A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on August 2, 2020.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15–22).
Who enjoys paying taxes? Although we enjoy the benefits that come from taxation in a civil society, no one enjoys paying them. Taxes aren’t popular today, and they weren’t popular in first century Israel either. In fact, they may have been even less popular. They were indeed a people under taxation without representation.
Under Roman rule, all Judeans were required to pay a poll tax, the tax referenced in this parable. It was a hated tax, even leading to riots in Judea. Throughout Israel, opposition to the tax, rendered you a patriot; support of the tax rendered you an enemy, or worse a tax collector.
Jesus as a Galilean was possibly not subject to the tax. Why then would the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus about a tax he does not pay? In a word, entrapment. If Jesus supports the tax, then the Pharisees can pit him against the people, a seeming blow to his popularity. If he opposes the tax, then the Herodians can associate him with other Galilean Zealots who oppose the tax, labeling him an insurrectionist. It is the perfect entrapment ploy, or so they think.
They begin with flattery, as all good hypocrites do, claiming to “know” what they do not believe: “Teacher, …you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.” Now, let us remember that up to this point the Pharisees have denied Jesus’ identity and authority, even accused him of working through the power of the devil, and challenged his teaching. Have they changed their minds, had a change of heart? Hardly; they’re merely setting the trap.
To their flattering statement, they add an intriguing assessment: “and [we know] you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” It is, as flattery can be, a half-truth at best. Nevertheless, the entrapment is obvious. The Pharisees are hoping to play on the pride of the most humble man to ever live.
Here is the set-up and question for the one who is true, teaches truthfully, cares not of opinion, nor is swayed by appearance: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” It is the perfect ploy, but their malicious intent is foiled by the Master. Jesus responds, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” He sees right through their scheme all the way to their wicked hearts.
Knowing what you know of Jesus, how would you expect him to answer the question? Will he give his opinion on taxation, establishing a God-ordained policy on such a controversial topic? Will he use the opportunity to confront the sins of the secular State, or give commentary on the Roman emperor, Tiberius? Will this be his time to wax on all things political? Or, using his keen mind, will he draw out the word “lawful,” carefully defining it and elaborate on what the civil government can and can’t do? It may surprise many to hear how in fact Jesus does respond.
He begins with a request: “Show me the coin for the tax.” What they deliver to him is a Roman denarius, a coin despised by the Jews for its blasphemous portrait of the emperor and idolatrous inscription, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus” on one side and Pontifex Maxim, or “High Priest,” on the other side. It is a coin that not only breaks the first and second commandments but is an affront to Israel’s worship. So vile was the coin to the Jews that they created their own coinage for use in the temple.
Presented the coin, Jesus now begins to play their game, to draw them out as foibles of their own design. He asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Who’s playing who now?
The answer, as every Judean and Galilean knows, is Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor. To which Jesus responds, with penetrating clarity, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It is a masterful stroke of rhetorical genius, and it may also be one of the most ignored truths.
The underlying problem with the Pharisees’ question, beyond their malicious intent, is an invalid presumption. They presume that using Rome’s currency and paying Rome’s tax is equivalent to bowing in idolatrous worship to Rome’s emperor. Jesus exposes this error explaining that one can render to Caesar the requirements of the secular State, even if Caesar does not believe in God, even if he thinks he is a god. And, living in a secular society one can render to God all that he is due. You can be a dutiful citizen and a devoted child of God. The key is knowing the difference.
Render to Caesar
The Greek verb translated “render” means “to pay back,” connoting a payment for something received. In the case of a national tax, the tax is paid for the benefits received. But Jesus is describing more than taxes, isn’t he? To “render to Caesar” describes a right understanding of civil government revealed in Scripture.
Consider these five truths of civil government revealed in Scripture. First, contrary to popular opinion, government is not a human invention but is established by God. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2). So, government is established by God.
Second, the primary function of government is order and justice. Paul continues in Romans, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For his is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4). Order and justice is a blessing from God through the means of government. And, it is for this civil order and justice that we are to pray, specifically for those in authority, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
Third, we have obligations to the civil government. For example, we should seek the “welfare” of and pray for the city in which we live (Jer. 29:7). We are to submit to those in authority (Rom. 13:1). We are to honor our leaders (1 Pet. 2:17). And, we are to pay our taxes. Of course there are exceptions: we are under no obligation to do anything contrary to God’s will. In such rare cases, we must obey God rather than man. But, such is the exception rather than the norm.
Fourth, as modeled in Daniel, we may actively engage in and even serve in a government that is far from perfect. Let us remember that the apostles did not encourage Roman soldiers to. surrender their occupations upon their conversion (Acts 10-11). Daniel serves as the perfect example, serving under a pagan king yet never compromising his integrity or faith.
Fifth, government is limited. While good government can provide an ordered and justice society, it cannot change the heart. Only by God’s grace through faith in Christ can the heart of stone be brought to life. Sadly, many look to government to do what it was never created to do.
You may get your choice in the White House. Your party may secure the Senate or gain the House. You may see new appointees to the Supreme Court. But, if your hope is built on the fickle whims of government, you’ve believed a different gospel than the one Jesus preached. Sadly, in much of American Christianity we have made Caesar our god and made God our civil servant. What this country needs is for American Christians to stop rendering to Caesar what is God’s alone.
Render to God
What then are we to render to God? Consider again the Roman denarius. Bearing the image of Caesar, it is to be used to render to Caesar what he is due. Similarly, we who are created by God have been stamped with his image. And as his image-bearers we are to render to God what he is due, namely perfect and personal obedience.
What we realize quickly is it is far easier to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s than to render to God what is God’s. In fact, it is impossible. We cannot render, pay back, what we owe God. Since Adam’s fall in sin, no one has ever personally obeyed God perfectly…except One.
Only Jesus has rendered to God what is God’s. Only Jesus obeyed his Father perfectly. Furthermore, he who obeyed perfectly received the wages of our sin, death upon a cross. And through his atoning death, he has secured our redemption, buying us back from the slave market of sin, and giving us his own righteousness. Consider this gospel truth: That which we could not pay back has been paid as we have been bought back in Christ! Only by God’s grace through faith in Christ can we render to God what is God’s, and that which we render we do only through Christ.
What does this mean for the Christian? It means that we are not our own, for we have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20). All of us, heart, soul, mind, and body is the Lord’s. For example, just as we are to pay our taxes to the civil government, we are to give our tithes to the Lord. How often does Caesar get his due before we give to the Lord? If we are the Lord’s, then everything is his and our giving should bear this out.
Likewise, just as we are to honor our civil leaders and to submit to those in authority, we are to honor and submit to God-ordained authority in the church. And just as we are to seek and pray for the welfare of our city, we are to seek and pray for the welfare of Christ’s church. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of examples, but the point is because Christ has rendered to God what is God’s for us and redeemed us as his own, we are to live out that reality in obedience to and love for God.
Therefore, for the Christian, because we have been bought back by the precious blood of Christ, because we are the Lord’s, everything we do is for his glory. How we live in a civil society is first and foremost for his glory. How we live with our fellow citizens is for his glory. Even how we pay our taxes is for his glory. For that which we could not render, has been rendered for us in Christ and so we render as the redeemed.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).