Rendering to Caesar – Mark 12:13-17
Good morning! This is now our seventh online Sunday morning church service, and we thank you for tuning in to worship with us. If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark, where we are going to be looking at Mark 12:13-17, for our time together, this morning.
Even though we are settling into a routine here with the recording of our church services, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still be longing to gather together, physically. This shouldn’t become “normal.” We were created for community, and that community has been temporarily, although not completely, disrupted, by the mass gathering restrictions. And so, we long for these restrictions to be lifted.
However, I have been seeing a number of instances of churches in Canada and the United States, disobeying the orders of the government, saying that these restrictions go against what Scripture says about gathering together as the local church, and that we must obey God rather than men.
And this poses an interesting question: Should Christians obey the government? It’s an age-old question that, regardless of our political position, seems to come up again and again in human history. Should I, as a follower of Jesus, obey the government? This is a very important question for us to ask, especially in these days, when the government is restricting us from gathering together as a church.
And in our passage of Scripture, this morning, a group of religious leaders are going to come to Jesus with a very similar question. They want to know what Jesus has to say about obedience to the government. And Jesus is going to respond in a way that we would not expect, but in a way that has a great impact on how we view the government and how we view the kingdom of God.
I’m just going to begin by reading our passage for us, and then we will dive in. Mark 12, beginning in verse 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.”
If you remember from last week, Jesus has just re-entered the temple, after formerly clearing it out, and the Jewish leaders have come to challenge Jesus’ authority to do these things. And after Jesus tells a parable that likens the Jewish leaders to some rebellious tenants, who want what belongs to God more than they want God, they decide to regroup and come at Jesus from another angle. So, they decide to send an unholy alliance of Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus.
Now, this isn’t the first time that we have seen these two groups, together. Back in Mark 3, if you remember, although it has been several months since we studied it, Jesus was in the synagogue with a man who had a withered hand. And Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, much to the dismay of the Jewish leaders. But in verse 6, it says that “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Here, the Pharisees and Herodians have united once again to finish what they set out to do, and that is, to destroy Jesus. But other than their common hatred for Jesus, there is actually very little that unites them. You have a conservative group in the religious Pharisees, and you have a liberal group in the political Herodians. They would have been enemies with each other on a normal day. But as the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The Pharisees hated Jesus, because He was infringing on their religion, and the Herodians hated Jesus, because He was infringing on their politics. They may have disliked each other and disagreed with each other’s principles, but they were united against a common enemy: Jesus. And we see how Jesus brings enemies together, in their common hatred towards Him. It’s actually quite ironic.
But the Jewish leaders decide to send out the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus. And unlike Jesus “sending out” His disciples, earlier in Mark 6, to proclaim the message of the kingdom of God and to cast out demons and to heal the sick, the motives of the Jewish leaders in “sending out” these two groups to Jesus are not as pure and restorative, as their intention is “to trap him in his talk.”
The Greek word used here for “trap” is used only in this one place in the New Testament. And the way the word is used refers to the trapping or catching of an animal. The Jewish leaders are hoping to catch Jesus, as if He were some kind of an animal. And they are very cunning in how they do this. You can hear it in their tone of 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.”
I don’t know how many of you have watched the animated version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, since it was recently released, but our family found it to be simply amazing. In the movie, Christian and Hopeful are headed towards the Celestial City, when they come across this wizard, who desired to hear all about the adventures and accomplishments that the two had experienced.
In reality, this is the Flatterer, who has disguised himself as a wizard. He says to them, “Your names are Christian and Hopeful? What great names! Surely, they must reflect your good character.” Christian and Hopeful then began to speak about all of their quests. And the more they recounted their exploits, the more the Flatterer flattered them with praise. And the more he flattered them, the more Christian and Hopeful’s hearts filled with pride. At which point, a net springs up from the ground, and wraps around them, and traps them in obvious shame.
Jesus has come face to face with the great Flatterer, Satan himself, that ancient serpent, through the Pharisees and Herodians. Genesis 3:1 says that “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” Satan had tempted Jesus before, in the wilderness, but was waiting for a more opportune time. Now was that time.
