Almost everyone seems to have an opinion about the government, but too often we disconnect our view of the government from the teaching of God’s Word. We fail to ask questions like, What obligations and responsibilities do Christians have toward the government? Is there ever a time to disobey the government? If so, when? In this message from Mark 12:13–17, David Platt points us to some foundational truths from Jesus concerning the way we should think about our relationship to government and, more importantly, to God. As Christians, though we are to be submissive to the government, our ultimate allegiance is to God.
If you have a Bible—and I hope you or somebody around you does—let me invite you to open with me to Mark 12. What Chuck was just sharing about government and the church just so happens to be where we are in God’s Word today.
It’s pretty unique that we’re gathered right now in various locations in Metro Washington, DC—the capital of our country, the seat of government, in one of the most prominent and prosperous countries in the world—and that God is about to speak to us right now about government. So how does God relate to government? How does God relate to Congress and the Supreme Court, to legislators and lobbyists, to politicians and a president?
Then how do we relate to government and those who govern us? Should we submit to government or challenge it? Do we obey it or change it? Or both? Or neither? What if we don’t agree with our government? What if we are persecuted by our government? Is it ever right to disobey or defy government? If so, when? Should we work in government? How else might we participate in government? How do the laws of our government relate to the laws of our God? Should all sin be a crime? If not, then what sin should be a crime? Should we be a Christian nation? Have we ever been a Christian nation? Is any country a Christian nation?
Now, to be clear, I don’t plan to answer all these questions today, but I do want to show you a passage of Scripture that gives us two foundational truths for understanding how God relates to government that are critical for us as the people of God to understand—and not just to understand, but to live according to, particularly in this city. So let’s dive into the timeless Word of God that transcends kings, countries, presidents, politicians and policies. I want to walk through this text word for word, phrase by phrase, then step back and consider what God—who is here among us right now—is saying to you and me, particularly in this city.
Mark 12:13, says, “And they sent to [Jesus] some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.”
Let’s pause there for a moment and think about what’s happening. We looked last week at the end of Mark 11, when three groups that represented the religious elite among God’s people came up to Jesus on a Tuesday,. They were mad because on Monday, Jesus had overturned tables in the temple and rebuked the type of religion they were practicing. If you remember in Mark 11:27–28, we read:
27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”
So there are three groups of people: priests, scribes and elders. Now in Mark 12, we’re going to see three successive groups come to Jesus to challenge him more. Here in verse 13 that we just read, it’s the Pharisees and some of the Herodians. We’ll come back to that in a minute. Jump down to verse 18, which we’ll look at more next week. The group that’s going to come after Jesus is the Sadducees, who come to him saying, “There’s no resurrection,” then they ask him a question.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll look at verse 28 where we read, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’” Each of these different groups is trying to trap Jesus, to get him to say something that will either ruin his reputation with the Jewish crowds or ruin his standing with the Roman government. Remember where all of this is building up to. This is starting on Tuesday. By Thursday night, all these groups will have worked together to have Jesus arrested. By afternoon Friday, Jesus will be dead. So this is a very intentional, coordinated attempt to eventually arrest, try and kill Jesus.
So now, back to verse 13. There are two groups here: the Pharisees and the Herodians, which represented a pretty unlikely alliance. The Pharisees were pro-Israel; the Herodians by name were pro-Herod, the governor of the Roman empire which was occupying Israel. So these guys were normally enemies, being on the opposite sides of the political aisle. It was like the politically far right and the politically far left coming together in an attempt to trap Jesus. The word for “trap” here is a word that’s used to refer to catching an animal in a snare or a fish with a hook. In many cases, this word connotes a violent pursuit of something or someone. It’s clear that these guys are literally out for blood.
The next verse, verse 14, says, “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.” Obviously this is feigned flattery, but it’s also true. Jesus is true and unlike these Pharisees and Herodians and other leaders, he did not care about their opinion. He was not swayed by appearances and he truly taught the way of God.
In their minds, at this point, they’re ready to set the trap, lay the bait, with this question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” So let’s look at a little background here. The word for “taxes” is kensos. The reason I point that out is because it’s a transliteration of the word “census.” It referred to a head tax, a census tax, imposed on every single resident of Judea and Samaria. Everybody had to pay one denarius a year, which was worth about one day’s labor.
We learn later in Acts 5:37 that a man named Judas the Galilean actually led a revolt against this tax when it was established. It was deeply resented by the Jewish people. It represented Roman control over and domination of God’s people and had to be paid with a special coin that had on it the image of Caesar or the emperor Tiberias at that time. This coin had an inscription that said, “Tiberias Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” which basically meant son of God to them. This caused the Jewish people to hate this tax even more because it felt idolatrous.
So these leaders are thinking, “When we ask this question of Jesus, this is a no-win situation for him. If he says we should pay the tax, that will be unpopular with the people and tantamount to idolatry. All the Jewish people would see Jesus as politically aligned with Rome, so they would revolt against him. But if he says we should not pay this tax, then the Roman authorities—represented by the Herodians—would see Jesus as revolting against them and they would have cause to imprison or kill him.”
You can just imagine the conversation between these Pharisees and Herodians that led to this moment. They said, “We’ve got it. We know what we can ask him. We’ll put this question out there, we’ll have our cell phones out, ready to record. As soon as he answers, we’ll put it on social media and we’ll have the proof that will bring him down.”
So what does Jesus say? “But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why put me to the test?’” Again, he starts with a question that gets to the root of their question. Why are they doing this? When someone is trying to trap you with a question like this, it’s usually not the question they’re asking that is the real issue. It’s usually something much deeper in their hearts that’s the root behind the question and that was certainly the case here.
Jesus pauses to look them in the eye and exposes why they’re doing this. It’s because they’re against him. They want him gone. But then Jesus continues, “‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ And they brought one.” It’s ironic, in and of itself, that Jesus didn’t have this coin with him, but they’re the ones who actually have the coin with them. Then he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Another question. “They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, “‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at him.”
What a verse. Jesus just spoke in a way that was marvel-worthy and not just because he evaded the trap they were trying to set. No, Jesus just made a statement that one writer called “the single most influential political statement ever made in the history of the world.” Jesus, in one sentence, just outlined the guiding statement for how people and God relate to government.
I want to draw you a picture that a friend and fellow pastor here in our city, Jonathan Leeman, used to describe this relationship that Jesus just outlined, because it’s often misunderstood. Many people read this verse and have this picture in their mind. You have Caesar’s things over here, things that belong to a government like Rome or a government like the United States. This is the world of politics and government, represented by this circle.
Then you have God’s things over here—things that belong to God. It’s almost like we think of a separation between church and state. We picture that same relationship between God and government. You have the domain of government, and you have the domain of God.
While Jesus is certainly acknowledging some distinction in these domains, this picture is not what Jesus is painting, because we know that God’s things include all things. There is nothing—no thing—that is not ultimately under the sovereign governance of God, including Caesar and worldly governments. This is what makes Jesus’ short statement so breathtaking. Follow the logic. When Jesus says, “Whose likeness and inscription is on this coin?”, they say, “Well, it’s Caesar’s inscription on the coin.” Therefore, this coin belongs to Caesar. But step back. Where is God’s likeness, where is God’s inscription?
God’s inscription is etched on the heart of every single human being. Here in verse 16, when we see this word “likeness”—as Jesus holds up this coin and says, “Whose likeness is this?”—it’s the same exact word we read in the very first chapter of the Bible, in the very first moment when men and women are created by God. In Genesis 1:26, the first mention of human beings in the Bible, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” So catch what Jesus is saying. He’s saying, “Caesar’s image is stamped on a coin, so give the coin to Caesar. But God’s image is stamped on every human heart, so give God your heart. Caesar is worthy of a coin; God is worthy of your life.”
In other words, Jesus is not saying, “You have government over here and God over here.” He’s saying, “All things are God’s things. Everything belongs to God. Some of those things under the governance of God belong to Caesar, but everything Caesar has belongs to God, including Caesar himself. They all belong to God.”
This changes everything about how we view government and how we relate to government in this city and this country; in any city in any country.
So here are two foundational takeaways from God’s Word.
1. We humbly, yet conditionally, submit to the government in our nation.
Let’s think about these words. We humbly yet conditionally submit. The word for “render” that Jesus said—“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”—means to give up something, to yield something, even as an obligation. As the people of God, we are obligated—we are commanded by God—to yield, to submit to the government in our nation.
Romans 13:1–2 makes this crystal clear. God says:
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
Jump down to verse five in the same chapter:
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason 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.
We saw similar language to this when we studied 1 Peter 2:13:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or governors as sent by God to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God.
Just think about these passages. Starting with Jesus’ words in Mark 12, they’re shocking because these governments, emperors and governors that are being talked about were not honoring to God in so many ways. We’ve already talked about it. They were idolatrous, exalting the emperor as a god. Yet Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” And the Holy Spirit inspires Paul in Romans and Peter here to say the same thing: “It is the will of God for you to submit to government.”
So, let’s flesh this out in a few practical ways. What does this mean for our lives? This means, first, we pay our taxes with integrity. This is the will of God for our lives. We do not try to cheat the government out of taxes through any sort of justifications we create. That is sin before God. It pleases God for us to pay taxes to our government, fairly and accurately, not begrudgingly, because this is a command of our God. April 15th is a day of worship in our country. You probably haven’t been viewing it that way, but it is, right? This is God saying, “You obey and honor me when you submit to government in these ways. You glorify God by giving government its due, with integrity.
Which leads to another practical implication. We honor and pray for our leaders. We render; we give respect and honor. Romans and 1 Peter 2 both use this same language, not just leaders with whom we agree. First Peter 2 says, “Honor the emperor,” i.e. the emperor who was persecuting Christians. Honor him. As the people of God, we have no excuse for ever dishonoring a president, lawmaker or judge. Even when we disagree with someone, there is a way to disagree with honor
God clearly commands us to honor those who lead us, praying for them sincerely and continually, according to 1 Timothy 2:1–3:
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. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.
