THE MOST DANGEROUS ‘SHOW’ ON EARTH – Mark 12:38-40
Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on December 11, 2016 under 2016 |
Message preached Sunday, December 11, 2016 from Mark 12:38-40
Theme: As Jesus’ followers, we must beware of the spiritual danger of displaying a phony piety in the sight of men.
(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
He doesn’t demand that we make ourselves perfect in His sight, of course—and how thankful we should be for that! That whole ‘perfection’ thing is something that will be brought about in us; but He Himself will take care of Himself in due time. Until then, and as a part of getting there, what He desires from us is that we be honest about our imperfections and faults—that we be genuinely real before Him.
There’s a good reason for this. Way back in the Old Testament—in 1 Samuel 16—God Himself said;
“the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
And as if that was not enough, all the way up into the other side of the Bible—in the fourth chapter of the New Testament book of Hebrews—we’re told that
there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13).
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; it doesn’t even make sense to pretend to be something that we’re not—neither before God, nor before each other. Our heavenly Father sees all our faults and imperfections and failings; all the sinful thoughts and the sinful habits that are in the private places of our being; all the things that we try to cover up from sight of others. And yet—in Christ—our Father loves us anyway; and has washed us clean of all our stains; and now 100% accepts us to Himself as His children; and graciously helps us to grow daily to part from those things and to live more like His Son.
And frankly, it’s wonderful how that takes the pressure off. Like the apostle Paul—who, to my mind, was the greatest Christian who ever lived—I can say to you, and you can say to me;
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
We have every reason in the world to be real—real before God, and real before each other.
And so; let’s do so.
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Now; I could probably stop the sermon right here. But if I did, I wouldn’t be being real; because that’s not what the sermon is about.
I have shared all of that with you because, in our study of the Gospel of Mark, we come this morning to a word of instruction from the Lord Jesus—a warning, really—concerning the very opposite of being spiritually real.
We’ve been in the part of the Gospel of Mark that tells of Jesus’ third visit to the Temple—just a few days before going to the cross for us. He was confronted by several different groups of religious leaders—chief priests, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees and, most recently, scribes. In fact, the passages we have studied most recently have had to do with those scribes.
Do you remember who scribes were? They were the ‘biblical scholars’ of the day. They were sometimes called ‘lawyers’ because they were men who had devoted their vocational lives to the study, debate, discussion, and teaching of the law of God as it is found in the Old Testament scriptures. They were the revered ‘learned class’ of Jewish society. And in Chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was asked a penetrating question by a scribe about the law of God; and Jesus answered it so well that the man praised Jesus—in front of the chief priests, and elders, and Pharisees, and Sadducees, and the gathered crowd—for the profound wisdom and truthfulness of His answer. Jesus followed it up by asking an even more penetrating question of the Pharisees—a question that concerned why it was that the scribes taught certain things about the Messiah, And in asking it, He forced these religious leaders to come to terms with their own hard-hearted rejection of Him as the Son of God.
And it was then—as a last act, if you will, in this ‘courtroom-style’ drama in the Temple—that Jesus spoke the words that we find in our passage this morning. In Mark 12:38-40, we’re told that He had turned to the crowds of people who were listening in, and to His disciples1:
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).
“For a pretense …” Quite the opposite of ‘being real’ in the sight of God and man; isn’t it? Jesus is here issuing a strong warning concerning those scribes—those spiritual leaders—who tried to put on a phony ‘show’ of outward piety and holiness; when, in reality, there was great sin in their hearts. Our God—who does not see as man sees; but looks directly and perfectly into the heart of every person—wasn’t fooled by any of it.
And Jesus’ warning at the end of this passage is a truly sobering one; isn’t it? Far from being the spiritual giants that they were pretending to be, those scribes were destined to receive a greater condemnation on the day of judgment than if they had never pretended to be holy at all.
That’s why I have chosen to characterize their outward ‘show’ of piety ‘the most dangerous show on earth’.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now; I’d like for us to think a little more deeply about what Jesus said to His followers about those scribes. But in doing so, one of the things that I’m afraid we might end up doing with this passage—if we aren’t careful—is to apply it in a way that is unduly judgmental of others. As we read Jesus’ words of warning about outward shows of phony spiritual piety, we might begin—almost right away—to think of the particularly notorious ‘televangelists’ and religious hucksters we have seen in our own days.
I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong for our minds to go in that direction. After all, that—it seems to me—is the kind of thing to which our Lord speaks. But as I have studied from this passage last week, I have experienced the gentle ‘convicting’ tap of the Holy Spirit upon my own shoulder. Truth be told, some of the things that Jesus mentions in His strong words about the ‘scribes’ of His day have been also found—all too often—in me. And that becomes a good reason for me to be even more honest with God; and to allow Him to search my own heart and rid me of any of these things that Jesus said will result in the ‘greater condemnation’ of others.
