Jesus and Resurrection (Mark 12:18-27)
Unfortunately, there was a problem recording the audio of this sermon. It can be found here, but is of poor quality: https://qbc.org/sermons/728203--jesus-and-resurrection
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What was most helpful from the sermon?
- Read over Mark 12:18-27. Why did the Sadducees ask their question about the woman with seven husbands? What was Jesus' response?
- Why was Jesus so harsh with the Sadducees?
- Put yourself in the Sadducees shoes. If you had been living like there was no life after death, and then were convinced that you were wrong, what would you do?
- Why makes the Bible's teaching about life after death so severe? What makes it so gracious?
- Do you remember any of the evidences for the resurrection?
- Read Revelation 20:11-15. Who do you know who is currently living like this won't happen. Take time now to pray for them, pray that the Lord would give you an opportunity to share the gospel with them, pray that they would be converted.
Adoniram Judson was a precocious student. Born in 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts to an austere and strict Congregationalist minister, Adoniram could read an entire chapter of the Bible by the age of three. He mastered Greek and Latin by the age of ten, and attended Brown University at the age of 16, testing out of all the required classes for Freshman, starting as a Sophomore, and graduated valedictorian three years later. Though Adoniram was raised in a very strict religious home and was taught the Bible from a young age, once at college his intelligent mind was more attracted to the philosophical and logical bent of the small group of Deists present. Deism is the belief that rejected all revealed religion and only believed in a distant god who created the world and then abandoned it. One student in particular, Jacob Eames, became Adoniram’s best friend and guide to this new worldview, teaching him to use his mind to think for himself, exercise skepticism, and sluff off his father’s antiquated religion for a more enlightened perspective.
So, to his father’s horror, Adoniram became a pronounced Deist and decided to use his mind to achieve as much worldly pleasure as he could, and at 19 years old abandoned Christianity altogether. Living the life of the proverbial prodigal son, Adoniram travelled to New York City in hopes of achieving his dreams. However, in time, like the prodigal son, the dazzle and allure of the city began to dim, fade, and then sour. While travelling one night Adoniram came to a busy country inn looking for a room. He learned, unfortunately, that the only room available was one next to a room where a young man lay critically ill, perhaps even dying. Adoniram, exhausted and with no other options, took the room.
His biographer writes, “But though the night was still, he could not sleep. In the next room beyond the partition he could hear sounds, not very loud; footsteps coming and going; a board creaking; low voices; a groan or gasp. These did not disturb him unduly—not even the realization that a man might by dying. Death was commonplace in Adoniram’s New England…What disturbed him was the thought that the man in the next room might not be prepared for death. Was he, himself?...He wondered how he himself would face death. His father would welcome it as a door opening outward to immortal glory. So much his [faith] had done for him. But to Adoniram the son, the freethinker, the Deist, the infidel, lying huddled under the covers, death was an exit, not an entrance. It was a door to an empty out, to darkness darker than night, at best extinction, at worst to—what? On this matter his philosophy was silent.” (Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 42-43)
Today Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is worth celebrating for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it holds forth the promise that for Christians death is not “an exit” but a “door opening outward to immortal glory.” I wonder what your view of death is today, friend? Perhaps you are like Adoniram’s father, confident and at peace with what lays beyond the grave. Or maybe you are like young Adoniram huddled under the covers, clueless and terrified of what may come. Whoever you are, the resurrection of Jesus Christ offers you hope today.
Our church has been steadily working through the gospel of Mark and, in God’s providence, our text today deals with the issue of death and resurrection. And in our text, we see Jesus interacting with a group of people who shared views similar to the young Adoniram, confident that the traditional religious view of “life after death” to be wrong. Turn now to Mark 12:
And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” – Mark 12:18-27
Mark opens this text by introducing us to a new group of people: the Sadducees. We are told that they “say that there is no resurrection.” The Sadducees were a group of priestly aristocrats. They differed greatly from the other group we hear of more commonly, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were far more conservative in their interpretation of the Bible, while the Sadducees denied a great deal. Sadducees rejected everything from the Old Testament except the first five books of Moses, denied any kind of life after death, and many more things. But Mark specifies that it is particularly the issue of resurrection they have come to discuss with Jesus. So they request Jesus to answer their carefully crafted question:
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother,” Mark 12:19.
The Sadducees are referencing the command of what was known as “levirate marriage” from Deut 25:5-10, where God commands single brothers of deceased men to marry the widow if they have no sons, so that the wife would be cared for and the family name would carry on. In their story, a very unlucky woman keeps burying her husbands and then eventually dies herself. “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife,” Mark 12:23. The “resurrection” that they are referring to is the resurrection that all other Jews (besides the Sadducees) believed in, the final resurrection at the end of the age when God would raise everyone’s bodies from the dead, and then judge them.
The Sadducees, of course, are not asking this question out of a genuine desire to learn anything. They are asking the question in order to demonstrate that Jesus’ belief—and every other conservative Jew’s belief—in the resurrection and afterlife is ridiculous. Every Jew knew that marriage was designed to be between one man and one woman. So how, the Sadducees reasoned, could God command a man to marry his brother’s widow if it meant that in the resurrection something would persist that violated God’s design? This must mean that Moses did not believe that there was such a thing as an afterlife or a resurrection. That’s their reasoning.
Jesus response is unusually sharp: “Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Mark 12:24. At the close of his explanation, Jesus will give another stinging rebuke: “You are quite wrong,” Mark 12:27. Why is Jesus so pointed with them? This was something we discussed a few weeks ago, but when we read the gospels we find that Jesus is usually the most stern with people who are arrogant. The Sadducees are not asking this question in good faith—they think the doctrine Jesus believes in is silly and laughable, so Jesus responds firmly and clearly. But let’s take a deeper look into Jesus’ response.
Jesus says the Sadducees are wrong for two reasons: (1) they do not know the Scriptures and (2) they do not know the power of God.
Of course, because the Sadducees only accept the first five books of Moses as authoritative, there is a great deal of Scripture that they do not know. The teaching of the resurrection and afterlife is taught most clearly and abundantly outside of the first five books of Moses and are found in the Prophets (Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1–14) and Writings (Dan. 12:2; Pss. 16:9–11; 49:15; 73:23–26; Job 19:26). But, rather than point to these sources, Jesus decides to use an argument from a source that they do trust and find authoritative: Moses. Jesus cites one of the most famous and popular passages: Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” Jesus concludes, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong,” Mark 12:27. God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham,” but “I am the God of Abraham.” As in, Abraham is still alive now. Therefore, there is an afterlife and there will be a resurrection.
The second reason they are wrong is that they “do not know the power of God,” by which Jesus means the power of the resurrection. The Sadducees assume that the resurrection life is going to be exactly the same as life is on earth, but Jesus corrects them: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” Mark 12:25. One of the ways that life after death is different is that there will no longer be marriage. Jesus teaches that marriage is truly “till death do us part,” and after death marriage is no more—otherwise no one would ever be permitted to marry again if their spouse died.
In the Bible the purpose of marriage is to provide children (be fruitful and multiply), companionship, and to serve as a parable of God’s love for His people (Eph 5:22-33). After death, children will no longer be born, since death will no longer exist; companionship will be provided through our perfect union with God and our fellow saints; and the parable will no longer be needed because we will have the consummate reality directly in front of us.
While Mark has probably only recorded a summary of the whole interaction, what we find in the encounter are the Sadducees being left speechless. They have no response to Jesus’ rebuke. It isn’t as if they do not respond because Jesus was just so sweet and kind that they feel too flattered to respond—no, Jesus has just made them look like fools. The Sadducees were authoritative, priestly figures and considered themselves experts in the first five books of Moses, but Jesus just publicly used their own source of authority—Moses—to contradict and correct them. And it isn’t as if the issue they are debating is some abstract, unimportant argument that has no consequence on their life.
You see, if the Sadducees are wrong on there being life after death then that means they are wrong on one other issue as well: judgment. The traditional Jewish teaching—which the Sadducees had rejected—was that at the end of the age there would be a final resurrection where all people would be raised to life, and then judged by God. It is this scene that is described in one of the final chapters of the Bible:
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Rev 20:11-15
The wealthy, educated, aristocratic Sadducees had been living as if that kind of judgment simply did not exist. Paul summarizes their worldview well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” 1 Cor 15:32. If there is no resurrection, if there is no life after death, let us eat and drink and be merry now—you only live once, so live it up!
How would you be living your life if you were certain that on the other side of death there was nothing but annihilation? And let’s say you live the majority of your life that way. What would it then be like for you to then realize that you were wrong, that there was life after death? And that the nature of the rest of your eternity was going to be determined by how you lived your life? It would be as if you were convinced that you had some terminal illness and were given only a few months left to live, so you decide to live as recklessly as you could for those next few months, taking out massive loans and saddling yourselves with debt to pursue whatever pleasure you want, only to then be told that you were misdiagnosed. You have many, many more years left to live, but now you will spend the rest of those years dealing with the consequences of what you did in this short time.
It was this possibility of life after death that assaulted the young Adoniram as he lay huddled under his covers. His biographer writes:
“As Adoniram lay in bed that night, agonizing over what would happen when he would die, he suddenly chided himself, These are nothing more than midnight fancies! “What a skin-deep thing this freethinking philosophy of Adoniram Judson, valedictorian, scholar, teacher, ambitious man, must be! What would the classmates at Brown say to these terrors of the night, who thought of him as bold in thought? Above all, what would Eames say—Eames the clearheaded, skeptical, witty, talented? He imagined Eames’s laughter, and felt shame.
