Mark 12:13-17 “Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’ But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him.”
The more one reads the life of the Lord Jesus Christ the more one is amazed at his wisdom, beauty of character and the relevance of what he says to the lives of men and women all over the world today in this 21st century. This particular passage before us is a supreme example of this. Since Jesus spoke these words they have helped to remove certain misunderstandings between Christians and the nation they live in. In the last eighty years especially in eastern Europe under Marxist tyrannies, and today for the church in countries dominated by Islam’s hegemony these words have spoken to Christians. They hint at some basic principles of the utmost importance. Christians have differed in how they have applied these words to their own condition. For example, should congregations accede to Caesar’s demand that they register their existence with the state authorities. Christians have said, “Pay taxes, yes, but register our existence with Caesar. . .? We are not sure.” Some congregations have felt that registering was an infringement of their God-given freedom and duty to obey the Lord by meeting together on Sundays. “We are not going to ask Caesar for permission to meet on Sundays,” they’ve said and so they have refused to register; they have become the so-called ‘underground church.’ Others have disagreed and have registered. This was a burning divisive issue with the Baptists of eastern Europe in the 20th century and it is an issue in China today. That is an illustration of how while Christians have all accepted these words of Jesus they have not understood their implications in the same way.
Let me make two observations about the context of this question as we introduce this passage;
i] Notice how people who despise one another’s beliefs will come together to defy Jesus Christ. On this day our Lord had entered the temple courts and soon he was confronted by a group of the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders (Mk. 11:27). He successfully argues with them and they are silenced, but then they send to Jesus a group of Pharisees and Herodians. The Pharisees were obsessed with their religious traditions, while the Herodians had little religion at all. They were politicians only intent on keeping a grip on their power in the nation. Yet when the Saviour spoke and opposed both formalism and love of worldliness these two groups immediately came together in their opposition to him. We see the same thing today; men dislike one another’s principles, and despise one another’s ways but there is one thing they dislike even more and that is being told by Jesus Christ what they should believe and how they should live. We think of the humanism of our politicians and the moralism of Islam and yet both Muslims and politicians join in resisting the claims of the Lord Jesus. Whenever there is a chance of putting down the Gospel then the worldly man and the traditionalist will combine and act together. We must expect no mercy from them: they will show none. We must find no comfort from their differences of opinion; they will always patch up an alliance in order to oppose Christ, and catch the preacher in his words (v.13).
ii] Notice, secondly, what the world judges to be a worthy preacher. In other words, of what does the non-Christian world approve in a gospel minister? Surely this is a fascinating question because there’s an obsession today in the professing church about communicating properly to the man in the street, that person who knows nothing about the Christian faith. What is to be our stance as we approach such a person? What is a ‘user-friendly pulpit’ as they say? The answer we hear so often is that it is a pulpit without religious jargon, kindly, humorous, and non-threatening. That is the model that evangelical people are constantly setting before us for ‘worship leaders’ and evangelists. Well, what is it in our text that these non-Christians claimed that they admired in the greatest of all preachers?
What is so fascinating in our passage are the observations the Pharisees and Herodians made concerning the life and preaching of Jesus Christ. They tell us that there were three qualities that they had to admit were present in our Saviour.
Firstly, you notice, that he was “a man of integrity” (v.14). They considered him to be a truthful, genuine man. He wasn’t acting a religious role; he was real. That is the first thing the world admires in a preacher that he is a man they can trust. He is not ‘putting it on’ – as men say. They see a preacher to whom the living God is all important, a man who seeks to maintain an expanding, varied and original acquaintance with the Lord and his ways. I think of the ministers I first met almost fifty years ago. Their houses and their libraries were small; their cars – if they had one – were old, but one undeniable feature about these men was that they had no concern about money. Their knowledge of finance was minimal, and their interest in it was less. It was obvious to all who knew them that they lived for another world.
John Brown of Haddington, Scotland, wrote a number of best-selling books on the Bible, but he received little financial reward from them. When he was in the last year of his life a friend said to him that he should make arrangements for his family to profit from his royalties in the future. “No, no!” he vehemently said, “I wouldn’t wish that there should be the least appearance of the world in me. I can trust my family to Providence, and if, when I am in heaven, it appear that there was someone converted by means of anything I ever wrote, I will mark down ‘one hundred pounds.’ If there should be two, I will mark down, ‘There is two hundred pounds,’ and if twenty should have been converted then there is something of more value than two thousand pounds. That is the reward which I wish” (Robert Mackenzie, “John Brown of Haddington,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1964, p.275). John Brown was a man of integrity.
