Pastor David B. Curtis


God and Caesar

Mark 12:13-17

Delivered 03/11/2007

It our text for this morning Jesus deals with a very practical subject­what is our responsibility to the government? With all the many blessings we have as Americans, too often we ask, "What can the government do for me?" As Christians, I think the better question might me, "What is my responsibility toward my government?" Now, I know that we don't like to talk about our responsibilities, but let's do it anyway.

Some think that Christians, belonging to the kingdom of God, should have nothing to do with the powers and principalities of this world. Others declare that loyalty to nation and government is a prime responsibility of the Christian. What is to be our attitude and response to the government of our country? This vitally important question has been asked throughout the history of the church. Christians always have been faced with a struggle in this matter, because the church has found itself under all kinds of governments and rulers with different perspectives of leadership.

The prevailing view of people in America today seems to be one of rebellion and resistance. If we don't agree with a law, we rebel, we break it. If we don't agree with the government, we resist it. That may be the prevailing view, but it is not the Biblical view.

The Bible teaches that we, as believers, should live in submission to the prevailing laws of the land. Christianity is to be a total life experience. It is not an addendum to life. It is to touch every element of life: our thoughts, words, deeds, and relationships. Christianity is not to be isolated from any part of life. When one receives the righteousness of Christ and begins to live out that righteousness, it produces a life of subjection to all authority. This is an issue of major importance, because the Spirit controlled believer is characterized by submission. If you compare Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:16-20, you will see that submission is a fruit of being under the control of the Spirit. By nature we are all rebels, but in Christ we are to live in submission to all authority.

In our text in Mark 12 Jesus is asked a question about authority, "Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?" They are asking, "Should we submit to the secular government, or not?" We'll seek to answer that question today.

Let's first review our context. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. He has, by His actions, announced His identity as Israel's Messiah. He rides into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, in fulfillment of prophecy, as the people praise Him shouting the Hebrew phrase hoshiya na, which means: "Save us." They want Him to save them from Roman rule.

When He arrives at the temple He causes a huge disturbance tipping over tables and driving out the money changers. Up to this point, the principle source of opposition to Jesus has been from the party of the Pharisees, who seem to have been dogging the heels of the Savior from very early on in His ministry. It is at the Lord's disruption of the temple that we see the torch of opposition to Jesus being passed from the Pharisee party to the Jewish religious and political leaders: the "priests and the scribes and the elders"­these are the three groups that made up what they called the Sanhedrin, which was a group of 71 that basically functioned as we would think of the Supreme Court. They were the highest authority in the nation of Israel.

As Jesus was "walking in the temple," the "Sanhedrin" approached Him and began to question His authority. Jesus answered their question with a question about John the Baptizer's authority, which they refused to answer because they were afraid their answer would upset the people. Then in the text there is an unfortunate chapter break. The parable of the vineyard and the cornerstone is not a new subject, but a continuation of our Lord's discussion with the Sanhedrin on the question of authority. They knew this parable was against them:

And they were seeking to seize Him; and yet they feared the multitude; for they understood that He spoke the parable against them. And so they left Him, and went away. . (Mark 12:12 NASB)

Our text for this morning begins with the next verse:

And they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him, in order to trap Him in a statement. (Mark 12:13 NASB)

"They" is a reference to the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders that were so embarrassed by Jesus in the previous encounter; they, in a sense with their tail between their legs, have gone back behind closed doors. They've reformulated a plan; they're not going back out there, but they send two new groups to see what they can do.

In Luke's account he says that they sent spies:

And they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so as to deliver Him up to the rule and the authority of the governor. (Luke 20:20 NASB)

The word "spies" is Greek egkathetos, which means: "pertaining to having the task of obtaining information secretly, hired to lie in wait."

Mark tells us that these spies were, "some of the Pharisees and Herodians"­ There were no two groups who were more opposed to one another than the Pharisees and the Herodians. They stood at the two opposite ends of the political spectrum. It was like the Klu Klux Klan joining forces with the NAACP. The Pharisees were the political and religious conservatives of the day. They held to all of the Tanakh as well as to the oral traditions of the rabbis.