When Adoniram woke the sun was streaming in the window. His apprehensions had vanished with the darkness. He could hardly believe he had given in to such weakness. He dressed quickly and ran downstairs, looking for the innkeeper…He found his host, asked for the bill, and – perhaps noticing the man somber-faced – asked casually whether or not the young man in the next room was better. “He is dead,” was the answer.
“Dead?” Adoniram was taken aback. For an instant, some of his fear of the night made itself felt once more. Adoniram stammered out the few conventional phrases common to humanity when death takes someone nearby, and asked the inevitable question: “Do you know who he was?”
“Oh yes. Young man from the college in Providence. Names Eames, Jacob Eames.” – (Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 43-44).
Jacob Eames, Adoniram’s dearest friend and guide to the philosophy that had led him to shed his childhood Christian faith, in a matter of spectacular providence, had died one room away from Adoniram that fateful night. Of course, if Eames was right, then his death was senseless, pointless, and empty. He was now swept off into the infinite nothingness, as a puff of smoke is lost into the infinity of air. The fact that he just so happened to die in the room next to Adoniram, in a random country inn, was ultimately meaningless, created by an impersonal machine of random chance. But what if, Judson thought, Eames was wrong? What if Eames now stood before the God he had denied? What if he was now left with the consequences of that denial? What would he do?
Friend, what would you do? What happens when we die? If you were to be judged, held accountable to how you have lived your life, would you measure up? Adoniram, panic stricken, knew that were a great reckoning to occur, his life would be find wanting. He urgently began to read his Bible to see if there was, in fact, good reasons to believe in the faith that his father held onto so tenaciously. In time, slowly, Adoniram’s skepticism gave way to belief, and one year later, Adoniram finally professed faith and found peace.
What was it that convinced Adoniram’s skeptical mind? What was it that brought relief to his terrified heart? The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We must remember that this hypothetical conversation about resurrection Jesus is having here with the Sadducees is taking place the Tuesday before Good Friday. In three days Jesus will be nailed to a cross, and then in three more days He will resurrect from the dead.
The resurrection is significant to our faith for a whole host of reasons, but one reason it is so significant is that it vindicates and verifies Jesus as God’s Son and proves that His work was effective. If Jesus simply died on the cross and never resurrected, He may have been a fantastic teacher of morality who taught that His death would be significant, but He would be lost in the halls of time or simply placed alongside other religious teachers and martyrs. But Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that He was no mere religious teacher, and that His death on the cross was not an accident.
Reasons for the resurrection:
1. There could not have been a group of people more resistant to believing that a human being could be worshipped as God as the Jewish people. After Jesus’ resurrection, all of the early church, who were all Jewish, worshipped Him as God in the flesh.
2. Before the resurrection all of Jesus’ disciples had abandoned him and were left hiding, terrified of what may happen to them, and in despair because they believed that in the death of Jesus the whole movement had ended. After the resurrection the disciples become confident, zealous, and willing to risk their very lives. Eventually, every disciple will die for their belief in Jesus Christ—no one dies for something they have manufactured or lied about.
3. After His resurrection Jesus appears to hundreds of people in public places over the course of 40 days, not just to individuals in trance like visions.
4. The earliest manuscripts we have recording the resurrection are written so close to the event that were the stories fabricated the officials and public at large would have written them off as fantasies—but they were not.
5. The first witnesses to the resurrection are two women. Women’s testimony back then was not admissible in court, so if the resurrection story was a fiction created to look real, the authors of the story wouldn’t have included women as the first eyewitnesses, since that would have made Christianity look less believable according to contemporary standards.
What happened in Jesus’ death? Jesus’ death was a substitute. The Bible teaches that at the final day there will be a great judgment where we will be sifted and judged according to our works, and if we are found righteous, we will go to heaven, and if we are found unrighteous, we will go to hell. Now, if we were to think who belongs in heaven, we may be able to think of a handful of extraordinary persons who have lived remarkable lives. And when we think of who belongs in hell, we can think of a handful of terrible persons who have lived horrible lives. But where does that leave us? Who gets to draw the line?
The Bible’s answer is surprising because it is far more severe and far more gracious than we would anticipate. It is more severe because it tells us that the standard of righteousness is total and absolute perfection—perfect obedience to God in our actions, thoughts, and affections. Friend, if you think you can ride into Heaven on your ramshackle sled of stuttering, self-defined goodness, you will be sorely disappointed. What is so severe about this is that none of us, not even one has been able to meet this standard.
Well, actually, One Person did. Jesus, “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” Heb 4:15. Jesus never cratered to temptation, never thought an impure thought, never lost control of His temper or frittered His time and money on pointless things. He loved God wholly, followed Him devoutly, and cared for others deeply. Jesus was always willing to serve others, even when they were ungrateful and difficult, and even when it cost Him dearly.
But this brings us to how the Bible’s answer is far, far, far more gracious than we realize. Jesus’ death was not some mere accident, but Jesus taught that His death was a substitutionary death. If you could, imagine the acts of your life have been recorded on paper and then placed into a manila folder. Everything you have done is contained within. Imagine Jesus has a similar manila folder containing a record of His life. If you have trusted in, submitted to Jesus as your Lord, if you follow Him, those two folders get swapped. Your sins are handed over to Jesus, and His righteousness is given to you. At the cross, here is what we are told what happens: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross,” Col 2:13-14. As Jesus goes to the cross, he picks up your manila folder, your record of debt with all of its punishments it requires, and stands before the Father and says, “I am guilty, I’ll take the punishment” so that you, the guilty one can one day stand before the Father and say, “I am righteous, I’ll take the reward.”
This is far above and beyond what we would expect or anticipate, far more gracious than the assumption that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be good enough to make it into heaven. The only people who are in heaven will be people who are righteous. The problem: no one is righteous. The solution: Jesus and His righteousness freely offered to sinful people like us.
Good Friday: Guilty, Vile and Helpless We
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29
What can we do with our guilt? Why do we all feel guilty?
In the 19th century, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky encapsulated a popular philosophy at the time concerning guilt and morality in his book Crime and Punishment. The main character of the book, Raskolnikov, while studying at university becomes convinced that traditional morality is simply a social construct and should be transcended by extraordinary persons who are brave enough to do so. Living in grinding poverty, he decides to apply his new theory and plans to murder an old, cruel, and wealthy woman so he can use her wealth for his education. He does not believe that ultimately there is anything wrong with murdering someone as vile as this woman per se, even if he initially is bothered emotionally with the act itself. So he murders the woman and takes her money. But rather than being free from guilt, Raskolnikov is eaten alive by his guilt, haunted by his guilt, wholly agonized by his guilt—despite believing he has no reason to feel guilt—to the degree that he becomes physically ill, nearly to the point of death, and only finds relief when he finally confesses his crime and accepts his punishment.
Guilt is what you experience when you fail to do what you ought to do, or do what you ought not do. The ought is critical for that definition. There is some standard that we know we should live by and we feel guilty when we fail to live by that standard. But if Raskolnikov is right, if we are free to make up our own standards then we, theoretically, should be free from guilt. We are often told today that no one can tell us what is right or wrong, but we must decide that for ourselves.
And yet, why do we all feel so guilty? While the guilt of murder is a rather dramatic example, guilt and regret nevertheless are familiar friends to us. This is true if we are religious or not. We feel guilty about things as mundane as our lack of exercise to things as significant as our failures in our marriages and secret addictions that are destroying us. The guilt that haunts us can be a low-grade hum that buzzes in the back of our mind, or a shouting, blaring guilt that leaves us wholly paralyzed. And all this happens while we are floating in a society that tells us that we are free to choose what is right and wrong for ourselves—and yet, unless we are psychopaths, we still feel guilt. We all do.
So, what are we to do with our guilt? Let me present three options that are the most common today, and then a surprising alternative.
Option 1: I’ve done nothing wrong
One option when feeling guilty is to just attempt to move the goal-post in your mind, to tell yourself: this wasn’t wrong; I’m not a bad person. We commonly hear this advice: you’re too hard on yourself, it wasn’t that bad, you’re a good person. But why does that almost never provide relief? I once spoke with a man who had been placed on hospice care, who knew his time was short. He was reflecting on serious mistakes that he had made in his past, ways he had hurt those closest to him. As he divulged what had happened and how anguished his conscience was, it was so apparent how wholly ineffective this kind of advice would be. He knew what he had done was really wrong and trying to give him the thin soup of “Hey, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” would have done nothing to help this man.
You see, as much as our culture would love to believe that morality is merely something we get to mold into whatever we like it to be, our experience simply does not bear this out. When we come face to face with real wrongs, real evil—either in society or in ourselves—our notions of moral relativism evaporate into thin air. Think of the last time you felt angry while watching or reading the news; think of the last time you felt a deep, deep sense of shame and guilt. In those moments we know immediately and intuitively two things to be true: (1) there is a universal standard of “right” and “wrong”, and (2) all people—ourselves included—must obey it. And when we do not, we feel guilty. You can deny it, you can tell yourself that what you are doing is really okay, but you will never silence the murmurs of guilt.
