Is it right for Christians to pay taxes to wicked rulers? Continuing his sermon series in the book of Mark, R.C. Sproul unfolds Jesus’ teaching about the responsibilities we have toward the state.
We will continue now with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. We are now in chapter 12, and this morning I will be reading Mark 12:13–17. So, I would like the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. 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? 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.” So they brought it.
And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
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.
This is the Word of God, not only inspired by the Holy Ghost, but containing the direct instructions of the incarnate Son of God for us. Let us give heed with our souls, our minds, and our consciences to what the Lord says in this text. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Now, O God, as we listen to this brief passage this morning, we pray that the significance of it will pierce our hearts well beyond the measure of the length of the passage. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
An Unholy Alliance
At this point in chapter 12, we have the beginning of three narratives that involve attempts from three distinct groups among the Jews to trap Jesus. They aimed to put Him on the horns of a dilemma that would bring Him into conflict with either the people or the government. We read at the beginning of the text, “And they sent to Him.” The “they” refers to the ruling body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin was composed of three sets of people drawn from three major groups of the Jews: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes. Each of those groups is represented in the narratives that follow. The narrative we are looking at today comes from the Pharisees and the Herodians, which I will explain in a moment. Next time, we will look at the trap set by the Sadducees, and then following that will be the trap set by the scribes over biblical interpretation.
We know that the Pharisees and Herodians in this text were sent by the ruling body of the Jews. The word translated by the English word “sent” here is the same word for the term apostle in the New Testament. An apostle is not simply a messenger, but a messenger empowered with the authority to speak for the one who sent him. That is why the Apostles carry the authority of Jesus. In this case, the Sanhedrin delegated the group that came to Jesus to interrogate Him with their own authority.
“They sent to Him some of the Pharisees and Herodians.” That should raise some eyebrows because, in addition to the three groups I have already delineated, there was a party among the Jews called the Herodians. The Herodian party consisted of Jews who supported the ruling authority of the Hasmonean dynasty of the Herods. If you know your biblical history, you know that the Herods were not pure Jews. They were puppet kings under the authority of the Romans. In many corners among the Jews, they were completely despised.
There was no group that despised the Herodians more than the Pharisees. But you know the story: if my enemy is my enemy’s enemy, then my enemy becomes my friend. This is a strange alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians, and the only thing that would provoke them to come together in a common cause was their mutual hatred of Jesus. As a result, we see an unholy alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians, who were sent “to catch Him in His words.”
That word “catch” is a feeble and insipid interpretation of the Greek. The Greek word used in the text is what is known as a hapax legomena, which is a word that appears in the New Testament only once. Because this word is a rare occurrence, it is difficult to grasp the full measure of its meaning in the context of Scripture. The force of the verb, used only here in the New Testament, is “to be involved in an attempt to catch by way of violent pursuit.”
For example, picture yourself hunting a man-eating tiger. You dig a huge pit in the countryside, and at the bottom you place sharply carved spikes on strong stakes. If you could drive the tiger into the pit, it would be impaled on these spikes. That is the force of the word in this text. The Pharisees and Herodians were not just trying to play tag with Jesus and catch Him. They were trying to destroy Him with violence. Keep that in mind as the force of the text.
A Man of Integrity and Truth
“When they had come, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one;’”—that is an awkward translation as well—“‘for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth.’”
Last week, I mentioned that I recently wrote an article for Tabletalk magazine where the theme was integrity. My article was on the meaning of the concept of integrity, so I looked in various sources including Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I mentioned that the primary meaning of the term integrity is to be uncompromising with respect to principles and ethics—not uncompromising in personal negotiations for property, sales, and that sort of thing, but with respect to what is right. The person of integrity never compromises principle for the sake of popularity.
So, when the Pharisees said that Jesus was a man who did not care for anybody, it did not mean that Jesus was hard in His heart and had no affection for the people of the world. It means that Jesus would not be swayed from the truth because of His consideration of people with whom He might have been unpopular. Public opinion would never cause Jesus to compromise.
This was a tremendous tribute that the Pharisees and Herodians heaped upon Jesus before they snuck in their trick question. Of course, as the text shows, their acclaim of Jesus was uttered with total and complete hypocrisy. But despite themselves, they were speaking the truth about the character of Jesus: “Teacher, we know that You are true.” Oh, that they would have known that! If they had known He was true, they would not have been bringing these trap questions to Him. They said, “You do not regard the person of men, but you teach the way of God in truth.”
