Gotcha! Mark 12:13-17

Let me tell you 5 things the Christian owes government…

It may be argued that the career of Jesus could be summed up with three words:  Miraculous, prophetic, and criticized.  Everyday Jesus preached, everyday Jesus did miracles, and every day Jesus was criticized.  For 3 ½ years Jesus was hounded by his enemies where they tried to discredit Him at every turn or trap Him with tricky questions.

The title of our sermon today is “Gotcha!”.  Our passage today finds Jesus approached by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They have a trick question for Him and they are hoping to put him in a “Gotcha” moment.

Read the Text

Flattery (13-15a)

That’s some praise!  I say to young men sometimes, “Did you know Jesus was the manliest man who ever lived?  Yet He was a virgin his whole life, he was never rich, and he never punched anyone’s lights out.”  This is why right here:  Jesus didn’t care what other people thought, “You aren’t swayed by men, you pay no attention to who they are.”  He wasn’t intimidated by the most powerful people, the richest people, or the smartest people.  He didn’t suck up to anyone or pine away after people’s approval.  What freedom!

Then they talk about his fidelity to God, “You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth”.  I hope those very words would be used by Jesus to sum up my entire ministry when I stand before Him.  Jesus was completely faithful to God in everything He did and said (Jn 12:49; 14:31), so Revelation calls Him “The True & Faithful Witness” (1:5; 3:14).  

There’s a relationship between faithfulness to God and not needing man’s approval.  When God is the one whom you live for, and God’s approval is all that matters to you, then what men think matters little to you.  You’re not slaving away for their praises.  That’s the key to breaking free from living for men’s opinions.  Live for God’s.

The irony here is that what they spoke about Jesus was true.  What a man He was!  The same certainly couldn’t be said about them, and, I suspect they felt that inferiority next to Jesus.  Iago said of Cassius in Shakespeare’s Othello, “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  Perhaps too these hypocritical leaders felt ugly once they were beside the beauty of Jesus.  And they hated Him all the more for it.

What they said about Jesus was true.  Yet, they didn’t believe what they were saying.  They disguised themselves with their flattery.  Their motivations made their words evil.  Consider how worthy they would be had they said those words sincerely.  They are words actually that we should be saying to Jesus to praise Him.  This is why the Bible says even the thoughts and intentions of our hearts will be judged, because this is how even good words can be used for evil.  They were trying to trap Jesus by softening Him up with some flattery and then pouncing on Him with a trap question.  Two Sidenotes:

First Sidenote:  they thought flattery would work on Him because it works on them.  They loved the praises of men, and were susceptible to having their own egos stroked.  Therefore, they thought Jesus was like that too. Its called “projection”:  you think other people are like you.  If you’re manipulative you think others are.  If you’re kind you think others are.  If you’re greedy you think others are.  Projection is a rule of human nature, and the Pharisees were projecting on to Jesus an assumption that he was vulnerable to flattery like they were.

Second Sidenote:  They were trying to flatter Him by acknowledging how unaffected by flattery He is.  Get that?  “Oh Jesus, we must compliment you on how the compliments of people mean nothing to you.”  But they don’t believe he is immune to flattery because they are trying to flatter Him with those very words!  Look closely folks, these guys are pros, this is first rate manipulation right here.  

Hypocritical flattery was condemned by both the OT and Rabbinic tradition.  In the OT for example we find Psalm 12:3 “Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception.  May the LORD cutoff all flattering lips…”  Then Job commits to God, “I will flatter no man” (32:21).  Proverbs 26:28 even says, “a flattering tongue works ruin.”

In the Rabbinic Tradition Rabbi Jeremiah ben Abba said 4 types of people do not deserve to be blessed by God:  scorners, liars, tale-bearers and hypocrites (MacArthur 320, Sanhedrin 103a)  Flattery and hypocrisy are inconsistent with truth.  Let us have truth rule us inwardly and in all our speech.

Who were these flatterers?  The Pharisees and the Herodians.  

The Pharisees were not so much a political group as they were a religious.  Their name mean’s “Separatists”, and their beginnings reach back to the time after Babylonian captivity.  Two religious groups led Israel upon returning to the land:  the scribes and the priests.  The Pharisees came from the scribes and the Sadducees came from the priests.  The scribes made copies of the Scriptures, were strict in their ways, and knew the Law inside and out.  They cared deeply that Israel would carefully obey the Law and be “clean” before God by separating from all that was unclean.  

This is understandable if we think about it: they just left the pagan land of Gentile Babylon where they had been forced to live for more than 70 years among the defiled pagans and their defiled ways.  Getting back into their own land and starting fresh with God would have created a strong desire to get “clean” and do things right in God’s eyes – which meant strict obedience to the Law.  

