Most people who refer use the phrase “render unto Caesar” don’t consider the biblical account in its context—either its biblical context, or historical context. This causes considerable misunderstanding and confusion about the issue of legitimate Authority among Christians.
The confrontation (Matt. 22:15–22) takes place in the setting of a larger narrative about Jesus’ triumphal ascent to Jerusalem (Matt 21:1–23:39). As soon as he gets there he enters the temple “and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers’” (Matt. 21:12–13). And the very next interaction he has in each of the synoptic Gospels is that the Chief Priests and the elders (most likely Pharisees) meet him walking in the temple and demand to see His badge: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” He confounds them with His own question and gets out of the situation.
So here’s Guy who allows Himself to be worshipped as He enters Jerusalem, He enters riding on a donkey indicating the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy, receiving the appellative “Son of David,” by force driving out the moneychangers, et al, and healing people in the temple. The Jewish leaders had been watching Him and these things He did for some time—they had been sending out delegations to inquire about this fringe messianic activity as early as John the Baptist (John 1:19, 24)—so the priests and elders knew very well about Jesus and how powerful He was.
And yet, as the blindness of pride would have it, they stood before Him demanding He give an account of His authority to them.
Of course, this implies that they had the authority to demand that accounting. And there is some legitimacy to their demand, since they did hold the offices of the Priesthood and of Moses seat, which Jesus himself later recognizes right before he scolds their hypocrisy in Matthew 23. But they had not, could not, see that Jesus was the True High Priest and the True Shepherd of Israel. And thus, they stood at loggerheads (temporarily anyway) over the issues of Sovereignty and Authority.
The whole narrative in which this story sits deals with this theme of the greater authority of heaven versus earthly authority, and the inability of the Jews to tell the difference. This is the very issue Jesus uses to confound the temple leaders when they ask Him about His authority. But the issue is that heaven has authority which man does not; man’s authorization pales in comparison to God’s. The episode and some attendant parables stung these leaders, and they began to plot, particularly the Pharisees, on how they might “entangle him in his words.” (This concept and very word “entangle” or “snare” is used throughout Proverbs in relation to the words or lips or mouth of the wicked and the fool.)
The Tax Plot
It is with great irony that when they take their first shot—which is this question about Caesar’s tax—that they set up a dichotomy between heavenly authority and earthly authority. Where had they learned that tactic, I wonder? It’s as if they counseled together trying to find a way to trick and trap him intellectually, and finally decided, “Hey, let’s use the same trick against Him that He used against us.”
Their sole aim, however, was to discredit him. The Pharisees were a popular movement, by which I mean a movement aimed at the lay people. They were a combination religious and political movement among the people. When the people turned in masses to follow Jesus, and He then confounded the Pharisees, the Pharisees began to lose their audience. In fact, three times this larger narrative emphasizes the fact that they were jealous of Jesus’ popularity and yet could not answer Him or arrest Him because they feared the people. So they plotted, partly out of revenge because He has bested them once publically, but mainly because He had encroached on their turf—stealing their audience, their thunder—so they felt.
So they apply the trick: “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?”
Notice a few things here: First, they set up the question by characterizing Jesus as one faithful to God only, and who is not a respecter of persons. “Not swayed by appearances” in the KJV is, “regardest not the person of men”; the literal text is “you do not look into the face of men.” I believe this is a direct reference to Leviticus 19:15:
“Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect [receive, cp. Luke 20:20] the person [“face” in Hebrew and LXX] of the poor, nor honour the person [face] of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.”
Most of the commentators seem to think the leaders’ approach to Jesus is mere flattery, as if this country bumpkin from Galilee who receives praise from the people will fall prey to false praise. But this is not the case—He has already outwitted them once—He is no shallow praise-seeker, and they know this by now. They were not trying flatter Him; they were trying to trap Him with God’s Word, as if they said, “You truly serve God only and refuse to bow to any man. Therefore, is it right to give tribute to Caesar?” If the way of God says do not respect persons whether small or mighty, then is it right to pay respect in the form of giving or paying tax to mighty Caesar who is a man? This is the nature of the challenge.