If we accept the premise of that point, that there is a universal Law that all people are under, then that must mean that the Law is not created by us, but given to us by some kind of Law-Giver. Some would argue that morality is given to us by society or evolution, but this won’t work. We do not treat our moral judgments like they are just provincial evaluations that only represent our culture’s judgments. We treat them like they are True and have always been True. I had a professor at school who adopted a child from India who was in a very poor orphanage. There was a large pile of garbage behind the orphanage and the child, maybe two or three at the time, was trying to grab a chicken bone when a large crow began to fight him for it. The bird then attacked the boy and pecked out one of the boy’s eyes. The owners of the orphanage, fearful that this was an evil omen, decided to stop allowing the boy to come inside the orphanage and left him outside—by the time my professor was able to adopt the boy he was very sick and had nearly died (and luckily is now in good health and in a loving home). When we hear that, we do not say: Well, my set of morals doesn’t agree with that, but I only think that because of the society I live in, so who am I to judge? No, we say: “That IS wrong and has always been wrong.” Evolution or society do not give us a foundation for how things ought to be, they can only describe what is. But we intuitively respond with something more than just what is, we say “Things ought not be that way.” So, either all of our moral intuitions are wrong, or morality comes from somewhere else.
But this brings us back to the reality of a Law-Giver, the one who gives us the oughts of the cosmos. In other words, God.
Option 2: God doesn’t care
Thus we are brought to our second option of how to deal with guilt: God doesn’t care. Maybe we can admit that a God of some sorts has given us a universal standard of morality, but does God really care? Wouldn’t He be busy doing something far more important than keeping tabs on who you’re sleeping with or whether or not you told a lie? Plus, doesn’t God know that nobody is perfect? So, the thinking goes, if God doesn’t care about this, then maybe you shouldn’t either—so stop beating yourself up with all that guilt, there won’t be any judgment or punishment for you.
But of course, this line of reasoning only works if God doesn’t care about how we live…but what if He does? What if He cares a great deal? Wouldn’t the fact that a God who gives us a universal Law make us assume that He does, indeed, care? Wouldn’t the fact that we, ourselves, care very deeply about this not be a hint that the God who made us likewise cares? And if we, imperfect people though we are, care about this, how much more so would a perfect God care?
But all of this is still conjecture, of course. How are we to know what God is like? If there is a God who can give us a moral law, couldn’t this God also make Himself known to us? This is why traditional religion, religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam hold so seriously to their sacred texts like the Bible or Qur’an because in them the God makes Himself known—we are not simply supposing or guessing.
This is contrary to the more modern idea of how to find God. What is common today is to look inside ourselves to find God, to search through our feelings and to try and reach out and experience God on our own terms. This is popular in the affluent, liberal West today, and especially popular in America, encapsulated in memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love or lifestyle gurus like Oprah. But the funny thing is, of course, that when you talk with people who believe this, the God they describe to you sounds an awful lot like themselves—a God with the same values and preferences of affluent, liberal American people. And if that is what your God is like, how do you know that God isn’t just a figment of your own imagination, a Freudian projection intended to just help alleviate your guilt?
This is the benefit of having a God who reveals Himself outside of our internal feelings, through creation, and especially through written words. But as we read the texts of traditional religions we find something in common with them all: the God described in each one cares very seriously about how you live your life and teaches that your guilt is real, legitimate, and a precursor to a judgment. This isn’t because God is bad, but precisely because He is Good—or, to use the Bible’s word, Holy.
Option 3: I’ll make it right
Which brings us to our final option: I’ll make it right. If you have exhausted the first two options, you have been convinced that what you have done isn’t just some psychological hiccup, but there is an objective standard from God you have transgressed—what do you do? You work to make it right. You either try to go back and fix the problem, or you resolve to do enough good in your life to make up for the wrong.
In the classic novel by Robert Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the brilliant Dr. Jekyll realizes that he has a mixture of good and evil inside of him, and the evil desires are constantly hindering the good. So he creates a concoction that will give him the ability to separate his two natures, so that during the day he could be unalloyed good, while at night he would let his more base desires reign. To his surprise, however, the evil part of him—My. Hyde—is ten times more wicked than he anticipated. Hyde does horrifying, atrocious acts—killing, hurting, gratifying himself however he desires. When Dr. Jekyll finally realizes just how evil Mr. Hyde is—how evil he is—he vows never again to use the potion, and dedicates himself from then on to charity and good works to make up for what he has done.
This is the path the majority of people take—whether we are part of a formal religion or not. For religious people, this looks like becoming more devout in their religion and acts of goodwill towards others. For irreligious people, this looks like becoming more concerned about others and a general effort to be less selfless. This effort, whether religious or not, is the castle you fly to when you the arrows of guilt and condemnation over your failures begin to rain down —Yes, I know I did wrong…I know I’m guilty …but, I donate money, I pray, I go to church every Sunday, I help others, and I’m not like those people over there who are ruining their lives, ruining our society! And the more good we have done (and the lazier and more pathetic other people around us seem) the higher and thicker those castle walls become.
But the dilemma with this option, friends, is that it will lead into one of two places: pride or despair. You will either be hounded by despair and the question: have I done enough? Have I atoned for my guilt? How good must I be to balance the scales? Your castle walls turn out to be made of paper and do nothing to stop the shafts of condemnation from pinning you to the ground, and you sink into despair. Or, more tragically, you will become proud, complacent, and self-righteous: Look at how impressive my good works are, why aren’t other people as good as me?
In the novel, as Dr. Jekyll is sitting on a park bench reflecting on all the good he has done to balance out the crimes he committed as Mr. Hyde, he realizes just how superior he is to all the common people. We read: “But as I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect…at the very moment of that vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most dreadful shuddering…I looked down…I was once more Mr. Hyde.” Suddenly Dr. Jekyll involuntarily transforms into Mr. Hyde without the potion. He can no longer control the transformations. Overwhelmed by this, Dr. Jekyll eventually kills himself.
Why did this happen? Stevenson is offering an incisive critique for us: it is while Dr. Jekyll believes he is at the height of his morality, at the height of his pride, that he no longer needs a potion to transform into the most wicked version of himself. Or, to use the language of the Bible, “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags,” Isa 64:6. Timothy Keller comments, “Like so many people, Jekyll knows he is a sinner, so he tries desperately to cover his sin with great piles of good works. Yet his efforts do not actually shrivel his pride and self-centeredness, they only aggravate it. They lead him to superiority, self-righteousness, pride and suddenly—look! Jekyll becomes Hyde, not in spite of his goodness, but because of his goodness.”
This is the dilemma of attempting to fix your guilt on your own. You are either are left in despair over your inability to fix the guilt in your life, or you become so enamored with your own goodness that you become vain, self-righteous, and cold. Despite doing good things, you fundamentally are still doing them out of selfishness, out of self-interest. And this is what sets Christianity apart from every other religious or irreligious option in dealing with our guilt.
The Surprising Alternative
When John the Baptist sees Jesus of Nazareth approach him while standing next to the river Jordan, he exclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This is an odd statement, of course. Jesus is a man, not a lamb. Further, “lambs…who take away sins” in the Jewish world did not have an enviable job. From the very beginning of the Bible we know that the consequences of sin is death (Gen 2:17), so for sins to be taken away there still must be a death (Heb 9:22). Thus, lambs who take away sins are lambs who are killed.
At the Passover, the Jewish celebration of the day that God delivered His people from Egypt, lambs were killed. The blood of the lamb was smeared on the doorframe of the homes of God’s people, the blood representing the extinguished life of the lamb (Lev 17:11). When the angel of death came, it would see the blood, and pass over the home—but if there was no blood, the angel would enter. Each Jewish home had to do this, or the life of their firstborn would be forfeit—the assumption being, that their lives were just as liable to judgment as the Egyptians were. Just because of their ethnicity or heritage as Israelites did not inherently make them exempt from judgment. Only the blood of the lamb turned away the judgment.
Thus, for John the Baptist to describe Jesus as: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is an alarming statement for Jesus—you’re going to die. It is even more shocking when we reflect on the fact that just a few verses earlier, at the beginning of John’s Gospel we are told who Jesus really is: He is God in the flesh, the second member of Trinity, God the Son (John 1:1-2, 14). If God were to come down in the flesh He would certainly be worthy of reverence, worship, praise, fear even—but to be a lamb to die for sins?
Later, Jesus teaches His followers that He did not come to be waited on and served like some royal dignitary, but to serve others and “to give his life as a ransom for many,” Matt 20:28—a ransom; a payment to free others. He taught them that He knew the authorities were plotting His death, but that He was actually choosing to lay down His life (John 10:18; Luke 24:7). John’s statements would not have alarmed Jesus; He knows the aim of His life will be to die. Even further, He deliberately chooses to provoke the authorities during the week-long celebration of Passover, and it is on the very day when the Passover lamb is killed that Jesus is betrayed and arrested (Mark 14:12). Jesus knows He is the lamb.
