Two days before Christ’s crucifixion, all the wisdom and power of Almighty God was on show in Jerusalem. On that day, Jesus magnified his Father as he overthrew the wicked plans of the nation’s leaders who came to destroy him. We read of this in Matthew 22.

First, the Pharisees questioned him about paying taxes to the Romans, then the Sadducees asked their hypothetical question about the woman with seven husbands and finally, the lawyers and scribes wanted to know which was “the great commandment in the law?” All of these wanted to trap him in his speech and have him condemned by the priests, people or the Romans.

The first conspiracy was an unholy alliance of Pharisees and Herodians. They came to him in the Temple pretending that they wanted an answer to a genuine dilemma. But each synoptic gospel record shows that their motives were far from pure. Luke 20:20 captures their malice: “And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.” They wanted to accuse him before the Romans just as they later did when they lied to Pilate saying, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar” (Luke 23:2).

Is it Lawful to Give Tribute unto Caesar, or Not?

They tempted him with the famous question: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?” Matthew 22 captures the tension and wonder of the moment as Jesus faced his adversaries and, by his perceptive genius, quenched the fiery darts of the wicked. With false humility and deceptive charm, they played to the crowd as they spoke “the words of the wicked [that] lie in wait for blood”: “Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:16–17).

Their scheme was doomed from the very start because “Jesus did not commit himself [to the people] because he knew all men” (John 2:24). They wanted to know what he thought; but little did they know that he had already seen through their malicious scheme. Once before, the Pharisees and Herodians had joined forces against him. In Mark 3 they had challenged him in the synagogue, over the healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. Back then, in verse 5, he looked “on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts”.

He knew these men. But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn them; instead, his loving intention was to save them from themselves. Luke 5:17 tells us that “the power of the Lord was present to heal them”. They were not healed because they chose to not change their ways. Luke adds (7:30), that “the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptised of him.”

Even here, as they tempted him two days before they would demand his blood, Jesus’ response contained a rebuke and an invitation to change. They wanted to know what he thought… so he showed them that he thought exactly like his Father. He had no schemes in mind but he did not hide his assessment of their attitude: “Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?” (Matt 22:18).

Picture the scene. The Pharisees and Herodians eagerly pressed in towards the Lord like wolves that could smell blood, while Christ’s disciples and the people stood wondering how he could possibly answer this question without offending someone. Surely he must offend the people or the Romans! Either Rome or the people would charge him as a traitor (Luke 20:20).

But let’s not forget who was at the centre of this question. This was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We do not know how long the Lord waited before replying, but it’s unlikely that he replied immediately. He probably allowed each onlooker time to form his or her opinion on the question before he answered. We can be sure that he was not worried by the question or the mounting tension as everyone anxiously waited for his reply. Surely, only a Solomon-like answer could save him: but no fear, a greater than Solomon was there that day.

What could he say? But really, it was so easy for one so “full of grace and truth”. So he asked, “Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny” (v19). Nationalists like the Herodians did not like using the Roman coin that he asked for. After a brief search, however, someone found a denarius and handed him the ‘penny’. A few moments passed as he checked the coin and yes, it was just as he expected.

Whose is This Image and Superscription?

His next statement was almost indeterminate, as if he was playing for time. He held the coin in his hand and may even have turned its face towards his accusers to reinforce his next point. If they could not see the coin, they knew what it looked like; so he asked, “Whose is this image and superscription [or inscription]?” (v20). Everyone knew whose face and name was on the coin. They may even have thought this a silly question… and answered, “Caesar’s” (v21).

His next comment hit the very heart of the matter: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (v21). His command to “render… unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” was the best deductive logic. If the coin depicted Caesar, and if the coin bore Caesar’s name, and the Roman government had made and issued the coin, who could deny Caesar’s ultimate right to it as tribute? His answer was simple and true: pay your legal taxes. But where was the logic for his statement, “and [render] unto God, the things that are God’s”? You could say that the first half of Jesus’ assertion infers the second, but the second half of his statement is also based on deductive logic.

As they were looking at Jesus holding the piece of money, weren’t they confronted by two images? Of course they were! Imagine the contrast facing the people. On one hand there was a worn old coin with Caesar’s image on it—Caesar’s rough and lifeless imprint on a tiny coin; the image of a cruel and unjust lord not worthy of any lasting honour. And next to it, full of life and love was the gracious and intelligent face of Jesus the Anointed Son of God, a man who actively radiated his Father’s image and likeness. God’s power and glory was on display that day, but few recognised Him. Who actually realised that Jesus was “the word… made flesh [the glory of the only begotten of the Father,] full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)?

None of the Pharisees and Herodians recognised the Lord Jesus Christ. They were blinded by their lusts and their ambitions. The Herodians were committed to advancing the authority and power of the Herods, not Rome. Their aim was self-government. The Pharisees were dominated by religious fervour coupled with a hatred of Rome. They had forgotten the power of the Scriptures and they had forgotten how to recognise and love God. They couldn’t see God’s Son even when he stood in front of them.

All that the Herodians and Pharisees could see was the image of Caesar. This was Christ’s purpose: he wanted to show each one of them that their prejudices and self-interest had generated in them a warped image of Almighty God. They had subordinated God’s honour and glory to serve their own aims and ambitions. There really was a greater than Solomon standing in front of them that day and they couldn’t see him. If we had been in the crowd, would we have recognised Jesus Christ that day? Who would we have seen?

How Do We See Christ and God?

