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The Extent of the Authority of Jesus

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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.

18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” 24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”

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.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Jesus has entered into Jerusalem with a display of authority. Unable to deny his authority, the Sanhedrin now try to turn his claim of authority against him. They come to him, trying to trap him in three areas. They will try to destroy him by getting him into political trouble. They will try to discredit him by demonstrating how illogical his teachings are. And finally they will judge him based on his summary understanding of Old Testament Law. These are the three attempts made in these verses to undermine Jesus’ claim to authority. Similar attempts to undermine the authority of Jesus are still made today.


At the end of our last passage, the representatives of the Sanhedrin left Jesus after failing in their challenge to Jesus and his authority. Their strategy this time will be to engage him in smaller groups, posing as sincere seekers. In all three of these episodes, Jesus is referred to as “Teacher.” Will Jesus be able to back up his authoritative claims?

Pharisees and Herodians

The first group we read about are some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians. The Pharisees, of course, were a group of progressive religious Jews who frequently found themselves in conflict with Jesus. They were the dominant religious influencers of the day. The Herodians are a more difficult group to identify, though we’ve seen them work in collaboration with the Pharisees before (Mark 3:6) in opposition to Jesus. Our best guess is that they are loyal supporters of the Herod family which continued to rule in Galilee but no longer held authority over Judea. That district was now under direct Roman rule, creating a political situation that these Pharisees and Herodians think they might be able to use as leverage against Jesus and his claim to divine authority.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

They have come to Jesus with a question, but we know it is not a sincere question. Mark tells us they had come “to trap him in his talk” (v. 13). They are hoping to catch Jesus in an unguarded moment, saying something they will be able to use against him. They begin not with the question but with flattery. “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” (v. 14). This is a tactic commonly used to this day. The voice recorders are rolling as these Pharisees and Herodians try to get Jesus to feel safe and comfortable around them. They want him to think they are on his side. But Jesus “knew their hypocrisy” (v. 15) and turns the tables back against them.

Their question is simple: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” The tax to which they are referring is the dreaded census tax. It was basically a property tax, first imposed in A.D. 6, and served as the cause of a Jewish revolt in that same year. The revolt was quickly stomped out, but the controversy about the tax remained and would inspire a final revolt that would end with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

For faithful Jews, the census tax was an offense to their religious principles. Paying it was viewed as breaking allegiance to God because the Roman emperor was making absolute claim over the people and their possessions, something only God had a right to do. The payment for the tax was made with the denarius, a Roman silver coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar on one side and the words Pontifex Maximus (“High Priest”) on the other. So when Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, it is being suggested to him that by paying this tax one might be sinning against God.

This was a political hot-button issue of the day, and the Pharisees and Herodians want Jesus to take a stand on one side or the other. They are confident that he cannot help but incriminate himself here. They expect that he will deny Rome’s right to the tax, and this will lead to his arrest by the local authorities. Luke tells us that “they watched him and sent spies . . . that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (Luke 20:20). And if somehow he tries to wiggle out of this one, it will prove that he cannot be the Messiah. If his authority cannot stand up to the powerful Romans, then he must not come with the authority of God.

Give Caesar (and God) his due

Jesus begins his response by asking his questioners to show him the denarius required for the tax. And after they admit to him that it is Caesar’s image and inscription on the coin, Jesus concludes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is a brilliant answer, for rather than incriminating himself Mark tells us that the people “marveled at him.”

Jesus’ short answer to the question is simply, yes, one ought to pay the census tax. The question he had been asked was whether or not one ought to pay, or literally “give,” the tax money to Caesar. Jesus’ answer is that there was an obligation to pay the tax. The word render means to fulfill a contractual obligation. These Roman coins literally have Caesar’s name on them, so they belong to him. If he wants them back, Jesus says, one must give them back to him.

But Jesus’ answer does not weaken his claim to divine authority because there is much more that he says in response. Imagine the scene this way. Jesus looks up at his inquisitors and tells them, “Pay back to Caesar that which belongs to him.” But as they prepare to walk away he says, “And also, pay back to God what belongs to him.” In other words there is no conflict between submitting to the Roman authority and submitting to God. Caesar may lay claim on one’s coins, but God lays claim on one’s life. God demands much more from you than a denarius.

Two conclusions

We can draw at least two conclusions from this encounter between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Herodians. First, Jesus recognized civil authority as legitimate and saw no inherit clash between the demands of the state and the demands of God. This differed from the ideology of both the pro-Roman Sadducees and the anti-Roman Jewish zealots. Jesus taught that one can submit to the state (even a godless one) without compromising his allegiance to God.‎ This matches what is taught elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 13:1-2; 1 Tim 2:1-2; 1 Pet 2:13-17).

But second, and more importantly, is the reason why we are told to submit to the state. It is not because God’s kingdom and authority cannot rival the kingdoms of man. It is because God has conferred authority on political governments. Of course they can be corrupt; all governments are corrupt to one degree or another. But this does not mean that they have dethroned God or stolen authority from him. It can only mean that God’s kingdom and authority transcends the kingdom of man. Jesus’ life can end on a cross, as an enemy of the state, without his authority being undermined at all.

Many people reject Jesus today because he appears to have been a failure. Two thousand years of Christianity and our world continues to struggle under the authority of imperfect governments. People still lose jobs. Poverty still exists. Cancer and other diseases still infect millions. And death lays claim on everyone. And Jesus has shown up in Jerusalem claiming to have the divine authority to make the world right again. But the fact that these things still plague our world does not mean that Jesus has failed. His kingdom will advance not by public policy but by the proclamation of the gospel.


If Jesus did not come to overthrow the political kingdoms of this world, then there is only one other kingdom he must have been sent to establish, namely, a kingdom of another world. Jesus has already been predicting his own death and resurrection, so this assumes that his kingdom will depend upon the reality of life after death and resurrection from death. In other words, if there is no afterlife, if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Jesus’ authority is once more undermined.

The Sadducees

So the right group to come and challenge Jesus on his theology of resurrection are the Sadducees because, as Mark tells us, they “say that there is no resurrection” (v. 18). This is a classic theological debate, attempting to discredit Jesus by showing that his theology is illogical. The Sadducees were a Jewish politico-religious group comprised mostly of upper-class men. They were more conservative in their theological beliefs than the Pharisees as they accepted the first five books of the Scriptures to be the only authoritative texts.

The idea of an afterlife is not a frequent teaching in the Old Testament. There are two main texts that one may appeal to for this teaching (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2) and a handful of others that seem to suggest resurrection (Psa 16:9-11; 49:15; 73:23-26; Job 19:25-26). None of these texts come from the five books of Moses which the Sadducees accept, so they seem to have the upper hand in this debate already. Can Jesus defend his position without appealing to sources outside of which the Sadducees accept as authoritative?

Levirate marriage and life after death

The Sadducees frame their argument by appealing to the Mosaic legislation regarding the levirate marriage. We read about this in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

As strange as this legislation sounds to us today, we must understand the significance it played within Judaism. One commentator explains, “‎The levirate law is based in the assumption that a man’s ‘survival’ is through the continuation of the family line, and for those who could see no other form of ‘resurrection’ this remained an important issue.”[1]

So the Sadducees use this divinely ordered principle to try to disprove the teaching of resurrection by presenting a hypothetical case. Suppose a man marries a wife but then dies without having any children. His six brothers subsequently perform the duties of the levirate, but each one of them also dies without producing any offspring. Finally the childless woman dies, too. Here’s the question: “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife” (v. 23).

Resurrection: the crucial issue in Christianity

The Sadducees are obviously poking fun at the idea of resurrection, but it seems that they have a strong argument. The Scriptural support for resurrection appears to be weak. And now the logic of the idea is brought into question. And while we don’t practice levirate marriages in our culture, many have asked the same question in regards to widows and widowers who remarry following the death of their spouse. To whom will they be married in the afterlife? It creates a strange situation indeed. Without any clear teaching from the Scriptures on this point and with logic on their side, how can Jesus defend his own position against that of the Sadducees?

This is a crucial question to this day because the concept of resurrection from the dead is the central hope of the Christian faith. As Paul declared, if there is no resurrection from the dead then the Christian faith is dead and futile and those who subscribe to Christianity are “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). But what hope do we have of there being any resurrection when it seems logically impossible?

Two mistakes

Jesus begins his response by saying that the Sadducees are “wrong” (v. 24) or that they are “in error” (NIV) or that they have been “deceived” (HCSB, NET). He says that the Sadducees have made two major mistakes in their thinking about this issue and so their logic is clouded. They are self-deceived by their failure to comprehend both the Scriptures as well as the power of God.

They do not know the power of God because, Jesus says, “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (v. 25). In other words, the Sadducees first mistake is their assumption that if there were an afterlife it would have to be an existence exactly like the one we know on earth. But Jesus says it will be different in some significant ways. There are many things in this life that are only temporary because they are intended to point us toward that which is the permanent, ultimate reality. Marriage, Jesus says, is one of those temporary things. In the afterlife, marriage will be irrelevant. We will have no need for it because we will be like the angels.

So the question is what is it about angelic existence that leaves marriage irrelevant? Luke tells us that it is the fact that they are immortal (Luke 20:36). They do not die, so there is no need for marriage and procreation. If resurrection is real, then it means that the power of God has vanquished the most powerful force we know: death. And if God’s power has conquered death, then it means that our existence in the afterlife is fundamentally different from the one we know here on earth.

