The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached February 28th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Arguing (Mark 11:27-12:37)
Do you like to argue? I want to do something a little unusual today. I want to provide an overview of a wide section of Jesus’ teaching in Mark, a section that centers on Jesus arguing with the chief priests, scribes, elders, Sadducees, and Pharisees. In the following weeks we will look at these interactions separately, but today I want to do a fly over of them all and think about what we learn from how Jesus argues with His opponents. My hope in this sermon is that you will walk away with a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of God displayed in Jesus, and be given practical help for you to be more capable of arguing like Jesus.
By “argue” I am not referring to the kind of typical disagreements you get in with your spouse or roommates. I am talking about how to, as Jude tells us, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3).
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.”…And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 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.”’ 37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. – Mark 11:27-33; 12:35-37
Let me present a dilemma for you. Proverbs 26:4 states, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Proverbs 26:5, however, states, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” What are we to do with two verses that seemingly contradict each other, especially given the fact they are right next to each other? Only the most arrogant and asinine of readers would have to assume that the ancient compilers of the book of Proverbs were too stupid to notice the apparent contradiction between the two verses. No, the editor of the book of Proverbs obviously wanted these two proverbs to be placed right next to each other so that the reader would employ wisdom to find the harmony between the two.
One way to understand this is to say that the first proverb is warning us of answering a fool according to his folly, as in: do not answer a fool in the same manner of foolishness he is embodying, don’t “stoop down to his level” as we commonly refer to it, “lest you become like him yourself.” While the other proverb is emphasizing answer a fool in response to his folly, “lest he be wise in his own eyes.” In other words, don’t let fools walk around thinking they are really wise and smart because no one has ever proven them otherwise.
Another interpretation, however, of the dilemma is to understand that the two proverbs are telling us that there are times when answering a fool is unwise and other times when it is wise. It is up to you to discern when those moments are needed, when giving an answer to a question is “casting your pearls before swine” and when giving an answer is necessary. Charles Bridges, the 19th century Anglican theologian, writes, “But what may be at one time our duty to restrain, at another time and under different circumstances it may be no less our duty to do. Silence may sometimes be mistaken for defeat. Unanswered words may be deemed unanswerable. An answer may, therefore, be called for, not in folly, but to folly – “not in his foolish manner, but in the manner that his foolishness required.” In other words, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The Bible doesn’t present simplistic answers to complex questions. We are not told that every question must be answered, every accusation responded, or every debate be settled. We are also not told that the golden rule is to avoid all argument, avoid all confrontation. We need discernment for when to respond.
Not only that, we need discernment in how to respond. Consider the book of Titus, where we are told that one of the responsibilities of an elder is to teach “sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” (Tit 1:9). Paul then goes on to describe a particular group of false teachers in Titus’ church who “must be silenced” (1:11) and therefore Titus should “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13; cf. 2:15). But then Paul also encourages Titus to teach the church to, “be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” (3:2). How on earth can you “silence” opponents and yet avoid quarreling? How do you “rebuke them sharply” yet “be gentle and…show perfect courtesy toward all”? It would seem that Paul assumes that different situations require different responses and what we need is the wisdom to discern what those situations are. And that is not always simple. One can understand James’ statement, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man,” James 3:2.
Charles Bridges points us towards where this wisdom may be found: “Oh, for wisdom to govern the tongue, to discover the right time to speak and the right time to stay silent. How instructive is the pattern of our great Master! His silence and his answers were equally worthy of himself. The former always conveyed a dignified rebuke. The latter responded to the confusion of his contentious enemies. Will not a prayerful meditative study communicate to us a large measure of his divine wisdom?”
Our text that we are examining today gives us an opportunity of “prayerful meditative study” on the wisdom of our great Master.
My main aim in this sermon is for us to look at how Jesus debates with His opponents, and think critically about how this should inform us in our own efforts to “give an answer for the hope that we have” (1 Pet 3:15).
The Great Debate
Mark has put together his gospel thematically, centering blocks of his narrative around different themes and here we see Mark compile together a series of encounters of Jesus debating with religious leaders of His day. In each encounter Jesus employs different method of response, but in each one He stumps His opponents, leaving them unable to respond.
In the first encounter, Jesus responds to the question as to where His authority comes from by responding with a question about where John the Baptist’ authority came from. Jesus was not formally trained as a rabbi and therefore in their eyes He lacks the authority to teach and do what He has been doing; and yet, John the Baptist lacked formal training as well. So Jesus forces the chief priests, scribes, and elders to admit that John’s authority was illegitimate if they want to delegitimate Jesus’, which is something they are unwilling to do because “they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet,” Mark 11:32. So they refuse to answer Jesus’ question and thus Jesus refuses to answer theirs.
