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Making Sense of God and Government

We're called to respect our government, but only God deserves our ultimate allegiance.


Today I will be looking at Mark 12:13-17:

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.

This is the third confrontation that Jesus has had with the Sanhedrin in and around the temple in Jerusalem. It is also the second time they have laid a trap for Jesus. If you look at the end of chapter 11, you see the chief priests, scribes, and elders come to Jesus and confront him about his authority. They ask, What gives you the right to flip over tables in the temple and drive people out with a whip of cords? He answers their question by poising another question concerning the baptism of John. He springs their trap and tells them a parable about tenants in a vineyard. It is clear they understand they are the wicked tenants who have killed the prophets and will kill the beloved son, and this infuriates them. So they seek all the more to arrest Jesus.

Mark 12:13-17 records the third conflict, the second the Sanhedrin initiated. They send some Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus, and they want to ask him about politics and religion—a controversy, to be sure.

I've been at social gatherings where the host will say to me beforehand, "We don't want any talk about politics tonight," or, "Let's not talk about theology. Let's just watch football. Let's just keep the peace." People have strong opinions about politics and about religion. If you ask about one of those things, you can get yourself in trouble. If you ask how the two relate, you are asking for fireworks, a heated conversation. But today I want to talk about both of them together and how they fit or don't fit together.

That is exactly what the Sanhedrin do with Jesus. They send the Pharisees and the Herodians. Right away, we suspect something fishy, because these two groups do not get along. The Pharisees were the conservative folks. They were popular with the grassroots. They were the teachers of the law. They didn't like the Herodians, because the Herodians were the elites. They were in touch with people in power. These two groups didn't generally agree on matters. But here they come together. This would be like Congress sending members from the Tea Party and the Obama administration to Jesus. It was a strange pairing but. Although they did not like each other, they had one thing in common: they both did not like Jesus.

It is fascinating how the gospel brings people together in strange ways. The gospel brings people together both positively and negatively. It brings different people together into one family, to be a part of the church, to glorify and worship God. But it also brings different people together who want to fight Jesus. That's what these folks do. They come to question his authority.

They start by flattering him: Oh, teacher, you are not swayed by appearances. You are fair in balance. You are a straight shooter. You never stray from a difficult question.

They are laying a trap for him. They are trying to push him into a corner, and they offer this false praise in order to get to their question: "Should we pay taxes to Caesar?" But this is not a sincere question; it is a test. Jesus immediately sees through their hypocrisy. He knows they are trying to trap him, and thus he asks why they are putting him to the test. Perhaps he was frustrated or angry. Maybe he just felt sorry for them. It is like he is saying: You're putting me to the test? Really? You want to do that again?

The questioners knew that if Jesus said you must pay your taxes to Caesar, then the people would be upset. They hated the yearly tax, and they hated the Romans. Judea was a vassal state under the Roman Empire. The only reason why the Sanhedrin haven't tried to arrest Jesus yet is because he was popular among the people. There would have been an uprising if anyone touched Jesus. But if he says they ought to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people will turn against him; then they can arrest him without an uproar.

That is probably why these two groups came together. The Pharisees were there to stir up the people. On the other hand, if Jesus told the people not to pay taxes, then the Herodians would notify Herod, who was in cahoots with the Romans. Then the Romans would arrest Jesus. It is a win-win situation for everyone who hated Jesus. They have trapped him. But Jesus is the master at springing traps. He is like a smart mouse who knows how to get the cheese and run away.

So Jesus asks to see a denarius, which was the equivalent to a day's wage for a working man. So think of him asking for a hundred dollar bill. So someone hands him a denarius. We know what one looks like. There are pictures of these coins on Google. It is a silver, Roman coin, and on it is a picture of Tiberius Caesar, who reigned from 14 A.D. to 37 A.D. He was the emperor, or the Caesar, during Jesus' day. So the coin had a picture of his face on one side, with an abbreviated version of this slogan: Tiberius Caesar Augustus Divi Augusti filius Augustus, which means, "Tiberius Caesar Augustus son of divine Augustus." On the back side was engraved Pontifex Maximus, which means "high priest" in Latin. So you can see why the Jews hated this tax. They hated the coin itself. It is a blasphemous coin. It says Caesar is the high priest. It says Caesar is the son of the divine Augustus.

