It is now Tuesday morning, March 31, A.D. 33. The disciples point to the withered fig tree that Jesus had cursed the day before. Jesus gives his disciples a simple lesson from it: Have faith in God. In particular, he says, if they have undoubting faith they can throw even the mountains into the sea.
Now if the disciples had ears to hear they would recognize that Jesus is talking about more than seemingly magical powers that can curse trees and crumble mountains. He is talking about realities bigger than this.
Note that he closes this mini-lesson on mountain-moving, undoubting faith by saying, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Jesus is reminding them that failing to forgive looms as a bigger obstacle to answered prayer than a mountain. The disciples will soon face great challenges to their faith and their ability to forgive. Will they remember this withered tree on the road from Bethany?
As they approach the Holy City, the events from the day before could not have been far from their minds. As Jesus enters the Temple Mount, crowds gather to hear him teach (Luke 21:38), and the chief priests, scribes, and elders waste no time in making their move. They will try to lay four traps to ensnare their adversary.
Trap One: Whose Authority?
By whose authority, they demand to know, had Jesus carried out his actions the day before (Mark 11:28)? Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he turns the tables on them with a question of his own: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (Mark 11:30). If they respond “from heaven,” the next question is obvious: Then why don’t you believe the one about whom John testifies? If they retort “from man,” they risk alienating the crowds that hold John in high esteem as a prophet.
Jesus then offers three parabolic stories (about two sons, murderous tenants, and guests at a wedding feast), all driving home the point that they are rejecting grace and truth in the service of hypocritical self-righteousness.
Trap Two: Whose Allegiance?
The leaders try a new tactic. They send Pharisees (a Jewish sect known for its zeal for the law) and Herodians (those loyal to Herod’s dynasty) to ask him a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:20–26). If he answers “yes,” he shatters people’s expectations of him as a Messiah who will overthrow Roman rule. If he says “no,” he can be arrested for fomenting revolt.
But Jesus deftly evades the either-or dilemma: The denarius has Caesar’s image on it; as long as Caesar is in power, it is appropriate to pay taxes to him. And we are also to give God the things that are God’s; since we are made in God’s image, we owe everything — all that we have and all that we are — to him. Pay your taxes and worship God.
Trap Three: Whose Wife in the Resurrection?
After Jesus has silenced the Pharisees and Herodians, the Sadducees (a Jewish sect denying the end-time resurrection of the dead) try to ridicule Jesus’s belief in the resurrection by asking a trick question about marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40). Jesus tells them they do not understand the Scriptures (there is no marriage in heaven) or the power of God (God’s self-affirmation in Exodus 3:6, 15–16 shows that he is a God of the living, not the dead). Like the others, their smirk turns to marvel as they grow silent.
Trap Four: Which Commandment?
Now the Pharisees send forth an expert in the law to question Jesus: Which of God’s commands is the greatest (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34)? Jesus summarizes his answer in a word: love (to God and for neighbor: Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18). But Jesus discerns something different from this questioner, so he commends and implicitly invites him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Now it’s Jesus’s turn to initiate some questions with those who are trying to trap him. When he asks them a question about Psalm 110:1 and how the Messiah can be David’s Lord, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46). Jesus then launches a lengthy, scathing critique of the scribes and Pharisees, pronouncing seven woes of judgment upon these “hypocrites” and “blind guides” (Matthew 23:1–39; Mark 12:38–40; Luke 20:45–47).
This full-scale verbal assault removes all doubt concerning Jesus’s intentions, agenda, and aims. He has no desire to ally himself with the current leadership. He has come to overthrow their authority. There’s no way both sides can survive the escalating conflict. Either Jesus will assume power, or he must die.
Grace and Truth in Every Trap
With another tension-filled day behind them, Jesus and the disciples begin to head back to Bethany. They stop on the Mount of Olives to rest, giving them a wonderful view of Jerusalem as the sun begins to set behind it in the west. The disciples marvel at the size and the grandeur of these impressive buildings, but Jesus tells them that a day is soon coming when not a single stone will be left upon another. He goes on to explain that his followers will experience increasing persecution and tribulation, leading up to the final Day of Judgment. But their task is to remain vigilant and persist in faith.
Tuesday is now done. But Friday is coming. This is not the flannel-board Jesus some of us learned as children. This is the real, historical Jesus: fully in control as he responds with grace and truth to traps on all sides. He knows what he is doing. And he knows what is coming. Every word and every step is for the fame of his Father’s name and the salvation of those willing to pick up their cross and die with him.