The Herodians were the pro-Herod party. They were the religious liberals of the day and more interested in Roman politics than in Scriptures or spirituality. The Herodians and the Pharisees had previously banded together to try to destroy Jesus:

And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him. (Mark 3:6 NASB)

Now they had banded together again for the same purpose. But they recognized that they had first to discredit Him before the people prior to acting against Him, for His influence was huge and the crowds in Jerusalem were in a fervent state.

And they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so as to deliver Him up to the rule and the authority of the governor. (Luke 20:20 NASB)

Luke tells us that the Sanhedrin's goal is to get Jesus in trouble with the Romans, specifically the governor, Pontius Pilate, the only ruler in Jerusalem who has the authority to exercise the death penalty. They turned to the very government which they despised. Matthew tells us that they were trying to trap Him:

Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said. (Matthew 22:15 NASB)

The Greek word for trap is pagideuo, it is only used here in the New Testament. The word meant to trap a wild animal for the purpose of putting that animal to death. And that was their plan for Jesus Christ. Notice what else Matthew tells us:

And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. (Matthew 22:16 NASB)

The Pharisees, with their distinctive flowing robes and headdresses were easy to spot, so they sent their disciples. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians probably came to Jesus in disguise--not wearing some plastic face mask or false beard as we might imagine, but clothed in common attire and mingling amongst the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus speak. This seems to be part of the reason for Luke 20:20's mention of spies being sent amongst them. Therefore, it would appear as if both groups of people, both the Pharisees and the Herodians, mingled with the crowds listening to Jesus so as to blend in with those present and to catch Him off-guard.

And they came and said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? (Mark 12:14 NASB)

Notice what these spies, these disciples of the Pharisees, said to Jesus: They call Him "Teacher" or Rabbi, a title of respect and authority. They say, "We know that You are truthful, and defer to no one"­ They were pretending that they looked on Him as totally honest, and therefore, as one who would answer regardless of the consequences. They said, "You are not partial to any. Again they stressed that they knew that He would not let the fear of man influence His answer. The Rabbis would have answered by quoting the traditions of the elders in their support. The past could take the blame.

They also said that He would, "teach the way of God in truth." The last thing that they believed was that He taught the way of God in truth. If they believed that, they would not have been questioning Him. But, aware that the crowds were listening, they were seeking to flatter Him and push Him into a corner. Notice what the writer of Proverbs has to say about flattery:

A lying tongue hates those it crushes, And a flattering mouth works ruin. (Proverbs 26:28 NASB)
A man who flatters his neighbor Is spreading a net for his steps. (Proverbs 29:5 NASB)

These disciple spies were attempting to use flattery to catch Jesus. They were doing exactly what Proverbs 29:5 says, they were attempting to spread a net for Him. Watch out for those who approach you with flattery.

You have to imagine that after the religious leaders were so embarrassed by Jesus, they went back behind closed doors and probably stayed up all night trying to come up with the question that would entrap Jesus. They've tried this several times, and they've lost every round. So you can just see them at their planning table: Over and over and over they're going over questions that they could ask. What is the perfect question? And the question they came up with is:

"Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?" This question is one that is culturally rooted, so let's put this issue in its context. The Jews had not been free for five hundred years. The Roman Emperor Augustus had brought Judea under direct Roman rule as one of its provinces in A.D. 6. It was at that time, when Jesus was a little boy, that a Jewish nationalist named Judas led a revolt against the Jews paying Roman taxes directly into the treasury in Rome. Judas was a rabble-rouser who told the people that if they paid such taxes, then they, Jehovah's people, would no longer be under the rule of God but under the rule of man, and that man a Gentile! His followers were passionate that Israel was not for sale. "No tribute to the Romans," was their slogan.

He was, of course, defeated and killed, but his watchword became a permanent rallying cry. Thus paying tribute, especially the "poll-tax", was seen by the Jews as something to be done grudgingly, and by some extremists even as treason. The majority, however, paid it but hated it. When the Lord Jesus was a teenager, there was another popular demand for relief from taxation, but that also was summarily dismissed, and now sixteen years later, again this hot issue was raised. Where does Jesus of Nazareth stand?

