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?” 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 ESV
Daniel and his three friends were powerful real-life examples of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Jews. For the prophet told the Jews:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.Jeremiah 29:5-7
While these young men may very well have been made eunuchs upon entering King Nebuchadnezzar’s service, which would have physically prevented them from having wives and children, they certainly did seek the welfare of the city and specifically of the very king who had taken them into exile. Throughout the narrative chapters of Daniel, they show themselves to be diligent servants for the welfare of Babylon.
However, living in a pagan city and serving a pagan king did occasionally put their loyalties to the test. When told worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, Daniel’s three friends chose to be cast into a furnace instead. When commanded to pray to the king alone, Daniel continued to pray to the LORD toward Jerusalem three times a day as he had always done and was lowered into a den of lions as a result. Indeed, they continue to be precious examples for us still 1 Peter 2:17’s command to “Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
In our present text, Jesus is posed a question that strikes at the same perennial matter regarding our loyalties and service to earthly governments and rulers and to God as the King of kings. And to make matters even more heated, the question made is specifically about the ever-cheerful topic of taxes, which is rightfully lumped in with death as one of life’s great certainties.
SETTING A TRAP // VERSES 13-14
In our opening verse, we read of three groups of people performing two actions. First, we find a group called they sending to Jesus the two other groups (Pharisees and Herodians) that they might snare Jesus in His speech. We should rightly begin by asking: who are they? Context indicates that these are the chief priests, scribes, and elders that questioned Jesus’ authority and were the target of Jesus’ parable in our previous passage. Indeed, verse 12 speaks of these religious leaders, saying, “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.” Since verse 13 picks up immediately where that verse left off, we should assume that the chief priests, scribes, and elders are still being referred to here.
Thus, after having their direct challenge of Jesus meet a poor end, they have now crawled behind the scenes to send others to do their bidding. The first of their proxy assault on Jesus would come by way of the Pharisees and the Herodians, which 3:6 told us were already conspiring together as to how to destroy Jesus. Such a partnership was certainly a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, for the Pharisees and the Herodians did not like one another. The Pharisees, of course, were theologically orthodox but legalistically dead in a false sense of holiness, while the Herodians were worldly politicians that trumpeted Herod’s puppet government at the expense of their fellow Jews. Even so, I think Ryle is right to point out that:
Worldly men and formalists have little real sympathy for one another. They dislike one another’s principle, and despise one another’s ways. But there is one thing which they both dislike even more, and that is the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. And hence, whenever there is a chance of opposing the gospel, we shall always see the worldly man and the formalist combine and act together. We must expect no mercy from them: they will show none. We must never reckon on their divisions: they will always patch up an alliance to resist Christ.
Thus, these two competing groups united to trap him in his talk. Sproul notes that the word trap can sound too pleasant for what is being attempted here. He suggests that we should think of hunters digging a pit, filling it with spikes, covering the hole, and lying in wait for an animal to fall to its death. They are essentially attempting the same plan with Jesus. They want to snare Him with His words so they can hand Him over to the governor to be killed as a rebel against Rome.
Thus, they together devised a question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. To answer yes would have enraged many of the Jews, and to answer no would have been fomenting rebellion against Rome. This appeared, therefore, to be a fool-proof plan for trapping Jesus, for His answer would either diminish His favor in the sight of the people or cement Him as a threat to Rome. Furthermore, this would have been an issue that the Pharisees and the Herodians disagreed on anyway, making it the perfect pretense for presenting the question as if Jesus were being asked to settle their long-held dispute.
Speaking of pretense, they certainly prefaced their question with just that. Since both the Pharisees and the Herodians shared a common hunger for prominence and the esteem of others, they clearly assumed that Jesus might be swayed by that same longing, even as they flattered Jesus as not caring about anyone’s opinions. They very much understood the value of integrity, even as they lacked it themselves and desperately hoped that Jesus did as well.
Yet their words proved far truer than their wicked hearts could have imagined. Here they imitated their father who also threw words of truth at Christ in the wilderness in order to tempt Him into disobedience. They used flattery in an attempt to fan any spark of pride that Jesus may have had into a flame. Thankfully, no such spark could be found in our humble King, but the same cannot be said of us. As the shepherds warned Christian and Hopeful of the Flatterer, so should we be wary of flattery, for it stirs up pride which then leads to destruction.
Matthew Henry gives a fitting warning against such hypocritical statements:
If they spoke what they thought concerning Christ, when they said, ‘We know that thou art right,’ their persecuting him, and putting him to death, as a deceiver, was sin against knowledge; they knew him, and yet crucified him. However, a man’s testimony shall be taken most strongly against himself, and out of their own mouths are they judged; they knew that he taught the way of God in truth, and yet rejected the counsel of God against themselves. The professions and pretenses of hypocrites will be produced in evidence against them, and they will be self-condemned. But if they did not know or believe it, they lied unto God with their mouth, and flattered him with their tongue.
In other words, they spoke themselves into an eternal trap quite similar to the one that they were attempting to set for Christ. If they really knew that Jesus taught the truth, then they would be judged by God for going against what they plainly knew to be true, and if they did not believe Him, then they were lying here and would be judged for that sin. Proverbs 1:18 certainly applies to them by saying, “but these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives.”
BRING ME A DENARIUS // VERSES 15-17
Jesus, of course, saw through their hypocrisy and flattery because truly He was not swayed by appearances. Thus, He said to them, “Why do you put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” When they did so, Christ asked them who image was on the coin, and they answered that it was Caesar’s. R. C. Sproul tell us that:
At that time in Jewish history, the caesar whose image appeared on the denarius was Tiberius, who reigned after Augustus, from AD 14 to 37. His image was pressed on the surface of the coin along with an inscription: Ti Caesar Divi Aug F Augustus, which meant, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” On the reverse side of the coin was the inscription pontif maxim, that is, “High Priest.” The emperor was not only the supreme political ruler of the Roman Empire, he was the supreme religious leader, seen as a deity. It is noteworthy that the name of Tiberius’ father, Augustus, was not a name at all but a title, “August One,” that was conferred on him by the Senate. This was a religious honor, indicating that he possessed transcendent majesty. However, it was a term the Jews used only for God; they believe that calling any creature “august” was an act of idolatry. So, the denarius displayed the full depth of arrogance of the Roman caesars.
With this in mind, we should not dismiss the question of paying taxes as unimportant. Many devote Jews likely pondered whether it was right for them to support such idolatrousness through their taxes. Like the question about Jesus’ authority, this too is a valuable question to bring before Christ to hear His teaching. The problem was not the question itself but rather how they intended to use it to trap Jesus. Indeed, we could imagine Jesus giving the same answer that we read here only with a much gentler tone if the question had been asked with sincerity. In fact, the reality that Jesus would likely have given the same answer (only minus the initial question: Why put me to the test?) again shows the integrity and truthfulness of Christ.
Before studying this passage for this sermon, I had often passed quickly over Jesus asking to see a denarius, which was the most common coin of His day. I had often heard that Jesus used this to subtly condemn the Pharisees as using the very currency of the pagan government that they hated, and that this was largely just a set up for Jesus’ definitive teaching in verse 17. Yet I think Calvin is right to see the presentation of this coin as an answer to their question, not simply as a gotcha moment against the Pharisees (especially since the Herodians could have just as easily produced the coin). He writes:
Christ reminds them that, as the subjection of their nation was attested by the coin, there ought to be no debate on that subject; as if he had said, “If you think it strange to pay ‘tribute,’ be no subjects of the Roman Empire. But the money (which men employ as the pledge of mutual exchanges) attests that ‘Cesar’ rules over you; so that, by your own silent consent, the liberty to which you lay claim is lost and gone.” Christ’s reply does not leave the matter open, but contains full instruction on the question which had been proposed.
In other words, by using Roman currency, they were already submitting to Roman rule; therefore, it was their civic duty to pay Roman tax. Indeed, Jesus makes this explicit by saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” If Caesar issued the currency and gave it authoritative weight in the market, then he also has the authority to extract taxes from his subjects.
Paul also makes a similar point in Romans 13, where he commands us to “be subject to governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). And Paul wrote those words to Christians who were living in the very city of that self-proclaimed deity. The apostle goes on to say, “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” (v. 7).
This means that the libertarian declaration that taxation is theft does not have biblical warrant. Taxes are an unavoidable fact of living under governmental authority, and anarchy is not a biblical solution. Even on the new earth with our newly resurrected bodies, we will still be under the rule and reign of a king: King Jesus. In this fallen, sinful world, broken authority is still generally better than no authority at all, for it is the chief responsibility of civil governments to enforce and promote law and justice. For Paul calls the ruler “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). He then adds “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (v. 6).
In short, civil authorities are instituted by God in order to limit the societies descending into the kind of chaos that we find toward the end of the book of Judges, which is summarized for us as “in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). James Madison hit the nail on the head in his defense of the U.S. Constitution when he said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Of course, speaking of America’s fourth president, our constitutional republic places us in a very unique position when it comes to these biblical passages. We are not subject to a particular Caesar, an emperor whose very word was law as the Romans were. Instead, we have essentially three realms of authority and, therefore, application of this principle of rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
First, we should rightly submit to our elected officials, which certainly includes paying our taxes. The chief ruler in our government is the president, who acts as both head of government and of state, yet he rightly addresses Americans as “my fellow citizens.” His authority is not supreme, nor its Congress, nor even is the Supreme Court.
