Now that Jesus has turned the tables against the Pharisees in their little word games, he turns his attention to the crowds and his disciples. He begins his final public speech and absolutely destroys the Pharisees. He rips into everything that the Pharisees do, calling them out for their pride and hypocrisy. He acknowledges that these men are the best minds when it comes to The Law; they know The Law backwards and forwards, but they are not good examples. In particular, he calls them out for neglecting the importance and weight of justice, mercy and faith. This is one distinction that sets followers of Jesus apart from followers of The Law.
Justice is the administration of law. Based on this definition, you would think that the Pharisees understood justice quite well. However, this definition has the connotation of the administration of law on the general population, not just in one’s personal life. What the pharisees got correct was righteousness in their private lives without achieving justice in their public life. Justice is law applied equally to everyone, while righteousness is law applied to yourself. The Pharisees look at themselves, see that they are following the law perfectly and commend themselves for it. The problem isn’t their piety, it’s their pride. God didn’t command them to follow the law so that they might puff themselves up and hold themselves in high regard, but rather to benefit all of society. This is justice. Righteous acts are not righteous because they benefit you alone, they are righteous because they benefit everyone around you.
Not everyone can follow the law as closely as the Pharisees. Those men were men who dedicated themselves to the reading of scripture day in and day out. Living the law is the only thing that they know how to do. When they look on the masses and see sin: adultery (John 8:1-11), blasphemy (Mark 14:64), greed (Luke 19:7)…what they fail to see are people. People who fall short. People who don’t live the same lifestyle as the Pharisees. The Pharisees know the scriptures, but they don’t seem to remember how God showed the Israelites mercy time and time again. Instead, they turn their noses up at the sin that they see and tell themselves that they are above that. The truth is, no man is above sin except for Jesus himself. The Pharisees poured over their scriptures to make sure that they washed their hands before meals and tithe even their small incomes. They strained their water for gnats. But they swallowed a camel instead. They failed to show mercy. They failed to show people the mercy that their God showed to them.
Love is at the center of Christianity. Jesus said in Matthew 22 that the two greatest commands are to love God and to love people. Apparently the Pharisees didn’t get that. They were too worried about appearing like God-loving individuals that they didn’t have the time to love God’s people. In doing so, they made all of their love for God worthless. If you only love God, you are neglecting one of the greatest commandments. It is as simple as that. Show your love for God by showing your love to His people.
Wilderness Wandering Lesson #3: When the desires of our heart lead us away from God, true repentance leads us back.
At the heart of our lessons from the Israelites and Elijah is a focus on trust. We need to trust that God knows best for us and will lead us in the right direction as the Israelites learned. And, we need to trust that God will provide and protect us according to his will like Elijah learned. Elijah, in our previous lesson, was not lead into a wilderness season by any failing on his part. Instead, the wilderness for him was because of circumstances outside of his control. By looking to God and remembering those past successes with God, he was able to overcome trying circumstances.
The wilderness story that we will look at today also concerns a man that could remember past successes with God. In his story, he had stood against giants, mad kings, had been through the wilderness once and overcame it. David was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). We see in the book of 1 Samuel David’s victories. He was blessed by God, and because of this blessing, he was able to overcome his enemies. The book of 2 Samuel then describes what happened to David after he overcame these things and became King of Israel. During the first 10 chapters, David is set on the throne and receives the Davidic covenant, where he is told that Jesus will come from his lineage. If David could have just stayed in these moments where his focus was on God, he would have dwelt securely in the land and set up his children to do the same.
Instead, we see David drifting down a path that led him to devastation in 2 Sam. 11. In this chapter, we see the story where David, without questioning his actions for how they would reflect God, sleeps with Bathsheba and sends her husband to her death. After this, David is told that he would lose the baby Bathsheba just bore and that his house would be destroyed. David’s actions here lead toward the hurt that he faced with his son Absalom in 2 Sam. 14-15. The first sin that we see in these chapter 11, lusting after Bathsheba, began the sin cycle that led David into a wilderness period that was a time of intense pain that David never really got over.
So how did David get to this point? During this time, he had stayed back at his palace idle instead of going with his armies to fight in the wars he wanted them to engage in. At this moment, his desires began to be misaligned from the desires of God. And from here, his actions lead him away from God.
We see some of David’s reactions in 2 Samuel as he mourns his son and repents of his sin. But, at this time, we don’t see his feelings about this time in the wilderness. In Psalm 38, a psalm written by David, we see the danger that comes from drifting too far from God. We see the desperation in David’s voice as he says, “There is no health in my body because of Your indignation; there is no strength in my bones because of my sin. For my sins have flooded over my head; they are a burden too heavy for me to bear. My wounds are foul and festering because of my foolishness” (Ps. 38:3-5). Because of David’s sin, he had to experience terrible pain, a trying wilderness experience. We can look back at the lessons of the Israelites to realize this time in the wilderness was for purification, but still, if David had aligned the desires of his heart with the desires and character of God, he could have saved himself from this pain.
The wilderness is not always caused by our sin, as we’ve seen. But, at times, it is. And during these times, we can look to David’s example to see how to overcome those moments in the wilderness that were caused by our sin. Psalm 38 is an example of a penitential psalm, that shows both David’s true repentance and his desire for God in his life. Psalm 51 is another example of David writing in repentance. He says, “Be gracious to me God, according to your faithful love; according to Your abundant compassion, blot away my rebellion. Wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me. Against You – You alone – I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence. You are blameless when You judge” (Ps. 51:1-4). In this psalm and the other psalms, we see how David takes responsibility for his sin and also recognized what is required from him if he sins. He needs to be purified with a new heart that reflects the desires of God to be placed within him. This is key to accomplishing what David asks God in v. 12: “Restore the Joy of Your salvation to me and give me a willing spirit.” When we are in a wilderness of cause by our sin, we may be tempted to harden our hearts in anger against God. But, that is the path that leads us away from God and further into the wilderness. When we truly repent, we can receive back the true joy that comes from the salvation of God. After we have made it through the wilderness, we can use this time to bring others back to God (v. 13). If you are in this time today, choose the right path and come back to God. It may be painful to soften your heart and feel the weight of your sin, but that we’ll lead you towards the true joy that comes from God.
~ Cayce Fletcher
After the Israelites reject Moses’ leadership and betray him to Pharaoh he flees to the land of Midian.
15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.
16 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock.
17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”
19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
20 “And where is he?” Jethro asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”
21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.
22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”
This is a very bold move by Moses. He is no longer a prince, but a refugee in a foreign land. He still has his zeal for justice, even though it just got him in trouble with the murdering of the Egyptian that was beating the Israelite. We also see that he loves justice more than the social hangups that he was raised with, because we know that Egyptians detest shepherds. From this we see that Moses was perfectly suited to be the one who establishes God’s law in Israel and who will be the Judge over Israel.
Oftentimes in our lives we see things that are wrong, but we don’t want to stick out our necks for another person. Maybe we don’t know them that well. Maybe it is just something that is normal in society. However we justify it in our minds, we let injustices happen around us all the time because we are afraid of the personal repercussions. We have seen with Moses that sometimes it might go terribly wrong, and other times it might go incredibly well. We need to have faith to stand against injustice and trust that God will take care of the consequences. Stand up for the person being bullied or mocked. Talk to your friend who is considering an abortion. Confront racial discrimination in your community. Help your friend who is in an abusive relationship.
Hate evil, love good, and establish justice.
There are a handful of ways to think about the meaning of the death of Jesus. From a Jewish point of view Jesus was killed because he was a false prophet. From a Roman point of view, he gathered a large following that was counter-cultural to Roman authority, so they executed him. Or if you’re a muslim, Jesus wasn’t killed at all on the cross. Almost all people recognize that Jesus actually did die, but the question is why? The New Testament has several different ways of understanding why Jesus died. These include, Jesus died to destroy the works of the devil, to satisfy God’s need for justice, to justify us apart from Torah or the law, and to give us eternal life. However, the most ubiquitous reason the New Testament gives as to why Jesus died, is that he died for our sins.
“Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present evil age…” Gal.1.3-4
“…he bore our sins in his body on the cross…” I Pet. 2.24
“God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” – Rom. 5.8
“…when he had taken the cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin’” – Matt. 26.27-28
The reason Jesus’ death is so significant is because it solves the problem of sin. Sin is a barrier between us and God, it is impossible for us to be in the presence of God because he is holy and perfect and we are not. Jesus’ death satisfies God’s need for justice. The cost of sin has been paid for by Jesus. So through Jesus we can have a renewed relationship with God through Jesus. Apart from Jesus, God sees us as worthy of wrath and death, he sees all our mistakes and rebellion. But in Jesus, he sees us being right before him and clean and pure. Because of Jesus we are able to be in the presence of God. Jesus’ death is the means by which we can enter the kingdom. Hope, forgiveness, contentedness, and so much more can be found when someone accepts the gift of Jesus’ death for them.
For someone to be restored to God and to be a part of the kingdom when it comes, they must accept Jesus’ death. Through Jesus’ death all can live.
Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, the timeline for Mark slows down significantly. While the first half of the book takes place over almost a year, the second half occurs in about a week. Mark is letting us know that this is what his gospel and Jesus have been preparing for. Mark 11 and 12 takes a closer look at the first 3 days Jesus is in Jerusalem.
While there’s a lot that we could cover here, I’d like to focus on Jesus’s experience in the Temple and how we can better understand a well known story that we may misinterpret.
On Jesus’s first day in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry, he enters the Temple and “looks around at everything.” (11:11). He leaves for Bethany outside of Jerusalem – using it as a kind of safe spot – instead of staying the nights in the city. On the second day, he goes back to the city with his disciples and enters the Temple again. However, instead of just observing, he begins to cause a scene. Mark tells us that he starts “to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and over-turned tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves; and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple.”
