|PASSING THE BUCK
Series: The Good News of Jesus Christ - Part Thirty Seven
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
January 27, 2019
Would you please stand and read with me our text for this morning - Mark 12:13-17.
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.
We’ve been looking Jesus’ final week of ministry leading up to the cross and His crucifixion and resurrection. So to make sure we’re together on when and where are we have short quiz.
Question #1: Mark 12:13-17 takes place on what day of the week?
A: Sunday - Palm Sunday
B: Monday - Clearing the Temple
C: Tuesday - passing the withered fig tree and what we looked at last Sunday which was Jesus’ authority being questioned by Sanhedrin and the Parable of the Tenants - and what we’re coming to here at verse 13.
D: Wednesday - is tomorrow - which will come to in a March
Question #2: Jesus and the disciples are:
A: In Bethany
B: On the Mount of Olives
C: In the Temple Courts
D: In Dos Palos
Verse 13 tells us that “they” sent to Jesus some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians.
Hopefully you’re “C’ing” a trend here… [pun intended]
Question #3: Who are “they”?
A: Tax Collectors
B: The Temple Guards
C: The Sanhedrin
D: Part of the Rebel Alliance (Zealots)
“They” are the Sanhedrin - whom we saw last Sunday try to take Jesus down and out. Unsuccessfully. So verse 13 tells us that they’re trying a new tactic. “They” sent some Pharisees and some of the Herodians to Jesus to try and trap Jesus into saying something incriminating.
Before we get into The Trap we need to be clear on who the Pharisees and the Herodians are.
The Pharisees we’re probably more familiar with. Yes? These were the gate keepers of the law. Religiously conservative. Who believed in strict - detailed - OCD obedience to the oral and written Law of Moses. They believed that the study and keeping of the Law was the highest form of worship and obedience to God.
And - what is especially important of us to know here - is that the Pharisees were extremely pro-Jewish. The Pharisees tolerated the Romans as a necessary evil so that they could go on with their rituals of being obedient to the Law. But ultimately they saw the Romans as pagan ungodly Gentiles who were occupying the Promised Land and messing with the spiritual life of God’s people.
The Herodians might be less familiar. The Herodians were descended from or related to or somehow connected with Herod the Great. Hence the name... Herodians.
And, the Herodians were in some way connected with the Roman royal court. Herod Agrippa I - played with the Roman Emperor Claudias - while he was going to school in Rome.
So - what’s important for us to understand here is that the Herodians got their power from Rome. Politically they were aligned with Rome. They compromised with Rome. They often allowed their allegiance with Rome to overrule their religious convictions.
Point being that the Pharisees and the Herodians were are on total opposite sides of the religious and political spectrum. So it wasn’t that they just didn’t get along. They hated each other. They actively worked against each other.
But - as antagonistic as all that was - they hated and feared Jesus more.
So the Sanhedrin - which was kind of like the US Supreme Court and the US Congress and the Vatican all rolled into one - with it’s own drama - the Sanhedrin sends this delegation of Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus - in order to trap Jesus into saying something that will allow them to take Jesus down and to take Jesus out. To catch at saying something that will discredit and defame Him before the crowd.
Verse 14 - “And they” - they is whom? This delegation sent by the Sanhedrin - 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.
Which is true. Jesus is authentic - the real deal. And Jesus is impartial. He speaks God’s truth without playing to the crowd - without pandering to what’s trending. Jesus faithfully and impartially has been teaching the word of God with great power and authority.
But, coming from this delegation - the acknowledgements are shovel deep in pure insincere flattery. The purpose of which is to position themselves before the crowd as having a sincere question. And raising the expectations of the crowd that Jesus needs to answer the question.
So, question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
Let’s be careful. As we move through this - as much as this may seem to be about paying taxes this isn’t about… paying taxes. This is about power and position and authority and who controls what. At least as far as the delegation is concerned. And - bottom line - about taking Jesus down and out.
Is the border wall about the border wall or is it about something else? Just saying.
The tax they’re asking about was a poll tax. It was based on population.
One of the sons of Herod the Great was Herod Archelaus. Herod Archelaus came to power after the death of his father Herod the Great because Caesar Augustus had raised him into that position of power. Herod Archelaus was a cruel ungodly mass murder that ruled because Rome allowed Him to rule.