The answer to the Sadducees’ question, “whose wife will she be?” is simply, “She will be the wife of none of them, because in the resurrection there will be no institution of marriage and we will not think of our human relationships in those terms.” This is difficult teaching for us mortals who experience the joys of marital commitment. But it challenges us to see a deeper meaning to marriage and the other temporary establishments of this life. They all point to a much more significant reality and to a deeper existence when we are restored to an unbroken communion with God, the kind of existence the angels in heaven enjoy moment by moment.

The Sadducees have made another mistake. They also fail to comprehend the Scriptures. Jesus says that the Scriptures do teach resurrection, and he even appeals to a passage the Sadducees would have accepted as authoritative, a passage from “the book of Moses.” Jesus cites from Exodus 3:6 where God, in revealing himself to Moses, refers to himself as the God of the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How does this passage point us toward resurrection?

It does so when we understand the significance of God revealing himself in this way. He  revealed himself to Moses and to the nation of Israel as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as evidence that he would rescue them from their slavery in Egypt (also in Exod 3:15, 16; 4:5). But it is not a very reassuring statement if God’s power to save was limited by the threat of death. In other words, what kind of God is he if, as one commentator writes, he provides only “tokens of deliverance” in this life but leaves “the final word to death, of which all the misfortunes and sufferings of human existence are only a foretaste”?[2]

But he does not leave the final word to death, and by calling himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is calling us to remember his covenant faithfulness to his people. The Sadducees have failed to see the link between God’s covenant faithfulness and what that implies for us on the other side of the grave. He is not a weak “God of the dead.” He is the God of the living, meaning that he is able to save to the uttermost. He will keep his promises to his people, and death will not nullify those promises.

Jesus’ confidence in the afterlife is not a contradiction of logic. Rather, he contends, if there is a God, then he must be able to bring the dead back to life. Indeed, he must do so or he appears to be a failure in comparison to the universal power of death. The logical problems that people have with the Christian faith stem from their refusal to concede ultimate power to a supernatural being. So all logic begins with a presupposition. Either there is a supernatural God or there is not.

If there is, then there must be life after death. And if there is life after death, then that points to the concept of a final judgment and this question: “What is the basis of this final judgment?” The next episode addresses that question.


Jesus is approached here by a scribe. The scribes were experts in the law, both in its interpretation and application. So they were highly respected within Judaism. Impressed with how Jesus has been responding to his inquisitors, he asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” This was probably a sincere question, unlike the previous two that had been asked of Jesus, but it creates a sort of “test” for Jesus as well. How would Jesus summarize the law? What is it really all about? In other words, what does God ultimately demand from us?

The greatest commandment

The scribes had counted all of the Old Testament laws. There were 613 of them. The scribes frequently referred to some commandments as weightier than others, but it was not common to refer to one as the greatest of them all. Jesus does not hesitate to respond, however. He answers the question directly, indicating that this is a good question to ask.

The “most important” of the commandments is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which Jesus cites.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

This text was an important one in Jewish creedal life, recited every morning and evening by every observant Jew. So it was a well-known text and really not surprising that Jesus chose this one. What is surprising is that Jesus continues to identify “the second” greatest commandment, this time citing from Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was only asked to identify the greatest commandment but having identified this second one as well he concludes, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Matthew reports Jesus as saying, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:40). In other words, everything God demands of us is summarized in these two commandments. This is the legal basis upon which all humanity will be judged.

And Jesus’ response is practical and objective.

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.[3]

In other words, if we really love God it will show in how we love our fellow man. Empty words affirming our love for God will not suffice. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). Genuine love for God has skin on it.

At the same time, we do not really love our neighbor if we do not consciously point them toward God. That is, we cannot fulfill the second greatest commandment without fulfilling the greatest commandment first. True love is doing whatever is necessary to direct our neighbor to God. Sometimes that means bearing their burdens and suffering with them and absorbing their pain. Other times that means rebuking them in grace and calling them to repentance. If we truly love someone we will do all that we can to help them love God above everything else.

Jesus, the final judge

This scribe sees the wisdom in Jesus’ answer and agrees with him in verses 32-33.

And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

And with that, we might expect the story to end. The scribe is the authority on the law and he has posed a question to Jesus, and he concludes that Jesus has answered well. But Jesus has the final word, in verse 34.

And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The scribe had come to test Jesus, but it turns out that it is the scribe who gets tested. Jesus has authority not only to summarize God’s demands on us but also to dispense kingdom promises. Those who see what it is that God demands of them “are not far from the kingdom of God.” All that is left, of course, is to fulfill those demands.

CONCLUSION: Jesus our righteousness

But that is precisely the problem, isn’t it? We fail repeatedly to love God and neighbor in the all-encompassing way that is demanded of us. If knowing what God expects of us is half the battle, the other half is impossible for us to complete.

The good news is that Jesus came to fulfill the demands of the law on our behalf. And because his authority does not fail when confronted with politics, logic, and legal expectations, we can trust his righteousness to be sufficient for everything that God requires of us.

[1] R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 473.

[2] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 430.

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 372.

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