So; as we study our Lord’s words together, I hope you’ll join me in the effort to be completely real with God—and be truly repentant where repentance is needed. Clearly, as Jesus’ followers, we must beware of the serious spiritual danger of displaying a phony piety in the sight of men—and we must most certainly beware of any of it being found in ourselves!
So; let’s begin by looking first at verse 38; and at …
1. JESUS’ WARNING TO HIS FOLLOWERS.
Mark tells us; “Then He said to them in His teaching, ‘Beware of the scribes …’”
In fact, in the original language of this verse, Mark uses a particular tense of the verb—the imperfect tense—to suggest to us that what we find here is a mere ‘specimen’ of Jesus’ whole teaching on the scribes. We could translate it this way: “And while in the course of His teaching, He was saying to them, ‘Beware …!’”
I point that out because, if you were to go to the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, you’d find a much larger account of the things that He was saying on this occasion. And let me tell you—His words in Matthew 23 were red hot and scorching! I’d say that His long condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees in that portion of Matthew’s Gospel were some of the harshest words you’ll find Jesus uttering in all the New Testament!
You can read that whole chapter on your own. But for now, let’s just limit ourselves to the warning He issued to His followers. I hope you don’t mind if I read to you the first twelve verses of Matthew 23. It says;
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:1-12).
You couldn’t find a more thorough commentary than that, could you? Strong words! And if you read on—as I said—you’ll find that they get even stronger!
So; those words in Matthew 23 help explain much about the words our Lord says in Mark 12. And the words of Jesus in our passage this morning are meant to be taken by His followers as a warning. He tells us specifically, in the form of an imperative—that is, a command—to “Beware”. He doesn’t give us a promise of His protection; as if to say, “Don’t worry about those phonies. I will take care of them.” He will, of course, do so on the day of judgment. But rather, He gives us an order—Beware! And it is our duty to do as He says.
And why should we beware? What danger is there to us when ‘spiritual leaders’ put on an outward show of phony piety? I believe it’s because that kind of hypocrisy can be dangerously infectious. Once we come under its influence through hypocritical spiritual leaders, it begins to spread itself into our own lives.
There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke about how Jesus—on a different occasion—had been confronted and opposed by the scribes and Pharisees. He spoke harsh words of rebuke against them then too; and a great crowed of people gathered to hear it. And He then turned to His disciples and told them;
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).
Interesting way of putting it; isn’t it? Our Lord likened their ‘hypocrisy’ to ‘leaven’—which, when kneaded into bread dough, spreads itself, and permeates, and brings its influence upon the whole lump of dough. That dangerous and faulty idea that those spiritual leaders were operating on—that is, that no one really saw what was in their heart, and that no one really knew what they were really doing—led them down the road to great spiritual hypocrisy before God. And it’s a hypocrisy that didn’t just affect them, but that had the potential of spreading its soul-damaging influence upon the heart and lives of God’s people.
And so; our Lord warned His followers, “Beware of the scribes …” We’d better heed His warning!
* * * * * * * * * *
Now; I don’t believe that the Lord Jesus meant for His followers to beware of literally every scribe. After all, not all scribes—these careful scholars of the law—were hypocritical. In fact, Jesus had just gotten through talking to one, you’ll remember; and He told that scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
And may I just offer an aside about that? There is a very easy tendency on the part of some folks today to look at a few note-worthy spiritual leaders and preachers and evangelists—those, particularly, who have proven to be frauds who have lived double lives—and to then declare that all spiritual leaders and preachers and evangelists are phonies; and to then, in turn, use that as an excuse for rejecting the whole Christian message altogether. At the best, that’s just not reasonable; and at the worst, it’s as hypocritical and as phony as the phony spiritual leaders that they condemn and reject. We should be on the alert against such thinking—and even challenge it when we can.
But that leads to a question. How can we know a phony from the real thing? Sadly, sometimes we can’t. After all, we can only look on the outside of a man. Only God can see the heart. But I do believe that, when Jesus spoke about the scribes He had been encountering, He gave us some warning signs—some habits to watch out for.
Look at verses 39-40; and consider …
2. JESUS’ DESCRIPTION OF THE HYPOCRISY.
One of the ways to spot hypocrisy in a spiritual leader is seen in what that spiritual leader loves. Looking at what Jesus says about the scribes, I count four basic signs.
First, I see that they love ostentation. They love to make an outward, visible show of their position or honor or ministry. Jesus said to beware of these scribes “who desire to go around in long robes”.
If you happen to see a brilliant scholar walking up to the podium to speak in a university campus in his academic gown and doctoral cap, you probably wouldn’t think much of it. In fact, you’d somewhat expect it. But if he still had his cap and gown on a week later, or showed up at the shopping mall wearing it, you’d feel like he was trying to get everyone to look at him. And that’s what was happening with these scribes. They would walk around wearing their long flowing robes in the centers of everyday life—in places where walking around in robes was not at all necessary; and where, of course, nobody else had one—all in order to impress people who saw them.
When spiritual leaders make too much of the outward symbols of their learning, or display the signs and titles of their spiritual authority around in the every-day places of life, or make a big show of what they might be ‘suffering for the Lord’ right then, I believe we should take it as a warning sign.
