April 14, 2019
Jason Meyer | 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.—Mark 12:13–17
One of the most iconic scenes in the classic movie, The Princess Bride, is the Battle of Wits.
The Man in Black finds and confronts Vizzini who is preparing to eat.
Vizzini: So, it is down to you, and it is down to me ... if you wish her dead, by all means keep moving forward.
Man in Black: Let me explain ...
Vizzini: There’s nothing to explain. You’re trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen.
Man in Black: Perhaps an arrangement can be reached?
Vizzini: There will be no arrangements ... and you’re killing her.
Man in Black: But if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse.
Vizzini: I’m afraid so. I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.
Man in Black: You’re that smart?
Vizzini: Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard or Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?
Man in Black: Yes.
Man in Black: Really! In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits.
Vizzini: For the Princess? To the death? I accept!
Man in Black: Good, then pour the wine. [Vizzini pours the wine] Inhale this but do not touch.
Vizzini: [taking a vial from the man in black] I smell nothing.
Man in Black: What you do not smell is iocaine powder. It is odorless, tasteless, and dissolves instantly in liquid and is among the more deadly poisons known to man.
Vizzini: [shrugs with laughter] Hmmm.
Man in Black: [turning his back, and adding the poison to one of the goblets] Alright, where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink—and find out who is right, and who is dead.
Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine it from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you ... But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Man in Black: You’ve made your decision then?
Vizzini: [happily] Not remotely! Because iocaine comes from Australia. As everyone knows, Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So, I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.
Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
Vizzini: Wait ’till I get going!! ... Where was I?
Man in Black: Australia.
Vizzini: Yes! Australia! And you must have suspected I would have known the powder’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Man in Black: You’re just stalling now.
Vizzini: You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you! You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong ... so you could have put the poison in your own goblet trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied ... and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!
Man in Black: You’re trying to trick me into giving away something. It won’t work.
Vizzini: It has worked! You've given everything away! I know where the poison is!
Man in Black: Then make your choice.
Vizzini: I will, and I choose ... [pointing behind the man in black] What in the world can that be?
Man in Black: [turning around, while Vizzini switches goblets] What?! Where?! I don't see anything.
Vizzini: Oh, well, I ... I could have sworn I saw something. No matter. [Vizzini laughs]
Man in Black: What’s so funny?
Vizzini: I ... I'll tell you in a minute. First, let’s drink—me from my glass and you from yours. [They both drink]
Man in Black: You guessed wrong.
Vizzini: You only think I guessed wrong! That's what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha, ha, you fool!! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia; and only slightly less well known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line! [Vizzini continues to laugh hysterically. Suddenly, he stops and falls over. The Man in Black removes the blindfold from the Princess.]
Buttercup: Who are you?
Man in Black: I’m no one to be trifled with. That is all you’ll ever need know.
Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.
Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up immunity to iocaine powder.
You are probably all asking why on earth I would begin this sermon with this story from the Princess Bride. The Man in Black was confident that he would win this test of wits because both goblets were poisoned. In the same way, the religious leaders have challenged Jesus to a battle of wits. They think they have him trapped because either response he gives will be poisoned. Should they pay taxes to Caesar? If he says, “Yes,” then they will say, “He supports Roman rule.” If he says, “No,” then they have him on the charge that he opposes Caesar.
But they have fell victim to the most classic blunder. The finite should never test the infinite All-Knowing God in a battle of wits. This passage has three main movements. We will look at each one and then state the main point.
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?”
1. Who – Who are the Pharisees and the Herodians?
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians (v. 13)
The Pharisees were a religious purity group. They wanted the people to keep God’s law and stay pure so that they would not be kicked out of their land again. They wanted Herod and the Romans out of Israel, and they believed that the warrior king Messiah would come and overthrow all their enemies (including the Herodians).