Herod Archelaus ruled until 6 AD when he was removed from power by Caesar Augustus - as Caesar Augustus was consolidating Rome’s control of Judea and Judea was made a province of Rome.
So in 6 AD - the Romans instituted this poll tax which was based on population. Meaning that every adult male in Judea had to pay this tax directly into the imperial treasury. So that this tax was a tribute tax paid to Rome.
The tax is a brutal ongoing reminder that these Jews are living as a conquered and subjugated and enslaved people in their own land. And that they are being coerced into paying for the privilege of being occupied by the Roman military.
Is it lawful - spiritually - morally - legally - right or wrong - in Israel to pay the tax. There is no simple “yes” or “no” - “either-or” - answer to the question.
If Jesus says, “Yes. Pay the tax.” - He’s siding with the Herodians. Which means He’ll alienate the vast majority of spiritually devout, patriotic Jews and He’ll give the Pharisees evidence for their charge of blasphemy. An instant death sentence.
If Jesus says, “No. Don’t pay the tax.” - He’s siding with the Pharisees and opening Himself up to a charge of rebellion against the Roman government. And for sure - given the twisted allegiance of the Herodians - for sure they’ll let the Romans know. An instant death sentence.
Are we together that the question this delegation is asking Jesus is a hugely significant politically charged question that is not about the tax but about taking Jesus down and out.
Verse 15 brings us to The Teaching. How Jesus answers the question.
Verse15: But, knowing their hypocrisy, He said to them, “Why put Me to the test? Bring Me a denarius and let me look at it.”
Jesus - knowing that this delegation really doesn’t respect Him as an impartial teacher of God’s word and that the question isn’t about taxes - Jesus asks them, “Why do you put Me to the test?”
“Test” translates the same Greek word that’s used for Satan testing Jesus in the wilderness. “Test” meaning it’s the same source. Testing that comes straight out of the pit of Hell not a sincere desire for understanding.
Jesus asks the delegation to bring Him a denarius. Which doesn’t mean that He and the disciples didn’t have a denarius. But was Jesus’ way of getting His opponents to come up with a coin from their own togas. Which they did.
It’s their denarius. They’re using the coin themselves. They’re benefitting from its use. They’ve accepted its role in the finances of Israel - in their own personal finances. They’ve already bought into the system that they’re trying to trap Jesus with. Hypocrisy from Hell.
You guys have already failed at what you’re trying to trap Me with.
Jesus asks 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.”
“Render” - meaning “to give back.” “To pay back to” Caesar what belongs to Caesar. It’s Caesar’s image on the coin. It belongs to him - to the kingdom of Rome. Give it back to Caesar.
And “give back to God” what belongs to God. What belongs to Him. To the kingdom of God.
It is important that we slow down and understand what it is that Jesus is saying here.
A denarius was a Roman coin. Made out of silver. That was worth about what a skilled worker could earn in one day’s work.
The denarius of that time - which is what this is a picture of - on one side was the likeness - a picture of the head of the ruling Caesar Tiberias and the inscription: “Tiberias Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” And on the other side is an image of Caesar Tiberias seated on a throne - wearing a crown and wearing the clothing of a high priest - with the inscription: “Highest Priest.”
Meaning what’s stamped on the coin is a graven image of a guy who thought he was god - expected to be worshipped as a god - and was worshipped as a god.
Which was like stamping “In God We Trust” on the coin. Only in this case the god was Caesar Tiberius son of the Divine Augustus.
“Likeness” translates the Greek word “ikon” “Ikon” was the word the Greeks used to translate the Hebrew word “tselem” - meaning “image.” “Tselem” - “image” - “icon” being the word used in Genesis 1 where God says, “Let us make man in our... image.” Same word. “So God created man in His own... image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26,27)
Who’s created in the image of God? We are. Who’s image is stamped all over us? God’s.
“Inscription” translates the Greek verb “epigraphe” - which means to write on something. The root verb is grapho which translates the Hebrew verb “kathab.” “Kathab” - “inscription” - is used by God in Exodus when God tells Moses that God is going to inscribe the words of His covenant law on tablets of stone.
