13 ‘Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. 14 When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.” 16 So they brought it. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”17 And Jesus answered and 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.
Speaking of taxes, taxes have been around as long as governments. Now, the reasonable man doesn’t mind paying his fair-share of tax. I mean, we all like to drive on decent roads. We all like to have our garbage picked up and dumped for us. We like to have the shores of our great nation defended against would-be invaders. Taxes are a necessary part of life for any ordered civilization.
We see that things were no different 2,000 years ago in Palestine. The people at the time of Jesus, like us, had to pay taxes. We see (above in Mark 12:13-17) some sneaky people try to trick Jesus on the subject of taxes. Let me explain to you who these tricksters are. They are Pharisees and Herodians. They were sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders mentioned back in Mark 11:27.
Now, before we get going, let’s note that the Pharisees and Herodians disliked each other, intensely! However, here they are together, conspiring against a common enemy - Jesus Christ. Most of us know the Pharisees as the hyper-legalistic religious sect which was dominating Israel at the time of Jesus. They were the ultra-nationalists of Israel, and they disliked intensely the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Herodians? Well, we don’t know a great deal about the Herodians. The Herodians probably got their name from Herod the Great, who had received governorship of the kingdom of Judea by appointment of the Romans. The Herodians seem to have been affiliated with the Sadducees.
The Sadducees were the religious liberals of the day. The Herodians seem to be something like the political wing of the Sadducee sect. Albert Barnes says, “The Herodians and the Sadducees seem on most questions to be united.” p. 104. But here they are, the Pharisees who didn’t favor Caesar, and the Herodians who did favor Caesar, in cahoots one with the other. So they toddle off to confront Jesus with a question about paying taxes.
Every adult male in the whole of Judea had to pay a poll-tax. According to the historians this poll-tax came in around 6 AD after Archelaus was deposed. Archelaus, who was the son of Herod, gets a mention in Matthew 2:22. Archelaus became ruler upon the death of his father Herod, but the Romans deposed him for misgovernment in 6 AD. Anyway, that’s when this poll-tax or head-tax was introduced. So, the people of Judea had seen these taxes for some twenty-odd years.
Now, a number of years ago the British Government brought in a poll-tax in Scotland. After it was implemented in Scotland for about a year, the government introduced it into England. There were riots in the English streets! So the government of the day got the message and scrapped it. But not so with the Roman Government in Palestine. But anyhow, it’s a poll-tax that’s being referred to here in our text. RJ Rushdoony says, “The Herodians favored the Roman tax and the Herodian dynasty, which they regarded as preferable to direct Roman rule.” (Inst. Vol.1 p. 718).
The Herodians then, generally speaking, are pro-Roman government whereas the Pharisees are anti-Roman Government. So, united and slimy they slide, slither and sidle up to Jesus & try to butter Him up. They patronize Jesus by telling Him that He teaches rightly, teaching the truth of God, (Mark 12:14). They told Him that He doesn’t show personal favoritism, either to the Pharisees or the Herodians. So, after they think they’ve done a good job of greasing Jesus up, they then slip the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
You can see what they’re trying to do here? They don’t want to give Jesus any room to maneuver. “Is it right to pay the poll-tax - Yes or No?” So, keep in mind that you’ve got Pharisees and Herodians here. If Jesus said “Yes!” He’d appear to be siding with the Herodians and against His own people. And the Pharisees would immediately make sure everyone knew. And if Jesus said “No!” then the Herodians would make sure the Romans knew.
Is He going to show favoritism to the Pharisees and their cause or the Herodians and their cause? So, you can see the slight-of-hand going on here, can’t you? Well, so could Jesus! Say “Yes” and He would be accused of showing personal favoritism toward the Herodians. Say “No” and He’d be accused of showing personal favoritism toward the Pharisees. But as the Proverb says, “Surely, in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird” 1:17.
Jesus being Jesus saw right through their little scheme. Let me paint into the picture a little more of the historical background of what’s going down here. The question they asked is this, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Now, I want to pick up on that word “lawful” – is it “lawful” or “right” as the NIV would have it. The same Greek word is used by the Pharisees, e.g., in Luke 6:1. There, Jesus and His disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. They were picking heads of grain and rubbed them in their hands as they walked. Some Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not LAWFUL on the Sabbath?” The Pharisees, as you know, had their own view of what was lawful, of what was right and wrong. They were forever distorting the Law of God, the measure of all that is right and wrong.
Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is one long correction of the Pharisees’ mutilation of right and wrong. But here they are again, teamed up with the Herodians, trying to trick Jesus. And they believe that the poll-tax is wrong, unlawful. They see it as a form of slavery! Therefore if Jesus says it is lawful, they will instantly declare Him as the enemy of Israel!
There was a time when the people physically revolted against this tax. Luke in Acts 5:37 records these words in which Gamaliel, a Pharisee, says, “Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, [in the days of the taxing, KJV] and drew away many people after him.” Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the Romans in 6 or 7 AD. The revolt against the Romans took place shortly after the poll-tax was introduced. And, according to Josephus the Historian, Judas of Galilee died in this revolt. According to Josephus, Judas of Galilee vehemently proclaimed, “Taxation is no better than downright slavery!” He saw this poll-tax as nothing less than treason against God! So, that’s where the Pharisees are coming from in asking Jesus, “Is it lawful?” They’re of the opinion of Judas of Galilee that it’s most UN-lawful. And, of course, the Herodians were of the opinion that the poll-tax was lawful. So, who is right? The religious Legalists or the religious Liberals?
Now, just before we study the brilliant answer Jesus gave to that question, let’s paint in some more detail into the backdrop. What you have here in the text is more similar to Australia today than first meets the eye. The people of God, Israel, the Church, our Christian forefathers were then living among pagans. The non-Christians had the upper-hand in all the realms of government. And if there was any Church representation on a government level, it was the Herodian/Sadducees, the religious (theological) liberals who were doing the representing. Is it any different today with the Church in Australia? Isn’t it always the religious liberals with all their purple robes and gold crosses who represent the Church to the government? And where are the religious legalists today? Well, they’re usually off forming their own exclusive denomination somewhere! And usually, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, they tend to view any Christian entering politics as siding with the enemy. In other words, they view the Government of the land and everything to do with it, even taxes as the enemy!
Now, with all this in mind, the question before us this morning becomes three-dimensional. To draw three dimensions on a piece of paper you need the length, breadth and height of the object. The object lesson we’re trying to draw is about paying taxes. The Herodians, the religious liberals of Jesus’ day, and the legalistic Pharisees argued over the length and breadth of the poll-tax. The Herodians had the extremely broad view and the Pharisees had the extremely narrow view. The Herodians had the length way too long and the Pharisees had the breadth far too narrow. But Jesus, Wisdom Incarnate, draws a three-dimensional picture for them. And He does this by bringing into the equation the missing point of reference, i.e., God! How did He do it? Well, He asks them to show Him a denarius, the coin used to pay the poll-tax. Then He gets them to have a look at it, “Whose image, whose “icon” is this?” Mark 12: 16. “And whose signature, whose “epigraph” inscription is on it? They answered and said, ‘Caesar’s’” Then Jesus gives them His brilliant answer, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or in the NMV, i.e., the Neil McKinlay Version, “Pay Caesar the Poll-Tax AND Pay God the Soul-Tax!”
So Jesus, contrary to the opinion of the Pharisees stated that it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. But He shows them that not only is there a tax on their head, but also on their soul! So let’s move on to our second point as I explain the soul tax.
Jesus answered the question, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ in the affirmative. I hope you can all see that, for it’s very important that you see it. Taxes, and we’re talking about “lawful” taxes, are a necessary part of life. It’s the teaching of Jesus, which is the teaching of Scripture. E.g., after explaining what the Civil Government is for, Paul the Apostle says in Romans 13:6-7, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they [ie, the government] are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due...” etc. So then, we’ve to render to all their due. We’ve to render Caesar, or the Civil Government of our day, their due. And also we’ve to render to God His due.
Now, some people have a great amount of difficulty seeing the connection between rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God. We have concluded in light of the Scriptural teaching of Jesus that paying taxes are lawful. That even paying taxes to the pagan Roman Government was lawful, it was right. Therefore, to not pay taxes, as in being a tax-dodger would be unlawful, would be wrong. It would make you a law-breaker.
I know someone who refused to pay the Government Poll-tax when it was brought in for that year in Scotland. He was even willing to go to jail on principle. However, he subsequently decided to pay back to the Government every penny he owed. Why? Because he loves paying taxes? Who does? He’s paid back every penny because of the grace of God. You see, God by His grace and mercy had converted him since that time. So, he wanted to gratefully serve his Saviour by being obedient to Him, even in paying taxes!
