Marc Sims • April 13, 2021
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What stood out to you most from the sermon?
- Why did Jesus answer with two commandments when asked to list just one?
- How can some commandments be more important than other commandments? (see vs. 33) Aren't all commandments equally important?
- "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matt 22:40. What does this mean? (See section "centrality of these commands").
- How does the command to "love God and love neighbor" affect how we use our time? (See Eph 5:15-16)
- How are love of God and love of neighbor connected? (See 1 John 4:19-20) What would it look like today for someone to claim to love God, but not love their neighbor? To claim to love their neighbor, but not love God?
- Read Luke 10:25-37. Who is your neighbor? What did "love of neighbor" look like in this story? What does this teach us today?
- Close in prayer, reflecting on any area of your life where you feel like you have not been loving God most in. Confess these to one another and pray for each other.
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. – Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes overhears Jesus’ response given to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection and is impressed with Jesus’ answer. He poses to Jesus a typical question of the day: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Rabbis of the day had counted a total of 613 commandments in the Old Testament and had spent time dividing the laws into “heavy” and “light” categories. Jesus seems to affirm this differentiation when he warns of relaxing even “one of the least of [the] commandments” (Matt 5:19) and rebukes the Pharisees for tithing out of their garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” (Matt 23:23a).
This division of the law into these categories, however, wasn’t a way of saying some laws were unimportant or didn’t need to be obeyed. In fact, in Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees of paying attention to the lighter commandments and neglecting the weighty, He concludes: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others,” (Matt 23:23b). One commentator notes, “..it is best to understand this question as an attempt to identify not which commandments are unimportant and need not be kept but rather which commandment is the most fundamental one from which all the other commandments arise,” ( Stein, BECNT). This is the Scribe’s question.
Jesus responds with the most well-known verse in the Old Testament, “The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:29-30. This citation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was known as the Shema because the first word of the verse “Hear” in Hebrew is Shema. It was recited morning and evening by all pious Jews. Many famous rabbis had concluded that this was, indeed, the most important command in all of Torah. But Jesus goes beyond the questioner’s original intent and instead of sharing just one command He shares two: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” Mark 12:31 (citing Lev. 19:18).
Jesus is asked which is most important, but He gives two. He labels the first commandment as “1st” and the next as “2nd”, seeing that the second commandment is subordinate to the first. But then he concludes by stating that there “is no other commandment greater than these,” setting them both apart in their significance. These two commands are foundational to the whole of the Old Testament’s Law.
The Scribe responds, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Mark 12:32-33. This response is surprising; all of the Scribes interactions with Jesus thus far have been negative (see Mark 3:22-30, 7:1ff), but this Scribe responds positively to Jesus, agreeing with Him. He agrees with Jesus’ estimation, and even adds that these two commands are more important than “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
In the Old Testament it was God who had commanded burnt offerings and sacrifices—they were not unimportant. There are huge sections of the books of the Old Testament that give precise, painstaking details about burnt offerings and sacrifices. Without burnt offerings and sacrifices the entire system of temple worship was virtually rendered obsolete—it was through sacrifices and offerings at the temple that God was praised, worshiped and sins were forgiven. But the danger was that it was possible to participate in them without loving God and without loving neighbor. In fact there are several instance in the Old Testament where this happens. In the prophet Hosea, God explains, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” Hos 6:6. Or in 1 Sam 15:22, ““Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” Participating in sacrifices and offerings to the Lord while our hearts are far from Him does nothing and God is not pleased. Further, making offerings to God while we fail to love our neighbor earns us similar displeasure from God, as Micah the prophet warns us:
“6 With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8 (cf. Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:18-24; Eccl 5:1; Prov 15:8).
What does God want from you? In the ancient world, what mattered most to the gods were sacrifices and offerings—it was through these offerings that the gods were appeased and satiated. In Hinduism today, food offerings are still presented to the gods to replenish their strength. But in the Bible we see that the God described here is very different; He does not command sacrifices and offerings because He needs them, like other gods do (see Ps 50:9-15). What God desires more than anything is obedience, is love.
The Scribe is a good student of the Bible and sees that love of God and neighbor outweigh everything else. And Jesus agrees. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Mark 12:34. After this, no one dares ask Jesus any further questions.
This morning my wife was reading through the sermon text to prepare for the service today. As I was walking out she pointed something out that I simply hadn’t paid attention to: the scribe in his response to Jesus cites an additional Scripture to the ones Jesus cites. He weaves together 1 Sam 15:22 and Hos 6:6. It is after this that Jesus understands that the man answers “wisely.” Where does wisdom come from? God’s Word.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes; - Psalm 19:7-8
Friend, where do you look for wisdom in life? Do you want to be wise? Look to God’s Word, saturate your mind and your heart in God’s Word. Life is complicated. Politics, parentings, singleness, familial conflict, disappointment--how do you respond to all of these situations in all of their circumstantial complexity? If you read the Bible you will not find chapter and verse telling you who to marry, what job to take, or how to encourage your depressed child--but you will formed into a person of wisdom, and wisdom is what you need in life. So devote yourself to God's Word, surround yourself with God's Word, and let it shape and mold you into a wiser person.
What does this passage mean?
The centrality of these commands
Every command in the Bible could be summarized under the heading of either “love of God” or “love of neighbor.” In Matthew’s account of this story he concludes: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” Matt 22:40. The “Law and Prophets” was just another way of describing the Old Testament. So the ten commandments, the clean/unclean laws, the food laws, the teachings on sex and marriage, and every other command we come across in the Bible—they all are branches that shoot out of the trunk of “love God and love neighbor.” This is why Paul can say: “love is the fulfilling of the law,” Rom 13:10 and why Jesus can say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15. This means underneath all of the commands runs these two commands: love God and love neighbor. When we are confronted with a command from God, how we respond to it reveals what you love.
Think of the issue of time management. A seemingly “small” command. Paul exhorts us: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” Eph 5:15-16 (cf. Col 4:5). Make the best use of the time. How do you use your time? At a time where our opportunities for entertainment, leisure, and distraction are legion, where the word ‘binge’ has become commonplace, what does God’s command to use our time well mean? Well, we understand that God has called us to many, many noble tasks: to work diligently at our vocation; to be fruitful and multiply and so raise our children in the discipline and instruction of our Lord; to share the gospel with the lost; to care for the widow, the orphan, and the poor; to help our fellow church members grow in their discipleship; to use the gifts God has given us for the good of the church; to pray without ceasing; to work for the good of our city; and to rest, relax, and enjoy the many good gifts God has given us in such a way that our hearts are warmed to the Lord. If we look at all of those commands and say: No thanks, I really need to catch up on my shows,or I can’t do that, Billy made the travelling team this year, or I’m sorry, but I must impress my boss so I have to use all my time to work, then we look at God and say: You are not important enough to be obeyed, I love these things more than you.
The connection of these commands
Why did Jesus present two commands when asked about just one? Jesus was asked which commandment—singular—was the most important. In a way, Jesus answers the question: the most important, the first, is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But why does Jesus add the second? Why not just leave that off? Because we demonstrate our love of God through our love of neighbor. John explains: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen,” 1 John 4:19-20.
It is impossible for us to love God and not love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor with loving God, since loving God is the first and greatest commandment. This guards us against two errors: loving God without loving neighbor, or loving neighbor without loving God. Let me share two stories with you to illustrate this.
Once when I was younger I was speaking with a girl who was a Christian that I was hoping I could ask out. So, naturally I told her that I was a Christian too—I was not, but in my defense, I really thought I was. I just had no idea what that actually meant. Later in the day, while she was nearby, a friend of mine ran by and did something to me that I cannot even remember but found it extremely irritating and obnoxious, before sprinting away laughing. I exploded in anger and shouted a long, ugly string of profanities after him. The girl was shocked and looked at me: I thought you said you were a Christian? I was genuinely baffled by her response. “I am!” I responded, slightly offended. “Well, Christians definitely don’t talk like that.” I rolled my eyes and laughed at her.