God takes His people out of Egypt. Brings them to Mount Sinai. Then God brings Moses up on the mountain and God inscribes on tablets of stone the 10 Commandments. What is the core of the Covenant of what it means to live in relationship with the living God. The Covenant which God’s people broke on day 1 of the covenant before Moses even came down off the mountain. (Exodus 31:18)
Then in Jeremiah 31 God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah of the coming day when God is going to write - same word “kathab” - when God is going to inscribe His covenant law on the hearts His people. Even us. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand out of the land of Egypt, My covenant that they broke... But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people... For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God writes His covenant law - what it means to have a relationship with Him - on the hearts of people who’s sin God no longer remembers. The relationship we can have with God because our sin’s been nailed to the cross with Jesus.
Who’s law is inscribed on the hearts of God’s people? God’s.
Who’s image is stamped all over us? God’s
Listen to Jesus’ answer again:
Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s - the denarius is all about Caesar - and to God the things that are God’s.” God - Who’s image is stamped all over us and Who’s law is inscribed in our hearts.
Within the sovereign will and plan of the sovereign God is the existence of human governments. That coin represents a legitimate government with authority that functioned and fulfilled the roles of a God ordained state despite being ruled by a pretend god and taking on roles that conflicted with God’s authority.
There were problems. Maybe lots of problems. As there have always been problems. This may be a shocker but we even have problems with our own government today.
But Pax Romana was the historic peace that the Roman Empire brought to much of the known world. “All roads lead to Rome” in part means that there were roads. Commerce. Trade. A stable economic system. With a legal and political system that kept all that happening. Rendered taxes supported all that.
The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. It’s not about some geographic area over which some Caesar or president or monarch reigns. It’s not about the economics and politics and philosophies of man.
The Kingdom of God is the realm over which the sovereign, almighty, all knowing, self-existent, eternal, holy God our creator reigns - His dominion. God being everywhere eminent and sovereign over all of His creation.
God’s kingdom describes God’s reign over the people of this world. His sovereign rule over the affairs of history - over human life - over our lives.
And God’s kingdom also requires the rendering of God’s people.
Jesus’ answer acknowledges that we live in the difficult tension between the realities of living in a fallen world with human governments - the kingdoms and empires of this world. And yet we live as followers of Jesus Christ who are citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. And that tension does not always come down to easy “yes” or “no” - “either” “or” - answers.
But Jesus’ answer also acknowledges - teaches us to understand - that while the two kingdoms coexist and they may cooperate - they are not coequal. It is God Who rules over Caesar.
The ultimate question - regarding authority - that Jesus is getting at is far more personal than images and inscriptions on a coin. The ultimate question is: Who will we render our hearts to?
Let’s explore that.
Hold on to this: Jesus is not teaching us to choose between one or the other but to consider which kingdom has the greater authority over our lives and to live accordingly.
A long time ago in a church far far away - someone noticed that up on the platform in the sanctuary - just as there is here - there was a United States flag and a Christian flag. The United States flag was on one side the platform - the Christian flag was on the other.
Someone asked, “Why do we have only those flags? Why don’t we have an Armenian flag too?”
Which created a surprisingly “spirited” discussion of the purpose of having a United States flag - a Christian flag - an Armenian flag - a California flag - or any flag for that matter. What the purpose was and what that said about our allegiances as a congregation.
To whom or to what are we giving authority over our lives? Who are we rendering ourselves to?
The United States flag we know about. When that flag is displayed it represents the United States of America.
How many of you have recited the Pledge of Allegiance? When we recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America - we pledge our allegiance to the republic for which it stands. Allegiance - fidelity - loyalty. Acknowledged authority.
Over here is the Christian flag. It’s a white flag with a blue box in the upper left corner - with a red Latin cross in the box.
The Christian flag was conceived of by Charles Overton in 1897 in - of all places - Coney Island, New York. The idea was to design a flag that would represent Christianity.
There’s even a pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior, for whose kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.”
Allegiance - fidelity - loyalty. Acknowledged - rendered - authority.
There’s a danger that we face in this country - as Christian Americans - of equating being Christian with being American - mistaking American culture for a Christian lifestyle. Thinking that an American Christian lifestyle is really true devotion to God. Sometimes the differences between those flags - the kingdoms they represent - tends to get blurred.
What allegiance - what authority over our lives do we give to a government that endorses what we know to be contrary to what the Bible teaches? Do we obey the State or our conscience? Which has higher authority - government or church?