A second thing I see in Jesus’ words is a love for recognition. Jesus said that those scribes “love greetings in the marketplaces”. They really delighted in having people see them and say, “Rabbi, Rabbi!”—which meant, “Teacher, Teacher!”
I don’t know if you have ever had a chance to meet a note-worthy Christian author or famous Bible teacher. When you do, it’s natural and respectful to refer to them as ‘Reverend So-And-So” or “Dr. Such-And-Such”. And I have always loved it whenever I have heard such note-worthy individuals say to others, “Oh, no, no. Please, just call me …” and give their first name. I have found that, whenever that happens, I have always come away with more respect for them. They’re being real.
By contrast, I hate it when someone demands to be called “Dr.” or “Father” or “Reverend”. I heard J. Vernon McGee once say that he very much disliked it whenever someone introduced him in a church as “the very Reverend Dr. McGee.” He said that the word ‘reverend’ is a word that means ‘that which provokes awe and terror’; and in the most proper sense, that’s something that should only be said of God. Only God is truly to be ‘revered’. Only God is ‘terrible’ in that sense. And then he added, “Now; of course if what someone meant to do was to introduce me to a congregation as ‘the very terrible Dr. McGee’; why, that’d be just fine.” But when someone loves it too much when they get introduced or greeted by the fancy titles and the academic credentials—or (which is worse) when they insist on it—then I believe we should beware of them.
A third thing I see in Jesus’ words about the scribes is their love for distinction. They love “the best seats in the synagogues”. Back in Jesus’ time, there would be a box in the synagogue in which the scriptures were kept; and there would be a table from which they were read. And the seat or bench that was closest to that place would be considered a very honorable place to be. It would be the place from which you would face the congregation. Everyone would be able to see you being so honorably seated in the synagogue; and think, ‘My; how important they must be!’
And a fourth thing that Jesus notes is what I call their love for exaltation. In addition to the most honorable seats in the synagogues, those scribes also desired “the best places at feasts”. They wanted to be elevated above everyone else in the social settings of life. “Don’t take that seat! That’s reserved for the esteemed scribe, the very Reverend Rabbi So-And-So!”
On another occasion, Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. You’ll agree with me; He was the most important Person at the table! But He watched as other people chose the best places for themselves; and He told them,
“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:8-11).
Could we say that whenever a spiritual leaders have the habit of seeking the best place for themselves—or even when they expect it—we might be dealing with someone for whom we ought to be on guard?
Those four warning signs have to do with a hypocrisy that is revealed in the things those scribes loved. But Jesus then goes on to say word about the hypocrisy of their actions. In verse 40, He said that they are those “who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.” The grammar of the original language suggests that this is meant to be taken as one whole idea.
In Jesus’ day, a widow was considered the most vulnerable person in society. And it appears that these scribes found ways to take advantage of them. Some Bible commentators believe that these hypocritical scribes would serve as consultants to these widows in the management of their estates—and then find ways, by legal means, to obtain the rights to those estates. Others believe that because the scribes were often wealthy, they would loan money to these poor widows on their mortgages—and then confiscate their homes when the widows were unable to pay.
And then—as if to cover things all up—the scribes would offer long, flowery prayers. Some Bible commentators even believe that they offered them before those poor widows in the very homes that they were unjustly ‘devouring’—perhaps offering up eloquent prayers of ‘dedication’ for the homes they had just unjustly obtained.
And so; I don’t believe Jesus is telling His followers to beware of every scribe. Rather, He’s telling them to beware of those who are characterized by a love of ostentation, recognition, distinction, and exaltation—and also of greed.
* * * * * * * * * * *
What a horrible thing such phony piety is! And it’s also spiritually dangerous. Note finally …
3. JESUS’ PROMISE ABOUT THE DANGER.
In verse 40, He says, “These will receive greater condemnation.” Greater than what? I believe that Jesus means that—because of the phony spirituality that they used on the outside to cover up their sin on the inside—they will be under a greater condemnation on the day of judgment than others who never tried to be spiritual at all. They will have misused the things of God, and will have misled the people of God, and will have spread their toxic hypocrisy to them.
Pastor James—in James 3:1—says this; and it is a startling thing to say indeed!
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment (James 3:1).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; our wonderful Lord Jesus has died on the cross to make us holy. He desires that we have complete honesty and integrity before Him. He wants us to be real before Him. And what’s more, I believe He wants us to be real with each other. And because He already loves us and forgives us and welcomes us, we can afford to be real.
So; let’s heed the warning that He gives us in these words of His. First—as He clearly instructs us in this passage—let’s beware of spiritual leaders and teachers who are characterized by a false piety and a pretended spirituality. Let’s be on guard against them; because their hypocrisy has a dangerous tendency to spread—and to result in the spiritual loss of others.
And of course, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to search our own hearts; and to make sure that there is no such false piety in us!
Let’s be real—through and through.