Jesus asks whose likeness and inscription is on the coin. Everyone knew it was Tiberius Caesar's. Then Jesus utters one of his most famous sentences: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." This is a loaded statement, and this one sentence lays the foundation for the Christian perspective on politics. It doesn't give us all the details and it won't sort out every problem. It doesn't tell us who to vote for. But it lays the foundation for a Christian approach to politics and religion, church and state, God and government. There are at least seven implications concerning God and government we can draw from this pithy response.

Be good citizens.

The first is this: be good citizens, even if you think the government is bad. In a few days Jesus will be killed by the Romans. In 70 A.D., the Romans will come and wipe out the temple. In the years following, they will kill some of the apostles. They will kill hundreds if not thousands of Christians. Before this time, they squashed a number of Jewish rebellions. Rome was not a feel-good sort of empire. Now let's be clear. The Romans were not Nazis. They were like many other empires and civilizations of the day. It's not that they persecuted the Jews and Christians whenever they wanted. They did so only when they felt like they had to. They had many good accomplishments; they did good things, but they also persecuted, and they also insisted on worshiping the emperor. So it's safe to say that no matter how much you dislike American politics and politicians, Rome was worse. And yet Jesus says pay your taxes. Caesar's face is on the coin; give him the coin. He has a right to levy tribute, so pay the denarius.

Paul makes the same point in Romans 13:5-7:

Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 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.

Paul also says "Owe no one anything." To be clear, he doesn't mean you can't have a mortgage on your house. He is saying you ought to make your payments. Don't owe people when it's due to them. So if honor is due to the emperor, give him honor. If taxes are due to the state, pay your taxes. Don't leave out what you owe. Be a good citizen, even if you think the government is corrupt or foolish. Some Christians say they can't pay what they owe, because they know their money is supporting a cause they don't agree with. But Jesus didn't use that logic. He said your obligation is to pay taxes. You are ethically responsible for being a good citizen. You are not culpable for how the government chooses to spend your taxes. The blessing of democracy is you have a voice in how our country's money is spent. But Jesus' first point is very simple: be good citizens. Caesar has a tax; pay the tax.

Respect the government's authority.

Second point: human government has legitimate authority, even when it is exercised poorly. This goes along with the previous statement. The reason we pay taxes, the reason Christians are good citizens, is God has instituted human government. It's never perfect. Sometimes it is tragically imperfect. But have you ever thought of government as a gift? It is. Think about what has happened recently in Egypt. People are fearful the situation will descend into complete chaos. Anarchy is always worse than monarchy or democracy. Government can be a gift. It provides rules and order. This is why countries dealing with anarchy will sometimes welcome a dictator; they want someone to give order—any authority is better than chaos. However frustrated you may be with government, you must remember God has instituted it.

Listen to 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." Government was God's idea. John Calvin said there is no higher calling than to be a civil authority. I had to read his statement twice. You would expect him to say being a pastor is the highest calling. In the New Testament, we are repeatedly told to pray for our rulers, to pray for their good, because their good is for our good.

First Timothy 2:1-2 says, "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way." We pray for those in authority so that we might have quiet, dignified lives. We pray they maintain order, punish wrongdoing, and uphold the law, so that we can live life free from their interference. No matter how much you may disagree with what the government is doing, Christians ought to lead the way in showing respect to governing officials. Of course, we have the right to make our opinions known, to voice out our disagreement, to even do it strongly at times, but we must always give honor to whom honor is due, because government has authority instituted by God.

We can honor God and the government.

Third point: allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible. Sometimes Christians talk as if love for God opposes loyalty to your country, that love of country is always a bad thing. But Jesus shows us it is possible to honor Caesar and to honor God.

