Wednesday, January 11, 2017

“Follow Me”...An Opportunity to Truly Live

The topics addressed by the Bible are always relevant to each person, but sometimes moreso than others. And sometimes, the way a topic is taught or addressed can make it seem more or less relevant than at other times. For instance, if we consider last week’s post, we have a question about Jesus’ authority and His answer being to ask what His questioners think of John the baptizer. Then Jesus gives a parable about wicked tenants who beat, shame, or kill the landowner’s servants and then kill the son. In reading the passage, we may first perceive that the message is not for us. And yet, it is. In a nutshell, I would suggest we can find three key points from those verses.

  • It is about the authority of Jesus.
  • It is about understanding the significance of Jesus baptism and the transference of John’s ministry to Jesus.
  • It is about being good stewards of the ministry that God has given us (which was what John did).

So, maybe we missed some of that last week because of the way the Bible reads or the way I presented it. But this week, the questions posed to Jesus will hit each one of us straight between the eyes. In fact, within the last week or so, I have been asked both of these questions.
  • Should we pay taxes?
  • What happens when we die?

As I mentioned last week, this section of Scripture – Mark 11.27-12.40 involves seven different questions and controversies. Last week, we looked at the question of Jesus and the parable (the first two). This week we will look at the next two. It is important to understand the Jesus is being evaluated, and that is a critical thought – Jesus is being evaluated! I will say more about that in a few weeks, but for now, we just need to remember the events we are studying occur during the week before Passover.

So, how did we get to this point of the story? I would encourage you to quickly review last week’s post – particularly the section entitled The Trap: A Contrived Plan.

Last week, the trap was about the source of Jesus authority. This week, the traps shifts to a political question followed by a theological question. These two questions are presented by two different groups although they were all working together behind the scenes to destroy Jesus. It is important to know a little about these groups in order to help us understand the purpose of their particular questions.

A Conflicted Partnership

The Pharisees and Herodians would typify a list of groups who might be considered opposites. Imagine Republicans and Democrats working together or the fans of two sports rivals joining forces. The only way this could happen is if a common enemy threatened to disrupt each group independently and collectively. Such was the case with Jesus. These groups were no strangers to one another, in part, because they were quite opposed to one another. (See this post from 2016 for a short exposé on these two groups.) Mark 3.6 says that they two groups began to plot with one another how to destroy Jesus from that moment. What was the moment? Jesus healing a man’s withered hand – although the problem was that He did it on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees were interested in the observance of the Jewish law. The Herodians were interested in Herod regaining power from Rome. In either case, a messiah-like figure could be a threat to either side as history had already revealed. In fact, the question they posed was due to a tax that had been instituted over two decades earlier and had caused a revolt against Rome. Thus, Jesus answer is critical.
  • If Jesus answers not to pay, He will be arrested, in large part because of the earlier uprising.
  • If Jesus answers to pay, then His following would disband.

But make no mistake, the question was geared to get Him arrested and, ideally, killed.

A Challenging Problem

How many of you know that before you ask something difficult, you should butter people up? Well, ok, this isn’t necessary, but we do it, right? The practice is not new. Remember, this is a trap. Jesus has just pushed back hard at the Sanhedrin, and now this next group comes. Listen how they begin, as recorded in Mark 12.14: “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.”

That statement is entirely true, but their saying it is not because they believe it. If they believed Jesus truly represented God the Pharisees would be following Him, and would not have anything to do with the Herodians – and that is just a beginning of the hypocrisy. But again, the statement is true. Jesus will not be swayed by their opinion, by the appearances of the ruling Sanhedrin, the threats of the Pharisees, by the rule of Caesar, nor, as we will see next, the aristocracy of the Sadducees. What they said is truth, even if they do not mean it, which is why I can say with full assurance “All truth is God’s truth” regardless of its source.

Their question is about the lawfulness of paying the tax. Roman law required it. But the question was about Jewish law. The ESV uses the term “lawful.” The question is, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” A better understanding of this would be to say: “Are we permitted to pay taxes?”

The issue was not just about paying taxes; it was about the coin used to pay the taxes. The issue was not the amount; it was the 2nd Commandment which commands to not make a graven image. Most currency used by the Jews in that day were copper coins without any real markings. But the coin that was used for this poll tax was a denarius. Each emperor minted their own coin with their own image stamped onto it.

Denarius with Tiberius Caesar Inscribed
The front has the of Tiberius Caesar with an abbreviated inscription – Divi Aug filius  or “Son of the divine Augustus”

On the back was a picture of his mother Livia with the inscription – Ponti Maxim or “High Priest”

Thus, for the Jews to use this coin which ascribed deity to a man (the deceased Caesar Augustus), and made mockery of their true high priest – especially related to the temple – would be blasphemous. (As I have mentioned before in our study on Matthew 16, the emperor’s sons were often called “son of god.” That is why Peter’s statement at Caesarea Philippi (where Phillip was son of the dead god) about Jesus being Son of the living God is such a radical inclusion in Matthew’s account of the Great Confession.) If Jesus answers that the taxes should be paid, he would not only discredit Himself as blasphemous, but it would be treasonous as well, and thus He would be arrested, if not killed.

Jesus, aware of their scheme, asks not for a coin, but specifically for a denarius. Let us not overlook that Jesus was aware of this practice so He asked for the particular coin in question. But let us also not overlook that these groups who were supposedly opposed to the use of the coin were able to produce one quite easily – while on the temple grounds!

Upon receiving the coin, Jesus asks about the inscription and then gives His answer. His answer is not just an answer however. And notice Jesus answer does not specifically address their question!

The Response: A Comprehensive Pronouncement

Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and give to God what is His. Notice this subtle change. They asked if it was ok to pay the taxes – are we permitted? But Jesus changes the verb and says give back what belongs to others. In the case of Caesar, the coin had his image, and the cultural understanding was that as long as the coin was in circulation, and the Caesar was alive, then it was his personal property. Thus Jesus says, if Caesar is asking for it, give it back to him.

But that brings us to the latter half of the statement. Because Jesus also says, give to God what is God’s. Many people interpret this in a way that says all money is God’s so we should give it to Him. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. Remember, the Pharisees are a part of the group before Jesus in this moment. And the question from Jesus was about the image on the coin. So, to carry the thought to completion, Jesus talks about the image of God. Where is the image of God imprinted? Genesis 1.27 gives us the answer. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Coins may have the image of a ruler or perhaps someone great impressed upon it. But humans have the image of God impressed upon us. Just as Jesus instructed these individuals to give back what belonged to Caesar, He says we should give ourselves back to our Creator – the One to whom we belong. It is not that we are to pay God like we are some form of a tax, but we should willingly give ourselves to Him. That is, we should make ourselves available to Him, because He is God.

I will draw a few principles from this in the conclusion, but first, let us unpack the next encounter which followed immediately.

A Conservative Piety

The Sadducees were very theologically conservative. They disregarded the oral tradition that had been passed down and were skeptical of the writings beyond those of Moses. Thus, the Torah (that is, the writings of Moses – Genesis through Deuteronomy) was their guide. Because of this limited scope of Scripture, they did not believe in the resurrection, nor angels, nor a few other aspects that we consider normal today. We may find this strange, but the primary passages for resurrection are in Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 12 and if you discount the prophetic writings – especially those which happened in Babylon, then you can make a case for their position. (In truth, only four verses/passages really speak of resurrection in the Old Testament: Psalm 73.23; Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37; Daniel 12:2. The OT speaks of the afterlife in terms of Sheol – largely existing in a joyless state, not resurrection.)

This conservative group comes immediately after Jesus shut down the attack of the Pharisees and Herodians. This group is usually at odds against the Pharisees (who did believe in angels, the resurrection, etc.), but here the goal of every group is to discredit Jesus. Thus, they come up with a preposterous example – one they likely had used to make Pharisees look like fools – to confront Jesus. Their concern is not political; it is entirely theological.

A Curious Puzzle

Basically, they want to play “What if?” in the theological realm. You have certainly heard others do this in vain, and have done yourself in earnestness. In vain, it sounds something like this: “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” The answer to that question is: Why would He? God will only do what brings Him glory, so He has no reason to make such a rock.

But in earnestness the question is more along the lines of what happens next?  That is, what happens when we die? Will we know each other in eternity? Are we reunited with our family? Does our family watch over us after they die? I cannot get into all of that today. But I will say that our expectations of eternity are probably more removed from the truth than we can imagine. Specifically, I will say that while we might know one another, and better than we do now, our concept of family will have changed dramatically (as Christ has already revealed in Mark 3.35 and 10.30), and our focus will be on worshiping and serving God, not on one another. And the passage before us reveals just that.

