The Lord's Day Morning

June 26, 2011

“Rendering to Caesar and God”

Luke 20:19-26

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 20 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke together. The last time we were together we looked at the parable of the wicked tenants. The event that we're studying today happens on Tuesday or Wednesday perhaps, of the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry before His crucifixion on Friday. In the passage, as you see, the religious leaders of Israel, those associated with the leadership of the temple, are desiring to ambush Jesus. They want to get to Him. They know that they cannot get Him in such a way that would infuriate the people, who, at this point, are favorable towards Him and respectful towards Him, so they've got to find a way to trap Him and this passage records an encounter in which they attempt to trap Him.

There are two parts to the passage. If you look at verses 19 to 22, you have the record of the attempt to entrap Jesus by the scribes and the chief priests. Then, in verses 23 to 26, the second half of the story is Jesus’ response. Now in this response, Jesus has to simultaneously avoid the trap that they've laid and give a vitally important authoritative word to edify and instruct His people in an area in which we are all going to live, no matter where we are, and have in fact lived since Jesus was here. And that is — How do you live in this world under a government, sometimes a government which is opposed to the interests of Christ and which often seeks to supplant His rule by its own design? How do you relate to that government as a believer? How do you relate to God? And Jesus does both of these things in response to the question that is put to Him. Let's read. Before we read, let's pray to the Lord to ask Him to help us understand His Word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Your Word is inspired, God-breathed, Your very words, profitable, it's given for our instruction, for our reproof and correction and training in righteousness that we might be equipped for every good work. We need Your Word, Lord. We need it even more than we need food because we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So teach us from Your Word and grant that we would not just hear the Word but that we would respond to it in faith and that we would embrace it in our lives. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“The scribes and chief priests sought to lay hands on Him at that very hour, for they perceived that He had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched Him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch Him in something He said, so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked Him, ‘Teacher, we know that You speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?’ But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?’ They said, ‘Caesar's.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.’ And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch Him in what He said, but marveling at His answer they became silent.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

An attempt to entrap Jesus by the scribes and the chief priests

Perhaps you have heard of the book recently published by Jonathan Kay, a journalist who immersed himself into the conspiracy culture of the United States over a period of two years, posing at conventions as a fellow conspiracy theorist, lurking in chat rooms and on blogs, and engaging with people involved in a variety of conspiracy theories which are perpetuated in this urban and virtual world that we live in. And by posing as a conspiracy theorist amongst conspiracy theorists, he sought to expose some of the mindset and the outlook of that particular part of the culture in his book, “Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracists Underground.”

This is not the first time that someone has done this. A few years ago, an atheist named Gina Welch went undercover for two years. She joined a Christian mega-church — she made a profession faith and she was baptized and she even went on mission trips with that mega-church and she wrote a story, a book about her experience called, “In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church.”

More darkly and more recently, you may have heard of Kevin Roose's book. He was a student at Brown University, one of the Ivy League schools with a very liberal reputation, who transferred to Liberty University in Virginia, the school that Jerry Falwell founded, and he too immersed himself in the culture of Liberty University. He even went on evangelistic trips with fellow students, all the while planning to write a book, which he did, recently published, called, “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.” Now his point, of course, was by posing as an evangelical Christian to seek to expose the embarrassing weaknesses of evangelical Christianity.

You understand that something like that is happening in the passage before us. The chief priests and scribes know that they cannot take a frontal assault against Jesus at this particular moment. They risk enraging the people, the crowds, against themselves because they obviously saw the respect that many of the people had for Jesus. And so, their strategy is to pose as if they respect Jesus, to pose as if they are sincere followers of Jesus, and to send spies into His circle while He teaches to ask Him leading questions that might potentially embarrass Him, get Him in trouble with the Roman government, or cause Him to lose favor amongst the people. And that is exactly what happens in this passage. The chief priests and scribes choose a question that relates to one of the burning controversies in Israel in their day — What is the proper response to the Roman occupation? Should we be paying tribute to Caesar? Is that in some way a failure to give all honor and glory to God if we're paying tribute to Caesar who, after all, claims to be divine himself? Should we rebel against Caesar? Should we foment revolution as the way to be a true follower of God, a true Jewish believer? Is it to rebel against the authority of the occupying Romans, or should we accommodate ourselves to them? And this was a burning political question and theological question in Jesus and their day. And they seek to use it to entrap Jesus.

