The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached March 14th 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Politics (Mark 12:13-17)
God and Politics: two of the most divisive and important topics. Of course, what we believe about God and what we believe about how society should be governed reveal a great deal about what we believe to be fundamentally true, good, and moral. But what is the relationship of the two? Should our views about God influence our politics? At times in the past the Church held more political power than any emperor on the planet—Pope Gregory VII once left emperor Henry IV standing outside his castle in the snow for three days before he was convinced that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was genuinely penitent; at other times the church was an officially state-sponsored entity, such as the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in the Netherlands, or the Anglican church in England. But what about now?
While state churches still exist (the Queen of England is still technically the head of the Church of England), there is now what is commonly known as the “separation between church and state.” This is popularly understood to mean that religious perspectives should be kept separate from political the domain: religion is something to be kept in the privacy of our own homes and churches, but not to be brought into the public square. We might be surprised, however, to learn that it was not secular humanists who introduced the idea that gave rise to this, but Christians themselves—more specifically, Baptists. It was the work of American Baptists like John Leland who influenced James Madison in the writing of the Constitution to include what is now known as the “establishment clause,” which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Of course, you’ll notice that this actually says nothing in support of the common, popular idea of “the separation of church and state” where religion is hemmed in to only exist in the privacy of our hearts and homes. This simply states that the American government ought not create a state sponsored church and should never interfere in the free exercise of religion. However, many people today believe that Jesus Himself supported the idea of a “separation of church and state” as is popularly known by the very passage we will examine today: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
What does this passage teach? How should Christians think about the role of government and how their faith should affect their responsibility to the government? The main aim of my sermon today is to show that human government is legitimate but limited. Let’s do this by looking at the question, the coin, and the conclusion.
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. – Mark 12:13-17
A group of Pharisees and Herodians are sent by the temple authorities—whom Jesus had just criticized (Mark 12:1-12)—with the aim of trapping Jesus in His words (12:13). Pharisees and Herodians were strange bedfellows. They were two Jewish groups that differed greatly; the Pharisees were very conservative in their approach to the Scripture and practice, while the Herodians (following the example of Herod Agrippa) took a much more liberal approach. They also differed in their views on the nation of Rome who had invaded Israel and was domineering over the Jewish people, with the Pharisees strongly opposing the Romans, and the Herodians being much more favorable towards them. Yet the two groups are united together in their desire to destroy Jesus (cf. Mark 3:6).
“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.” (12:14a). The Pharisees and Herodians are attempting to butter Jesus up to get Him to answer their question about taxes. They don’t believe a word of what they are saying—if they did they would not be seeking to entrap Him! But, in a delicious moment of irony, everything that the Pharisees and Herodians are saying about Jesus is entirely true! And it is precisely because it is true, that Jesus is not “swayed by appearances”, that Jesus sees right through their ruse: “But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?” (12:15a). They are guilty of “hypocrisy” because they are lying; they don’t believe what they are saying, but are just putting on a show with ulterior motives to destroy Jesus.
I wonder if you remember the story of Samuel going to anoint David to be the next King over Israel. God tells Samuel to go the house of Jesse and one of Jesse’s sons will be the next king over Israel. When Samuel sees Jesse’s first son, Eliab, he thinks, “Surely, this is the next King!”—he looked like a King—but God didn’t choose him. In fact, God didn’t choose any of the sons of Jesse that Samuel thought looked like a king, He chose the runt of the litter, the youngest son, David. God reminds Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” 1 Sam 16:7. When God looks at us, He looks into us and sees what lies there.
What a sobering word for us to reflect on. Friend, have you ever thought that because you could trick people with outward appearances you could get away with something? Perhaps at your job you may be able to give an appearance of a diligent employee, but really you are not. Perhaps you are able to manipulate your parents into thinking you have really obeyed, but you haven’t. Maybe you’ve given the impression that you are a faithful spouse, but you really aren’t. Friend, maybe you’ve even given the impression that you are a faithful Christian, but you really have no desire to follow God whatsoever. Friend, you may have everyone around you fooled, but Jesus isn’t fooled. He sees you. He sees your true motives. If you realize that your religion has just been an outward show that is devoid of all true faith, then friend, I invite you now: turn away from our sins, turn away from living a double-life, and actually trust in Jesus to forgive you and actually follow Jesus as your Lord. His death on the cross is a satisfying payment for all of your sins, even your sin of duplicity, look to Him and you will be saved. There is no more miserable and exhausting life than the life of someone pretending to be saved, but isn’t—you know enough about your sins and the holiness of God to make you sad, but you don’t know enough about your Savior to make you forgiven and happy. True joy, true satisfaction, true happiness is found in Jesus—not in charades of fake holiness.
