremely generous to someone who was in great need of help.
We’ll see how Jesus applied the important spiritual truth behind this parable next.
“(Jesus said) ‘So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise'” (Luke 10:36-37).
Its easy to see the brilliance behind the approach that Jesus took with the man who asked Him, “…who is my neighbor?” You see, Jesus did not directly address this man’s question. Instead, Jesus -like a good teacher- brought the man to the point where he could answer his own question. In other words, Jesus tailored His response in such a way that the right answer would be clear to anyone who was truly interested in learning from Him.
So according to this parable, who might fit the definition of a neighbor? Well, a “neighbor” might include someone in need, someone who might have been considered as an enemy, or someone who is unable to provide for him or herself. We should also remember that this parable does not necessarily teach that we are personally responsible for meeting each and every need that may exist.
For instance, there are any number of individuals, ministries, and organizations that might benefit from our assistance and as we’ll see later on in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want…” (Mark 14:7 NIV). What this parable does tell us is that we should follow the example of the Good Samaritan, a man who showed compassion and concern for a need that he encountered and then chose to do something about it.
So Jesus expanded the definition of a neighbor beyond those individuals who simply live in close proximity to us. Since love always seeks another person’s highest good, the point is that our love for God should help produce a sense of love and compassion for those whose paths cross our own, just like the Samaritan and the traveler in this parable. This is why the second greatest commandment is like the first, for if we follow these two commandments we will naturally find ourselves following the others as well.
The moral behind the parable of the Good Samaritan is just as relevant today as it was in the days of first century. The simple truth of this timeless parable is something that anyone within any society or culture can apply and Jesus’ advice to us remains the same today as it did two thousand years ago: “Go and do likewise.”
“So the scribe said to Him, ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’
Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ But after that no one dared question Him.” (Mark 12:32-34).
Unlike those who placed their traditional beliefs above the teachings of the Scriptures, it appears that this scribe grasped an important Biblical truth that his associates within the religious leadership did not: what you are is more important that what you do.
You see, one important difference between Jesus and many members of the first century religious establishment can be found in the fact that Jesus identified love for God (followed by love for others) as the foremost responsibility of every human being. On the other hand, these religious leaders believed that a commitment to follow a specific group of ceremonies and rituals represented the most important element of our relationship to God.
In other words, Jesus placed His emphasis on an essential aspect of our personal identity while these religious leaders placed an emphasis on the adherence to a standardized group of rules and regulations. In other words, Jesus emphasized what we are while these religious leaders focused on what we do.
Now this is not to say that “what we do” is unimportant. However, our external efforts (or our “works”) should proceed from a faithful, genuine, sincere, authentic, loving relationship with God through Christ. Since our internal beliefs generally lead to external actions, a sincere love for God is sure to result in those kinds of external actions that genuinely honor Him. But the person who focuses on those externals without first establishing an internal relationship with God through Christ really has no relationship with Him at all…
“(Jesus said,) Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
In the closing verses of Mark chapter eleven and continuing on into the opening verses of Mark chapter twelve, we’ve watched as Jesus has fielded a number of questions from the members of the religious leadership, including…
- “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?” (Mark 11:28).
- “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14).
- “…whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife” (Mark 12:23).
- “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28).
Now beginning in Mark 12:35, Jesus will go on to ask a few questions of His own…
“Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Spirit: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’ Therefore David himself calls Him ‘Lord’; how is He then his Son?’ And the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:35-37).
In turning the tables on His questioners in this manner, Jesus chose to follow the standard method of instruction observed by the Rabbinic teachers of His day. Unlike the lecture format that is commonplace today, it was customary for first century teachers and students to alternate in asking questions and then in answering them. This is the approach that Jesus took and He used Psalm 110:1 as the basis for His inquiry…
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet'” (NLT).
Since a son was never considered to be greater than his father, Jesus’ question was basically this: “If the Savior is the Son of David, why then does David call Him ‘My Lord’ instead of ‘My Son?'” The answer is that the Christ (as God) is David’s Lord but He is David’s son as well according to His genealogy.
Verse thirty seven then closes out this section by saying, “…the large crowd enjoyed listening to Jesus teach” (CEV) or, “This sort of reasoning delighted the crowd and they listened to him with great interest” (TLB). Even though the political and religious leadership of Jesus’ day found themselves in opposition to Him, the general population had a very different opinion regarding Jesus and His message. Thus, it should not be surprising to find political and religious opposition to Jesus’ teachings today for He Himself experienced this very same conflict.
After questioning these religious leaders, Jesus followed by issuing a warning against them, a warning that He justified by identifying a few of their more subtle characteristics…
“Then He said to them in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40).