Their hatred of paying taxes to Rome was a big issue. There were so many kinds of taxes: a ground tax on land consisting of a tenth of all grain, and a fifth of wine and fruit; an income tax, which was one per cent of a man's earnings; then there was a poll tax on all men between the ages of 14 and 65 and on all women from 12 to 65, and this tax was one denarius, the daily wage of a working man. These taxes were collected by the hated "publicans," unscrupulous tax-collectors, who were considered by all Jews to be collaborators, betraying their country, the lowest of the low, corrupt and merciless men.

Their hatred of paying taxes to Rome went even deeper. Jews were forbidden to make carved images. They debated whether this included images of plants and flowers, but there was no debate about the image of men; that was utterly unacceptable, but the denarius that they had to pay in a poll tax had upon it an image of the Emperor Tiberius. It was because such coins had Caesar's image on them that they could not be used to pay the temple tax which had to be paid with a coin bearing no image. As a result of all this, coins with Caesar's head on them circulated widely in Judea. There he was embossed, coldly looking up at them from the palms of their hands. Around his head in Latin were the words, "Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus." On the other side of the coin was written, "High Priest" and "Son of God" (the Emperors were routinely high priests of the main Roman cult). You can perceive how offensive those words would be to the Jews. The issue of taxation to Rome was so sensitive that some Jews were repulsed by the denarius, and they'd simply turn away from looking at one, let alone touching one. See, then, how ironic is this situation described in our text; here stands Christ, God's great High Priest and King of kings, the real Son of God, in the temple which was ruled by the Jewish chief priest. He is being asked a question about paying taxes to Caesar.

So what was Jesus to say in answer to this perfect question? If he said, "Sure, pay your taxes to Rome," then His influence with the people would have been destroyed. He would be regarded as a traitor and a coward. But if He had said, "No tribute to the Romans," then they would have reported Him for insurrection and He would have been arrested as a freedom fighter within the hour. His enemies made it a yes or no situation. If He said, "Yes," then He would be rubbing the people's noses in their own subjugation to Caesar. They weren't a free people. They were under a tyrant's yoke, but when the true Messiah came, He had promised He would break oppression and set the prisoner free. But if Jesus said, "We don't pay taxes" as the Zealots were exhorting them, He'd be accused of treason. This seemed a hopeless, dangerous, no win situation for Christ.

"Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?" But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at." (Mark 12:15 NASB)

Notice how Jesus answers their trick question with a question? We see this often in Jesus' ministry (11:53; 20:3; Matthew 22:34-46; Mark 8:12; John 8:6).This was a Rabbinic form of discourse in Jesus' day.

Jesus first asked to be shown a denarius. The reason is more evident from Matthew's account:

But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 "Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax." And they brought Him a denarius. (Matthew 22:18-19 NASB)

A denarius was not just money, though it was that. The denarius was that form of money that was used for paying taxes to Caesar. In Jesus' day there were different kinds of money. In his gospel, Matthew told of how Jesus paid the two-drachma temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). The tax was not paid with a denarius, but with the drachma. This is the reason why the money changers were exchanging money in the courts of the temple--the temple tax could not be paid with a denarius. When Jesus asked to see a denarius, it was because this coin was the one used for paying taxes.

The denarius had Caesar's name inscribed on it, along with his likeness. It was a Roman coin. It belonged to Rome, in a way not unlike the way that our money belongs to the United States of America. If a government can issue money, it can also require that it be given back, especially in the form of taxes.

And they brought one. And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" And they said to Him, "Caesar's." (Mark 12:16 NASB)

The first term, "likeness" referred to the image of Caesar, which the Jews would have considered offensive. "You shall have no other gods before Me," God commanded. Yet in their thinking, since Caesar claimed deity, to acknowledge him by even carrying a denarius would break this commandment. That's probably why they had to look for one of these coins. "You shall not make for yourself a graven image," was even clearer in the Jewish mind. Caesar's image was clearly marked on the coin, so to use it or be dependent upon it for paying a poll-tax constituted idolatry. In their minds, paying the poll tax broke the first and second commandments, so they hated the thought of it.