This is especially clear if you understand the history about the poll tax or the census tax. It was instituted in 6 A.D. People hated it. By the time Jesus was ministering, the tax hadn't been around very long. That is partly why people were agitating with it. And when it was instituted, a man named Judas of Galilee—not the Judas in the New Testament—led a revolt, but it was squashed by the Romans. The historian Josephus wrote about Judas of Galilee: "He called his fellow countrymen cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in place of God." Judas of Galilee and the Zealots believed allegiance to God and allegiance to earthly government were fundamentally incompatible—since God is your King, you have no earthly king. Theocracy was the only way to go. Afterwards, there was a constant conflict between church and state, between God and government.

When Jesus tells people to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, he means you have duties to your country and state governments that do not necessarily infringe on your duty to God. It is possible to have allegiance to a lesser authority, because that authority has been instituted by a higher authority. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 imply that God and government, religion and politics are compatible. However, there are times when civil disobedience is accepted and even required. If the government opposes God and his law, we must always side with God. But the normal state envisioned is one that complies with God. Just because the church is not the state and the state is not God, we shouldn't believe the church must always be against the state.

This is what Calvin says about this passage in Mark:

It lays down a clear distinction between spiritual and civil government in order to inform us that outward subjection does not prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God. In short, Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God or any injury done to his service if in respect of outward government the Jews obey the Romans.

Calvin was responding to parts of the radical Reformation, to extreme sects that claimed they didn't want or need any form of government. That thinking still lingers in some Christian communities, and it often resonates with college students. Calvin teaches us that you can have allegiance to an earthly authority in clear conscience under the ultimate authority of God. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good American or a good Ghanaian or a good Filipino simultaneously. Patriotism is not a bad thing. Like anything else, it can become idolatrous, but it's not inherently bad. If you get choked up during the National Anthem, it doesn't mean you have tossed aside your love for Jesus.

There are distinct yet overlapping roles.

Here is a fourth point, which might be controversial: it is acceptable to have some measure of separation between religion and government, between church and state. Put it this way: God and government have overlapping but distinct spheres. Government is always accountable to God. But if we render some things to Caesar and render other things to God, it must be the case that they are not one and the same, that it is possible to have some separation between church and state. I keep saying some because that's always the difficult matter. There are all sorts of difficult issues that aren't going to be solved by verse 17. On the one hand, we shouldn't pretend you can strip government from any moral or religious influence. Some people say government shouldn't legislate morality. What are you doing if you say murder is against the law? It's a moral statement. You're saying human life has value or it's morally bad for the society. You're at least saying murder is not part of human flourishing. It's a moral statement. It's impossible to strip religious or moral claims from government and the public square.

On the other hand, this passage indicates Jesus did not have a vision for the state that meant it must be ruled by all the laws of God, so that God's laws were identical with the laws of the state. As one author said, "Jesus was not a theonomist." Listen to this quote from D. A. Carson about verse 17:

Up to this point in history religion and state were everywhere intertwined. This was true of course in ancient Israel. At least in theory, Israel was a theocracy. Similarly in the pagan world most of the gods of the people were necessarily the gods of the state. When the Romans took over some new territory they arranged a god swap. They adopted some of the local gods into their own pantheon and insisted that the locals take on some of the Roman gods. But nowhere was there a state that was divorced from all gods, what we could call a secular state with state and religion occupying distinct, even if overlapping, spheres. But on the face of it this is what Jesus is advocating. Certainly the utterance of the Lord Jesus has been one of the roots, though not the only one, of longstanding and constantly evolving tensions between the church and the state across the centuries.

Again, I like that language of distinct yet overlapping. This does not mean that Christ is not Lord of all. He is Lord of all and he exercises his lordship in different ways. Jesus says in John 18:36, "My kingdom is not of this world." But his reign will not be fully inaugurated until the end of the age. Revelation 11 tells us one day the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of Christ. But until then, we have distinct yet overlapping spheres. Christians and Christian politicians need to figure out how to work in that tension.