Or consider one of the most moving utterances of a man of God. It is found in the farewell speech of the prophet Samuel. He was old and gray-headed and he preached a charge to the people before Saul’s coronation, and this is what he said to his audience: “‘Here I am. Witness against me before the Lord and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey . . . or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you.’ And they said, ‘You have not defrauded us or oppressed us, nor have you taken anything from any man’s hand.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Lord is witness against you, and his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.’ And they answered, ‘He is witness'” (I Sam. 12:2-5). What a testimony of the integrity of this man, acknowledged by his people. Even the world wants to say this about a true preacher: “we know you are a man of integrity” (v.14).
Secondly, the Pharisees and Herodians say to Jesus, “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are” (v.14). When John the Baptist or the Lord Jesus saw some Pharisees walking up and listening to them then neither preacher toned down his message so as not to offend the Pharisees. The apostles were just the same; you couldn’t buy them with a smile or silence them with a frown. Paul writes to the Galatians, “Am I now seeking the favour of men or from God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gals. 1:10). He writes to the Thessalonians and says, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts” (I Thess. 2:4). Moses was a fearless as a lion in the face of opposition; so was Elijah on Carmel, Jeremiah before the king, and Daniel continued to pray facing Jerusalem though the law forbade it.
Samuel Davies was the American Presbyterian preacher who wrote the hymn, “Great God of wonders.” He made one visit to England during which he met the Wesley brothers and the widow of Philip Doddridge who had been his great hero. He was invited to preach before George III, and during the sermon the King spoke out aloud to his wife complementing something Davies had said. Everyone looked across at the king. Samuel Davies stopped preaching for a long moment and then he looked at King George and said, “When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest tremble; when Jehovah speaks, let the kings of the earth keep silence before him.”
To be intimidated by the influential and rich; to compromise with the world; to connive at fashionable sins; to keep teachings that offend out of the pulpit; to be silent when the cause of God requires a man speak up – that is not the spirit that honours our Lord. Proverbs 29:25; “The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.” The man who knows he has been called by God will not be bullied by the ecclesiastical power brokers, nor molded by the expectations of a congregation. Paul said, “We speak in Christ in the sight of God” (II Cors. 2:17). There is no reason for anyone to believe that such preaching must become harsh and monotonous and strident – like the call sounding forth from the minaret. The same apostle who told the Thessalonians that he sought to please God alone says just three verses later, “We proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her children” (I Thess. 2:7) and in the next verses he says, “being affectionately desirous of you . . . like a father with his children” (I Thess. 2:11). Paul was like his Saviour, and so we see in this incident before us that the men of the world were full of appreciation for someone who stood for truth and the good of his hearer’s souls. They said admiringly to Jesus, “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are” (v.14).
Thirdly, they said to Christ, “but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” (v.14). What a wonderful complement to make about any preacher; “Pastor, you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” Jesus didn’t string together a series of stories like a standup comedian. He didn’t give stodgy lectures. From first to last he taught the way of God to his hearers, and they were caught up in his teaching from the outset. The way of God was presented to all the congregation so that God became significant to them as someone living, ruling, caring, at that moment, and for them. “Be this kind of mother; be this kind of son; believe this about God; keep these commandments. This is the way of God and this is how you should live.” The people went away from Jesus’ sermons understanding what was God’s way for their lives, where they needed to repent, and how they needed to change. They knew it was God’s way because there was an authority in his words appropriate to the sort of message it was.
One of the first books written about preaching was by a Cambridge pastor called William Perkins and it is called “The Art of Prophesying” (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1996). Perkins reminds his readers of this; “The Word of God alone is to be preached, in its perfection and inner consistency. Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labour.” That was what the Lord Jesus did, telling people what was the way of God, and also how to walk it. Sometimes, as in the Sermon on the Mount, he also told them how not to walk it. Let every preacher labour at teaching the way of God and applying it to everyday living. To achieve that great goal it will not be enough to skim through a few verses in daily Bible reading, nor to study a passage only when we have to preach from it. We must daily soak ourselves in the truth. We must take a microscope and analyse the minutiae of a few words, and then we must also take our telescopes and scan the wide expanses of the way of God and all the time be speaking in accordance with the truth.
So the world doesn’t insist on Noddy-language; it doesn’t want to be talked down to as if it were a group of infants. The world does not place a lot of store on a minister being funny, or that he strives to appear a ‘regular guy’ just like them. No. The world looks at a preacher and it expects integrity; it does not want a weakling who is bought by men; it wants someone who will tell them the truth. This fascination with being worldling-friendly is taking the pulpit away from its calling to be impassioned with the living God.
So that is the scene in our text, of Jesus preaching in the temple, and when he has finished his sermon his opponents come to catch him with his words, but even his enemies had to grudgingly express their admiration for him as a Bible teacher.
1. THE QUESTION OF PAYING TAXES TO CAESAR.
Let us put this issue in its context. The Jews had not been free for five hundred years. The Roman Emperor Augustus had brought Judea under direct Roman rule as one of its provinces in A.D. 6. It was at that time, when Jesus was a little boy, that a Jewish nationalist named Judas led a revolt against the Jews paying Roman taxes directly into the treasury in Rome. Judas was a rabble-rouser who told the people that if they paid such taxes then they, Jehovah’s people, would no longer be under the rule of God but under the rule of man, and that man a Gentile to boot! His followers were passionate that Israel was not for sale. “No tribute to the Romans,” was their slogan. When the Lord Jesus was a teenager there was another popular demand for relief from taxation, but that was also was summarily dismissed, and now sixteen years later, again this hot issue was raised. Where does Jesus of Nazareth stand? “Is it lawful . . .?” they asked him, as they had about healing on the Sabbath, and remarriage and other ethical questions; “is this lawful . . .” – this paying taxes to Rome?
The hatred of paying taxes to Rome went further. There were so many kinds of taxes; a ground tax on land consisting of a tenth of all grain, and a fifth of wine and fruit; an income tax which was one per cent of a man’s earnings; then there was a poll tax on all men between the ages of 14 and 65 and on all women from 12 to 65 and this tax was one denarius, the daily wage of a working man. These taxes were collected by the hated ‘publicans,’ unscrupulous tax-collectors, who were considered by all Jews to be collaborators, betraying their country, the lowest of the low, corrupt and merciless men.
However, the hatred of paying taxes to Rome went even deeper. Jews were forbidden to make carved images. They debated whether this included images of plants and flowers, but there was no debate about the image of men; that was utterly unacceptable, but the denarius that they had to pay in a poll tax had upon it an image of the Emperor Tiberius. There he was embossed, coldly looking up at them from the palms of their hands. Around his head in Latin were the words, “Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” On the other side of the coin was written, “High Priest” and “Son of God” (the Emperors were routinely high priests of the main Roman cult). You can perceive how offensive those words would be to the Jews. The issue of taxation to Rome was so sensitive that some Jews were revulsed by the denarius and they’d simply turn away from looking at one, let alone touching one. See then, how ironic is this situation described in our text; here stands Christ, God’s great High Priest and King of kings, the real Son of God, in the temple which was ruled by the Jewish chief priest. He is being asked a question about paying taxes to Caesar.
So what was Jesus to say in answer to this cunning question? If he said, “Sure; pay your taxes to Rome,” then his influence with the people would have been destroyed. He would be regarded as a traitor and a coward. But if he had said, “No tribute to the Romans” then they would have reported him for insurrection and he would have been arrested as a freedom fighter within the hour. His enemies made it a yes or no situation. If he said ‘yes’ then he would be rubbing the people’s noses in their own subjugation to Caesar. They weren’t a free people. They were under a tyrant’s yoke, but when the true Messiah came he had promised he would break oppression and set the prisoner free. But if Jesus said “We don’t pay taxes” as the Zealots were exhorting them, he’d be accused of treason. This seemed a hopeless, dangerous, no win situation for Christ.
