Remember, we are now in the Passion Week, in the first half of that week. Each day the Lord would come into the city from Bethany, where he had spent the night at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Each morning he would arrive in the temple and begin to teach the people. The Lord began his ministry as a preacher and ended it the same way. All the while his enemies among the Jewish leadership sought ways to discredit him and pretexts on which he might be arrested.
To deliver Jesus to Pontius Pilate would be the best outcome for the leadership. If the Romans took him, he would be out of the way but the people couldn’t blame them for it.
The spies were sent so that it would not be obvious that the questions were being put to him by people known to be his enemies. These men posed as admirers.
Nothing rankled the Jews more than having to pay taxes to the empire that had subjugated and humiliated them. So if there were a question likely to receive an answer unacceptable to the Roman authorities it was this one. But it was a clever ploy. Whatever answer he gave was guaranteed to offend someone: either the Romans if he said “no;” or the rest of the Jews if he said “yes.”
This was a silver coin with the emperor Tiberius’ image stamped on it. It was required that this personal tax, the head tax, be paid in Roman coinage.
One commentator sums up the exchange this way. “If they did not take the question seriously, he insisted on doing so, and nothing in the gospels speaks more eloquently of the robust quality of his mind than his ability, in the momentary exchange of controversy, to enunciate a principle which has proved to be the basis of all future discussion of the problem of church and state.” [Caird, 222]
We know comparatively little about the Sadducees. They were the aristocratic party, the more wealthy element in the leadership, and they were friendly to the Romans — which friendship enabled them to retain their privileged place in Jewish society — but, as a result they were despised by most Jews as unpatriotic. They denied the existence of angels and demons; they also denied the afterlife and, therefore, the possibility of resurrection after death. Think of them as the theological liberals of their day. They also denied the authority of the oral tradition which meant so much to the Pharisees — the deliverances of the rabbis over the years — and became thereby the natural enemies of the Pharisees. Paul, if you remember, would exploit that hatred years later when he was arrested in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. As soon as he publicly claimed that he was being accused and arrested because of his belief in the resurrection, the Pharisees felt obliged to support him.
They thought they could make the idea of resurrection ridiculous by appealing to the practice of levirate marriage, a practice that long predated the Law of Moses — if you remember it was the basis of the sorry story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38 — but which was also commanded in Deuteronomy 25. The practice was a means of securing the future of a family and their inheritance in the event the father died childless. It is a reminder that our hyper-individualistic view of sex and marriage is hardly the only responsible outlook. For that matter, it is not shared by vast numbers of people in the world still today. By the time of Jesus the law of levirate marriage (levir is the Latin word for brother-in-law) had fallen into abeyance and so their question was academic, for the sake of argument. [Caird, 224]
Clearly the Sadducees thought the question impossible to answer and that this was itself proof of the impossibility of resurrection or life after death.
What Jesus is about to say applies only to the righteous dead, not to all the dead, only “to those who are considered worthy to attain to that age…”
The Jews, even those who firmly believed in resurrection and life after death, conceived of that future life as largely a continuation of the life they had known here, though, of course, better in various ways. All the enemies of the Jews would be overthrown, for example. Jesus tells them, on the contrary, that it will be a radically different order of life, different in profound ways from the life we have known in this world.
The Lord proves that the resurrection is the teaching of Holy Scripture by appeal to the account of Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3, where Yahweh revealed his name and nature to his prophet.
His argument takes this form: all three of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were long since dead when the Lord identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But for him to be their God must mean that they are still living, otherwise, according to the Sadducees’ doctrine, he would be the God of non-existent beings. He would have been their God, but he wouldn’t be their God. In the present tense of the verb is found the doctrine of life after death! [Morris, Caird]
The Pharisees, who hated Jesus also, were nevertheless gratified to see the Sadducees, whom they also hated, put in their place.
Having been asked several questions as a test, Jesus now asked one of his own. It was agreed by all Jews that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, Israel’s greatest king. Luke, in his Gospel, has made a point of demonstrating that Jesus was indeed a descendant of David.
But the Jews of the period expected the Messiah to be a king like David and to do what David did: lead Israel in triumph against all her enemies. But David himself, in Psalm 110, called this coming king “My Lord.” Even David knew that the Messiah would not be simply another David, but someone far greater than David. The Jews were expecting a figure far too ordinary! The Messiah was to be much more than an earthly king.
Now in the context of the history that Luke is relating these paragraphs sizzle with the barely disguised animosity, jealousy and deep disagreement that would lead the Jews in a few days’ time to the Lord’s arrest and to clamor for his crucifixion.
