Confrontations with Jesus
Let’s begin by situating Mark 12 in its context. Mark 11 included Jesus’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, followed by his cleansing of the temple and cursing of the fig tree. Mark 13 is an extended sermon on the destruction of the temple. So Mark 12 is sandwiched in between passages that are focused on Jesus’s judgment on Israel’s temple and her leadership. As we saw a few weeks ago, God has returned to Zion in the person of Jesus, but he has come in judgment. He has come to curse the fruitless fig tree, to judge the den of robbers. But in the midst of symbolizing and enacting this judgment, Jesus also teaches his disciples about the true purpose of the temple. In the New Covenant, the church is the true temple, made of living stones. We are the house of prayer for all nations. And so in today’s passage, we want to pay attention to Christ’s teaching as it emerges in his collisions with the Jewish leaders.
From the end of Mark 11 to the end of Mark 12, we see a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. We’ve seen this before, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee in Mark 1-3. There we saw the rural Jewish leadership press and probe and question Jesus—about his authority, about who forgives sins, about his dinner companions, about fasting, and about the Sabbath. And in each case, Jesus answered them with his own proverbial wisdom, and in the end turned the tables and indicted their whole approach to obedience and the law by healing a man on the Sabbath. That event sparks the initial conspiracy against Jesus, as the Pharisees and the Herodians go out plotting how to destroy Jesus. That was the conflict in Galilee; now the conflict comes to Jerusalem. We see five confrontations.
- Direct Attack: By what authority?
- Flattery and Politics: Should we pay taxes to Caesar?
- Theology and the Afterlife: Whose wife will she be?
- Ethics and Morality: What is the Greatest Commandment?
- (Jesus) Messianic Identity: David’s Son or David’s Lord?
- Warning about Scribes; Praise of a Widow
For the remainder of our time, I want to walk through each of these confrontations, make a few comments about what’s happening, and draw out a lesson or two for us today.
Trap 1: The Direct Attack
The key question here is an important one: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “These things” probably refers to the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, but more specifically refers to the cleansing of the temple. A rural prophet comes blazing into town, with a throng of people shouting “Hosanna!” and proceeds to attack the way the temple is being run, acting like he owns the place. They want to know his credentials.
Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, he exposes their whole approach to the question. If they want a straight answer from Jesus, all they have to do is give him a straight answer. So he asks about their view of John’s baptism—from heaven, or from man. This is very similar to Jesus’s question in Mark 3 about whether it’s lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath. And just like in Mark 3, the priests and scribes huddle up, and they tease out the possible answers. If they say, “from heaven,” Jesus will ask a follow-up. If they say “from man,” the people will eat them alive. And so, they take the politically expedient route and say, “We don’t know.” And so Jesus refuses to answer their question.
What do we learn? First, we see Jesus showing us what it means to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He doesn’t feel any obligation to answer entrapping questions. Second, we see Jesus’s love for clarity and the danger of being so concerned with popular acclaim. This is an indictment of spin, or political calculation, of muting one’s testimony to what you believe is true based on fear of man. And this indictment comes in the midst of Jesus refusing to answer a direct question about his authority. So not all evasion is wrong. Not giving a direct answer because you love the truth, is different than not giving a direct answer because of the consequences of speaking the truth.
Trap 2: Flattery
After the parable, the Herodians and Pharisees come to trap him with a political and theological question. Normally the Pharisees and Herodians are opponents. The Pharisees do not like Roman rule; the Herodians are compromisers and friends of Rome. But, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and so they set aside their differences to entrap Jesus. But they cover it in smooth flattery. “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.” You see the strategy; Jesus had trapped the chief priests because of their concern for appearances, because they feared the people’s opinion. And so now they try to use the same strategy on Jesus. Here’s the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” This question is designed to put Jesus in the same position as the priests were earlier. Many Jews hated the poll tax imposed by the Romans. There have been insurrections in response to these taxes. So, if Jesus says, “pay taxes,” he’ll lose the support of some of the people, particularly the Zealots. But if he says, “Don’t pay them,” then he’s now an enemy of the state, and the Romans will take care of him. So Jesus is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Anger the crowds or anger Rome.
But Jesus again slips the net. He asks for a denarius, a gold coin with Caesar’s image and inscription on it. And he asks the obvious question, “Whose image is this?” “Caesar’s.” Then render to Caesar what is his, and render to God’s what is God’s. This answer cuts through the fundamental assumption behind the question. The question assumes that loyalty to God and obedience to Caesar are fundamentally opposed. But Jesus asserts that they are normally complementary. It’s possible to be faithful to God and pay taxes to the pagan emperor. And in doing so, he establishes a fundamental principle that later biblical authors will elaborate on. The principle is: give Caesar his due…and no more. Caesar is Caesar. But God is God. If it rightfully belongs to Caesar, give it to him. And if it rightfully belongs to God, give it to him.
