Mark 12:13-17 “God’s or Caesar’s?” – This is the question.

Here are some pictures of Roman Denarii. As you can see, each of them bears a carved image of the Caesar.  The earliest known denarius had the head of Octavius on the front with the A second version has the head of Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavius wrapped in a wreath, each facing the other. And the third coin known as the Tiberian denarius would have an impression of the Caesar as well.  Each coin also bore some inscriptions.  The Octavian coin declared, “Son of the Divine” on one side and “Divine Julius” on the other.   The second coin was inscribed, “ “Divine Julius” and “Divine son”. And the third coin read,


“Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of divine

Augustus” on the front (BAS Pictures) and its rear would have the Caesar sitting on a throne

wrapped in the words, Pontiff Maxim or “High Priest.”1

Why is it important what was on the coin?

The men who are posing the question about paying taxes are intent on trapping Jesus by asking him a politically charged, emotional laden, religiously pregnant question.  And knowing what is on the coin will help us to see how Jesus takes this situation and flips the table on his challengers and how Mark uses these inscriptions to testify to Jesus’ divine sonship and his high priestly calling.

When the Pharisees and Herodians ask, Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? (Mark 12:15).  They want an immediate answer to what I already described as a politically charged, emotional laden, religiously pregnant question.  It would be like walking up and asking someone about their views on same sex unions today or walking up to someone in the 1950’s and asking them about forced school integration.  These questions, and the question posed to Jesus aren’t simple.  They can’t be answered in a sentence or two and they touch on every aspect of life as well as stir up a wealth of human emotion.

Politically this question was brilliant for the Herodians and Pharisees, who were political enemies, to combine with each other against a common enemy.  For if the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Mark 12:14), is answered ‘Yes’ then Jesus has sided with the Herodians and the “Pharisees will excite the popular indignation” of the people for giving any credence to the foreign powers who are ruling the nation and conversely, if his answer  is ‘No’ then the Herodians, “will bring upon him the colder and deadlier vengeance of Rome” as G.A. Chadwick observed in 1906 (Chadwick, Mark 12:13-17).  Politically paying taxes to Caesar reminded the people that they had been subjugated.  They had lost the fight and the right to self-rule.  Every denarius that was given gave legitimacy to the claim that Rome was the ruling sovereign that must not only be obeyed but should be supported with the labor of the people.

Emotionally paying taxes to Caesar is a reminder that the people of God are under foreign subjection. This is a blow to the very concept of God having delivered his people from slavery to freedom as the Exodus story declared.  Nationalism and independence are emotional affairs as well as political ones.  People get very passionate about it today just as they did during the time of Christ.  (It is part of why discussions about Israel today can’t be done solely in the realm of good politics, and why emotions run high on both sides.)

And there is also the religious component. You see, paying taxes to Caesar touched upon some of the core issues of Jewish worship – it brought the pious Jew face to face with the 2nd commandment forbidding idolatry- and making graven images.  Do you remember how a denarius stated Caesar was the son of God and the high priest?  To the pious Jew this was blasphemy and created a real dilemma for living in the Roman world – to pay with a blasphemous, idolatrous coin, or not to pay and face imprisonment were the options. This was such a great issue that there were actually a group of Jews who refused to touch or handle roman money, some scholars think this is part of the what the Zealots believed.

Do you see how the faith and practice of the Jewish people is wrapped up in this question of paying taxes?  Do you understand why this is such a pregnant, difficult question and it appears that Jesus is being backed into a corner with no way out?

Thankfully, Heb 4:15 tells us that we have a savior and high priest who was tempted in every way…but was without sin.  He stood up to Satan’s wiles in the desert and he will stand up to the wiles of these men who are tempting him as well. After the coin is brought, Jesus poses a harbinger of a question, “Whose image and whose inscription?” (Mark 12:16).  That seems like a simple question with an easy answer doesn’t it?

But really it isn’t a simple question and one’s answer reveals a lot about their worldview.  There are two answers to this question:  It is God’s or man’s. The first, there is a king who is the Son of God, who is also the High priest and He is human created in God’s image, is the theologically orthodox or theologically correct answer. The second answer, this is just a man with no truth about his being an image bearer of God, is false and it is the answer declared by the Jews in our story.  Unfortunately much of society and even some in the church seem to agree with the Jews.

What I mean is this – Genesis 5:1 declares, “This is the written account of Adam’s line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.”  Did you get that; the image of God is stamped upon each person.  So when the Jesus asked the Jews, whose image is on the coin, the theologically accurate or orthodox answer would have been the image of God’s son, in fact Luke 3:38 goes so far as to actually state that Jesus is descended from Adam, the son of God.  But a Jew could never declare that Caesar the son of God.  To say this would have lent credence to the Roman view that Caesar is the image of God. Though Caesar’s self-proclaimed divinity was a lie that didn’t change the fact that he was an image bearer of God.  (Just as you and I are also God’s image bearers.) To utter the true statement that the image on the coin was the image of God would have forced the Jews to qualify their statement with a second statement declaring that the emperor was a liar.  It is God’s image, but a human inscription that is false – It is God’s image but Caesar is not divine nor is he the High Priest.  Such a statement would have brought the wrath of Rome upon these Jewish men.

So instead of being theologically accurate and suffering for it, they give an answer that is not orthodox and which also binds themselves to the state.  They avoid the pitfalls of challenging Rome, and so they must come under her yoke.  By phrasing the question in this way – whose image and who inscription, Jesus has masterfully turned the tables on his tempters and either they will incriminate themselves in the eyes of the Jewish world by calling Caesar God’s son and his image bearer or they will bring the judgment of Rome upon them for calling Caesar a liar, or they will show their lack of theological acumen and their willingness to compromise and so Jesus will back them into a corner and make them admit that paying taxes are legitimate.  You see, when they admit that Caesar’s image is on the coin, they are admitting that the coin belongs to Caesar; he can do with it as he chooses.

And that is what these men opt for.  Based on their answer, Caesar owns those things imprinted with his face – the money, the statuary of his person, the buildings which his name is upon and which he has built with his money.  The roads he has erected; the viaducts, they are all his according to the answer these Jews have declared.  All of these things are the governments.  They belong to this world and they should be granted to the ruling authorities.  But let me remind you that this is the reasoning of the unorthodox, or incorrectly answered theologian, pastor or lay person.  For, if all of this is Caesar’s, then what is God’s?

For the only thing this leaves to God is worship, adoration, prayer, sacrifice and praise. But is that all that bears God’s image?  Is that all that is his?  Is that all he is due?  No!  People bear God’s image and that means that everything we undertake must bear his image and be done for his glory as well – our work, and play, government and family, entertainment and healthcare, all church and society must be given to God since all of these things shape and form the person.  They draw one towards God or they draw one away. But even more belongs to God, the Psalms declare, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it, for he founded it…” (Ps 24:1-2). 

The things of God are the earth and everything in it, along with all of its people.  God is the owner of everything.  There is no area of creation, which must not be subjected to the reign of God.  (My life, car, play things, house, kids).  There is no person in history that must not live according to God’s rule. There is no government that is free from the obligation to further God’s reign. But with such an answer, Jesus’ hearers are right back where they started.  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? (Mark 12:15).  If everything is God’s, if it all belongs to him; if his image and inscription are all upon the creation, for the creation testifies to his eternal power and divine nature as Romans 1:20 declares, then what is our responsibility towards the government?  Must we support it with our life and wealth?  The Belgic confession answers this question with these words in Article 36: “everyone…must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s word.”

[What I would like to give you in these final moments are some practical questions to ask that may help us to “obey in all things not in conflict with God’s word.” First is that even the most ungodly government has activities that it performs that are beneficial for society.  I say that because there is no government which a Christian can claim is entirely aberrant and devoid of any beneficial component.  As Christians we are called to find those things and rejoice in the fact that they are present and to submit to them and even to aid their effectiveness.  So when you are faced with a question of obedience to the government or disobedience, don’t let the question be framed or answered in general terms, rather make it a very specific question, which can be judged according to the word of God so that your answer can be made on a case-by-case and point-by-point basis.

Second, consider if the question is really a question of worship and Christ honoring living or if it is a question of convenience or preference.  When it is an issue of preference and convenience we are called to defer to those in authority.  As the Scriptures tell us, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom 13:1).  If on the other hand it is an issue of worship and Christian living then we find ourselves in that difficult place where conscience must be exercised and in the exercise of our conscience, we must be willing to endure any punishment, which the state chooses to mete out.

Third, we must consider if the government is encroaching upon the realm of the Church and worship.  All such encroachments are an infringement upon rendering to God the things of God, insofar as they violate scriptural principles.  Again, this must be judged not based upon preference or convenience but upon Scriptural truth.  If the government demanded that all preachers should wear vestments when acting as a minister, then so be it.  The worship of God has nothing to do with clothing.  If however, they demanded that all ministers refrain from praying in the name of Christ, then our duties to God demand that Christ be proclaimed as the gate to God’s ear.  And our punishment for such proclamations would be rightly deserved according to civil law and we must not shirk our faith for fear of punishment.] – These are points for post service discussion.

I could probably give you a series of questions related to determining if and when to obey the government, and in fact I have some of that already written and I would love to discuss it after the service with those interested.  But now I would like to show you where the gospel message is in such a story about faith and politics?  If you remember the denarius was inscribed with an image and a series of titles – Son of God and High Priest.  Though Caesar bore the image of God, as a man created in God’s image, he wasn’t the rightful owner of these titles – Son of God and High Priest.

But there is one who bears both the image of God and the titles.  There is a living Son of God whom all humanity is fashioned after.  Like the First Adam who was the Son of God, he is the Last Adam, THE SON OF GOD!  He is also the Ruling King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  This living Son of God also bears the title “high Priest”.  He offered himself for our sins in order to reconcile in himself all things in heaven and earth.  He tore down the dividing wall of hostility between God and man, and sacred and profane.  He lived a life of perfect submission to God growing in stature with God and men.  And because he was and is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, he invites us to find true life in him.  He mediates for the sick and sinner.  He prays when we cannot pray, even when we pray poorly.  He is fully God and Fully man, High priest and offering, spotless, yet bearing our sin.  And only when we are united with him and to him will we be able to discern the ways of God and the ways of the World.  Only in him will we have the courage to stand against the world when it is fighting against its Lord.  Only in him can we call governments to account when they are in conflict with His Word.  Only in his offering of himself to us, are we able to offer ourselves to God.  Only by his power at work in us will we be able to render every area of life to the Father to whom it all belongs.  This is Mark’s message, there is a Son of God, there is a divine King, there is a High Priest – and he is God’s image bearer and all creation must bow to him, render everything to him and be subject to him.  It is the message Mark started with in the first chapter – Repent and believe the Good News. The Kingdom of God is at Hand (Mark 1:15) and it is the message Mark’s Gospel continues to declare, this time through a Roman coin and a question about taxes.

So as we come to communion today, if you believe the statements of the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

If you believe that Jesus Christ is God’s son, fully human and fully divine, then our Lord invites you to taste and see that he is good.  He invites you to render to God what is God’s.  I invite you to declare your faith today by reciting a small section of Article 19 from the Belgic Confession:

“These are the reasons why we confess Jesus Christ to be true God and true man –

true god in order to conquer death by his power,

and true man that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.

About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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