The Hero Doing Battle


Lesson Focus: This lesson will embolden you to fight for God’s ways in a godless culture.

Face-Off Over Allegiances: Mark 12:13-17.

[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.

[13-14]  The Sanhedrin consisted of three major groups, Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. Beginning with this story, each of these groups puts Jesus to the test – the Pharisees on the question of taxation [12:13-17], the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection [12:18-27], and the scribes on the question of scriptural interpretation [12:28-44]. In each story Jesus is addresses as Teacher, and in each Jesus demonstrates His authority. The question about taxation is abruptly introduced without any statement of time or place, but it is appropriate to situate this encounter with certain Pharisees and Herodians in one of the porches of the Temple. Presumably they had been sent by certain members of the Sanhedrin or by leaders in their respective groups. These men were anxious to entangle Jesus in His teaching because they sensed His claim to absolute authority with His teaching. So it was their hope to snare Him into making an unguarded statement so that they might be able to succeed in destroying Him. The opening remarks addressed to Jesus were designed to close the way to any possible evasion of a painful and difficult question. By reminding Jesus that He was a man of integrity who paid no attention to the opinions of men but taught absolute commitment to the way of life commanded by God, His adversaries intended to force him to face squarely the issue they had decided upon. It is important to appreciate the emotional trauma which pervaded the issue of the tribute money ever since it had first been imposed on the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD. The Zealots resolutely refused to pay the tax because it acknowledged Caesar’s domination over them. The Pharisees resented the humiliation implied in the tax but justified its payment, while the Herodians supported it on principle. In asking if it was allowed by the Law of God to pay the tribute money it could be assumed that the Pharisees were concerned chiefly in the moral and religious implications of the question, and the Herodians with its political or nationalistic ramifications. In point of fact the question was insincere. Its object was to force Jesus into a compromising position either theologically or politically. The form of the question (Should we pay them, or should we not?) was skillfully designed to thrust Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. An affirmative answer would discredit Him in the eyes of the people, for whom the tax was an odious token of subjection to Rome. A negative reply would invite reprisals from the Roman authorities.

[15-17]  Jesus, however, refuses to be maneuvered into either position. He knows their hypocrisy and evil intent. The Greek word translated trap means “to test or tempt”. Retaining His own authority, Jesus requests a denarius and asks, Whose likeness and inscription is this? There is some irony in the fact that the inquirers possess the requisite coin for the tax, whereas Jesus does not. They apparently share more complicity in the tax system than their question suggests. Since the image and inscription are Caesar’s, says Jesus, the coin belongs to Caesar. By this reply Jesus acknowledges the legitimacy of human government. It distances Jesus from all forms of political anarchy, best exemplified in His day by the Zealots, who believed that the overthrow of the Roman control was the will of God. On the other hand, Jesus’ answer cannot be construed to mean that God and government are two separate and exclusive entities independent of one another. God is sovereign over all human affairs, including political affairs. This passage affirms that there are duties to governments that do not infringe on ultimate duties to God, while vigorously rejecting that governments may assume total claim over their citizens. Not the least interesting aspect of Jesus’ brilliant response is that He does not stop at the question asked of Him. Duty to Caesar is surpassed by duty to God. This saying declares that ultimate authority in life belongs to God. One cannot consider political and civil duties apart from faith, but only as expressions of the prior and ultimate claims of God. In the saying of verse 17 the unmistakable authority of Jesus again emerges. Caesar and God were ultimate and uncontested authorities in the political and religious climate of Jesus’ day, and yet Jesus presumes to speak for both. That ultimate authority resided with God is clearly implied in Jesus’ use of the word likeness (or image), which is the same word used in Genesis 1:26 of humanity’s creation in God’s image. If coins bear Caesar’s image, then they belong to Caesar. But humanity, which bears God’s image, belongs to God!

Face-Off Over Priorities: Mark 12:28-31.

[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."  [ESV]

[28]  The third group of the Sanhedrin to test Jesus is the scribes. The present question about the greatest commandment does not contain the invective that Jesus otherwise experiences from the scribes; indeed, this is the one story in Mark where a scribe approaches Jesus on amicable terms – and where a scribe is commended by Him. The approach of the scribe comes immediately on the heels of the controversy with the Sadducees, again implying that Jesus is engaged in non-stop challenge and debate in the temple. For the first time since arriving in Jerusalem Jesus is approached by an individual rather than a group. The scribe came … heard … saw. His personal interaction with Jesus, including the emphasis here on hearing testifies to the scribe’s sincerity. His sincerity, in turn, helps to account for his positive encounter with Jesus. Impressed with Jesus’ wisdom in answering the Sadducees, the scribe asks a question concerning the most important commandment. The scribes concerned themselves with proper exposition of the law and earned a reputation as experts in its interpretation.

