In 2003, Ted Turner provided a $65 million budget to the film later named “Gods and Generals”. The film followed the personal life and military career of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the eccentric Confederate general, from the outbreak of the Civil War to the end of his contribution to the effort at its halfway point. Jackson was on a night ride with his staff to investigate the grounds of battle and was accidentally shot by his own soldiers in May 1863 while commanding at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It wasn’t the only time a commander was shot at by his own troops. Sadly, it even happened quite intentionally in history.
“Just a few weeks ago we read in the news: “Efforts by insurgents to topple Muammar Gaddafi were in disarray last night after a senior Libyan opposition figure admitted that rebel soldiers were responsible for the murder of their most senior army commander. The transitional government’s oil minister said that General Abdel Fatah Younis had been shot dead by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces, provoking fears of future unrest and instability among those fighting the old regime.” (Independent.ie July 31, 2011).
The fact is that men don’t want to have an authority over them. They tolerate people in charge, but they don’t like having their freedom sails trimmed. They don’t want someone telling them what to do, even if they tell others what to do. As it is on earth, so it is with man’s view of Heaven. They don’t want to be told what to do – even if God is speaking. We desire to be the general of our own life – the commander of our own destiny. Men do not reject the idea of a Creator, they reject the idea of a Master. They are fine with a benevolent God that loves them and cares for them –a Santa in the sky. At the same time, the notion that the Creator may have some plan He is working out is somewhat comforting to them – as long as they are individually allowed to live as they please.
That truth applies to RELIGIOUS MEN. They are fine with a system that ostensibly brings honor to God, as long as they CONTROL IT. They begin with a sense that they are going to do something significant for His purpose. As they enter the system, sooner or later they slide into the control games that are characteristic of religious life. Many men of the cloth have said it: “The most perilous danger to their walk with God is their religious life.” The rigors of performance overdrive the heart in short order, and it becomes more about the system and the performance than the surrender and the touching of the heart of God. That happened long ago in the Temple in Jerusalem.
One day, God in human skin walked into His own Temple. It sounds like the set up for a joke…”A guy walked into a Temple..” but it is NOT a joke. It happened. God showed up, and instead of offering Him a seat, the leaders were more interested in showing Him the door – because God rocked the system in favor of real relationship and connection. Transport back in time with me and you will see how serious a thing it was…
The Scene of the Test – the Temple at Jerusalem
Mark offers a glimpse into this deep rooted rebellious and stubborn heart in a simple story set in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth before the Cross. Our story opens in Mark 11:27: “They came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to Him…”
Don’t skip too quickly past the scene. The setting and the players has EVERYTHING to do with the lesson of the passage… First, they made their way back to Jerusalem, a city where God set His name on a Holy Mountain, and a city that had seen the devil dance as prophets were stoned. Much of Jewish history celebrates great times when God walked with men of faith:
Joab saw God’s hand as he climbed up inside the water system of Jebus and was able to valiantly fight for the city and hand it to his king – David (2 Samuel 5). The Jebusite city gave way to what appeared to be its earlier name – the city of peace. “Ir” (city) and “Shalem” (derivative form of peace) were combined as Jerusalem.
Solomon celebrated a moment of ecstacy as the cloud of the Living God of all Creation descended upon the Temple built over seven longs years and now dedicated for God’s worship (1 Kings 6-8).
Isaiah brought God’s Word to the sour and saddened eyes of Hezekiah as the Assyrians surrounded the city. God promised the city would be spared and the Assyrian king would pay for his insolence. The hills about Jerusalem echoed with the sound of the fleeing troops as God’s people celebrated the deliverance from the hand of their Heavenly King.
Though oft forsaken, there were memories of men like King Josiah who were deeply chastened by the Word of the Lord found within the precincts of the Temple. His refitting of that Temple opened up the coffers of God’s precious Word and drew the people back to God.
Jerusalem wasn’t always a dead religious place. Many stories tell of its past dependence upon God – and softness from the hand of God.
Second, note the verse says that “as Jesus was walking in the Temple, the leadership came to Him”. They did not come to welcome Him, but to QUESTION Him. Religious men are worried about control and order. This one looked like trouble. A careful look at the passage will show they weren’t really interested in His answers – for they were not about to accept them at face value anyway. It is interesting that the “test case” hearts were not in those of the publicans or prostitutes – those so often thought of as in vital need of redemption. Instead, Mark is transfixed with the hard hearts of the leaders of the Jewish people. He names different kinds of leaders, and we should be familiar with them:
Chief priests: Beneath the High Priest (HaCohen Hagaddol) there had been established in the Second Temple an elaborate hierarchy of temple personnel, designed to operate the Temple more efficiently. The chief priests were an exclusive group, reported to number about 200 in the first century — all Jews of exceptional birth. The captain of the temple, second in rank to the high priest, officiated over the organizational detail of the chief priests – including supervision of their Temple activities. Ranking chief priests had charge of the daily and Shabbat services, while others held the post of supervisor of the Temple treasury and maintenance of the sacred vessels.
