In his excellent book The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel, Peter Bolt shows how religion in Jesus day had soured. In one footnote, he surveys the whole Gospel to show repeated instances of religion gone bad.
I share the note in full because it helps us to see what false religion looks like, what Jesus had to contend against in his day, and what we should avoid as new creatures in Christ. As Bolt puts it, “Mark exposes religion as having multiple faults.” He then lists more than fifteen different evidences of priestly malpractice:
- It had teaching that lacked authority (1:22–28).
- It had allowed the daimonic into its core (1:21-28).
- Mark shows that the Jewish religion had rules that excluded people from their own homes in the interest of cleanliness (1:40–45), and rituals that could pronounce that people had become clean, but could not do anything to make them so (1:44).
- It grumbled over potential blasphemy (2:7) while committing the greatest blasphemy of all time, the destruction of the Messiah.
- It fostered a judgmental spirit, in which rules were placed above relationships.
- It displayed an inability to offer real help in the face of human suffering. When somebody died, religion could provide the professional mourners and the rules to ensure that the corpse did not pollute, but could do nothing about the problem of death itself and the grief under which it forces human beings to live.
- Obsessed with status and position, the religious leaders could miss the miracles in their midst (6:1–6) while demanding miracles more in keeping with their own desires (8:11–13).
- They nullify the Word of God in order to keep the human traditions (7:1–13), and have the appearance of being scrupulous about the things of God, but in reality have hearts that are rotten to the core (7:14–23).
- The religious miss the coming of the Messiah, while the condemned Gentiles rejoice that he is in their midst (7:24-30; 8:31–37).
- They argue about divorce, ignoring the fact that the very presence of the divorce provisions in their law testify to the problem of their hard hearts (10:1–12).
- They teach that eternal life is achieved by what a person does, and yet cover over the human reality that none of us can do enough (10:17-31).
- Their obsession with importance and status leads them to exclude the sick and the young.
- They allow God’s house to become a den of robbers, and demand payment for services, even if this is the ruin of the poor whom they were meant to protect.
- They plot to kill the Messiah on the sabbath and later pay his ‘friend’ to betray him, and collaborate with the national enemies, the Gentiles.
- They use deception and politics to destroy him.
- They occupy the Messiah’s seat, and yet refuse to give it up when he arrives.
- They destroy him, and then gloat over the demise of their enemy.– Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 28 n27; bullet points mine
Why did Jesus pronounce a judgment on the leaders of Israel when he came to the temple (Mark 11:15–19; 12:1–12)? Because the shepherds of God’s flock had fleeced the sheep and led the people astray. For all the evidences of grace in first-century Israel (see Romans 3:1–8) and all the people who were rightly seeking the Messiah, the priests of Israel led the people astray, thus creating a personal barrier to God himself (cf. Matthew 23).
Though the Gospels do not explicitly call Jesus a priest, they do show the wickedness of Israel’s priests and the need for a new priesthood. In this context, Jesus alone shows promise of priestly mediation—i.e., restoring Israel (and the nations) to God. Thus, in the shadow the temple, arises the hope that God has brought a Son of Israel who would ransom the people of God (Mark 10:44–45), forgive their sins (Mark 2:10), and give them re-entry into the presence of God (Luke 9:31).
Under the Old Covenant, this is what the priests did. By the time of Christ, however, they had failed in this ministry. Thankfully, as Hebrews will explain—Christ is this great and sympathetic high priest. And in the Gospels, we are encouraged to believe that the old is passing away and that Jesus, as the Lord’s Messiah, is bringing something new (Mark 2:21–22). In Mark’s Gospel, we see this priestly hope arising. And Bolt underscores this point with the detail of indictments against Israel’s priests.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds