Let us now see how Yeshua so cleverly answers the Pharisees and the Herodians. In Mark 12:15b-17a He says, “Bring Me a denarius to look at”. They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This is a well thought out answer. First, why did He ask that they bring Him a denarius? A denarius was a silver Roman coin and was equivalent to a day’s wage. But why bring a coin at this time? In Jewish writings, a coin with its inscriptions were considered a proof of one’s sovereignty over a land or country.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we read of a tradition where God told Abraham that his coin would go out into the world (meaning his sovereignty would be acknowledged). b. Meg. 14B. In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a story and tradition which says that when David’s soldiers asked the man Nabal to help him and his people by providing some food, Nabal refused. That got David angry and so he went to meet with Nabal, whose name in Hebrew means stupid and foolish, but Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hurried to prepare food and met with David on the road to save her husband’s life.
This is when tradition quotes her saying in defense of her husband, “Up until now the coin of our king Saul is still valid!” Abigail is justifying her husband’s actions by saying that Nabal thought that Saul was still sovereign over Israel because the coin still carried that inscription (J. Talmud San. 2.20B.17). She used a coin to prove the sovereignty of Saul and to defend the life of her husband.
So, it appears that coins played a big role in affirming sovereignty, and so this gave further force to the lesson Yeshua was going to teach. When Yeshua asked those who confronted Him to describe whose likeness and inscriptions were on the coin, they all said, “Caesar’s.”
It’s ironic that by answering “Caesar’s”, they proclaimed Caesar as head of the country and so they answered their own question. If he is the sovereign over the land of Israel, then yes, pay your taxes to him.
And so, Yeshua says to them, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. The word render means to pay back, to repay, as one repays a debt. They were the government which oversaw the social and civil aspects of their lives and regardless of Roman theology, they were the ones in control of economically holding the country together.
To render to Caesar was not a reference to this denarius, for this coin belonged to someone, but it was in reference to taxes. Yeshua had them answer their own question; Pay your taxes!
In fact, what Yeshua did here was to bring out a biblical principal found in the Hebrew Scriptures. At no time and even under an oppressive government do we find a command not to pay our taxes to a government. When the Jewish people were taken captive into Babylon, God sent them a message through Jeremiah and told them, “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 have welfare.” Jeremiah 19:7 To seek the welfare of the city in Babylon, the place of their exile, meant to pay their taxes as well.
Later they asked Paul the same question while the Roman Empire was ruled by the wicked Nero. If there is one government in history where we would have good reason not to pay our taxes, it was to him, yet Paul said in 1Timothy 2: 1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Their answer was in the Scriptures. They should have remembered Jeremiah and also that during most of her history, Israel was subjected to foreign domination. During all this time it was always to pay its taxes.
The marking on the denarius was not the main point of Yeshua’s answer. It is the second part of His answer that is so much more to the point.
“Render to God the things that are God’s”. This is what they were failing to see and do. For if that denarius in their hands had the likeness of Caesar, who then had the inscription of God, who revealed the likeness of God? The One who was standing right before them. Jesus is called the likeness of God in that part of the Scriptures that describes His nature. We read from Colossians 1:15–16 He is the likeness of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
And since the start of His ministry, the inscription of God was written all over His words, and by His works.
Their success and openness in seeing the One who stood before them, in receiving Yeshua as King would have ultimately freed them from Caesar’s oppression.
And in His answer, Yeshua condemned them twice. First, many Essenes and Pharisees would not even carry a denarius on them, for it had the image of a person. They thought that by carrying or even seeing a denarius, they would transgress the second commandment which says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth”. Exodus 20:4
Though using a coin does not mean that one worships the coin maker, many still chose not to pay their taxes and were guilty of breaking the civil law. In fact, they were guilty of a second charge because they refused the Messiah who stood in front of them, transgressing the Law of God. So, while they came to accuse, their accusation turned against them.