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God’s Word for You

Mark 12:13-17 Whose picture?

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, March 30, 2022

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 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? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked.

The Sanhedrin or Jewish Ruling Council no longer questioned Jesus after the Parable of the Talents; not until his trials on Thursday night and Friday morning. Various groups of Jews now approached Jesus with the intention of catching him in a falsehood or a mistake. Notice that these other questioners were “sent” (verse 13) by the Sanhedrin.

The contrast between Pharisees and Herodians should be noticed. The Pharisees were one of the strictest sects of the Jews, so careful about keeping the Law of Moses that they added additional rules outside of the law so as to make it more and more difficult to break the letter of the law. Of course, the spirit of the law was broken by the very act of making these additional rules (Mark 7:7). The other group, the Herodians, were there to see if Jesus said anything that would oppose Caesar. Opposing Caesar would condemn Jesus to the Romans. Opposing the rules of the Pharisees would condemn Jesus to the Jews. And even though the Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies and didn’t agree about anything, they came together to oppose Jesus (see also Mark 3:6).

The trap came in the form of a difficult question slathered in smarmy compliments: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Obviously a yes answer would infuriate the Jews. A no answer would condemn Jesus before the Romans. They thought that they had Jesus trapped in a corner; every answer they anticipated would be a wrong answer to one group or the other.

Jesus begins by asking: “Why are you trying to trap me?” The fact was that the two groups were opposed to each other, therefore none of the Herodians could give an answer that the Pharisees would accept, and none of the Pharisees could give an answer that the Herodians would accept. Jesus was exposing their hypocrisy and their plot. This wasn’t the last time such a thing happened. Enemies of the church such as Voltaire and Gibbon have done the same thing, trying to trap preachers with trick questions meant to expose hypocrisy. We must remember that our enemies, the devil and the world, are not our friends. The world only pretends a cautious and mock friendship when it thinks it can benefit from such an arrangement.

“Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 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. (NIV)

“Bring me a denarius.” The coin would have been worth about 75 cents today. It’s possible that a Herodian produced the coin, but it’s equally possible that it was a Pharisee, in which case a further hypocrisy would have been exposed (the opponent of Caesar ready to spend one of Caesar’s coins). We can set this detail aside, for the Lord brings us right to the vital point. Rather than fall prey to their trap, he asks about the coin: Whose picture? Give him what should be his. And the Lord God in heaven? Give him what should be his. Neither the government nor the church demand everything from us. God gives to us so that we will have enough, and so that we can give to the church and pay taxes, too. This is the Father’s role of providence. God does not insist on any particular form of government. Christ was subject to Caesar and to Herod, too. The true government need not be a democracy, nor a federal system, nor a monarchy. In the early days of the Reformation, Calvin wanted an oligarchy (a rule by equals), and Zwingli wanted a revolution to force democracy on the people of Europe. Luther taught as the Bible teaches, to accept whatever government God has placed over us (Romans 13:1). Peter said, “Fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). All these are in agreement with the prophet: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). It isn’t our place or God’s plan for believers to think, “Just wait until we get our man into power! Just wait until we get the Supreme Court majority!” We don’t make people Christians by forcing them to behave a certain way. That was the way the Pharisees did things. And the Communists. And the Nazis. And the Mormons. And the Amish. And so many others. Be a child of God whatever the government might happen to be. Whatever atrocities are being permitted.

Finally, I would like to share this from Professor Daniel Deutschlander: “Isn’t it interesting? The tax that began his life (Luke 2:1-4) is also an issue at its end” (Your Kingdom Come, p. 389). The division of church and state is misunderstood by many, but it is properly understood in this way:

1, The State cannot and should not be ruled with the Word of God. The State should be organized and ruled according to natural reason, or common sense, as when Cain found it necessary to begin building a walled city (probably for defense against predators, Genesis 4:17). The State uses its own natural means to enforce laws. Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, for a little bird may carry off your words and report what you say (Proverbs 10:20).

2, The Church cannot and should not be built by force or coercion. The Church must only be built with the Word of God. The Church preaches to the hearts and souls of its people: “You are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9).

Praise God for a good government, taxes that benefit all, and the freedom to worship according to the Word of God and the doctrine of Jesus Christ. “Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth” (Ephesians 4:21). And the truth is the grace of God and the love of the Lord Jesus, which is with you always.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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