God and Government (Luke 20:19-26)
Matthew 22:15-22 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “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. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Luke 20:19-26 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. 20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?” 25 “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
Mark 12:13-17 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
Our text, and the question which the enemies of our Lord asked Him is one that is culturally rooted, but the Fourth of July, which we will celebrate tomorrow, helps us to gain some appreciation of the issues involved here. A number of English citizens had become discontent with the British Government and with life in the old country. They set out for the new world. When they arrived in America, the British government continued to view these people as their own citizens, under their authority, and thus obligated to pay taxes. This proved irritating to the Americans, who felt that the British were very far away, that they had no representation in that government, and that taxation was therefore unfair. All of this exploded, in time, in the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was precisely that, a declaration of independence from British rule.
The Jewish people had more than irritation with the present government to spur them to thoughts of independence. God had founded the nation, beginning with the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, being realized at the exodus, and having several times been threatened by the captivity which came upon Israel due to their disobedience to God’s law. The Old Testament prophets had promised Israel that there would be a kingdom, based upon a new covenant (cf. Jeremiah 32-33), and that God would raise up Messiah, to rule on the throne of David (2 Samuel 7:10ff.; Luke 1:32). The introduction of our Lord by John the Baptist (Luke 3), along with the public appearance of our Lord (Luke 4) and His miracles (Luke 7:22), bore testimony to His identity as Messiah. His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was the “high point” of His public ministry, and the hopes of many were greatly fueled. Surely, many thought, Jesus has come to establish the promised kingdom, and to throw off all foreign dominion. Many were expecting a kind of “declaration of independence” from Rome’s rule. It is therefore little wonder that the first question which Luke records pertains to the payment of taxes. Just as taxation was the sore point in the American Revolution, so it was in Jesus’ day as well.
The payment of taxes has never been popular. Taxes are not a voluntary contribution. To fail to pay one’s taxes, or to pay less than one should is a sure way to get the attention of the government, and to discover how strong they feel about our payment of taxes. The payment of taxes is a very pragmatic matter, for governments do not run without money, tax money. But paying one’s taxes is also a symbolic act, evidencing his or her submission to the one that is paid. You will remember the argument of the writer to the Hebrews, who reasons that the one who pays a tithe is inferior to the one to whom the tithe is paid (Hebrews 7:1-10). Paying taxes is thus a practical acknowledgment of that government’s right to rule over us, and of our submission to its authority.
Specifically in our text, Jesus is being asked whether or not a law-abiding Jew (one keeping the law of Moses, that is) should pay taxes to Caesar. There is a more general question at issue, however. The interchange between Jesus and His questioners which Luke depicts here in our text is one that has to do with the relationship between God and government. We might even say that the question pertains to the relationship between church and state. It was an issue that was very much alive in Jesus’ day, and it persists as a hot issue to this very day. How is one who professes to trust in God’s Messiah to relate to pagan governments? In our study of this passage, we will seek to understand the answer which our Lord gave His questioners, and then to explore its implications for men today.
From Luke 19:45 through the end of chapter 21 there is an on-going debate, taking place in the temple. I call this section, “the tempest in the temple.” It began with the Lord’s possession of the temple, His purging of it, and it continues with His practice of teaching there daily. Chapters 22 and 23 deal directly with the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial of our Lord. Chapter 24 depicts the Lord’s resurrection and its impact on the disciples.
Our focus in this lesson and the next will be on the three questions which dominate the rest of chapter 20. The first two questions are asked by the enemies of our Lord, and the last is asked by our Lord Himself. The first concerned the paying of taxes, the second the resurrection, and the last, the “Son of David” who was also his “lord.” The questions are prefaced by an explanation (longer in Luke than in Matthew and Mark) of the motivation of the questioners (20:19-21a). At the end of the chapter, Luke sums up the section (unlike the other two gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark) with a strong word of warning from our Lord to His disciples, concerning the leaders of Israel, who are seeking to destroy Him.