Second, notice they asked a legal question, “Is it lawful….” The word itself leaves it unclear whether they meant Roman law or God’s law, but since it was already Roman law to pay the tax, the question certainly aimed at the law of “the way of God.” The question, again, and the Greek [exestin; cp. exousia, Matt. 21:23] makes it clear that the issue is one of fundamental authority. Does Caesar have legitimate authority to demand tribute? Do we have authority from God to pay to Caesar?
Thirdly, the reference is not to “taxes” in general as so many of the translations have it, but to a particular tax called the kānsos—a Greek version of a Latin word we translate as census. This had nothing to do with sales taxes, duties, commerce or business taxes, or travel tolls, etc. This particularly had to do with the “poll tax” or “head tax” which was based on a census of the people and had to be paid on all persons including women and slaves. And by law it had to be paid by means of Roman coinage.
The Message of the Coin
Jesus responded immediately by calling them hypocrites, obviously because they were hardly sincere in asking. Luke (20:23) refers to their panourgia, meaning something like willingness “to do anything.” The Herodians, especially, played the hypocrites, for they were of the party that supported one of the most ruthless tax collectors in Judean history, Herod. Herod the Great had so heavily taxed the Jewish people that Caesar himself demanded Herod lower taxes in the region. Herod refused, and so Caesar called for a census to be taken in the realm. It is this enrollment of the people, likely, that appears in the story of Jesus birth (Luke 2:1–7).
The trap of the question is well understood, I think: If Jesus said “No” He could be in trouble with the Roman authorities for encouraging tax evasion and treason against Caesar; if Jesus said “Yes” He would certainly lose the support of the people who saw Him as a Messiah against Roman occupation. Either way, the Pharisees and Herodians would win; so they asked; and the implication is “Speak into this microphone when you answer.” They wanted everyone to hear.
Since the census had to be paid by Roman coinage, Jesus asked to be shown that particular money—the “tribute money” or literally, “the money of the census.” And they brought Him such a Roman coin: a “denarius.”
“Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
They knew already they were in trouble. Jesus simply didn’t throw around the “image” or “likeness” casually. In fact, it only appears in all of the Gospels in their accounts of this story. Why so sparse? Because it is a technical term, a term that has a very specific place in the Jewish religion: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).
Jesus also specifically made them note the inscription on the coin. This was perhaps more damning the image. The denarius itself—most likely a coin from the current Emperor—carried not only his image but an inscription that read TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AGUSTI FILIUS AGUSTUS (“Tiberius Caesar August Son of the August God”), and the back side continued PONTIFEX MAXIMUS (“High Priest”). If this was not a graven image of a false god, nothing is. And Jesus made it a point to enter these facts into the record.
The Currency of Idolatry
Keep in mind, this confrontation begins all the way back in Matt. 21:23 and is taking place in the temple. There was a particular taboo about having the idols in the temple itself. Had not Israel been sent into exile for such infractions? Why did these holy men of Israel, Pharisees and Herodians, now have idols in the temple? Why were they so readily able to produce a denarius when Jesus asked? Hypocrites indeed!
This hit the Pharisees acutely in that they prided themselves in purity and separation from non-biblical practices. A real poke at their bid for popularity, that!—look everyone, the “Pure” “Holy” Pharisees are carrying false gods through their own Temple! By the way, did you say you wanted me to speak into the microphone?
Jesus could have had some real fun here at the expense particularly of the Sadducees (surely close by, as they feature in the next confrontation) who were the Chief Priests of the Temple, including the High Priest. What are you doing carrying a coin around the Temple which bears an inscription that calls Caesar the “High Priest”? You are supposed to be God’s High Priest! Since when did you abdicate your office for the pagan ruler?
