While we honor earthly authorities, we give our unconditional obedience to God alone. If this means a king issuing a decree for all subjects to pray to him alone, then like Daniel we continue to pray to the one, true God. For the early church, the example of Daniel was not relegated to the fanciful halls of what-if. Instead, Caesar not only demanded their taxes; he also demanded their worship. Roman subjects were required to confess the lordship of Caesar, and Christians refused to do so, for they submitted to the lordship of Christ.
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.
Mark 12:13-17 ESV
Daniel and his three friends were powerful real-life examples of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Jews. For the prophet told the Jews:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
While these young men may very well have been made eunuchs upon entering King Nebuchadnezzar’s service, which would have physically prevented them from having wives and children, they certainly did seek the welfare of the city and specifically of the very king who had taken them into exile. Throughout the narrative chapters of Daniel, they show themselves to be diligent servants for the welfare of Babylon.
However, living in a pagan city and serving a pagan king did occasionally put their loyalties to the test. When told worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, Daniel’s three friends chose to be cast into a furnace instead. When commanded to pray to the king alone, Daniel continued to pray to the LORD toward Jerusalem three times a day as he had always done and was lowered into a den of lions as a result. Indeed, they continue to be precious examples for us still 1 Peter 2:17’s command to “Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
In our present text, Jesus is posed a question that strikes at the same perennial matter regarding our loyalties and service to earthly governments and rulers and to God as the King of kings. And to make matters even more heated, the question made is specifically about the ever-cheerful topic of taxes, which is rightfully lumped in with death as one of life’s great certainties.
Setting a Trap—Verses 13–14
In our opening verse, we read of three groups of people performing two actions. First, we find a group called they sending to Jesus the two other groups (Pharisees and Herodians) that they might snare Jesus in His speech. We should rightly begin by asking: who are they? Context indicates that these are the chief priests, scribes, and elders that questioned Jesus’ authority and were the target of Jesus’ parable in our previous passage. Indeed, verse 12 speaks of these religious leaders, saying, “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” Since verse 13 picks up immediately where that verse left off, we should assume that the chief priests, scribes, and elders are still being referred to here.
Thus, after having their direct challenge of Jesus meet a poor end, they have now crawled behind the scenes to send others to do their bidding. The first of their proxy assault on Jesus would come by way of the Pharisees and the Herodians, which 3:6 told us were already conspiring together as to how to destroy Jesus. Such a partnership was certainly a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, for the Pharisees and the Herodians did not like one another. The Pharisees, of course, were theologically orthodox but legalistically dead in a false sense of holiness, while the Herodians were worldly politicians that trumpeted Herod’s puppet government at the expense of their fellow Jews. Even so, I think Ryle is right to point out that:
Worldly men and formalists have little real sympathy for one another. They dislike one another’s principle, and despise one another’s ways. But there is one thing which they both dislike even more, and that is the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. And hence, whenever there is a chance of opposing the gospel, we shall always see the worldly man and the formalist combine and act together. We must expect no mercy from them: they will show none. We must never reckon on their divisions: they will always patch up an alliance to resist Christ.
Thus, these two competing groups united to trap him in his talk. Sproul notes that the word trap can sound too pleasant for what is being attempted here. He suggests that we should think of hunters digging a pit, filling it with spikes, covering the hole, and lying in wait for an animal to fall to its death. They are essentially attempting the same plan with Jesus. They want to snare Him with His words so they can hand Him over to the governor to be killed as a rebel against Rome.
Thus, they together devised a question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. To answer yes would have enraged many of the Jews, and to answer no would have been fomenting rebellion against Rome. This appeared, therefore, to be a fool-proof plan for trapping Jesus, for His answer would either diminish His favor in the sight of the people or cement Him as a threat to Rome. Furthermore, this would have been an issue that the Pharisees and the Herodians disagreed on anyway, making it the perfect pretense for presenting the question as if Jesus were being asked to settle their long-held dispute.
Speaking of pretense, they certainly prefaced their question with just that. Since both the Pharisees and the Herodians shared a common hunger for prominence and the esteem of others, they clearly assumed that Jesus might be swayed by that same longing, even as they flattered Jesus as not caring about anyone’s opinions. They very much understood the value of integrity, even as they lacked it themselves and desperately hoped that Jesus did as well.
Yet their words proved far truer than their wicked hearts could have imagined. Here they imitated their father who also threw words of truth at Christ in the wilderness in order to tempt Him into disobedience. They used flattery in an attempt to fan any spark of pride that Jesus may have had into a flame. Thankfully, no such spark could be found in our humble King, but the same cannot be said of us. As the shepherds warned Christian and Hopeful of the Flatterer, so should we be wary of flattery, for it stirs up pride which then leads to destruction.
Matthew Henry gives a fitting warning against such hypocritical statements:
If they spoke what they thought concerning Christ, when they said, ‘We know that thou art right,’ their persecuting him, and putting him to death, as a deceiver, was sin against knowledge; they knew him, and yet crucified him. However, a man’s testimony shall be taken most strongly against himself, and out of their own mouths are they judged; they knew that he taught the way of God in truth, and yet rejected the counsel of God against themselves. The professions and pretenses of hypocrites will be produced in evidence against them, and they will be self-condemned. But if they did not know or believe it, they lied unto God with their mouth, and flattered him with their tongue.
In other words, they spoke themselves into an eternal trap quite similar to the one that they were attempting to set for Christ. If they really knew that Jesus taught the truth, then they would be judged by God for going against what they plainly knew to be true, and if they did not believe Him, then they were lying here and would be judged for that sin. Proverbs 1:18 certainly applies to them by saying, “but these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives.”