Monthly Archives: February 2011
Sometimes people refer to God in a flippant way. He’s “the man upstairs.” Or (worst-case scenario) “Jesus is my homeboy.” Nearly everyone who is deeply religious bristles at such casual treatment of the one “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).
Unfortunately, it’s also possible to devote yourself to a small, handcrafted god who is not the God you think you’re worshiping. You may be taking the one true God too lightly.
Jesus has drawn the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. His teaching is a threat to their political power structure. So they’ve sent delegations to him to trap him in his words. Every time they do this, Jesus evades the trap and demonstrates that he is superior to his opponents.
This particular delegation from the Sanhedrin is composed of the priestly, upper-class Sadducees. They are a group that is skeptical of most of the Old Testament; they only accept the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as scripture. As a result, they deny many doctrines which the Pharisees, most Jews, and Jesus himself affirm. One in particular is the resurrection from the dead. There isn’t much Old Testament teaching on this subject (though see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:12), and there seems to be none whatsoever in the Torah. So the Sadducees believe that once you die, that’s it. If there’s any afterlife at all, it’s found in the gloomy confines of Sheol, the underworld.
The Sadducees deny the resurrection for another reason as well. They’re convinced that it’s logically incoherent. To prove their point, they present Jesus with a hypothetical situation. What if a woman marries a man who dies? According to the Jewish custom of Levirate marriage, the man’s brother is required to marry her and raise up an heir for him. The Sadducees take this to the point of absurdity—suppose seven such brothers died!—but it would only require one death for the woman to have married two husbands in this life. So “in the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be?” they ask.
Note that, once again, we have Jesus’ enemies asking a question when they’re not genuinely interested in learning from him. They just want to humiliate him. They’ve already decided they’re not going to believe.
Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush here. “Is this not the reason you are led astray, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” he tells them. Now, this is a slap in the face! The Sadducees were fanatic students of the scriptures, and they stood in positions of great political and religious power. Yet Jesus is saying to their faces that they are wayward and ignorant.
Jesus explains what he means. The Sadducees clearly don’t know the power of God because they have made wrong assumptions about the resurrection. They’ve assumed that the next life will be an extension of this one; people will get married and raise families and go on living like they do now. Jesus is telling them that God will reorder everything; those who are resurrected will no longer marry. In fact, marriage will no longer exist; it’s a temporary institution that will pass away. God is powerful enough to recreate the world in a way that exceeds the wildest dreams of man.
Jesus continues to pile it on. He quotes Exodus 3:6, in which God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—his ancestors. The eternal, self-existent I AM had chosen to identify himself with these patriarchs, to bind himself to them with an eternal covenant, to make promises to them which had not yet been fulfilled. None of this makes sense if they have simply ceased to exist. Would God really identify himself with something that no longer exists? Would his promises to Moses be reliable if he had no intention of fulfilling his promises to the (living) patriarchs? No! “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” Jesus says. Then he adds, “You are led greatly astray.” And he’ll drive his point home in the final chapter of Mark, when he himself rises from the dead.
The Sadducees are a monument built for us, a warning that it’s possible to be a devout person, to be a student of the Bible, to be in a position of power in the church, and yet to be ignorant and easily deceived. Jesus insists that all of his followers contemplate and adhere to the words of scripture—all the words, not just those which we want to believe! Jesus wants you and me to expand our understanding of who God is. When you try to grasp who God is, do not be quick to draw conclusions about what he can’t or shouldn’t do. He is powerful, and you are in no position to question him. Instead, align your thinking with his written Word, lest you stray from the path and into deadly error.
Leading up to the recent midterm elections here in the U.S., a vocal movement known as the Tea Party began demanding a reduced role for the federal government. The central idea behind this movement was (and is) that the American government is too large and is meddling with the autonomy of its citizens. The government should reduce its role, lowering taxes and cutting back its services.
Now, even the most radical Tea Party activists wouldn’t have held a candle to the Zealots of Jesus’ day. These insurgents hated the Roman empire and its authority over the Jewish state. They longed to see the Romans driven out so that Israel could be restored once again to an independent status, just as it was in its heyday. They believed that to submit to Rome was to reject the Lord God as Israel’s King.
So the big political question among Jesus’ contemporaries was whether one should serve Rome (as a collaborator) or serve the Lord (as a Zealot). The people’s sympathy lay with the zealots, and even paying taxes to Rome seemed like a betrayal of their Jewish heritage.
The Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, were familiar with this situation, and now they were ready to use it to set a trap for Jesus, who had become a thorn in their sides.
The Pharisees represent the popular resentment of Rome, while the Herodians support Rome and its appointed ruler, Herod. Also, they both hate Jesus. So these unlikely bedfellows try to trap him on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus could say that no, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar; this would have earned him popular support but probably landed him in a Roman jail. On the other hand, Jesus could say that yes, it is right to pay taxes—and at once the crowds surrounding him would vanish. Either way, the Jesus problem is solved. So his opponents don’t mind a little bit of sarcastic flattery, telling Jesus, “You are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”
They’re about to wish they hadn’t said that.
Jesus knows they’re trying to trap him. He knows that they’re hypocrites, mere actors. They aren’t asking him the question because they want to know the answer. They aren’t interested in finding out how to live a life pleasing to God. No, they’re looking for an excuse to reject Jesus.
Of course, Jesus is too smart for them. He asks for a denarius, the Roman coin used to pay the tax (but rarely used in local commerce). The irony is that Jesus doesn’t have one, but his questioners do—he deftly reveals to the crowd that the Jewish leaders have bought into the Roman oppression, not he! And then he asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Puzzled, they give the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.” And then, with a simple reply—Jesus answers, undermines, and exposes his enemies. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he tells them, “and to God the things that are God’s.”
What does this mean? Well, obviously, “the things that are Caesar’s” refers to the coin with his inscription. Jesus is acknowledging that the Roman government has the right to tax the people. There is no essential conflict between human government and divine sovereignty. But he chooses to place his emphasis on “the things that are God’s.” Caesar has stamped his image on the money, but he can never stamp his image on the hearts of the people. That is something God alone has done (Genesis 1:26–27). “Let Caesar have his money,” Jesus is saying, “but you give your self to God.”
That’s something the Pharisees have refused to do. Remember, they’re questioning Jesus about the crucial political issue of their time—an issue that will eventually lead to a Jewish rebellion and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So on the surface, they seem wise in asking him about it. But Jesus knows they are hypocrites. They don’t care about giving themselves over to God. They just want to get rid of this troublesome teacher who is undermining their authority by claiming it for himself.
You may be worried about Obama’s health care plan or tax breaks. You may be worried about whether the government has the right to take what you deem to be yours. But don’t get caught up in the small stuff. The government is demanding your money; Jesus is demanding your life. And if you would rather rely on the government to take care of your needs and wants, perhaps it’s time to place full confidence in Jesus to provide security for you. After all, he has claimed the title of Messiah, the anointed King over all the world.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:7)
The pattern of my life is not pleasing to God.
But Jesus pleased him to the fullest extent possible. (Mark 1:11)
I don’t make much of an effort to spend time alone with God. I don’t think praying with God is a good use of my time.
But Jesus got up early and left everything to be with God. He was convinced that God would lend his limitless power to those who pray. (1:35; 9:29; 11:22–24)
I want people to think highly of me. I want to get them to do the things I want so that I will feel happy and fulfilled.
But Jesus put other people first and saw himself as their servant. (9:33–37; 10:35–45)
I like to supplement God’s law with a few of my own.
But Jesus refused to accept any manmade law that interfered with God’s will. (7:1–13)
I’d rather keep my life back for myself instead of giving it to God.
But Jesus gave up his life, submitting to the will of God. (8:34–38)
I like using my time and money in intelligent and practical ways.
But Jesus prefers inefficient and awkward displays of devotion to him. (14:3–9)
I only like to do God’s will if it’s easy.
Jesus was willing to do God’s will even if it meant being abused and forsaken by everyone he knew and loved. (14:36)
I tend to get focused on the daily grind, on projects and goals and minor details.
But Jesus cared about people and wanted to save them. (1:17)
I prefer simple, rigid rules and laws.
But Jesus understood that God’s law is all about giving people what is good for them. (2:23–28; 3:1–6)
I don’t want to allow suffering people to complicate my life.
But Jesus acted out of pity for them even if it inconvenienced him. (1:40–45)
I like being around attractive, well-mannered people who have their lives together.
But Jesus would much rather be around dirty, messed-up sinners. (2:13–17)
I don’t think about other people’s needs; I’m obsessed with my own needs.
Jesus was concerned about other people’s needs for food and rest. (6:31; 8:2)
I don’t worry much about people who have no spiritual leader.
Jesus longed to fill the void for people who didn’t know he was the Good Shepherd they should follow. (6:34)
I focus on physical problems more than the real problem of sin in my life. I don’t think it’s a big deal.
But Jesus knew that sin was the most fundamental problem that people have. He was horrified at the danger which sin posed to people and the judgment they would face for it. (2:4; 9:42–50)
I tend to think of myself as a pretty decent person who sometimes does bad things.
Jesus knew that people are rotten deep down and that bad things come from bad hearts. (7:14–23)
I keep thinking I can get eternal life by being a well-mannered, well-meaning person.
But Jesus knew that only humble, childlike, desperate people will enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:13–31)
I want to exclude people who don’t belong to my church or theological tradition.
But Jesus knew that God’s kingdom includes people who aren’t just like me. (9:38–41)
I don’t like it when people challenge my ideas about who God is and how he acts.
But Jesus loved to turn people’s beliefs about God upside down. (12:35–37)
Sometimes I get into arguments with stubborn people who refuse to change their minds.
But Jesus knew when it wasn’t worth the fight. (8:11–13)
I shy away from demanding change from people who need to change.
But Jesus was bold in proclaiming repentance and the gospel. (1:15)
I’d rather back down when confronted by spiritual forces that hate me and people who don’t want me around.
Jesus beat up the spiritual forces and rescued a suffering man. (5:1–20)
I often don’t know how to respond when people challenge my beliefs about God.
But Jesus knew exactly how to challenge the mindset of his accusers. (11:27–12:34)
I’m easily impressed by religious people and powerful institutions made by men.
But Jesus couldn’t stand religious people and declared that the kingdoms of man would be torn to the ground. (12:38–13:37)
I sometimes worry that the church will eventually be smothered by the world.
But Jesus was confident that he is stronger than Satan. (3:23–27)
I don’t get upset when people treat casually the things God says are holy.
But Jesus became incensed when he saw the temple treated as a marketplace. (11:15–17)
I treat marriage casually, as simply another important relationship in life.
But Jesus insisted that marriage was God’s special creation. (10:1–12)
I’m not so sure that God will always be there to rescue me.
Jesus wasn’t bothered by little things like life-threatening storms. (4:35–41; 6:45–52)
I doubt that God has much power to heal people who are sick or raise the dead to life.
Jesus himself has the power to heal chronic illness and raise the dead. (5:21–43)
What wondrous love, what mysteries
In this appointment shine:
My breaches of the law are his,
And his obedience mine!