The next story is Jesus’ real response to the elders, chief priests, and scribes. He tells a parable of a vineyard and wicked tenants (patterned off of Isaiah 5). The master of the vineyard keeps sending servants to gather fruit from the tenants, only to have them abused, turned away, and even killed. Eventually the master sends his own beloved son to the vineyard, only to have the tenants kill him in hopes of stealing his inheritance. The parable ends with Jesus asking, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others,” Mark 12:9. The chief priests, able for the first time to understand a parable of Jesus, understand that Jesus aimed this teaching against them (12:12).
The next story is the odd pairing of Pharisees and Herodians—normally enemies of each other—seeking to “trap” Jesus in his talk by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar. They hope to put Jesus “on the horns of the dilemma” by giving him a question that traps Jesus with whatever answer He gives (something Jesus just did to them back in 11:27-33). However, Jesus deftly evades the dilemma by giving an answer that leaves all of the listeners marveling at Jesus’ wisdom, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him,’ 12:17.
The next story has a group of Sadducees (a religious group who didn’t believe in an afterlife or resurrection, cf. Acts 23:8) try to trap Jesus by telling a fanciful story of an unlucky widower whose husbands keep dying on her. After her seventh husband dies, and she also dies, whose wife will she be, they ask? The Sadducees, of course, don’t believe there is a resurrection; they are bringing up the story because they think it’s a clever “gotcha” that shows that the resurrection is untenable. Jesus, however, responds sharply: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”(12:24). Jesus then responds from the Bible before closing with, “You are quite wrong,” (12:27).
Finally, a scribe approaches Jesus and sees Jesus disputing with the Sadducees, “and seeing that he answered them well,” asks Jesus what commandment is the most important of all (12:28). Jesus cites Deut 6:4-5 and then Leviticus 19:18 and the scribe responds positively, affirming that Jesus is correct and that obedience matters more than all sacrifices (12:32-33). When Jesus sees the wisdom in this scribe, He responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (12:34).
It’s interesting to mark the trajectory of the debates in this chapter—it begins with Jesus refusing to answer a question, to a parable being understood for the first time (albeit, a negative parable), to two accounts of Jesus responding to questions, to this final account where Jesus responds clearly without any barbs, which evokes a wise response. Why does “no one dare” to ask Jesus anymore questions after this encounter? It is almost as if Mark is showing us that the longer one spends in dialogue with Jesus, the more wise one becomes, the more Jesus begins to make sense, and the closer one gets to the kingdom. The Pharisees realize this and so they stop sending in the troops to batter Jesus down: He is nearly converting them! (cf. John 7:32; 45-46).
If you’re not a Christian, one of the best possible things that you could do is spend time with Jesus through reading about Him, talking with other Christians about Him. The Bible describes the message of the gospel as something that appears foolish, but is actually a display of the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22-24). As you spend more and more time around Jesus, you may find that slowly and imperceptibly that what once seemed childish or uninteresting begin to radiate with light. If you are wanting to share the gospel with a non-Christian, one of the best things you can do is to invite them to read a gospel with you or at the very least for you to talk about Jesus with them. I am a huge fan of apologetic arguments, philosophy, and things of that nature to be used in discussions with people; but nothing is a substitute for hearing from the Word of God, Jesus Christ, Himself.
But Jesus doesn’t stop; He then goes on the offensive. It is now Jesus’ turn to ask a question: ““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,” 12:35-37. Jesus presents a Biblical question about the identity of the Messiah as the son of David. Apparently, the common perception of the day was that the Messiah would be lesser in greatness to David, yet Jesus cites Psalm 110, a messianic psalm that describes the Messiah as David’s “Lord.” Matthew’s account tells us that after this, “And no one was able to answer him a word,” Matt 22:46. Jesus punctures the pretensions of the priests and Pharisees, exposing that they are not as all-knowing as they appear to be.
What does this show us?
Jesus the Wise.
Jesus is like a new Solomon here, dispensing wisdom, settling disputes, and silencing fools. As we read Solomon’s book of Proverbs we find Jesus in its pages: Jesus knows when to answer and when not to answer a fool according to his folly (Prov 26:4-5); Jesus knows that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Prov 25:11). And He also knows that, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back,” Prov 29:11.
This shouldn’t surprise, of course, because this is simply what the Old Testament has taught us the Messiah would be like: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD,” Isaiah 11:1-2. Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom of God, filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding. Here in these encounters and throughout the rest of the gospel we see Jesus cut to the heart of issues, refuse to engage in pointless debates, use silence, speak sharply, and speak gently. Jesus was a master of words because He was a master of wisdom. He knew when to speak, how to speak, and what to speak.
We should argue like Jesus.
