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“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’ But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him.”—Mark 12:13–17 (NIV)
As I read this interaction between Jesus and the religious elite, I picture them looking like a group of grown men standing there like trout with their mouths wide open. Of all the ways they pictured that confrontation going down, this definitely wasn’t one of them.
So, what’s Jesus telling us? Honestly, they were trying to either 1) find cause to accuse Him of insurrection against the Roman Empire or 2) get the people to turn on Him by making it seem like Jesus was a Roman sympathizer against the Jews.
Context: For almost 30 years, the Jews were forced to pay three different taxes. Some refused to pay the tax, while most everyone else paid it begrudgingly or in fear of their oppressors. So, this was the world they were living in. But Jesus’ answer shocked them!
Jesus requests a denarius and asks them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” The answer was the face of Tiberius, the reigning Roman Emperor, with the inscription “Pontifex Maximus,” which declared him the high priest of the Roman Empire. And what leaves them speechless and amazed was when He tells them to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
All the Jews used these coins for their everyday living and purchases. So in essence, Jesus was saying if they recognize Caesar’s civil authority enough to use the coins, they must also pay him the taxes he asks for.
For the child of God, there’s no room for civil disobedience apart from when we’re decreed to personally do something unbiblical—like Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to bow down before the golden image or Darius’ decree to pray to no one but him for 30 days. Aside from being commanded to personally do something that goes against the Word, we’re commanded “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (Titus 3:1 NIV) and to be “subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1 NIV). Regardless of political opinion, this is the way of Jesus, who knowing He’d be sent to His death by this same governing body that coin represented still instructed people to walk in civil obedience, knowing the authorities were established by God.
Jesus’ last words here are, “Give . . . to God what is God’s.” The coin belonged to Caesar and his kingdom because his image was stamped on it. But our lives belong to God and His kingdom because His image is stamped on us. And thus, as His children who belong fully and solely to Him, we must give to God our everything—our lives, heart, mind, soul, strength, love, devotion, will, and plans.
Pause: What does Jesus’ response to the religious leaders tell us about how we are to live today?
Practice: Check your heart today! Consider whether or not there are areas where you’re living in rebellion toward governing authorities and in rebellion to the Lord.
Pray: Father, I want to give my all to You. Help me to walk in greater submission to You and to live with respect for whatever governing authorities You have placed over me. Amen.
Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.