[29-31]  Jesus answers by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Four times the word all is repeated, emphasizing the necessity of a total response of love to the lordship of God. God is the one and only Lord, not only of Israel but of every individual as well. God lays rightful claim to every facet of human personality: heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intelligence), and strength (will). Both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 describe a threefold response to God: heart, soul and strength. Mark quotes Jesus adding a fourth response, the love of God with one’s whole mind or understanding. This is a further example of Jesus’ sovereign authority in interpreting the Torah. The scribe asks for only one commandment, but as in the response to the Pharisees and Herodians in the temple earlier [12:17], Jesus goes the second mile in His answer by adding the commandment from Leviticus 19:18: love your neighbor as yourself. In the Old Testament neighbor meant only fellow Jews; it did not include non-Israelites and Gentiles. But Jesus expanded the idea of neighbor to even include the despised Samaritans [see Luke 10:25-29]. There is no other commandment greater than these concludes Jesus, thus bring the commandments to love God and neighbor into a unity. The fact that Jesus adds this commandment to the Shema indicates that it takes both commandments to realize the one will of God. The combination of the two commandments has become a commonplace in subsequent Christianity, but it is important to realize the revolutionary achievement of Jesus’ answer. Although love of God and love of humanity were occasionally affirmed separately in Israel, there is no evidence that before Jesus they were ever combined. It does not appear that any rabbi before Jesus regarded love of God and neighbor as the center and sum of the law. For Jesus, the requirements of the Shema cannot be fulfilled in ritual or sacrifice but in unfeigned love of God, wholly and genuinely. The Shema must also be complemented by the love of neighbor. Love of neighbor, moreover, is the chief means of loving God, and is received as love of God; likewise, love of God expresses itself in love of neighbor. Jesus’ answer avoids the danger of mysticism, which results in a detached and disembodied love of God; as well as the danger of humanism, which acts toward humanity without reference to God and without the understanding that human beings are inviolable creatures of God. At the same time, the two commandments are not blended into a compromising hybrid. The order in which Jesus declares the commandments implies that love of God is prerequisite to loving one’s neighbor. Whoever does not find the source of love in God will fail to exhibit God’s unique love to one’s neighbor. Love of God is prior to love of neighbor and establishes its possibility. For Jesus, love fulfills the law: love for God releases the love of God.

Face-Off with Hypocrites: Mark 12:38-40.

[38]  And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces [39]  and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, [40]  who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."  [ESV]

[38-39]  Jesus’ warning against scribal abuses is introduced in a most general way. No attention is given to details of time and place or to the specific circumstances which called forth this denunciation. The new note sounded in these verses is the bold attack upon the love of deference in men whose preoccupation with the Law should have made them singularly zealous that God alone should receive the praise of men. The scribe was distinguished by his linen robe, a long white mantle reaching to the feet and provided with a long fringe. White linen clothes were regarded as a mark of distinction, so that men of eminence or those who wished to parade their position, wore white and left bright colors to the common people. By the majority of the people the scribes were venerated with unbounded respect and awe. Their words were considered to possess sovereign authority. When a scribe passed by on the street or in the bazaar people rose respectfully. Only tradesmen at their work were exempted from this display of deference. The highest places in feasts and in the synagogues were assigned to them. Jesus condemned the scribes for their desire for these tokens of status and for the self-satisfaction they perpetuated.

[40]  The shift in emphasis from the desire for deference to the abuse of privilege suggests that it is better to read a full stop at verse 39 and to regard verse 40 as a separate, and independent, charge. In the first century the scribes lived primarily on subsidies, since it was forbidden that they should be paid for exercising their profession. Many well-to-do persons placed their financial resources at the disposal of scribes, and it was inevitable that there should be abuses. The charge that the scribes devour widows’ houses refers to the fact that they sponged on the hospitality of people of limited means. The accusation that on the pretext of deep piety they made of public prayers an opportunity to win the esteem of men indicates the peril in the loss of perspective in the service of God. This displacement of the honor of God from the center of concern is what distinguished the scribes from Jesus and exposed them to the searching judgment of God. This stern denunciation of scribal practices concludes Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry. By terminating the public ministry with this account Mark points to the sharp opposition between Jesus and the Jewish authorities which led inevitably to events recalled in the passion narrative.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What do we learn about Jesus in verses 13-17? What does Jesus teach us about the relationship between God and governments?

2.         How are we to love God? What does Jesus joining love for neighbor to love for God indicate to us? Describe the relationship between these two commands to love. Why must we first love God before we can love our neighbor?

3.         Why did Jesus condemn the scribes in verses 38-40?


The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to Mark, William Lane, Eerdmans.

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