Chapter 19 may be outlined in this fashion:
(1) The challenge of Israel’s leaders & Jesus’ response—(vv. 1-18)
(2) The response of Israel’s leaders to Jesus’ response—(vv. 19-20)
(3) “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”—(vv. 21-26)
(4) “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”—(vv. 27-40)
(5) “How can David’s Son be his Lord?”—(vv. 41-44)
(6) Jesus’ warning concerning Israel’s leaders—(vv. 45-47 )
It is very important to recognize that Luke is being selective in what he reports, as are the other gospel writers (cf. John 20:30-31). Both Matthew and Mark, for example, report another question, raised by one of the teachers of the law, concerning the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). I believe that these three questions are but a sampling of those which were raised during this tense week in our Lord’s life. It is my conviction that not only the questions, but their sequence, is of great significance in the development of Luke’s argument, and in our understanding of the gospel. It is for this reason that I have chosen to deal with these questions carefully, rather than simply passing over them quickly, looking only on them as “catch questions” and little else. The issues which underlie these questions are fundamental, and they spell out, to a large degree, how the leaders of Israel differed with Jesus and why they rejected Him as their Messiah.
19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. 20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
Jesus had answered the challenge of the Jewish leadership, first with an embarrassing question, and then with a parable. They understood both quite clearly, and their response was dramatic. They attempted to arrest Jesus on the spot (v. 19). It would seem that the crowds prevented this. Matthew’s account is more specific here:
“When the chief priests and Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).
It seems to me that the leaders actually tried to place Jesus under arrest, and that this provoked a strong reaction from the people, forcing the leaders to back off, and to develop a strategy that would facilitate a more “discrete” arrest and crucifixion. The game plan is most clearly spelled out by Luke.
The direct challenge of Israel’s leaders, as to Jesus’ authority, had backfired, bringing embarrassment to them. So, too, it would seem, their attempt to arrest Jesus publicly had failed. The motivation of the leaders was clear: they had been “put down” by Jesus, and they intended to get even. They were intent on getting back for the words He had spoken against them (v. 19). Before, they had purposed to put Jesus to death because of the threat He posed (19:47), but now it was more—it was a personal vendetta.
The goal of the leaders of the people is reported here by Luke: they intended to “catch Jesus in His words” and to “turn Him over to the governor” (v. 20). I believe that the statement of these two goals is very informative. Let us briefly consider both elements of their goal.
First, they purposed to catch Jesus in His words. It was by His words that Jesus put these leaders to shame. It was by Jesus’ words, the leaders supposed, that Jesus would be eliminated. It is also significant to me that the leaders of the people could not and would not attempt to discredit Jesus in any of His actions. Were it so that this could be said of Christians today! Jesus’ life was impeccable, and His miracles were irrefutable. They would not even try to take Jesus on in these areas. What a testimony to our Lord’s sinless life and limitless power.
Second, they sought to “turn Jesus over to the governor.” The solution to their problem, as the Jewish leaders reasoned, was a political one, not a spiritual one. They did not seek to deal with Jesus in any way prescribed by the Old Testament law. They did not, as did the psalmists of old, turn Jesus over to God for divine discipline. They turned instead to a secular government. Indeed, they turned to the very government which they despised. They would question Jesus about paying taxes to Rome, expecting Him to forbid it, and yet they looked to Rome to deal with Jesus. The government which they despised, they turned to, rather than have Jesus govern them. Those factions of Israel which differed greatly and which strove against each other, now joined together to rid themselves of Jesus, the Messiah.
The turning to political powers in order to rid themselves of Jesus made a great deal of sense. No doubt, they reasoned, they could get this “self-acclaimed Messiah” to make statements against the power of Caesar, and thus they would be able to press charges of treason against Him. Furthermore, Rome was not particularly intimidated by the thinking or feelings of the masses (as was the case with the Jewish leaders). Were the Jewish leaders afraid of the masses and their support of Jesus. Let Rome deal with Him, with all of the power which their soldiers had and their skill at suppressing uprisings. They might be afraid of the people, but Rome was not.
And so a decisive turn of events has occurred. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and has challenged the leaders of the nation. They have rejected Him, and are intent on doing away with Him, but are fearful of the masses. They now have set out on a course of gathering evidence against Jesus, which they will use to have Him arrested, tried, and put to death. This is the backdrop to at least the first of the two questions which are being posed to Jesus, as recorded by Luke.
The Jewish leaders thus laid out a multi-pronged attack plan, outlined in verse 20:
(1) They “tailed” Jesus, watching his every move
(2) They sent spies to infiltrate Jesus’ ranks
(3) They asked questions of Jesus, intended to incriminate Him
To Pay (Taxes) or
Not to Pay: That is the Question
21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Our understanding of Jesus’ response in this text must begin with an awareness of what is happening here in our text. Let us begin with several critical observations:
(1) The question is not whether or not any person should pay their taxes, but whether or not a Jew should pay taxes to a heathen, Gentile government.
(2) The issue is posed as a problem of the law, not as a matter of rebellion or personal preference. The question is, “Is it permissible?,” and the standard on which the answer is based is the Law of Moses.
(3) The question is posed so as to suggest that there is conflict between God and government, between “church and state” (in our terms).
(4) The question is posed so that Jesus is limited to but one answer out of two choices, already provided. The way the question was posed does not give Him the freedom to answer as He chose, but rather as they chose. The longer I am in ministry the more I am intrigued with the kinds of questions people ask, and the way in which they phrase them. Those who really want to learn leave the answer completely open. That is, when they ask a question, they do not limit the one they are asking to only certain possibilities. It is those who wish to prove something who limit the possibilities. I resent questions which restrict the freedom to answer them any way I choose, rather than the way the questioner has chosen.
(5) The entire event oozes with HYPOCRISY. Consider the following evidences of hypocrisy:
In appearing to respect Jesus as a teacher, a man of truth.
- In appearing to desire to know the truth.
- In seeming to want to obey the government, but not being sure that they could or should, according to the Law. “Is it permissible? Will the law let me do this?”
- In appearing to have a problem with government, when the problem was Gentiles.
- In appearing to desire to give to God, rather than to government, but in previous parable not wanting to give God His due.
- In appearing to have God as a priority and government as secondary, when, in reality, they had chosen government over God, as would be most evident at the cross—“We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
So here was the question: “Shall we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Not a bad question, when you think of it. The only thing wrong with the question was the intent of those who asked it. A sincere Israelite (which the questioner was posing to be) could have asked it. Should an Israelite pay taxes any longer to Rome, when Messiah was now present? Didn’t Messiah come to throw off the shackles of the Gentile rulers and to establish the promised kingdom? Why, then, should one pay taxes any longer to Rome? If Israel was to submit to Messiah, why should an Israelite pay taxes to some other king?
The answer, it seems to me, was obvious—that is, it seemed to be obvious. There could hardly be any doubt as to what Jesus should say. After all, He was claiming to be Messiah. He was claiming the right to rule. He was, indeed, bold in His denunciation of Israel’s leadership. Why should He not be as direct with regard to the political rule of Rome? Let Him now speak out on this issue. Let Him declare His position. And when He did, the Roman rulers would be called upon to crucify Jesus as a traitor, one guilty of treason.
Jesus’ View of Paying Taxes
23 He saw through their duplicity65 and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?” 25 “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
First, note from our Lord’s answer that it is given in accordance with the motives and intentions of the one who asked the question. I suspect that the same (essential) question, if asked by a genuine seeker after truth, would have been answered differently. At least it may have been answered more fully. Note how brief Jesus’ response was. This is a “knock-out” in the first minute of the first round.
Second, note that Jesus asked to see a denarius, a specific kind of money. Jesus first asked to be shown a denarius. The reason is more evident from Matthew’s account: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax” (Matthew 22:19).