By the time of Jesus’ day the Pharisees were not politically motivated, but, religiously.  Their interest in Jesus was what He said about the Law and worshipping God, not so much His effect on national politics for Israel.  Was He leading Israel away from the Law or not?  Was He clean or unclean?  Remember in chapter 8 they were the ones who flipped out that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before a meal.  As Separatists, they avoided not only Gentiles, but, they even avoided all Jews who were not Pharisees, whom they also saw as “unclean”, because the average Jew wasn’t as strict about the Law as them.  This is why their hair was on fire over Jesus dining with Tax Collectors and Prostitutes.  

Understanding this about the Pharisees puts their trick question into context.  Supporting the the taxation of Jews would be a religious violation in their minds because it would be tantamount to acknowledging Caesar as a legitimate king over Isreal, and, thus a denial of God as the only King over Israel.  Jesus would be put on par with Tax Collectors, those Jews who helped support the Gentile dominance over Israel by collecting taxes from their own people. 

The Pharisees didn’t come alone – they were allied with the Herodians.  You know Jesus is hated when it brings together the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They did not get along except when partnering to destroy Jesus.  Not much is known about them, but, they apparently derived their name from Herod, the vassal king over Israel.  Presumably they were a political group that reflected Herod’s political views and ambitions.  This would mean that like Herod, they supported cooperating with Rome probably because of advantages it brought.  Their motivation was not religious convictions, but political gain.  While they certainly saw the Rome issue differently than the Pharisees, both were in lock-step in opposing Jesus.  Thus the old adage:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” was true.  They joined forces to take Jesus down.  The Pharisees were afraid of losing their religious influence over the nation while the Herodians were afraid of losing their benefits from political loyalties to Rome.  If Jesus caused an uprising, then Caesar would think Herod was incapable of keeping Jerusalem in order and remove him.  Jesus was a threat to the Pharisees religious power over Israel, and, He was a threat to the Herodians political power in Israel.

So we see them trying to set Jesus up with flattery, and then we see them strike with the question:  Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?  Now this is a very contentious issue in Israel.  For a Jew, Gentiles are dogs – filthy, dirty dogs.  So to be ruled by dogs was a constant disgrace.  While they all paid their taxes, they did not do so willingly. Kind of like the person who does not agree with the mask mandate but observes it anyway.  They did it begrudgingly.  In principle they opposed paying taxes because it was to acknowledge the Gentile power over them.  It meant their taxes funded and perpetuated Rome’s power.  So even if you did pay the taxes, a good Jew would at least hate doing it.  

To Pay or Not To Pay

Their question was a trap in this way:  if Jesus said yes they should pay taxes, the Pharisees could accuse him of supporting another king other than God over Israel.  They could take to Twitter and the Nightly News to parade Him as a Roman sympathizer who was leading the nation away from its spiritual purity.  They could use His answer to make Him look bad and hopefully He would take a hit in the polls.  At the same time, they would hope to regain their popularity with the masses after Jesus had caused their decline in the opinion polls.  

On the other hand, if He said “no” they should not pay taxes, the Pharisees may like it but then He’d have the Herodians pouncing on Him. They would accuse Him of treason and defying Roman authority.  They could portray Him as an aspiring king over Israel contending with Caesar.  

It would seem they had Jesus between a rock and a hard place.  But this is Jesus.  For Him, its like debating children.  

Jesus’ Responds (15b-17)

First He calls them out on their hypocrisy and trap-setting.  He’s perfectly conscious of their scheme and sees right through them.  As John 2 says, “Jesus did not need man’s testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man.”

Then, He has them get a coin and asks whose picture is on it.  They answer and say Caesars.  There may be a  Which leads to one of Jesus’ most famous lines:  “Give to Caesar what is Caesars and give to God what is God’s.”  Some things belong to Caesar and some things belong to God.  Some things you owe government and some things you owe God.  Let me tell you 5 things the Christian owes government.

First, is acknowledgement.  Acknowledge the divine legitimacy of government.  Romans 13:1 says, “…..”  Now, a lot of Christians don’t want to look that verse in the eyes, but, we must.  Government has a right and that right comes from God.  Do not delegitimize the government God has ordained over you.  This “Not My President” garbage is sinful no matter who is in office.  If Biden or Trump gets in that kind of attitude would not come from Christ.  Remember who you serve.  The campaign for the last 4 years to deligitmize a sitting President will bring God’s judgment.  Governments are God’s agents for maintaining social order, justice, and peace.  Whatever particular form of government may be debated, but, the institution of government on earth is God’s implementation.  To spit on government is to spit on God’s design.