You see, there is more going on during the events of that fateful Friday than meets the eye. As Judas is betraying, the disciples abandoning, and the Pharisees scorning and condemning, God is working. As Pilate is crumbling to the clamoring crowds, as the Roman guards scourge Jesus’ back, force the thorns into his brow and pound the nails in, ransom is occuring. As the heavens darken, the earth quakes, and the Father turns His face away, a debt is being paid. A lamb who takes away sins is a lamb who is slain, slaughtered. As our crucified Messiah, our Lord, our God in the flesh, breathes His last and proclaims, “It is finished,” He reveals the spiritual reality that has been going on the whole time: our guilt has been taken away, and our sins atoned for—the work of salvation is finished. Jesus is the greater and final Passover lamb, the lamb who bears the sins of the people and dies in their place, takes their penalty. As Jesus perishes on the cross, He is absorbing into His body the sins, the guilt of His people and then taking the judgment and wrath those sins deserved from God the Father. The lamb dies instead of us.
Jesus is fulfilling what Isaiah foretold of when he wrote of the suffering servant: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” Isa 53:10-11. It was God’s plan all along to crush His Son, so that He would not crush us, but pay our debt, and make us righteous. The sinless Son bore our sins, so that sinful people could be made sons.
What does Christianity teach us about what we do with our guilt? (1) God is holy and righteous and He demands obedience to His holy Law—He really cares about how you live your life, (2) we all have really failed to live that way and our guilt is meant to warn our souls that something is terribly wrong and it must be made right before its too late, and gloriously (3) our holy and righteous God has sent His own perfect Son to be a substitute for us, to die in our place as a payment of our sins, so our guilt can be taken away and we can be made right with God, so that now when God looks at us He does not condemn us, but welcomes us in as His children.
Are you not a Christian here today? The offer of Jesus is available to you. You do not need to keep exhausting yourself on remedies that will never fix your guilty conscience, that will never cure your wound. You can keep running and working and trying to tell yourself that things are really okay—but you know, deep down, it will not be enough. It never will. But do not despair! Turn now to Jesus and trust in Him and His work on the cross to pay the debt that your sins have owed. If you want to know what it means to follow Jesus, please talk with the person who invited you here tonight.
Are you a Christian? Marvel at the transcendent, inexplicable grace of our God. We can understand the idea of earning our spot, paying God back; we can wrap our head around God creating a system where we atone for our sins through our acts of piety—but this? The God against whom we have sinned stepping down and dying so we, the guilty ones, can be forgiven? This transcends all bounds, this makes no sense, this leaves us only to fall at His feet with broken hearts and profound joy. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Rest---your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. You don’t need to prove anything to God.
Obey—follow your Savior where He calls you.
Worship—what God is like our God? Sing to him, marvel at Him, adore Him.
Guilty, vile and helpless we
Spotless Lamb of God was He
Full atonement can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Jesus and Politics (Mark 12:13-17)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/724254--jesus-and-politics
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Do you like discussing politics? Would you describe yourself as "politically involved"? Why or why not?
- Why do you think our culture has become so obsessed with politics today?
- Why did Jesus label the Pharisees and Herodians "hypocrites" in vs. 15? What were they attempting to do in asking their question?
- Why didn't Jesus answer with a simple "yes" or "no"?
- Did Jesus support paying taxes to Rome?
- Should Christians obey the government, even if it does things we do not like? Read Romans 13:1-2. What does this verse tell us happens when we disobey governing authorities?
- So, if the government commands us to do something that God forbids, or forbids something that God commands, must we obey them? Read Acts 5:39.
- How are we to know when to obey and when to disobey the government?
- How should Christians respond to our current culture that wants to make politics supreme?
God and Politics: two of the most divisive and important topics. Of course, what we believe about God and what we believe about how society should be governed reveal a great deal about what we believe to be fundamentally true, good, and moral. But what is the relationship of the two? Should our views about God influence our politics? At times in the past the Church held more political power than any emperor on the planet—Pope Gregory VII once left emperor Henry IV standing outside his castle in the snow for three days before he was convinced that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was genuinely penitent; at other times the church was an officially state-sponsored entity, such as the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in the Netherlands, or the Anglican church in England. But what about now?
While state churches still exist (the Queen of England is still technically the head of the Church of England), there is now what is commonly known as the “separation between church and state.” This is popularly understood to mean that religious perspectives should be kept separate from political the domain: religion is something to be kept in the privacy of our own homes and churches, but not to be brought into the public square. We might be surprised, however, to learn that it was not secular humanists who introduced the idea that gave rise to this, but Christians themselves—more specifically, Baptists. It was the work of American Baptists like John Leland who influenced James Madison in the writing of the Constitution to include what is now known as the “establishment clause,” which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Of course, you’ll notice that this actually says nothing in support of the common, popular idea of “the separation of church and state” where religion is hemmed in to only exist in the privacy of our hearts and homes. This simply states that the American government ought not create a state sponsored church and should never interfere in the free exercise of religion. However, many people today believe that Jesus Himself supported the idea of a “separation of church and state” as is popularly known by the very passage we will examine today: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
What does this passage teach? How should Christians think about the role of government and how their faith should affect their responsibility to the government? The main aim of my sermon today is to show that human government is legitimate but limited. Let’s do this by looking at the question, the coin, and the conclusion.
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And they marveled at him. – Mark 12:13-17
A group of Pharisees and Herodians are sent by the temple authorities—whom Jesus had just criticized (Mark 12:1-12)—with the aim of trapping Jesus in His words (12:13). Pharisees and Herodians were strange bedfellows. They were two Jewish groups that differed greatly; the Pharisees were very conservative in their approach to the Scripture and practice, while the Herodians (following the example of Herod Agrippa) took a much more liberal approach. They also differed in their views on the nation of Rome who had invaded Israel and was domineering over the Jewish people, with the Pharisees strongly opposing the Romans, and the Herodians being much more favorable towards them. Yet the two groups are united together in their desire to destroy Jesus (cf. Mark 3:6).
“And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.” (12:14a). The Pharisees and Herodians are attempting to butter Jesus up to get Him to answer their question about taxes. They don’t believe a word of what they are saying—if they did they would not be seeking to entrap Him! But, in a delicious moment of irony, everything that the Pharisees and Herodians are saying about Jesus is entirely true! And it is precisely because it is true, that Jesus is not “swayed by appearances”, that Jesus sees right through their ruse: “But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?” (12:15a). They are guilty of “hypocrisy” because they are lying; they don’t believe what they are saying, but are just putting on a show with ulterior motives to destroy Jesus.
I wonder if you remember the story of Samuel going to anoint David to be the next King over Israel. God tells Samuel to go the house of Jesse and one of Jesse’s sons will be the next king over Israel. When Samuel sees Jesse’s first son, Eliab, he thinks, “Surely, this is the next King!”—he looked like a King—but God didn’t choose him. In fact, God didn’t choose any of the sons of Jesse that Samuel thought looked like a king, He chose the runt of the litter, the youngest son, David. God reminds Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” 1 Sam 16:7. When God looks at us, He looks into us and sees what lies there.
What a sobering word for us to reflect on. Friend, have you ever thought that because you could trick people with outward appearances you could get away with something? Perhaps at your job you may be able to give an appearance of a diligent employee, but really you are not. Perhaps you are able to manipulate your parents into thinking you have really obeyed, but you haven’t. Maybe you’ve given the impression that you are a faithful spouse, but you really aren’t. Friend, maybe you’ve even given the impression that you are a faithful Christian, but you really have no desire to follow God whatsoever. Friend, you may have everyone around you fooled, but Jesus isn’t fooled. He sees you. He sees your true motives. If you realize that your religion has just been an outward show that is devoid of all true faith, then friend, I invite you now: turn away from our sins, turn away from living a double-life, and actually trust in Jesus to forgive you and actually follow Jesus as your Lord. His death on the cross is a satisfying payment for all of your sins, even your sin of duplicity, look to Him and you will be saved. There is no more miserable and exhausting life than the life of someone pretending to be saved, but isn’t—you know enough about your sins and the holiness of God to make you sad, but you don’t know enough about your Savior to make you forgiven and happy. True joy, true satisfaction, true happiness is found in Jesus—not in charades of fake holiness.
The question that the Pharisees and Herodians are hoping to trip Jesus up in was a powder keg in Jesus’ day: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (12:14b). The tax they are referring to here was a census tax that was enforced by Rome on Judea back in 6 AD, which led to a violent uprising by a man named “Judas the Galilean” whom we read about in the book of Acts, “… Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered,” Acts 5:37. Josephus records Judas the Galilean as criticizing his fellow country men as “cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord.” As Acts records, Judas’ revolution is quickly crushed by Rome, but the paying of the tax continued to be an onerous reminder for Jews that they were still under the heel of Rome. The “zealots” were a minority extremist movement that followed Judas the Galilean’s example and believed violence was the only option—one of Jesus’ disciples is actually described as a zealot (Simon the Zealot, Mark 3:18).
The crowds and authorities realize that Jesus’ messianic ambitions are unmistakable now, and if a messiah is anything to the Jews of Jesus’ day, He is a political liberator from Roman oppression. The point of this question to Jesus is to force Jesus to reveal His hand: either He concedes that they must pay their taxes to Rome (and lose His popularity with the crowds) or He says that they do not need to pay their taxes (and thus sides with the extreme Zealots and would be quickly executed by the Romans). Whichever way Jesus answers, He loses.
Jesus responds by first criticizing the hypocrisy of the questioners, and then asks: “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one,” 12:15b-16a. A “denarius” was a coin that was worth one day’s wage for an average laborer, but it was a Roman coin. The Roman tax had to be paid with Roman coins, thus for Jesus to ask them for a coin—and them presenting one—is a clever act by Jesus that further reveals the questioners’ own hypocrisy; their position on the question is made clear: if they possess a denarius then they obviously have no problem with paying the Roman tax.
