Puncturing Pretensions (Mark 11:27-33)

27 And 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, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

–  Mark 11:27-33

Listen to the sermon audio here, the sermon is titled “Puncturing Pretensions”.

Last weekend was Halloween, which meant that on Saturday night, across the country there were a number of Halloween parties thrown, which also meant that there were a large number of people whose decision-making was inhibited by drinking a little too much punch. One such person was a poor lady in our very own Omaha, NE – who after a night of heavy drinking, snuck into the Omaha zoo after it was closed, and wandered over to the tiger pen. This 33-year-old woman decided, “Hey, I’ve had a few too many, why not try and pet a tiger?” To absolutely no one’s surprise, things did not end well for her.

As soon as she stuck her hand into the cage, she suffered a “severe trauma” to her hand, and was immediately rushed to a local hospital. I’m not entirely sure what was going through the lady’s mind, but we can be certain that she obviously misjudged the danger of the situation. A tiger is an apex predator, not your grandmother’s cat. The tiger probably looked at the lady’s hand the same way we look at a chicken nugget. The Omaha police department released a statement the following day on their Facebook, “Just in case you had any doubt…If you pet a tiger you will most likely get bitten.”

As we return to the narrative in Mark, we remember that last week Christ, the lion of Judah, demonstrated that He was not a nice little kitten to be petted. Christ bared his fangs, flipped tables and cleansed the temple – during the week of Passover, one of the busiest weeks for traffic in the temple! Jesus demonstrated His divine right to rearrange the furniture in the temple, because the temple was His Father’s house; Jesus has the authority to end the sinful practices that were being carried out. The Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders, however, didn’t see it that way. A day has now passed, and Jesus again saunters back into the temple. Think of how tense that moment must have been – Is He going to attack? Is He going to apologize? Is He going to be arrested? The Chief Priests are ready for Him, and quickly go toe to toe with Jesus, seeking a way to trap him, embarrass him, and discredit him. But, much like the poor lady from Omaha, they have tragically underestimated the danger of the situation they are getting themselves into.

The Authority of Man

The Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders are very angry with Jesus. They are not just angry with Jesus because He spoiled their money-changing system, but because Jesus did it and everyone was amazed by it. He disrespected them, condemned what they were doing and took control, and much to the chief priest’s horror, everyone loved it. He robbed them of their authority.

“And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching,” (Mark 11:18).

The chief priests and scribes were terrified of Jesus, because all the crowd is “astonished” at his teaching. The word for “astonished” in Greek comes from the root word “to strike”, and literally means, “to be struck dumb by amazement.” This phrase is used repeatedly throughout the gospels to describe people’s reaction to Christ’s teaching. They are thunderstruck; brows furrowed, jaws hanging, blown away by the power and authority of this unschooled son of a carpenter. And the scribes and priests hate and fear Him for it. So what do they do? They attempt to reassert their authority.

“The chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:27-28).

 On the surface, this looks like a pretty honest question. Jesus caused quite a disturbance, and they just want to know why, and Jesus can almost look petty by refusing to answer them. But Jesus isn’t petty, and this isn’t an honest question. Jesus answers honest questions all the time; when his disciples don’t understand his parables, when Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus means by being “born-again”, and when the Samaritan woman doesn’t understand, Jesus gladly explains and answers their questions. Jesus, however, refuses to answer the chief priest’s questions because it isn’t an honest one.

When the chief priest’s ask Jesus by “what authority” he is doing these things, they are essentially asking for his credentials. All of the chief priests, scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees rooted their authority and their swagger on who they studied under, and then authenticated their teaching and ministry by being able to reference their teacher. They know that Jesus hasn’t had any formal training; they know he has no impressive “authority” to draw from to justify his actions. This is the equivalent of someone who graduated from an Ivy League school, arguing with someone who went to community college and asking, “Now, where did you graduate from, again?” They are trying to trap Jesus into looking foolish in front of others and re-assert their authority.

Any answer that Jesus could give, they wouldn’t be satisfied with. Even if Jesus honestly answered their question and said, “I am the Christ, the son of God – that is my authority” they wouldn’t accept it. We know this, because when Jesus is finally arrested, he tells them he is in fact the Christ, the Son of God, and they just accuse him of blasphemy, and cart him away to be killed (Mark 16:62-64). In other words, the chief priests say, “There’s no way you could be the Christ. We know what the Christ will be like, it can’t be you,” and they have him killed.

The chief priests aren’t asking Jesus a question, they are baiting a trap – they already know they want to kill Jesus, they don’t care about what he has to say anymore, they just want him dead. You see what’s happening here? The chief priests in asserting their authority, laying this word trap, and lynching Jesus, are desperately trying to maintain control. They are trying to shove the tiger into a kennel.

So what do we learn from this?