Can’t you see that paying taxes is being obedient to God? Or are you one of those who detaches God from the world? Do you think that this world belongs to Satan and so do all Governments on earth? Well, why would Jesus tell you to pay your taxes to the Devil and his Government minions? No, you need to see that all Government bodies on earth are as accountable to God as are you & I! Romans 13:1-2, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Caesar was only a man, the figurehead of the Roman Government in Jesus’ day. It was his image, his “icon” that was on the coin used for the poll-tax. And the idea that Jesus was conveying was, that since Caesar’s image and signature was on the tax-coin, the coin BELONGED to him. It’s like when we were kids, if you saw a coin on the ground and said, “That’s mine!” someone was sure to say, “Is your name on it?” And if your name wasn’t on it, you might have a fight over whose money it was! (Of course technically the money belonged to whoever had lost it. I merely illustrate a point.) However, Caesar’s image and signature was on the Roman money, so it belonged to Caesar.
Now then, as we recap a little, we’ve seen that the Herodians and Pharisees tried to trick Jesus. But Jesus sprung their plot by use of a silver coin with Caesar’s image and signature on it. Jesus told them, because it had Caesar’s image and signature on it, it therefore belonged to Caesar. Hence the words, “Render to Caesar the things that ARE Caesar’s. And we’ve seen then, that this is the lawful thing to do. Therefore paying taxes is right!
So, as we begin to tie things together: Let me ask you, What is man? Who or what are you and I? What does Jesus and the Scriptures teach about you and me? Whose image are we, and whose inscription is on us? We understand the Poll-tax, but what about the Soul-tax, have we really understood it? Have we really comprehended what it means to Render to God the things that are God’s? Well, you need to understand that God owns you, God owns me, for He made us, He minted us! And the tax that He demands of you and me is that you love the LORD our God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Now, the mad and crazy and bizarre thing about this, is that there are people willing to go to prison forever, and suffer the torments of hell forever, rather than pay the Soul-tax! And, they want to do so as a matter of principle! They claim that God has no right to make any demands of them! They claim that it is no right, that it’s unlawful to do so! Therefore they withhold their Soul-tax from God whose image they are. Some even want to form God in their own image. That’s why there’s any number of false gods around the world.
Some have formed a god they can treat as non-existent! However, the God who has revealed Himself propositionally in Scripture, the God who has revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ may demand His Soul-tax of you this very day, and how are you going to make payment? Are you going to try to fob Him off with an old, bent, twisted, distorted and tarnished coin? I’m talking about you and me!
The image of God is so unrecognizable and the signature so illegible, that you and I are no longer legal tender in God’s eyes. We’re only fit to be melted down as so much scrap metal! But God by His grace and mercy, by His kindness has given us the necessary and required currency. He’s given us what we need to escape the great melt-down on the Last Day that Peter speaks of. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” John 3:16.
The Soul-tax God demands of you is a perfect life, where every single thought, word and deed throughout your whole life from womb to tomb was unblemished! For this perfect life would be a reflection of the God who made you. For that’s what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself. It’s to reflect the Triune God. There’s only ever been one Person who has done this since the Fall of man. And, if you don’t already know Him, God is offering Him to you.
Will you give up your Soul-tax evasion and receive the gift God is offering? God is offering you free of charge the Soul-tax that He demands of you! He is offering you His perfect Son who is the perfect, the express image of God. Jesus Christ has the signature, the name of God written on Him. He is the only legal tender in heaven. And the way to receive this gift of God is to recognize how tarnished you are as the image of God. Your thoughts are blemished, your words are stained, and your deeds are as filthy rags. Don’t insult God by thinking you can offer yourself as the Soul-Tax payment. Acknowledge to God that you are illegal tender in His eyes.
If you haven’t already, accept then, the gift He has offered. Believe in Jesus Christ to save you. Trust in Jesus Christ alone as your Soul-Tax payment. If you do this, or if you have done this, then God will welcome you into heaven. He will welcome you when He calls on you to make that final payment! But meanwhile, show your gratitude to God, do what your Savior says – even when paying taxes! “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Father we thank You that Your Word, the Scriptures show us up as we are in our sinful state to be illegal tender for heaven. LORD we know that You won’t be fobbed off by any of our imperfect & sinful lives. We saw how the Herodians & the Pharisees thought they could fool Jesus. But LORD, You know the hearts of men. It must grieve You to see how distorted Your image, even Man has become through sin. Forgive us our sins. Help us to trust only in Jesus Christ alone as revealed in Scripture for salvation. Help us to honor Him in our daily lives. In the precious name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.