I took some interest in a Facebook post at Bible Archaeology about the image of Tiberius Caesar on a Roman coin like the one Jesus referenced in Matthew 22:15-22. Some scriptural references and back ground facts are the subject of my writing today.
The story is well-known. Some Jewish leaders challenged Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
It was a ruse. They were trying put Jesus into the impossible position of aligning either with the Jews (against the Romans, losing credibility with them) or with the Romans (against the Jews, risking punishment for opposing Rome) on the issue of paying taxes.
Jesus famously asked for a coin, and then he asked whose image was imprinted on the coin. It was Caesar’s image, of course. Then Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Perhaps, my interest was piqued because I have written about the story before. I talk about rendering unto Caesar in the context of how Christians should respond to secular authority. I wrote about Jordan Peterson’s comment, crediting the words of Jesus to the creation of the modern principal of the separation of church and state. But I haven’t focused on what it is we are to “render” to God.
I am always excited to learn something new, and the Bible Archaeology post added some details I didn’t know. The first details provide the backstory to the story, which involves Judas the Galilean. The interrelationship of the two stories shows how intertwined, complex, nuanced and harmonious Scripture is within itself and with external facts discovered through historical and archaeological sources, among other things.
I appreciate the historians and archaeologists, like Bible Archaeology, that dig up corroborating details. In the Facebook post, they cite additional scriptural passages on Judas the Galilean that give us insight into why the Pharisees in Galilee challenged Jesus on the issue of paying taxes.
In Genesis 1:27, we learn that God created human beings in His image:
God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urged them (and us),
to put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
Thousands of years have passed between those two statements. God has been working out His purposes in the heavens and the earth from before the beginning. Creating man in His image and establishing man in His likeness has been central to that purpose.
Reading the words of Paul in Ephesians, which clearly echo the description of God’s creation of human beings, got me thinking about the difference between the image of God that was built into human beings from the start and the “new self” that Paul urges us to put on that is created in the likeness of God.
What is the image of God in which we were created?
What is the likeness of God that we must put on? (A new self created in righteousness and holiness)
Why must we put on a new self created in the “likeness of God” when human beings have already been created in the “image of God”? What is the difference between the two?
I try not to lean on the assumptions that come first to mind when approaching Scripture. I often go back and work through a text looking for things I haven’t seen before. As I write this, I don’t know exactly what I will find. I was intrigued by the echoes of Genesis in Paul’s words to the Ephesians and prompted to dig into them freshly.
I am starting a new Bible reading plan for the year, and so I am back to Genesis. Reading through the rich text of Genesis 1 again I am seeing some things I hadn’t really noticed before. Consider the following (with my emphasis added):
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruitafter their kindwith seed in them‘; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seedafter their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.
“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’“
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind‘; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….'”
I color-coded the various provisions that form the pattern that informs my thinking today. The provisions in each color correspond with the other provisions of the same color.
Now, let me see if I can put all my thoughts together in a coherent whole.
First of all, God ordered (in the sense of designed) all living beings to multiply after they own kind. We see this everywhere in nature: apple trees bear seeds that grow into new apple trees; asparagus plants bear seeds that grow into new asparagus plants; lions beget lions; polar bears beget polar bears; yellow polka dotted salamanders beget yellow polka dotted salamanders; bluefin tuna beget bluefin tuna; and purple finches beget purple finches.
This is the order of living things. Not only that, but we now know that something (call it evolution or something else) works powerfully within living beings to reproduce and even to adapt with changes over time.
Every living thing bears seed or otherwise reproduces more of its kind. Human beings included, but only humans are made in the image of God. (Hold that thought.)
God “blessed” the living things He created, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:22) He also blessed man who He made in His own image, and gave similar orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28)
Note that God “ordered” (as in designed) the living things He created to reproduce after their kinds and to be fruitful and multiply, but God ordered (as in not only designed, but commanded) man to do the same. The difference is an important key to understanding what God is doing.
Unlike the other living creatures which are designed to reproduce and multiply after their kinds, humans have some agency in the matter. God designed them for the same purpose, but He also commanded them to do it because humans are created in the image of God who has agency – the ability to exercise will and to do (or not do) things.
Humans, of course, had no choice in their creation, but they do have choice in whether to “participate in God’s design” and how they would participate in God’s design. This choice was demonstrated in the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to them.
