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.
In the US presidential elections of 2008, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made a comment in their election guide, entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” that was really and truly eyebrow-raising. Here is what they said:
[T]he political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.
When I first read that statement it struck me as manifestly absurd. And, truth be told, in the sense it which it is offered, it is absurd. Just imagine that after you die and stand before the Lord He pulls out a sheet of paper that lists how you voted in every presidential election. In the one hand is your list and in His other hand is His list! And imagine if your list does not match His list that you do not get to enter Heaven!
What a staggering thought!
Fortunately, we are not saved by the quality of our political votes. We are saved by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as demonstrated in His life, His death, and His resurrection.
Even so, on a deeper sense (a sense, I hasten to add, that I do not think is intended by this statement) we might say that who we vote to be Lord of our lives does indeed affect our salvation! Who is King to you? Who is Lord to you? Who sits on the throne of your life?
In other words, there is a “political” aspect to salvation in the sense that your King determines your destiny. And, for believers in Christ, that King is Jesus Himself! If the self is King, we are doomed! If any other human being is King, we are doomed! Christ and allegiance to Christ is the way of salvation.
In Mark 12:13-17, a political trap is laid for Jesus. The question, in a nutshell, is this: must the people of God obey earthly kings? Jesus’ answer is brilliant and telling. Furthermore, it reveals fundamental truths about who is and who ought to be Lord of our lives.
The people of God should acknowledge the authority of earthly powers.
First, we see the laying of the trap.
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?”
It is interesting to note the “they” behind the two specific parties who are sent, the Pharisees and Herodians. The “they” are the “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” of Mark 11:27. These are the bodies that make up the Sanhedrin and, this point in the unfolding drama of the story of Mark, they are actively plotting to trap Jesus and to destroy Him. “Trap” is the word Mark uses, though R.C. Sproul has explained that the word must be read properly to get at the intensity of what is happening here.
The word [trap] is a rather feeble and insipid translation of the Greek that is used here, agreuo. The word is a hapax legomenon, a word that appears in the New Testament only once. That rarity means it is difficult to grasp the full measure of the meaning of this word. The verb Mark uses here means “to take by hunting,” and it has connotations of violent pursuit. The idea is something like hunting for a man-eating tiger by digging a pit and putting sharp spikes at the bottom so that the tiger will fall in and be impaled. The Pharisees and Herodians were not just trying to play tag with Jesus. They were trying to destroy Him with violence.
This is therefore a violent act filled with violent intent. But what is the trap? It has to do with a political question, a political debate, really. The debate was over whether or not the Jews should pay the prescribed taxes to Caesar. This referred to a controversial tax that was levied against the Jews in the year A.D. 6. It was a highly offensive tax. Interestingly, the two parties that confront Jesus about this question themselves disagreed as to the answer. The Pharisees believed that the tax ought not be paid. The Herodians, who had old ties with Rome, believed it should.
It was a brilliant trap. If Jesus said that the tax should be paid the Pharisees would accuse Him of being a sympathizer with a foreign power who was oppressing God’s people and would seek to turn the crowd against Him. If Jesus said the tax should not be paid the Herodians would report to the authorities that Jesus was being openly seditious and was seeking a rebellion against Rome.
Jesus, of course, saw not only the trap but, Mark tells us, He knew “their hypocrisy” in laying in the trap. He knew what was really behind this. He knew that it was their common hatred of Him that bound the otherwise hostile groups of the Pharisees and the Herodians together in this plot. He knew that the political question was simply a ploy, a ruse intended to put Him in a lose-lose situation.
Again, it was a brilliant trap, but it was not quite brilliant enough.
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.” 17a Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s
Before we unpack exactly what it was that Jesus was doing here, let us acknowledge the positive statement He makes about the responsibilities of citizens of a country. I do not say that this is the main point. I only say that it is a point. But it is important nonetheless. The positive point is that the people of God should acknowledge the authority of earthly powers.
Jesus does not deny that we do have certain responsibilities to Caesar. It is a point that Paul will make in Romans 13.
1a Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
Peter will make the same point in 1 Peter 2.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
While the question of when it is right for the people of God to rebel against unjust and illegitimate authority is an important and good question and one worthy of serious consideration, for our purposes we must recognize that the normative posture of the Christian toward the state is a posture of responsible citizenship in which believers model good citizenship. In Jesus’ provocative saying, He does acknowledge that we do owe Caesar something.
Yet the authority of the earthly powers should be seen by God’s people as derivative, temporal, and fallen.
We do owe Caesar something, but the something that we owe Caesar is not blind or even unquestioning obedience. This is because, as we will see, our ultimate allegiance is to God, but it is also because we see the authority of the state for what it is: derivative, temporal, and fallen.
The power of the state is derivative in that it derives what authority it does have from God Himself. The classic biblical articulation of this fact was made by Paul in Romans 13.
1 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.2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.
This is an important text, and one that should be read and considered very carefully. Even so, the general idea behind it is that what authority the state does have is granted to it by God. We must understand that saying that the state’s power is from God is not the same thing as saying the state is God!
It is not. It never has been. It never will be. For the state is fallen and is run by fallen men. Yet the legitimate authority the state has, even though it is mediated through fallen men, is an authority granted by God. We can see this principle further worked out in Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2.
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Read rightly, one of the reasons we are to pray for government leaders is because God “desires all people to be saved,” that is, because many of them are not in the family of God and need to be saved. In other words, the scripture’s call to obey the laws of the state and the scripture’s recognition that state authority is derived from God Himself is not a de facto statement that all who are in government is Godly. And this is important because it means that we are called to obey rulers even when they are fallen, again, though this does not necessarily mean that God will not lead His people to rebel against state authority that goes too far or works wicked deeds.
We might say, then, that government has relative authority. It deserves appropriate honor but it never deserves worship. Worship is due to God alone. The government is to be obeyed but always with our eyes wide open. On the one hand, our eyes must be open to the fallen nature of government and the propensity of human governments to err and even to remove themselves from the blessing of God. In such cases the people of God must seek the will of God as to how to respond. But our eyes must also be open to the fact that God and God alone deserves our love and adoration.
This caution about the fallen nature of human government is rooted in the first establishment of government as we know it in the life of Israel. In 1 Samuel 8, the people of God ask for an earthly king. The warning they received concerning this request was most telling.
1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. 4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”
A recognition that what authority government does rightly have is an authority granted by God should not lead us to forget that it is always authority mediated through a fallen institution: human government. At the very least, this should guard us against naïve optimism concerning the possibilities of government, on the one hand, and undue disillusionment with government on the other. If we approach the reality of government with our eyes wide open we will not fall into either trap. It has its place, but its place is never in the place of God!
The people of God must give their first and ultimate allegiance to the Power above the powers and to the King above all kings.
Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar and rendering to God is justly famous. In truth, it was a powerfully provocative statement that offered a subversive claim about the limits of Caesar’s power.
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.
To get at what is happening here, we must understand exactly what was going on with this coin. David E. Garland explains.
By asking for a denarius that he does not possess, Jesus throws them off their guard. In this era, coins served propaganda purposes. Assuming that they show him a Tiberian denarius, the obverse side bore the image of the emperor with the superscription: “TI[berius] CAESAR DIVI AVG[usti] AVGVSTUS.” The reverse had a female figure facing right, seated on a throne with a crown and holding a scepter in the right hand and a palm or olive branch in the left. The superscription reads, “Pontif[ex] Maxim[us].” The Pharisees and Herodians possess a coin oozing idolatry and blasphemy. It touts Tiberius as a divine or semidivine being as the son of the divine Augustus. The woman is a priestess or the wife of Augustus, Livia, proclaiming the Pax Romana that places all people in subjection.
What must be understood is that by drawing a distinction between God and Caesar Jesus was openly repudiating the assertion of the coin itself. For to speak of God and Caesar is to say very clearly that Caesar is not God! No matter what he might call himself, Caesar is not God!
The utter supremacy of Jesus Christ over all earthly rulers is a tenet of our faith that must not be abandoned. One of the most beautiful articulations of this critically important truth is found in 1 Timothy 6, when Paul writes:
13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
The only Sovereign.
The King of kings.
The Lord of lords.
Who alone has immortality.
To him be honor and eternal dominion.
Caesar is not God!
Why, then, do we keep flirting as a culture with the hope that we might find in this or that political leader messianic potential? Why do we lapse into something that sounds almost like worship of the leaders in whom we foolishly place our trust?
This happens on both sides. Consider, for instance, the major news magazine that put a picture of President Obama on its cover when he won a second term of office. The headline on the cover by his picture read, “The Second Coming.” It is a dangerous thing to do, whether the editors were simply trying to be provocative or not. To apply terminology that is reserved for Christ alone to any political ruler smacks of idolatry!
On the right, one can see this in the recent painting of President Trump by artist Jon McNaughton. It is entitled “You Are Not Forgotten” and is, in my opinion, one of the more blasphemous examples of cheap political kitsch and propaganda you are ever bound to see. There is a lot going on in the painting, if “painting” it should be called, but in the center of it all is President Trump. What is most jarring about this painting is that under Trump’s foot one can see the dead body of a snake, a serpent. In other words, McNaughton painted trump as crushing the head of the serpent, a clear allusion to the messianic prophecy of Genesis 3:15 in which God told Eve that she would have a descendent one day who would conquer Satan, and “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
I am not alleging that the artist literally thinks Trump is Jesus, but it is a highly inappropriate image. Even though he tries to redefine the serpent, he still admits he drew it from scripture. McNaughton writes of the painting:
When I decided to paint this picture, I wondered if this was taking it too far. But, sometimes you have to speak forcefully, like the brushstrokes of my painting…I want a president that will crush the enemies of liberty, justice, and American prosperity. They may have the power to bruise his heel, but he will have the power to crush their head!
There you have it. It is a dangerous thing to do, this application of divine messianic imagery to an earthly ruler. The fact of the matter is you have a King who has and who will crush the serpent…and that is something no earthly ruler can do in any definitive sense.
Do you remember Woody Guthrie’s song, “Let’s Have Christ For President”? It reflected the angst of the days in which Guthrie lived as well as a yearning for something more, something that would transcend fallen society.
Let’s have Christ for President.
Let us have him for our King.
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
that you call the Nazarene.
The only way we can ever beat
these crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
And put the Carpenter in
O It’s Jesus Christ for president
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough
to feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
and we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter on the seat
away up in the capital town
The USA would be on the way
I like Woody Guthrie, though this song too is pretty kitschy. Even so, it certainly gets closer to the truth. Let us recognize that Jesus and Jesus alone is the true and great King that we so desperately desire! Let us recognize that we have a ruler in whom we can place our trust and His name is Jesus! Let us stop hoping that any earthly ruler can do what only Jesus can do.
Only then can we see rulers and government rightly. Only then can we pray for the earthly powers as we ought. And only then can we keep from every confusing Caesar and God.
 “Quotation Marks,” Christianity Today (January 2008), p.17
 R.C. Sproul, Mark. St. Andrews Expositional Commentary. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011. Logos.
 David E. Garland, “Mark.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.274-275.