What can we learn from Jesus—from one interaction in particular—about God and government? More than we might think. Here’s the familiar story from Mark 12:13-17:

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.

This is the third confrontation Jesus has with the Sanhedrin in and around the temple. And this is the second time they’ve laid the bait for Jesus. At the end of chapter 11, the chief priests and scribes and elders confront Jesus about his authority. After avoiding that ruse, Jesus tells a parable against them, which makes them hate Jesus all the more. So here they come, yet again, with another plan to get Jesus in trouble. When in doubt, ask him about politics.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

The question they is not sincere. Rather, like Admiral Ackbar says in Return of the Jedi, “It’s a trap!” If Jesus says, “Pay your taxes,” then he’ll be unpopular with the people. They resented the once-a-year poll tax. They hated the Romans. They thought it was idolatry to pay the tax and submit themselves to Rome and do anything that would help further the Roman cause. The tax was despised by the people. But on the other hand, if he says, “Don’t pay your taxes,” he’ll be in trouble with Rome. They’ll squash him as a revolutionary. It’s a “heads I win, tales you lose” kind of question. Answer one way, and the Pharisees are there to get the crowds fired up and turn against you. And the support of the crowd is the only thing preventing the Sanhedrin from arresting Jesus. But answer the other way, and the Herodians are there to go tell the Roman officials, who will seek your arrest.

But Jesus is the master at springing traps. He’s the Messianic mouse that manages to swipe the cheese and live to see another day. So he asks to see the denarius.

A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage for a working man in Judea. It’s like a hundred dollar bill. He asks to see the coin. We know what this coin looked like. People have found them. The denarius was a silver coin with the head of Tiberius Caesar on it. He was the Roman Emperor from AD 14–37, which fits with the chronology of the Gospels. The coin had a picture of the emperor on one side with these words (in abbreviated form): Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus (Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of Divine Augustus). The flip side had the inscription Pontifex Maximus (High Priest). You can understand why the Jews hated this tax. Not only did it go to Rome, but the coin itself contained blasphemy. It hailed Caesar as divine.

Look at what Jesus does. He asks to see the coin and then asks whose likeness, whose image, is on it. Obviously, everyone can see whose face is on the thing, so they answer, “Caesar’s.” Which prompts Jesus to utter one of his most famous sentences: “Render [or give] to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This pithy response says a lot more than you might think. This one sentence gives the beginning of a Christian view of politics and religion. It’s a foundational statement for the Christian way of looking at issues of church and state, issues of God and government. There are at least six implications for our view of church and state in this one sentence—six statements about God and government that flow from this response.

1. Be good citizens, even if you think the government is bad.

In a few days, after this incident, Romans will kill Jesus. In AD 70, they will wipe out the temple. In the years ahead, they will kill the apostles and thousands of other Christians. Before Jesus, Rome had squashed a number of Jewish rebellions. Rome was the ruler, and Judea was a vassal state. The Romans weren’t Nazis. They did a lot of good things and made tremendous accomplishments. They didn’t persecute the Jews nonstop, but they did when they had to. They swindled when they could. It’s safe to say, no matter how much you may dislike American politics (or politicians!) or how much you may think the government is stupid or unjust, Rome was worse. And yet Jesus said to pay your taxes. Caesar’s face is on the coin. He had a right to levy tribute. So pay up the denarius.

2. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.

Sometimes Christians talk like you should have no loyalty for your country, as if love for your country is always a bad thing. But Jesus shows it’s possible to honor God and honor Caesar.

This is especially clear if you know some Jewish history. The tax in question in Mark 12 is the poll tax or census tax. It was first instituted in AD 6, not too long before Jesus’s ministry. When it was established, a man by the name of Judas of Galilee led a revolt. What was his motivation? Later, Josephus wrote about Judas of Galilee, “He called his fellow countrymen cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in place of God.” See, Judas and the Zealots believed allegiance to God and allegiance to any earthly government were fundamentally incompatible. As far as they were concerned, if God was your king, you couldn’t have any earthly king. Theocracy was the only way to go.

But Jesus disagreed. By telling the people, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It’s possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority.

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. Calvin said about this passage, “It lays down a clear distinction between spiritual and civil government, in order to inform us that outward subjection does not prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God. . . . In short, Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God, or any injury done to his service, if, in respect of outward government, the Jews obey the Romans.” In general, then, it’s possible to be a good Christian and a good American (or good Canadian or good Kenyan or whatever). Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.

3. It is acceptable that there be some measure of separation between church and state.

Church and state occupy overlapping spheres, and government is always ultimately accountable to God. But if we can render some things to Caesar and render other things to God, it must be the case that they are not one and the same, that it is possible to have some separation between the realm of organized religion and the realm of government (see, for example, Andrew Melville’s “two kings and two kingdoms”).