Jesus asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's,” 12:16b. The denarius was imprinted with an image of Caesar on it with an inscription on it that stated that Caesar was the king, the divine son of God and high priest—something that would have been terribly blasphemous to devout Jews. What is ironic, of course, is that the one now holding this coin is the king of kings, the son of God, and thehigh priest. Jesus’ identity was one that was in direct contradiction with Caesar’s claims—this is why as soon as Pilate learns that Jesus is claiming to be the “Son of God” he becomes terrified and agrees to Jesus’ execution (John 19:7ff). In Rome there can only be one son of God, and that is Caesar.
So what does Jesus do? This could have been a golden moment for Him to confront the blasphemous claims of Caesar, to explain that He was the true Son of God, the King of Kings, the High Priest—not Caesar! But He doesn’t do that. What does He do?
Jesus responds: ““Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And they marveled at him,” 12:17. The meaning of the statement is not immediately obvious. Is Jesus endorsing the view of the those who say we should pay our taxes? Or is He endorsing the view of the Zealots and saying our allegiance belongs to God, so we shouldn’t pay the tax? The crowds are left marveling at Jesus’ answer because His wisdom enables Him to deftly escape the trap laid for Him. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggin’s comment at his farewell birthday party to the large Hobbit community: “I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” The turns of phrase leave everyone thinking: Wait, what did he mean by that? What did Jesus mean by this now famous statement?
A note on nuance: Jesus was asked a “yes” or “no” question, but He does not respond with a “yes” or “no.” Why? Certainly there was an element of it to evade the trap laid for Him. But also because the answer was more complicated than just a “yes” or “no,” as we will see shortly—wisdom and nuance are needed. If Jesus simply said “yes, pay the tax,” some might have thought that He was supporting the Roman oppression. If He said “No, don’t pay the tax” some may have thought that Jesus was supporting violent revolt. And neither of those Jesus supported. In our day today there is almost zero-tolerance for nuance of any kind. Nuance is not the same thing as compromise. We must be careful of allowing the political storms of our day force us into extremes and the erasure of thoughtfulness.
Because the coin bears Caesar’s image it must belong to Caesar. One should pay to the emperor what is owed. The word for “likeness” to describe Caesar’s image is the same word used in Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Thus, this illuminates the second half of Jesus’ saying: pay to God what is owed to Him. This coin has Caesar’s image on it, he owns it, so it should be paid to him, but you have God’s image imprinted on you, you are owned by Him, therefore render to God what you owe: your whole life. You may pay your taxes to Caesar, but everything in your life (including your act of obedience to the government) is to be done in obedience to God.
Some people have mistakenly assumed that this passage teaches Jesus creating a separation of church and state: there are the two spheres of secular government and sacred religion, and Jesus is showing that God is over one and Caesar is over the other. So, Christians should keep our religion within its limited domain and approach politics from a morally neutral standpoint. That is not what Jesus is teaching here.
Jesus is teaching that human government is legitimate and limited.
When Jesus teaches that we should pay to Caesar what is owed to him He is making it clear that He is not siding with the revolutionaries of His day (zealots). Government, even pagan government, is legitimate and should normally be obeyed. Paul picks up this teaching in the book of Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed,” Romans 13:1-2, 6-7 (see also 1 Tim 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-17).
The Belgic Confession of 1561 states: “We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers…Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word...”
It is helpful to remember that the governing authorities that Paul is speaking of here in Romans were not governing authorities that would have been favorable towards Christians, nor obviously worthy of respect by Christians. The Roman government was a brutal government that often put Christians to death and was typified by a kind of pagan worship and sexual perversion that would make our stomachs turn. In our submission to the governing authorities we are reminded that God Himself has placed those authorities over us: “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” Dan 4:32.
Jesus statement about Caesar, however, is qualified by His second statement: Give to God what belongs to God. What belongs to God? The kind of devotion Jesus will describe a few verses later: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30. That kind of devotion and worship is dedicated to our Lord alone, and if the state ever demands that kind of loyalty, we are then duty bound to disobey them.
The Belgic Confession also states, “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.”
This is what Helmut James von Moltke, the German evangelical who lived in Nazi Germany and was actively working to prepare for a post-Hitler Germany. He did not, however, participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler because he believed that was an illegitimate option for a Christian to take. Nevertheless, he was eventually apprehended by the S.S. and put on trial. When he explained that rejected Nazism because of his Christian faith but believed he was still a faithful German citizen, the Nazi judge explained: “Graf Moltke, Christianity and we National Socialists (Nazis) have one thing in common and one thing only: we claim the whole man.” In other words, the judge saw that Moltke’s Christian faith and the Nazis were entirely antithetical to one another because both demanded total allegiance. When the State demands allegiance by commanding its citizens to participate in what God forbids then it has gone beyond its limited authority. So, when Roman emperors demanded that a pinch of incense be offered by all citizens to the shrine of Caesar as a tribute to his divine rule, Christians refused, and were slaughtered for it.
So, where does this leave us today?
We should remind ourselves that government is both legitimate and limited and ultimately is under our King, Jesus Christ. When you read the gospels it is amazing, in one sense, how little we hear about politics from Jesus, especially given the political climate of His day. Until Jesus is asked directly about this question, He says virtually nothing about Caesar. But Jesus spends a great deal of time talking about how we treat one another, how we worship, our lifestyles, our response to the weak and lowly, our character, etc. Jesus’ teaching focuses on the formation of your soul in light of His work and His kingdom. Couldn't you imagine someone approaching Jesus and scolding Him: Jesus, the political climate of our culture is so tense, is so fraught--you should use your platform as a popular teacher to motivate people politically! But Jesus seems almost uninterested in the political "hot button" issues of His day--they are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant.
And this should help relativize the importance of politics for us, friends. When we read the New Testament as a whole, we are repeatedly taught two things about government: (1) we should obey the governing authorities, and (2) we should expect to be persecuted by them. That’s it. No manifesto on political revolt. In a world that is constantly screaming about how nothing is more important than politics, Christians should be able to say: You know what, this isn't that important. What happens in our communities, in our families, and especially in our churches is far more important than what happens in DC.
On the other hand, when we read the gospels we realize that Jesus is making explicitly political statements all the time. Jesus teaches that He is the Messiah, the King of Israel, and permits others to describe Him this way (Mark 1:1; 1:14-15; 10:46-52; 11:1-10; 14:62; 15:2; 15:26; 15:39). And this King will brook no rivals, will not permit any tinpot dictator or silly president or governor share His dominion. He rules with a rod of iron and will judge the kings of the earth with perfect justice. And dear friends, that is our great political hope. Jesus has gone away, but will return and consummate His kingdom perfectly. We live here and now in light of that future reality.
And as we wait we are told that we are ambassadors of the kingdom, and His churches are embassies of the kingdom, snippets of the New Creation existing in this world that is fading away, the future pulled back into the present. So, we strive to live in such a way that reflects that future, heavenly Kingdom.
Which means we:
1. Obey the governing authorities, even if we do not like or agree with what they are doing. I cannot imagine a single Jew in Jesus’ day who liked paying a tax to Rome. But because we have a King who is ruling and reigning and we trust that He has set up the government over us that we have, then in our submission to the government we demonstrate our submission to our true King: Jesus.
2. We do not budge on our convictions, even when the State tells us to. When the government commands us to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands we are then required to disobey the governing authorities over us out of allegiance to King Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:39
3. We care less about politics than the world does. We take our cue from Jesus and shift our primary focus onto the ethics of the Kingdom, preaching the gospel, care for the weak, and awaiting the coming of our Savior. Politics matter far less than the world say they do.
4. We care more about politics than the world does—but for different reasons. We care about politics today because of our overcoming Savior and our certain knowledge that this world is not our home. We care about politics because we care about people, we care about their souls, and we want to see society flourish in such a way that makes the ministry of the gospel succeed. We do not care about politics in the same way the world does, who believe this world is our only shot at heaven and so tries to create an earthly utopia through political action. We know that is a fantasy. Heaven is our home—but while we are here, we want to model the glories and goodness of heaven in our own lives and strive to extend those benefits to as many as we can. Sometimes, that means that we should engage in political processes.
Jesus and the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-12)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/720790--jesus-and-the-vineyard
Sermon Discussion Questions
- What was one thing that stood out to you most?
- What was the purpose of this parable? Why did Jesus tell it?
- Does God want you to be happy? What does God want for you? See Psalm 81
- Is God nice?
- Where does our desire for justice come from?
- How should we confront popular misconceptions about God? Are there any other popular misconceptions you can think of?
God wants me to be happy; God is nice
“We think little about the world. We think about the things that it imposes upon us. We must think about the workplace, about appointments we have made, people we will meet, and jobs that must get done. We must think about car maintenance and train schedules, neighbors and parents, life insurance and taxes, groceries and vacations, dangers and death…In a thousand ways, every day, we think about the world of which we are a part, the world we experience.
We do not, however, often think about the world at a deeper level. We no more wonder about it than we do about the sun or moon. We take it as a given, like the fact that Tuesday has followed Monday, May has always followed April, summer has always followed winter.