The Herodians were a political power group. They supported the existing regime. Herod was currently allowed to be the ruler in charge of Palestine under the watchful eye of the Roman Empire and Pontius Pilate the Governor. They did not want change because they were the group in power.
These two groups of people could not agree on anything—except that they needed to get rid of Jesus because he might start a rebellion and then the Romans would come and wipe them out.
Who sent them? The Jewish ruling council: chief priests, scribes, and elders.
… to trap him in his talk (v. 13b)
The reader knows right off the bat that this is a trap. They are pretending to ask Jesus a question, but it is cloak & dagger. They want to trap him in his words and get him in trouble. They can’t kick him until he is down.
“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.” (v. 14a)
They try to lure Jesus into the trap through flattery. This text features a tragic irony. What they are saying and what they really mean are two different things. They are falsely flattering him as someone who is (1) true, (2) does not care about people’s opinion, (3) is not swayed by appearances, but (4) truly teaches the word of God.
Their false flattery is actually totally true. Jesus is all of those things. But there is a double irony. Jesus really is all those things and they are none of those things. If Jesus is true and does not care about people’s opinion, then they are false and care only about people’s opinions. If Jesus is not swayed by the opinions of others but teaches the true way of God, then they are enslaved to people’s opinions and teach the way of man, not the way of God.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (v. 14b)
They think they have sprung a foolproof trap. If he says, “Yes,” then they will say, “He supports Roman rule.” If he says, “No,” then they have him on the charge that he opposes Caesar.
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.”
1. God Knows the Heart (v. 15)
But, knowing their hypocrisy …
He is not caught off guard. He knows their hypocrisy. Only a fool would think they can hide hypocrisy from someone who sees the heart. He is God. He is not swayed by appearance because man looks at the external appearance, but God looks at the heart.
2. Expose the Hypocrisy and Provide an Object Lesson (vv. 15–16)
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.”
They get a coin. He asks a question about whose image is on the coin. They have to answer that the likeness and inscription is that of Caesar.
3. Response (v.17)
Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Give to Caesar the things that are his and give to God the things that are his. Caesar has a limited amount of authority (given by God and thus under God’s control). Under that limited rule, people should submit to the government and pay taxes.
But that principle is under the overarching principle of rendering to God what is his—namely everything. The kingdom of Caesar is under the rule of the kingdom of God. They should pay taxes as part of submitting to the authority God put over them. But they must not miss the bigger object lesson. They may have coins in their pocket that have the image of Caesar, but they are the object lesson for the second part of Jesus’ statement. They have the image of God on their very selves—not their coins. Therefore, what should these religious leaders be giving to God that belongs to God? They should give him their repentance and worship and obedience and love him with all of their hearts! They should be giving these things to the God who is standing right in front of them, not plotting to kill him.
3. Their Response (v. 17c)
And they marveled at him.
Marveling is amazement that falls short of faith. You marvel when you see something that transcends normal experience—it is like shock and awe. But it does not lead to any lasting change. People simply can’t explain how he just did something, but because they lack faith, they look for another explanation than the even more shocking one in front of their face: This is God in the flesh. In chapter 6, the question is whether Jesus’ power comes from God or Satan, and so they have to lump Jesus and Satan together because they cannot come to the conclusion that Jesus is doing these things by the power of God.
Transition to Application
We should feel sorry for the religious leaders for trying to have a test of wits with the all-wise God. But what about us? Do we battle God in a test of wits? I am not thinking mainly of people “out there” who argue against his existence. I am thinking now of people in the church who question God’s wisdom in what he is doing in their lives. It is easy to assume that we know better when we don’t understand what he is doing. If we do not see a good reason, it does not mean there is no good reason. It reminds me of a story I heard about a father that was holding his baby. The baby needed surgery and had to go without food for 12 hours. The baby was screaming and crying to him because he was hungry. The daddy had tears in his eyes and was saying: There is a good reason for this. I wish I could make you understand!
I am not speaking against what the baby was doing. There is a difference between questioning his father and crying out to him. The baby was crying to his daddy. Believers should do the same thing when things are hard and they don’t understand.
