It’s been said that the only bad question is the one we don’t ask. But asking questions can be intimidating. You might wonder if you are the only one who doesn’t know the answer to your question. What if you have to explain your question and end up confusing and embarrassing yourself? Sometimes it’s a relief to hear someone else ask the question you had in mind but couldn’t ask.
In Mark 12, three important questions are raised. We can be glad we weren’t the ones to ask them, so long as we learn from the answers.
After clearing the temple, in the days leading up to His crucifixion, Jesus was questioned by three groups of religious leaders. They hoped to trip Him with their questions, giving them leverage with the crowds to put Him to death. They questioned him on three major issues: the legality of Roman taxation (12:13–17), the reality of the resurrection (12:18–27), and the priority of the commandments (12:28–34). When the interrogation was over, “no one dared question him” (12:34). Their plan had failed. From this point “the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take Him by trickery and put Him to death” (14:1).
It’s no wonder that taxes have been compared with death. Will Rogers quipped: “The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.” Few issues can stir up stronger feelings than taxes. The same was true in Jesus’ day.
The Question and Answer
The question, “Should Jews pay taxes to Caesar?” (vv. 14–15), was put to Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians, two ostensibly unlikely bedfellows. The Pharisees were scrupulous, formal observers of the law. The Herodians were a pattern of “cultural Christians” who lived worldly lives with merely a façade of religion. In this passage, worldliness and legalism unite in their rejection of Christ. As followers of Herod Antipas’s dynasty, the Herodians reaped sordid gain through their support of the Roman government. Content with the status quo, the Herodians were naturally Jesus’ political enemies.
Before posing their politically charged question, Jesus’ antagonists slather on a generous dose of patently bogus praise (12:14). Of course, as they said, Jesus is the true Teacher who makes plain the way of God without showing favoritism. The problem is, the Herodians didn’t believe what they said—and Jesus knew it (v. 15). The Herodians were “spies who pretended to be sincere” (Luke 20:20) to “catch him in his words,” testing Jesus (Mark 12:13; 15) as Satan had earlier (1:13). Supporting Roman taxation was social suicide. However, if Jesus opposed Roman taxation the Jews could deliver Him up to the “authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (Luke 20:20).1 Wisely Jesus answered with few words (cf. Prov. 10:19). Instead, He gave an object lesson using a Roman denarius, the image and inscription of which affirmed Caesar’s right to levy taxes. The questioners were astounded at God’s wisdom: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 17). What could they say?
What Should We Make of This?
Jesus gives several principles for sorting out the knotty relationship between God and government.
First, Jesus teaches us to respect civil authorities. Jesus could have made His point about taxes in a less respectful way, but He doesn’t. It’s tempting to believe that only good government, duly elected by the people, deserves our honor. But Caesar wasn’t voted into office by popular demand. Rome annexed Palestine by force and ruled with an iron fist. Still, God’s people must honor authority (1 Pet. 2:17). One way we do so is to pay for the support of an organized society with police and military protection, reasonably good roads, courts, and so forth. We pay taxes not only out of duty and conscience (Rom. 13:5–7) but also to avoid the shame of delinquency. As a rule of thumb, we should pay every penny that is required and not a penny more.
Second, Jesus teaches us to honor God. Everything in this world bears the impression of God. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” As we look in a mirror we should repeat Jesus’ question, “Whose image and inscription is this?” God’s people are made in His image; in baptism we are inscribed with His name. We must render ourselves to God. On its obverse side the denarius featured the head of the emperor Tiberius with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus.” On the reverse side: “High Priest.” Caesar sought his own glory. God promises that those who honor Him will be honored more highly than Caesar.
Third, Jesus teaches us to neither confuse God with government nor radically divorce the two. There is a problem when phrases like “in God we trust” and “support our troops” become nearly synonymous. We sometimes have to make hard choices between obeying God and Caesar (Acts 5:29). Still, as John Calvin reminds us, obedience to authority is always joined to the fear of God.2 Romans 13 presents government as a physical arm of God on earth. This was true in Jesus’ day under Tiberius and in Paul’s day under Nero. It’s still true today.
With little chance to catch His breath, Jesus was quickly assaulted with another trick question, this time from the Sadducees.
The Resurrection (12:18–27)
Those who believe in a resurrection often wonder what it will be like, especially in terms of important relationships. Will I know my children? Will I have the same friends? Will I still be married to my same spouse when I get to heaven? Behind these questions is the bigger question, the one asked by the Sadducees: “Is there a resurrection at all?” The way that we answer is eternally significant (1 Cor. 15:12–19, 29–32).
