In 410 AD, the marauding Visigoths sacked the city of Rome, threatening the security of the entire Roman Empire. The Romans were left in deep shock wondering, “Why?” Many concluded that it was punishment from the gods for abandoning traditional Roman religions for Christianity. As this idea began to spread among the populace, Christians became increasingly under threat.
In response, the theologian Augustine wrote one of his classics, The City of God. In this work, he defends Christians against this charge, making the counterpoint that, actually, Christianity was the best thing that had ever happened to Rome and its Empire.
Augustine contrasts the doomed-for-destruction “earthly city” with the eternally victorious heavenly city of God. He points out that these two “cities” will be in conflict until the day of judgement when God will make all things new—and just.
It was a consoling book for suffering Christians, but also a challenging and courageous book as he was fearless to point out the sinful behaviour of pagan, Christ-rejecting Romans. While never delegitimising the right of human government, Augustine made it clear that, apart from repentance—apart from, in the words of Jesus, rendering to God the things that are God’s—Rome would certainly be destroyed. In 476 AD, some fifty years after he published his book, that is precisely what happened.
The reason for Rome’s defeat was that Romans rendered to Caesar what was not his while refusing to render to God what is his. This is the story of so much of human history. It was the story of Israel and of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. It will be the story of South Africa, if we do not repent.
There are two sides of the coin of government: Caesar’s and God’s. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin: the coin of God’s kingship. Conflict arises when human beings fail to realise this; when we fail to heed the simple and yet profound teaching of Jesus in the scene before us.
May God equip us to wisely navigate the tensions that often arise as we live at the same time under Caesar and always under God.
The Setting of a Trap
The scene opens with a group of religious leaders setting a trap:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 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?”
This scene took place perhaps soon after the previous pericope (vv. 1–12) or perhaps on the next day. Though we cannot be specific, we can be certain that this took place fairly shortly after Jesus confronted them with the parable of the vineyard. In fact, there is a connection between these two pericopes.
In Jesus’ parable in the previous pericope, the religious leaders were revealed as unfaithful stewards of what belonged to God: his vineyard, his people. In the scene before us, once again confronted them with their obligation to render to God what belongs to him. This was a double whammy, as we might say.
An Unholy Alliance
There are deceitful people in every realm of life, including religion, where people claim to be committed to God and to his truth. Here is one example, front and centre: representatives from the Pharisees and Herodians.
Mark tells us that their goal was to “trap” Jesus. They engaged him and, through flattery and an appeal to theology, sought to destroy him. But Jesus did not fall for it. Rather, like so many times before, and so many times after, Jesus trapped them.
The text tells us that they were “sent” to Jesus. The word is a verb from which we get the noun “apostle.” These were apostate apostles, as the scene makes clear. From where and from whom were they sent?
Evidently, they were sent from the Sanhedrin, or at the least, from representatives of the Sanhedrin. Having failed to trap Jesus in the previous encounter, they now sent others to try to do the same. But the combination of these two groups is ironic at best and diabolical at worst.
The Pharisees were the ultra-separatists among the Jewish religious leaders—the fundamentalists of the day. They were often referred as “the bruised” because they paid such close attention to their legalistic practices that they kept bumping into things. They now bumped into Jesus. They would feel the impact. Sadly, it would not change them for the better.
The Herodians are mentioned three times in the New Testament: here, Matthew 22:16 (a parallel account), and Mark 3:6. Who were they?
From their name we can surmise that they were in some way connected to Herod. Clearly, they had some political interest and were supportive of the Edomite, Roman-appointed royalty. Beyond this, we don’t really know who they were, but “whatever their political aims, they early perceived that Christ’s pure and spiritual teaching on the Kingdom of God was irreconcilable with these, and that Christ’s influence with the people was antagonistic to their interests” (James Orr).
The Pharisees despised Herod’s unclean reign; nevertheless we find these divergent groups in cahoots. This was an unholy alliance brought about by the cynical practice that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Hughes notes, “The Pharisees hated [Jesus] because he was disrupting their religious agenda, the Herodians because he threatened their politicalarrangement. They both wanted him dead.”