Creation and Fall
How are you doing under this word to give to God all that belongs to him? God is giving you life and breath and everything else. What are you doing with those things? God gave you time—what are you devoting your time to? God gave you money—what are you spending it on? God gave you a mind—what do you think about? God gave you breath in your lungs and a tongue in your mouth—what do you talk about with others? God gave you eyes—what do you look at? God gave you hands and feet—what do you do and where do you go?
We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. How do you answer those questions? Is God there at the center of your time, money, thoughts, words, sight, actions?
We cannot be saved by rendering to God the things that belong to him. We are not saved by what we render to God, but by what he reckons to us: the righteousness of Jesus. Jesus does more than show us our faults in the Gospel of Mark. He teaches us to own them, not deflect them. Take responsibility. Don’t shift the blame. Fully acknowledge our sin and rebellion.
Christ died to forgive us of all the ways we have failed to love God and render to him the things he owns—everything, all of us. He paid it all. He redeemed us completely. We cannot pay the price. There is no salvation payment plan. He lived a perfect life in our place. It is like God gave a test and you had to get all the answers right to have eternal life. God never winks at sin. We fail the test because we cannot live a perfect life. We cannot live up to God’s standards and we know this to be true because we can’t even live up to our own standards. We disappoint ourselves all the time, and our standards are lower than God’s standards.
But God sent his Son who took on flesh. Why? He was tempted in every way like us and yet was without sin. He was perfect. He got an A+. If you want to look at what a perfectly loving God looks like, look to Jesus. He was made like us in every way and tempted like us in every way, yet without sin. And now God says to us, “I sent him to be your substitute, to obey in your place and die in your place. Put your faith in him and receive all that he has done for you. I will reckon or credit his score to you and your score to him. He pays the penalty on the cross and you receive the gift of his perfect record—his perfect righteousness.”
If you are not a Christian here today, you may be wondering, How can I actually repent of my rebellion and come to Christ and receive the forgiveness that he purchased on the cross? It all sounds so ethereal and esoteric.
We are embodied creatures—we don’t just have a body, we are a body. So start with your eyes and repent of all the ungodly things they have seen and even savored. What evil thoughts have you harbored—hate or lust or scorn? Your ears—repent of all that you have heard—maybe gossip and slander about other people or blasphemy about God. Your mouth: What gossip or slander have you spread? What angry, harsh, hurtful words have you spoken to others? What have your hands done or not done—how have you used your members as weapons of unrighteousness (violence or sexual immorality)? Where have your feet taken you that you never have gone? Where did you not go when you should have gone to help others?
Forgiven and Made New
And that is not the end of the good news. God does not leave us where we are. He took out the stony hearts of rebellion and put within us the soft hearts of obedience and love and trust. We are a people who long to have God be more at the center of our time, money, thoughts, words, sight, and actions.
Children of God have changed hearts that want to be like Christ. But that is only part of the truth and part of the story. Jesus went all the way to the cross to save us from our sins so that we would not bear them any longer. He wants to set us free from sin. Being set free from sin does not mean being set free to sin. We want to fight the creeping condition of being enslaved to the fear of man and the opinions of others. We want to follow the true way of God and tell others about that way instead of going our own way.
We want to be near to his heart. We want to hate the dark. We want dry bones to live again and have lungs that pour out praise to God and have hearts that beat with love for God. More than anything, we want to know his greatness and majesty and worth. We want him to have the first place, and to be in a league all of his own. We want our hearts to be sold out—we don’t want any seats left open for sale in the stadium of our hearts for him. We don’t want to fear what people can do to us or flatter them to get them to do something for us. We want to say, “If God is for us, then who can be against us?!” There is no power in hell or any who could stand against the power and the presence of the Great I Am.
Main Point: Render to God the things of God.
Pray for a grace to live a life that gives to God what belongs to him … everything!