And it was certainly not an isolated incident, all of the people carried Roman coinage every day. For example, the Temple itself had a yearly head tax that all Jews had to pay, and it was a half-shekel of silver. But they were forbidden to pay that tax with Roman coins. This is why there were moneychangers in the Temple to begin with. They had a virtual monopoly on special silver coins that were acceptable to pay the Temple tax; and as with any monopoly, you can understand how high the exchange was: these guys were extorting people for specialized coinage which they had to have. This is why Jesus called them robbers: they were literally extorting the people. As they were engaged in a forced exchange, they grew rich in terms of Roman coins.
You can imagine, then, that they had tables and bags filled with Roman denarii throughout the Temple courts. In fact, the moneychangers all wore one of these coins in their ear as a mark of their trade. [They have ears but can’t hear (because of their idols)!] You can image that passers-by and pilgrims to the Temple saw plenty of display of these images right there in the Temple itself. You can imagine, also, that as Jesus overturned the chairs and tables and poured out the money, that the streets rang with sound of silver pings and clangs as coins rolled down the stone pavements. [Some (Caesar’s) heads are gonna roll!]
The entire Jewish civilization had given in to the usage of idolatrous Roman coins. Roman currency was the basis of their commerce. They had thus, despite whatever idolatry they judged to be involved, accepted the social benefit of Caesar’s rule, and thus legitimized it.
Thus, the only answer Jesus’ opponents could give was “Caesar’s.” Not only did the bare facts of the coin itself require this answer, obviously, but it also related to the total dominance over political and economic life throughout the Jewish culture. The coining of money is a symbol of power. The acceptance of that money as common currency is submission on the part of the people to that power. (This does not address the issue of legal tender.)
“Is it lawful?” “Why are you asking? You already do it all day every day.”
But now that Jesus had them in the headlights, He fired the fatal shot: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Important here in Jesus’ answer is the verb: “render.” The opponents had worded the question wrongly: Is it lawful to “give” or to “pay”? The word is different. The Pharisees’ word is didomi “give”; Jesus says not “give” but apodidomi “give back” or “pay up.” It is a term used for paying what is due to someone, or what belongs to them to begin with. This was an acknowledgement of several things, all of which would have angered the Jews to have to admit: 1) Caesar owns the coin, it is His; 2) the usage of Caesar’s property to your own benefit implies your debt to him to the extent that you do; and 3) Caesar’s enforcement of the recalling of this money (the tax itself) meant that the Jewish people were not free as they pretended, but under foreign bondage still (a clear implication that God’s judgment was still upon them).
They profited by the means, so they had no right to refuse the tax on the means on economic grounds. They enjoyed the order of the Roman Empire, so they had no right to refuse on political grounds. They carried his money right into their own Temple despite the implications, so they had no right to refuse on theological grounds (at least not without repentance).1 So the Pharisees stood before Jesus and before the crowds, themselves entangled by His words: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
The Greater Debt
But, also, render “to God the things that are God’s.”
What most commentators miss or ignore here is that Jesus implies a clear argument a fortiori from the lesser to the greater—if it is true for the lesser case of the man Caesar, how much more true is it for the Greater. If Caesar has authority to demand payment, how much more authority does God have? Instead of this, most commentators see something more of a dichotomy between the two instead of a hierarchy. The State has authority over here, and God has authority over there (your thoughts, emotions, and energies).
But this is not the point, for at least two very outstanding reasons: the image and the inscription. These are the two things to which Jesus called attention in regard to the coin. They are both overtly theological concepts.
We have already mentioned the idea of image in regard to the commandment against graven images. Why was this a commandment? Man is to make no graven image of any living thing, and certainly nothing to be used in reference to divinity. Why not? Because the creation of living things is the exclusive Province of God; and the placing His image is the exclusive Province of God. The man who creates images in this way is both demeaning God Himself through the inadequate representation, and himself attempting the play the part of God by being the Creator and the Image-giver.
In contrast, God is the one who places His image: He places it on man; or more properly, He creates man in His image and likeness. All men bear this image.