We see that controlling Jesus is tempting, but never works. As the sermon continues we will look at how the chief priest’s trap ends up backfiring on them, but even when we look at when they appear to finally get the upper hand, and crucify Jesus, they still aren’t in control. Even in Jesus’ death, Jesus still has the upper hand, and is accomplishing His purposes. So, how do we try to control Jesus today? We, much like the chief priests, assume that Jesus answers to us and serves our interests – that’s tempting. The chief priests had an idea of what the messiah was supposed to look like, and when Jesus wasn’t what they wanted, they tried to control him. We do the same thing. Jesus needs to give me the right kind of job, the right kind of family, the right level of comfort, the right level of health – and if he doesn’t tow the line, we get angry with him, and try and control. We pull Jesus aside and say, “What on earth are you doing? You’re not supposed to do that! You’re not supposed to let other people think that about me…Jesus, you shouldn’t let that be a sin…you’re not supposed to let the car breakdown right now…you’re not supposed to let my teenager start acting like that!” And we try and exert our authority over Him – and friends, it won’t work. It just won’t work. Let’s look at why.

The Authority of Jesus

Jesus sees the trap, knows their motives and responds with a question.

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” (Mark 11:29-30).

 The chief priests question Jesus in regards to his authority, and Jesus responds with a question about where John the Baptist’s authority came from. Now this is a brilliant response for three reasons. First, everybody loved John and everyone accepted that he was indeed a prophet who spoke with God’s authority. Second, John never received any formal training or sat under any famous teacher of the law, so if the people could accept that John could still teach with authority, why couldn’t Jesus? Third, John himself attested to Jesus’ divine authority, “And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him… And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32, 34). The chief priests are caught off guard,

“And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him? ’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”— they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet.” (Mark 11:31-32).

If the chief priests say “from heaven”, then they must admit they were wrong, and affirm Jesus’ authority. If they say “from man”, they risk losing the crowd’s approval, and then everyone would have even more so flocked to Jesus, which would have infuriated them even further. Jesus puts them in an impossibly difficult situation. Jesus is a master at asking questions. The brilliance of Jesus’ question not only exposes the flaws in the chief priests’ logic, but it addresses the sinful motives that lie behind their question. Remember, the chief priests launched into this confrontation because they are angry that the crowds are more impressed with Jesus than them. The chief priests, scribes, and elders loved the praise of man. All throughout the gospels, Jesus decries the scribes’ desire to be praised by others in their prayers, generosity, and ministry. Just one chapter later, Jesus warns his listeners,

“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” (Mark 12:38-30).

Jesus later plainly states that the scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others,” (Matt. 23:5). They live for looking good, wise, respectable, and sanctimonious in people’s eyes, but Jesus has just put them in a lose-lose situation.

Claim that John was a fake, anger the crowds and look bad. Claim that John was legit, and by extension Jesus is too, and be humiliated and look bad. Either way they respond, they lose and Jesus wins, which would have been devastating for the chief priests, who entered this discussion in the first place to re-solidify their own authority.

Jesus has a way of doing stuff like this. He finds something that has a deeper hold on a person than it should and he challenges it. Jesus meets a rich young ruler who is controlled by his money, and tells him that if he wants to know God, he first must sell everything he has (Mark 10:17-27). Jesus meets a woman who is controlled by romance, and has led a disastrous sexual and marital life, and asks her to introduce him to her husband, fully well knowing she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. And Jesus confronts this group of religious leaders who have built their identity on being the most impressive person in the room, and Jesus forces them to admit they’re not. Why is Jesus doing this? Does he just enjoy being mean?

No, that’s not why. Our Theology Tuesday students just began reading a book about this, but the common denominator with rich young ruler, and the Samaritan woman, and the chief priests is this: they all have made something other than God more fundamental to their identity and purpose in life. And the Bible describes anything that becomes more fundamental to our ultimate identity, purpose, hope and joy in life, an idol. A god. Romans 1 tells us that what fundamentally went wrong with the world, at the root of sin, at the root of man’s rebellion before God, is a heart that worships creation rather than Creator. For the rich young ruler it was money. For the Samaritan woman it was love. For the chief priests it was their own self-respect and people’s approval. And these aren’t bad things – these are good things, but idolatry is taking a good thing, and making it an ultimate thing, and that is a bad thing.

The text gives us two ways we can detect our own idols:

First, look at when you try to control God. The chief priests’ idol of people’s approval reveals its slip whenever they attempt to control Jesus. If something begins to go wrong with my family or my marriage, and I feel like saying, God, what the heck are you doing?? You’re not supposed to let this happen! Then I may be worshipping my family. If my life is feeling overwhelming and hectic and I’m experiencing deep anxiety, and I feel like saying God, I thought you weren’t supposed to give me more than I can handle?? Then I may be worshipping my sense of control. And if I take myself too seriously and thrive off of others respecting me, and I am publicly humiliated by an untrained carpenter on my own home turf, and I say Jesus, there’s no way you could be the messiah – you’re screwing up all of our great plans, and making me look stupid! Then I definitely am worshipping myself and what other’s think of me. Jesus speaks so directly and so pointedly because He is trying to get at the fundamental thorn lodged in their hearts; he is attacking their idols.