A case for Christian arguments: There are two equal and opposite truths about arguments that the devils are happy with Christians believing. One is to assume that any form of argument is bad and should be avoided; the other is to assume that the only kind of “bad” argument out there is the one you lose. The first one points to passages like Romans 2:4, “…God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The second points to passages like 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” One sounds like Mr. Rogers and the other sounds General Patton. And whichever one fits your temperament, you will likely gravitate towards it, and Satan will be happy with whichever you choose, a milquetoast waffler on questions of truth or a brazen Viking looking to slay another victim. What we need, in the place of these two imposters, are Christians who follow their Master, Jesus, in preserving truth and willing to fight for it, but not doing so at the expense of kindness, gentleness, or love.
The problem is that many Christians view their virtue as a grab bag of disparate elements when they should be seeing them as an organic whole. The 19th century American pastor and professor, William S. Plumer writes, “There is a [harmony] between all the graces of the Christian. His faith agrees with humility, and so is not presumptuous. His zeal is kind, gentle and benevolent, so it degenerates not into bigotry and rage. His penitence has hope in it and so it is free from despair. His fear has joy in it and so it does not bring distress. His joy has fear in it and so it does not pass into levity…There is symmetry…in the Christian character. It is not a jumble, it is not a contradiction, it is one.” So, we should not tell ourselves that, Yes, I may be rather brazen and unkind, but I am zealous! and think that somehow the Lord is pleased with that. The graces of a Christian are symmetrical, harmonized and infused together as one.
We need Christians who give evidence of the symmetry of Christian character in their interactions with those they disagree with. We need this desperately because it is becoming increasingly more and more hostile to hold to basic Christian truths. While it has always been difficult for Christians to hold to their faith in a fallen world, there has been a recent innovation that has made our current moment particularly problematic and thus requires Christians to be particularly equipped in knowing how to defend their faith well. This problem is what C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism,” otherwise known as “the genetic fallacy.” Bulverism is the view that all truth claims are basically a by-product of our personal history, experience, and social location. In common day uses it sounds like, “You are only saying that because you are a man!…You only believe that because you are a Democrat!” and so on it goes. It is, according to Lewis, what lays at the foundation of all modern thought. It is the pernicious belief that there is ultimately no such thing as ultimate, objective reality, merely subjective experiences that differ from tribe to tribe, culture to culture. It is also a convenient way to avoid having to actually argue with anyone—if you can simply prove that the only reason they believe something is because of their gender or race, then you don’t need to bother with actually responding to the argument. Evidence, logic, rationality don’t matter—every claim is merely autobiographical.
In those world, in this kind of storm of subjectivism, more than ever we need Christians who can speak clearly, winsomely, boldly, and persuasively. Even if the world is awash in darkness, light still always shines. So, Christians, reflecting on Jesus, we should:
Be silent—don’t cast pearls before swine. When Jesus knew that His listeners were not actually interested in what He had to say, He remained quiet (cf. Luke 22:67-68). If it is obvious that someone isn’t interested in listening to the truth, shake the dust off your feet, and move on. Not every question must be answered.
Be bold—Jesus exemplified courage and a willingness to disagree. Are you able to tell someone, “I actually disagree with you”? Christians must be able to be willing to speak the truth, even if it appears that we are in the minority. Also, Jesus is particularly “sharp” towards those who appear to be inflated in their own ego. Jesus takes the Sadducees down a few pegs because of their cocky swagger. When Jesus meets religious arrogance in particular He does not hesitate to be pointed. Further, Jesus didn’t just react, but asked questions. He was not always passive, but went on the offense and sought to expose faulty foundations.
Be gentle—when the scribe asks Jesus a sincere question, Jesus doesn’t accuse him of “putting him to the test” or say, “You know neither the Scripture nor the power of God.” He answers plainly and clearly, then commends the scribe on his perceptive answer. Even when you are disagreeing with someone, are you able to commend them where they are right? Even though Jesus was willing to be pointed at times, that was not his modus operandi. If you were to look at the aggregate total of all of Jesus’ interactions in the gospels, they would be overwhelmingly marked by gentleness and respect with a few punctuations of zealous confrontation. Our lives should reflect that pattern.
Be Biblical—except for the first instance where Jesus refuses to answer the scribes, Jesus cites or alludes to the Bible every time. The Bible settles the matter. Man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Do not feel ashamed to appeal to God’s Word as your final and ultimate authority for what you believe. God’s Word brings life and is profitable for teaching, correction, reproof, and rebuke (2 Tim 3:16).
Be wise—in every instance, except for one, Jesus asks questions of his listeners. We should wisely employ the use of questions to draw our interlocuters into better discussion; we should ask people to define their terms, and should, like Jesus, occasionally use questions to make others defend their own worldview. Further, Jesus wisdom in debates was evident when He sensed that He was being painted into a corner. When a trap was laid for Jesus, He avoided it. We likewise should be cautious about forced into a false dichotomy or avoid particular circumstances if it appears that those we are discussing with may not have the best of intentions.