The Pharisees and Herodians begin their conversation with flattery. Their words are dripping with sarcasm and insincerity. But they are ironically right in what they are saying about Jesus. He is true. He is impartial. He is not swayed by appearances. He truly teaches the way of God. Even in their insincerity, they cannot help but speak well and true of Jesus.
But, of course, if they truly believed what they were saying about Jesus, then they would be followers of Jesus themselves and not trying to trap Jesus with a question. They wouldn’t simply be giving lip service to Jesus, but they would actually submit to the authority of Jesus, that they had come to challenge. And we would do well to consider how we too might be giving lip service to Jesus, without any true devotion to Him.
But since Jesus is all of these things, He will not be swayed by their flattery. His heart will not be filled with pride. These fine words about Himself will not cause Him to lower His guard.
Finally, they get on with their question. And their question is actually thought out and well-crafted. It’s a question that we might ask Jesus, today: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
There is some context behind their question: The tax being referred to here was an imperial poll tax, first instituted in A.D. 6 by Caesar Augustus, and later continued with Tiberius Caesar. The amount required to satisfy the poll tax was a denarius, which was the average daily wage.
The Pharisees and Herodians had made a deal with Rome, so they had no issues with the tax. But the Jews hated the tax. And I mean, nobody likes paying taxes. They didn’t like paying taxes back then, and we still don’t like it, today. But the Jews really hated the tax, because whenever the Jews were required to pay the tax, it was a reminder to them that they were in subjection to pagan Rome.
But there was a group that had arisen called the Zealots. And the Zealots were an anti-government group that not only opposed the tax, but also opposed Rome. They weren’t going to be oppressed any longer, so they began to make war on the Romans, hoping to return to a time when Jewish culture and religion ruled.
And so, the Romans decided that a good way of collecting the tax was to use local people, in this case, the Jews. And these Jews would work for Rome, but they wouldn’t be paid by Rome. Instead, what these Jewish tax collectors would do is they would charge extra on top of the tax and would pocket that extra money for themselves. So, not only would these Jewish tax collectors been hated by the Zealots, because they were working for the evil Roman government, but they would have also been hated by their fellow Jews.
And it turns out that one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew, also called Levi, was a former tax collector. If you remember, back in Mark 2, Jesus sees Levi at his tax booth, tells him to follow Him, and Levi gets up and follows Jesus. And this prompted the Jewish leaders to ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” It didn’t make sense to them why Jesus would do that.
But it also turns out that another of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a former Zealot. In Mark 3:18, Jesus is calling His disciples to Himself, appointing them as apostles, and He calls “Simon the Zealot.”
Now, can you imagine how that dynamic—a tax collector and a Zealot—would have played out over the course of the three years that Jesus spent with them? Again, we see Jesus bringing enemies together. But instead of being united in their hatred towards Jesus, Matthew and Simon are united in their love for Jesus. They would have been enemies on a normal day, but because they share a common faith in Jesus, they are not enemies, but rather, brothers in Christ.
That is what Jesus does in the hearts of His followers. He makes them one in Himself. And this is so important for us to understand, when looking at this text, because the Jewish leaders are trying to trap Jesus with a question about taxes that is supposed to polarize His followers: one of which was a former tax collector and one of which was a former Zealot. How is Jesus going to respond?
If Jesus answers, “Yes,” then He will look like a supporter of Rome and will lose respect with the people, but especially with Simon. But if Jesus answers, “No,” then He will be in trouble with Matthew, but especially with the Roman authorities for opposing Rome. It’s like the question that I started with: Should Christians obey the government? It doesn’t seem like there is a right answer.
Their trap was indeed well-planned. And I’m sure they thought in their conniving hearts that they had Him. But Jesus recognizes their evil intent. He sees their hypocrisy. And Jesus responds, in verse 15, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
Now, isn’t it ironic that Jesus doesn’t have the coin needed for the tax, but they do? They bring one to Jesus. And now, it’s Jesus’ turn to ask them a question: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” To which, they reply, “Caesar’s.”
