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A Trial of Tricks and Traps

Luke 20:20-26.  This sermon was preached on August 30, 2015 by Pastor Marty Bonner.

In the last week leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, he was at the temple each day teaching the people.  Unable to challenge his authority successfully, the religious leaders resort to different tricks and traps in order to try and stop Jesus.  Their rebuff by Jesus only led to a more determined desire to get rid of Jesus.  Today we will be looking a a specific type of trap and that is a political one.

It is important as believers in a difficult situation to observe how our Lord deals with this trap and learn from him.

The Schemes of the Wicked

In verses 20-21 we are told that they were watching Jesus as he was teaching, both obviously and in a hidden way through spies.  They were looking for anything to use against Jesus.  As brothers it is good for us to look out and watch out for one another.  However, these were looking for anything they could use either to neutralize Jesus or to apprehend him.    It also says that they were hoping to find something that would legitimize handing him over to the Roman authorities.  This attempt to trap people in order to take them out is not a path of righteous people.  It is a hallmark of the wicked.

Thus they operated in pretense.  They only pretended to be righteous and concerned about righteous matters.  But in reality they are wicked.  They use pious questions and religious cover to keep their wickedness from being recognized by people.  Of course this didn’t trick Jesus.  But we need to recognize how the wicked operate.  Not everyone who speaks piously has pure motives.  We need to have the wisdom of Christ and not take everything at face value.

Notice how they set up their question in verse 21.  They approach Jesus with flattery.  Now everything they say is technically true of Jesus.  But their motivation of flattery is intended to mask their true motivation.  We must be careful of those who talk us up and give us high praise.  It is not wrong to praise people where it is due.  However, if you are receiving praise you need to be careful to keep pride in check.  Also, on the other side, if you are giving praise, you need to be careful that you are not trying to make yourself look better in the eyes of the person you praise.  Keep it short and sweet and move on.  Do not use praise to try to obtain power or influence on others.

Is It Lawful to Pay Taxes to Caesar

In verse 22 we are given the question, which is a political trap.  “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  I believe the response of Jesus, “Why do you test me,” is intended to let them know that he sees through their ruse.  Yet, it is an important question.  Whether we are questioning others or being questioned, the motivation of the questioner is key.  Often a questioner has no desire to actually learn anything.  They ask the question as part of a greater agenda.  This is not a marker of a righteous person.  Thus Jesus prefaces his answer with a challenge to these men to think about why they are testing him.

This question has some history in Israel.  Since Judea had been taken over by the Roman governors, taxes had to be paid.  Several tax revolts had surfaced over the years with the understanding that to pay taxes to this wicked country was compromise.  They usually taught that God would help them if they “quit compromising” and fought the Romans.  Each of these uprising were crushed quickly by the Romans.  So the question is a legitimate one for that day and age.  However, it was also a very dangerous question to answer. 

If Jesus says it is not lawful, then the Romans will see him as a threat and at least imprison him.  If Jesus says it is lawful, then it will undermine his popularity with the people.  They believe he is the messiah.  He has essentially refused to publicly renounce this.  Thus it would be strange to the people to have the Messiah teaching that they should be paying taxes to Rome.  Surely the Messiah has come to deliver us from Rome.

Jesus tells them to bring him a coin called a denarius.  By this time much of the trade and commerce of Israel and the surrounding area was done in Roman currency.  Thus Jesus points out the reality that they are using Roman currency.  If you are using Roman currency then you have an obligation to the Roman government.  Rome had conquered Israel.  Now Israel had the authority to fight to the death to the end and never surrender.  But in the end they did surrender to Israel.  Such a surrender is a recognition that God had allowed the other country to conquer you.  Thus Jesus tells them to give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.

This reminds me of the prophet Jeremiah.  He had warned the king of Israel that God had given Israel into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.  Thus he counseled them to submit to Nebuchadnezzar, rather than fighting.  This was rejected by the leaders and things went worse for them.  Jesus here reminds them that it is lawful because God who gave the law had also given Rome authority over Israel.  They needed to submit to this and look to His timing for deliverance.

Yet, the master stroke of Jesus is to also remind them that they still have obligations to God as well.  “Give to God the things that are God’s.”  So what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?  Caesar has much things under his authority, including Israel.  However, even Caesar belongs to God.  Tyrants and statists have often made demands on Christians throughout history.  Submit to us!  And, often Christians have submitted in many ways.  However, they have also stood up to them in other ways.  So what do we do?  Rebel against tyrants or submit to them?  The answer is determining when the tyrant or All-Powerful-State demands from us something that belongs only to God.  Yes we could abuse that by declaring that everything belongs to God and thus we should give nothing to such governments.  However, the Bible says that no power can rise up but what God allows it.  Israel can claim that all their money belonged to God, but that is a pious ruse that seeks to avoid the harsh reality that they were under judgment of God.  When we humbly admit and submit to our disciplines from God, then we will learn to wait upon Him for our day of deliverance.

We see this with the apostles.  When the Jewish authorities commanded them to stop teaching about Jesus, they answered that they had to obey God.  God had directed them to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Thus they would not comply with such an unlawful order.  Yet, these same apostles submitted to the repercussions of such a choice.  In other words, they rebelled against the unlawful order without becoming rebels themselves.  If we are rebels then we are rebels against the demands of the flesh.

So what about a democracy?  Christians should exercise the rights that they have to their fullest extent without becoming belligerent to the results.  If such a society deems it “good” to persecute Christians for obeying God, then we accept that.  Sure, there is a time to flee such persecution.  There is also a time to stand and be a prophetic witness to that persecution, even a martyr.  Yet, each must be led by the Truth of God and the Spirit of Christ, not our rebellious flesh.

Today there are groups that seek to trap Christians with the politics of the day.  Christians need to be careful that they know exactly who they are serving.  May God give us wisdom in these days to see through the political traps that seek to make us fear.  We are His.  We can fulfill our obligation to the USA as long as it doesn’t conflict with God’s commands to us.  Take this to heart because it will be critical in the days ahead.

Tricks and Traps audio