The world does not strike us as a particularly dangerous place here in the West. There are pockets of lawlessness, we know, streets that should not be walked at night…Yet the West in general and America in particular is to us a place of plenty, of opportunity, and of choices, not a place where we feel greatly endangered. We certainly do not think of it as a place where we can lose our souls. If such thoughts do cross our minds, we would be inclined to suppose that souls are lost by doing large and inhumane acts of evil, not by living in the realm of shallow and empty triviality where so much of our life is moored. We live not out in the depths of what is truly wrong, but on the surfaces where nothing is right or wrong and nothing really matters. Others, however, have not been quote so sanguine about this state of affairs.
Karl Marx had his own utopian agenda, of course, but he was remarkably prescient in seeing what was coming in our Western world where everything solid has melted into air. So, too, was Mahatma Ghandi. He feared the West as well. He thought that the Western acids that dissolve all beliefs and morality would be brought to India by the use of technology…What these outside eyes saw, however, is lost on us. They feared the West; we do not. We have no fear of it at all. It is, after all, the hand that feeds us with more affluence, more opportunities, more choices, more miracle drugs, more pleasurable distraction than any civilization has ever known. We are now so much a part of its workings, we are now so addicted to its largesse, that life is inconceivable without these blessings of our modernized world. But what does all of this do to us? That is what we do not think about. That is what we simply think is, as much a part of life as Chevrolets, Time magazine, movies, and pizza are and as unavoidable as the rising sun tomorrow.”
So writes David Wells at the beginning of his excellent book Above All Earthly Powers. Now, Wells was writing in 2005. We live in a different world today in many ways; technology has advanced at an alarming rate; social issues have shifted and political climates have soured so that our sense of security is less certain. Perhaps we do not feel the same sense of triviality and sleepiness Wells describes.
And yet, Wells’ perception about our unexamined acceptance of values and assumptions in America ought not be disregarded. We live in a time where the highest good is to be true to oneself, and the supreme evil is to be unauthentic, whereas past civilizations believed the “good” life to be the life lived in devotion to God and His design, and the great evil to be abandoning that design. One would think with this inward self-deification atheism would be on the rise. But that isn’t true. A 2019 Gallup poll shows that 87% of Americans today proclaim to believe in God. Amidst our therapeutic materialism and addiction to distraction, entertainment, and pleasure, Americans still are fundamentally a religious people. But what does living in this kind of culture do to us? I think that our culture gives us two popular misconceptions about God: God wants me to be happy; God is nice.
In our text today we find these popular misconceptions confronted and contradicted by Jesus’ telling of the parable of the vineyard. Our story today occurs in the climactic final week of Jesus’ earthly life. The day before this event Jesus cursed and cleansed the temple (Mark 11:15-19). The next day Jesus enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple authorities who demand Jesus to explain on whose authority He has done all these things. But Jesus answers their question with another question and when they refuse to give Jesus an answer He refuses to give them one. But Jesus doesn’t remain silent for long, and so we find ourselves at our text:
And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 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. – Mark 12:1-12
Jesus employs that famous song of the vineyard from Isaiah 5, written nearly six hundred years before Jesus was on the earth. Isaiah’s song of the vineyard describes Yahweh as diligent owner of a vineyard who plants a choice vine, works to build a watchtower and a winepress and clear it of all stones, but when the harvest time comes rather than getting an excellent crop he finds wild, inedible grapes (Isa 5:1-2). Yahweh then asks the reader what must be done to the vineyard (Isa 5:3-4), before answering that its end is judgment (5:5-6). Yahweh concludes with explaining that the vineyard represents the people of Israel (5:7). God had chosen Israel and had worked to set them up for success: He redeemed them from Egypt, worked miracles, gave them a Law, made a covenant with them, and gave them their own land. But rather than producing the good fruit of righteousness and justice, Israel produced wickedness, idolatry, and injustice. The rest of chapter 5 details the numerous sins of Israel for which God is bringing the judgment upon them: greed, drunkenness, arrogance, and total reversal of God’s standards (5:8-30). God decrees this judgment:
“Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people…– Isaiah 5:24-25
The parallels between this story and Jesus’ parable are evident. However, there are a few notable differences. First, we have the introduction of the character of the “tenant.” Tenant farming was similar to what we know as share-cropping. A farmer would have a large plot of land and would lease portions of it out to tenants who would work the land and harvest the crop for the farmer in exchange for their own plot and a share of the harvest. In Jesus’ parable the tenants, however, are wicked. They refuse to give to the absent farmer his rightful share of the crop and are willing to murder anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. This behavior seems shocking to us today, but particularly in a shame-honor culture of the ancient near east, this kind of behavior would have been appalling. Thus, the judgment in Jesus’ parable doesn’t fall on the vineyard as a whole, but on these tenants.
Which brings us to the second innovation in Jesus’ parable: the servants. The servants are sent to remind the tenants of their obligation to the Master, but are met with mocking, harassment, and violence. “Servants” is the most popular title used to describe the prophets of the Old Testament (eg. Amos 3:7; Rev 10:7), which is who these servants are intended to represent. The prophets have a history of being routinely abused, ignored, and martyred by wicked rulers in Israel’s history. The prophets were intended to remind Israel of their obligation to their Lord, their covenant they made with God, when they had begun to wander off into sin and idolatry. However, their efforts, like the efforts of the servants in the parable, do not produce the fruit of repentance.
Which brings us to the final innovation: the beloved son. After every servant is either assaulted or killed in their mission, the Master finally sends His son, His beloved son, thinking: “They will respect my son.” But what do the wicked tenants do? They conspire together, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours,” (Mark 12:7). Perhaps the tenants had gone so long without seeing the Master that they had simply assumed that he had died and the son was now approaching to receive the land as his inheritance. Whatever their thoughts, they were “in for a penny, in for a pound” and decided to push their murderous plot to its final conclusion, “And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard,” (12:8). And Jesus, like Yahweh in Isaiah 5, asks His listeners, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others,” (12:9). Jesus then concludes, “ Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” – Mark 12:10-11
Let’s turn now and consider how this parable confronts three popular misconceptions about God and utterly contradicts them.
God Wants Me to Be Happy
H.L. Mencken (inaccurately) described Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” There are countless stories of people who have shed the cocoon of their childhood faith because they have found something that they have always been taught was wrong, profane, and sinful, and have discovered that it has also brought them a great deal of happiness. This leads a small few to reject the existence of God, but for the majority of persons it leads them to simply change their idea of God. If this makes me so happy, why would God not want me to have it? It is taken as an axiomatic truth that God wants me to be happy. But here in our parable we find that God seems to require something else of His tenants that goes beyond their happiness.
In Isaiah 5 we discover that the “fruit” of the vineyard symbolized faithfulness and obedience to God’s commands. But instead of this, Yahweh finds them completely reversing His commands, calling “evil good and good evil” (5:20). The people of Israel are described as greedy perverters of justice, accepting bribes, building luxury mansions, and sinking into drunken stupor day after day, all the while laughing at the idea of God’s judgment. Why are the people of Israel devoting themselves to this lifestyle? Because they believe it will make them happy! “All men seek happiness,” writes the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, “This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” But if the only thing God wanted was for these men to be happy, He would simply leave them alone. But God doesn’t leave them alone—He requires something from them more than happiness; He expects holiness; He expects obedience. Jesus, in teaching this parable, is showing us that God is not looking to put a rubber seal of approval on whatever we want. So our first question shouldn’t be: does this feel good or does this make me happy. But should be: is this what God wants? Does this align with His Law?
Does this mean, though, that God doesn’t care about our happiness? That kind of sterile, austere religion is what leads so many to an inaccurate picture of God: if THAT is the kind of God I have to believe in, then I don’t want to believe in that kind of God. Of course, what you want doesn’t determine what God is like, but more importantly God is not like Puritans that Mencken describes. In fact, as we read our Bibles we discover that God is devoted to our joy, our satisfaction, our happiness. Psalm 81 briefly describes what God has done to rescue His people and the purpose of His Law: “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” (81:9-10). The purpose of God’s Law: to fill our mouths with what is good, to satisfy us. So, He tells us, don’t worship other gods! Don’t give yourselves up to idolatry—why? Because God is trying to hide joy and happiness and pleasure from you? No—the exact opposite! God has all the joy,He wants to bless us with it. But what do His people do?
11 “But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
13 Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
14 I would soon subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes.
15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him,
and their fate would last forever.
16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” – Ps 8:11-16
Have you heard the idea that if something feels so right, how could it be wrong? Friends, things can feel right and be very wrong all the time. Nobody gets into an affair because it feels wrong but they just feel obligated to do so. People have affairs because it feels right, but it is very, very wrong. There are fewer things that will more quickly destroy your life, your family's life, and other people's lives than an affair. And this is why God has forbidden it! God is not opposed to your joy; He is opposed to what kills joy. “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing,” Lewis, MC.
God is Nice
The second popular misconception about God is that He is really nice. God isn’t angry or judgmental or harsh. He is a kind of life coach who wants to spur us on like a cheerleader. Life is full of hard things that pull you down, full of discouragements, full of people telling you that you are not enough, that there is some standard you must live up to you, and God’s job is whisper to you that you are enough, you are perfect just the way you are. God certainly won’t judge you.