We are more like the Israelites exiled in Babylon than Israelites in the Promised Land. God was the ruler when Israel was in the Promised Land. When they were exiles in Babylon, they worked for the peace of the city. If it came down to obeying God or man, they had to obey God. They maintained a distinctive culture within a culture, but they were exiles. According to the New Testament, we are strangers, aliens. So our position is more like the Jews in exile. We are pilgrims trying to make our way through this world.

Listen to what one contemporary theologian says about living in the two kingdoms of church and state:

Both of these spheres are ordained of God and under his law, yet they exist for different purposes, have different functions, and operate according to different rules. In their capacity as citizens of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, Christians insist upon nonviolence and the ways of peace, refusing to bear arms on behalf of his kingdom. In their capacity as citizens of the civil kingdom they participate as necessary in the coercive work of the state, bearing arms on its behalf when occasion warrants. As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they have no patriotic allegiance to earthly nation, but as citizens of the civil kingdom a healthy patriotism is certainly possible. As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they can make radical critiques of all theories, practices, and institutions that are not in submission to Christ. But as citizens of the civil kingdom, they can acknowledge the significant benefits that the state brings for earthly life, enjoy the amazing products of human culture, seek common cause with non-Christians in a host of social projects. As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they submit to Scripture, yet as citizens of the civil kingdom they can engage in genuine moral conversations with those of other faiths through the universally accessible law of nature without making adherence to Scripture a test for participating in cultural affairs. As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they can view the state and other social institutions as temporal, destined to pass away. But as citizens of the civil kingdom, they can have a keen interest in promoting the welfare of human society here and now.

We must understand that church and state are two distinct yet overlapping spheres. This is one of the main differences between Islam and Christianity. Philip Yancey once told a story of his Muslim friend who said, "When I read the Koran, I find nothing that tells me as a Muslim how to live as a minority. When I read the New Testament, I find nothing that tells you as a Christian how to rule as the majority." That man had a legitimate point. Islam grew with state and religion intertwined, so Muslims have a difficult time seeing religion and politics as distinct spheres. That is why Muslim countries lack genuine freedom of religion.

On the other hand, Christianity began as a persecuted minority religion. That is why most of the New Testament addresses Christians as pilgrims and aliens. Christians in other countries today typically have to wrestle with this more than Christians in America. But it is because of passages like this one in Mark that Christians are able accept the First Amendment, which grants freedom of religion, even though that amendment allows people to do things we believe are sinful. But the distinct and overlapping spheres allow that.

God's people aren't tied to one nation.

Number five: God's people are not tied to any one nation. When Jesus said give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, he is essentially saying you can support a nation and you can be a part of a nation that does not formally worship the one true God. True religion is not bound up in one country. The church can be trans-cultural and transnational. This is what Mark Dever, from Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D. C., says on this passage:

Jesus' approval of paying taxes to Rome was revolutionary. By this he shows us that the legitimacy of a government is not determined by whether it supports the worship of the one true God or even allows for it. By Jesus not requiring those who would follow him only to support states which are formally allied to the true God, as in the Old Testament Israel, Jesus unhitches following him from any particular nation. That's why we can say the church is international.

Christianity is not uniquely an American or Western religion. How often does America show up in the Bible? The events in the Bible took place in the Middle East. That's where Christianity started. While Christianity spread throughout Europe during the first centuries, one of the strongest locations for Christianity was in Turkey. That's where the seven letters of Revelation went. St. Augustine, one of the most famous theologians in the history of the church, was a bishop in North Africa, which is now dominated by Islam. In the past hundred years, Christianity's center of gravity is shifting to the South and to the East. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England. There are more Presbyterians in Korea than in the United States. Huge missionary forces are being sent out not just from the US but from Brazil and Korea.