2. THE ANSWER TO THE TAXING QUESTION.
“But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.'” (v.15). Jesus passed judgment on them, that they were a bunch of hypocrites. Their real reason in asking this question was not to get an answer to a moral dilemma. Who were they dealing with? This Lord is the Judge of mankind. “We think you’re a wonderful preacher; please answer this question that is bothering us now, once and for all, yes or no.” Plain hypocrisy; if he were half the preacher whom they describe then they’d be sitting at his feet drinking in his teaching and worshipping him, not planning to destroy him. Hypocrites! “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asks. Why? Why do men flatter in order to destroy? Because they love their sins and their power, and don’t want to part with them to bow to Jesus Christ. They will easily slip into oily words of praise if that would help bring someone down, just as readily as they will use hateful words of criticism.
What does Christ do? Does he say yes or no? He asks, you see, for a denarius coin; Jesus himself doesn’t carry any money; Judas has the money bag, but these men (the Herodians in particular) did have money and they readily brandished a denarius before him. “‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him” Pow! Jesus hit the ball back over the net at double the speed it had come to him (vv.16&17). Someone once gave a young lawyer a New Testament, and as he read it through he found it fascinating, but when he came to this question it was the confirming passage of Scripture to him that showed him that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. The lawyer was gripped by Jesus’ answer; he had actually been involved himself in a similar type of legal dispute. He couldn’t get over this particular incident in Mark chapter 12, rereading it. It was so astonishing an encounter with the true Christ that his strength momentarily left him and the New Testament actually dropped out of his hands.
Of course people have made far too much of Jesus’ words. It has become a slogan to whip every citizen into obeying what Whitehall, or Washington or the Kremlin says. It has, for example, been called “the single most influential political statement ever made in the history of the world.” That’s way over the top. What are the implications of these words? They teach us that there are two extremes to avoid. One is survivalism. It is obvious that the Saviour was not seeing a future in which his followers dropped out of society and moved away to live together in a self-sufficient community of survivalists in a valley near the Dead Sea. Jesus opposed that; he was not saying, “We have nothing to do with government.” He is not preaching disengagement from the day to day life of the school run, voting, PTA’s, signing petitions, and being a good neighbour. Give to Caesar what you owe him. We Christians can’t refuse to pay tax on the grounds that we belong to another kingdom, the kingdom of God, or because there are certain things the government does with our taxation with which we are unhappy. We have to pay tax. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 13:6-8 “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” So these words repudiate a survivalist mentality.
The other extreme is what we meet in the Islamic theocracies. There is not one single democracy in states dominated by Islam. They do not know the distinction between church and state, and so they have criminalised both moral offences and theological error. A woman who has committed a sexual sin can have her hand cut off. If a Muslim becomes a Christian he is guilty of treason against his country. He has committed a criminal offence, as do those who seek to present the message of Christianity to him. I saw this heading this very week; MALAY WOMAN FIGHTS FOR RIGHT TO CONVERT. The news item reported that “Azlina Jailani, who adopted the name Lina Joy when she became a Christian in 1998, has appealed a second time for the right to change her religious status. Lina Joy first applied for official permission to change her religion in 2001. However, the judge ruled, ‘As a Malay, the plaintiff exists under the tenets of Islam until her death.’ Lina Joy recently appealed the decision on the grounds that it contravened Malaysia’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. The Court of Appeal heard the case on 14 October, and a public announcement on the ruling is expected soon.” Caesar and God have become one in Islam. Jesus is separating these spheres, Caesar’s sphere and Jesus’ lordship. It is no business of Caesar to impose its own or any prophet’s views on its citizens. This extends to questions of Christian doctrine as much as the doctrines of other religions, and also some broad questions of morality.
Caesar judges sexual relations to be some kind of recreational activity. Christians believe that they are essentially sacred, that they demand self-control, respect for other people and respect for oneself. There is to be purity before marriage and faithfulness within it. Promiscuity and paid-for sex are sinful, and so is adultery and homosexual conduct. One purpose of sexual relations is the procreation of children inside marriage and the church’s teaching has proved to be an excellent guide to stable family life and the care of children. By following the Lord’s teaching Christians are the salt of the earth and a light in its darkness. There is a battle between Caesar and Christ in all such areas of morality and Caesar’s views have gained an enormous following. In his kingdom sexual morality primarily refers to the individual, with inadequate regard for women or children. Christ declares to Caesar how he should live.
