In Mark 12, we find a significant teaching from our Lord on the subject of the government:
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)
When most people read this passage, they picture Caesar’s things on one side, and the things of God on the other. It is perceived like a separation of church and state. There is the domain of government and, on the other hand, there is the domain of God. While Jesus is definitely acknowledging some differences and distinctions in these domains, this is not the best way to picture Mark 12.
Who We Belong To
All governance belongs to God, so it is not like there is any domain outside of His governance. When you think about what Jesus is saying in Mark 12, it is breathtaking, because this coin belongs to Caesar. It has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, so Jesus says it belongs to Caesar.
But where is God’s image? Where is God’s inscription? It is on every human being. Jesus reiterates the basic reality—from the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:26–27)—that all things, including all people, ultimately belong to God. Even Caesar himself belongs to God.
Jesus teaches that we give government appropriate support. Caesar’s image is on a coin, so it belongs to him. With these words, Jesus is rejecting political passivity. We do not ignore government and we do not absolve ourselves of responsibilities to the government. In other words, followers of Jesus pay taxes, which Jesus reinforces in Matthew 17:
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:24–27)
It is good, right, and even required for followers of Jesus to give appropriate support for government. At the same time, God’s image is on our lives, so we ultimately belong to Him.
Keeping Government in Perspective
Christ’s words reject political primacy. He rejects any ultimate allegiance to a government or a state, which could be Caesar or anyone else. Followers of Jesus praise God alone as supreme. Christians are to keep government in proper perspective.
According to Jesus, even pagan nations are legitimate nations. The Roman Empire, as we see all throughout the New Testament, was a threat to the church. Caesar himself claimed god-like status, yet, remarkably, Jesus acknowledges that authority has been delegated to the Roman government. He tells His followers to pay taxes to Rome. Even pagan nations are legitimate nations.
Every follower of Jesus is ultimately international. This means we do not all support the same nation in this world. Notice that Jesus is not doing in the New Testament what we see throughout the Old Testament. He is not requiring obedience to a particular government, nation, or people, like the nation of Israel. This is significant. Jesus is calling followers to give appropriate support to whatever nation or state in which they find themselves.
Followers of Jesus support different nations in the world depending on where we live and where our citizenship lies. We give appropriate support to the government of our nation, even pagan, godless governments, knowing that none of us ultimately belongs to a nation in this world. All government exists under God, as do we. Our primary allegiance is never to our government; our primary allegiance is always to God. Followers of Jesus support governmental authority under God’s authority.
–This edited excerpt is taken from Secret Church 20, “God, Government, and the Gospel.”