And there are two important implications of this teaching. First, there is an indictment of the Jewish leaders, who were not giving to God what was God’s. They honor him with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. They nullify his commandments by their traditions. They are not giving to God what is his. Second, even Caesar must give to God what is God’s. Jesus speaks this to the Jewish leaders, but it applies to every human being everywhere, including Caesar and the President, and Congress, and the Supreme Court. Everyone is obligated to render to God what is God’s. Which further means that if Caesar ever demands what belongs to God, we ought to refuse.
For the Reformers, this was a key passage in establishing their understanding of the two kingdoms, or two governments. One kingdom is spiritual; it is the individual soul, standing before God directly. In that kingdom, every individual must render to God what is God’s—faith, worship, obedience. But the other kingdom is temporal; it involves this age and all of its affairs. In the temporal kingdom, we also have obligations—to our families, to the visible church, to the state. In the temporal kingdom, there are all kinds of rulers and authorities that God has established for the sake of human flourishing and life. And so, in the temporal kingdom, we ought to obey these authorities. But we must never confuse them. We must never offer to God merely external obedience, and we must never offer our souls to any human authority. Because just as the coin bore Caesar’s image on it, we bear the image of God. And so we must offer back to God those things which bear his image.
Trap 3: The Resurrection
The Sadducees, the aristocratic Jewish party, now take their turn in the ring. They ask him a theological puzzle based on 1) the Mosaic law, 2) the integrity of marriage, and 3) belief in the resurrection. Jesus would have shared each of these beliefs with the Pharisees, over against the Sadducees who embraced Moses, were more lenient about divorce, and didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. Thus, this question was probably sharpened in theological debates of the day, and they pull it out to stump Jesus. Whereas the previous question sought to trap him between the Jewish crowds and Rome, this one seeks to expose his inadequate theological understanding and the ridiculousness of his rustic beliefs.
Jesus responds both to the immediate issue, and to the deeper question of the resurrection. To the marriage issue, he simply notes that the resurrection will transcend our earthly experience in significant ways, especially in relation to marriage and procreation. A couple of observations. First, Jesus is assuming the natural and Old Testament background that regards marriage as fundamentally ordered to procreation. One of the main purposes of marriage is fruitfulness and multiplication. That’s why God designed it, and that’s why infertility is so painful; we were designed to be fruitful and multiply in this age, but because of the fall and the resulting brokenness in the world, sometimes our bodies don’t do what God originally designed them to do. And we grieve at that brokenness and pain, and we’re right to. Infertility is experienced as an affliction because we know the truthfulness of what Jesus assumes here: there is an important connection between marriage and procreation. And his point is: because the resurrection ushers in eternal life, it brings an end to procreation, and therefore an end to marriage. Instead, we will be “like the angels.” Now if anyone tries to tell you that they know what “like the angels” means, beyond the fact that angels don’t marry, nor do they have children, you need to know that they’re full of it. Jesus doesn’t tell us what “like the angels” means in its fullness, because I’m not sure that we could comprehend it in our present condition. Instead, Jesus is teaching that while the resurrection is bodily, it is fundamentally transformative for us, and eye has not seen what God has prepared for those who love him.
But Jesus isn’t content to address the marriage question; he presses through to the fundamental error of the Sadducees: their denial of the resurrection as a whole. They are very wrong, because they don’t know the Bible and they don’t know God’s power. And then he goes to the book of Exodus, in the Torah, to demonstrate that even Moses recognized the resurrection. His argument is basically this: God is the living God. I am who I am. And this God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when he speaks to Moses at the burning bush. So if the living God identifies himself as Abraham’s God hundreds of years after Abraham died, then Abraham ain’t staying dead. The living God will not be the god of the dead. He must be the God of the living. And there are all kinds of lessons there about how we should learn to read the Scriptures like Jesus.
Condemning the Scribes, Praising the Widow
Before I talk about the lonely scribe and Jesus’s question, I want to jump to the end and talk about his indictment of scribes in general and his praise of the widow. Jesus warns people about the scribes because of their ostentatious displays and desires for public fame. In other words, Jesus condemns scribal virtue-signaling. And they do it while devouring widows’ houses, that is, oppressing God’s image-bearers contrary to his law. So take that indictment and then remember what Pharisaism is: the hypocritical establishment of human traditions that nullify the word of God (Mark 7). When you see businesses and community leaders and politicians falling over themselves in order to publicly signal their support for causes and actions that the Bible calls ungodly, shameful, and degrading, I want you to remember Jesus’s condemnation of scribal virtue signaling and pharisaical traditions that nullify the word of God in nature and Scripture. In other words, when Jesus says, “Beware cultural leaders who signal their virtue and crave crowd approval, and who oppress God’s image bearers by nullifying his word,” I want you to think back over the last month about the signaling and symbols you’ve seen around these Cities, and I want you to beware. Beware of the kind of pressure it puts on you to go along with it, to join in the signaling, to think that you’re the weird one. The effect of virtue-signaling by community leaders, whether in the 1st or 21st centuries, is designed to shape your view of reality, to shape your view of what is normal and natural and good and acceptable. And Jesus says, “Beware of that. Know what is happening to you, as you drive around town, as you’re on social media. Beware and resist.” Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
Now I want you to take that blanket condemnation of an entire group of people (“Beware the scribes”) and I want you to notice two other things in this passage. First, Jesus’s condemnation of the scribes as a group didn’t keep him from a civil and fruitful conversation with one of those scribes in which they found some surprising common ground. Jesus can condemn the scribes as a group, and engage fruitfully with some scribes as individuals.
