Mark 12:17, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Do you realize how startling this would have been to a Jewish audience? Jesus, in this one phrase, told Jews that it was ok to pay taxes to an idolatrous government with an idolatrous coin. This is more than just a clever answer saving Jesus from the trap set for Him. Many people think that in this phrase Jesus not only created but validated what we now call the separation of Church and State. I don’t disagree with that, I just think that there’s much more going on here than just the separation of Church and State. Not only is Jesus saying that paying taxes to Caesar is ok, but by saying that paying taxes to Caesar is ok He is also saying that the Roman government is a legitimate government. You know what that means? A pagan government that rejects the one true God, according to Jesus, is a legitimate government.
This means, at least, two things.
First, Christians should be good citizens, and in order to be good citizens Christians are to give to the existing government what they are due. Government, according to the Bible is seen as a good thing ordained by God that Christians can and should be a part of while recognizing that it doesn’t have to be Christian in order to be good. So every government, pagan or Christian, reflects an innate authority based in God’s authority alone. Yet because of the fall of man in Genesis 3 we now know that all governments do not properly reflect authority, but rather tend to reflect the abuse of that authority. So even though authority is by nature a good thing, we recognize that not all authority is used for good. Within the words of Jesus here we find that even though all governments have been affected by the fall, rather than rejecting government and seeking to establish our own, we must work at government so that it more reflects proper justice and authority. This means Christians are to be law-abiding people, tax-paying people, and people who pray continually for those in working within governmental offices. This is how we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Second, Christians are not only to be good citizens, but we’re to be globally good citizens. Think about it. Jesus could have required that those who follow Him to only obey and pay taxes to earthly governments that recognize and submit to the one true God, but He didn’t. Rather because Jesus taught a submission to and the legitimacy of the pagan Roman government, this becomes a principle that is to be followed by every Christian in every nation. Think of how it was in Old Testament: one people, one nation, one God. It was a theocracy, where all citizens were expected to follow and love God. Now, Jesus says, for His followers it’s no longer this way. His followers are no longer to be looking to build one nation or one earthly kingdom but are to be good citizens of the earthly governments we find ourselves under. Why? Jesus’ “Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Because of this no earthly kingdom should ever be identified with God’s people.
Here me loud and clear: Americans are not God’s chosen people. Modern Israelites are not God’s chosen people. Modern day Jamaicans are not God’s chosen people. No, God’s people are a global people. Redeemed men and women who do life in every nation, language, people, and tongue as good citizens showing forth the good character of God in whatever nation they happen to live in.
Now, Jesus could’ve stopped here in His answer and would’ve successfully navigated the crafty question meant to trap Him. But He continued to make another point clear. Not only should we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but the second half of His answer in v17 is, “…render to God the things that are God’s.”
Notice what Jesus is saying. The Denarius He was holding had an inscription on one side that said Caesar was the ‘son of divine Augustus’ which was meant to convey that Caesar was a god. This is also held up in other historical literature where we read the phrase ‘Caesar Kurios’ (Caesar is lord) was a common motto in first century Greco-Roman culture. By saying ‘give to God what is God’s’ Jesus is contradicting the coin He’s holding. The coin said Caesar was a god, yet Jesus clearly makes a distinction between Caesar and God, which ultimately means Caesar is not god. Because Caesar is not god, and God is God, the extent of a government’s authority and the extent of God’s authority are different. Governments really do have authority in the lives of their citizens, but their authority is not a universal authority. It has borders and boundaries. Whose authority is universal? Whose authority transcends all of man’s limitations? God’s. So Christians are to obey the government, but Christians are never to worship the government or its leader. Our duty to earthly governmental authority is limited, because we have a greater allegiance to God, and whenever we find these two authorities (of God and government) clashing, we go with God every time…no compromise. This means when the government commands us to do something that is morally wrong, we as Christians, are called to disobey those authorities and obey God instead because God’s holds a higher authority over us.
These things are played out for us in Acts 4. The authorities in place told the apostles not to speak or preach in the name of Jesus Christ and it was Peter and John who responded in Acts 4:19-20 saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” So in their example we see obedience to authorities but we see a greater obedience to God. A more modern example is found in Washington D.C. Capitol Hill Baptist Church is a historic church in Washington D.C. When they were founded in 1878 they labored to put Jesus’ teaching about government into their statement of faith, and this is what the came up with, “We believe civil government is of divine appointment, for the interest and good order of human society, and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored, and obeyed, except in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Today 138 years later they still hold to this paragraph. They did well, and we would do well to heed it still.
Before we finish note one final implication: because the ultimate allegiance of Christians belongs to God and no nation or government, it is therefore problematic to say that any one nation on earth is a Christian nation. For us, just because the principles of Christianity influenced the founders of our nation, and just because we have had some presidents who were Christians, this does not mean that most Americans are Christians, that most government employees are Christians, that the Christian worldview is the American worldview, or that one has to be an American to be a Christian. No, America is not God’s country. No earthly nation is God’s country. His country is our heavenly country that is already here but not yet fully here.
As Christians, we are dual citizens. We are citizens first and foremost of the city of God, and secondly we are citizens of the city of man. We enter into the city of God by faith in Christ’s work on our behalf, and we show our faith in Christ within the city of man by our good works done for our fellow man.
May those good gospel works flow forth into the politically chaotic 2020.