And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 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. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:35-44, ESV)
This passage contains a warning about bad leaders, and it comes out of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders. Actually, Jesus isn’t confronting them, He is dominating them! In the previous verses the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did everything they could to discredit Him. None of it worked. They gave it their best shot, but they were soundly defeated. They had no more challenges for Jesus:
After that no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:34, ESV)
Thus, in verse 35 we find Jesus teaching in the Temple. He had started out in the Temple courts where He had cast out the money changers, and now, after defeating the leaders of the Temple in public debate, we find Him in the heart of the Temple teaching. As one commentator observes, “He didn’t quit the field . . . He takes it” (Edwards, 394). This is Jesus’ victory lap. He won the debate and He gets to give the closing address. In fact, the beginning of verse 35 could literally be translated, “Jesus responded with His teaching.” This warning is Jesus’ response to the false leaders who opposed Him. He won a fight He didn’t start, and now He is warning us about the ones who did start the fight. This warning is still important for us, because there are still opponents of Christ trying to discredit Him with false teaching. In Christ’s words we find instruction on how to be discerning with who we listen to. Specifically, we find three cautions about who we, as Christians, follow.
I. Beware of leaders who miss Christ (vv.35 -37)
Verses 35-37 warn us to beware of leaders who miss Christ. This is the last public exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders and now He is questioning them about the most important issue there is—do you understand Christ? Notice exactly what He says at the end of verse 35: “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” (Mark 12:35b, ESV) Jesus is alluding to the fact that the scribes taught that the Messiah (Savior) would be a descendant of David. Jesus us not denying that their teaching is true. In fact, Romans 1:3 says,
. . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh . . .(Romans 1:3, ESV)
Matthew also links Christ back to David (Mt 1:6). There are numerous passages in both testaments that state that the Christ would be a descendant of David. Jesus is not challenging this. However, there is more that must be said about the Messiah; and there was certainly more than the scribes had been teaching. Jesus demonstrates this in verse 36:
David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” (Mark 12:36, ESV)
Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:1, which is a distinctly Messianic psalm that describes the
- David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.(Mark 12:37, ESV)
- The scribes were missing that David calls the Messiah his Lord. “In ancient Israelite society fathers did not refer to their sons or even more distant descendants as ‘lords.’ Just the opposite was true” (Brooks, 201). And yet, David calls his descendant Lord and gives Him authority above even his own.
The scribes had no way to explain how the son of David could also be the Lord of David. To them, the Messiah was a great man, but that’s all. He was merely human, which is why the scribes had no answer for Jesus. It certainly was not a mistake on the part of David. Jesus explicitly reminds us that David wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Jesus believes in the inerrancy of Scripture!). So what is the answer? The answer lies in the incarnation of Christ. To fulfill Psalm 110:1 the Messiah had to be a human descendant of David and equal with God. He had to be both God and Man. This is exactly what Jesus was.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)
Jesus is the God-Man who fulfills Psalm 110:1 and saves His people. Because He is God, he possesses the requisite righteousness we need for salvation. And, because He is man, He can represent us with that righteousness. This is the heart of the Gospel and it is necessary for truly understanding the work of Christ. But, the religious leaders totally missed it. They did not anticipate it even though it was in the OT, and they didn’t accept it when it happened even though Jesus did the works of God. These religious leaders missed Christ. Any leader who misses Christ—for any reason or in any way—should not be followed. We need leaders who can say with the apostle Paul, “be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). We need preachers and teachers who understand and proclaim Christ. Again, as Paul says,
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .(1 Corinthians 15:3-4, ESV)
Leaders who can say this are the ones you must find and follow. And beware of leaders who miss Christ, because they can never lead you to Christ.
II. Beware of leaders who promote themselves (vv.38-40)
Our second caution is found in verses 38-40 where we are warned to beware of leaders who promote themselves. Here Jesus follows up His criticism of the scribes teaching with a criticism of their character. These men were deficient in character, and that disqualifies a person from Christian leadership. And this was no small issue either; it was the entire direction of their lives. We were all created to promote God’s glory and in these verses it is clear that these men were living to promote only themselves.
A. Promoting their perception (v.38)
They were promoting a perception of themselves that was inflated. That is why they “liked to walk around in long robes.” These robes were formal attire that were for official events and banquets. But the scribes wore them in the marketplace. That would be like wearing a tuxedo to the grocery store. They did this to create a “larger-than-life” perception of who they were. This is a far cry from Colossians 3:12 which says,
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . .(Colossians 3:12, ESV)
In addition to their clothing, they promoted this perception with “greetings in the marketplace.” They would walk around without greeting anyone else so that people would notice them and greet them. In other words, they had the social skills of a high school teenager. They wanted people to notice them and have to go out of their way to initiate conversation with them. Not only is this sophomoric, it is also unchristian. Seventy times in the NT the word for greet/greeting is used. Christians are commanded to greet one another. Consider 3 John 15:
Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name. (3 John 15, ESV)
We should be eager to give others attention and greet them. But these scribes were not. Their dress and their social skills were totally self-promoting.