The Sadducees story is about a lady whose husband died prior to having children. This was a real problem in Jewish culture. So, God designed a law that allowed for the family to continue. The law was known as a Levirate Marriage (see Deuteronomy 25.5-10). Basically, the brother of the deceased man would offer himself to the woman so she could bear a male child. In their story, not only has the husband died, but so had six of his brothers who were willing to sustain this widow. But the problem, according to the Sadducees, is that if there really is a resurrection (read that sarcastically to get their tone), whose wife will she really be?

The argument has many holes in a technical sense (e.g. only the first man was legally married to the woman). But Jesus doesn’t argue on man-made technicalities. He uses Scripture to refute their puzzle. However, Jesus cannot use just any Scripture because, again, the Sadducees only give credence to the books of Moses. So, Jesus uses the passage about the bush. You and I might say, “Remember in Exodus 3”; but remember, the chapters and verses came hundreds of years after Jesus, so in this day, the teachers referred to sections of Scripture by the topic.

So how does Jesus respond?

The Response: A Common Pitfall

Jesus basically says, “You are reading Scripture for what you want to see, rather than for the truth. You have developed an understanding and now you make Scripture agree with you rather than letting it guide, direct, and even correct your false interpretations. You think you understand, but you do not. You don’t know the Scriptures and you certainly don’t know God.” (The process of reading our ideas into Scripture is called eisegesis. To read what is there is exegesis.)

First, Jesus mentions that the people who rise are LIKE angels. Please note, that we do not become angels. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6 says that we, humans, judge the angels. God created angels before He created humans. Just as an elephant and a hippopotamus are different, so are humans and angels. Some similarities exist, but there are differences as well.

In this case, we become like angels because serving God is what is important. We have marriage on earth for the purposes of procreation. In heaven, we will not have a need to procreate, so we will not need marriage as we know it. And, as I have said several times before, those who are in eternity with God are the Church, which is called the Bride of Christ. So, the only marriage known in heaven is that between us (collectively) and Jesus.

Thus, Jesus begins to show that the Sadducees are wrong. All of us expect the future relatively predictable based upon our past. But when we do this, we are not allowing God to be Himself. As Jesus said, this group of people does not know the Scriptures, nor do they know the power of God – if God can raise people from the dead, then what can’t He do?

At this point, Jesus brings the focus to a particular passage, but not one that directly mentions resurrection. Rather, the passage is an example of its truth. When God spoke to Moses, He did not speak of being the God of people who had died, He spoke of the promise to those who were still living – though their life on earth had ceased. Certainly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died hundreds of years prior to Moses encounter at the burning bush. But the promises God made Abraham were not yet fulfilled, and thus either Abraham must still be living in some way (i.e. resurrection) or God is a liar.

Thus, Jesus refutes this group’s challenge with the wisdom of God. And when we are challenged about the things of God, it is how we must learn to respond as well.

Five primary principles should be considered from the passages reviewed in this post.

1.  Being devoted to God means giving of ourselves.

2.  The reality is that God doesn’t want your money; He wants you.
If you give God money, you may still end up separated from Him for eternity.
If you give Him yourself, your money will surely follow – and more than you simply pay out of obligation.We can be devoted to God and be at peace with our country simultaneously.

3.  We can be devoted to God and be at peace with our country simultaneously.
Our obedience to a human government does not necessarily conflict with obligation to God.
Other passages on the subject are Rom 13:1–7; 1 Tim 2:1–3; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Pet 2:13–17.

4. We cannot project earthly understandings onto heavenly realities.
5. Eternity will change our understanding of marriage, but we will love, and be loved, in ways we cannot yet fathom.

This week’s JOURNEY letter is: YYou.

How will you respond to this passage? To God? To the authority of Jesus? Are you willing to truly seek what Jesus wants and give yourself to Him? Are you willing to live for Jesus a life that is true striving to please Him in all that you do?

The choice is up to you.

OPPORTUNITY:  Those who wish to live with God forever, must first choose to live for Him now.

REMEMBRANCE:  The power of God is far greater than the apparent wisdom of man.

Live:  The people in these stories were focused on finding loopholes or exceptions in the midst of truth. We often do the same asking the same kind of question asked by the serpent in the Garden: "Did God really say...?" We can choose to live apart from God’s will and questioning for our purposes to escape the truth or we can choose to live in God’s will and question to better understand the truth. How will you choose to live this week?

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