It was a real choice, and it had real consequences. It had to have real consequences or it wouldn’t have been a real choice. That choice was part of what it meant to be made in the image of God. Without the ability to choose, humans would have been just like the other living things God created. The ability to choose set humans apart.
As the story goes, humans ate the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden.
They exercised the choice God gave them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans opened up their world to all the ways they might choose to go against the order of creation.
Throughout Genesis 1, we read over and over again that what God did “was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If what God designed was good, choosing to operate counter to that design would be evil (the opposite of good).
None of this is very revelatory so far, but I am getting there.
Genesis 1 reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says:
God gives [all living things] a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
1 Corinthians 15:38-39
The order/design of life – of reality – is immutable. Life is ordered the way God created it, though humans have some choice (within limits) of whether to align with God’s design or to buck against it. Indeed, the story of the fall is the story of humans exercising that choice and of an adaptation that God built into His design to accomplish His ultimate plan.
In the first century, Hebrews believed that they would be defiled by the things they ate. In the twenty first century, many Americans believe that people are generally good, and they learn to be prejudiced and hateful from their environment. I hadn’t seen the parallel until I spent some time meditating on the following words Jesus spoke to his first century audience:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” …. Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” …. And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:15, 18, 19, 20-23 ESV)
Modern Americans may not agree with the list of evils Jesus mentions here, nor would they agree with the ancient Hebrews’ list of evils, but I find it interesting that they might both generally agree, perhaps, on the source of evil – coming from outside the person. Modern Americans popularly believe that all people are good, that we only learn to be bad. It’s pressure from outside of us that influences us to do evil things.
Jesus said that isn’t true. It’s what comes from within us that defiles us. Jesus might have been echoing the Prophet, Jeremiah, when he said the human heart is deceitful (and “desperately sick”). (Jer. 17:9)
We fool ourselves when we think that most people (including ourselves) are basically good. We are looking in the wrong direction when we assume that evil lurks outside of us.
James says, “[E]ach person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire …” (and, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin….”). (James 1:14-15) Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13), and all people have sinned and fallen short. (Rom 3:23)
Scripture asserts that the thread of sin runs through all people. I think that Scripture is correct in this. The human heart tends toward evil. We have to learn to be good. Evil is what comes naturally, but good has to be learned.
But what is the essence of goodness and evil? This is where we find general agreement on some things (it’s not good to kill babies for fun) and disagreement on other things (like abortion).
Jesus breaks “being good” down to two things: loving God above all else, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. (Matt. 22:36-40) If these things are the greatest goods, then the greatest evils are what is contrary to them: not loving God and not loving our neighbors.
I think modern Americans can agree about the goodness of loving others, but we tend to reject (or be agnostic about) loving God. Ancient Hebrews generally subscribed to both precepts, but there was a disconnect for them. They got caught up in the commandments (the do’s and don’ts) and didn’t understand that those commandments pointed to something greater. Thus, they focused on what they took into their bodies instead of what came out of their hearts.
Jesus focused on the heart of the matter – human hearts. We would do well to refocus our attention in the twenty first century on human hearts as well, beginning with our own hearts. We search for ultimate truth within ourselves, but the hateful things that we detest in others are found within us also.
When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment,” he said “the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul”. Jesus didn’t have to go any further. He had been asked what was the greatest commandment, and he answered the question, but he didn’t stop there. He offered a second greatest commandment, which is “to love your neighbor as yourself”. (Matthew 22:36-39)
Why did Jesus go further?
The significance of these two commandments that are the greatest of all is that you and I are made in imago dei – the image of God. Moreover, this revolutionary idea, that we are created in the image of God, is unique to the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The point is further illustrated elsewhere in the same Chapter of Matthew in a confrontation between pupils of the Pharisees, who were sent to challenge Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They were trying to trap him with a question for which there was no good, politically correct, answer, but Jesus was not deterred by their ill will.
Rather, Jesus requested a coin. Someone produced a denarius (a Roman coin) for him. Ravi Zacharias describes the interchange that ensued this way.
“He held the coin out to [the man who gave it to him], and he said, ‘Whose image is on this?’ The man said, ‘Caesar.’ Jesus said, ‘Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which belongs to God.’ The man should have had a follow up question, and the follow up question should have been, ‘What belongs to God?’ and Jesus would have said, ‘Whose image is on you?’”