Week of March 7

All Nations Under Christ

Read: Deuteronomy 1-2; Mark 12
“Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Marks 12:17b, ESV


If we are not careful, an unbridled individualism may well be drawn up within a destructive vortex of Christian nationalism. This failure may happen when Christ-followers fail to bend the knee to his universal authority (Colossians 1:15-20). The underlying challenge that is found in Mark 12 relates to Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ right to rule provides a flash point for the tensions that we see in the teaching and events of this chapter (cf. 11:27-33). We read previously of conflict that surfaced over the Lord’s actions (2:1-3:6). Here we see the same, but the focus is his teaching (BNTC). Any refusal to bow our lives to Christ’s Lordship will render our gospel witness anemic. Let’s consider Jesus’ words today.

Let's See What the Bible Says

Professor James Brooks identifies this passage as a “pronouncement story,” meaning all that precedes it leads up to the authoritative statement in verse 17 (NAC). The religious leaders were trying to catch Jesus in a snare much like an animal would be caught in a trap (12:13, “trap him”). Furthermore, they spoke flattering words, but they did not mean them. One may wonder what was so threatening to them?

We need some historical background to situate ourselves in the Biblical context. Jewish nationalism was always a smoldering ember that could flare up at any given time. There were nationalist groups within Israel, and they became the sticks that stoked the fires of nationalism. We need to understand what the term “nationalism” means. The word means loyalty and devotion to a nation, and its extreme forms lead a country to exalt itself over others. Nationalists promote their own culture and interests above those of others. Herein lies the source of conflict: Jesus’ kingdom requires our supreme loyalty. Read on.

Mark shares a Passion Week interaction between Jesus and two religio-nationalistic groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians—very likely a Sadducee sub-group named the Boethusians—were sympathizers with the Herod family and were influential in Galilee at the time of Christ (see also Mark 3:6; Matthew 22:16). They were aristocrats and quite powerful. They allied themselves with the Pharisees, many of whom also wanted to be rid of Jesus. Jesus had challenged them directly for their hypocrisy, mishandling of the Word of God, and their abuses of the people (Matthew 3:7; 5:20). His prophetic challenge is critically important because Jesus was zeroing in on Israel’s heart problem.

The tax in question in Mark 12 is not like our annual tax filings with the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This focus was a “census” or “head tax” that all residents of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria were required to pay (cf. Matthew 2:22). The tax amounted to only one denarius each year—a “day’s wage” of an agricultural laborer (12:15). This tax was opposed by a man known as Judas the Galilean who led an unsuccessful revolt, so it is safe to say that the Jews despised it (Acts 5:37)! The Jews hated the tax because it was a symbol of foreign domination, and because it had to be paid with a coin that bore the image and “offensive inscription” of the Roman emperor (NAC). This event goes well beyond any upset that we may have with our own IRS.

The coin was looked upon as an idol. If Jesus advised payment, he risked losing popularity with the people. If he advised against paying it, he could be arrested by Roman authorities. The irony is that Jesus did not possess such a coin, but his accusers did—thereby, demonstrating their implicit support of Rome. The larger point is Jesus’ calm spirit in the encounter. He knew that we do have an obligation to the state, but that our ultimate allegiance is to the King of Kings. That we are “in this world, but not of it” is a good way to state it (see 1 Peter 2:13-15). Jesus’ response put these people on the spot because it exposed the point Mark makes in his Gospel: the nation and its leaders would submit to no one or no entity that they could not control. In Ashlock speak, stony hearts always lead to a rocky relationship with the Father!

Let's Deepen Our Walk

We have similar groups in our nation today that have melded together the belief and practice of religious and political extremism, so this tense interaction with Jesus should not puzzle us. The recent events of January 6, 2021, shocked, embarrassed, and angered our nation, but the greater horror was seeing the many who displayed evidence of a violent Christian nationalism. Where does Jesus’ message ever permit such behavior? I’ll save you a reply because it does not. His answer to the Pharisees and Herodians provides us with evidence of this fact.

The Jewish physicist Albert Einstein once wrote, “This is of moment not merely for the destiny of the Jews, whose welfare depends on their sticking together and helping each other, but, over and above that, for the cultivation of the international spirit, which is in danger everywhere to-day from a narrow-minded nationalism” (Einstein, The World As I See It, p. 64; italics mine). He and his Jewish people understood the deadly nature of nationalism during the Nazi regime. We too may learn a lesson from such extremism. How so?

Here is a thought for our spiritual formation. The image of Caesar was stamped there on the Roman coin, and it was returned to that jurisdiction. God’s image, however, is stamped on our beings, which are to be returned to him (Genesis 1:26-27). Jesus wanted them (and us) to keep in mind that the lesser obligation to a state may be included in the greater one that we offer to God (Romans 13:1-5). The former signifies a tax commitment, the latter represents a life obligation. Furthermore, Christ’s disciples are to love their enemies and to treat them with respect even when they oppose them (Matthew 5:38-42, 43-47). These two groups would utilize this tool as a political strategy when Jesus was placed on trial before the Romans (see Luke 23:2; “forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar”). Such malicious hatred toward another human life should never be characteristic of a sincere Christ follower.

Let's Think and Discuss

1. There are readers from several different nations that read these Pathway devotionals. They no doubt exhibit pride in their countries. National pride may be a good thing, and I salute it. So, write down the reasons why you love your nation. Now, write down ways that such pride may become a hindrance to Christ’s universal authority and his kingdom advance. Ask God to empower your witness to Christ.

 2. For families: It is good to teach children to love their country. It is even more important to teach them to honor God above anyone and everything else. A good way to do that is to teach them to give back to God that which belongs to him—including themselves. How do we teach them to do this?

One way is to set aside family time to read the Bible and pray together each day, perhaps at the dinner hour. As the children grow older, they can read their own Bible passages and memorize verses each day and repeat them to you. By teaching them to live a life of reverence before God, you will be giving them the best gift a parent can give. Here is a ministry that has been helping children, teens, and adults, to memorize scripture for 70 years. As your children mature and grow old, God's Word will be in their hearts and minds to be used of the Spirit both to guard and guide them. Click here for Scripture Memory.

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock