I have been trying to take it easy since my total knee replacement surgery last Tuesday. The days have been filled with moments of pain with other moments of restless comfort. But mostly I have been trying to take this opportunity to do some reading, which, thankfully, has been a good respite for me during this time. Of all the theologians I enjoy reading, I have found myself poring over the works of Alexander Maclaren more and more lately. His sermons and expositions of Scripture have become a frequent source of spiritual energy and encouragement. I am grateful to be able to benefit from Maclaren’s exquisite insights into the Word, which are almost always directing my heart back to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a recent sermon I read of his, however, he employed an illustration that struck me anew with such enlightening force and faith that I knew I had to share it. Near the close of the sermon entitled, “The Way to the City,” in which Rev. Maclaren expounds on the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 10:15, there is a striking paragraph which, frankly, appears to be almost tangential to the rest of the sermon. And yet, the more I have ruminated on this conviction Maclaren expresses — and Maclaren’s larger point, for that matter — this text is critical to the entire sermon and, I dare say, to the entire Christian life, too. Here’s the passage from Maclaren:
Man’s destiny for God unmistakable. “Whose image and superscription hath it?” said Christ about the coin. “Caesar’s!” “Then give it to Caesar.” Whose image and superscription hath my heart, this restless heart of mine, this spirit that wanders on through space and time, homeless and comfortless, until it can grasp the Eternal? Who are you meant for? God! And every fibre of your nature has a voice to say to you if you listen to it.1
Drawing language from that familiar scene where Jesus’s political loyalties are put to the test, Maclaren avers that just as the coin was imprinted with the king’s image and, therefore, was owed to the king — so, too, have we been imprinted with the King’s image and, therefore, owe our lives to the King. Your soul and mine and, indeed, every soul who has ever lived has borne the image of the Sovereign King of all things. Accordingly, those souls belong to the King.
To some that might seem like an exegetical stretch. And, to be sure, such a point of application is hardly the primary point Jesus intended to make by his notable reply to the question about taxes. (Mk 12:13–17) Even still, there is a crucial scriptural filament which connects both thoughts together.
After Jesus is asked the entrapping question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (Mk 12:14) he replies, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” (Mk 12:15) Jesus knew knew the questioners hypocrisy. They weren’t looking for an honest conversation about taxes — they were looking to lure Jesus into a snare by which they might convict him on grounds of treason. They wanted him to admit some sort of anarchical aversion for Caesar and, thereby, indict him as an insurrectionist. The Lord knew all this, of course.
When the coin is brought to him, he offers it to the audience for examination. “Whose image and inscription is this?” Christ inquires. (Mk 12:16) “Caesar’s,” the questioners reply. Jesus then proceeds to circumvent their deceptive dilemma with a startling affirmation. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mk 12:17) This leaves the questioners in stunned silence. Perhaps because they knew the futility of arguing with Jesus’s statement.
Nevertheless, Jesus’s examination of the coin provides the most interesting linguistic detail. (Mk 12:16) The Lord is curious as to whose “image and inscription” the coin conveyed. The word “image,” here, is the Greek term eikōn, meaning “figure, or likeness.” It is obviously employed in this context to bring to mind the resemblance of Caesar stamped upon the face of the coin. But it is on that account, though, that Jesus designates the true possessor of the coin. Resemblance represents ownership.
Would you believe that this same Greek word is used in, perhaps, the most fundamental text in all of Scripture? In the Septuagint (LXX) of Genesis 1:26–27, we are given record of a Trinitarian conversation: “Let us make man in our image (eikōn), according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth. So God created man in his own image (eikōn); he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.” And it is in that way that we are made to see the wonderful illustration of a mere coin brought to Jesus for examination.
Our souls have been imprinted with God’s own image. Our hearts stamped with the heart of divinity. We bear the “image and likeness” of the Creator. This is what it means to be human. We are the tokens of his creating love. Consequently, we, the image-bearers, most resemble the Image-Maker when we are serving others in love. Such is the proper utility for those indented with eternity. (Ecc 3:11) Living otherwise is treasonous. A life exhausted for something or someone else is akin to divine robbery. We were made for God’s use and glory alone, not our own.
This is our express privilege. “Every part of creation bears the impress of God,” Charles Bridges comments. “Man — man alone — bears his image, his likeness. Everywhere we see his track — his footsteps. Here we behold his face. What an amazing thought, that the three Eternal subsistents in the glorious Godhead, should have united in gracious design and operation towards the dust of the earth!”2 And it is this “gracious design and operation” in the very dust he spoke into existence that brings the Creator down to the dust in order remedy the ruin made by his image-bearers. What we stole, he came to reclaim.
Alexander Maclaren, The Books of Esther, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1908), 390.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 189.