A denarius was not just money, though it was that. The denarius was that form of money that was used for paying taxes to Caesar. In Jesus’ day there were different kinds of money. In his gospel, Matthew told of how Jesus paid the two-drachma temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). The tax was not paid with a denarius, but with the drachma. This is the reason why the money changers were exchanging money in the courts of the temple—the temple tax could not be paid with a denarius. When Jesus asked to see a denarius, it was because this coin was the one used for paying taxes.
I do not know what was stamped on the drachma, but I would venture to say that neither the name nor the image of Caesar could be found on it. The denarius, on the other hand, was a Roman coin. Caesar’s name was inscribed on it, along with his likeness. It was a Roman coin. It belonged to Rome, in a way not unlike the way that our money belongs to the United States of America. If a government can issue money, it can also require that it be given back, especially in the form of taxes.
Third, note that Jesus again asked a question, and then based His answer on the basis of their answer to His question. The question of Jesus’ authority, raised at the beginning of this chapter, was dealt with by our Lord by asking a counter-question. When His opponents refused to answer the question about the source of John’s authority, Jesus refused to answer their direct question. So, too, in this text, Jesus asked to be shown a denarius, and then asked the simple question, “Whose image and inscription is on this coin?”
Fourth, Jesus’ answer was neither direct, nor complete. Jesus did not give a direct “yes” or “no” answer to the question put to Him. Later New Testament texts such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 will go much farther with this matter, instructing Christians to obey God by obeying government in every way that does not place one in disobedience to God.
Fifth, Jesus’ answer, in my opinion, took His opponents totally by surprise. I do not think that anyone expected Jesus to say, as He at least implied, that the people of Israel should pay taxes to Rome. It was not, in my mind, the wisdom alone of Jesus’ answer that amazed His audience, but the content of the answer. Who would have ever dreamed that one claiming to be Israel’s Messiah would ever advocate paying taxes to a heathen government?
Sixth, Jesus’ answer is rooted in the fact that while government and God are distinct, they are not in opposition to each other.
Seventh, Jesus’ answer is based upon the fact of Israel’s rejection of Him as God’s Messiah, and of the role of the Gentiles in this world as a result. Jesus has already implied in the parable of the vineyard that the leadership role of the Jews—their priesthood, for example—will be taken away and given to the Gentiles (cf. v. 16). If Gentiles will be given spiritual leadership as a result of the rejection of Jesus as Messiah, why would God not continue to allow Gentiles to rule over Israel as a result of her disobedience, even as the Mosaic Covenant stipulated (Deuteronomy 28).
Eighth, this whole matter of God and government is not a new matter, but one often dealt with in the Old Testament, and one which will come to a head at the cross of Calvary. 1 Samuel chapter 8 provides us with a most enlightening backdrop to this question. You will remember there that Israel demanded that God give them a king, so that Israel could be like all the other (heathen) nations, and so they could have a visible leader, who would go before them and would fight for them. God told Samuel that it was not his leadership, but God’s that was being rejected. He also warned the people that they would be heavily taxed by their king, and that the price of this government would be high. The people nevertheless insisted and they got their king.
Jesus was Israel’s King, but they would not have Him. Instead of bowing the knee in obedience to Jesus as Messiah, the leaders of the nation determined rather to look to this Gentile government to serve their self-interest by putting Jesus to death. They chose a Gentile government over God. And if this statement seems too strong, remember the words spoken by none other than the high priests, when they said to the governor, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Here, in our text, we see that the choice has already been made to reject Messiah and to depend on secular government. It is only a matter of time. Government was designed by God to be an extension of His rule, but sinful men have often looked to government as a replacement, a substitute for it. Such is the case here.
Ninth, this matter of what is due Caesar is not an academic issue to our Lord, for He will render His very life to Caesar, and not just taxes. Jesus will give up His life on a Roman cross. That was what Caesar required of Him, but in the will and purpose of God this was the one and only means of redeeming sinful men, of redeeming Israel from her sins.
Tenth, Jesus suggests to us what the basis is for determining what belongs to God and what belongs to someone or something else. Jesus’ words strongly imply that tax money belongs to Caesar because his currency had his image and his words written on it. What belongs to God bears God’s image and has his writing on it. The Christian is begotten (again) in the image of Christ, and the Word of God is written in our hearts.
