Jesus’ Favorite Mind Games

One Sunday morning the fourth grade Sunday School teacher asked one of her students, “Johnny, what’s brown and furry and eats nuts?” Johnny replied, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

If you were to make a list of the smartest people who have ever lived, who would be the top on your list? If you were asked this question in a Sunday school class you might be inclined to answer, “Jesus,” just because, like Johnny in the incident above, you know that’s a safe bet. But could you back up that answer with any facts? Was Jesus smart?

Most Americans don’t put Jesus at the top of their smart list. In fact, pollster George Gallup asked Americans which traits had drawn them to Jesus and the most frequently mentioned responses were his love for humankind, his willingness to forgive, his kindness, and his compassion for all people. They also overwhelmingly indicated they believed that Jesus, the man, had a strong personality and that he was warm (as opposed to aloof), brave, emotionally stable, without sin, and perfect. By smaller margins, Americans also tended to hold the view that Jesus was easy to understand, physically strong, practical, physically attractive, divine (rather than human), and accepting (rather than demanding). While this is an impressive list, do you notice anything missing? How about “smart”?

We usually don’t think of Jesus being smart. My question is, “Why not?” For the past several years I’ve asked the students attending our summer conferences if they have ever had a Sunday school lesson or heard a sermon on how smart Jesus was. Only a small handful raise their hand. So it seems that this aspect of the life of Jesus has been overlooked.

Why is it important to reflect on Jesus as an intellectual? Because if we see Jesus as being loving and kind, we will naturally focus on developing those aspects of our lives. On the other hand, if we don’t see Jesus as smart, developing our mind will not be very high on our priority list. I suggest we need to re-examine the portrait of Jesus that is painted for us in the New Testament to see if, in fact, Jesus was smart. You may be surprised by what you find.

Jesus and the Intellectuals

In Matthew 22 we are given a ringside seat in a match of wits. In one corner are the most highly educated people of the day, the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and Jewish Scribes. In the other corner is Jesus. In verse 15, the Pharisees and Herodians come out swinging with a political question.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. (vv. 15–16)

This is an interesting coalition. Usually the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t have anything to do with each other. That’s because they represented two different political factions among the Jews. The Pharisees, as keepers of the Jewish law, hated the Roman government. However, on the other end of the political spectrum were the Herodians, who were loyal subjects of Rome, hence their name, “the party of Herod.” But even though they were politically at odds with one another, they teamed up to defeat their common enemy, Jesus.

Both parties had the goal of getting Jesus off the scene, especially since he had just insulted them in public. He had just told the parable of the wedding banquet, which portrayed the Pharisees as those who had been invited to the king’s wedding feast but refused to come and instead killed the king’s servants. Jesus was excluding them from God’s kingdom! So their intent was to get him off the scene, and their first salvo was a question designed to do just that.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (vv. 16–17)

The question put to Jesus was very well crafted. In fact, it was asked in such a way that Jesus would lose no matter how he answered it. Jesus was given only two options. This is called being on the “horns of a dilemma.” I used to live in Texas where they have “long horn” cattle, and I can tell you that being gored by either horn would hurt equally as much. Think of it this way, it’s like asking a friend, “Have you stopped beating your girlfriend?” If he answers “Yes” then he is admitting that he beat her in the past! If he replies, “No” then it means he is still beating her. Either way he looks bad.

In this case, what were Jesus’ options? He could answer, “Yes, pay your taxes.” This would put him on the side with the Herodians. However, the Herodians were not liked by the majority of the common people. If they heard Jesus siding with the Herodians, they would stop following him. He would lose his audience. This would be good for the Herodians and Pharisees and bad for Jesus!

Taking the other horn, what if Jesus answered, “No, do not pay your taxes.” This would be rebellion, treason against the state of Rome. The Herodians would take their case before the Roman authorities who would haul Jesus off to prison. Again, a good result for the Jewish leaders and bad for Jesus. This was a very good question!

Avoiding Those Sharp Horns

But Jesus does not fall on either horn. Instead of responding to the dilemma, Jesus goes one better by focusing on the more significant issue.

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (vv. 18–21)

With this question and comment, Jesus takes their political question and goes to the very heart of the issue, which is, who is in charge? Notice how he does that by using the term “portrait.” The word Jesus used here can also be translated, “likeness” or “image.” If we translate it as “image,” where have you read that term before? It goes back to the creation account recorded in Genesis 1:26–27.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” . . . So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In the Greek translation of the Old and New Testament, the same Greek word is used in both Matthew and Genesis. But there is more. This word is repeated in Genesis 9:1–6. In this passage, God is speaking to Noah after the flood and giving him and his descendents a commission.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth . . . . And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed . . . “

Here we find God is holding Noah accountable for the immoral behavior of his fellow man. If someone commits murder, Noah is responsible for bringing that person to justice through the use of capital punishment. And what reason does God give for punishing a murderer in this way? Read the next verse:

. . . for in the image of God has God made man.

Do you realize this is the first mention of civil government in the Bible? Yes, government is God’s idea! If Jesus had both Genesis 1 and 9 in mind when he responded to the Herodians’ question, then, in essence, he was saying, “Whose image is on the coin? Caesar’s. That means the coin belongs to Caesar. So give Caesar back his coin, no big deal. But more importantly, whose image is stamped on each of your lives? God’s! Then God has ultimate authority, and even Caesar, as head of the government, is accountable to God, since Caesar has God’s image stamped on his life, too.” Jesus is reminding the Herodians that civil authority is delegated authority. The ultimate authority comes from God.

An Amazing Answer

What was the response of those who heard Jesus’ answer? Read Matthew 22:22:

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Do you know what the word “amazed” means in Greek? It means “amazed”! In other words, they marveled at Jesus’ insight and keen understanding. Here we find Jesus going toe to toe with the most highly educated people of his day and he outmaneuvered them intellectually. He avoided their verbal trap and went to the very heart of the political question. This means that Jesus had developed a full-orbed worldview, including insight into the area of politics.

This brings me to a final question. After a conversation with us, do people walk away amazed at our insight and understanding? If not, maybe it’s because we’re not imitating Jesus when it comes to being smart. And here I’m not talking about IQ or making good grades in school. I’m referring to a deep understanding of the important issues of life. This comes from thinking well and hard about life’s questions. It means seeing the connections between our understanding of God and our place in God’s universe. To do this with insight, we must have a consistent and coherent biblical worldview.

So how about you? Are you imitating Jesus when it comes to being smart? If you need help in developing your ability to think well, consider some of the resources and books available through Summit Ministries. You may even want to teach a Sunday school class on worldview thinking so others in your community can begin the journey to being smart like Jesus.