The best is yet to come

Sermon: Sunday, 6th December, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 20:20-40

Sometimes people ask us questions about God and about what we believe out of genuine interest and a longing to find out the meaning of life and to find peace with God. Other times, questions can be asked from a place of hurt; perhaps the questioner has had a bad experience in a church, or has suffered deeply and cannot reconcile that with a loving God. Still others can ask questions not really interested in our answers, but just trying to portray Christianity as foolish and wanting to justify how they live their lives. I love it when people ask any kind of question, because it’s a refreshing change from the usual apathy over the big questions about the meaning of life. However, we don’t want to be naïf. Not all questions are asked from a genuine place. It’s really good for us to ask counter-questions when in discussion. My favourite question is to ask people what they think the message of Christianity is, and often good conversations can flow from their answers.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being barraged with all kinds of questions. He is not naïf; he knows that these questions are not motivated by a thirst to discover the truth, but by a murderous hatred and a desire to see him dead: ‘He saw through their duplicity.’ (Luke 20:23) Different sides of the religious leaders of Israel, normally enemies, join forces in order to trap Jesus. They hurl the toughest and most dangerous questions at Jesus – the ‘hot potatoes’ of the day. But they are no match for him and his wisdom. All groups are silenced by Jesus and their attempts to trap him actually end up revealing more and more of his fantastic and unsurpassed wisdom. Just as people from all over the world brought difficult cases and dilemmas to King Solomon and were astonished by his answers, so it is with Jesus. Now someone greater than Solomon has appeared.

1. A political question – should we pay the poll tax?

The chief priests and teachers of the law had tried to confront Jesus directly asking what authority he had to cast the moneychangers out of the temple. Their efforts didn’t work. But, desperate to discredit and destroy Jesus, they change tack. The send in spies to watch His every move. It reminds me of Daniel’s enemies watching him like a hawk in order to find something with which they could bring him down. Notice the sickening flattery of these men: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.’ (John 20:21) They have no interest in the truth whatsoever. Then comes their question: ‘Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (John 20:22) They must have thought: ‘We’ve got him now! Let’s see him wriggle out of that one.’

Each adult had to pay an annual tax of 1 denarius and it had to be paid with a Roman coin. The people hated this tax with a passion because it was a symbolic reminder of their subjugation under the Roman Empire. If Jesus says, ‘No, we shouldn’t pay this tax.’ then he’ll give the Roman authorities good reason to arrest him. And if he says, ‘Yes, we should pay this tax.’ then he will alienate all the Jews who follow him, and the religious leaders will be regain their prominence.

Jesus won’t be forced into answering a ‘yes or no question’ knowing full well it is a trap. Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ risks arrest or alienation. ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’ (John 20:24) One of them must have pulled out a coin from their pocket. By doing so, Jesus demonstrates that they had already accepted Caesar’s rule over them as a practical reality – after all, they used his coins. The questioners acknowledge that Caesar’s head is on Caesar’s coins. Jesus replies: ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ (John 20:25) We’re told that Jesus’ answer astonishes the people. He clearly states that we ought to pay our taxes, but he also teaches that the role of the state is limited, and that there is a greater throne than Caesar’s before which we must give our allegiance and that is the throne of God. Some things do belong to Caesar, so yes, pay your taxes. However, everything belongs to God, so give him your whole life, your total submission, obedience and love.

I’m glad, in a sense, that these spies asked their ‘poll tax question’, because Jesus’ answer brings out some really helpful teaching for us. We too are called as Christians to work hard and to pay our taxes, even when the government is far from perfect. The government does have a God-given legitimate sphere of influence.

We see this most clearly in Romans chapter 13: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…’ (Romans 13:1-2)

‘This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’ (Romans 13:6-7)

However, the government’s authority over us is limited to certain areas. They have no right to dictate to us what to think or what to believe or how to worship. It’s a dangerous thing when governments over-reach and interfere in areas beyond their remit. Our government has done this by redefining marriage and by legalising abortion. They have no authority to do these things. When the government does overstep the mark in these ways, then Christians have a serious choice to make – shall we obey the government or shall we obey God? As a minister, what should I do if I am told by the state that to proclaim Christianity is the only true religion is an incitement of religious hatred? Jesus says, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life, there is no other way to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6) Should I stop preaching that and ignore what he says?