The question that the Pharisees and Herodians are hoping to trip Jesus up in was a powder keg in Jesus’ day: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (12:14b). The tax they are referring to here was a census tax that was enforced by Rome on Judea back in 6 AD, which led to a violent uprising by a man named “Judas the Galilean” whom we read about in the book of Acts, “… Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered,” Acts 5:37. Josephus records Judas the Galilean as criticizing his fellow country men as “cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord.” As Acts records, Judas’ revolution is quickly crushed by Rome, but the paying of the tax continued to be an onerous reminder for Jews that they were still under the heel of Rome. The “zealots” were a minority extremist movement that followed Judas the Galilean’s example and believed violence was the only option—one of Jesus’ disciples is actually described as a zealot (Simon the Zealot, Mark 3:18).
The crowds and authorities realize that Jesus’ messianic ambitions are unmistakable now, and if a messiah is anything to the Jews of Jesus’ day, He is a political liberator from Roman oppression. The point of this question to Jesus is to force Jesus to reveal His hand: either He concedes that they must pay their taxes to Rome (and lose His popularity with the crowds) or He says that they do not need to pay their taxes (and thus sides with the extreme Zealots and would be quickly executed by the Romans). Whichever way Jesus answers, He loses.
Jesus responds by first criticizing the hypocrisy of the questioners, and then asks: “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one,” 12:15b-16a. A “denarius” was a coin that was worth one day’s wage for an average laborer, but it was a Roman coin. The Roman tax had to be paid with Roman coins, thus for Jesus to ask them for a coin—and them presenting one—is a clever act by Jesus that further reveals the questioners’ own hypocrisy; their position on the question is made clear: if they possess a denarius then they obviously have no problem with paying the Roman tax.
Jesus asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s,” 12:16b. The denarius was imprinted with an image of Caesar on it with an inscription on it that stated that Caesar was the king, the divine son of God and high priest—something that would have been terribly blasphemous to devout Jews. What is ironic, of course, is that the one now holding this coin is the king of kings, the son of God, and thehigh priest. Jesus’ identity was one that was in direct contradiction with Caesar’s claims—this is why as soon as Pilate learns that Jesus is claiming to be the “Son of God” he becomes terrified and agrees to Jesus’ execution (John 19:7ff). In Rome there can only be one son of God, and that is Caesar.
So what does Jesus do? This could have been a golden moment for Him to confront the blasphemous claims of Caesar, to explain that He was the true Son of God, the King of Kings, the High Priest—not Caesar! But He doesn’t do that. What does He do?
Jesus responds: ““Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him,” 12:17. The meaning of the statement is not immediately obvious. Is Jesus endorsing the view of the those who say we should pay our taxes? Or is He endorsing the view of the Zealots and saying our allegiance belongs to God, so we shouldn’t pay the tax? The crowds are left marveling at Jesus’ answer because His wisdom enables Him to deftly escape the trap laid for Him. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggin’s comment at his farewell birthday party to the large Hobbit community: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” The turns of phrase leave everyone thinking: Wait, what did he mean by that? What did Jesus mean by this now famous statement?
A note on nuance: Jesus was asked a “yes” or “no” question, but He does not respond with a “yes” or “no.” Why? Certainly there was an element of it to evade the trap laid for Him. But also because the answer was more complicated than just a “yes” or “no,” as we will see shortly—wisdom and nuance are needed. If Jesus simply said “yes, pay the tax,” some might have thought that He was supporting the Roman oppression. If He said “No, don’t pay the tax” some may have thought that Jesus was supporting violent revolt. And neither of those Jesus supported. In our day today there is almost zero-tolerance for nuance of any kind. Nuance is not the same thing as compromise. We must be careful of allowing the political storms of our day force us into extremes and the erasure of thoughtfulness.
Because the coin bears Caesar’s image it must belong to Caesar. One should pay to the emperor what is owed. The word for “likeness” to describe Caesar’s image is the same word used in Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Thus, this illuminates the second half of Jesus’ saying: pay to God what is owed to Him. This coin has Caesar’s image on it, he owns it, so it should be paid to him, but you have God’s image imprinted on you, you are owned by Him, therefore render to God what you owe: your whole life. You may pay your taxes to Caesar, but everything in your life (including your act of obedience to the government) is to be done in obedience to God.
Some people have mistakenly assumed that this passage teaches Jesus creating a separation of church and state: there are the two spheres of secular government and sacred religion, and Jesus is showing that God is over one and Caesar is over the other. So, Christians should keep our religion within its limited domain and approach politics from a morally neutral standpoint. That is not what Jesus is teaching here.
Jesus is teaching that human government is legitimate and limited.
When Jesus teaches that we should pay to Caesar what is owed to him He is making it clear that He is not siding with the revolutionaries of His day (zealots). Government, even pagan government, is legitimate and should normally be obeyed. Paul picks up this teaching in the book of Romans, “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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,” Romans 13:1-2, 6-7 (see also 1 Tim 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-17).
The Belgic Confession of 1561 states: “We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers…Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, 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…”
It is helpful to remember that the governing authorities that Paul is speaking of here in Romans were not governing authorities that would have been favorable towards Christians, nor obviously worthy of respect by Christians. The Roman government was a brutal government that often put Christians to death and was typified by a kind of pagan worship and sexual perversion that would make our stomachs turn. In our submission to the governing authorities we are reminded that God Himself has placed those authorities over us: “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” Dan 4:32.
Jesus statement about Caesar, however, is qualified by His second statement: Give to God what belongs to God. What belongs to God? The kind of devotion Jesus will describe a few verses later: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30. That kind of devotion and worship is dedicated to our Lord alone, and if the state ever demands that kind of loyalty, we are then duty bound to disobey them.
The Belgic Confession also states, “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.”
This is what Helmut James von Moltke, the German evangelical who lived in Nazi Germany and was actively working to prepare for a post-Hitler Germany. He did not, however, participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler because he believed that was an illegitimate option for a Christian to take. Nevertheless, he was eventually apprehended by the S.S. and put on trial. When he explained that rejected Nazism because of his Christian faith but believed he was still a faithful German citizen, the Nazi judge explained: “Graf Moltke, Christianity and we National Socialists (Nazis) have one thing in common and one thing only: we claim the whole man.” In other words, the judge saw that Moltke’s Christian faith and the Nazis were entirely antithetical to one another because both demanded total allegiance. When the State demands allegiance by commanding its citizens to participate in what God forbids then it has gone beyond its limited authority. So, when Roman emperors demanded that a pinch of incense be offered by all citizens to the shrine of Caesar as a tribute to his divine rule, Christians refused, and were slaughtered for it.
So, where does this leave us today?
We should remind ourselves that government is both legitimate and limited and ultimately is under our King, Jesus Christ. When you read the gospels it is amazing, in one sense, how little we hear about politics from Jesus, especially given the political climate of His day. Until Jesus is asked directly about this question, He says virtually nothing about Caesar. But Jesus spends a great deal of time talking about how we treat one another, how we worship, our lifestyles, our response to the weak and lowly, our character, etc. Jesus’ teaching focuses on the formation of your soul in light of His work and His kingdom. Couldn’t you imagine someone approaching Jesus and scolding Him: Jesus, the political climate of our culture is so tense, is so fraught–you should use your platform as a popular teacher to motivate people politically! But Jesus seems almost uninterested in the political “hot button” issues of His day–they are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant.
And this should help relativize the importance of politics for us, friends. When we read the New Testament as a whole, we are repeatedly taught two things about government: (1) we should obey the governing authorities, and (2) we should expect to be persecuted by them. That’s it. No manifesto on political revolt. In a world that is constantly screaming about how nothing is more important than politics, Christians should be able to say: You know what, this isn’t that important. What happens in our communities, in our families, and especially in our churches is far more important than what happens in DC.
On the other hand, when we read the gospels we realize that Jesus is making explicitly political statements all the time. Jesus teaches that He is the Messiah, the King of Israel, and permits others to describe Him this way (Mark 1:1; 1:14-15; 10:46-52; 11:1-10; 14:62; 15:2; 15:26; 15:39). And this King will brook no rivals, will not permit any tinpot dictator or silly president or governor share His dominion. He rules with a rod of iron and will judge the kings of the earth with perfect justice. And dear friends, that is our great political hope. Jesus has gone away, but will return and consummate His kingdom perfectly. We live here and now in light of that future reality.
And as we wait we are told that we are ambassadors of the kingdom, and His churches are embassies of the kingdom, snippets of the New Creation existing in this world that is fading away, the future pulled back into the present. So, we strive to live in such a way that reflects that future, heavenly Kingdom.
Which means we:
1. Obey the governing authorities, even if we do not like or agree with what they are doing. I cannot imagine a single Jew in Jesus’ day who liked paying a tax to Rome. But because we have a King who is ruling and reigning and we trust that He has set up the government over us that we have, then in our submission to the government we demonstrate our submission to our true King: Jesus.
2. We do not budge on our convictions, even when the State tells us to. When the government commands us to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands we are then required to disobey the governing authorities over us out of allegiance to King Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:39
3. We care less about politics than the world does. We take our cue from Jesus and shift our primary focus onto the ethics of the Kingdom, preaching the gospel, care for the weak, and awaiting the coming of our Savior. Politics matter far less than the world say they do.
4. We care more about politics than the world does—but for different reasons. We care about politics today because of our overcoming Savior and our certain knowledge that this world is not our home. We care about politics because we care about people, we care about their souls, and we want to see society flourish in such a way that makes the ministry of the gospel succeed. We do not care about politics in the same way the world does, who believe this world is our only shot at heaven and so tries to create an earthly utopia through political action. We know that is a fantasy. Heaven is our home—but while we are here, we want to model the glories and goodness of heaven in our own lives and strive to extend those benefits to as many as we can. Sometimes, that means that we should engage in political processes.