The same is true with God’s inscription. We bear His Word written on our hearts, though the fall had some consequence on that. Paul indicates this is true even of the natural man (Rom. 2:14–15). This was especially true of the Pharisees: they literally wore the word of God on their heads and the arms. This appears in Matt. 23:5, when Jesus criticizes them for making “broad their phylacteries.” A phylactery is a small box in which is kept small parchments of Scripture (Ex. 13:1–10; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21). Some of the Jews took the command literally: “these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes…” (Deut. 6:6, 8). So they literally wore that section of Scripture in a small box on their forehead, between their eyes, and on their forearm like a wristwatch. The Pharisees went over the top in this regard, using larger boxes than everyone else to show how much more eager they were to recall God’s Word.
This was true yet even more relevant to the priests: the High Priest wore a golden plate on his hat that read HOLINESS TO THE LORD (Ex. 28:36). He as well literally bore the inscription of God as representative of the entire people of God.
So literally, outwardly, whose inscription was on these guys? I think the theological implications of both the image and the inscription would have been obvious to everyone listening. The impact of the lesson would have nearly made the Pharisees a laughingstock among the people. Yet it would have been a stark wake-up call to everyone listening.
Yes, the people had something of a legitimate debt to Caesar, but Jesus’ lesson was a far cry from saying that the authority of the State is separate or removed in some way from the authority of God, or that we must wait until the end of time until the State comes under God’s authority and judgment. The lesson here is much more challenging, much more comprehensive.
The lesson is, more fully, that all men bear God’s image and God’s inscription. We are all God’s coinage. We all belong wholly to God. All men must “render to God what is God’s.” All men. The Pharisees, Sudducees, the Herods, the masses, and even Caesar himself. Caesar has as much obligation to “render unto God”—bow and submit to God—as everyone else. He as has much obligation to love his neighbors and to obey God’s law as everyone else. He is not a god or a high priest, he is not the source of law and providence; he, like all men, is a man subject to God Almighty’s providence, and God’ Law, and God’s High Priest, Jesus Christ. He has as much obligation to obey; in fact, he has a greater obligation to obey because he represents multiple people in a public office.
Render unto God. All of Jesus listeners would not only have understood the concepts involved, they would have immediately understood the theological nature of the idea of rendering to God. It appeared throughout the psalms of the Jewish worship:
“My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay [render; same Greek word] my vows before them that fear him” (Ps. 22:25).
“Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee” (Ps. 56:12).
“I will go into thy house with burnt offerings: I will pay [render] thee my vows” (Ps. 66:13 KJV).
“Vow, and pay [render] unto the LORD your God” (Ps. 76:11 KJV).
“I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people (Ps. 116:18).
It even appeared in the Levitical law: where the Levites were set apart for Temple service, they were presented before the High Priest and “offered” or “rendered” unto God as an offering (Lev. 8:13). Their whole persons were rendered unto God.
Authority, Loyalty, and Freedom
Man is free, because God made him that way. Man is not free to the extent that he does render all to God; and societies are in bondage to that same extent. Therefore, where human institutions infringe upon God’s law, you have a decision about loyalty to competing authorities. We must obey God and not men, even to death if necessary in necessary matters. Yet we can denounce and resist tyranny in other matters as an expression of our loyalty to God, and of the proper place of human governments.
It is not improper, therefore, for other men to call Caesar to be accountable before God. And, it should not be considered unlawful for other men to refuse either to use or to accept as payment any particular currency, no matter what human image or inscription is upon it. We must resist tyranny, though never through violent revolution, and there are many non-violent ways to do so.
By what Authority do you do these things? What believer in God ever truly has to question about Authority?
“The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1). God says, “[E]very beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psa. 50:9–12).
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, sure. But render unto God what is God’s.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 287–289.
Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 154–167.
Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars: Historical Sketches, trans. K. and R. Gregor Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955)
- See Stauffer, 130–131.(↩)