3. WHAT GIVING TO CAESAR DOES NOT MEAN.
Let me clear away some misunderstandings. Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s does not mean any of the following:
i] If Caesar asks us to violate a command of God we must give him obedience to that. No! When Daniel was forbidden to pray to any god except Nebuchadnezzar he refused, choosing death rather than disobey God. In Acts 4 and 5 the authorities arrested the disciples for preaching and called them before the Sanhedrin. They ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:17-20), but the disciples continued as if they had never heard that order. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the high priest said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:28&29). The demands of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ transcend the commands of the greatest of the Caesars. Another mistaken view is this;
ii] If Caesar asks us to do an illegal or immoral act we give him obedience. No! We may hold high office in medical service, or in the armed services, or working for the police, or in education and we are asked as Christians to compromise our convictions then we have to refuse. Joseph held high office in Potiphar’s house but he would not yield to temptation though it meant prison. Though Caesar threatens, or offers us glittering prizes we must obey God rather than men. “How can I do such wickedness and sin against God?” you say to yourself and all who will hear you. We are rarely forced to do anything illegal we may as Christians be forced to challenge Caesar if we hear that Caesar plans to do such things as spread casinos through the nation, or launch a national lottery, or to legalize homosexual ‘marriages’, or lower the age that teenage boys ca n have sexual acts with men, or that Caesar is seeking to legitimize brothels, or to make Sunday like any other day, or to allow the unborn child to be killed, or introduces legislation to put down the elderly and infirm, or to decriminalize drug-taking. We Christians can say to Caesar, “Please think again.” We don’t turn away and bleat that human life is divided into two segments, the religious part and the social part, and we do our thing on Sundays because Caesar has given us permission, and then we on our part don’t criticize what Caesar is doing. No. That is not what Jesus is saying, because all the world was created by God, and all men are in God’s image, and all the world is going to be judged by God we have a duty to our fellow man. Another mistaken view is this;
iii] If Caesar asks us to go against our conscience we must give him obedience. No! Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. It’s a blessing to have a clear conscience. For example, if Caesar says he alone will take the responsibility for educating our children then we refuse. Caesar has no children. Our consciences, enlightened by the word of God, tell us that our children belong to God not to Caesar. But let’s be sure that the issue on which we are going to take a stand is very clear and irrefutable – before we defy Caesar on the grounds of our consciences. In France Caesar says that no one who attends his schools may wear special religious garments. That is not a problem for the Christian conscience is it? This is one of Caesar’s school, and he has a right to insist on the uniform worn in it, but in Christian schools, or Jewish schools, or Muslim schools the children may wear what their authorities choose.
I realize that there are situations in which keeping a clear conscience is very difficult. You are, for example, doing a summer job in a steel plant with ten hardened men in your gang, and you are supposed to clock off work at 5, but the leader at 4.15 says, “OK. Let’s finish now. Write on your time sheets that you finished at 5.00.” All the ten men who are in that factory all the year round write down 5.00 and they look at you, the rookie ‘temp,’ the tea-boy. What a dilemma! If someone says that being a Christian, or keeping a clear conscience, is easy then he’s been living a sheltered life. If we share in joint decisions then things will be decided that sometimes go against our own consciences. But that is part of belonging to a group which has to take decisions together. It is often the easy way out to make any such issue a resigning issue; “my conscience is sacred.” What of the consciences of every other Christian in the group? Remember Paul dealing with this problem in the church of Corinth where some men were pleading their conscience for not eating meat that had come from the temple butcher’s shop, while other men’s consciences said, “This meat is only a leg of lamb, wherever it’s come from.” Everyone in the congregation was talking of their sacred personal consciences and the church was torn in half over the issue. Paul cried to them, “The other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours,” (I Cor. 10:29). Think of other Christians. Why are you judging their freedom by your conscience? So what else is involved in giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Certainly we pray for kings and all in authority. We respect for those occupying the office of rule and government as the servants of God, the lawmakers and law-enforcers – they get precious little of that. Paul appeals to Caesar for the right to evangelize and hold meetings and worship without harassment. All that is enormously important. We Christians do obey the law of the land, even these new health and safety regulations that seem extreme and expensive. What if we were a farming community and there were Christians whose livelihoods depended on horses and hounds and hunting foxes? I do not think you can chant to them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” I think they have every right to protest and fight a rearguard action against Caesar. Think of the Highlands Clearances 200 years ago when the landowners had the law on their side. They drove out of their crofts and farms thousands of little people in order to fill the highlands with their sheep. They drove people to America or they plunged them into poverty. It would be a misuse of these words of Jesus for the pulpit to chant to these poor Christians each Sunday, “Be content! Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” It was a monstrous injustice, and such wretched laws must be changed. The church has not identified itself with the oppressed as it should.
What about Brussels’ bureaucrats, and the European Union? Have we given them the right to govern us? Are we to keep pettifogging cripplingly expensive new regulations? What an issue! I don’t believe we are hungrily to accept all this legislation and expect the church to endorse Brussels. I am not going to load the conscience of a Christian farmer or a businessman battling to keep the family farm or business going, and get out of debt with repeating these words of Jesus. I am not going to tell him that these words mean he has to do everything that Brussels says when I know it will bankrupt him and he is being destroyed. The pulpit will be very quiet about such things and very sympathetic with such strugglers. We won’t be disciplining church members for challenging the European legislation.
The Saviour is not putting these two entities on the same level – Caesar on the one hand and giving to him obedience, and God on the other hand and giving to him obedience. These are not equally ultimate reference points. See the contrast! Jesus was pointing to a grubby little coin that had passed through hundreds of hands. It had inscribed on it all the pretentious and blasphemous boastings of a man claiming to be divine, the son of god, the high priest. Christ is saying, “Give this pathetic stuff to the one who covers it with his own picture and lying words.” Jesus was not bowing with respect to this coin or to the one whose image is on it when he said those words. What does the mighty Caesar have? “Look,” Jesus says, “at his head embossed on a little piece of metal and his specious claims to be god himself.” How pathetic it all seems. Jesus is shrinking the role of Caesar, “Give the pagans what they deserve. Pay the Gentiles back in their own coin. Let Caesar have his idols!” Don’t we need such a corrective today? Don’t people in Wales today expect Caesar to do everything for them, educate them, heal them when they are sick, care for them in old age? “Caesar is my shepherd I shall not want!”
This passage is not Jesus’ full-scale statement of Christian teaching on church and state and religion and society. It is an absolutely brilliant reply to men who were going to use his answer to lock him away or expose him as a lackey of Rome. Consider how Jesus responded, and how he dealt with this ‘either-or’ threat, that is what deserves our consideration. What can we learn from this attitude of Jesus? We are urged, let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are told to bring every thought captive to Christ. That young lawyer saw the brilliance of Jesus’ response, the profoundness of his words, and dropped his Bible in his agitation. But the Saviour said something else too.
4. GIVE TO GOD WHAT IS GOD’S.
The Saviour is challenging these people concerning what is really important to them. In whose image were they made? In whose image were their children? They were in God’s image. They were the Old Testament people of God, living in the land promised to them, the recipients of the covenants and the oracles of God, the Scriptures written by Moses, David, Isaiah and all the others. They had the temple with its altar and its means of redemption and forgiveness. They had the promises of the coming of the Messiah. The mighty Creator was their God. There was nothing more important or fascinating in all the world than that. The Lord was their Shepherd. He was their refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. He was their reward. In his presence was fulness of joy; at his right hand were pleasures for evermore. They had his Son in their midst, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, stilling the storm, healing the leper, giving sight to the blind. What would we have given to follow the Lord Jesus and see and hear all that was happening in Judah at that time? These were the most wonderful days in the history of the world and they were privileged to be there. God had rent the heavens and come down. His glory was being revealed and all flesh were seeing it even in anonymous hamlets – the little people of the land beholding the incarnate God. But what were these religious and political leaders interested in? Trapping Jesus, making him compromise himself so that they could extinguish the light of the world. They were interested in . . . taxation! Think of it! If there’s anything designed to be soul-destroying it’s talking about taxes. Imagine my announcing that for the next few Sunday I was going to preach a series of messages on taxation! “Give to God, the living God, the things that are his,” says Jesus.