B. Promoting their prominence (v. 39)
. . . have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts . . . (Mark 12:39, ESV)
In that culture where you sat was a big deal. Your place at the table was based on your prominence. For these men, their whole life was about improving their place at the table. Their world was totally self-centered and their goal was more prominence. For Christians, this should not be the case. The church should be a place of deference, not a platform for prominence. Here is how Jesus explains it in Luke 14:7-11:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher. ‘ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11, ESV)
The church needs leaders they can invite to the good seats, not leaders clamoring for personal prominence.
C. Promoting their profit (v. 40a)
In addition to prominence, these religious leaders were also promoting their profit. Jesus alludes to this when He says that they are men . . . who devour widows’ houses. . . (Mark 12:40a, ESV) In some way, it had become a common practice for religious leaders to exploit widows for money. The people listening to Jesus knew what He was talking about, but we are not exactly sure how they did it. One commentator speculates,
Some may have ingratiated themselves to widows in hopes of being willed their houses, or they may have found technicalities in the law whereby they could lay claim to the houses of defenseless persons, such as widows. They may have ‘expected’ generous sums from credulous widows for praying for them (note the reference to prayer). The reference might not be to personal gain but to exactions forthe benefit of religious institutions” (Brooks, 202).
D. Promoting their pretense (v.40b)
On top of everything else, these men were motivated by pretense rather than piety. Notice what Jesus says,
. . . and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (Mark 12:40b, ESV)
The problem is not with the length of their prayers—there are some long prayers in the Bible. Long prayers motivated by a heart for worship are appropriate. Long prayers in an effort to show people how spiritual you are, however, are condemned. Christians are called to serve as unto God, not to try to impress men.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men . . (Colossians 3:23,ESV)
Men motivated by a desire to impress or please men, cannot lead the church. They will inevitably be led by man’s opinions rather than God’s word, and they will be driven by the glory that comes from man rather than God’s glory. From what Jesus says here, these were clearly self-promoting leaders that we should beware of. And, really, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Matthew 23 records an even fuller list. It is no wonder Jesus said that “they will receive a greater condemnation.” Not only are these kinds of leaders responsible for their sinful self-promotion, they are also responsible for leading others into the same sin. As James 3:1 warns, they will be judged more strictly. Jesus has given us the standard for leadership and it is not self-promotion. It is self-sacrifice.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44, ESV)
III. Beware of leaders who oppress their people (vv.41-44)
We find a third caution about who we should follow in verses 41-44. Here we see that we must beware of leaders who oppress their people. These verses are frequently interpreted as a passage about sacrificial giving, but that is incorrect. And if we take it that way then we will miss this warning. Jesus has just said that the leaders take advantage of the widows. And here, in the same context, what do we have? A widow with no money. This is an illustration of the religious leaders’ oppressive system, not sacrificial giving. Notice in verse 41 what happens as people were giving to the Temple:
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. (Mark 12:41, ESV)
The whole thing was a show. The offering boxes were large boxes out in the open with trumpet-shaped metal openings at the top. They did not have paper money, so when you gave what happened? It made a ton of noise and everyone knew you gave. The people were following the leaders in their pretense. Remember, Jesus has already condemned the Temple of His day. What is going on here is not true worship.
And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. (Mark 12:42, ESV)
This widow put here money in, and it was not pennies—Abraham Lincoln had not even been born yet. They were coins from the era and they were worth about 1/64 of a days’ wage. So, if you worked as an hourly worker, it is what you would make in 7 1/2 minutes. Jesus sees the situation and comments to his disciples:
And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44, ESV)
Jesus called His disciples to Him because they needed to see this illustration of oppressive leadership first-hand. What the rich gave was nothing because they had remarkable amounts of wealth. In fact, the wealth of Jerusalem at this time was famous. On the other hand, this widow was noticeably poor—perhaps even still wearing her mourning clothes. What Jesus points out is that she gave all she had. She was totally destitute and when the leaders should have been caring for her, they were too busy making a show of their giving. Pay close attention: Jesus never commends the widow’s gift. He simply points out that it was quantitatively and comparatively more than what the rich gave, and that she had nothing else to live on. This is an example of the desperation and oppression that comes from evil leaders in a works-based religion. It is no different than the countless people scammed out of their money by TV preachers. It is a big show that benefits the leaders and oppresses the weak. Jesus will have none of it. He may not be commending this woman’s gift, but He is defending her from the evil leaders.
These warnings about the kind of leaders we follow have never been more important—I am convinced. The men Jesus warns of in this passage still exist today. They are still biblically ignorant, completely self-centered, and totally dangerous. Beware! They missed Christ and promoted themselves, and they did great damage to God’s people. Leaders like this will be judged. If you allow yourself to be influenced by them you will also be judged. Be cautious about who you download, tune into, or flip on. You will never find a perfect leader, but God has provided His church with trustworthy shepherds for His people. Find them, support them, follow them and pray for them.