“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’” (Matthew 22:15-16 ESV).
The Pharisees were desperate to take Jesus down. What better way to do it then to catch him in the political inferno of his day? Here is the trap: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17) Behind this seemingly simple question is a nuclear bomb. On the surface, it is a question of taxation. Sure, you should pay your taxes. But the question is, should we pay taxes to Caesar? Caesar was the head of Rome. Tiberius Julius Caesar ruled the known world. Do you see any irony here? In terms of kingdoms and power, who is greater, Caesar or the one answering this question about Caesar?
Rome governed the kingdom of man. Jesus is King of the kingdom of God. The question is addressed to the King of kings about duty to the lesser king.
Do you see the catch-22 they pose to Jesus? If he says you shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar, now he is a revolutionary and they can leverage that to persuade Rome to kill him. Any claim to kingship was a threat to Rome and Rome didn’t play nice.
But if he said, yes, pay taxes to Rome, in the eyes of the people, he was a capitulator. An appeaser. A traitor to his own people. Why? The Jews hated Rome, hated their tax collectors, and hated the taxes. They have put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma with no way out. Unless you have the wisdom of the Son of God….
“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 22:18-22).
What an incredible answer! Can you imagine Jesus in a presidential debate? He handles this “gotcha” question perfectly.
He asks for a denarius (see image below).
Realize this coinage was itself agitating. The Roman currency had the image of Caesar on it. Every day the currency was a reminder of being under Caesar’s thumb. Most countries put founding fathers and national heroes on their money. Imagine using money every day with Hitler or Bin Laden’s picture on it; that’s kind of what it was like for the Jews using Roman coinage.
They bring him a denarius and Jesus asks a simple question, whose picture is it? He knew whose picture it was. He was simply starting them on a path of reasoning. Caesar. We all know that. Duh. Why you are asking such an easy question? Jesus says, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
This is arguably the most important single sentence of political philosophy ever uttered. In one sentence Jesus lays out the relationship between church and state and the proper perspective of a Christian to human government.
Caesar represents all human government—all the kingdoms of man. Caesar’s kingdom has “things” to which we must “render” or “grant Caesar authority” over us. This includes our money, taxation, and with it comes our responsibility to submit to Caesar. Jesus sanctions submission to government and participation in human government. He doesn’t stop there, but what if he had?
If all he said was, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, we would think that government and political power was the most important thing in this world. We would give all our time and energy to it. All our hope would be in government. We would pursue political power like a religion. We would be overjoyed when our candidates win, and we would be overwhelmed when they lose.
Are there people like this? They show their religion every election cycle. The fury and animus they show over the election makes you think that for them, this kingdom of man is the only kingdom that matters. It also shows itself in people who promote government as the great hope for humanity. They want more and more of it. The more the better. Certain political theories are all about rendering to Caesar. The more rendering the better! Caesar can fix our problems. Hail Caesar!
Beloved, do your emotions, interest, talk radio consumption, or cable news obsession suggest that government has become too important to you? Are you living like the kingdom of man is the only kingdom that matters to you?
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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