What does Mark 12:39 mean?
ESV: and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts,
NIV: and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
NASB: and seats of honor in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets,
CSB: the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets.
NLT: And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.
KJV: And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:
The "best seat" in a synagogue is in front, with one's back to the chest that holds the Torah. People who give feasts feel honored if a scribe and his followers join them. They honor the scribe in return by giving him the best seat—even above the hosts' parents. Jesus' half-brother James will insist that such behavior has no place in the church, and that the people the world honors are usually those who blaspheme Jesus and oppress His followers (James 2:1–7).
Jesus has already talked about the how inappropriate it is to presumptively take a seat of honor at a banquet (Luke 14:7–11). If we assume a prominent position, the host may find someone more important and publicly shame us as he moves us to the foot of the table. But if we take a humble seat, the host may honor us by moving us up. Not that we should seek such honor, of course; but it's better to assume a humble position than to be embarrassed when we're moved there later.
Matthew more specifically says that the scribes sit "on Moses' seat" (Matthew 23:2). There is debate as to whether this is a specific seat in the synagogue, but that's unlikely since there were no synagogues at the time of Moses—only the tabernacle. More likely, it means the role of an authoritative spiritual teacher who teaches the law and judges how it should be followed. As scribes, it's a valid job description. The way they fulfill their duties, however is dishonorable and ungodly.
Mark 12:38–40, a condemnation of the scribes, is the last of Jesus' public teaching recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. It's unclear when exactly John 12:20–50 occurs. Mark 12:41–44 and 13:1–2 are directed at the disciples, and Mark 13:3–37 at Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Mark 14 covers the preparation for the crucifixion, Mark 15 the trials and crucifixion itself, and Mark 16 the resurrection. This last public teaching covers the corruption of the traditional Jewish teachers. Luke 20:45–47 is similar to Mark's account while Matthew 23:1–36 goes in a great deal more detail.
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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