Jesus also asked about the "inscription" on the coin. That referred to the attributes given to Caesar as son of the divine Augustus and high priest.

And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12:17 NASB)

The word "render" is the Greek verb apodidomi, which means: "to meet a contractual or other obligation, pay, pay out, fulfill," used of wages, taxes, vows, duty, etc. It has the meaning, not of a gratuitous payment, but of giving back something which belongs to them. Kittels says that it means: "To give or do something in fulfillment of an obligation or expectation..." The payment of a tax is not a gift given to him who levies it but a debt owing to him for benefits received.
Jesus is saying: If the coinage bears Caesar's image, then it indicates that Caesar is the ruler who should be submitted to in paying taxes.

So we are called upon to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," to pay our taxes, to exercise our right to vote, to support our government and military, to peaceably express our disagreements within the rights of its citizens, to maintain loyalty to our nation. We are fortunate to have a government that gives us freedom of religion, speech, etc. But remember that when our Lord set forth this command, it was during the time of the Roman Empire where non-Romans, which included the typical Jew, had only limited freedoms. Yet, even they benefitted by the Pax Romano, the Roman Peace ensured by its strong military, the superbly designed roads, and even an infrastructure that allowed for commerce. So Jesus was telling the Pharisees: It's okay to be a good citizen of Rome. There is no conflict between following the Lord and being a good citizen.

What is government's obligation to its people? The framers of our own Constitution in 1787 offered a good picture of this in the preamble. The government has responsibility to "establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Each of us can find flaws in our government; that is never difficult because man's depravity shows through even the best intentions. But in spite of this, we have been greatly blessed with a government that is committed to establish a system of justice for its citizens, and to promote law and order for "domestic tranquility" throughout the country. Government also has the responsibility to defend the country from tyranny, terrorism, invasion, or any other attack by other nations or oppressors. Our government must labor to ensure a good infrastructure that allows for growth and development, communication, travel, and all that is necessary for commerce and business to thrive. Knowing the human tendency to self-tyranny, government must be constantly vigilant to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." How can the government possibly do these things if we don't pay taxes?

This whole matter of God and government is not a new matter, but one often dealt with in the Tanakh, the First Testament. 1 Samuel, chapter 8 provides us with a most enlightening backdrop to this question about taxes. You will remember there that Israel demanded that God give them a king, so that Israel could be like all the other nations, and so they could have a visible leader, who would go before them and would fight for them. God told Samuel that it was not his leadership, but God's that was being rejected. He also warned the people that they would be heavily taxed by their king, and that the price of this government would be high. The people, nevertheless, insisted, and they got their king.

Government was designed by God to be an extension of His rule, but sinful men have often looked to government as a replacement, a substitute for it. Such is the case here.

There are two extremes to be avoided in our outlook on government. The first is to see government as the enemy of God, and to be always opposing ourselves to it. The other extreme is to view government too highly, as man's salvation and security. It is all too easy to look to government for those things which only God can give. It is all too easy to turn from God to government.

Some have tried to interpret our passage in Mark as Jesus saying give Caesar back his money and have nothing to do with pagan rulers. But Jesus' Apostles clearly spell out the Christian's obligation to submit to earthly rulers:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. (Romans 13:1 NASB)

Paul establishes a basic principle; whatever the form and whoever the ruler, civil government should be obeyed and submitted to by Christians. The Christian has a duty to his nation, even if the ruler is a Nero or a Hitler.

Now, someone might challenge this point by saying, "Paul wrote in the early days of Nero's carrier, in those early days Nero was a gentleman. It was he who brought peace to the world. He introduced the legal system that is the basis of American Jurisprudence. He could be appealed to in the case of injustice." That is true, but Peter says the same thing that Paul did, and he wrote in the last days of Nero's carrier, when he had become evil and destructive. Nero was the beast of Revelation 13. He tortured and murdered Christians for pleasure. It was in those days that Peter writes:

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14 NASB)

Peter tells a persecuted group of believers to accept and obey their authorities.