First, Jesus cautioned His listeners to “…Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…” (NIV). One source makes the following observation regarding the significance of these robes: “(These were) long, flowing robes, reaching to the feet (and) were worn by the scribes as a kind of professional attire in order to attract attention…” (1)
Today, we might associate this type of clothing with the judicial robes wore by a Justice, Magistrate, or Judge in a modern-day court of law. Such robes help to identify the wearer as a person of honor, respect, and authority within the courtroom. The difference between these modern-day judges and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day is that these leaders sought this same type of recognition wherever where they went: “…they love for people to show respect to them in the marketplaces” (ERV). So these men had a strong desire to be publicly acknowledged in a manner that drew attention to their status as important religious leaders.
Next, “They like the front seats in the meeting places and the best seats at banquets” (CEV). In other words, these leaders were internally motivated by an urge to be seen in the places of honor at various social gatherings. Yet despite their outward appearance of respect and recognition, Jesus said, “They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” (GNB).
According to one commentator, “Scribes often served as estate planners for widows, which gave them the opportunity to convince distraught widows that they would be serving God by supporting the temple or the scribe’s own holy work. In either case, the scribe benefited monetarily and effectively robbed the widow of her husband’s legacy to her.” (2) We may encounter a similar mindset today whenever we are solicited by ministries that engage in high-pressure and/or manipulative fund raising practices.
Finally, Jesus said, “for a pretense (they) make long prayers.” A “pretense” is, “the act of pretending; a false appearance or action intended to deceive.” (3) So these religious leaders engaged in long, public prayers simply for appearance sake and because of this, Jesus said, “They will receive a greater punishment” (NCV).
(1) Mark 12:39 The People’s New Testament (1891) by B. W. Johnson
(2) MacArthur, J. (2006; 2008). MacArthur Study Bible NASB (Mk 12:40). Thomas Nelson Publishers; Nashville, TN.
(3) “Pretense” The Free Online Dictionary http://www.thefreedictionary.com/pretense
“Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans” (Mark 12:41-42).
While it’s easy to understand why a poor person like this widow would submit a small offering, there is much more to this account than meets the eye.
For example, this passage tells us that Jesus did not unexpectedly encounter these individuals as they were in the act of offering their gifts. Instead, it appears that He was paying attention to each of them from His seated position across from the treasury. Exactly what Jesus was watching is explained next: “…(He) observed how the crowd gave their money” (CEB, emphasis added).
When it comes to gifts of this nature, it’s sometimes possible to focus more on the offering itself than the person responsible for providing it. Yet here we’re told that Jesus watched (literally “beheld”) how each individual person offered his or her gift. In other words, Jesus was focused on the offerer as he or she went about the act of giving. Of course, the fact that Jesus was watching implies that He not only noticed who was giving but who had chosen not to give as well.
In any event, we’re told that “He noticed that many rich people were giving a lot of money” (CEV). There doesn’t seem to be anything unusual about this at first glance; after all, we would normally expect a wealthy person to offer a sizable gift in keeping with his or her income. The question is, how did Jesus know how much these individuals gave as He watched from his vantage point across from the treasury? It doesn’t appear as if Jesus was in a position where He could easily count the money as it offered. So how did He know?
Well, there’s the possibility that Jesus discerned this information through some supernatural means. However, the fact that we’re specifically told that Jesus was watching these individuals seems to indicate that there was something in the way these people offered their gifts that alerted Him to the relative size of their offerings. Since Jesus will later go on to call His disciples’ attention to the real value of these offerings, it seems unlikely that He would call their attention to something that only He had the ability to discern.
Besides, as the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once observed, “You can see a lot just by looking.” We’ll consider what Jesus may have seen next.
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny” (Mark 12:41-42 ESV).
So how did Jesus discern the relative size of these offerings as they entered the treasury? How did he know that many who were wealthy put in large amounts while this poor widow offered only a small sum?
One possible answer is that those who had much to give lingered at the offering area, perhaps slowly and deliberately offering each coin in order to emphasize the amount of money they each had to offer. It’s also possible that the larger, heavier, and more expensive coins in circulation at the time made an audible sound that drew attention to their size and value. In fact, a number of translations emphasize the act of casting (ASV), dropping (ISV), or throwing (MKJV) to describe the way these offerings were submitted. So these gifts may have been offered in a manner that audibly drew attention to their amount.
While such possibilities may seem tasteless and unseemly today, the reality is that anyone who may have offered a gift in this manner was simply following the example set by the spiritual leadership of that time. As Jesus pointed out earlier in this chapter, these religious leaders focused on maintaining an appearance of prominence and deep spirituality. They loved to sit at the head of the table during feasts; they loved to take the best seats available at the synagogue and to be addressed with the formality that an important person receives. They were also possessed of the same kind of hypocritical attitude (Matthew 23:1-36) that Jesus warned His followers against…
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.
Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:1-4).
So its entirely possible that these religious leaders helped to influence the kind of attitude that Jesus warned against in this passage by setting the wrong example in this area.
“So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood'” (Mark 12:43-44).
The sorrow and heartbreak that this widow must have experienced over the loss of her husband was certainly painful enough. However, the economic realities facing a widow in those days were much worse than the simple loss of a loved one. You see, there were no such things as government assistance, pension plans, or insurance available in the days of the first century. If an elderly widow had no family to assist her in her old age, it meant that she was doomed to live in poverty for the rest of her life. This appears to be the situation that the poor widow of Mark chapter twelve found herself in.
The coinage that constituted her offering is identified for us in Mark 12:42 as a “mite.” A mite was a copper coin that represented the smallest coin in circulation at that time. It’s value was approximately a quarter of a penny and it represented about 1/128 of an average workers daily wage. The “quadrans” mentioned in verse 42 represented a unit of Roman money. It was probably added by Mark to help familiarize his original readers with the relative value of these coins by comparing them to something they were already familiar with.
The fact that Jesus drew His disciples’ attention to this widow’s offering tells us that Jesus takes note of those things we offer no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to be. We can also say that the value of those things we offer is multiplied by the cost associated with them: “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything– all she had to live on” (NIV).
This woman’s gift amounted to one-half of one cent- yet Jesus considered it to be of greater worth than the larger monetary gifts that others had given. Of course, the fact that this woman had two mites implies that she had the option of keeping one for herself. Nevertheless, she gave all that she had left- and in Jesus’ economy (an economy where things are judged on worth instead of value), this woman’s gift exceeded what the others had previously offered.
“(Jesus) called his disciples and said to them, ‘I can guarantee this truth: This poor widow has given more than all the others. All of them have given what they could spare. But she, in her poverty, has given everything she had to live on'” (Mark 12:43-44 GW).
On packages of dry goods that enclose contents that tend to settle, a disclaimer is often placed on the package to indicate that the contents were packed by weight, not by volume. In a sense, Jesus’ observation regarding this poor widow indicates that God sees our offerings in much the same way. In other words, God desires our offerings to be “packed by weight, not by volume,” for while our offerings may initially seem large and generous, they may not carry any genuine weight when judged according to their actual worth.
Jesus’ revelation regarding the actual worth of this woman’s offering provides us with a valuable insight that we can apply in many different areas of life. For instance, our offerings of time, talent, or financial resources may often seem relatively small in comparison to others. Because of this, we may sometimes be tempted to ask, “Why bother?” However, the example of this poor widow tells us that such offerings may be worth more in God’s estimation than others that seem comparatively larger.
You see, this widow’s offering was small in value but great in cost. It also meant that she would have to faithfully depend on God to meet her needs. Since it is impossible to please God without faith (see Hebrews 11:6), this added additional worth to her seemingly minuscule offering.
The poor widow of this passage honored God with her offering despite it’s nominal value. In turn, God assumed the responsibility to provide for her needs, and as the Apostle Paul would later write…
“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.’
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:8-11 NIV).
“All the others gave a little out of their great abundance, but this poor woman has given God everything she has” (Mark 12:44 Voice).
The example of the poor widow’s offering in Mark chapter twelve helps to remind us that we should give in accordance with the blessings that God has provided for us. For instance, 2 Corinthians 8:12 tells us, “If you are really eager to give, then it isn’t important how much you have to give. God wants you to give what you have, not what you haven’t” (TLB). This widow gave what she had and Jesus in turn, used her gift as an object lesson for His followers. Thus, her small offering has served to benefit untold millions of people for centuries- and continues to do so today.
This passage should also prompt us to think about the way in which we are using those resources that God has already provided to us. For example, a look our financial statements and personal calendars would quickly serve to reveal those things that occupy the place of highest priority in our lives. Would these records reveal a pattern of faithfulness in offering those gifts, skills, talents, abilities, and financial resources that God has entrusted to us? Jesus once illustrated the eternal worth of such investments with the following comment…
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth where they can erode away or may be stolen. Store them in heaven where they will never lose their value and are safe from thieves. If your profits are in heaven, your heart will be there too” (Matthew 6:19-21 TLB).
He also went on to say…
“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with things of your own?” (Luke 16: 10-12 NLT).
The size of this widow’s gift was quite small but she was faithful in offering it. If we are faithful in using those things that God has already provided for us then perhaps He’ll be willing to provide us with greater opportunities. As Jesus Himself once said in commenting on a related parable…
“Everyone who uses what they have will get more. They will have much more than they need. But people who do not use what they have will have everything taken away from them” (Matthew 25:29 ERV).