There was much more to Jesus’ question than meets the eye. He asked, “Whose image and superscription hath it?” (Luke 20:24). When Jesus commanded them to “render… unto God the things which be God’s” (v25), he was saying that he was the image and inscription of God. He was made in the image of his Father and he reflected his Father’s moral excellence in all his thoughts, words and actions. He was God manifest in the flesh and he fulfilled the promise of Genesis 1:26: “And 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…”

Psalm 8:6–9 shows why the “dominion” of Genesis 1:26 applied first to Jesus Christ and 1 Corinthians 15:27–28 tells us where it will end—with God all and in all: “For [God] hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him.”

These scriptures not only remind us of just how perfectly the Lord Jesus manifested his Father’s character; they also tell us why Jesus Christ is our sovereign king. The apostle Paul reminds us of the need to let Christ rule in our lives when he exhorts us to pay attention to Jesus’ “image” and to his “face”. Look at 2 Corinthians 4:4,6: “… the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not [the Herodians and the Pharisees], lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them”; “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus called for the coin bearing Caesar’s lifeless image, he was drawing attention to Yahweh’s glory that shone forth in his life. Paul concludes that the Lord Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Col 1:15).

The INSCRIPTION—Epigraph

The Roman coin bore the inscription of Caesar’s name and face. What inscription was seen on Jesus’ face? Was there any inscription? Or are we making too much of this?

When Christ was crucified, Pilate commanded that an “inscription”—an epigraph—be placed on his cross: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). For us, two images of Christ last forever: Jesus the perfect image and likeness of his Father AND Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

Thus, Jesus answered the trick question with an age-abiding challenge: ‘recognise me, follow me and render to God the things that be God’s’. Romans 1:4 reinforces this truth when Paul says that Jesus is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”

The holiness in the face and life of Jesus Christ goes further: Hebrews 5:10 tells us that he is “called of God an high priest after the order of Mechisedec”. The high priest wore a golden crown on his forehead inscribed with “Holiness to Yahweh” (Ex 28:36). The sons of Aaron failed to fulfil this Divine ideal, but the Lord Jesus Christ was perfected by his “spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4). Love, mercy and holiness are more easily seen in people’s faces than in any other part of their person. Jesus Christ’s face always declared “Holiness to Yahweh”.

As the Lord stood there, in front of the crowd, two days before his crucifixion, he spoke to believers in every age. If they could learn what it meant to “render to God the things which be God’s”, by seeing God in him, he would invite them into his kingdom.

Is there really that much significance in Jesus Christ’s face? A brief search of the Old Testament reveals some interesting things about God’s “faces”: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him [‘his faces’, Phanerosis, p96], and it shall be very tempestuous round about him. He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people. Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (Psa 50:3–5).

The promise that we would see Yahweh’s faces (v3) was first seen in the four faces of the cherubim. But what did the faces mean? They show us the many ways that Jesus displayed his Father’s character to the world. It took four gospels to perfectly explain the work of Christ. The lion face is seen in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus revealed himself as the king who brought “the kingdom of heaven” to Israel. Mark depicts him as the ox, the suffering servant who gave his life to take away sin (a bullock was the national sin offering). In Luke, the man shone forth revealing Jesus Christ as the priest who saves his people; and in John, the eagle soars high above human thought as the Son of God overcame sin and established Divine righteousness. No matter which way we look at Christ, one of the four faces beckons us to follow him because he is our king, our saviour, our priest or God manifest in the flesh.

Indeed, whose face will the dead saints see when they rise from the grave?—the Lord Jesus Christ’s face. Jesus is the embodiment of his Father. Did he not say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (John 14:9).

The Power of a Face and a Word

As a final thought, what are the principal ideas that we associate with faces? A person’s face identifies him or her; hide the faces of your loved ones and friends and you will find it difficult to recognise them. In essence, we recognise Jesus by his face because it beams forth the majesty and love of Almighty God.

Faces also reveal our emotions—whether we are happy or sad, energetic or tired, peaceful or worried. Our feelings are seen in our faces and heard in our words. Although we have never seen Jesus, nor can we see his face now, would we know him if we saw him? Do we know him well enough to recognise him if he was here? We should be able to recognise him because he has shown us what he is like.

So, how can we recognise him? Listen to the discussion in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:33–40: “And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

We see Jesus Christ in the ecclesia made up of our brothers and sisters. We need to see Christ in each other. If each of us manifests a quality of Christ, together we can manifest the whole Christ; except for his sinlessness. It is a Divine principle that the ecclesia reveals Jesus Christ to the world; and we need to show Christ in ourselves so that our brothers and sisters can see “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

How Can we See and Recognise Jesus Christ?

We need to let the author and finisher of our salvation work unhindered in our lives. This is why Jesus had to share our nature. He had to experience the trials and temptations that we feel and he did this without sin. He succeeded and he wants us to follow him. He is our faithful high priest and he is representing us before the Father right now. Look who we have working for us—“if God be for us, who can be against us?”

As we began, we will finish with a challenge— can we see Jesus Christ in our hearts and minds? This is the message Paul leaves the Hebrew brothers and sisters. We need to listen to the voice of God and hear what Christ is saying amidst all the “coins” and noises of this world. If we try, we will see Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 draws our attention to Jesus Christ’s image: “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

When the Greek word for “express image” is spelled out it reads character. Paul is not referring to an individual character; rather, he means a type letter, a print character that can print multiple images of itself. Christ’s image and likeness can be imprinted on each one of us; but for us to copy his image, we must see him.

The Old Testament had a counterpart of the type character used in verse 3: it is the Michtam instruction that first appears at the head of Psalm 16 “… my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life” (v9–11).

Michtam means to engrave a memorial message in stone; to engrave the details of a person’s name and life for others to see and hear. In prophecy, Jesus Christ’s work was engraved in the Rock of Israel, but now he is no longer engraved below the stone’s surface, he stands out and imprints his character and holiness on everyone who believes and follows him. This is the power of the image and likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ.