Mark 12:13-27: Escaping from Traps
May 9, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having been deeply offended by Jesus’ blunt assessment of their spiritual predicament, the religious authorities now tried to trap Jesus in his words. They come to him with two “cause celebres” at the time – the one regarding politics, the other a theological split – and see if they can get Jesus to choose sides, and therefore alienate a large proportion of his followers.
The first prickly pear is about taxes (verses 13-17). This is never a popular topic, but it was made especially difficult by the reality of the Roman occupation at the time. Was it right for a pious Jew to give money to a pagan emperor? But if Jesus said “no,” he would be inciting an insurrection. What would he do? How would he answer? His famous reply is “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 17). This is, though, not just a brilliant evasion, it is also a theological principle. Certainly, Jesus cleverly sidestepped their attempt to pin on the horns of a dilemma. Yes, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (the image on the coin being his); but give to God what is God’s (us each being made in the image of God). But it was also a rebuke: they should be paying home to Jesus who is the ultimate and perfect image of God. And it teaches us still today how to live in civil and “secular” society. Pay taxes. Participate in, even secular, political life. But at the same time worship God and God alone.
The next conundrum presented to Jesus seems almost laughably absurd (verses 18-27). Theological divisiveness down through history seems to have loved these sort of brain-teasing but picky problems. The medieval Christian equivalent was the all-too-serious debate about how many angels you could fit on the head of a pin. Here, the Sadducees believed that there was no resurrection. But they also only accepted as authoritative the first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Bible. Jesus, once again brilliantly, sidesteps their trap by pointing them to teaching in the Pentateuch that answered their problem: God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living. Yet, again, Jesus’ reply is more than a clever ruse to get out of a tricky verbal sparring match. Jesus is teaching us that theological error of a serious kind typically comes from either avoiding the clear teaching of Scripture or not accepting the almighty power of God – and sometimes both. As J.I. Packer used to put it, all heresy stems from the unwillingness to let mystery be mystery. We cannot fully understand the Trinity – but it is taught in the Bible, and God as the Almighty God is to be believed, even if we cannot comprehend all that he teaches. Similarly, with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We are to know the Scriptures and the power of God (verse 24), not just one or the other but both.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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