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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Christ tested on a thorny political question
Text:Mark 12:13-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 138
Hymn 82:3
Psalm 1
Hymn 80
Psalm 145:1,2,5

Reading:  Romans 13
Text:  Mark 12:13-17
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Sometimes we speak of being in a Catch-22.  It’s an interesting expression.  It originally comes from a novel of the same name first published in 1961.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 as a piece of satire and historical fiction.  Set in the Second World War, it follows the US air war in the Mediterranean.  The main character is John Yossarian, a B-25 crew member.  He gets caught in an impossible situation.  Yossarian wants to get out of flying a dangerous mission.  The only way he can get out is by having a medical evaluation that declares him insane and unfit to fly.  Yet the only way he can get this medical evaluation is by asking for it – and by asking for it he automatically shows that he is sane and fit to fly.  He can’t win – he has to fly the mission.  In the story, the American military designed its regulations so that there was no way out.  This is the Catch-22 of the story.  Incidentally, Joseph Heller (the author) just randomly picked the number 22 – it has no special meaning.  Through this novel the expression Catch-22 has become part of the English language. 

But the idea has been around for a long time.  We see something like it in our text for this morning.  Our Lord Jesus was in Jerusalem.  It was the Tuesday before Good Friday.  Just a few days before his crucifixion.  He was at the temple, walking about and teaching.  In the passage right before this one, he had deliberately provoked the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.  He did that with his parable of the tenants.  Christ said that the Jewish religious leaders were like those tenant farmers who abused and killed the servants of the landowner and then would even go so far as to kill the landowner’s son.  That ticked off the Jewish religious leaders.  It motivated them even more to find a way to get rid of Jesus. 

In our text, they send some lackeys to do their dirty work.  The dirty work involves a Catch-22.  If Jesus answers one way, he’s caught.  If Jesus answers another way, he’s caught.  Either way he has to fly the mission, so to speak.  Either way, he has to be arrested, brought up on charges, and liquidated.  This morning we’re going to see how Christ was tested on a thorny political question as he draws near to his trial, his final suffering, and death.  We’ll see the:

1.      False dilemma presented

2.      Fiendish hypocrisy exposed

3.      Faithful answer delivered

Mark says that “they” sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians.  “They” are the same chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders that we read about at the end of chapter 11.  These Pharisees who get sent are some of the junior figures – Matthew tells us that they were the disciples of the Pharisees.  They were probably lesser known men, people whom Jesus hadn’t seen before.  They might not be readily identified as being actually opposed to Jesus.  The Herodians are men affiliated with Herod Antipas, the puppet king of Galilee.  Herod was also interested in killing Jesus.  The Herodians and the Pharisees normally didn’t get along, but here they cooperate with one another to get rid of a common enemy.  Together they approach Jesus in the temple in an attempt to trap him in his words.  They want to put him in a Catch-22, they want to snare him and put him out of their misery.

So these hunters set out to get their prey.  They approach Jesus in the temple and get his attention by calling out to him, “Teacher!”  Nothing unusual about that.  Many people addressed Jesus like that.  Most people meant it when they said it.  They really did regard him as a teacher or rabbi.  What follows are also not unusual words.  It was customary to speak words of praise for a rabbi when you wanted his opinion on something.  Most of the time people meant what they were saying.  But here these words don’t come from the heart at all.  “We know you are a man of integrity,” they say.  Then why are you trying to catch him?  “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are,” they say.  But yet you think he should be paying attention to the traditions of men.  You’re Pharisees, aren’t you?  “But you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”  Really?  Then why don’t you listen to his teaching? 

There’s a deep level of sinfulness here.  These men are opponents of Jesus.  They’re trying to kill him and they’re resorting to deceit.  They speak flattering words because they have it in for him and it’s all part of the game.  One ancient commentator says that they surround Jesus like bees.  They have honey in their mouths but a sting in their tails.