Because Episcopal churches have been ordaining homosexuals in the last few years, Anglican churches in Rwanda and Uganda, which are still theologically conservative, have been sending missionaries and church planters to the United States. The church is international, and we need to understand that you do not have to be an American or disown your country in order to follow Christ. In Genesis 12, God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Revelation 5 and 7 say people of different languages, cultures, and nations will gather together around God's throne. You can be from any country and worship Jesus.

The state is not God.

Here is the sixth point: the state is not God. So far we have been looking at the first half of Christ's statement: Render to Caesar what is Caesar's. Now we will look at the second half of Jesus' statement: "Render to God the things that are God's." Until this point you might think Jesus is conservative and pro-government, siding with Rome on everything. But look carefully at the text. Jesus says clearly that God and Caesar are not identical. Some things belong to Caesar; other things belong to God.

Remember the denarius, the coin with Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of Divine Augustus? Jesus says go ahead and pay that coin to Caesar. However, he didn't say when you give to Caesar you give to God. He said give to Caesar and give to God. Caesar is not God. Augustus is not divine. The state is not God.

Human government is run by humans. That means it is bound to be influenced by sin. It is corrupt. Sure, biblical principles can be infused into government systems. I believe the American system has biblical principles, like checks and balances. It's not good if any one person gains too much power. We tend to gravitate toward idolatry because we are sinners. The state gravitates toward more power, and that's sinful. If we are not careful, we might start to believe that Caesar is God, that the state can provide the solution to all our problems. But Jesus says respect government, honor Caesar, but know this for sure: the state is not ultimate. The state is not God. The government does not have comprehensive authority. It doesn't matter what country you are from. Your government is not divine.

We owe our ultimate allegiance to God.

Here is the final implication: We owe our ultimate allegiance to God. The power of the state is legitimate, but it is limited. Our allegiance to our country should never be absolute. We should never say we will do what they say no matter what. On the other hand, our allegiance to God is absolute. The Book of Exodus gives us a wonderful example: The midwives refused to kill the boys as Pharaoh said. Acts 4 tells us Peter and John would not stop preaching about Jesus, even though the authorities told them to stop. Daniel was thrown in a lion's den because he prayed. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego chose to obey God rather than the king of Babylon. Our allegiance to the state is limited; our allegiance to God is not. Giving God his due is always more important than giving Caesar his due.

In verse 16, Jesus asks whose likeness is on the coin. The Greek word used for "likeness" is eikōn. It sounds like the English word icon. It means "image," and it is the same word used in Greek Old Testament translation of Genesis 1:26: "Let us make man in our image [eikōn]." So what are the things that belong to Caesar? Taxes. Honor. Respect. But what belongs to God? You. Your whole self. Caesar gets some of the coins, but God has a right to all of you. Imagine standing before God's throne, and Jesus says to you, "Come up here. Let me look at you. Whose likeness is on her? Whose image is in him?" The answer is God's. You are made in God's image. You owe your life and existence to God. You are like that coin—dirty, rusted, turning green. You may be tainted by sin, but you are still worth something to God, because his face—his image, his likeness—is on you. You belong to him. The only way to render to God the things that are God's is to give God your very self.

So you must ask, "What am I holding back?" If it is an offense to withhold taxes from the United States Treasury, how much more offensive is it to withhold what should be rendered to the one who made you, from the King of the universe, the one whose image is stamped upon you? You might be able to hide a few things from the IRS, but you cannot hide from God. You belong to him. Have you been putting off complete submission to him, thinking you can hide from him? He made you in his image. His inscription is written all over you. So come to Christ. Surrender the fight and render to God the things that belong to God. Give God his coin. Give God all of who you are.

Kevin DeYoung is pastor of University Reformed Church, East Lansing, Michigan, and author of Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Creed.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Be good citizens.

II. Respect the government's authority.

III. We can honor God and the government.

IV. There are distinct but overlapping roles.

V. God's people aren't tied to one nation.

VI. The state is not God.

VII. We owe our ultimate allegiance to God.