So, the Pharisees set the stage for the big question: “We know that You’re not going to answer according to public opinion, Jesus. You’re not going to give us an exercise in political correctness. You’re going to speak the unveiled Word of God. So then, answer our question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
This was one of the most controversial issues among the Jewish people of the day. Every nation hates to be placed in subjection to a foreign conqueror, and then to have to pay taxes and tribute to the occupying country is even more loathsome to the local population. Almost every Jew in Israel hated the thought of paying any tax whatsoever to Caesar. They did not want to be taxed by the Romans, and many of them did not pay them. In fact, many of the Pharisees believed there was a legitimate moral objection to paying taxes to Caesar and that if Jesus were really a godly man, He would not pay taxes to an ungodly, conquering government.
The Pharisees put the question before Jesus, and it is easy to see why. If He said it was okay to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people would rise up against Jesus. If He said they should not pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees would go to the Roman government and say, “This man is out there propagating sedition and rebellion and advising people not to pay their taxes.” So, you see the horns of the dilemma: “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.’” The denarius was probably the most common coin among the Jews. It was a small silver coin whose value was approximately the worth of an average person’s day’s pay in Israel. Would you not love to have taxation under your government to be paid based on one day’s work? That would be fantastic. But in this case, Jesus did not have a denarius in His own pocket, so He asked His interrogators to produce a denarius. When they did, He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
Which Caesar was on the coin? At this time in Jewish history, the Caesar whose image appeared on the denarius was Tiberius Caesar, who reigned after Augustus Caesar from AD 14 until AD 37. His image was pressed upon the surface of the coin, as well as an inscription that gave his name. Let me read for you the inscription that appeared on the Roman denarius of this period: “Tiberius Caesar divi Augusti filius Augustus,” which translated reads, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”
At this point in history, the emperor worship cult had already been initiated in Rome and the Romans believed in a deification of their emperors. In addition to these words extolling the fact that Tiberius Caesar was the son of the “divine” Caesar Augustus, added to the inscription on the coin was the title pontifex maximus, that is, “high priest.”
Do you see what had happened in the Roman Empire by this point? The emperor, the Caesar, was not only the supreme political ruler of the empire, but he was also the supreme religious leader of the empire, himself being considered as deity. He would of course be the pontifex maximus, the highest of the high priests.
One other word in this inscription is the title we commonly hear with respect to the Caesars, beginning with Octavian. The title “Augustus,” the august one, is one of transcendent majesty. It was a term the Jews would only use for God, and to call any creature “august” would be an act of idolatry on the lips of the Jewish people. So, the image on this coin displayed the unspeakable arrogance of the Roman Caesars.
The Church and the State
Jesus said, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Since Caesar’s image was on it, and his name was on it, that indicated his possession according to Roman law. Caesar was the one who owned the coin. So, Jesus answered the trick question this way: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What was Jesus saying? “This is Caesar’s coin. This is Caesar’s tax. Pay your tax to Caesar, but you have an even higher responsibility: render to God the things that are God’s.”
This point of paying taxes to Caesar is expanded upon in the New Testament, particularly in the Epistles. Look, for example, at chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where the Word of the Lord to the people of God is, “Pay taxes to whom taxes are due.” In the middle of the second century, the great apologist Justin Martyr argued in his open letter to the emperor Antoninus Pius that Christians were scrupulous in their civil obedience and always paid their taxes. Paul also spells out in Romans 13 that the civil magistrate is a minister of God.
God created two institutions in the world: the church and the state. They have separate responsibilities and separate missions to fulfill. It is not the responsibility of the church to wage war. The power of the sword is never given to the church, but it is given to the civil magistrate, as Paul teaches in Romans 13. It is not the state’s responsibility to administer the sacraments; it is the church’s. They have different functions to perform, but notice that both church and state are under God, and God is sovereign in His rule over both.
The Bible knows something of a separation of church and state in so far as there are two different missions assigned to these institutions, but the Bible knows nothing of the separation of state from God. What happens in our day is that the phrase “separation of church and state,” which was never in the Constitution, is parroted almost every day to indicate the independence of the state from God.
The Danger of Statism
Some years ago, I was in St. Louis riding in a taxicab with Francis Schaeffer, and we were discussing issues that the church faced at that time in American history. I said to Him, “What is your greatest concern for the future of America?” He did not hesitate. He said, “My greatest concern is statism.” That “–ism” on the end of the word is a suffix that indicates a worldview where the state becomes supreme. It owns everything. It rules everything and is never answerable in any way to the church. That is statism. That was Dr. Schaeffer’s greatest fear many years ago.
I believe Dr. Schaeffer’s fear has been almost completely realized in the last couple of decades to such a degree that many people in America are almost completely blind to it. They do not realize how much the church has surrendered to the state. Where the church is called to be the conscience of a nation, we have been prohibited from speaking in the public square.