I keep saying “some” because there are all sorts of difficult issues that aren’t going to be solved by Mark 12:17. On the one hand, we shouldn’t pretend that civil legislation is somehow divorced from all moral or religious categories. It can’t be done. If you forbid murder, you are legislating morality. So I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t bring many of their convictions to bear on public policy. But on the other hand, it seems that from this passage, Jesus did not have a vision for the state that meant it had to be ruled by all the laws of God. Jesus was not a theonomist.

In his book Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson argues that the state and religion (as an organized institution) occupy “distinct, even if overlapping spheres.” This does not mean Christ is not Lord of all, but it means he rules over the different spheres in different ways. After all, Jesus says in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It won’t be until the end of the age that we will be able to say, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of our Christ” (Rev. 11:15). We are more like Israelites in exile in Babylon, maintaining a kingdom within a kingdom, than we are like the Israelites in the promised land where God’s rule and the nation’s rules were identical. That’s the foundational reason theonomy is wrong. We are not Israel in the promised land; we are Israelites as strangers and aliens in the world.

This is one of the big differences between Islam and Christianity, and why it remains to be seen if pure Islam can work in Western nations. I recall an anecdote from D. A. Carson about a Muslim man who said, “I find nothing in the Qur’an that tells us how to live as the minority, and I find nothing in the Bible that tells you how to rule as the majority.” Now that may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s getting at something profound. Islam developed with the state and religion intertwined, while Christianity was, at the beginning, a persecuted minority religion that accepted the distinction between a spiritual kingdom and a civil kingdom. The rights protected in the First Amendment are not just a nod to tolerance; they are consistent with Christian convictions.

4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.

When Jesus says, “Go ahead and give to Caesar what belongs to him,” he is effectively saying, “You can support nations that do not formally worship the one true God.” Or to put it a different way: true religion is not bound with only one country. This means the church will be transcultural and transnational.

I like how Mark Dever puts it in his sermon-turned-book on the same text: “Jesus’ approval of paying taxes to Rome was revolutionary. By this, Jesus shows us that the legitimacy of a government is not determined by whether it supports the worship of the one true God, or even allows for it. By Jesus not requiring those who follow Him only to support states which are formally allied to the true God as Old Testament Israel had done, Jesus unhitches His followers from any particular nation” (God and Politics, 27).

Some of you are from a different country. And some of you may have heard or may think that Christianity is just a Western religion or maybe an American religion. But it’s not. It never has been. It started in the Middle East and was always meant to be international. Today there are more Anglicans in church in Nigeria than in England, more Presbyterians in South Korea than in the United States. The promise to Abraham way back in Genesis is that, through his family, God would bless the whole world. The scene around the throne in Revelation is of people from every tribe and language and culture. Christianity is not tied to just one certain nation. Following Christ is not an ethnic thing. You can be from any country and worship Jesus.

5. The state is not God.

So far we’ve been looking at the first half of Jesus statement: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” but now we need to look at the second statement: “Render to God the things that are God’s”. You may think, Well, Jesus certainly is pro-government. He may have given a cute answer by looking at the coin, but all he’s done is side with the Romans. But look more carefully.

By saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and give to God what belongs to him,” Jesus is making clear that he believes the two are not identical. Remember the inscription on the denarius, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of Divine Augustus?” Jesus doesn’t buy that at all. If people were listening carefully to his answer, they would have heard him say, “Look, give Caesar his taxes. But Caesar is not God, and God is not Caesar. Tiberius is not divine. Augustus was not divine. They are not what they want you to believe.”

Human government is always run by humans. And as such, there will always be a gravitational pull toward idolatry. Governments, unless there are checks and balances, tend to accrue more and more power. And, if we are not careful, we start to believe that Caesar really may be God, the state really may have all the answers, government may be able to give us everything we need. But Jesus not only tells us to respect the government, he also tells us quite clearly that the state is not ultimate. The government has authority but not comprehensive authority. It doesn’t matter what country you are from, America, China, or Guatemala, your government is not God.

6. We owe our ultimate allegiance to God.

The state’s power is limited. Our allegiance to country or government is never absolute. But our allegiance to God is comprehensive. Do you see the word “likeness” in verse 16? It’s the Greek word eikon from which we get icon. The word can mean image or likeness. It’s the same word used in the Greek Old Testament in Genesis 1:26. Let us make man in our eikon—in our image, after our likeness. What are the things that belong to Caesar? Taxes, respect, honor—that’s what belongs to governing authorities. But what belongs to God? You. Your whole self. Your life. Your existence. Your everything.

Imagine standing before God, and he says, “Come up here. Let me take a look. Whose image, whose likeness do I see?” You are made in the image and likeness of God. You are like a coin—you may be dirty, rusted, nasty looking—but a penny is still worth a penny. And you are still worth something to God, because his likeness has been stamped on you. You belong to him. So the only way to render to God the things that are God’s is to give to God your whole life.