Mark 12:13-27

Trapping Jesus

Since Jesus entered Jerusalem the conflict with the religious authorities has continued to escalate. These religious authorities, likely part of the Sanhedrin, have been unsuccessful in their confrontations with Jesus and now they send a series of delegations to Jesus in an attempt to trap him. Their goal is to discredit Jesus and turn his crowd of followers against him. This week we will examine the first two of these attempts. The first group tries to trap Jesus with a political question and the second with a theological question.


#1 A Political Trap

A group of Pharisees and Herodians are sent to Jesus to attempt to trap him in his talk [v.13]. They do not come on their own authority but are sent by the religious authorities, again likely the Sanhedrin. This is an unlikely alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians who had little common. The Pharisees were the religious purists of their day and despised Roman rule. Very little is known about the Herodians but as their name suggests, they aligned themselves with the Herodian dynasty and therefore were likely seen as religious and political compromisers. Far from despising Roman rule, the Herodian rulers were propped up by Romans. The Pharisees and the Herodians had very little in common but they did have one thing in common: they hated Jesus.

They come to Jesus with a bit of flattery, Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion…you are not swayed by appearances [v.14]. Interestingly they correctly observe the depth of Jesus’ character but fail to take into consideration that if these things were true, Jesus would not be swayed by their flattery anyway.

They put before Jesus a potentially divisive political question, Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? [v.14] This is a question over which the questioners likely disagreed. Since the religious authorities have failed to discredit Jesus outright, they attempt now to turn the people against him. If Jesus says yes you should pay taxes, the people were turned against him. If he says no, then the Romans have cause to arrest him.

Jesus sees right through their charade, Why do you put me to the test? [v.15]. That Jesus asks for a denarius to be brought to him could be evidence of his extreme poverty. A denarius was the equivalent to a laborer’s daily wage [c.f. Matthew 20:2].   Upon receiving the denarius Jesus asks his questioners a question, Whose likeness and inscription is this? To which they respond, Casesar’s [v.16]. Jesus brilliantly answers their question, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s [v.17].

We learn from this exchange that Jesus is not afraid to address political topics. It seems to be that the church (and individual Christians as well for that matter) can make one of two mistakes in this area of politics.

On the one hand, we can completely avoid any topic or issue that has political undertones. We are silent when we shouldn’t be silent. Perhaps we are afraid of being labeled as “political.” Now to be fair, we do live in a pretty divisive time, particularly in the realm of politics, and so we must be winsome as we engage political issues, but there are times when we must engage them. To be always silent in the realm of politics is to forget that Jesus is king over all realms of life (no matter what label we give them). Jesus does have something to say about the politically charged issues of our day. He does have something to say about abortion. About sexuality. About the meaning of marriage. About human rights. About poverty.  If Jesus isn’t silent, we shouldn’t be silent.

On the other hand, there are those within the church who have confused preaching the gospel with preaching their own political persuasions. It’s interesting how not political Jesus was. By nearly all measure, the Roman government was an oppressive government that committed awful atrocities against its enemies and its own people. Yet it’s remarkable how little Jesus and the rest of the New Testament authors have to say about Rome. Their primary objective, like the primary objective of the church, is to preach the gospel. Where that gospel rubs up against the world, we preach against the world. But in all things we must keep the main thing, the main thing!


#2 A Theological Trap

Having failed to trap Jesus with a hot political issue, the religious authorities send to Jesus a group of Sadducees who attempt to trap him with a theological question. We are reminded by Mark that the Sadducees say there is no resurrection [v.18]. This is what they “Sad, you see.” The Sadducees were the truly conservative religious group of their day. They made the Pharisees look progressive by comparison. They held to only the first five books of the Old Testament, which is known as the Torah, and rejected the Prophets and the Writings which the Pharisees accepted as inspired. Because they only held to the Torah there were some key doctrines they rejected, namely a belief in the resurrection and in angels, which according to them could not be supported by the Torah.

The question they bring to Jesus is a truly ridiculous question. This is not too different from the question we sometimes hear: “Can God make a rock so big that even he cannot lift it?” They want to know if a woman is married seven different times, to whom will she be married in the resurrection? They themselves don’t believe in the resurrection and so they want to expose Jesus and his “crazy” teaching on the resurrection. Remember that Jesus has so far three times in the Gospel of Mark made the claim that he will rise from the dead.

Jesus tells them plainly that they are wrong in their thinking because they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God [v.24]. To say to the Sadducees that they don’t know the Scriptures would be like saying to an NFL quarterback that he doesn’t know football. The Sadducees were the self-proclaimed experts in the Scriptures!

The assumption that the Sadducees have made in their thinking regarding the resurrection is that there would be great continuity between this life and the life to come. Jesus says that this is not the case. In the resurrected state we will be like angels in heaven [v.25]. It’s interesting that Jesus refutes their thinking on the resurrection, which they don’t believe exists, by relating it to angels, which is something else they don’t believe exists. Note that he does not say we will be angels, but that we will be like angels. In other words our present experience in this life is altogether insufficient to forecast what life will be like in the next. True, there will be some continuity in heaven. For instance, Scripture supports the idea that we will be recognizable individuals. However, the life to come is so glorious and so utterly different from our present circumstances, it strains our wildest imagination to comprehend what that life will be like.

Jesus does attempt to reason with the Sadducees on their own level. He quotes to them Exodus 3:6. There are many more clear and convincing passages in the Old Testament that he could have chosen to make the case for the resurrection, but remember the Sadducees reject all but the first five books of the Old Testament. So Jesus quotes to them a passage out of Exodus and thus defeats them on their own terms. Jesus asks can God say that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob if these were all dead men?   He is not God of the dead but of the living [v.27]. Jesus ends where he began with the Sadducees, by telling them that they are wrong [v.27].

Of course the ultimate proof of the resurrection is not what Jesus had to say to the Sadducees here. It will happen just a short while later, when some of his followers discover an empty tomb. Jesus’ empty tomb is the irrefutable evidence of the certainty of the resurrection.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is it that the Pharisees and the Herodians observe about the character of Jesus (v.14)? Why do you think they share this with Jesus?
  2. Why is this question about paying taxes to Caesar a controversial question? What do you think the Pharisees and Herodians are hoping will happen as Jesus answers this question?
  3. Explain Jesus’ reasoning as to why it is right to pay taxes to Caesar.
  4. Augustine makes the case that we are “coin of God” because we bear the image of God. How does this fit with Jesus’ statement in verse 17?
  5. How did the people respond to Jesus’ answer (v.17)? Do you frequently marvel at Jesus? Why do you think we are not more full of wonder at Jesus?
  6. When it comes to the topic of politics it takes wisdom to know when to be silent and when to speak. What are some dangers of silence? What are some dangers of speaking?
  7. How can we figure out when we should speak into a political issue and when we should be silent?
  8. In the next passage a group of Sadducees come to Jesus. Share what you know about what the Sadducees believe.
  9. Why do you think the Sadducees are asking this question about the resurrection?
  10. How does Jesus respond to their question? What do we learn about the resurrection from Jesus’ answer?
  11. What is one thing you will do as result of studying this passage?