Second, look at your uncontrollable actions. We know that the chief priests are caught in the snare of idolatry because of their blind commitment to it. Look at their interaction with one another, weighing out which answer they should give about John the Baptist. You notice what factor they aren’t considering? Their not asking which answer is true. They’re just looking for what’s most expedient for their cause. You see, an idol demands radical obedience to it – you’ll lie, cheat, do whatever you need to do to keep it. The chief priests in trying to control Jesus reveal that they themselves are controlled by their idol. What controls you? I work with a lot of students, and every now and then I’ll have parents meet with me who are baffled that their student is doing some awful sort of thing, despite being taught otherwise. But, if a student worships other people’s approval of them, then they will do whatever it takes to satiate that desire. “What the heart most wants, the mind finds reasonable, the will finds doable, and the emotions find desirable.” – Keller

Friends, because Jesus is the only one who deserves worship and because he loves us, he is going to confront our idols. He is going to put us in a possibly painful and frustrating situation that shows us how fragile and stupid our fake gods are, and he is going to ask you, “Who will you serve? Who will you have as Lord and King over your life?”

The authority of man tries to control Jesus to serve our idols,
The authority of Jesus seeks to free man from his idols.

The Humility of Failure

After the chief priests recognize they’re cornered, they respond as best as they can,

“So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mark 11:33).

Let’s replay the whole scenario over, again. Jesus cleared the temple, condemned the chief priest’s practices, and won over everyone’s astonishment by his teaching. The chief priests, hurt and angry, approach Jesus the next day and try to discredit him by exposing his lack of credentials. But this completely backfires on them with Jesus’ question, and they have to pull together in a huddle to think of an answer, only to emerge with a “we don’t know”. And Jesus simply retorts, “Then I won’t answer you.” Jesus talks to the chief priests, scribes and elders like they are children – and he walks away scot-free. Where the chief priests were trying to reassert their authority, they came out looking like even greater fools. They played with a tiger and got bit.

Remember, he is going after their idolatrous worship of people’s approval. What the chief priests need most right now is a hearty serving of humble pie. They are proud, puffed up and full of themselves, and they need to be taken down a notch or two. Jesus is loving them, by humbling them. Love doesn’t mean “do whatever you think will make you happy” – no, love is doing what is best for someone, even if it may make them temporarily unhappy. Jesus knows that if they remain in their pride, if they remain in their idolatrous worship of themselves, they will be condemned.

James explains it like this, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). If we are proud, God actively opposes us; but if we are humbled, there is grace. That is what Jesus is trying to drive the chief priests towards in their failure: humility and grace. You know what pride is? Pride is smoke from the fire of self-worship. Pride is self-sufficiency; pride is all about me and what I can conjure up. What is grace? Grace is all about receiving; it isn’t really about me at all. Grace is the gift of God for the forgiveness of sins; it is what fills the gap between what we should be and what we really are. Grace is what pardons us when we don’t measure up. Grace is what makes us lovely, even when we are unlovely. And grace is only offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

You see, if a man makes his success at work his idol, then he must always obey it to maintain peace. He’ll work late, through lunch, stress about it when he’s not working, overextend himself. But what happens if he is fired or makes a major mistake? He’ll feel like he colossal failure and question who he really is. What if a woman makes her body image her idol? She’ll watch her diet and exercise meticulously. But what happens when she wrinkles and doesn’t feel attractive anymore? She’ll have a meltdown. You see, any idol you worship will essentially say, “Obey me, or die.”

The gospel, on the other hand, tells us that because of Jesus Christ’s perfect life and atoning death, there now is a storehouse of unending grace to flow freely to sinners like you and me. So when we fail and don’t measure up, which we do often, we don’t have this paralyzing anxiety that God is going to cast us out as rejects – because of Christ, we are eternally secure. The only thing that can prevent this heavenly grace from flowing down to us is a proud heart that refuses to accept it. A proud heart that thinks it can cut it on its own. A proud heart that is more enamored with itself than with the gracious and beautiful God. That proud heart is what Jesus is trying to attack in the chief priests, and in you and me.

Now, obviously the chief priests did not repent and embrace the grace of God. In just a few short days, they will kill him. Timothy Keller always says that way we know we have encountered the real Jesus is that your reaction is extreme. You either cling to your idols and reject him as liar or a lunatic, or you realize how silly and proud you are and in humility bow down to him as Lord. You either crown him or kill him. Either way, the only thing you cannot do is leave indifferent. The chief priests have met the real Jesus. You either love or hate Jesus – but most people in our culture today like Jesus. You can’t like Jesus. Jesus is claiming to be the King of the cosmos and calling for your complete allegiance and worship, he’s asking you to surrender your authority over your life to his authority – you can’t honestly look at Jesus’ claims and shrug your shoulders and say, “Seems like a nice guy.” If we “like” Jesus than we can be certain that we have not encountered the real Jesus. There is an old puritan saying that goes, “The same sun that hardens the clay melts the ice.” When we meet the real Jesus we either harden our hearts, or melt before him. Today, we invite you to meet the real Jesus.

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