(Unsurprisingly, she was no longer interested in a date).
What I had assumed—and what was so obviously wrong to the girl—was that being a Christian really required very little from you. It was just an interesting detail about your life, like your genealogy or your family traditions around the holidays, but it didn’t demand anything more than your tacit awareness and token rituals. It was merely a private, personal reality. But these commands say otherwise. The faith of the Bible is a faith that makes demands of you, and those demands extend outside of your personal, internal world. They dictate how you treat others. So much so that, as John as told us, if we claim that “we love God” but do not love our brothers, we are deceiving ourselves.
Years after becoming a Christian I worked as a server at a restaurant here in town. It became known that I was a Christian and had aspirations of becoming a pastor someday, so everyone knew I took my faith very seriously. One man (who insisted on calling me “Father Marc”) got into a lengthy discussion with me one day during a slow afternoon. In between wiping down tables he asked why Christians cared so much about sex and why we were not content with simply letting two people who loved each other to do whatever they pleased. We often hear the slogan today: “Love is love.” What that tautology and my co-worker were trying to communicate was that if two people love each other, then who cares if their expression of love looks different than traditional morality? I responded by trying to affirm that the Bible puts a very high premium on “love” and the Bible actually says that all of its ethical commands can be summarized by love. But, the Bible also defines “love” for us. To “love” someone is to be committed to their good, and what is “good”? The highest and must supreme good is God alone. So, if I try to define “love” in such a way that runs contrary to what God has commanded, then I am not actually loving. In Paul’s great chapter on love he explains, “love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth,” 1 Cor 13:6. So if our “love” tries to cut against the grain, if it does not flow out of and lead into a greater love for God, then it is not love. In other words, we cannot love our neighbor at the expense of loving God.
The culmination of the other commands
When the scribe points out that these two commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by that? If you remember, Jesus understands the kingdom of God to have come in His arrival. The Gospel of Mark opened with Jesus’ pronouncement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” Mark 1:15 The kingdom of God is what was lost in Eden, what the kingdom of David was a foretaste of, and what every Jew in the Old Testament up to Jesus’ day had been awaiting. In the Kingdom all of God’s promises would be fulfilled, God would restore His people, and overcome all of their enemies. Jesus teaches that the wait is over and the Kingdom is here. Of course, Mark has taught us that the arrival of the Kingdom has been surprising, not what anyone would expect, but nevertheless the Kingdom had come in the person of Jesus.
But why does Jesus tell the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom here, specifically after the scribe says that love of God and neighbor is more important than sacrifice? Further, why would there be so many places in the Old Testament that teach that sacrifices and offerings are less important than other commands? Because what the sacrifices and offerings pointed to had arrived in the person and work of Jesus. Under the old covenant, to have fellowship with God, for your sins to be forgiven, you went to the temple and offered sacrifice. But Jesus has come to usher in the new covenant, a new way to commune with God, a new way for sins to be forgiven. Under the new covenant, it is not a lamb or bull who is sacrificed, it is the Son of God Himself. Jesus’ blood is establishes the new covenant, and thus renders the old covenant and its obsolete.
So now, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament connected to the Temple are exhausted and fulfilled through Christ, and the “lighter” matters of the law fade away.
God wants all of you. When we are told to love God with our “heart, soul, mind, and strength,” it is just a way to describe every nook and cranny of our lives. Our desires, our affections, our ideas, our thoughts, our will, our actions—there is not one square inch of our lives over which Jesus does not rightfully claim ‘Mine!”
But isn’t it interesting that we are commanded to love God—in other religions, what is the most important command? God doesn’t just want servile subjects—He desires a relationship with you. He desires your love. As a husband desires all of his wife’s heart, so too does our God desire all of us.
Marc Sims • April 05, 2021
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.
Marc Sims • April 03, 2021
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!
Marc Sims • March 29, 2021
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.