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Bible Commentaries
Mark 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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1. The controversy over Jesus’ authority 11:27-12:12

This controversy consisted of a discussion with the religious leaders over John the Baptist’s authority (Mark 11:27-33) followed by a parable that illustrated the religious leaders’ irresponsibility (Mark 12:1-12).

Verses 27-44

B. Jesus’ teaching in the temple 11:27-12:44

This entire section contains Jesus’ teaching in the temple courtyard on Wednesday. The religious leaders first questioned Jesus’ authority (Mark 11:12 to Mark 12:12) and then His teaching (Mark 12:13-37). Finally Jesus condemned their hypocrisy and commended a widow’s action that demonstrated reality (Mark 12:38-44). Jesus functioned as a faithful servant of the Lord in the role of a prophet here.

Verse 1

Jesus addressed this parable to all the people present (Luke 20:9) but the religious leaders particularly. The man in the parable represents God, the vineyard is Israel (Psalms 80:8-19; Jeremiah 2:21), and the tenants are Israel’s leaders. The parable develops the scene presented in Isaiah 5:1-2 that is part of a prophecy of God’s judgment on Israel (cf. Psalms 80:8-16). God spared no expense or effort to make Israel a choice nation. He had left Israel on its own, so to speak, after He had established the nation.

"Since the whole of the upper Jordan valley and a large part of the Galilean uplands were in the hands of foreign landlords at this time, such a practice was common." [Note: Ibid., p. 417.]

Verses 1-12

The parable of the wicked tenant farmers 12:1-12 (cf. Matthew 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19)

"The other major example of the concentric [chiastic] pattern in Mark’s story [beside Mark 2:1 to Mark 3:6] is the series of Jesus’ conflicts with the authorities in Jerusalem [ch. 12], comprised of seven episodes: Episodes A and A1 involve Jesus’ statement of judgment against the authorities (the riddle of the wicked tenants and the warning against the scribes). Episodes B and B1 include a quotation from the psalms followed by a reaction to that citation (the quotations about the cornerstone and David’s son); and episodes C and C1 are both legal discussions about love for God and neighbor (Caesar and God, and love for God and neighbor). Episode D is the central episode; its topic is the resurrection, and its theme illuminates all the episodes: the failure of the authorities to understand either the writings or the power of God." [Note: Rhoads and Michie, p. 53.]

Matthew’s account of this parable is fuller than Mark’s because Matthew evidently wanted to show the Jews how wicked and irresponsible their leaders were. Mark probably included the story because it contrasts the behavior of Israel’s official servants, the religious leaders, with God’s Servant, Jesus.

"Recent study of the Zenon papyri and of the rabbinic parables has shown that situations very closely analogous to that of the parable actually existed in Palestine both around 280 years prior to Jesus’ ministry and for some time afterward." [Note: Lane, p. 416.]

Verses 2-5

The harvest time stands for the time when God expected to obtain some reward for His investment in Israel. The servants represent the prophets whom Israel’s leaders typically rejected, persecuted, and even in some cases murdered. The main point of the parable is the wicked treatment Israel’s leaders had given the servants whom God had sent to them.

Verses 6-8

The sending of the owner’s son constituted the supreme test for the tenant farmers. The tenant farmers in the parable may have believed that the owner of the vineyard had died and that he had only one son who was his heir. They reasoned that if they killed the son there would be no one else to inherit the vineyard and they could retain control of it. The tenants evidently threw the son out of the vineyard and then killed him (Matthew 21:39; Luke 20:15). Mark’s order of events (Mark 12:8) shows that his murder was also an act of rejection. [Note: Lenski, p. 512.]

The religious leaders certainly behaved as though God was dead. He really had only one uniquely beloved Son (cf. Mark 1:11; Mark 9:7).

Verse 9

The tenant farmers’ rejection of the owner’s son was really a rejection of the owner. His logical reaction would be to remove them and give the care of his vineyard to other tenants. Likewise God would remove Israel’s leaders and replace them with other leaders, leaders of the church.

"This prediction was fulfilled in the church where the spiritual leadership became entrusted mainly to those of Gentile origin. But the determining factor is their faithfulness, not their national origin." [Note: Hiebert, p. 290.]

Verses 10-11

Jesus carried His revelation concerning the fate of the Son further by referring to this psalm. This is the same psalm the crowds chanted at the Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:9; cf. Psalms 118:22-23). The stone in view is probably the capstone for the building that God is building. In its original use, the stone represented Israel. Here Jesus made Himself the stone (cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). The Father’s reversal of the Son’s fate elicited wonder from the beholders because it was an unexpected turn of events that demonstrated divine sovereignty.

It appears that Israel’s leaders rejected the Stone that was to be the capstone to complete Israel, God’s temple, through which He would work to bring blessing to all mankind (Genesis 12:3). The Stone rejected has become, not the capstone, but the most important Stone in the foundation of a new temple that God is now building, namely, the church (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-10). After God removes the church from the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), the Stone will return to the earth (cf. Daniel 2:34-35; Daniel 2:44-45; Revelation 19:11-16), and Israel will accept Him (Zechariah 12:10). Then He will complete Israel (Isaiah 59:20), and Israel will, during the millennium, function as the temple that God intended her to be (Daniel 7:22). He will then bring blessing to the whole earth through Israel.

Verse 12

The meaning of Jesus’ parable was clear to the religious leaders. Jesus had exposed their murderous plot to kill Him. The favor of the multitude shielded Jesus from their wrath temporarily.

Jesus’ claims to being God’s beloved Son were becoming increasingly clear to everyone. As they became clearer, opposition from Israel’s leaders intensified.

Verse 13

Sanhedrin members took the initiative in sending the Pharisees and Herodians. They united against Jesus, whom they perceived as a common threat, even though they disagreed politically. They asked Jesus about a political issue that divided them.

Verses 13-17

Jesus’ teaching about the poll tax 12:13-17 (cf. Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26)

Verses 13-37

2. The controversy over Jesus’ teaching 12:13-37

Controversy over Jesus’ authority led to controversy over His teaching. The Jewish religious leaders attacked Him three times trying to destroy His credibility and popularity. They plied Him with questions about the poll tax (Mark 12:13-17), the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27), and the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34). Then Jesus took the initiative and questioned them about Messiah’s sonship (Mark 12:35-37). This ended their attacks. The whole encounter happened on Wednesday following the events just recorded. It recalls the similar earlier sequence of conflicts with Jesus in Galilee (cf. Mark 2:1 to Mark 3:6)

Verses 14-15

The critics’ preamble was hypocritical flattery, but what they said about Jesus was true. They intended to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. [Note: Hunter, p. 116.] Since Judea had become a Roman province in A.D. 6 the Romans had required the Jews to pay a yearly poll (head) tax into the emperor’s treasury. The Zealots later refused to pay it claiming that payment acknowledged Rome’s right to rule over them. The Pharisees paid it but objected strongly to it. The Herodians paid it willingly since they supported Roman rule.

Jesus’ critics asked Him what was the right or lawful thing to do. In their eyes Messiah would never sanction foreign rule, but if Jesus publicly opposed Rome He would be in a dangerous position. They thought that either answer would hurt Jesus.

Verses 15-16

Jesus exposed their question for what it was, malicious entrapment rather than honest inquiry. The small silver denarius was the only coin the Romans accepted in payment for taxes. [Note: Grassmick, p. 162.] The images on the coin showed that Rome had political authority over those who used it.

"The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor as the simi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia and bore the (abbreviated) inscription ’Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’ on the obverse and ’Pontifex Maximus’ on the reverse. Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honors." [Note: Lane, p. 424.]

Verse 17

Jesus avoided the "either or" problem with a "both and" response. God has authority over those who bear His image. Therefore the Jews should give Him His due, namely, complete personal submission. Caesar also had some authority over those who used his image on his coins. Therefore the Jews should pay their tax.

"Though the obligation to pay to Caesar some of his own coinage in return for the amenities his rule provided is affirmed, the idolatrous claims expressed on the coins are rejected. God’s rights are to be honored. Here Jesus is not saying that there are two quite separate independent spheres, that of Caesar and that of God (for Caesar and all that is his belongs to God); but he is indicating that there are obligations to Caesar which do not infringe the rights of God but are indeed ordained by God." [Note: Cranfield, p. 372.]

This answer amazed (Gr. exethaumazon) Jesus’ critics. He had avoided the trap they had laid for Him and had given a profound though simple answer to their question.

This teaching would have been especially helpful to Mark’s original Roman readers. It helped them and all subsequent disciples understand that Christianity does not advocate disloyalty to the state (cf. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Duty to God does not eliminate duty to government. Nevertheless duty to government does not eliminate one’s higher duty to God either.

Verse 18

The Sadducees were mainly urban, wealthy, and educated Jews. Their numbers were comparatively few, but they occupied important positions including many in the priesthood. Their influence was greater than their size as a party within Judaism. This is the only place Mark mentioned them. They claimed to believe only what the Old Testament taught, and they did not follow the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees observed. They did not believe in the resurrection because they said they could find no clear revelation about it in the Old Testament.

"It is probable that the Sadducees began as a political faction which supported the legitimacy of the Hasmonean throne over the protest of the purists who insisted on a separation of the priestly and royal prerogatives or who looked for a revival of the Davidic kingdom." [Note: Lane, p. 426.]

The Hasmonean throne refers to rule by the Herods.

Verses 18-27

Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection 12:18-27 (cf. Matthew 22:23-33; Luke 20:27-40)

Verses 19-23

The Sadducees posed their hypothetical case to make any view of the resurrection but their own look absurd. [Note: Swete, p. 278.]

Verses 24-25

The Sadducees did not understand the Scriptural revelation about resurrection. Furthermore they did not realize that God’s power was sufficient to raise people and to raise them to a different type of life. Marriage as we know it will not exist when we have immortal bodies, and deathless existence will not require propagation of the human race. The Sadducees denied the existence of the angelic race (Acts 23:8), which belief Jesus also corrected. They considered their views enlightened, but Jesus said they needed enlightening. Jesus did not say that when people die they become angels, which they do not, nor that we will be like angels in every respect, which we will not.

Verses 26-27

In concluding that the Old Testament did not teach the resurrection, the Sadducees had overlooked an important passage in the Torah (Pentateuch). They regarded the Torah as particularly authoritative. Exodus 3:6 taught continued human existence after death. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still alive in Moses’ day. The Sadducees not only rejected the resurrection but also life after death. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 18:1:4; idem, The Wars . . ., 2:8:14. See the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. "Sadducees," by D. A. Hagner, 5:214-15.] The Jews had a more holistic view of man than most modern westerners do (cf. Genesis 2:7). The Sadducees concluded that if the material part of man died, the whole person ceased to exist. Jesus, who held the same unified view of man, argued that if the immaterial part of man lived the whole person would live.

The major error of the Sadducees was their mistaken understanding of scriptural revelation. Jesus’ final rebuke (Mark 12:27), unique in the second Gospel, stressed that flaw.

"If the death of the patriarchs is the last word of their history, there has been a breach of the promises of God guaranteed by the [Abrahamic] covenant, and of which the formula ’the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob’ is the symbol. It is in fidelity to his covenant that God will resurrect the dead." [Note: Lane, p. 430.]

Verse 28

The rabbis counted 613 commands in the Mosaic Law, 365 positive and 248 negative. They recognized that all were not equally important or equally foundational. They debated which were the "heavy" commands and which were the "light" ones. They also tried to formulate principles that comprehended the rest of the Law. [Note: Wessel, p. 737.] These were the concerns of the law teacher who asked Jesus what type (Gr. poia) of command He regarded as first in importance.

"The scribe desired Jesus to indicate a principle of classification." [Note: Hiebert, p. 303.]

Matthew viewed his question as coming from the scribe who spoke as a spokesman for the Pharisees whereas Mark presented it as his personal concern. This difference reflects Mark’s interest in individuals.

Verses 28-34

Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment 12:28-34 (cf. Matthew 22:34-40)

The third attack by Jesus’ enemies involved a question about the greatest commandment (cf. Luke 10:25-28).

Verses 29-30

Mark’s account included Deuteronomy 6:4, which Matthew omitted. This verse, the first in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; cf. Deuteronomy 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41) that the Jews repeated twice daily, provides a basis for Deuteronomy 6:5. Shema is the first Hebrew word in this passage, and it means "Hear." Matthew’s Jewish readers would have understood this, but Mark’s Gentile readers probably would not have. Mark 12:4 is an affirmation of belief in the unity of God (i.e., in monotheism). Many of Mark’s original readers had formerly been polytheists.

"God is to be loved completely and totally (Mark 12:30) because he, and he alone, is God and because he has made a covenant of love with his people. In the covenant God gives himself totally in love to his people; therefore he expects his people to give themselves totally (’soul,’ ’mind,’ and ’strength’) in love to him." [Note: Wessel, p. 737.]

"Heart" represents the control center of human personality, "soul" the self-conscious thought life, "mind" the thought capacity, and "strength" all of one’s bodily powers. [Note: Grassmick, p. 164.] These are to be the sources out of which love for God should flow. We should love God with all our will (decisions), emotions (desires), minds (thoughts), and bodies (actions).

"A comparison of the order-heart, soul, mind (Matthew); heart, soul, mind, strength (Mark); heart, soul, strength, mind (Luke); heart, soul, strength (the Masoretic Text); and mind, soul, strength (the Septuagint)-among the various lists suggests that Mark and Luke added ’mind’ to the Hebrew/Septuagintal formula whereas Matthew substituted ’mind’ for ’strength.’" [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "Deuteronomy, New Testament Faith, and the Christian Life," in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, p. 26.]

Verse 31

The scribe had requested one commandment, but Jesus gave him two. Love for man in Leviticus 19:18 grows out of love for God in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and is inseparable from it philosophically. The Jews regarded only fellow Jews and full proselytes as their neighbors, but Jesus taught that a neighbor is anyone with whom we have any dealings whatsoever (cf. Luke 10:25-27). "Neighbor" (Gr. plesion, lit. one nearby) is a generic term for fellowman.

We are to love all others as we love ourselves. The Law assumed that every person has a fundamental love for himself or herself. We demonstrate this love by caring for ourselves in many different ways. [Note: For refutation of the view that this command implies that we must learn to love ourselves before we can love others, see Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, pp. 130-31.] Loving our neighbors as ourselves does not mean spending the same time or money to meet the needs of others that we do to meet our own needs since this would be impossible. It means treating others as we treat ourselves.

These are the greatest commandments because they summarize the two basic responsibilities of the Law, our duties toward God and those toward other people. These are basic human responsibilities. The termination of the Mosaic Code does not invalidate them. They have been primary since creation and will continue as such forever because of man’s relationship to God and because of the unity of the human race.

Verses 32-33

Mark alone recorded the scribe’s response and Jesus’ comment (Mark 12:34). These words underscore the importance of Jesus’ teaching. The scribe believed Jesus’ answer was correct. He, too, viewed love as more important than the observance of religious ritual (cf. 1 Samuel 15:22; Hosea 6:6). This was not typical of the Pharisees, who regarded ritual observance as more important than attitude, and ceremony as more important than morality.

". . . the ’friendly scribe’ himself puts his finger on the fundamental difference separating Jesus and the religious authorities in terms of what it is to do the will of God: Whereas the essential matter for Jesus is loving God and neighbor, for the authorities it is strict adherence to law and tradition as they define this.

". . . Mark is in effect using the friendly scribe to identify the two contrasting positions of Jesus and the authorities on doing the will of God." [Note: Kingsbury, pp. 17, 124.]

Verse 34

Jesus meant that the scribe was not far from entering the kingdom. His openness to Scriptural revelation and his positive orientation to Jesus, if continued, would bring him to faith in Jesus and ultimately entrance into His kingdom.

Jesus’ skillful answers discouraged His critics from trying to trap Him. They stopped asking Him questions.

It was clear that Jesus’ derived His authority from God’s Word (cf. Mark 11:28). All the answers He gave went back to the Old Testament. Since this is the authority all the Jewish leaders claimed to follow, though they did not, they failed to discredit Jesus.

Verse 35

Jesus responded to the situation before Him. He wanted to know the sense in which the teachers of the law believed that Messiah was David’s son. The Old Testament clearly taught that Messiah would be a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:8-16; et al.). The leaders believed this, but their understanding of Messiah’s relationship to David was only that of another victorious Jewish king from David’s dynasty.

Verses 35-37

Jesus’ question about Messiah’s sonship 12:35-37 (cf. Matthew 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44)

Until now the religious leaders had questioned Jesus about His teaching. Now He asked them about theirs (Matthew 22:41). Matthew’s account of this incident is the longest.

Verses 36-37

Mark focused the readers’ attention on Jesus’ authoritative teaching by omitting the Pharisees’ answer, which Matthew included to discredit them (Matthew 22:42). Here only in the sayings of Jesus did He trace the authority of an Old Testament passage to its divine inspiration. How could Messiah be both lesser than David (his son) and greater than David (his lord) at the same time?

". . . Jesus uses his superior knowledge of the legal and prophetic writings to justify his actions and to defend against criminal accusations." [Note: Rhoads and Michie, p. 85.]

Psalms 110:1 showed that the Messiah was not only David’s junior in age but also his senior in rank. [Note: Moule, p. 99.] He is the Son of God, God as well as man.

"Only through the Virgin Birth does Jesus possess the dual nature that allows Him to be both David’s Son and David’s Lord." [Note: Bailey, p. 90.]

Mark’s record of the crowd’s positive response to Jesus’ teaching further stressed its authority. Israel’s religious leaders challenged it, but the multitudes acknowledged it.

Verses 38-39

Jesus condemned the religious leaders for having the attitude of lords rather than that of servants. He spoke of the religious teachers as a group, though there were exceptional individuals, of course (cf., e.g., Mark 12:34). Most Israelites of this time venerated the scribes with unbounded respect. [Note: See Lane, pp. 339-40, for some examples.]

Verses 38-40

Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrisy 12:38-40 (cf. Matthew 23:1-39; Luke 20:45-47)

Mark condensed Jesus’ comments that Matthew recorded extensively to give the essence of Jesus’ criticism. These words signal Jesus’ final break with Israel’s official leaders.

Verses 38-44

3. Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrisy and commendation of reality 12:38-44

Jesus proceeded to condemn His accusers who had condemned Him. They had condemned Him because He did not fit their ideas of Messiah. He had shown that the Old Testament presented a different Messiah than the one they wanted. Now He condemned them for failing to measure up to what the Old Testament required of them. This section concludes Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry and resumes Jesus’ teaching of His disciples.

Verse 40

This verse "passes from their ostentatious manners to their corrupt morals." [Note: Hiebert, p. 310.] Teachers of the law did not receive an income from the state; they depended on voluntary contributions. [Note: Wessel, p. 740.] This led some of them to prey on the sympathy of others, even widows who needed all their income simply to survive. This reference sets the stage for the next incident (Mark 12:41-44).

Their typically long prayers presented an impression of piety that masked greed. They pretended to love God greatly, but their aim was to get people to love them greatly. The result would be greater condemnation when they stood before God’s judgment bar. Here is another indication that there are degrees of punishment (cf. Matthew 11:20-24; James 3:1; et al.).

Verses 41-42

There were 13 trumpet-shaped metal receptacles (Heb. shofar) that the priests had placed against a wall of the women’s courtyard to receive the Jews’ offerings. [Note: Mishnah Shekalim 6:5.] The court of the women was within the court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the temple. A low barrier separated the court of the Gentiles from the other courtyards and the temple building that lay within this enclosure. The court of the women was farther from the temple building than the court of Israel, which only Jewish men could enter, or the court of the priests, which only the priests could enter. Jesus had given His preceding teaching in the court of the Gentiles. Now He evidently moved into the court of the women.

While there he observed how (Gr. pos) the Jewish men and women who had come to celebrate Passover were putting their voluntary contributions into the receptacles.

The woman whom Jesus observed was not only a widow but a poor widow. She contrasts with the many wealthy people there. The two small bronze coins (Gr. lepta) that the widow contributed were together worth about one sixty-fourth of a denarius, the day’s wage of a workingman in Palestine. Mark told his Roman readers that they were worth "a fraction of" (NIV) one Roman cent (Gr. kodrantes, a transliteration of the Latin quadrans).

Verses 41-44

Jesus’ commendation of reality 12:41-44 (cf. Luke 21:1-4)

This incident contrasts the spiritual poverty and physical prosperity of the scribes with the physical poverty and spiritual prosperity of the widow. It also contrasts the greed of the scribes with the generosity of the widow. It resumes Jesus’ instruction of His disciples (Mark 12:41 to Mark 13:37). This pericope brings the themes of true piety (the woman) and hardened unbelief (the scribes) to a climax. [Note: See Geoffrey Smith, "A Closer Look at the Widow’s Offering: Mark 12:41-44," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:1 (March 1997)27-36.]

Verses 43-44

Mark stressed the importance of this lesson for disciples by noting that Jesus called His disciples to Him and then prefaced His statement with "Truly I say to you" (NASB). The poor widow’s offering was more than the others because it cost her more to give it and because she gave it willingly nevertheless. Since she gave two coins, she could have kept one for herself. Her sacrifice expressed her love for God and her trust in God to sustain her (cf. 1 Kings 17:8-16).

"The means of the giver and the motive are the measure of true generosity." [Note: Plummer, p. 290.]

"The test of liberality is not what is given, but what is left." [Note: William Kelly, An Exposition of the Gospel of Mark, p. 179.]

Here is another instructive example of a person with a servant’s attitude who gave her all, as little as that was, to God (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus and Mark taught disciples how God values wholehearted commitment to Himself with this incident.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Mark 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/mark-12.html. 2012.
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