The Question (12:18–23)
The Sadducees were the sect from which the high priests were drawn. Their monopoly on the priesthood provided impetus to eliminate Jesus, especially as He threatened their control of the temple. The Sadducees believed only in the law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible). They denied the resurrection because they thought it isn’t taught in those books.
The Sadducees’ question is linked to God’s provision of a kinsman redeemer. One of the primary purposes of marriage is the perpetuation of a godly seed (Gen. 1:28). In Deuteronomy 25:5–6 God provided a law to help ensure that a man’s family line would continue if he died childless. The man’s widow was to marry his closest kin and the firstborn of that relationship would be considered the deceased man’s son, redeeming his name. The story of Ruth and Boaz is an example of the kinsman redeemer principle in action. Based on this principle the Sadducees dreamed up a scenario which, in their minds, makes the resurrection absurd. If a woman has been married to seven men, whose wife will she be in heaven? An example of a woman who had married twice (not seven times, the biblical number of completeness; cf. Matt. 18:21) would have sufficed. The Sadducees’ insincere and exaggerated question probably got them a few laughs.
The Response (12:24–27)
Jesus responds rather sternly. He begins and ends His answer by saying, “You are (greatly) mistaken” (vv. 24, 27).
The two reasons that the Sadducees got off track touch on many of our own problems, as well. First, the Sadducees had elevated reason above revelation. “You do not know the Scriptures” (v. 24). Regardless of what you think about the resurrection, what does the Bible say (cf. Gal. 4:30; Rom. 4:3)? We need to apply this same question to all the issues of life ranging from interpersonal relationships to biological engineering. We believe the “Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.”3 Second, Jesus says that the Sadducees did not know the power of God (v. 24). They had imagined a problem that, to them, was bigger than God. How could God raise the dead with all the resulting marital complications? Numerous additional complications could easily be raised. But the Apostles’ Creed begins, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” If God created heaven and earth, surely our problems are well within His power.
Having deconstructed the Sadducees’ faulty logic, Jesus proceeded to answer the question. There will be no marriage in heaven (v. 25).4 God created marriage to meet certain needs which are foreign to heaven. First, marriage answers the human need for companionship. Marriage exists because “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). In heaven there will be no sense of “alone.” Second, marriage provides for the perpetuation of a godly seed (cf. the kinsman redeemer principle). But “where there are no burials, there is no need of weddings.”5 Third, marriage helps prevent fornication. Marriage is the appropriate context for expressing natural and appropriate sexual desire. There are no illicit sexual desires in heaven.
Jesus then provided biblical evidence for the resurrection, courteously using the second book of Moses. His argument hinges on the tense of the verb “to be” in Exodus 3 (vv. 3, 15). If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are dead and gone, God should have said, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Because he says, “I am their God,” they must still be alive. With these fathers God made an everlasting covenant which death cannot extinguish. The souls of all departed saints are alive and well, awaiting the resurrection of the body.
Behind this interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees lies a profound reality: Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. In the words of Thomas Boston, before the fall “our nature was in a . . . fruitful condition.” With the fall came spiritual death and “an absolute spiritual barrenness, as to the fruits of holiness.” By nature we are the barren wife and the dead husband of Deuteronomy 25; we are totally unable to redeem ourselves.6 In His incarnation Christ became our closest kin, taking on our nature to marry us (Eph. 5:32) and preserve our life. In heaven God’s people will be married to the most faithful, beautiful, and caring spouse of all, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:7–10).
The Greatest Commandment (12:28–44)
Before Jesus left the temple (Mark 13:1) his enemies tested Him one more time (Matt. 22:34–35). They dared Jesus to comment on life’s priorities: “Which is the first commandment of all?” In repeating the Old Testament order of love for God followed by love for one’s neighbor, Jesus teaches two principles regarding religious priorities.
Prioritizing Priorities (12:28–34, 41–44)
First, Jesus demonstrated that love is better than religious observance (v. 33). The offerings and sacrifices in the Old Testament were symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice. But they were also a tangible and costly expression of worship; God expected the best of one’s possession. Still, love trumps sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3). It is possible to make great religious sacrifices without love. The Jews had become lost in a labyrinth of sacrificial duty minus sincere devotion. But in those in whom God has poured His own love, true devotion flows from the inside out (cf. Gen. 29:20; Rom. 5:5).