Their plan is to catch Jesus on a thorny political question.  The question had to do with the Roman head tax.  Each year every Jewish male from ages 14-65 had to pay a silver denarius to Rome.  A denarius was about a day’s wages.  The head tax had been imposed under Caesar Augustus.  When it came into law, some of the Jews objected.  A revolt even took place because of it, a revolt led by a certain man named Judas.  The revolt was put down but now some thirty years later, the head tax was still in place and still controversial.  Tiberius Caesar continued it – it was a great source of income for Rome.  It provided money for government and infrastructure.  But among the Jews there was still debate as to whether it should be paid.  Most, if not all, still paid it but many did so reluctantly.

Now here was Jesus.  He himself was not liable to pay the head tax.  He was a Galilean and Galilee was not directly under Roman rule – it was under the control of Herod Antipas.  So, in a sense, Jesus was a foreign visitor.  What would he say about it? 

A lot of the questions that get put to Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders are not really questions at all.  They’re questions with an agenda.  They’re like the questions asked in Question Period in the House of Commons, questions to score points.  Here it’s more subtle.  At the beginning of verse 15 we find the question, “Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”  The Greek grammar there is the grammar of a genuine question.  They appear to really want to get an answer from Jesus on this.  But the key word is “appear.”  They are giving the appearance of asking a sincere question.  But the reality is that this is all just an act.  It’s a front.  It’s still a question with an agenda behind it. 

The question is designed to trap Jesus.  It’s intended to put him on the horns of a dilemma.  The dilemma is this.  If he says that they shouldn’t pay the head tax, that will make him look like a revolutionary to the Romans.  They’ll think he’s another Zealot like Judas of Galilee.  When the Romans have you pegged as a rebel, that’s a sure-fire way to end up dead.  But if he says that they should pay the head tax, to the Jews that will make him look like he’s in bed with the Romans.  That will give the Jews reason to hate him all the more.  Maybe it will even stir up a riot.  Maybe in the chaos and confusion of the riot someone will conveniently end up dead.  Either way Christ can’t win.  He’ll probably die no matter what he says.  And that’s exactly what they want.  They want to silence him by hook or by crook.

These men were children of the lie.  Though they were all covenant people, circumcised on the eighth day, in their hearts they had taken their stand against the Lord’s anointed.  They were covenant people on the wrong side of the antithesis.  They refused to believe in Jesus and to acknowledge him as the Messiah.  Their opposition here wasn’t outright roaring and raging.  It was more subtle.  Through history, we’ve seen this often happen.  Sometimes the devil and his children scream and fuss at Christ and his disciples.  But at other times they come with subtlety and deception.  They ask what appear to be genuine questions, but really they’re questions meant to attack and corner.  Brothers and sisters, as we study this passage, take note of the deceitfulness of sin again.  Take note of the tactics of the evil one so you can be on your guard.  If he used these tactics against our Saviour Jesus, he will use them against us too.

Let me give a brief illustration from church history.  In the late 1500s, there was a Reformed minister in Amsterdam.  This minister began asking questions.  Just questions, mind you.  Questions about God’s grace, election, and free will.  Eventually this minister began teaching at the University of Leiden.  Many of his students saw where he was coming from with his “questions.”  This created an enormous controversy and eventually it resulted in the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and the Canons of Dort.  All because James Arminius began asking some “questions.”  It soon became clear that the Arminian “questions” were not questions at all.  The devil will do this with doctrine and he will do this with life too.  Hasn’t this been his strategy from the beginning?  “Did God really say...?”  Loved ones, be aware.                 

Our Lord Jesus was certainly aware of what these men were up to.  Mark tells us straight up that he knew their hypocrisy.  He knew that they were wearing a mask.  That’s what hypocrisy literally is:  wearing a mask, pretending to be someone you’re not.  I think the kids can learn what that means.  A hypocrite is someone who wears a mask.  Someone who is playing dress up and pretend all the time.  That’s what these Pharisees and Herodians were up to.  And Jesus knew it and he was going to expose it.