Whoa. That’s a pretty radical departure from the Jesus who didn’t want anyone to talk about the miracles he was performing. It’s as if the shy kid from the back of the class suddenly started burning textbooks in the auditorium screaming “You won’t do any more homework while I’m around! Ha ha ha!” It’s a little weird. And, the principals would be rightly concerned about what was going on (like the chief priests and scribes).
So, what is going on? First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about what the Temple looked like. We may think that Jesus was clearing out the Temple area because the vendors were causing problems for the act of worship. That doesn’t really fit with what we know about the Temple. First, the area where Jesus is clearing house is HUGE. I mean really big. It’s approximately the size of 11 soccer fields. That’s massive (about 704,000 square feet). There weren’t enough vendors in all of Israel to fill that space.
Another idea is that Jesus was fed up with the temple system completely and was overturning the model that the temple existed on. This tends to emerge when we think that Jesus is somehow trying to move beyond Judaism and create his own new thing. Well, Jesus isn’t. He was and is a Jew. Mark’s gospel itself undermines this idea in chapter 12. On the third day, Jesus returns to the Temple (where he wrecked it the day before) and sits across from the treasury. A widow comes and puts in her 2 pennies. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that she is being scammed out of her pennies, that she should do something better with her money, that it isn’t right for her to give to the current system, or that she’s being robbed by the temple. No – he says that what she’s done is more than everyone else AND it seems to be a great thing! Even today, this widow is meant to be a role model for us.
So, what is Jesus trying to do? Let’s look at the text. After he drives out the merchants, he says that the temple had “become a robber’s den.” (11:17) Was the temple robbing people? No – a robber’s den isn’t where robbers actually rob people. It’s a place where robbers can go and be safe. It’s a hideout where they don’t have to worry about the law coming after them. I don’t think that Jesus was calling out the merchants or the temple system, but rather the leadership in the Temple for their willful blindness to injustice and sheltering those who do injustice in their midst. His criticism of the Temple isn’t for how it works or what it does, but rather for what it isn’t doing. I think that Jesus is taking up the call of Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isa. 1:17)
This is where I think we can find a message for our lives and churches today. Would Jesus level the same criticism against us today? Not that we have vendors in the church, but that we allow ourselves to become a den for those who rob others? Jesus’s problem with the temple wasn’t directed at the merchants or vendors but at those who were complacent in the face of wrong-doing, injustice, and evil. Standing against injustice – especially when we find it in our own house, community, and ideals can be scary and seem life-threatening. But, I think, like the widow, we are called to give what we have – “all that [we] have to live on” – to offer hope and justice to those starving for it.
Which is more important in God’s eyes, justice or mercy? That might be a difficult question to answer, but let me give it a try.
First let’s talk about justice. There are many examples of God’s justice in today’s reading. In the parable of the ten virgins, those who were not ready for the return of Christ were told by Jesus that he did not know them. They were receiving justice for the lives they lived. In the parable of the talents, the man who did not use the talents that were given to him was sent to the place where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Justice was on display again. In Matthew 25:31-46, those that did not help the needy were sentenced to eternal punishment. Justice served. Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus said it would have been better for Judas if he had not been born. That was a warning that justice was on its way. There was no mercy shown in any of these instances, only justice.
In Matthew 26, Jesus is arrested and his death on the cross is imminent. We know why Jesus needed to die – to pay the debt for our sins. The wages of sin is death so we all deserve to die since we have all sinned. But think about this for a minute. Couldn’t there have been a different way to make it right? Jesus even prayed that prayer three times. He didn’t want to die and he was hoping there was a different way to handle this. God is in charge of everything so certainly he could have come up with an alternative solution to this problem. Maybe if we sincerely repented for our sins, God could have shown us mercy and wiped our slates clean without anyone having to die. Or maybe if we showed Him that we loved Him he could have overlooked our sins. There had to be a different way. Why did someone have to die? The reason someone had to die is because of justice. God is such a just God that He could not ignore justice. It is very clear to me that God believes justice must always occur.
So where does that leave mercy? Let’s go back to the death of Jesus. Jesus was God’s own son. He was also without sin. There has only been one person on this earth in the history of mankind that did not deserve death, and that was Jesus. God watched his only son be tortured and killed on the cross for something he did not do. I can’t even imagine how painful it would be to watch one of my children suffer and die for something they did not do. Yet God allowed it to happen, even though He could have stepped in and rescued him at any time. Why would He just watch and do nothing? It was because of His immense love for each of us. He let His own son die for our sins so that we would not have to. I believe that is the greatest act of mercy that has ever taken place.
So the answer to justice vs. mercy is “both”. God will make sure justice occurs 100% of the time and He is on record as committing the most merciful act in history.