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 not? 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 marveled at him. – Mark 12:13-17
Mark 12:17 records one of the famous sayings of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Like many of the well-known statements of Christ, these familiar words are often misunderstood. It is common to read the text to teach, “Pay your taxes and give to the church.” You should pay your taxes and give to the church. This saying of Jesus means more than that. Words have no meaning outside of context. A text without a context is a pretext. A. Louis Patterson said, “Words are like people. They are known by the company they keep.” To understand this saying of Jesus, we must understand the setting in which it was spoken.
It was Tuesday of Passion Week – the day of controversy. As Jesus taught in the temple of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin questioned his authority. Jesus responded by exposing their hypocrisy. Mark 12 begins with the Parable of the Tenants. Tenants worked the vineyard of a landowner. When he sent servants to get some of the fruit, they assaulted and killed them. They finally killed his beloved son. The landowner destroyed them and gave the vineyard to others. Verse 12 says, “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” They went away to regroup. In Mark 12, three delegations of religious leaders confront Jesus.
- The Pharisees ask about paying taxes in verses 13-17.
- The Sadducees ask about the resurrection in verses 18-27.
- The Scribes ask about the Great Commandment in verses 28-34.
These were more than questions. They were traps. The religious leaders wanted to destroy Jesus. But they feared the people with whom Jesus remained popular. They also had a bigger problem. Palestine was under Roman occupation, which reserved the power of capital punishment. If they condemned Jesus to death, they needed Roman approval to kill him. The religious leaders needed a way to discredit Jesus before the people and accuse him before the Romans. Our text records their best shot at carrying out their conspiracy against Jesus.
Where Rome ruled, Rome taxed. Roman taxation was a combustible issue with the Jewish people. When Rome established the poll-tax in A.D. 6, Judas the Galilean revolted. Acts 5:37 says Judas perished, and his followers were scattered. Zealots continued his cause. They were domestic terrorists who sought to overthrow Rome by any means necessary. Another revolt was launched in A.D. 66. Rome squashed this rebellion in A.D. 70 by destroying the temple and demolishing Jerusalem.
The religious leaders sought to ensnare Jesus in this controversy. They asked Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This simple answer is one of the most profound statements ever uttered. It is not a statement about Caesar’s things. It is a statement about God: God alone deserves your ultimate devotion. Are you giving to God what belongs to God? The text records a deceptive question and a divine answer.
The Deceptive Question to Jesus
Roman taxation was a controversial subject. The text presents it as an artificial controversy. Mark focuses more on the motives behind the question than the question itself. How was this question posed?
The Unholy Alliance. Verse 13 says, “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in talk.” “Sent” is the word for apostle. The religious leaders sent an official delegation that consisted of two groups. The Pharisee means “separated one.” Jews separated from Gentiles. Gentiles separated from Jews who did not live in strict adherence to the Mosaic Law. The Herodians were a political party, not a religiousone. As the name suggests, they supported the Herods Rome set up as puppet kings.
- The Pharisees were the far-right conservatives.
- The Herodians were the far-left liberals.
The two groups were in constant conflict. They united in conspiracy against Jesus. J.D. Jones said, “They hated Jesus more than they hated one another.” Isn’t it funny how people who can’t stand one another come together when they can’t stand you? Mark 3:6 says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” They now come together “to trap him in his talk.” “Trap” is hunter’s terminology. It means “to violently pursue.” Luke 20:20 says, “They watched him and sent spies, who pretend to be sincere, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.” The world continues to make unholy alliances against the truth of Jesus Christ.
The Empty Compliments. In verse 14, they address Jesus as “Teacher.” It was the way the disciples addressed Jesus. They used this title of respect to dishonor Jesus. They said, “We know that you are true.” It was a truthful lie.Jesus was true. But they did not believe that. They said it but didn’t mean it. They added, “You do not care about anyone’s opinion.” Jesus was not uncaring. But human opinion never swayed him from the truth. Pleasing God and pleasing people cannot coexist.
They explained: “For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.” Jesus was impartial. One’s power, prestige, or position did not shape his teaching. He taught the way of God truly. “Truly” is the word for orthodoxy. Jesus spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Note the irony. Everything they said about Jesus was true. Yet they only said these things to trap him in his talk. But the truth of what they said ensured their flattery was doomed to fail. They went in for the kill, nonetheless.
The Tricky Dilemma. Verse 14 asks, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This poll-tax was to be paid by every man 12-65 and woman 14-65. The tax was a denarius a year – the equivalent of a day’s wages. Was this tax lawful? It was not a legitimate question. Caesar’s poll-tax was the law of the land. But Deuteronomy 17:14-15 commands Israel not to make a foreigner king over them. Whatever answer Jesus gave would put him on the wrong side of the law.
- A yes answer would brand Jesus a blasphemer who rejected God’s word.
- A no answer would brand Jesus a revolutionary who threatened Rome.
They demanded a yes or no answer: “Should we pay them, or should we not?” The question was a perfect trap. It put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. They sought to trap him between theology and politics. The enemy’s schemes have not changed. The church loses its credibility when it plays politics.When you put religion and politics together, you get politics. We have enough political positions,platforms, and parties. We need gospel witnesses! Let the church be the church!
The Divine Answer of Jesus
A student came to his teacher with a small bird in his hand. He asked, “Is the bird alive or dead?” If he said the bird was dead, the boy student would show the bird to be alive. If he answered the bird was alive, the student would squeeze it to death. The teacher replied, “The answer is in your hands.” Jesus was asked a question that put him in a no-win situation. But the answer was not in their hands. Jesus was in control.
The Trap Exposed. Verse 15 says, “But, knowing their hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy is the Greek word for an actor. It described one who donned a mask, went on stage, and played a role. Hypocrite was the worst thing Jesus called a person. He never used the term for notorious sinners like prostitutes or tax collectors. He used it for religious people who pretended to be something before others that they were not before God. The text is not about Caesar’s things. It is about you! Are you a hypocrite? Verse 15 says Jesus knew their hypocrisy.
- You can fool some of the people all the time.
- You can fool all the people some of the time.
You cannot fool Jesus. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Jesus is God. He is omniscient. He knows if you are a hypocrite. He exposes their trap with a question: “Why put me to the test?” “Test” is used in Mark 1:13, where the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Their question was not just sinful. It is satanic. But there was compassion in his rebuke: “Why?” If you do not trust Jesus, you test Jesus. Why perish in your sins?Run to the cross.
The Trap Engaged. Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”Jesus personifies this proverb. Verse 15 says, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” A denarius was the amount of the poll tax. It was also the currency by which the tax was paid. Jesus makes it clear he will not dodge the question. He will answer it dramatically. As if he had never seen a denarius, he asks one to be brought forward for examination. Verse 16 says, “And they brought one.” There is more irony here. Jesus did not have a Denarius. The hypocritical questioners did. Verse 16 asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”At the time, Caesar was Tiberius. The denarius had his likeness on it. It also had an inscription on it. One side read: “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the August God.” The reverse side read: “Chief Priest.” When Jesus answered their question with a question, he was setting them up. The religious leaders walked blindly into the trap: “They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’”
The Trap Evaded. This text is a pronouncement story. Everything builds up to what Jesus says: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” R. Kent Hughes, “The statement by our Lord was not only astounding the instant it was uttered, but is even today universally acclaimed to be the single most influential political statement ever made in the history of the world!” There are two lessons here.
Our Duty to Caesar. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Jesus acknowledges that Caesar has things. The denarius rightly belonged to him. Coinage was power. A king ruled wherever his money was in circulation. And he had a right to demand it be given to him in taxes. “Render” means “to pay back.” There are things we owe the government. Jesus was not a zealot, anarchist, or revolutionary. He believed in the legitimate role of the government. Daniel Webster wrote: “Whatever makes men good Christians make them good citizens.” If Jesus could say this of the government that would crucify him in a few days, we have no excuses.
- Be a good citizen.
- Pay your taxes.
- Obey the laws.
- Respect the authorities.
- Pray for your country.
Our Duty to God. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Caesar and God have things. But do not get their things confused.
- It is right to give Caesar what belongs to him.
- It is wrong to give Caesar what belongs to God.
This text is not about the separation of church and state. It is about the supremacy of God over all things. Caesar cared enough about his things to put his image on them. If he cared that much about it, you should give it to him. God cared enough about his things to put his image on them. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
God created you. God has the right to your life. Are you giving to God what you owe him? Luke 15:8-10 tells of a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. She cleaned and swept until she found it. This is God’s attitude toward lost people. You may be lost. But the Lord will not give up on you. He is looking to give you another chance. Give yourself to him today.