On one side of the denarius was the head of Tiberius Caesar with the Latin inscription, that, in English, read “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” On the other side of the coin was the image of Tiberius’s mother Livia with the inscription, “Pontifex Maximus,” which means, “High Priest.”
The Jews found this coin to be blasphemous, because it featured a man claiming to be a god, so how Jesus responds here is going to be very important. And Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And it says that “they marveled at him.”
And I just want to break down Jesus’ response into two parts, because Jesus is saying something very important to us, today, that has bearing on our question that we started with about obeying the government, but also on how we are to view the kingdom of God.
1. First, Jesus says to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Jesus is acknowledging the legitimacy of human government. Since the image and inscription on the denarius are Caesar’s, the coin rightfully belongs to Caesar, even if we would rather keep the coin, ourselves.
The apostle Paul affirms the same thing, in Romans 13:1-7. He says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
The apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13-17, says a similar thing. He says, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Do you know what is interesting about these two passage of Scripture? Helena pointed this out to me. Both Paul and Peter lived and died during the reign of Emperor Nero. Now, if you don’t know much about Nero, he hated Christians. In fact, it is supposed that Nero started the fire in Rome, in A.D. 64, and blamed it on the Christians, so that they would be persecuted. He had Christians burned at the stake in his backyard, so that he would have light for his garden parties.
The guy was insane. And yet, we are being told by both Paul and Peter that we are to be in subjection to those in authority. We must pay taxes to those in authority. We must honour and respect those in authority, even those whose policies we despise. Why would we do that? Because they are appointed by God and are God’s servants for our good. God has given those in authority the right to make laws, and we have the responsibility to obey those laws. And sometimes, it can be hard to obey the laws of the government.
When they impose mass gathering restrictions, because of a pandemic, our impulse is not to go, “I trust that the government has my best interest in mind,” but rather, we become skeptical, or we protest, or we do the bare minimum of what the government requires, so that we can still say we are obeying them. But is this what God has in mind when He says that we are to be subject to the governing authorities?
Rather than open ourselves up to any controversies, the Leadership Team of the Chapel made the decision to close our doors while the mass gathering restrictions were in place, because we wanted to obey, not simply the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law. We recognized that even though we might not agree with the restrictions, we at least respected the reason as to why they were in place, and we wanted to honour that by closing our doors.
But that was not an easy decision. Sometimes, it can be difficult to obey the orders of the government, especially when there are other churches not following the same orders. But the answer, according to Jesus, is that, yes, Christians have an obligation to obey the government. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
But this provides an excellent follow-up question: When does rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s become unbiblical? At what point is the government asking more of me than what Scripture requires?
2. And this leads into the second point that Jesus makes, in His response to the Pharisees and Herodians, and that is, to render to God the things that are God's.
Christians have a legitimate responsibility to obey the government, so long as the government does not infringe on our responsibility to obey God. The coin that has the image of Caesar on it, rightfully belongs to Caesar, but every human being bears a different image: the image of God.
Turn over in your Bibles to Genesis 1. Jesus is using the same word for “likeness” that is found at the beginning of Creation. After creating everything and calling it good, the Lord God says, in verse 26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And it says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Our Creator God has stamped His image on each one of us, like a coin. We are created with inherent dignity and worth. We are valuable in God’s sight. And since we bear the image of God, we rightfully belong to God.
But the bad news is that the first man and first woman, who were made in the image of God, rejected God’s dominion, and as a result, the image of God in mankind has been distorted, where Romans 1 says that we have exchanged the worship of God for the worship of idols and created things.
In Isaiah 40:18-20, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the futility of idols, saying, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.” We have traded the worship of God for useless idols.
Jesus says that we are to render “to God the things that are God's.” The word, “render,” means to repay for something. It’s like the story of Zacchaeus, in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was a short man that climbed up a tree to see Jesus, but it’s Jesus who notices him and tells him that He was coming to house. And Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector himself, says to Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” This is what it means to render.