First he drags the truth into the light with his own question, “Why are you trying to trap me?”  We could also translate that, “Why do you test me?”  Why do they hate him so much?  For the very reason they themselves gave just a few seconds ago:  because he speaks the truth and is partial to no one.  That’s why they can’t stand him and want him dead.  But he doesn’t give them a chance to answer the question. 

He tells them to bring him a denarius.  Now there are a few things you have to realize about this.  A denarius was a Roman silver coin.  On one side of the coin there was a picture of Tiberius and the inscription, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus.”  On the other side of the coin was a picture of a woman sitting on a throne with an olive leaf in her hand.  She was probably Tiberius’ mother and she represented the so-called Pax Romana – the Roman Peace.  Roman government brought peace and stability to the Mediterranean.  The inscription around this woman read, “Pontifex Maximus,” which means High Priest.  So there were three objectionable things to the Jews on this coin.  A man made into a god.  Graven images.  And someone who claimed to be high priest.  Because of all this, some of the Jews deliberately avoided these coins as much as they could.

Now there they are in the temple together with Jesus.  They are in the house of God.  A sacred place.  And Jesus says, “Let me see a denarius.”  And wouldn’t you know it, it’s not too hard to find one.  One of these spies just “happens” to have one on him.  There in the temple.  An idolatrous Roman coin has been brought into the temple of the true and living God.  And it wasn’t Jesus who did it.  Who has the credibility problem here?

That’s not to say that it was wrong for anyone to have a denarius.  Living in the Roman Empire meant you had to use Roman money whether you liked it or not.  Having a denarius in your pocket in the temple wasn’t the problem either.  Just owning a denarius or carrying it didn’t mean that you necessarily endorsed or believed what was on the denarius.  The problem was that these men sent to Jesus were trying to give the impression of being scrupulous.  They were giving the appearance of being those who really wanted an answer to these questions.  They were the super-righteous who really cared about these matters.  But they didn’t.

Christ saw right away into what they were doing.  He caught on.  He can detect human hypocrisy from a million miles away.  He will expose it sooner or later.  Maybe in this life already, but certainly at the last day.  Since all sinners are hypocrites to one degree or another, that gives us reason to pause and think.  What will become of me on that day?  When my hypocrisy is exposed, will I fear for my eternal destiny?  Only if you have not been trusting in Christ to pay for your hypocrisy and to cover your hypocrisy with his righteousness.  Brothers and sisters, as you rest in Christ’s work for you, you can have peace of mind.  Yes, still you repent daily of your hypocrisy, you hate it and fight it.  You don’t rest with it.  But you can know that no sin is too great for Jesus.  God’s grace is sufficient here too.  And then on that last day, it’s not about shame.  It’s about glory for God’s grace.  It’s about demonstrating what a great salvation we have in Jesus, what a great Saviour we have in Jesus – he has cleansed us thoroughly of all those sins!  And we will be in his presence with pure hearts for eternity.                    

With his pure heart, our Saviour delivered the faithful answer.  He didn’t owe them an answer.  They didn’t have a right to an answer.  But yet he gives them one.  He does this also for the sake of his disciples, to show them a proper understanding of the relationship between God and government.

They bring the coin to him and then he asks, “Whose image is this?  And whose inscription?”  And what they are supposed to say at this point?  This is the only point in the dialogue where they speak genuine words.  They have no other choice.  It’s as clear as the nose on your face that the image is that of Tiberius Caesar. 

Now Christ gives his answer:  “Give the things that belong to Caesar back to Caesar.  Give the things that belong to God back to God.”  Let’s flesh this out. 