Instead, the ultimate civil authority that we submit ourselves to in the United States is the Constitution, which serves fundamentally to regulate in the government for the protection of the people. We should proper respect and honor to this realm of authority, first, by being familiar with what it says. We should also read The Federalist Papers that were written to defend it.
Yet even the Constitution is only a means to an end. It is intended to guard the people, the citizens of our country. Although we are not a direct democracy, we are still a government of the people and for the people, and therefore we have a civic responsibility that we owe to our fellow citizens. A chief way that we exercise this civic responsibility is by voting. Massive “get out and vote” campaigns in recent years have promoted the idea being a good citizen means voting, yet I would push back that voting alone is not civic responsibility. Instead, we should vote knowledgeably, with at least some basic understanding of the matters that we are collectively deciding. A vote made in ignorance is not being civically responsible but civically reckless, for it places the entire population in danger. We must take the time to be informed about both our system of government in general and issues in particular and then vote.
To tie this back into taxes, this is important because, while we are morally obligated to pay the taxes that are required of us, we actually have a say in what those taxes are, unlike most people around the world and throughout history. We would be fools (and are fools) for not happily enjoying this blessing that has been established for us. And we would equally be fools if we fell into two opposite errors of either blindly and without question obeying our civil authorities or of refusing to acknowledge any authority other than self-autonomy.
AND TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S // VERSE 17
Yet while rendering Caesar his due may yield the most questions for us, it is not the ultimate matter, for Jesus goes on to say: “and to God the things that are God’s.” If Caesar could rightly collect money because his image on the currency proved his authority over his subjects, what then bears God’s image and likeness as the mark of His authority?
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,Genesis 1:26–27
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Civil rulers may be able to demand our money, but God demands us. He is our Maker, and we are each stamped with His image, fashioned and molded in His likeness. As Psalm 100:3 says, “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
Even more, for we who are in Christ, we have been ransomed from the debt of our sins at the price of the shed blood of Him who upholds the universe by the word of His power. Therefore, Paul was able to write, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
This means that while we honor earthly authorities, we give our unconditional obedience to God alone. If this means a king issuing a decree for all subjects to pray to him alone, then like Daniel we continue to pray to the one, true God. For the early church, the example of Daniel was not relegated to the fanciful halls of what-if. Instead, Caesar not only demanded their taxes; he also demanded their worship. Roman subjects were required to confess the lordship of Caesar, and Christians refused to do so, for they submitted to the lordship of Christ. Writing one of the earliest defenses of Christianity to Roman rulers, Tertullian argued that Christians gave the greatest service to the emperor, even though they refused to worship him, because they prayed for him to the One who granted him authority. Yet they were slaughtered, nonetheless. They refused to render to Caesar that which only God could rightly claim.
Of course, multitudes of our brothers and sisters still live under such circumstances, and we have no scriptural promise that we will be forever shielded from such persecution. Yet even absent of living under a government that directly sets itself against Christ’s people, we still owe our entire lives to our Lord. Both 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17 tell us that we should do all things in the name of Jesus in thankfulness and giving glory to God. This means that there is no area of our lives over which God does not declare His lordship. Let us always remember that omnipotence runs both ways, nothing is too great for God but also nothing is too small for Him. We do not need to wait and wonder whether we would be faithful martyrs for Christ during persecution; we must give ourselves wholly over to Him now. The entire posture of our lives should be toward the glory of God.
As we come again to our King’s Table, let us have two thoughts in mind. First, let us taste and see afresh the glorious news that is testified by the bread and cup before us. Though we rebelled against our everlasting Creator, He sent forth His beloved Son to rescue us and redeem us from the eternal death that we so justly deserved. Second, let us come to this Table as a communion and fealty meal with our King. We indeed give taxes to whom taxes are owed and honor to whom honor is owed, but we give our lives, our souls, our all to Christ Jesus our Lord, “who gave himself for us to redeem us form all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
 Note that I am speaking about taxation as a concept. Individual taxes may certainly be government theft against its own people. Particularly, I would argue that property taxes are unjust because they essentially mean that the government is owns all land in the country and simply leases it out to its citizens, which is rebels against God’s intent of private ownership of goods as implied by the 8th Commandment. Of course, property taxes must still be paid so long as they are enforced, but striving to remove such unbiblical laws from our republic is a worthy cause to champion.
 In Apology 33, Tertullian wrote, “So that on valid grounds I might say that Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him. Therefore, as having this propriety in him, I do more than you for his welfare, not merely because I ask it of Him who can give it, or because I ask it as one who deserves to get it, but also because, in keeping the majesty of Caesar within due limits, and putting it under the Most High, and making it less than divine, I commend him in subjection to the one I regard as more glorious than himself.”