But along the way something else is revealed to us that we might not notice at first: namely the place of the Bible in the life of faith and the privilege it is for us to possess the Word of God. We can take the Bible for granted, we do it all the time, day after day it does not occur to us that the Bible is far and away the most valuable thing we own. But we never should take it for granted for it is in truth the most wonderful thing we ever hold in our hands. The Bible is not, as so many imagine, some dry, dusty old tome, boring to read and of little relevance to modern life. Someone who thinks that has never discovered the Bible for what it is. The Bible in fact crackles with life, it never disappoints the honest seeker after truth, it reveals the most astonishing things about God, about man, and about what has happened and what will happen, it never fails to speak the truth — even when that truth is unwelcome to us — and never fails to show us the way of life and salvation. The Bible takes any honest mind deep, deep, into reality, a delicious experience for anyone who really wants to know. It is a fascinating, wonderful, never disappointing book, as we should expect of a book that comes, Paul says, out of God’s own mouth even if it also, so beautifully and intriguingly bears the marks of the men who were its human authors.
I confess that I did not always think of the Bible this way. As a young man, even a young minister, I had a proper theology of the Bible; I knew it was the inerrant Word of God, the only source of absolutely reliable knowledge about what was most important to know. I knew it was my responsibility to preach the Bible. But I don’t think that I loved the Bible then as I came to later. It was a combination of things, I remember, the Lord used to reveal the glory of the Bible to me.
I learned from Ian Tait, the English pastor, and later Alexander Whyte and others to annotate my Bible, to make my own copy of the Bible a repository of what I had learned of it and from it and that practice made the Bible much more central to my own life. I began to read everything with a view to the margins of my Bible. It loomed in the background whenever I was experiencing life or learning something new. I began to remember, better than I had before, interesting and fascinating discoveries that I had made in the Word of God because I encountered them or the record of them over and over again in the margins of my Bible as I read it through. I began in that way to accumulate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Word of God. As I did, I began to realize how much more there was to find in the Word of God than I had realized before, how utterly remarkable this book really is.
This was the reason I was so loathe to move from the NIV to the ESV, though I had no doubt as to the superiority of the latter as a translation of the Word of God. I had a Bible full of twenty-five years’ worth of valuable notes and now I was going to have to begin again. I had always hoped to finish my life with that Bible that had come to mean so much to me through the years. I couldn’t possibly re-enter all those notes in a new Bible. So now I have to carry and consult two large Bibles. My new ESV is beginning to fill up with notes of all kinds, but many years of my life remain recorded in my old Bible. I will never leave it; it is much too valuable to me.
May I say, brothers and sisters, that this is one of my fears about digital Bibles. I came to love the Bible when I came to love my copy of the Bible, the Bible which I carried with me, which I read, and into which I entered notes of every kind. It was not the Bible in the abstract that I loved; it was the Bible in my hands, the Bible of the years of my life, the Bible that bore the marks of my reading and study. Time and time again I remember some fascinating quotation that had opened up to me a truth of God’s Word; I know it is to be found in the upper right hand corner of a page, I just don’t know in what book of the Bible it is to be found. But I am pretty sure it is in the NT and in five or six minutes I can find it just thumbing through the books of the NT until there it is in the upper right hand corner, just where I knew it would be.
I am fully aware, of course, that for ages Christians did not have their own copies of the Bible and so the personal Bible in book form is a comparatively recent phenomenon. However, it bears remembering that people memorized much more of the Bible in those old days before printed Bibles appeared, much more than Christians do today. They carried a great deal of the Bible around with them in their head. Think of Jesus here. He had no Bible in his hands, but he had it in his head and his heart; by long study and careful memorization it was at his fingertips to use at a moment’s notice when any particular text or teaching was needed. His mastery of the Bible is on display here. But, be all of that as it may, the Bible as a printed book that each Christian could have a copy of was a huge advance. In only some ways may the Bible in digital form be a further advance. In other ways it may prove a step backward! That is my fear. I know the Bible would not be to me as it is were it not for my own copy of it, marked as it is with the fruit of my study and years of reading of the Word of God. When I think of the Bible, I cannot help but think of my own copy of it, my treasured copy, now two copies, the copies that have taught me the Bible’s immeasurable worth.
Indeed, the argument in my family is over who is going to get my Bible, now my Bibles, when I die. And I always tell them that they are going into the casket with me. They will be under my arm when, as I hope, I walk up to the gates of the city.
I also, those many years ago, began to read the Bible through every year, a practice I have followed now for 28 years. And that also increased my familiarity with the Word of God. And the more one knows it, the more one loves it. Each year I noticed things I had not noticed before, connections between a biblical statement here and one there, a line of thought that I could follow as I read it through that year. A note here, a note there to preserve what I had learned or experienced in reading the Word of God. The Bible repays such constant attention. The more you read, the more questions you ask and answer, the more puzzles you solve, the more wonderful the book seems to you and the more perfect it becomes in your estimation and the more confident you are that in it you find not only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but the truth that matters, the truth that sheds light on your path, truth so beautiful you find yourself wanting to share it with others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was glad to learn, had an experience something like mine. In a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law, who was very liberal theologically and who certainly did not share Bonhoeffer’s reverence for the Bible, he unashamedly began:
“First of all I will confess quite simply — I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer.”
But later in the same letter he added this personal confidence.
“And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way — and this has not been for so very long — it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, and often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.” [Metaxas, 136-137]
I have come to feel the same way. I know now not only with intellectual certainty but with a deep feeling of satisfaction and great thanksgiving that the answer to any question of any real importance can be found in the Word of God if only one seeks that answer with an honest interest in knowing the truth. I know now that the more of the Bible I have in my head and heart the better, stronger, and happier man I will be. I have come to see what Alexander Whyte meant when, in speaking of the compensations of the Christian ministry, he listed first among them this: morning, noon, and night, the Bible is in my hands. [Barbour, Life of Whyte, 280] It would not have occurred to me to say this or think that many years ago, but I often think it to myself now: what a privilege is mine: to be paid to read and study the Word of God!
The Bible gives us everything: theology (i.e. the truth about God, about man, about human life, about its origin and its destiny, about the way of salvation, about the future), ethics (what God requires of us and the standards by which our lives will be judged on the Great Day), wisdom (the practical advice we need to live a successful life), even etiquette (how to behave in the ordinary encounters of life in a way that fosters goodwill and deeper relationships). In other words, everything a man or woman needs to know to be happy and good in this life and the life to come, is found here, in the Word of God, and found in the most winning and memorable and useful of ways. It is taught in laws and commandments, very simple to understand, in prayers and hymns that lift up the heart and that we can use ourselves; it is taught in fascinating historical narratives; it is taught in biography and in personal letters that help us to apply that truth to our daily lives; and it is taught in dramatic and beautiful poems, some of the most beautiful poetry in the world! The Bible is a wonder and it is a power. Listen to Amy Carmichael:
“The amazing thing is that everyone who reads the Bible has the same joyful thing to say about it. In every land, in every language, it is the same tale: where that Book is read, not with the eyes only, but with the mind and heart, the life is changed. Sorrowful people are comforted, sinful people are transformed, people who were in the dark walk in the light. Is it not wonderful to think that this Book, which is such a mighty power if it gets a chance to work in an honest heart, is in our hands today? And we can read it freely, no man making us afraid.”
Well, what has all of that to do with the text we read? Just this. In these conversations we see the Bible at work. Every great question of life finds its answer in its pages. Take note of the way the Bible is set before us in these exchanges between Jesus and his enemies.
- First, we see the Lord himself consulting Holy Scripture and drawing from it the answers to the questions that he is asked.
The greatest questions are the great themes of the Bible. Who and what is God? Who and what is a human being? What are here for and where are we going? According to what standards are we to live our lives? Why do we have the longings that we have and how are the longings of our hearts to be fulfilled? How is what is wrong in our lives and in the life of the world to be put right? All of the answers to those fabulously important questions are summed up in the fact that Jesus is Lord, a truth Jesus here finds taught in a psalm written a thousand years before he entered the world! To know who Jesus is and what Jesus is and what he has done is to know the secret of the universe, it is to know the meaning of your life, and the way to eternal life. The simple fact that Jesus Christ is David’s Lord unlocks the meaning of life and the path to heaven. And you won’t find that truth anywhere else but in the Bible.
Here too we see Jesus drawing from the Word of God proof that the resurrection, the awaking of the dead to new and eternal life, lies before all those who partake of his salvation. Is there a more fabulously important fact to know than that? There it lies in a text that we all have read from Sunday School days, the account of Moses and the burning bush. I confess that I wouldn’t have realized the full implication of that statement God made — “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” — I wouldn’t have found the resurrection there, but once the Lord pointed it out, sure enough, it is there plain as day! And for the last thirty years I’ve been discovering that virtually every line of the Word of God has hidden in it deep, magnificent truth there to be plucked, learned.
Jesus was a Bible man. He might have simply told them the answers to such questions as they asked – he had the authority to do so – the Bible is his book after all; he could have just spoken on his own authority as he often did, but instead he drew his answers to their questions from the Bible and in so doing taught them and taught us to do the same thing. Do you have a question of great importance? The Bible has the answer if there is an answer! So many of the questions we ask and want answered are of comparatively little importance. Some of them are of no importance at all, which you know if you ever listen to sports radio! But some questions loom over human life and must be answered or else. And the answers to those questions, clear, profound, entirely satisfying answers, honest answers can be found in the Bible and nowhere else. The Bible is for serious people who want to know the answer to serious questions.
He didn’t know that day what questions they would ask. They came at him thick and fast, but he found in the Word of God the answer to them all. But there is more.
- Not only did Jesus consult the Bible and draw from it answers to questions, he enlarged the Bible.
In these paragraphs we find Jesus not only consulting the Bible but writing it! The Bible is here being composed before our very eyes. Ordinarily the Lord cited some passage of Scripture and answered his interrogators with it. And he did that here. He referred to Exodus 3 and to Psalm 110. But in the case of the question about taxes and in partial reply to the Sadducees’ question about marriage in heaven, the Lord added to our knowledge. His answers are known to us because they were reported in books that eventually were added to the canon of Holy Scripture, including this book, the Gospel of Luke. Here and elsewhere in the Gospels, sometimes the Lord would say, “The Bible says…” and sometimes he would say “I say…” It matters not because in either case what is written and what is said is the Word of God. And now all of it is in the Bible. It wasn’t then, but it is now.
In other words, what Jesus said here about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, and about there being no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven, are like the statement that Yahweh made to Moses that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They too are divine utterances, they too are recorded in Holy Scripture, and they too, in both respects, are the Word of God and partake of the perfection of the Word of God. We can use the Lord’s statement about church and state, or his statement about the life of heaven to answer questions that we have or that are put to us and can use them with the same confidence with which we use any other statement of the Word of God. What does it matter who said what so long as it is the Word of God? What does it matter when it was said, in Moses’ day or Jesus’ day, so long as it is recorded for us in the Bible as the utterance of God, the book that Paul said was breathed out of God’s mouth however much it was written by a large number of individual men.
Evangelical Christians with a high view of the Bible are sometimes accused of bibliolatry, as if we worshipped the Bible instead of God himself. I suppose there can be something of that in certain cases. I remember preaching in a church in Inverness, Scotland. I remember the occasion distinctly because behind the pulpit was a great chair upon which, they told me, many years before Dwight Moody had sat before preaching in that same church. The high pulpit had an enormous Bible resting on it upon which I had to rest my notes. The problem was that my notes kept sliding down and I was afraid they would drop to the floor. When I realized the problem before the church service, I asked the sextant whether I might remove the Bible so that my Bible and my notes would rest directly on the pulpit and not on the open pages of the Bible. “No,” he said! The Bible could not be moved. All my gestures that day were made with one hand.
But the charge of bibliolatry is actually absurd. We Christians revere the Bible precisely because it is God himself who speaks in it and the truth of God that we find in it. We revere the Bible because we have found in it the Lord himself and his love in its pages. To love the Word of God, to reverence its teaching, to trust it implicitly and absolutely, is to love and reverence and trust God himself, for the Bible is God speaking. The Bible itself bears witness to its nature as God’s own speech thousands of times and often in the Bible we find God and the Scripture to be interchangeable. In Galatians 3, for example, or in Romans 9 we read both that God said something to Abraham or God said something to Pharaoh and that the Holy Scripture said something to Abraham and the Holy Scripture said something to Pharaoh. You can say the one, you can say the other, it matters not because it amounts to saying the same thing. The Bible is the voice of God and if you love God you will love the sound of his voice!
Now, true enough, the Pharisees and the Sadducees also knew the Bible and claimed to revere it as the Word of God. But again and again they were exposed, as Jesus exposed them here, as unwilling to heed the teaching of the Word of God. That is why Jesus was always quoting the Bible to them. He proved in that way that their loyalty to the Scripture was superficial and hypocritical. They preferred their own opinions to Holy Scripture so much so that when the Messiah came among preaching what had always been the truth of God’s Word, they resented him for it. In a sinful world inhabited by rebels against God the Bible must be and remain a deeply controversial book. We know that. Oh, I know very well that there are many who claim that the Bible is full of errors and is not to be trusted. There have always been such people. We’ve read their arguments. But their arguments have never persuaded us. They are answered easily enough.
For us who have found the Word of God in Holy Scripture, the Bible is our connection to him and it’s our connection to the world to come; down to its details, down to the very tenses of its verbs. Not “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” but “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Word cannot be broken. As we read in the Psalms:
“…the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.” [Ps 12:6]
Jesus taught that we could find the answer to any important question in the Bible. He should know. But if that is so, surely all of us ought to be eager and avid readers and students of the Word of God. I want all of you to be such avid students; whenever you open this holy book, to be listening for the voice of God himself. This book is without question the greatest treasure, the most valuable possession that you own. Act like it, and let others see your reverence for the Word of God.
Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart let is oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it too fondly or well.