But Jesus’ parable tells us something very different. God is not only willing to confront us, correct us, point out our sins, but He is also ready to judge us. What happens to the tenants in the parable? They are destroyed. If you’re not a Christian here today I wonder if this idea seems offensive to you. But, if we were in a town where a man had committed serious evil, evil of the sort caliber that causes us to shudder, and let’s say that he had committed one of these heinous acts that led to the death of one of your friends or one of your relatives. Now, what would you do if after the man was apprehended the county sheriff, out of some misplaced desire to not be too judgmental, refused to punish the man but decided instead to simply let him go after having a stern talking with him. You would be outraged at that—and rightly so. We intuitively recognize that when evil is committed there must be justice. Evil must be corrected. Friends, if we can all agree on that, then what is it about God’s judgment that we find so offensive?
Likely, it is the fact that God may judge us and we haven’t done anything worthy of judgment! Or so we think. We all assume that we are basically good people. Likely, this is what Jesus’ original audience thought as well. Remember, the original audience were the religious leaders of the day. As they are listening to Jesus’ parable, they likely are identifying with the righteous servants in the parable, not the wicked tenants (cf. Matt 23:29-36). Why? Because they think they are good, upstanding, respectable people—religious people! The thought that God would judge them was unthinkable! And it probably is unthinkable just as to you as well. I wonder, as we were reading the parable, who did you identify with? Did you also assume that you were one of the “good guys”?
Justice requires a standard. For us to say that something is “wrong” requires a definition of “right.” What happens if we don’t have a standard? Justice is rendered totally useless and meaningless. You must have a standard for justice—but, where does that standard come from? Christianity teaches that the standard for justice is given to us by God, so it is above and over all cultures, all times, and people. And His standard is perfect obedience to His holy Law.
This is why God’s judgment seems so offensive to us—as we take seriously the Law that God has laid out for us we realize that we have rejected it, ignored it, even mocked it. And for that, the Bible tells us, God’s judgment is coming. But dear friend, don’t you see that without the judgment of God the gospel, the good news of Jesus makes no sense? In the parable we are told that the beloved son is killed by the hands of the wicked tenants. While this has an immediate application to the contemporary listeners—they are quite literally the individuals who will have Jesus be crucified—in another sense, we all are represented by the wicked tenants, we all bear responsibility for Jesus’ death. What do I mean by that?
The Bible teaches us that Jesus’ death was not an accident, it was not incidental, it was not the cutting short of God’s plan—rather it was the very reason for which Jesus came. Jesus taught that He came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45. In other words, His death was a substitution. Here is what the prophet Isaiah teaches us:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. – Isa 53:5-6
The gospel tells us that in Jesus’ death, the sins of all who trust and follow Jesus have fallen on Him. In the death of Jesus the righteous judgment of God falls on the beloved Son, rather than falling on wicked people like myself. So it was my sins that led Jesus to His death, it was my sins that brought on the judgment of God to fall on Jesus.
So, now, if you are in Christ, your judgment day has already passed. If you are not a Christian, you can flee from the judgment of God by running to God for forgiveness in Jesus. You do not have to go to Hell! You don’t have to die in your sins and face the judgment day. You can die in Jesus and the forgiveness that He offers. Friend, God is not nice; God is just, God is gracious. He is angry with your sin, but He is willing and ready to forgive.
If you are in Jesus, then now it is your responsibility to follow Him. Don’t walk any longer according to the sinful desires of your heart, stop believing the lie that something outside of God will make you happy. Follow His path and His design for your life.
If you remember rightly, Jesus taught us in Mark 4 that parables help illuminate truth to disciples of Jesus, but confuse and confound those who are resistant to Jesus. Jesus goes so far as to describe His parables as a form of judgment on His opponents because they further hinder their understanding (Mark 4:11-12). It is thus ironic that the first parable that the temple authorities understand is a parable describing their judgment.
Jesus and Arguing (Mark 11:27-12:37)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/717466--jesus-and-arguing
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What was most helpful from the sermon?
- What kind of "arguing" was Marc suggesting we become better at? (See Jude 3 or 1 Pet 3:15)
- Should Christians argue with others or avoid arguing? Read 2 Tim 2:24-26.
- What are the two equal and opposite errors Christians can fall into about arguing for the faith? Do you lean more one way towards an error?
- Skim Mark 11:27-12:37. Go around discuss how Jesus responds to his opponents in each section. How should we argue with others?
- Marc spoke of the "symmetry of Christian character." What did he mean by that?
- Of the final five recommendations (Be silent; Be bold; Be gentle; Be Biblical; Be wise), which do you need to grow in?
Do you like to argue? I want to do something a little unusual today. I want to provide an overview of a wide section of Jesus’ teaching in Mark, a section that centers on Jesus arguing with the chief priests, scribes, elders, Sadducees, and Pharisees. In the following weeks we will look at these interactions separately, but today I want to do a fly over of them all and think about what we learn from how Jesus argues with His opponents. My hope in this sermon is that you will walk away with a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of God displayed in Jesus, and be given practical help for you to be more capable of arguing like Jesus.
By “argue” I am not referring to the kind of typical disagreements you get in with your spouse or roommates. I am talking about how to, as Jude tells us, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3).
And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”…And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ 37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. – Mark 11:27-33; 12:35-37
Let me present a dilemma for you. Proverbs 26:4 states, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Proverbs 26:5, however, states, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” What are we to do with two verses that seemingly contradict each other, especially given the fact they are right next to each other? Only the most arrogant and asinine of readers would have to assume that the ancient compilers of the book of Proverbs were too stupid to notice the apparent contradiction between the two verses. No, the editor of the book of Proverbs obviously wanted these two proverbs to be placed right next to each other so that the reader would employ wisdom to find the harmony between the two.
One way to understand this is to say that the first proverb is warning us of answering a fool according to his folly, as in: do not answer a fool in the same manner of foolishness he is embodying, don’t “stoop down to his level” as we commonly refer to it, “lest you become like him yourself.” While the other proverb is emphasizing answer a fool in response to his folly, “lest he be wise in his own eyes.” In other words, don’t let fools walk around thinking they are really wise and smart because no one has ever proven them otherwise.
Another interpretation, however, of the dilemma is to understand that the two proverbs are telling us that there are times when answering a fool is unwise and other times when it is wise. It is up to you to discern when those moments are needed, when giving an answer to a question is “casting your pearls before swine” and when giving an answer is necessary. Charles Bridges, the 19th century Anglican theologian, writes, “But what may be at one time our duty to restrain, at another time and under different circumstances it may be no less our duty to do. Silence may sometimes be mistaken for defeat. Unanswered words may be deemed unanswerable. An answer may, therefore, be called for, not in folly, but to folly - "not in his foolish manner, but in the manner that his foolishness required.” In other words, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The Bible doesn’t present simplistic answers to complex questions. We are not told that every question must be answered, every accusation responded, or every debate be settled. We are also not told that the golden rule is to avoid all argument, avoid all confrontation. We need discernment for when to respond.
Not only that, we need discernment in how to respond. Consider the book of Titus, where we are told that one of the responsibilities of an elder is to teach “sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” (Tit 1:9). Paul then goes on to describe a particular group of false teachers in Titus’ church who “must be silenced” (1:11) and therefore Titus should “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13; cf. 2:15). But then Paul also encourages Titus to teach the church to, “be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” (3:2). How on earth can you “silence” opponents and yet avoid quarreling? How do you “rebuke them sharply” yet “be gentle and…show perfect courtesy toward all”? It would seem that Paul assumes that different situations require different responses and what we need is the wisdom to discern what those situations are. And that is not always simple. One can understand James’ statement, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man,” James 3:2.
Charles Bridges points us towards where this wisdom may be found: “Oh, for wisdom to govern the tongue, to discover the right time to speak and the right time to stay silent. How instructive is the pattern of our great Master! His silence and his answers were equally worthy of himself. The former always conveyed a dignified rebuke. The latter responded to the confusion of his contentious enemies. Will not a prayerful meditative study communicate to us a large measure of his divine wisdom?”
Our text that we are examining today gives us an opportunity of “prayerful meditative study” on the wisdom of our great Master.
My main aim in this sermon is for us to look at how Jesus debates with His opponents, and think critically about how this should inform us in our own efforts to “give an answer for the hope that we have” (1 Pet 3:15).
The Great Debate
Mark has put together his gospel thematically, centering blocks of his narrative around different themes and here we see Mark compile together a series of encounters of Jesus debating with religious leaders of His day. In each encounter Jesus employs different method of response, but in each one He stumps His opponents, leaving them unable to respond.
In the first encounter, Jesus responds to the question as to where His authority comes from by responding with a question about where John the Baptist’ authority came from. Jesus was not formally trained as a rabbi and therefore in their eyes He lacks the authority to teach and do what He has been doing; and yet, John the Baptist lacked formal training as well. So Jesus forces the chief priests, scribes, and elders to admit that John’s authority was illegitimate if they want to delegitimate Jesus’, which is something they are unwilling to do because “they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet,” Mark 11:32. So they refuse to answer Jesus’ question and thus Jesus refuses to answer theirs.