In the day-to-day of our lives those aren’t always easy questions to answer. And how would that question get answered in Canada? Or Japan? Or North Korea?
Ray Stedman - preaching on this passage - said this. “Human government, Jesus says, has only limited control over men. It has certain powers over the bodies and minds of men. It can regulate our conduct to some degree, and has the right to influence and regulate our attitudes and actions and what we say, and how we say it. But there is one area in human life over which secular power has no control, and that is the human spirit. Secular power cannot legislate as to whom we worship, who governs our conscience, and who constitutes the ultimate authority in life…Certain things do properly belong to Caesar; give them to him. But other things about you belong only to God, so give those to God.” (1)
Jesus is not teaching us to choose between one or the other but to consider which kingdom has the greater authority over our lives and to live accordingly.
The ultimate question - regarding authority - is getting at is far more personal than images on a coin. Far more basic than allegiances to a flag or a nation. The ultimate question is: Who will I render my heart to?
Try that with me, “Who will I render my heart to?”
The last part of verse 17 records the response of the crowd to Jesus: “And they marveled at Him.”
“To marvel” has the idea of being amazed - jaw dropping staggered.
Sometimes we need to be jaw dropping staggered by Jesus. To keep coming back to Him - to keep refocusing on Him - Who He is - what He’s done for us - the basis and basics of what it means that we are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
In 1989 when I first went to Yerevan - the capital of Armenia - there in Lenin Square was this huge imposing solid steel statute of Lenin mounted on a multilevel reinforced concrete base. Not even nuclear holocaust could have brought down that statue.
In 2016 - when Fred and I were in Yerevan - in what is now called Republic Square - where that statue was - there’s a park with a lawn and flowers.
In Armenia - during the days when the Soviet Union was coming apart - hundreds of thousands of people gathering in the main square of Yerevan - day after day in front of the government buildings - under the statue of Lenin - and while they gathered for political rallies and calling for independence - in the midst of that there were brothers in Christ preaching the Gospel to those thousands who were gathered there.
People who were spiritually hungry. Men and women - empty and disillusioned with the failed promises and the corruption of communism - searching for the dignity and value placed on their lives by God - desperate to be filled with with the only hope for mankind - salvation offered in Jesus Christ.
As people are today - even in America - even in Merced. Yes? Maybe even here this morning.
Back in 1967, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand - in his book Tortured For Christ - writes, “There is no political power that can overthrow communism… The Underground Church....will win the hearts of the communists and change the face of the world… Communists can become Christians… We shall win the communists. First, because God is on our side. Secondly, because our message corresponds to the deepest needs of the heart.” (2)
We won’t find this in any secular newspaper or on CNN - but the reality is there if we look for it. The collapse of the Soviet Union was fueled by the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Mark begins his Gospel account - Mark 1:14 - Mark records that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
The time being fulfilled is more than just what time of day is showing on the sundial. [It’s about 11:05?] It’s a different word in Greek than the word for chronological time. The word here has the idea of the decisive time of God’s acting.
With the coming of Jesus - Who is the good news - Jesus Who is the Gospel of God in the flesh and blood of our humanity - with the coming of Jesus, God is doing something special - unique at this time like no other time.
The kingdom of God being at hand means that all of God’s transcendent sovereignty is as close as our hand. Which is pretty close.
Jesus is referring to Himself. God’s kingdom has come near in the reality that He - Jesus the King - is standing right there in front of the people.
The Gospel demands a response. If the time is now. If the Kingdom has come. If the King Himself is standing right here - right now. Then life must change. In God’s kingdom there is only one King. Either God is sovereign over our lives or we are.
Repent and believe - to turn and have faith - means to turn away - to abandon - our old self-centered sinful way of living life in order to turn to God and trust in the Messiah. Jesus, Who’s come to save us from our sin - to live in the new redeemed life as His royal subject.
We either reject or receive the good news of the King - His message of forgiveness and redeemed God given life - lived not by our efforts but by His royal power. There’s no in between riding the fence.
1. Ray Stedman, form his sermon By What Authority? Mark 11:27-12:27
2. Richard Wurmbrand, “Tortured For Christ”, The Voice of The Martyrs, Bartlesville, OK, pages 68, 99, 125, 103
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).
Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, Volume 2: Insights on Mark (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2016).
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.