What could be more relevant for the church today? There are Bishops and church leaders who want to pressurize the government into increasing taxes to send more money to corrupt leaders of poor countries. Some Christians are obsessed with discussing politics and economics and the arts and green issues – what is the Christian perspective on such things? Jesus is saying, “Consider the living God! How utterly magnificent he is. Cry to the people, ‘Behold your God!’ He is a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He is glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders. Consider his gospel, that whosoever believes in Jesus Christ has everlasting life and the forgiveness of sins! Consider redemption through the Son of God!” That is what Jesus is saying, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Christianity is not a kind of religious angle on contemporary social issues. These matters have their place, and if you are a teacher or lecturer in a certain academic discipline your Christian convictions are going to colour your attitude to what you say, and that is their place for you in your calling and to your pupils or students. That will give your own perspective special helpful interest, and it will be a wonderful part of your witness to your Saviour, but in the pulpit there is little I can say from the Bible on the European Economic Community, or on painting, or on physics. Who is going to listen to my half-baked views and prejudices on such themes? But there is so much to say about the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh! Think of it! We Christians are absolutely obsessed with that.
There is no specific Christian cultural programme, and if we get preoccupied with social involvement then the Christian life will lose its pilgrim character. This world is not our home; we are strangers in this groaning world. We are on our way to a better world and while we are here we are called to live in this sinful and corrupt world like salt and light. By our gospel witness and holy walk we are to influence the world around us. Sin is destructive and our calling as the disciples of Jesus Christ is to make life in society tolerable and conducive for the work of the gospel. Paul sums it up so powerfully in these words to the Philippian church: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Phils. 2:14&15).
That is our calling and in doing that a cross is bound to be shaped for each of us. We shine as stars in the universe; we hold the word of life, but it is important for us not to entertain unrealistic hopes of success in this lifelong enterprise. The Kingdom of God is not going to come through our efforts. The most we can look for in the way of visible results is that we will have erected a few signs of what his grace can do, some Christian homes, a congregation who live under the Scriptures and worship God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, our support of and involvement in evangelistic activity here and overseas, Christian publishing and the selling of books, a Christian home for people with learning difficulties, a Christian school – those sorts of things which are signs that an inward, spiritual and invisible reality is at work in the Lord’s disciples.
My concern is that these words of Christ, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” do not become the excuse for secularizing spiritual values, and that our Christian faith does not become more and more externalized or hollowed out. We can get contaminated by the spirit of the age; we can become conformed to the world; an imbalance can come into our Christian lives. I myself went through an over-fascination with the world and life view of Christianity and that period did me little good. “Give to God the things that are God’s,” says the Lord Jesus. Are we doing that? Do we know what are sin and grace? Do we know what are guilt and forgiveness? Do we know what are regeneration and conversion? Yes, we may know them in theory, but do we know them in the awful reality of life? Are we giving to God the things that are God’s? I feel that in growing aspects of the Reformed faith in North America and Holland a worldliness, a superficiality and pride have come in.
On the 7th November, 1979, eighteen months before he died, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached in his old pulpit, Westminster Chapel, London, for the last time. I was there listening to the Doctor on that occasion. These very verses before us today were his text, and the concerns I have raised with you were his concerns too, that the gospel was being distorted by this emphasis on common grace and the cultural mandate and a fascination with a Christian view of this, that and the other. That message is in print today and can be read in the book entitled “Unity in Truth” (Evangelical Press). Dr Lloyd-Jones sees three contrasts in our text:
i] Firstly there are the things that belong to Caesar, the things that have his image on them, coins, money, mammon. But then there are the things that belong to God, the things that have his image on them. You! You belong to God by right of creation. You have been made in the image and likeness of God. You can only know yourself as you know God. Have you acknowledged his right over you and everything that is yours? Have you given your life to God? What do you think of a hymn like this?
“In full and glad surrender
I give myself to Thee,
Thine utterly and only
And evermore to be” (Francis Ridley Havergal, 1836-1879).