Second, is taxes.  Taxes are not a gift to the government.  They are a debt we citizens owe.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesars” means the taxes levied are His, morally speaking.  Citizens owe the government taxes.  The government provides services to citizens and those must be supported by citizens.  Again how many and how much services we can debate, but, the point is there nonetheless.  I think Jesus is going beyond the transactional aspect here though – the notion that taxes fund government services so that’s why we have to pay them.  Jesus is getting at our hearts regarding the issue of obedience and submission.  Submission to government.  If you’re serious about the teachings of Jesus and being His disciple, then you have to think seriously about this question:  How can I submit to my government to show honor to Jesus?

Third is honor.  Honor government.  Some examples from Scripture:  

  1. Paul to Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-5)
  2. David to King Saul (1 Sam 24:6 and 26:9)
  3. Michael to Satan (Jude 8-9)

I would warn us not to slander our authorities.  Speaking out is one thing, slander is another.  You can honor authorities while criticizing their words and actions.  You risk God’s wrath when you slander them.  It is atrocious what is said about the President, and, about our Governor.  Don’t say anything that will bring God’s condemnation on you at the Day of Judgment.  We must watch our mouths and honor authority, and do it out of reverence for God.

Fourth is submission.  Romans 13:1 says, Everyone must submit himself to governing authorities”.  Why Paul?  “For there is no authority except that which God has established.”  Then Peter gets in on it and tells us, “Submit yourselves for the Lords’s sake to every authority instituted among men:  whether to the king, as the supreme authority or to governors….”  We have to be careful not to sin by defying our government.  If we say we serve and obey God but we don’t obey government then we don’t obey God because He commands us to obey government.  Therefore the obligation for us to submit to governments authority.  Give to Caesar what is Caesars

Question:  How far are we to submit to Government?   Is there a limit to how far we should submit?  

Answer:  Yes there is a limit.  But I would suggest its typically farther out than we would want.  Submission is required until the government compels us to sin or puts a gag on the Gospel.  The Bible gives us examples of government overreach and where disobedience occurred.  Let these guide our thoughts for today:

  1. Hebrew midwives disobeyed when ordered by Egyptian Pharoah to kill newborn Hebrew babies (Ex. 1:17) When government policy enforces infanticide its time to disobey.  
  2. Daniel in the Lions Den in Babylon when He refused to submit to government order to stop praying to God and to only pray to the king (Dan 6).  There was no separation of church and state in Babylon – the king was god.  You could only worship him.  When idolatry is enforced by the government its time to disobey.
  3. Another instance of compulsory idolatry is in Daniel 3 with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo.  Refusing to publicly worship the king they were thrown into the furnace (Dan 3)  
  4. For a list of civil disobedience throughout Church history you can read Fox’s book of Martyrs
  5. The Apostles were told to stop preaching Jesus by the Jewish Sanhedrin but they refused to be silent, “We must obey God rather than men” They declared (Acts 4:18-20; 5:29).  

When government orders people to sin we are not under obligation to obey that law.  Inconvenience isn’t justification for defiance.  Think masks.  Legitimate disagreement doesn’t justify defiance – I may not like the tax brackets but I have to obey the tax laws.  I may disagree with the speed limit, but, I have to obey it.   Wearing a mask in public by government order is not an example of compulsory sin.  We may think liberties are encroached on, or this could be a slippery slope towards more government control, or an over-reaction to COVID, but we cannot say wearing a mask is sinful, thus we cannot say the government is forcing us to sin, thus we are, biblically speaking, obligated to God to wear masks until further notice.  We may not like it, just like Jews hated paying taxes to Rome, but like them we oblige:  first because it is not sin, and second because we are required by God to obey government.  

This of course does not mean we cant petition government.  Petitioning government certainly is biblical.  But it does mean that we live with inconvenience, and, even some unfairness, and we do it out of grace and faith that God is in control.  

Fifth is prayer.  First Timothy 2:1-7 says….  How many of us, critical of our Governor or President, have prayed on our own time for them?  How do you react when I pray for them in the pulpit every few Sundays?  Have we been quick to use our mouths to slander but not to pray for our leaders?

Bottom line is this:  when we don’t give to Caesar we are not giving to God.  Giving to God what is due Him requires we submit to the authorities He tells us to submit to.  The Christian life is a submitted life:  citizens to governments, wives to husbands, children to parents, church’s to pastors, slaves to masters, employees to employers and on and on.  We are all under authority, and we as Christians are required to have godly attitudes towards authority the way God commands.  We forfeit the blessing of God when we reject authority.


  1. What has been your attitude towards Government? Would it please Jesus Christ?
  2. Do you need to start praying for your leaders?
  3. Do you need to start trusting that God is in control?

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