Scribes: The term originated after the Babylonian exile in the time of a need for both translators and interpreters of official texts and Biblical ones. They became public amanuenses – copyists of Scripture and eventually took on the role of teachers of the Torah. As a result, the term “scribes” in the Greek is “grammateus”, a rough translation of the Hebrew “sopher” derived from “sepher” or “book”. They copied, read aloud, translated, explained and at times protected the law. Other duties included the accounting (“cipher”) of work done and goods paid, etc. Their latter name, “Hakamin” – (learned) denotes the growth of their importance into the Sages. They were NOT a sect but more a profession.
Elders: the term “presbuteroi” probably refers to the Patriarchal heads of families that were consulted in Temple administration. The Talmud reminds us of three chief families of the period, or which the household of Hannan – Annas and Caiphas, was one. Ezra 3 recognized the place of these men: “Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy…”
It was approaching mid-week, and our hind sight look allows us to note that Jesus was set to be on the Cross by Friday morning. Time was running out. Jesus saw how the men who led in the Second Temple were acting, scurrying about as the Passover crowds gathered in anticipation of both the memory of the past salvation (the story of the Exodus) and some pushier ones were anticipating Jesus acting on their behalf in a new salvation (kicking out the Romans as they expressed with their palm branches the previous Sunday).
The Subject of the Test – Authority and Submission
With his usual attention to succinct presentation, Mark blasts right into the scene with the problem the leaders wanted to dialogue with Jesus about: His authority. From the Biblical perspective this was both dramatic and ironic – that the Master would be questioned as to His authority in a Temple erected to worship the Godhead of which He Himself was a part. The text indicates more than one related question was delivered to Jesus:
Mark 11:28 and began saying to Him, “By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?”
Though related, the two questions are not identical. The first one (“By what authority are You doing these things”) assumed that Jesus should justify the RELATIONSHIPHe had with One in charge. The second question (“Who gave You this authority?”) questioned whether He was OBEDIENTor going rogue and working outside the relationship with One in charge.
Here is the issue at the heart of this text, and at the heart of many people’s religious rebellion. They accept that there may be a God to worship, but they fundamentally challenge His right to demand any standard in their lives. Here is the first question: Does Jesus possess the right to demand you change what you are doing? Does He have the right if many religious authorities say it is ok? If He has the right, what is the right based upon? As you may have guessed the Biblical answer is that HE DOES HAVE THE RIGHT TO DEMAND CHANGE, and that His right to do so IS BASED ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FATHER.
Here is the second question: Does Jesus act in accordance with the Father’s will, or does He represent some “second way to God”? Is the God of Abraham some kind of LAW GOD and the Jesus of the “New Testament” some kind of LIBERTINE GOD that tossed out the rules of relationships based in the Law? If that sounds strange to you, that is the message of the social Gospel in many parts of the “church” today – that Jesus loves everyone and expects nothing. God USED to have laws, but that was for primitive man. Now we are sophisticated and educated, technological and accomplished. We have walked on the moon, and now the “Maker of the stars” bows before our social whims and breaks down the taboos in the name of “endless love and grace” that demands nothingbut my fulfillment and self-satisfaction.
Paul offered the answer to both questions when He wrote to the Philippians much later in the second chapter of his letter:
Phil. 2:5-8 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all! When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. 9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.”
Clearly the call of Paul to the church at Philippi included several demands on their thinking and behavior:
That they understand what Jesus did in humbling Himself and laying aside the privileges of control and comfort to the glory of the Father.
That they take on the mission of emulating what Jesus did – not seeking a selfish fire escape Christianity – but a life of serving God by serving others as God led them.
Does Jesus have the right to walk into my life and tell me what to do? Is there any time in my life that I invite Him to do so? The real test of submission is when I let Him redirect something that I hold precious to my personal comfort, entertainment or direction. How many are willing to follow Christ when He offers Heaven and love? Many. How many are willing to allow Him to tell them who to marry when they have placed themselves in a relationship they know is not honoring to Him? Far, far fewer. Even the religious… no, especiallythe religious, must remember. He is Master or He is my servant, and I am His master — no matter that I call Him “Lord” in my songs.
Jesus did not refuse to cooperate with the men, but used a method of instruction well known among the rabbinic courts. Jesus offered to answer their query if they could untie a simple riddle they all had seen over the last few years. Mark 11:29says: “And Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question, and you answer Me, and then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 “Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men? Answer Me.”
Translations don’t communicate TONE very well. Jesus was respectful in His words… but He was very direct – He always is. He isn’t One to talk around truth. He knew what He wanted from them… and I would remind you that He knows what He wants from US as well. Note the last two words and let them penetrate… “ANSWER ME!” Don’t even try a “non-answer”. If you choose to hear God’s Word today, and Jesus speaks right into the conviction of your heart and you decide to “WAIT ON THE CONVICTION” be warned – to choose delay is to choose disobedience. Time is NOT on your side… and He is the Lord of Time.
The men gathered together and tried to see the question from every possible angle. They were accustomed to setting traps verbally. They had done it to Jesus on a number of occasions. They did so with full self-justification. After all, they were the Elders of Israel. They were the protectors, the leaders and the knowledgeable ones. “The crowds are fickle and ignorant”, they thought. “We must not allow them to get sucked in by these ‘loose cannons’ – these self-educated and self-directed teachers that will bring about our destruction!” they reasoned. You can understand their feelings, even if you can see in the text the real problem – they wanted CONTROL at even the cost of truth.
Mark 11:31 “They began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 32 “But shall we say, ‘From men’?”—they were afraid of the people, for everyone considered John to have been a real prophet.
Their response offers the two most profound problems with religious circles – they are like a window into the religious soul.
The first issue is THEOLOGICAL POSTURING – the notion that we should be more concerned with our erector set of presuppositions based on what we think God “might” have been trying to say – though He was far less clear that we are! “Then He will say” is a phrase that shows how religion builds an ethical system and a legal system based on premises. People in today’s church can often more effectively argue their doctrinal statement than they can tell the story of the Biblical text. What is the problem with that? Theoretically one is based on their knowledge of the other. If God gave us a Bible, and not a topical index of truths, we had better learn what HE WROTE, and not simply what men we respect thought ABOUT WHAT HE WROTE. Open the book and read it. It may challenge what you saw in the movie or heard in the sermon.
The second issue is CONCENSUS TRUTH – the notion that leadership should follow what people WANT to believe about an issue. Talk about GRACE AND ACCEPTANCE and the house will be full. Preach that God has something to say about your sex life or time on Facebook, and things will start to get a little uncomfortable. It is as it always has been – men and women who go into ministry do so because they care about people. The problem is that some of us end up pleasing the people, and not the One who called us into ministry for Himself.
Both THEOLOGICAL POSTURING and CONSENSUS TRUTH are huge problems in church circles today.
Jesus said they simply didn’t meet His demand, so He would offer nothing to meet theirs. In Mark 11:33 it record: “Answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
First note that their answer was UNTRUTHFUL. The issue was NOT that they did not know the truth – it was that they were unwilling to even ask the right questions if it put them in a position of correction or unpopularity. Truth wasn’t on the menu – control was.
Second, note that Jesus was not about to offer them more truth when they refused to stand upon the truth (read: rejected) the truth that was already presented. They were unwilling to acknowledge God’s right to control their lives, His Temple and His people. Without the requisite surrender, God felt no obligation to offer more truth. Jesus made His point: His authority was not THEIRS to question, since they couldn’t offer clear spiritual direction on the simplest of problems.
Maybe they weren’t sure where John came from – or at least they weren’t prepared to LEAD AGAINST THE POLLS and speak out in an unpopular way. They were better at QUESTIONS then at ANSWERS. That is the way to sound studious and academically credible. Kick up dust. Act like what you don’t know is beyond knowing. Act like those who think they know are “rednecks” and uneducated dolts that believe out of some naïve and uncultured world view. Get them to question everything… except the system that is run by them.
Deep inside the issue is not simple popularity. It is not fear. It is rebellion. They felt they had the right to ask what authority Jesus had to stand up against a corrupt Temple that was selling sacrificial animals and trading coins at unfair rates. They figured out what many in America today have figured out – God is a BIG BUSINESS opportunity. Selling religion is very lucrative if you are without the scruples that convict you. People are searching for HOPE, and you can suck them in at vulnerable points in their lives and offer them a “Cotton Candy God” that will look out for them and never challenge their way of thinking, let alone living. The problem is, He isn’t the real God that made them. Remember: Men do not reject the idea of a Creator, they reject the idea of a Master.