From heaven or from Man
The conflict continues to grow, and the tension in the air could be cut with a knife. The religious leaders have sought to destroy Jesus; however, the opportune time has not come up for them, and through God’s providence, neither has Christ’s time come. The religious leaders have tested Jesus before (Mark 8:11). Jesus had come to Jerusalem and rebuked the leaders, pointing them to the ‘den of robbers’ which they had set up in the court of the Gentiles. They come to Jesus asking a simple question. We know that sometimes simple questions can have a trick answer; however, this question has no trick answer but seems to be setting a snare for them to have reason to destroy Jesus.
I. Challenge of Authority (27-33)
a. The question (27-29)
The leaders come to Jesus to ask one question, “by what authority do you do these things or who gave you the authority to do them?” As soon as Jesus began teaching, this has been a hallmark of his earthly ministry. The crowds in the synagogue in Capernaum exclaimed, “What is This? A new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:27). They were amazed at the teaching of Jesus, explicitly when compared to the scribes (Mark 1:22). The scribes have questioned his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:6-7). A prophet is always sent by someone. When Moses is commanded to speak to Pharoah and the Israelites, he asks, who shall I say sent me? In other words, whose authority do I command Pharoah to release God’s people? Do the leaders ask Jesus by what authority do you do these things? We are not explicitly told what ‘these things are. It could be limited to the event that had happened the day earlier as Jesus overturned the money changers table and drove everyone out of the temple. However, it could be broader to carry the things that Jesus had done through his earthly ministry. I believe the question they ask is to undermine Jesus to accuse him of blasphemy to have him killed. We will see this in chapter 14.
b. Jesus responds with a question (30)
Jesus is not easily stumped but responds with a question. The question I do believe is the answer, which we will see. Jesus asks about John the Baptist. Many conversations are hot topics of conversation that are known to create disharmony. Asking questions in which people have strong opinions and disagreements. Political issues over the thanksgiving table with two opposing views. Jesus ups right in and asks about John the Baptist. This was a weighted topic of conversation because it involved Herod. Jesus asks, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” Jesus’ question speaks of the authority of John the Baptist. To put the question, they asked Jesus. He asks them, “by what authority did John baptize or who gave John the authority to baptize?” Jesus asked if John’s baptism was from heaven. This is another way to ask, was John’s baptism from God? There was a great fear amongst Jews during this time not to utter God’s name because of a fear of using his name in vain. Therefore, they would have various phrases that would eliminate the potential of using the Lord’s name in vain and still communicate.
c. How to answer (31-33)
The leaders all discuss how to answer Jesus’ questions. Before getting to their response, we need to note that they are not concerned about the truth. They are not concerned about the correct answer, but they are concerned about the response they will receive depending on the answer they would give them. This is a tragic matter of the heart. We should ask questions to come to a correct knowledge of the truth. Sadly, many people center their conversations around this principle. We have lost the ability to be able to have a conversation about our disagreements. Often, we are set in our ways and are not concerned about what is true or correct, but how can I win the agreement. Their discussion is centered around reputation or fear of rebuke.
The leaders discuss this amongst themselves, like a board of executives seeking to handle a public relations problem. If they were to say, “from heaven,” they already know the next question that Jesus was going to ask, “why then would did you not believe him?” This answer would have many ramifications; first, Herod had put John to death. If they answered that John’s baptism was from heaven, then they would be saying Herod had killed a messenger from God. The Herodians on the religious leaders’ side (Mark 3:6) would have had a reason for severing this relationship, hurting the religious leaders’ political prowess. They also would have been rebuked by Jesus; this is their primary concern. Again, they are not concerned about whether John’s baptism was from God or not. They ultimately do not want to be asked a heart-probing question about why they did not believe John.
The second potential answer to Jesus’ question is that John’s baptism was from a man. This would say that John’s baptism meant nothing. John did this all on his own accord. The reason they do not want to give this answer is not because of the political or personal ramifications but the people that are around them. If they were to answer that John’s baptism was from man, then there would be an angry mob on their hands. They feared man rather than God, a dangerous road to travel. They chose not to say either answer but to claim ignorance, “we don’t know.” Again, they didn’t seek to find the correct answer. We do not know. Can you help us understand? Now, Mark gives us some insight that “they all that John was a prophet.” Mark, however, does not clarify if this means the crowd of people or the group discussing how to answer Jesus.
d. The answer they needed to hear
The two might seem disconnected. What does Jesus’ authority do with John’s baptism? However, we need to return to Jesus’ baptism by John. It is during this baptism that Jesus came out of the water, and the heaven’s split and the Father spoke from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. Here we see that Jesus’s authority is from heaven and not from man.