What are the things that belong to Caesar?  In the immediate context there, our Lord Jesus was speaking about that coin.  Since it bears Caesar’s image, it belongs to him.  He has a right to have it back.  And if you live in the Roman empire, you are a beneficiary of Roman government.  You walk Roman roads, you owe the Roman emperor taxes, whether you like it or not.  And the apostle Paul builds on this teaching of our Lord in Romans 13.  He says you pay taxes because the authorities are God’s servants.  They’ve been placed there by God and they have a right to ask for taxes in order to carry out their work.  And you have a duty to pay those taxes.  As Christians, that’s what we do.  We’re to be faithful, law-abiding citizens also in this regard.  Give the government what they have a right to.  And no, it doesn’t matter what you think about the taxation rates, whether they’re fair or unfair.  You still pay.  In the context of Mark 11, Jesus was saying, “Yes, you have to pay the head tax. That’s the right thing to do.”

But there are also the things that belong to God.  What does God have a right to?  The answer to that could be a sermon in itself!  We could think of our worship.  We could think of our trust.  We could think of our love.  God has a right to all these things.  But here we should think especially in terms of image-bearing.  The coin bears the image of Caesar, therefore it belongs to him.  Yes, I know, in the bigger picture it too belongs to God.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  Our money and everything we own ultimately belongs to God.  But here in this passage, the focus is on image-bearing.  What bears God’s image?  God created people in his image.  We are that which belongs to God.  We are what should be offered back to God.  He has a right to us and to our love and obedience. 

This is where the spies were entirely falling short.  They were not offering service to God.  They were intent on destroying Christ, whom Paul says in Colossians 1, is “the image of the invisible God.”  He bore and bears God’s image perfectly.  He was and is the one gives back the things of God to God.  He gave God his perfect due all his earthly life and now in heaven does the same.  That he does on our behalf and that’s part of the good news here for us.  We have a Saviour who knew how to give God his rights, even though we often don’t.  Don’t ever forget that his obedience is ours.  And it’s exactly his righteousness which drives his enemies to want to kill him.  It’s only by a twist of irony that they will actually give back to God what is God’s.  They will send the Son back to the Father after they have killed him on Golgotha.  That’s not their intention, but that is what will happen. 

So with his faithful answer, our Lord Jesus showed this to be a false dilemma.  There’s no Catch-22.  One must be a good, tax-paying citizen and an image-bearer of God who gives the whole life to him.  Everything has to be kept in its place and proper perspective.  We’re Christians and our highest loyalty is to King Jesus.  But we’re also Canadians and we owe taxes and other forms of obedience to our Canadian authorities as well.  Sometimes these things may come into tension, but there’s no inherent or necessary tension between them.

And when our Lord Jesus gave this answer, what could they say?  He was obviously not a rebel.  He was obviously not a heretic either, at least not on this point.  With his wise words he confounded them.  They had hoped to trap him in his own words, but he proved to be impossible to trap.  They would have to find other ways to get him. 

Loved ones, see our Saviour in this passage.  He is the faithful servant of God.  He gives to God what is God’s, and he does it for us.  He is the wise prophet of God.  He gives us faithful and wise teaching on how to live in this world as dual citizens – citizens of the kingdom of heaven and citizens of Canada, of our province, and of our city.  As we listen to this passage and what it says, God has a right to our ears.  He has a right to our obedience, just as we hear him saying in Mark 9:7, “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!”  AMEN. 


Heavenly Father, 

We acknowledge that we bear your image.  You have a right to everything we are and everything we do.  We owe our love, devotion, and worship to you.  You have a claim on our obedience.  As your children, we also owe the civil authorities our obedience, not only with our taxes, but everything.  Father, please help us with your Spirit to be faithful in these things.  Help us to do that because we look to Jesus our Saviour in faith, because we’re united to him.  We trust in his perfect work of redemption for us.  We’re thankful for his law-keeping on our behalf and for his blood shed for us.  Now we listen to his wise instruction as our chief prophet.  We want to follow him as his disciples. 

Father, please guard us against all hypocrisy in our lives.  Help us to see it, hate it and genuinely struggle with it.  Please forgive it too through our Saviour Jesus.  We also pray that you would protect us from the evil one.  We have a strong enemy, but we know that you are stronger.  Please make us strong too.  Please open our eyes so we can see his plans and strategies and resist him with your grace and help.                 


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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