Strategy reveals hearts

Well in this entrapment, we learn many things, but I want to point to three of them for just a few moments today. And the first one is this — As we look at the attempt at entrapment, in verses 19 through 22, we learn that strategy reveals hearts. There's the first thing I want you to see. As the chief priests and scribes come to Jesus, the strategy that they adopt is to lie. It is a strategy of insincerity and deception and the strategy itself reveals their hearts. They claim to love God, they claim to love the Word, they claim to be concerned about the fact that Jesus is blaspheming God – that's why they want to catch Him, they say — and yet in the strategy that they adopt to get Him, they show that their hearts are wrong and Luke wants you to see that. Look at the passage before us. We’re told, first off, in verse 19, that “they wanted to lay hands on Him.” That was their goal, “but they feared the people,” so they couldn't take a strategy of just going up to Him and grabbing Him and carrying Him off to the governor's house. They had to find some way to get Him to incriminate Himself. And so, verse 20, “they watched Him and sent spies, and pretended to be sincere, in order that they might catch Him and deliver Him into the jurisdiction of the government.” And so they ask Him a question that is designed to embarrass Him or endanger Him in relation to the Roman government. In other words, they acted in an insincere, duplicitous, deceptive way. It's a wonderful way for a believer to act, right? The very strategy, the means that they adopted, reveal that their hearts were wrong.

But my friends, there's a message for us in that. Our strategy reveals our hearts. It's not what we say we believe, it's whether we live what we say we believe. Do we live out what we say we believe to be the Word of God? The language of Christianity is very easy for someone to claim, but it is the fruit of the life that shows the state of the heart. And in the very strategy that these chief priests and scribes take, they show the state of their own heart. And it's interesting, the passage emphasizes that Jesus perceives that. He perceives exactly what they’re doing by the strategy that they take. Their attempt at entrapment reveals their hearts but our strategies in our relationships reveal ours. If we believe God, if we believe His Word, if we're concerned about the wellbeing of His people, how does that lead us to behave to one another in the context of families or work or in the church? Do we live up, in our behavior, to the things that we claim to believe with our lips?

I was having a wonderful conversation with a dear friend who's a member of this church just this week, and in the course of that conversation, he said this to me. He said, “I know so much more than I do.” And he was sharing that with me as a real frustration, that he had been blessed to grow up in churches where the Bible was preached and he knew the truth and he had heard it taught all his life and he was frustrated with the fact that so often he didn't live up in his behavior to what he knew and had been taught in pulpit and in classroom and in home. Do we do what we say we believe or do we just make lip-service claims to being followers of Christ? Well, the strategy, the behavior of these chief priests and scribes, reveals the state of their hearts. What does our behavior reveal about the state of our hearts? Do we live out what we claim to believe? That's the first thing that I want you to see in this passage.

An ignored perception

The second thing is this — and you can almost pass over it, but it's emphasized, I think, in the very first verse and the last verse of the passage before us, but especially look at verse 19. There is not only an attempt here at entrapping Jesus, there is an ignored perception. It's interesting that we are told that the chief priests and scribes fully understood that Jesus was directing the parable that He just told to them. Do you remember I told you last week that verse 19 said something about that and we’d get to that this week? Well, here we are. In verse 19 we read these words — “They perceived that He had told this parable against them.” In other words, they knew that Jesus was speaking directly to them. They knew that He said what He said and meant it for them, and yet they did not listen. They did not believe. They did not pay heed to His word. They did not pay attention in their hearts to the word that He had for them.

Can you imagine being someone on the last day standing before God who Jesus said something to, specifically and directly, and you ignored it? Well, God has given us His Word and every time we hear His Word read and rightly proclaimed, we are hearing Him speak a word directly and specifically for us. Now these Jewish leaders knew that Jesus was speaking directly to them but they ignored His message and many of us do the very same thing. Do you remember what Jeremy just read in Hebrews 3 this morning? It's repeated not only in Hebrews 3 but again in Hebrews 4. Over and over, the author of Hebrews keeps driving this one message home that he draws out of Psalm 95. And what is it? “Today, if you heed His voice, do not harden your hearts.” If God is speaking to you in His Word, and He is, don't harden your hearts to it. And that is exactly what these religious leaders did.

And you see them do it again at the end of the passage. Look down at verse 26. After Jesus responses with this amazing response, we're told, “They were not able in the presence of the people to catch Him in what He said, but marveling at His answer they became silent.” They were dumb-struck by His answer but they still didn't believe Him. They were stunned into silence. His answer was so brilliant, so pastoral, so godly, so profound, but they didn't believe Him. Do you sit here or somewhere else under the Word of God, day by day, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, and hear the Word of God in your ears, but you don't listen to it, you don't believe it, you don't embrace it? If we do that friends, we are in the same seat with these chief priests and scribes. They ignored a word from God, from the lips of Jesus, meant for them. Oh my friends, let's not do that with the Word of God. When the Word of God calls you to acknowledge that you’re a sinner in need of His grace, listen! When the Word of God calls you to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He's offered in the Gospel, listen! When the Word of God calls you to die to self and live for righteousness, to take up your cross and follow Him, to grow in your sanctification depending on the work of the Lord in you, listen to the Word. Don't sit in the seat of the chief priests and the scribes who heard Jesus speak a word directly meant for them and then proceeded to ignore it.

I love what J.C. Ryle says about this. He says, “The chief priests and elders perceived that this parable was spoken against them, but they were too proud to repent and too hardened to turn from their sins. Let us beware of doing likewise.” That is a word in season for all of us.

Jesus’ response

Wisdom for living under secular civil authority

There's one last, one marvelous thing that I want you to see in this passage today and it's the wise pronouncement of the Lord Jesus Christ. You understand what's going on here. The chief priests and the scribes know that there is a tremendous divide in Israel as to how to respond to Roman occupation. Some people in Israel want revolution. There are some people who think that they way to honor God, the way to honor God's Word, the way to get back to the way things used to be in the Golden Age of Israel, is to foment rebellion against Caesar, kick the Romans out of Palestine, and establish God as King again. And in fact, when Jesus was just a little boy, somewhere maybe between 6 and 10 years old, there was a huge tax revolt- sound familiar? — there was a huge tax revolt in Palestine against the Romans. And the Romans brutally suppressed that revolt, but there were still people around in Jesus’ day who thought the way to really honor God was to reject the rule of Caesar, attempt to kick the Romans out, and reestablish the rule of the Davidic line. In fact, Jesus had at least one man amongst His inner circle of disciples that was from that particular party. Do you remember the one who was called Simon the Zealot? Well the Zealots were some of these people who wanted to kick the bums out, get the Romans out of Palestine, and reestablish the rule of God.

Now the chief priests and scribes knew that if Jesus said in answer to their question, “No, it's wrong to pay tribute to Caesar, that they could immediately clasp Him in irons and take Him to the Roman ruler and accuse Him of treason, of fomenting rebellion. And they half suspected Him of this anyway. He clearly was opposed to their running of the temple. He had just cleansed the temple a few hours beforehand, right? See, He was no friend to their rule of the temple, and of course they were a part of the Accomodationists Party in Israel in their day. They had cozied up to the Romans, they held many of their positions and privileges because they had cozied up to the Romans. And so they thought, “If we can get Him to deny that it's right to give tribute to Rome, we can get Him thrown in prison.” Or, they thought, “If He won't say outright, ‘No, you shouldn't give tribute to Caesar,’ if He won't say that; if He says, ‘Yes, you should give tribute to Caesar,’ then He’ll lose popular support,” because they suspected that among His followers were those people that tended towards the idea of revolution. And so they were putting Him in what they thought was the perfect catch-22. They were going to ask Him a question that He could not give a right answer to. This was like the proverbial lawyer putting you on the stand and saying, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” And if you say, “Yes,” or if you say, “No,” you’re in trouble either way. And so they thought they had Him.

So here's Jesus. He's got to answer in such a way that He doesn't fall into the trap. But Jesus is never seeking simply to use this speech to avoid trap. He uses His words to edify His people and glorify God. So Jesus is going to answer in such a way that He not only sidesteps the trap, but in such a way that glorifies God and edifies His people. And so He says to the chief priests and the scribes, “Well, just show Me a denarius.” Now the silver and gold coins, the denarius, were not made in Palestine, but they were brought into Palestine and they were circulated. And many of them had a picture of the emperor and an inscription. Now you remember, the Romans thought the emperor was divine and the inscription indicated that. And this was very, very offensive to Jews who did not believe in making images and of course who only believed that God was God. And so Jesus says, “Well, show Me one of those coins. Who's image and who's inscription is on it?” And they respond, “Caesar's.” And Jesus looks at them and He says, “Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” Now this was the great political struggle of Jesus’ day and what has Jesus done? He has just risen above it all and He has pointed to a far more profound truth than was contemplated in this petty, entrapping, captious question that the scribes and the chief priests were asking Him.

You see what Jesus is doing. He's giving instruction to His people on how to live in a secular society even under duress and opposition and persecution from the ruling authorities in that word. The words that Jesus spoke there are simply worked out by the apostle Paul in Romans 13, and they provided the guidance that the early Christians would need for four hundred years under persecution, and to this day have helped believers know, “How can we be in the world and not of it? How can we show appropriate respect to secular civil political authority, while showing ultimate allegiance to God?” Because in Jesus’ words, He simply says this — “Did Caesar build your roads? Does he provide your system of administration and justice? Well then give him the tribute that he deserves, but render to God what belongs to Him.”

Now think of it for a minute. The coin has Caesar's image on it. Where is God's image? We are God's image. Every human being is created in the image of God, so if you’re going to render back to God what He deserves, what are you going to render? Yourself. You see what Jesus is saying? “Oh, it's appropriate to show respect to secular civil authority and to give it it's due, but your ultimate allegiance is to the One in whose image you are created. Give to Him what belongs to Him, which is the whole of who you are, because He gave you all you are and all you have. You are made in His image.” You see, Jesus is showing us how we're not to love the world ultimately, we're to love God ultimately. We’re not to use God and love the world, we're to love God and use the world for His glory and other's and our good. He's, in this answer, explaining the ultimate allegiance of Christians as they live in the world. It's a Biblical answer, a profound answer, and it's given guidance to countless millions of Christians over the last two millennium.

Doesn't it just take your breath away how Jesus can do that? Doesn't it just make you love Him more? How, in a situation where people are trying to use and abuse and trap Him, He comes out not only with a response which is equal to and greater than their own question, but He comes out with a word of edification to help you put your priorities where they ought to be — with God, who made us. Our ultimate allegiance, Jesus is teaching, belongs to God. That doesn't preclude us showing appropriate respect for government authority, but ultimately our allegiance belongs to God. That is a reality which we need to drink in, in our own time, because we are entering in to a stage of our experience in this culture where we may expect more and more overt opposition to God and to His Word in our culture. And in that context we must learn to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar's but to God that which belongs to God.”

May the Lord bless His Word. Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, we thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ and we pray that we would take heed to His Word and find salvation in Him by grace alone as He has offered it to us in His Gospel. We also pray that You would grant us the grace to walk in the way that He has taught us. And we thank You for the teaching that He has given to us here. Help us, O Lord, to examine our hearts. Help us, O Lord, to heed Your Word. Help us, O Lord, to love You most of all and to trust in Jesus with all our hearts, leaning not on our own understanding. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

If you’ll take you hymnals with me and turn to number 648, we will sing our ultimate allegiance to the Lord Jesus.

And now, because of the love of God in giving His own Son who submitted Himself to the wicked Roman government even unto excruciating death that He might redeem us from our sins, God gives us this blessing by His blood. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.