The next story is Jesus’ real response to the elders, chief priests, and scribes. He tells a parable of a vineyard and wicked tenants (patterned off of Isaiah 5). The master of the vineyard keeps sending servants to gather fruit from the tenants, only to have them abused, turned away, and even killed. Eventually the master sends his own beloved son to the vineyard, only to have the tenants kill him in hopes of stealing his inheritance. The parable ends with Jesus asking, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others,” Mark 12:9. The chief priests, able for the first time to understand a parable of Jesus, understand that Jesus aimed this teaching against them (12:12).
The next story is the odd pairing of Pharisees and Herodians—normally enemies of each other—seeking to “trap” Jesus in his talk by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar. They hope to put Jesus “on the horns of the dilemma” by giving him a question that traps Jesus with whatever answer He gives (something Jesus just did to them back in 11:27-33). However, Jesus deftly evades the dilemma by giving an answer that leaves all of the listeners marveling at Jesus’ wisdom, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And they marveled at him,’ 12:17.
The next story has a group of Sadducees (a religious group who didn’t believe in an afterlife or resurrection, cf. Acts 23:8) try to trap Jesus by telling a fanciful story of an unlucky widower whose husbands keep dying on her. After her seventh husband dies, and she also dies, whose wife will she be, they ask? The Sadducees, of course, don’t believe there is a resurrection; they are bringing up the story because they think it’s a clever “gotcha” that shows that the resurrection is untenable. Jesus, however, responds sharply: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”(12:24). Jesus then responds from the Bible before closing with, “You are quite wrong,” (12:27).
Finally, a scribe approaches Jesus and sees Jesus disputing with the Sadducees, “and seeing that he answered them well,” asks Jesus what commandment is the most important of all (12:28). Jesus cites Deut 6:4-5 and then Leviticus 19:18 and the scribe responds positively, affirming that Jesus is correct and that obedience matters more than all sacrifices (12:32-33). When Jesus sees the wisdom in this scribe, He responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (12:34).
It’s interesting to mark the trajectory of the debates in this chapter—it begins with Jesus refusing to answer a question, to a parable being understood for the first time (albeit, a negative parable), to two accounts of Jesus responding to questions, to this final account where Jesus responds clearly without any barbs, which evokes a wise response. Why does “no one dare” to ask Jesus anymore questions after this encounter? It is almost as if Mark is showing us that the longer one spends in dialogue with Jesus, the more wise one becomes, the more Jesus begins to make sense, and the closer one gets to the kingdom. The Pharisees realize this and so they stop sending in the troops to batter Jesus down: He is nearly converting them! (cf. John 7:32; 45-46).
If you’re not a Christian, one of the best possible things that you could do is spend time with Jesus through reading about Him, talking with other Christians about Him. The Bible describes the message of the gospel as something that appears foolish, but is actually a display of the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22-24). As you spend more and more time around Jesus, you may find that slowly and imperceptibly that what once seemed childish or uninteresting begin to radiate with light. If you are wanting to share the gospel with a non-Christian, one of the best things you can do is to invite them to read a gospel with you or at the very least for you to talk about Jesus with them. I am a huge fan of apologetic arguments, philosophy, and things of that nature to be used in discussions with people; but nothing is a substitute for hearing from the Word of God, Jesus Christ, Himself.
But Jesus doesn’t stop; He then goes on the offensive. It is now Jesus’ turn to ask a question: ““How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly,” 12:35-37. Jesus presents a Biblical question about the identity of the Messiah as the son of David. Apparently, the common perception of the day was that the Messiah would be lesser in greatness to David, yet Jesus cites Psalm 110, a messianic psalm that describes the Messiah as David’s “Lord.” Matthew’s account tells us that after this, “And no one was able to answer him a word,” Matt 22:46. Jesus punctures the pretensions of the priests and Pharisees, exposing that they are not as all-knowing as they appear to be.
What does this show us?
Jesus the Wise.
Jesus is like a new Solomon here, dispensing wisdom, settling disputes, and silencing fools. As we read Solomon’s book of Proverbs we find Jesus in its pages: Jesus knows when to answer and when not to answer a fool according to his folly (Prov 26:4-5); Jesus knows that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Prov 25:11). And He also knows that, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back,” Prov 29:11.
This shouldn’t surprise, of course, because this is simply what the Old Testament has taught us the Messiah would be like: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD,” Isaiah 11:1-2. Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom of God, filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding. Here in these encounters and throughout the rest of the gospel we see Jesus cut to the heart of issues, refuse to engage in pointless debates, use silence, speak sharply, and speak gently. Jesus was a master of words because He was a master of wisdom. He knew when to speak, how to speak, and what to speak.
We should argue like Jesus.
A case for Christian arguments: There are two equal and opposite truths about arguments that the devils are happy with Christians believing. One is to assume that any form of argument is bad and should be avoided; the other is to assume that the only kind of “bad” argument out there is the one you lose. The first one points to passages like Romans 2:4, “…God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The second points to passages like 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” One sounds like Mr. Rogers and the other sounds General Patton. And whichever one fits your temperament, you will likely gravitate towards it, and Satan will be happy with whichever you choose, a milquetoast waffler on questions of truth or a brazen Viking looking to slay another victim. What we need, in the place of these two imposters, are Christians who follow their Master, Jesus, in preserving truth and willing to fight for it, but not doing so at the expense of kindness, gentleness, or love.
The problem is that many Christians view their virtue as a grab bag of disparate elements when they should be seeing them as an organic whole. The 19th century American pastor and professor, William S. Plumer writes, “There is a [harmony] between all the graces of the Christian. His faith agrees with humility, and so is not presumptuous. His zeal is kind, gentle and benevolent, so it degenerates not into bigotry and rage. His penitence has hope in it and so it is free from despair. His fear has joy in it and so it does not bring distress. His joy has fear in it and so it does not pass into levity…There is symmetry...in the Christian character. It is not a jumble, it is not a contradiction, it is one." So, we should not tell ourselves that, Yes, I may be rather brazen and unkind, but I am zealous! and think that somehow the Lord is pleased with that. The graces of a Christian are symmetrical, harmonized and infused together as one.
We need Christians who give evidence of the symmetry of Christian character in their interactions with those they disagree with. We need this desperately because it is becoming increasingly more and more hostile to hold to basic Christian truths. While it has always been difficult for Christians to hold to their faith in a fallen world, there has been a recent innovation that has made our current moment particularly problematic and thus requires Christians to be particularly equipped in knowing how to defend their faith well. This problem is what C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism,” otherwise known as “the genetic fallacy.” Bulverism is the view that all truth claims are basically a by-product of our personal history, experience, and social location. In common day uses it sounds like, “You are only saying that because you are a man!...You only believe that because you are a Democrat!” and so on it goes. It is, according to Lewis, what lays at the foundation of all modern thought. It is the pernicious belief that there is ultimately no such thing as ultimate, objective reality, merely subjective experiences that differ from tribe to tribe, culture to culture. It is also a convenient way to avoid having to actually argue with anyone—if you can simply prove that the only reason they believe something is because of their gender or race, then you don’t need to bother with actually responding to the argument. Evidence, logic, rationality don’t matter—every claim is merely autobiographical.
In those world, in this kind of storm of subjectivism, more than ever we need Christians who can speak clearly, winsomely, boldly, and persuasively. Even if the world is awash in darkness, light still always shines. So, Christians, reflecting on Jesus, we should:
Be silent—don’t cast pearls before swine. When Jesus knew that His listeners were not actually interested in what He had to say, He remained quiet (cf. Luke 22:67-68). If it is obvious that someone isn’t interested in listening to the truth, shake the dust off your feet, and move on. Not every question must be answered.
Be bold—Jesus exemplified courage and a willingness to disagree. Are you able to tell someone, “I actually disagree with you”? Christians must be able to be willing to speak the truth, even if it appears that we are in the minority. Also, Jesus is particularly “sharp” towards those who appear to be inflated in their own ego. Jesus takes the Sadducees down a few pegs because of their cocky swagger. When Jesus meets religious arrogance in particular He does not hesitate to be pointed. Further, Jesus didn’t just react, but asked questions. He was not always passive, but went on the offense and sought to expose faulty foundations.
Be gentle—when the scribe asks Jesus a sincere question, Jesus doesn’t accuse him of “putting him to the test” or say, “You know neither the Scripture nor the power of God.” He answers plainly and clearly, then commends the scribe on his perceptive answer. Even when you are disagreeing with someone, are you able to commend them where they are right? Even though Jesus was willing to be pointed at times, that was not his modus operandi. If you were to look at the aggregate total of all of Jesus’ interactions in the gospels, they would be overwhelmingly marked by gentleness and respect with a few punctuations of zealous confrontation. Our lives should reflect that pattern.
Be Biblical—except for the first instance where Jesus refuses to answer the scribes, Jesus cites or alludes to the Bible every time. The Bible settles the matter. Man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Do not feel ashamed to appeal to God’s Word as your final and ultimate authority for what you believe. God’s Word brings life and is profitable for teaching, correction, reproof, and rebuke (2 Tim 3:16).
Be wise—in every instance, except for one, Jesus asks questions of his listeners. We should wisely employ the use of questions to draw our interlocuters into better discussion; we should ask people to define their terms, and should, like Jesus, occasionally use questions to make others defend their own worldview. Further, Jesus wisdom in debates was evident when He sensed that He was being painted into a corner. When a trap was laid for Jesus, He avoided it. We likewise should be cautious about forced into a false dichotomy or avoid particular circumstances if it appears that those we are discussing with may not have the best of intentions.