I also want you to notice that the concept of separation of state and church in America is now a one-way street. The state feels no hesitancy to intrude into the matters of the church. If you want to argue for the free exercise of religion, do that the next time you go to a county meeting that determines whether your church can have a cross on it because it violates the height of signs, and the cross is now considered a sign.
In many places, the church is not allowed to display the central theme or the central symbol of Christianity because the state will not permit it. That is the kind of thing to watch out for because it is not getting any better. It is getting worse and worse.
I would like to raise an ethical question with you, dear friends, that I have never heard preached from any Christian pulpit. I am sure it has been, but not from any pulpit I am aware of. I want to talk to you briefly about the ethics of taxation. We have already seen that the Bible says we are to pay our taxes, and the context is a corrupt, godless government levying those taxes: the government of Rome.
Paul said: “No matter how corrupt the government is, you’re supposed to pay your taxes. No matter how burdensome the taxes are, no matter how confiscatory they may be, no matter how oppressive they may be, as Christians in our call to a special level of civil obedience, we’re called to pay them.” That doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against them, but in the meantime, we are called to pay them.
But here is the point I have never heard mentioned from a pulpit: when you go into the voting booth and cast a ballot, think of the ethical implications you have when you cast your ballot. We hear regularly that people characteristically, when election time rolls around, vote their wallets. They vote their pocketbooks.
The closest I have ever come to being tarred and feathered in a public venue was when I was asked to address the state assembly of the state house of Indiana some years ago in Indianapolis. I spoke on the unethical assumptions present in the lobby system that are not only tolerated but encouraged in American government. What we have accepted in this practice is the presence of so-called vested interest groups who use their political power to gain favorable legislation for their private concerns. To do that, they must take Lady Justice’s blindfold off. Here we have a system that perfectly allows people to vote for privileges for themselves that are taken from other people.
When the American experiment was being discussed in Europe in the eighteenth century, one famous person to visit our shores was Alexis de Tocqueville. He was mightily impressed by the experiment in the new world, but he gave two warnings. He said there are two things that can destroy this noble experiment and the establishing of a republic, which means rule by law and not rule by people. The first thing he said is this: when people begin to understand that ballots are worth money, it spells trouble.
What did de Tocqueville mean by that? People who want to get seats of political power can use their wealth to bribe and extort people of influence in the nation to become elected. He said that the principle of bribery and corruption can destroy the civic righteousness of a nation. We all understand that. We see that every day. But he said the worst thing that can happen is when the people come to realize that “they can vote themselves largess.”
What does that mean? Well, let me make it simple. If I go to your house, enter your garage, and steal your lawnmower, and the police catch me, I can be charged with committing a crime. On the other hand, if I hire somebody else to go into your garage and steal your lawnmower, I can still be charged because I hired somebody to violate your personal property rights. However, if I use my vote to get the government to go into your garage, take your lawnmower, and give it to me, I have just exercised my right as a free American. This happens every day with the politicization of our economic system. Any time you vote for a tax on your neighbor that is not a tax on you, you are stealing from your neighbor.
The Christian and Taxes
The tenth commandment forbids covetousness with respect to private property. We have seen the creation of a politic of envy in our nation, a transfer society where people think nothing of taking property from one group and giving it to another. When they do it, they often call it social justice when, in fact, it is a manifest injustice. It is theft. Two of the Ten Commandments protect personal private property by the law of God.
I realize that people have no pangs of conscience about voting for themselves benefits from the government, not thinking that they are asking the government to use all the power invested in them to take from somebody else and give it to them. Every day people vote for taxes on someone else without voting for the same tax on themselves. That is unjust. It is immoral. Even if the whole world does it, a Christian must never do it.
Let me say that again: if everybody else in the world does it, and if we are exploited and oppressed by it, we ought not to do it. You must understand that your ballot is a bullet. When you vote for something, you are asking that the full power of government be behind it. Government is, in the final analysis, legalized force. I must never ask the government to force my neighbor to give me something that belongs to him. That is clear and simple.
I know this portion of my sermon may be inflammatory, but I beg you to think about it, and I beg you to think about the biblical ethic of the use of the tax. I must pay my tax even if it is corrupt, but I am not allowed to participate in the corruption of such a system on my own behalf.
God Owns Us
Jesus answered the people, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Let me ask you this in conclusion: Whose image do you bear?
Every person has been stamped with an image by the supreme authority in heaven and earth. God Himself has placed His image on you, on me, and on every person. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things that are God’s.
Caesar can own a denarius, but he does not own me. God owns me, and God owns you. In that ownership comes God’s supreme right to claim your life and everything in it for His own. In all things, beloved, we should render to God the things that are His, which include our life, liberty, possessions, and affection. It is the duty of every Christian.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.