Why are we, as believers, to live in submission to all governmental authority? Paul answers this question in:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NASB)

Paul tells us here that government is an ordinance of God. This is a very comprehensive proposition. All authority is of God, which means they derive their origin, right, and power from God. Any form of civil authority comes directly from God. Government is an institution of God.

Governing authorities are ordained, instituted, and regulated by God. No man has rightful authority over other men, which is not derived from God. All human authority is delegated and ministerial. This includes the authority of parents, bosses, policemen, teachers, or any other authority. The existing powers in every country and in every age, are ordained by God. Look at what God said to King David about how he became king.

Nathan then said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel, 'It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 'I also gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! (2 Samuel 12:7-8 NASB)

Why was David king over Israel? God put him there! Notice what Jesus says to Pilate:

Pilate therefore said to Him, "You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?" 11 Jesus answered, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin." (John 19:10-11 NASB)

Every power that exists is of God. Not only is God behind the forms of government we have, but he is also responsible for the incumbents, the ones occupying the offices at any particular time.

You might ask, "How can you say that about cruel governments? How could you say that about Adolf Hitler? How could you say that they are ordained of God?" I didn't say that, the Bible does. The cruel abuses in government do not invalidate their divine character any more than the abuses of marriage rob it of its sacredness. Any government is preferable to anarchy. Man abuses all of God's gifts. Just imagine for a minute what it would be like if there were no government. There would be no laws, it would be survival of the fittest:

Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:2 NASB)

The Greek word for, "resists," is antitassomai,which means: "to arrange in battle against, to oppose one's self, resist." Wuest translates this verse this way, "So that the one who sets himself in array against the aforementioned authority, against the ordinance of God has set himself, with the result that he is in a permanent position of antagonism."

Robert Haldane says, "The people of God, then, ought to consider resistance to the government under which they live as a very awful crime, even as resistance to God Himself."

Think about that when you refuse to obey a law, no matter how petty you think it may be--you are in rebellion against God. All rebellion is against God, because all power is ordained by God. Civil authorities, parents, church leaders, your boss at work, whoever the existing authorities are, we are to be subject to them.

Let's go back to our text in Mark:

And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12:17 NASB)

Not only do we have an obligation to government, we have one to God, "render... to God the things that are God's." Remember what we said about the word "render"? It is the Greek verb apodidomi, which means: "to meet a contractual or other obligation, pay, pay out, fulfill," used of wages, taxes, vows, duty, etc. It has the meaning, not of a gratuitous payment but of giving back something that belongs to them.

What has the Lord God given us that belongs to Him? He gave us life, He created us in His image. Just as the coin bore the image of Caesar, so our lives bear the image of our Creator. We are made in the image of God. We bear the stamp of His likeness on our being. But not only did God create us, if we are Christians, He bought us back after we had rebelled and turned from Him:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19 20 NASB)

We have been bought with a price. What is that price? Peter tells us:

knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:18-19 NASB)

So the Bible teaches that we were bought with a price, the price of the precious blood of Christ. Therefore, we are not our own. We are His. He created us and He bought us.

What is one of the things that we are to give to God? Time! In order to come to know Him intimately and personally, we must spend time with Him. God desires your fellowship. I'm not simply talking about time spent at church. I'm talking about daily time in prayer, in Bible reading, and meditation on the word. What I'm talking about is time spent seeking the face of God. Corporate worship is important, but without personal worship, we can have no corporate worship. To give God ourselves, to give God what we owe Him, we must give Him our time.

And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12:17 NASB)

"And they were amazed at Him"­ They were baffled. He had brilliantly avoided their trap and they could only be amazed. They had thought that they had got Him this time. But they had been wrong. And they looked at Him with grudging admiration. His ways were marvelous in their eyes.

What do you owe? What do you consider to be your debts? These are important questions. You see, we live in an age where words like duty, responsibility, commitment, and the like, are negative in connotation. Today, we have a great emphasis on freedom, on doing your own thing.

Whether we like to hear it or not, we do have obligations to fulfill. Some things must be done because it is our duty. We must understand that we have a duty to pay what we owe­not only to man, but especially to God. This is the essence of what Jesus is saying in our text today.

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