We are repaying what ultimately didn’t belong to us. But here’s our problem: We are unable to render to God what belongs to God, namely, ourselves. We have a sin debt against our Creator God that we are unable to pay back.
But here is the good news: Jesus, whom Colossians 1:15 says, “is the image of the invisible God,” would go to the cross as our substitute and would make the sufficient payment for our sin debt. Jesus would truly bear the image of God in Creation, thus rendering to God what belonged to Him in the first place. And as a result, our faith in Jesus means that we are forgiven of our sin and our image is being renewed after the image of our Creator—the image we were always intended to bear, but that had been distorted by sin.
And what this means is that we can say, with the apostle Paul, in Philippians 3:20-21, that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
So, yes, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s—render to those in authority over us what belongs to them—but render to God the things that are God’s. As Christians, we must remember that our citizenship is, first and foremost, in heaven. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” 1 Corinthians 6:20 says. The government deserves what belongs to them, but they cannot take our heavenly citizenship away from us. And if they infringe on that heavenly citizenship, then we must obey God rather than men.
In fact, this is what Peter and the apostles say to the Jewish leaders, in Acts 5. They had just been put in prison for preaching in the name of Jesus and healing all kinds of sick people in Jesus’ name. But an angel of the Lord came to them in the night and opened the door of the prison, so that they could go free. And they go right back into the temple to preach about Jesus.
And the Jewish leaders say to them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” To which they respond, in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
And after being beaten and told to not speak any more in the name of Jesus, it says that the apostles left the Jewish council, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”
So, how do we put all of this, together? I like how one commentator put it: “Obey the government as long as you can, but worship God as long as you live.”
Christians should be the most eager to obey the voice of government, because we know from where that government receives their authority. We can obey the government when they restrict us from gathering together during a pandemic. It is not a matter of civil disobedience. Why? Because we’re still preaching the name of Jesus. We can still use technology to preach the gospel.
But in matters where the law of the government clashes with the law of God, where Christians are being forced to not preach in the name of Jesus, then Christians should be the most eager to obey God rather than man, even if the cost is great, because an even greater cost was paid on our behalf on the cross.
The question that Jesus faced is the same one that you and I face, today. And Satan does his best to try and make us choose between Caesar and God. Will we obey government, or will we obey God? And the answer is found in Jesus Christ, who is the King of an everlasting Kingdom that will know no end.
Every world power will eventually come to an end. Look at the Roman Empire. Where is it, today? It doesn’t even exist. There is no Caesar anymore. Every single kingdom will eventually come to an end, but there is a Kingdom that will never come to an end, and it is the kingdom of God. And when we view things through the lens of the kingdom of God, everything is put in its proper place.
It means that my identity is not that I am a Canadian, but that I am a Christian. And as such, there is no place for nationalism. I can have more in common with an Iranian Christian than with a white Canadian who is not a Christian, because we share a common faith in King Jesus, whose Kingdom is not of this world.
It means that my responsibility is to be a good citizen. And as such, I will obey the government and pray for the government and give what belongs to the government, because I know that God has given them authority, and how I respond to the earthly kingdom that is over me reflects how I am likely to respond to the kingdom of God.
It means that my disobedience of the government must be over something unjust or immoral—something contrary to the will of God—and that I am willing to suffer dishonour for the name of Christ for choosing to obey God rather than men.
Do we see what life in the kingdom of God looks like? It doesn’t matter if we vote Conservative or NDP; what matters is whether we belong to the kingdoms of this world, that are here one day and gone the next, or whether we belong to the kingdom of God, that will last forever. To which kingdom do we belong? How we answer that question will determine how we respond to the government?
Just as the crowd marveled at the wisdom of Jesus in answering the Pharisees and Herodians, may we also marvel at the wisdom of God in gathering together people from every tribe, tongue and nation. More important than this time apart is the eternity that we will spend together worshipping God. This is what we were created for, and it is what Jesus, our Conquering King, has purchased for us.
May we be a people who have the bigger picture of the kingdom of God in view, as we submit ourselves to those in authority. Let’s pray…