This scribe walks up as Jesus is in the midst of disputing with the others about politics and theology. And when he sees that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, he asks him a classic question that the rabbi’s debated. Out of the 613 laws in the Torah, which is the most important? Jesus recognizes that this guy isn’t playing politics or trying to trap him; he actually wants to hear what Jesus thinks. And so Jesus quotes the Shema, Israel’s most prominent confession: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And then he chooses two commandments and places them above all the others: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe agrees. The scribe and the prophet, who ought to be enemies, find common ground around Israel’s confession of faith and a commitment to love God and love neighbor. And when Jesus sees this common ground, he says, “You’re not far from the kingdom.” I’ll return to that in a moment.
So we have this fruitful interaction with one scribe coupled with a blanket condemnation of scribes in general. Now notice the situation with the widow. They’re sitting outside the temple, watching as people make contributions in these offering boxes. And the rich people put in large sums, and the poor widow puts in two copper coins. And Jesus commends the widow; her generosity was more significant to Jesus than the large sums. An observation, and an application. First, Jesus has just condemned the temple and its leadership in very strong terms. He cursed the fig tree, he overturned the tables, he told a parable of divine judgment on the tenants who killed the servants and the beloved son, and he’s been schooling them in theology. And after pronouncing this judgment on them and on the scribes for taking advantage of widows, he sees a widow, giving money to the corrupt temple that he’s condemned, and he praises her generosity. Which means, Jesus makes a distinction between the leaders and shepherds of Israel and the sheep who are devoured by them. His condemnation of the leaders doesn’t mean that he condemns all who support them.
Here’s the application: Jesus praises the widow’s generosity, not because of the amount compared to other people, but because of the sacrifice that she makes. She gave until it pinched, until it hurt. The rich folks gave a lot, but they didn’t feel the pinch. She gave out of her poverty, and felt the cost. That’s a good test for my generosity: does my generosity mean that I am having to go without something? Is it costing me? Or is my generosity merely convenient?
David’s Son and David’s Lord
Let’s summarize what we’ve seen in these confrontations. We’ve seen Jesus’s shrewdness in refusing to answer entrapping questions and instead exposing the craven calculation of his opponents. We’ve seen him reorient our political thinking by distinguishing obedience to earthly authorities and obedience to God, and then encouraging us to render to each what is due. We’ve seen him demonstrate the resurrection from the book of Exodus and reframe our perspective on eternal life. And we’ve seen him condemn the virtue-signaling hypocrisy of the scribes as a group while fruitfully engaging with one of them in a discussion of important theological matters, and commending one of their supporters for her generosity. Now let’s return to the end of that conversation with the lonely scribe.
Jesus and the scribe agree that there is one God who is worthy of all worship, and that our fundamental obligations are to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And Jesus sees this agreement and says to the scribe, “You’re close. You’re not far from the kingdom. But neither are you in the kingdom.” This agreement silences everybody; no one asks him any more questions (just like the disciples stopped asking him about his teaching on his death and resurrection on the road). Now he asks a question. And his question is a theological puzzle from the Old Testament and it reveals the difference between being close to the kingdom and being in.
The scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David. But David calls him Lord, in Psalm 110: ‘”Yahweh says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’” So the Messiah is both David’s son, but also somehow greater than David himself. He is David’s son and David’s Lord.
Now he asks this as a theological puzzle, just like some of their questions. But it’s not accidental that he just entered Jerusalem with people shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” This is another subtle but public hint at Jesus’s true Messianic identity. If he is the Son of David, he is also David’s Lord. Something greater than David is here. And it’s the question of Jesus’s identity that makes all the difference. Believing in God, trying to love him and love your neighbor is good; you’re close. But to enter the kingdom requires something more. It requires having your own personal confrontation with Jesus, coming face to face with Jesus and who he is. Jesus is not just a prophet from Galilee. He’s not just a servant of the owner of the vineyard. He is the beloved son of the owner of everything. He is the human Son of David, and the divine Son of God. Which brings us to the Table.
This Table is not just a table about generic love for God and neighbor. It’s not even a table about love for Israel’s God and love for neighbor. This is a Table for those who worship Jesus. We gather here, not just as neighbors, but as followers of David’s Son and David’s Lord. He is the cornerstone of God’s new temple, and we are the living stones, being knit together in one body, as we eat and drink in faith. Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.