Do you think that such a spirit of dedication is ‘neo-Puritan’ or ‘pietistic’? That is a criticism one hears today. I believe, to the contrary, that that is biblical piety and that it well expresses a person giving herself to God.
ii] Secondly there is the contrast between these two owners. Caesar has things and God also has things. What does Caesar have? The power to take away our liberty or even our life if we break his laws. What does God have? Almighty power. “The power of God is the power of our Maker, the power of our Judge eternal and we are all moving, as is the whole cosmos, in the direction of a final assize, a last judgment. Our destiny is in the hands of God. He has power, after we have died, not only to judge us, but if we have disobeyed him and refused him, to cast us to everlasting and eternal punishment. I am not the one saying this; it is the Lord Jesus Christ who talked about the place where ‘The worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ My dear friends, do you and I as Christians, do we contemplate as we ought to the power of the everlasting and eternal God? We should be humbled under his almighty hand and serve him with reverence and godly fear, not dance and joke and merely sing before him. Why? ‘For our God is a consuming fire!’ That is the second contrast (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Unity in Truth,” Evangelical Press, Darlington, 1991, p. 198).
iii] Thirdly there is the contrast between the benefits that the two powers can give us. We pay taxes and we receive the benefits of policing, a fire service, the ambulance service, health, the might of the military, education, transport, an old age pension, social workers and so on. We do not despise such things, but how much greater are the gifts of God. “‘Very well’, says someone, ‘What can God give me?’ I will tell you. God sent his one and only Son into this world. What for? To rescue us out of our lost condition, out of our failure, out of our misery, out of our unhappiness. That is why Christ came into the world, the very Son of God. This is the solution which God gives in the person of his own Son. Not your human solutions, not politics, not philosophy, not culture, but God’s own solution, sending his only Son into the world in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. And this Son of God of whom we have been reading here in our paragraph, and of whom you can read in the Bible, this Son of God, in order to rescue us and redeem us and to give us glorious benefits, not only lived and endured the contradiction of sinners, not only spent his time working with his holy hands, he even went deliberately to a cruel death upon a cross.
“What for? To receive from God the punishment of our sins. Why? That we might receive free pardon and forgiveness by God. Is there anything comparable in the universe to this? Though you may have spent all your life to this moment living for self and for the world, and all that goes with it, and though you may have sinned even to the very jaws of hell, you have only to believe this message concerning God’s way of salvation in his only begotten Son, this Jesus of Nazareth. You have only to believe that your sins were punished in him and they will be forgiven you completely, for he not only bore them and died, but rose again, thereby declaring that God was satisfied, that the penalty had been paid and that God is ready to smile upon us, to forgive us freely and for nothing, without our doing anything, and to begin to shower his blessings upon us.
“And what are they? Well, the moment you believe you find that you are a child of God. You are still a man in the world, as he was in the world, but you are a new man. You have been born again, you have got a new nature within you. You know that you are a child of God. You can talk to God as your Father so that ‘When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.’ God becomes a Father to us and he begins to pour his blessings upon us. He will give you peace of conscience. He will give you quiet in your heart. You will be able to put your head on your pillow tonight and sleep like a babe, not fearful of death, or the grave, or of judgment, because you know that you are a child of God. What is more, because you are a child of God, then you are an heir of God himself and a joint heir with Christ. Oh, the blessings of this Christian life are untold! You have a new outlook upon life” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, op cit, p.200).
Let me end with the very prayer that that great man of God prayed after he had preached that message. How powerfully it captures our longing that all of us as Christians should offer to God the things that are rightly his: “O Lord, we come before thee, conscious of our unworthiness, conscious of the imperfection of our service, conscious of our guilt in thy holy sight. O God, awaken us, open our eyes to the battle, help us to see things as they are. Teach us to think, O Lord. Deliver us from false traditions, deliver us from sentimentality. Enable us to see the issues clearly and plainly. So reveal thyself and thy blessed truth to us that, rather than equivocate concerning it or in any way compromise it, we would sooner die. O Lord, give us this blessed power we have already prayed for, the power of thy blessed Spirit, that we may proclaim to the whole world the saving riches of thy grace. O hear us, and follow us to our homes and churches. Help us to help others to see these issues and to pray for such power upon thy Word that others will see and join us in its proclamation. Bless thy servants in this British Evangelical Council here in London and throughout the country, and use it to thy glory and to thy praise. We ask it in the name of thy dear Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
24th October 2004 GEOFF THOMAS