We see the formation of this unholy alliance in the account of Jesus who healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1–6). He did it on the Sabbath day, which was a serious violation to the tradition-zealous Pharisees, but apparently also a threat to the Herodians. “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians, being a political party and not a religious one, probably couldn’t care less about any supposed Sabbath violation. What they were concerned about was any popular movement that would challenge their position and could thereby threaten to destabilise Herod’s rule. Such a destabilisation would affect their own status, power, and perhaps material comfort.
Again, the purpose of this alliance was an unholy attack on Jesus. We are told that they approached him “to trap him in his talk.”
The word translated “trap” is used only here in the New Testament. It means “to hunt.” It was used for setting a snare. It is as though these groups of people were hunting Jesus like one would a wild animal.
They desired to expose him before the people of Israel, either as a Roman sympathiser (therefore rejecting him as Messiah) or as a political zealot (hence a threat to Rome’s rule). Either way, their goal was destruction. The concept of his being hunted is apropos. They desired to have him killed. And, frankly, it didn’t matter to them at whose hands this would occur. It is an ugly, diabolical scene.
A Diabolical Flattery
Proverbs 29:5 says, “A man who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet.” This was the intention here.
This devious delegation said things that were perfectly true of Jesus. Jesus was “true”—a man of utter integrity. He was a “teacher” (which can mean master or even lord). He was impartial in his teaching, not caring about people’s “opinion” or status. And yes, he always was faithful to “truly teach the way of God.” Jesus always spoke the truth. But this was insincere flattery. They didn’t care about what he taught. They were not interested in the truth. And they certainly were not interested in doing what he taught. They were not remotely committed to following the way of God as proclaimed by Jesus. This was all a ploy to trap him in his words.
Jesus saw right through this. He would not take the bait, immediately recognising their “hypocrisy” (v. 15).
Mark first uses this word in 1:13, where Satan tempted Jesus. It occurs again in 8:11 when the Pharisees ask him for a sign from heaven “to test him.” It appears likewise in 10:2 where the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus with their question about divorce. In each case, the goal was to trip him up: to get Jesus to go against God’s will. In each case, their attempts were satanic. “Jesus associated these testings with the efforts of Satan to stand in his way. But, as the rest of the passage shows, our Lord mastered his opponents as successfully as he had earlier overcome Satan in the desert” (Ferguson).
The words of Psalm 119:110 are relevant, “The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.” Amen!
We should remember that Jesus was not only tempted in the wilderness but was rather tempted every day and in every way. Satan was at work in these last days and hours. If Jesus sinned, then any rightful claim to be Messiah would away and mankind would be hopeless for eternity. This was a very serious encounter.
The Horns of a Dilemma
The question the delegation put to Jesus was one they hoped would lead to his demise. As someone has put it, “they hoped to impale him on the horns of dilemma.”
It was a simple question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” And just to be sure he was clear about the question, they added, “Should we pay them, or should we not?” France observes that behind this question lay the idea that “allegiance to God and to Rome as a pagan occupying power are fundamentally incompatible.” Jesus would show that this was wrong.
As intimated earlier, the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would answer in the affirmative, which would perhaps cause the populace to forsake him. The Herodians were hoping he would reply with a negative for then they could make the case that Jesus was a Zealot. (After all, one of his disciples was identified with this group [Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13].) This would give cause for the Romans to see Jesus as a threat, leading to his arrest and death.
The word translated “taxes” refers to the hated poll tax imposed on those in Israel about 6 AD. It’s forerunner, it would ironically seem, was the human instrument behind Joseph and Mary getting to Bethlehem where Messiah was born (Luke 2:1ff).
When this tax was introduced and enforced in 6 AD a serious revolt ensued, led by Judas the Galilean. If Jesus was in any way associated with a revolutionary group who opposed paying taxes to Caesar, surely the authorities would quickly put it to an end. Jesus seems to been between a rock and a hard place. How would he answer?
The Profound Escape
The Lord answered profoundly:
But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marvelled at him.
This answer, we are told, amazed them. It was not a simple yes or no, which meant that they were not able to use it against him (though, according to Luke 23:2, they twisted his answer at his trial).
But further, his answer served as a rebuke and provided his followers with a principle to help them as they orchestrated living as a dual citizen of God’s kingdom and of the world. Of the many sayings of Jesus, this is one of the most well-known, though often also the most distorted.
Admonishment, Authority, Admission
Jesus saw right through their ploy and, by questioning them, rebuked their duplicity. Beware those professed Christians who seek to trap you with what they believe are theological conundrums. Duplicitous disciples still abound. The Internet is full of them, and most are categorized under “discernment ministries.” Sometimes, they will slip into a local church. Be careful.
For example, some might pose a seemingly impossible-to-answer question—“Should we preach the gospel or do social justice?”—as if the two are mutually exclusive. No conservative Christian will suggest that we should not preach the gospel, but it is not as if we are suddenly rendered unable to perform acts of social justice while still remaining faithful to our gospel commission to make disciples.
Jesus, in keeping with this whole section (11:27–12:44), once again displayed amazing authority. Listen carefully: “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” He brilliantly turned the table on them. They were about to see the other side of the coin! “Let me look at it” is full of meaning. Jesus was not going to answer with a simple yes or no, for the coinage itself answered their question.
The denarius was the standard silver coin minted by the Roman Empire, introduced around 230 BC. Its value was equivalent to a day’s wage. The denarius of Jesus’ day had, on one side, the image of Tiberius Caesar, under which was inscribed (in abbreviated fashion), “Tiberius Caesar Augustus Son of the Divine Augustus” (that is, “son of god”). On the other side of the coin were the words Pontifex Maximus, which was a claim to the highest religious priesthood. Lane summarises, “Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honours.”
(As an aside, it should be noted that Jesus and his disciples apparently did not have a denarius with them perhaps pointing to their poverty.)
A Simple Answer with a Profound Lesson
Jesus turned the tables on the duplicitous delegation. By commanding them to bring him a coin, he was also subtly making a point that, since they had this coin, they had actually answered their own question. After all, if they were using Caesar’s currency, how could they refuse to give it back to him? “The question was already settled by the existence of a coin with Caesar’s image on it” (Bruce). They, and not Jesus, were the ones trapped. This reminds me of the proverb, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling” (Proverbs 26:27). In the words of Job, “For he is cast into a net by his own feet, and he walks on its mesh” (18:8).
Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” In essence, he was asking the simple question: “To whom does this coin belong?” It is like borrowing a book from someone and forgetting to whom it belongs, until you open the cover and find the name written on the first page. Jesus was doing the same thing here and his interlocuters answered correctly: “Caesar’s.” Jesus then commanded, with great authority, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
The word translated “render” means “an obligation for services received” (English). It can mean to return. Jesus was saying that, since the coin belonged to Caesar, they should give it back to him. If they were going to use Caesar’s money, they would have to pay the price.
I suppose it is a law in South Africa, as it is in most countries of the world, that the currency is the property of the government. Therefore, it is not to be defaced or copied. The Reserve Bank (or the treasury) is to give the stated value to the bearer of the currency. It can do so because it is its property.
Jesus recognised this practice and the principle that, if a person is going to benefit from the services of that which stands behind the currency, of course the beneficiary should pay up. Give back what is owed. He was laying a foundation here for what the New Testament writers would later build upon: that there are duties to governments that do not infringe upon our ultimate duties to God (Edwards) (see Romans 13:1–7; 1 Timothy 2:1–6; 1 Peter 2:13–17).
I did not enjoy paying my assessed tax to SARS this week. But I did appreciate driving on paved roads and was glad to drive by the fire station knowing that it was operating. A myriad of other blessings is available to me because of people who render to Caesar what is under his domain. Be careful about being a libertine. Jesus will not support you in that.
The Priority of God
But with the rest of his answer, Jesus now placed them on the horns of a moral dilemma: “and [render] to God the things that are God’s.” Ouch! Jesus endorsed the legitimacy of human government and our responsibility to submit to such. But he did far more. As Edwards observes,
By this reply Jesus acknowledges the legitimacy of human government. It distances Jesus from all forms of political anarchy, best exemplified in his day by the Zealots, who believed that the overthrow of the Roman Imperium was the will of God. On the other hand, Jesus’ answer cannot be construed to mean that God and government are two separate and exclusive entities independent of one another. God is sovereign over all human affairs, including political affairs.
Jesus made clear that there is another government to be respected—one that exists besides and, in fact, above Caesar’s governance. That is, God’s government is to be “recompensed.” We owe not only Caesar; we also owe “to God the things that are God’s.” Lane has noted, “By distinguishing so sharply between Caesar and God he tacitly protested against the idolatrous claims advanced on the coins. Because men bear the image of God, they owe their total allegiance to him.” Witherington helpful adds, “Rather than being a counsel of submission to earthly rulers, it is more likely to be a comment on the relative insignificance of the issue in light of the inbreaking dominion of God.” The kingdom had come. How would they respond to the one greater than Caesar?
We can summarise: Jesus was teaching that the answer to their question was simply two sides of the same coin: a coin that belonged to God. Neither the Herodians nor the Pharisees could argue against this and maintain any semblance of outward integrity. And Jesus’ answer could not be used against him by either the Jews or the Romans. Brilliant! What a man!
Jesus’ main concern was to lift their eyes from Caesar to God. He wanted them to render to God what was his. Jesus wanted them to look and see, not Tiberius (an imposter son of God) but rather himself: the true Son of God. He wanted these men to render to God what was his. And, if you remember what preceded this encounter, you will remember what was his: the vineyard (12:1–12).
I am persuaded that Jesus’ answer was intended to instruct his disciples that our citizenship in heaven and on earth are not mutually exclusive. That is, if we render to God the things that are God’s, then rendering to Caesar will often simply be an expression of that. Perhaps we can put it this way: We can honour God when we appropriately honour Caesar. “Ultimate authority in life belongs to God. One cannot consider political and civil duties apart from faith, but only as expressions of the prior and ultimate claims of God” (Edwards).
So what lessons, what practical applications arise from this profound response? Let us note a few.
First, Christian, because you are a member of God’s kingdom be a good citizen where God has put you in his kingdom. Grogan comments, “The Christian is to be a good citizen and to be so as one aspect of his or her submission to God’s will.”
Caesar needs to be helped. Caesar needs to be instructed about what it is and is not owed. For this reason, there is a great need for Christians to be in positions where they can helpfully instruct Caesar. Donald English says, “Governments need consistently the reminder which Christians can give, that only God ultimately reigns, and that all policies should be worked out in relation to that.”
William Wilberforce understood this principle and used his position of political influence to instruct the British government regarding the evils of the slave trade. (He was also a founding member of the SPCA, thereby instructing others regarding the proper Christian stewardship of God’s animal creation.) He laboured tirelessly to instruct Caesar as to how to properly obey God.
I wonder if the Christians in Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22) did the same thing. Certainly, they had opportunity and even obligation to do so, and I am certain the apostles would have encouraged them in this regard.
Listen to Matthew Henry: “If professors of the gospel conscientiously render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, and it all teachers taught the way of God in truth, without being respecters of persons, they would soon put their adversaries to shame and silence.”
Second, remember: The silver coins on which Caesar is depicted come from the hand of God.
Think about this scene: Jesus—the one who put the silver and gold in the ground—did not even have any money. He borrowed a silver coin and noted its inscription. Though, technically, it was Caesar’s, it was actually the Lord’s. He owns every square inch of creation, including the veins of silver. So, when Jesus said, “render … to God the things that are God’s,” he was essentially telling them that even Caesar was to render to him. God ordained Tiberius to rule, but he was God’s ruler.
Governments should carefully consider this. They are God’s ministers. Christians should not be intimidated by rogue caesars. They will give an account to God. Like the tenants of the vineyard, those who are not faithful to God will be destroyed.
Third, remember whose image is stamped on you—and whose is not. Edwards writes, “If coins bear Caesar’s image, then they belong to Caesar. But humanity, which bears God’s image, belongs to God!” Caesar’s image is not primary: God’s is.
Many years ago, when our eldest daughter was in the sixth or seventh grade, my wife and I were discussing the future education of our children. Should we home school or not? I had been reading an argument in favour of this and I said something to this effect, “If what this guy is saying is true, I think our decision is clear.” Douglas Wilson, in one of his books, was making the argument that, since children are made in the image of God, we need to do all we can to protect them from being made into the image of the state. I agreed then; I agree even more strongly today.
The South African government, it seems, is intent on encroaching upon this parental responsibility. Recently, the state made a concerted effort to push through the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill. Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, said, “The state has overall responsibility over children. There must be initial registration for learners who are educated at home in order for us to know how many learners in the system fall within home education.” The bill calls for “a possible prison sentence for not registering your home-schooled child with the Department of Education and strict requirements around what curriculum they may be taught.”
Our government would benefit from meditating on Jesus’ simple yet profound words. Such meditation should lead to a fear of God, which would provide them with wisdom to tread carefully. Trespassing against the King of kings is always serious. Earthly kings need to remember both sides of the coin. Those serving in government should remember that God’s image is stamped on them.
But before dealing with matters that effect our school-aged children, we must deal with something more fundamental, and far more horrific: the legalised execution of those who are made, not in the image of Caesar, but in the image of God. I am speaking about the indefensible practice of abortion on demand. If we understand what Jesus was saying here, there is no justification for such behaviour.
In February 1997, The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act came into effect in South Arica, having been signed into the law the previous year by President Nelson Mandela. Since then, upward of a million human beings have been murdered in the womb. Amnesty International (USA) recently tweeted that “abortion is a human right,” repeating these five words ten times. In point of fact, abortion is a human rights issue: It is the violation of human rights. Humans have a divine right to live, granted by the one who created humans in his own image. Woe to Caesar when he legalises the killing of 100,000 babies each year. He has forgotten the other side of the coin.
Fourth, remember that caesars—like seasons—change, but God never does. Tiberius would be succeeded by Caligula, who would be succeeded by Claudius, followed by Nero and then, within one year, four more: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Titus would follow them and would himself be followed by others. These men, who claimed to be divine, would all die and be buried. But the triune God would be alive and well. His Son, Jesus, would continue to reign as King. He continues to reign today. Are you rendering unto him what is his?
The Amazing Response
The last observation I want to make from this passage arises from the closing words: “And they marvelled at him.” The Christian Standard Bible reads, “They were utterly amazed at him.” Jesus spoke authoritatively about Caesar, the most powerful political figure of the day, and he spoke for God, sovereign over all. This display of authority was no doubt what amazed these interlocutors.
We might be encouraged, if we are reading this for the first time. After all, the crowds in Galilee, from where Jesus’ disciples came, also marvelled at him (5:20; 6:51; see 1:27, etc.). Many of them believed and followed him.
But sadly, if you know the rest of the story, these men did not believe and follow Jesus. Rather, their initial marvelling morphed into darker malevolence. Sadly, they were angered rather than converted.
What so stirred them? Perhaps many things, but perhaps most disturbing to them was Jesus’ courage of his convictions. Jesus really was true and did not care about anyone’s opinion, because he was not swayed by appearances. Rather, he truly taught the way of God. That can be quite settling. Such people refuse to be intimidated. Their character displays an unmistakable authority. And this is an affront to illegitimate authority. This exposes duplicity and is all very convicting.
Jesus’ whole life was characterised by courage, driven by faith. We will see this intensify in the remainder of Mark. Jesus would prove courageous in the midst of slander, physical, and verbal abuse. Jesus would prove courageous on the cross when he was forsaken even by God and when he committed his body to death. But this courage was not mere bravado. Rather, it was the consequence of faith.
In an irony of ironies, Jesus rendered to Caesar what was not due to him: his very life. But Jesus could do this because he believed his Father. His Father kept his word and raised him from the dead. Because of this, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. He has authority on both sides of the coin. He has authority over you. How will you respond?
Christian, marvel at him and then trust and obey him. Obey him in all of life, for all of life is under his authority. Stand up for truth. Live with the courage of your convictions. Speak with the courage of your convictions (including issues of pro-life, education, discipline, justice matters). Be willing to pay a price, remembering that God will recompense you.
Non-Christian, marvel at him and then trust and obey him. Repent and entrust your entire life to the one who is Lord. The words of William Lane are helpful: “Because men bear the image of God, they owe their total allegiance to him.” And we pledge this allegiance when we submit our lives to his Son (Psalm 2).
He is the one with all authority and we have one rational response: Repent and believe on him. The problem, of course, is that we are rebels, and there is nothing rational about that. Repent of your rebellion against the one who holds all authority. Stop defying and rather trust him today.
There are those who are impressed with Jesus the revolutionary, impressed with Jesus the liberator, and impressed with Jesus the philosopher, but who resent and reject Jesus as he is: Lord and Saviour. Be careful that you are not merely impressed with Jesus’ leadership abilities—with his courage in the face of opposition. He is all of that. But you need to be impressed that Jesus is the only one who can save your soul from the wrath of Almighty God.