II. Parable of the Tenants (12:1-12)
Jesus then begins to teach what is called the parable of the tenants. The parable is about an owner who invests in a vineyard and then goes to a different country. While away in another country, he leases it to tenants. Now the term of the lease appears to be instead of paying rent for the use of the property, and the tenants would supply the owner of some of the produce from the vineyard. However, when the time came for the owner to collect what was due to him, he sent a servant to collect payment. Yet the tenants beat the servant and send him away empty-handed. This process repeats several times. Sometimes they would beat them, other times shame them, and worst of all, kill the servants. Finally, the owner had one son, whom he loved. The owner sent his son to them, thinking they would respect him. However, they talked amongst themselves, saying this is the heir, let us kill him. The inheritance will be ours.” They took the owner’s son and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. Jesus asks another question. However, this time, not expect an answer, “what will the owner of the vineyard do?”
The parable has clear to understand. Even the religious leaders could see the parable was directed at them (Mark 12:12). Jesus had told his disciples plainly what the son of man had come to do. Now he tells the parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus’ parable reflects a prophecy found in Isaiah 5:1-5, which ends with a similar statement as Jesus’ question, “now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.” We could spend some time looking at the imagery of Israel as a vineyard or even the prophecy in Isaiah, but for the time, I want to highlight three things.
a. The owner’s patience
The owner in this parable is God. Knowing Isaiah 5 helps us understand this clearly. Still, even with reference to sending the owner’s ‘beloved son,’ this is only used two other times in the Gospel of Mark, and both times is when God the Father speaks from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. The leaders are stewards of God’s vineyard. However, they do not understand his mercy and generosity to them. I want to empathize with the owner’s patience with the tenants. He continually sends his servants, his prophets, to warn of their wickedness and call them to repentance. Just as John the Baptist did, think of all the prophets God called to proclaim his word to his people. God is slow to anger and abounding in love. We see ‘stubborn’ loyalty in this parable. The owner gives the tenants many chances, we are told he sends at least three servants, but we see he sent many others. As Jesus bears with his disciples, God bears with his people.
b. The tenant’s ignorance
The servants (prophets) are sent to God’s people to tell them of their wickedness and call for them to repent; however, their response is even more wickedness. Ultimately, committing the wicked deed of murdering the owner’s son. They have used this vineyard, which is not theirs, they have not paid the owner anything, and yet they lay claim to this vineyard as their inheritance. They would have assumed the owner was dead because of the visit from the son. They make three claims that show their ignorance in the matter. First, they know that the man coming is the owner’s son, for they say this is the heir. Their wickedness is hard for us to fathom that you would literally shoot the messenger, as they did with the other servants. However, this would be the most horrific, that they know who this man is and deliberately kill him. They do not know the owner very well, as they would know this was the owners’ beloved son.’ Secondly, they plan to kill him. In this parable, we see the clear connections to Jesus as the son and the tenants as the religious leaders who have sought to destroy him. We must consider their ignorance as they think it is better to murder servants and the owner’s son rather than give the owner what he is due. Lastly, their ignorance is that they believe in killing the son. They then have the vineyard as the inheritance. They think that through this wicked act that they will be rewarded. They believe that the response to Jesus’ question, “what will the owner of the vineyard do?” is nothing; this is pure ignorance. They do not know the owner.
c. The owner’s vengeance
Isaiah chapter five explains that the Lord will destroy the vineyard. Jesus explains that the owner will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. The tenant’s ignorance is that they think in killing the owner’s son, they will gain an inheritance, but they will lose the inheritance and their life. This comes back to the first couple of days as Jesus was in Jerusalem. As he went into the temple, the court of the gentiles was used for changing money and purchasing sacrifices and not used as a house of prayer for many nations. The owner will come and destroy the wicked tenants and give the vineyard to others. Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23, which is a favorite verse of Peter (Acts 4:11, 1 Pet 2:7). The crowd had quoted Psalm 118:25 as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem.
The religious leaders know that the parable is about them, but sadly their response is to murder the beloved son. They do not listen to his warning; they do not heed his words. We will see more warnings from Jesus’ mouth directed at the religious leaders. However, we should always be warned that warnings are only for other people. We should always be asking the question of how I respond when God graciously sends someone to correct me, to warn me of my wicked ways, to point out my sin, and draw me to Christ. Sadly, though, we often act like the wicked tenants, who figuratively beat the messenger or kill them.
Throughout this whole section, we see that what was said about Jesus’ teaching from the beginning remains the same, “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 2:22). Jesus shows his authority throughout this conversation and the coming passages of Scripture. The religious leaders come to him thinking they have the upper hand. However, as soon as Jesus speaks, he shows them they know what they do not, he does not get rebuked. He is not afraid of the crowd like the religious leaders. However, the religious leaders are fruitless figs who will wither without faith.