What does Mark 12:12 mean?
ESV: And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
NIV: Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
NASB: And they were seeking to seize Him, and yet they feared the people, for they understood that He told the parable against them. And so they left Him and went away.
CSB: They were looking for a way to arrest him but feared the crowd because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. So they left him and went away.
NLT: The religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because they realized he was telling the story against them — they were the wicked farmers. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.
KJV: And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way.
The parable of the tenants is closely related to the metaphoric prophecy in Isaiah 5:1–7. The main difference is that in Isaiah, the vineyard grows only wild grapes, not the domestic grapes the owner had planted. That is, the rebellion against the "landowner" came from the people, themselves. In this parable, Jesus explains that there's nothing wrong with the grapes, it's the tenants, or the religious leaders, who are corrupt and rebellious.
These same men refuse to disavow John the Baptist for fear of the people (Mark 11:32). They argue with Jesus over where His authority comes from (Mark 11:27–33). Then they fail to see the irony in the question. The religious leaders believe their authority comes from God, but they are threatened by Jesus and afraid of the people. That fear leads them to partner with Judas so they can arrest Jesus secretly (Mark 14:1–2). Jesus knows His authority is from God, and He is afraid of no one and nothing, not even death.
In the years since Malachi, the position of high priest had become more politicized. In the 2nd century BC, the role went to whomever bribed Antiochus Epiphanes last. After the Maccabean revolt, the high priest was often whoever had assassinated the previous high priest.
Jesus' point is that it isn't enough to receive authority from God if you don't then use that authority to do His will. The priests, scribes, and elders hold God-given positions, but they don't serve Him. This makes their position very tenuous. If you don't do the will of your master, he won't enforce your authority over the people. That means you have to trick, bribe, cajole, or lord over the people in order to maintain your influence. And if you haven't submitted your will to God, you're going to be more worried about keeping your influence than pleasing God.
Mark 12:1–12 takes place days before the crucifixion, while Jesus is in the temple courtyard, teaching. Chief priests, elders, and scribes—representatives of the Sanhedrin—have demanded to know the source of Jesus' authority to cleanse the Temple (Mark 11:27–28, 15–19). After exposing their hypocrisy, Jesus tells at least three additional stories that show how God will replace falsely-pious religious leaders with sinners who truly follow Him (Matthew 21:28—22:14). The second of these three stories is recorded here, in Matthew 21:33–46, and in Luke 20:9–19.
This chapter contains lessons taught by Jesus in various circumstances. He explains the eventual destruction of traditional Judaism, the relationship between secular and sacred obligations, the nature of the resurrection, and the most important of God's commandments. Jesus also expounds on Messianic statements in the Old Testament. Jesus also condemns the glory-seeking shallowness of the scribes, and extolls the virtues of sincere, faith-based giving.
Days before, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, hailed as a hero by the people (Mark 11:1–11). While teaching in the temple courtyard, Jesus shows superior understanding of Scripture over the chief priests, scribes, and elders (Mark 12:27–33), the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 12:13), the Sadducees (Mark 12:18), and the scribes again (Mark 12:35, 38). Sadly, even in the instance where a scribe does understand Scripture, that is no guarantee he will follow it to its logical conclusion: Jesus (Mark 12:28–34). In contrast, a humble widow exemplifies the faithfulness and piety the leaders lack (Mark 12:41–44). Jesus leaves the temple for the last time to teach the disciples on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13). In Mark 14, He prepares for the crucifixion.
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes both Jesus' servanthood and His role as the promised Messiah: the Son of God. This is done through a concise, action-packed style. Mark provides relatively few details, instead focusing on actions and simple statements. This relates to the Gospel's authorship, which is believed to be based on the memories of the apostle Peter. These include many of Jesus' miracles, in contrast to other Gospels which include many more of Jesus' teachings and parables. Mark also makes frequent mention of Jesus' ministry being misunderstood by others.
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