Our answer shines through so clearly in Acts chapter. Here, the Sanhedrin forbid the apostles from preaching about Jesus. Peter and the other apostles reply: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ (Acts 5:29) We need to remember the Scottish covenanters. Between 1660 and 1690 there were many ministers who stood up against the King and refused to be told by him how God ought to be worshipped. Jesus is the head of the church and not the King. Christians here in Fife had a choice to make – shall we obey the king or Jesus? They obeyed Jesus, meeting in open air conventicles, willing to lay down their lives in order to continue worshipping Christ in a Biblical manner.

Let’s not forget a hugely challenging part of Jesus’ teaching to us today. We are commanded to give to God what is his. (John 20:25)

D R Davis: Jesus’ demand here costs far more than we typically imagine as we sit in front of this text.
Geldenhuys: Jesus means nothing less than the unconditional surrender and consecration of the whole man to his Creator… You must never forget that the final Throne you owe loyalty to is the Throne of God.
Morris: Our first and overriding loyalty is to God.

Are you giving the Lord the loyalty, love, time and worship that he is due?

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

2 A theological question – is there really a resurrection? Surely not!

Who are the Sadducees? They were mostly priests and wealthy individuals. They only acknowledged the first five books of the Bible – those written by Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy). They denied that there was life after death. So, they come to Jesus with a highly hypothetical scenario, designed to portray the whole idea of life after death as absurd, and in turn, designed to show Jesus’ teaching on the reality of life after death as ridiculous. They bring to mind the Old Testament idea of Levirate marriage, where a man would marry his brother’s widow, in order to preserve the family line, and the family property too. You can read about it in Deuteronomy 25:5 and see an example of it in the book of Ruth.

The practice of Levirate marriage had fallen into disuse in Jesus’ day, but the Sadducees see this as a useful vehicle for dismissing belief in the after-life. Let’s say a woman is widowed with no children, and a brother marries her, but then he dies, and so the next brother marries her, but he dies, and so on. It is all a bit absurd and highly hypothetical. Now for their question: ‘Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’ (John 20:22-23)

Once again, a religious group think they have Jesus trapped. They think they have demonstrated the resurrection is absurd. How will Jesus handle this theological question? He shows how their assumptions about the next life and about the resurrection are totally wrong. ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.’ (John 20:23-36) In other words, the Sadducees have assumed that what happens in Heaven will be just the same as what happens on earth, and that simply is not the case. We won’t be married in Heaven!

If we’re honest, perhaps Christians who have been happily married will find this teaching upsetting or at least unsettling. But should we? I’m pretty confident that we’ll know our spouses in Heaven. Also, we can be sure that everything in Heaven will be much better than how it is on earth. We will love our spouses more in Heaven than we ever did on earth, because we will be sinless and perfect. But because there is no death in Heaven, there will be no need for procreation, and marriage itself will be superseded by other relationships. The focus seems to be on a much wider and fuller family in Heaven: ‘They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.’ (John 20:36) One form of family will be replaced by another, and it will be a richer and fuller and deeper experience for us, with no heartache and pain and loneliness whatsoever.

There are so many things about Heaven that we don’t know. There’s much that will be the same as that of life on earth now, but it will be better and perfect. And there will be new things and areas of life that will be different. There is both continuity and discontinuity. We will recognise our family members there and have a special relationship with them, but we will not be married. Our relationship with God and with others Christians down through the centuries will supersede what we know now.

Next, Jesus, knowing that the Sadducees greatly revere Moses, uses Moses’ own experience to prove the resurrection! ‘At the burning bush, the LORD refers to himself as: ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ (Luke 20:38) This present tense tells us that the Lord is still their covenant God, even though their souls have left the earth. In this way, Moses showed that the dead rise. There is no doubt about this. If only the Sadducees knew their Bibles better! I’m glad the Sadducees came to ridicule Jesus about the resurrection, because it gave Jesus another opportunity to categorically affirm: yes, there is life after death! Life does go on after the grave. Each one of us will end up in Heaven or in Hell, depending on whether we place our trust in Jesus.

We’re surrounded by modern day Sadducees who will laugh at our belief in the resurrection. But Jesus’ words assure us that when we leave this word, we simply transfer into the next one. Jesus says to Martha in John chapter 11. Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26)

Who are you going to trust, those who mock the resurrection, or Jesus, who proved the truth of what he said by his life, death, resurrection and ascension? He has proved there is life after death. The tomb was empty. The Sadducees thought our relationship with God was temporary. But Jesus says, He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (John 20:38) That is true for us too. Once we are Christians and come into a loving relationship with God, knowing him as our Father, nothing, not even death, can separate us from that love. We shall be raised one day with new bodies and our souls are made perfect at death, and we will live in the place he has prepared for us forever.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

This life is not all there is – the best is yet to be. Place your trust in Jesus so that you don’t miss out.