This is part of how we humbly submit to the government in our nation, by honoring and praying for our leaders. Yet our submission is conditional.
So here’s another practical takeaway. We obey our laws as long as they do not require us to disobey our Lord. We obey our laws. We subject ourselves to the laws of this land. We should be the most law-abiding people in our country. Even when we don’t like or prefer certain laws, we obey them—as long as they don’t require us to disobey our Lord. If there is a law, a legislator, a governor or government that is telling us either to do something that God forbids or to not do something that God commands, then in the words of Acts 5:29—when the early followers of Jesus were being told not to teach about Jesus—Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Remember the circle within the circle?
2. We ultimately and unconditionally belong to the God over all nations.
While we humbly yet conditionally submit to the government in our nation, we ultimately and unconditionally belong to the God over all nations. It’s the image of God, not a government, that is stamped on our hearts. Our government may be worthy of our taxes and appropriate honor—even a level of obedience—but God alone is worthy of our lives. We humbly and conditionally submit to government; we ultimately and unconditionally belong to God.
So just consider the practical implications that flow from this. We align our lives and the church with Jesus and his Word, not with a politician or a party in this world. The church of Jesus Christ never belonged in the back pocket of a politician or political party. As Christians, we have a prophetic calling to speak the Word of God honorably, justly, compassionately, clearly and comprehensively to every part of our political sphere. We are Jesus’ people. We trust and give our total allegiance to one Leader alone, the one who lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death to pay the price for our sins, the one who rose from the grave. We are not tied to politicians or political parties. We’re tied to the King, at whose feet every president, politician and person will one day bow and confess Jesus as Lord.
This means more than we want a comfortable life in our nation, we want to spread the gospel of the Kingdom among all nations. In other words, we are actually willing to let go of comforts in this country to spread the gospel in this country and to every other country. We are not living to tack Jesus on top of an American dream, as if he’s icing on the cake. As if we get to live it up here, then go to heaven. That is foolishness. We read Jesus’ words earlier in Mark 8:34–36:
And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
We are not living for this world; we’re living for another world, for another dream, a dream of every nation, tribe and tongue hearing the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection from the grave. This means we sacrifice our comfort. We give our resources. We lay down our lives—even lay aside our freedoms—to spread the good news of Jesus in this city and from this city to the ends of the earth.
Knowing our hope is in God and his Kingdom, not any government in any country, this is how Jesus taught us to hope and pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name in all the earth. Your kingdom come…” (Matthew 6:9). This is what we want more than anything else in this world. We don’t want the greatness of our nation; we want the greatness of Jesus’ name to be known in all the nations. We live for this. We raise our kids for this. We spend our money on seeing his Kingdom come. We give our time to this. We set our hope on this.
Matthew 24:14 says, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In the end, our King will come and he will reign with righteousness, perfect peace, final justice and eternal joy. Why live for a fallible government in a country that will not last, instead of giving our lives to the holy God whose Kingdom will not end?
What does the passage say?
1) Read Mark 12:13-12:17 aloud as a group. Take time to let group members share observations about the passage. Try not to move into interpretation of the passage or application of what you have read quite yet. Simply share what you all observe from the text.
- What was the motivation for the question the Pharisees and Herodians asked of Jesus?
- What was significant about the Pharisees and Herodians working together?
- What was unexpected about Jesus’ response to their question?
- Why did they marvel at Jesus’ response?
2) How would you explain or summarize today’s passage in your own words?
What does the passage mean?
1) In verse 17 Jesus made a statement that one writer called “the single most influential political statement ever made in the history of the world” because he outlined in a sentence the guiding statement for how people and God relate to government.
- From this passage and other passages, what are we to give to the government? What are the limits to this? See Romans 13:5, Peter 2:13-15, 1 Timothy 2:13-15
- From this passage and other passages, what are we to give to God? What are the limits to this? See Acts 5:29, Mark 8:34
How can we apply this passage to our lives?
1) What is one way you can more humbly and conditionally submit to the government in our nation?
2) Read 1 Timothy 2:1-3 aloud and take some extended time to pray for our nation. Pray for our President, our Vice President, our Congressional leaders, members of our military, our Supreme Court Justices, and other leaders.
- Pray for salvation for those who have not yet accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.
- Pray that they will lead with wisdom, honesty, courage, humility, and discernment.
3) How is God leading you to live more intentionally for His kingdom over our country?
4) Read Mark 8:34 aloud and take some extended time to pray that we will take the gospel to all nations.
Mark 12:13-17 ESV
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 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,[a] 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?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius[b] and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”17 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.
Two Foundational Takeaways:
1) We humbly yet conditionally submit to the government in our nation.
- We pay our taxes with integrity.
- We honor and pray for our leaders.
- We obey our laws as long as they don’t require us to disobey our Lord.
2) We ultimately and unconditionally belong to the God over all nations.
- We align our lives and the church with Jesus and His Word, not with a politician or party in this world.
- More than we want a comfortable life in our nation, we want to spread the gospel among all nations.
- Our hope is in God and His kingdom, not any government in any country.