Second, devotion to God takes priority over devotion to others. It is possible to become so frazzled taking care of others that we don’t spend time in fellowship with the Lord. We will run ourselves dry if we aren’t being filled up with fresh life from the Lord. To get our priorities in order we need to commune with God devotionally, not merely cerebrally. Read the Bible as God’s personal expression of love toward repentant sinners. Pray to Him with sincerity, as one friend to another (John 15:13–15). Tell him why you appreciate Him, how you have fallen short, why you are thankful, and what you need. This is what makes the gospel so powerful: When we love God (because He loved us first), He pours His love into, and out of, our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
In the light of these principles of priority Jesus said to this theological expert, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). The expert had an idea of what true religion is all about. But as they say, “Close counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
The Missing Link (12:35–44)
This scribe had not yet entered the kingdom of God because he was a moralist, not a Christian. He hadn’t yet embraced Jesus Christ as Lord. In his close-but-lost state, he was not alone.
Jesus appealed to Psalm 110:1 to correct a pervasive mistaken notion about the Messiah. Jesus “is conversing with these men publicly for the very last time, and therefore asks the most important question of all.”7 Who is the Messiah? The Messiah is a Son of David (2 Sam. 7:12–17; Ps. 89:3–4, 34–37; Matt. 1:20; Mark 10:47–48) and the Son of God, David’s Lord (Acts 2:29–31). He could be both only if he existed before and after David as Trinity who was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”8
Clearly, being close to the kingdom of God does not result in a changed life. Jesus warned against several faults of the scribes to which we are not immune. The scribes demanded attention by their long robes and lengthy prayers.9 They reserved for themselves the best seats at meetings (cf. James 2:2–3) and required recognition by special greetings in the marketplaces. Worst of all, the scribes took advantage of their religious position by “devouring widows’ houses” (v. 40). By contrast, Jesus used a poor widow to illustrate genuine, sacrificial, godly living (vv. 41–44). She prioritized the first commandment of the law without neglecting the second.
So many people are not far from the kingdom of God. They are like the common people of Jesus’ day who “heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Ezekiel’s sermons were similarly well-received by those who had no intention of putting them into practice (Ezek. 32:32–33). God’s words to them are ominous: When judgment comes they will know that a prophet has been among them. Close enough is not good enough. It is possible to within an inch of heaven and spend an eternity in hell.
Jesus turned each of His enemies’ questions into an apologetic opportunity. We need to learn how to do this so that we can always be ready to explain our hope in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15). Some of our friends and neighbors might be not far from the kingdom of God. Far be it from us to not speak a word to those who are close to entering.
Jesus’ enemies put Him to the test. They should have tested themselves. Test yourself in the light of Christ’s law. Even those who do not love perfectly God and their neighbor can still enter into the kingdom of heaven on the merits of David’s Son and Lord, Jesus Christ.
1. According to the Bible and under Roman law, the Jews could carry out executions themselves. But their own tradition forbade them from performing an execution during a feast. So, still fearing the people, they hoped to force Pilate to do their dirty work, avoiding the political fallout. Cf. Jakob Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 247–49.
2. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke 3:45. Augustine explains that believers under the rule of the apostate and wicked emperor Julian “drew a distinction between their eternal master and their temporal master; and yet were submissive to their temporal master for their eternal master’s sake.” Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, vol. 6 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), 64.
3. Belgic Confession, Article 7 (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3).
4. In heaven redeemed saints will be like the angels, in which, ironically, the Sadducees also disbelieved (cf. Acts 23:6–9).
5. Matthew Henry, commenting on Luke 20:34–36.
6. Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Grace (Choteau, MT: Old Path Gospel Press, 1990), 41.
7. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 499.
8. Apostles’ Creed. Cf. Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 204.
9. Jesus is not condemning long prayers per se but showy prayers. Long, truly pious prayers are recorded in the Bible (e.g., Solomon’s in 1 Kings 8:22–53). Many of the psalms are long prayers.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Why is it important to be firmly convinced of the biblical answer to the question posed in Mark 11:28?
2. How is Jesus’ custom of prefacing constructive criticism with appropriate praise (cf. Rev. 2:2–4) different from what is recorded in Mark 12:14?
3. How does Romans 14:11 comment on the Herodians’ flattering words in Mark 12:14?
4. How is Jesus’ omniscience (cf. Mark 12:15) both comforting and terrifying?
5. Might there be a potential conflict between the kinsman redeemer principle in the Bible and the trend of newly married couples putting off having children?
6. How should Mark 12:24–27 and 1 Corinthians 7:1–8 counsel a couple that is considering marriage?
7. Jesus made a solid argument for the resurrection from the Old Testament. How might He also have used Psalm 16:9–11 and Daniel 12:2?
8. Reflect on how believers today might be guilty of Jesus’ accusations in Mark 12:38–40.