Finally, this would indicate that while tax monies may belong to government, people belong to God. It is one thing for governments to (rightly) require men to owe them taxes, but it is another thing altogether when governments think they also have the right to own people. This is only the prerogative of God, and not of government. Money bears the image and the words of rulers, men bear the image and the Word of God. Men are created in God’s image, and those who have come to a personal faith in Him have His word written on their hearts (cf. Jeremiah 31:33).
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
Once again, those who have endeavored to trap Jesus in His words have only trapped themselves. The Lord’s answer, as well as the Lord’s absolute and total control of the situation was disarming. Mouths seem to have been gaping. Minds were reeling. How could it have gone so wrong? It seemed like such a great plan. Jesus had won—again. But fools will rush in, as our next text will show. The answer which our Lord gave was not expected. They gave Him two choices, one of which He must choose, but He refused, telling them, in essence, that both choices were true. One must give government its due, which includes taxes. One must give God His due, which is our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. And these two obligations often are not in conflict, as the questioners seemed to assume.
Why would Jesus, if He were the Messiah, not rid the Jews of Roman rule? Why would He tell His questioners (by inference) that they should continue to pay their taxes to Caesar? Why was the kingdom not quickly established? Why did Jesus Himself submit to Caesar and give up His life to these Gentiles, who put Him to death on the cross of Calvary?
The reason is really quite simple. Heathen rule was a symptom, not a root problem. From Deuteronomy 28 and other biblical texts we know that Israel’s subjection to Gentile rule was due to their disobedience to God’s law, to the Mosaic Covenent. The root problem is not Israel’s bondage to Rome, but her bondage in sin. Israelites thought of freedom mainly in political and governmental terms, while Jesus thought of it in redemptive terms, as freedom from the bondage of sin. Jesus therefore had to die on a Roman cross, not for His own sins, but as the sin-bearer, as the one who was punished for the sins of the whole world. When John the Baptist introduced Jesus he did not speak of Him as the One who would overthrow Rome, but as the One who taketh away the sins of the world.
True freedom, then is the freedom from the power and the penalty of sin, and it can only be obtained on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ. By acknowledging your bondage to sin and by trusting in Christ as your sin-bearer, you can experience the freedom from sin which Jesus came to bring about on the cross. When you have experienced this freedom, political freedom, while desirable, is no longer a compelling need. We will never experience the joy of a perfect government until Christ returns to the earth to reign as King. And this will happen in the good timing of God.
In the meantime, we are to submit to human governments, even pagan ones, so long as we do not violate the Word of God. Those who questioned Jesus wrongly concluded that government is contrary to and competitive with the rule of God. But New Testament teaching (cf. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) instructs us that human governments are not contrary to God’s rule, but a part of it. God has placed governments on the earth to restrain sin until He comes. We are to obey government, not as the enemy of God, but as the agent of God.
There are two extremes to be avoided in our outlook on government. The first is to see government as the enemy of God, and to be always opposing ourselves to it. The other extreme is to view government too highly, as man’s salvation and security. It is all too easy to look to government for those things which only God can give. It is all too easy to turn from God to government. In our text, we see Israel’s leaders looking at Jesus, the Messiah, as the problem which they must be rid of, and a heathen government—Rome—as their deliverer. Just as Israel rejected God when they demanded a king, like the Gentiles (1 Samuel 8), so we reject God and look to government to save us.
Some Christians oppose government unnecessarily and unbiblically, using God as their pretext for rebellion and disobedience. Others seem to view government as the solution to all our earthly (and spiritual) problems. Some think that we can establish a righteous government on the earth and so clean it up that Messiah will come. I believe that only Messiah can clean up this mess, and that only after He comes will a righteous government exist. Let us keep government in perspective. It is not the enemy of God, but God’s agent. Let us obey government as to the Lord, in every way possible.
I find it very interesting that the religious leaders of Israel could not find a religious solution to the problem of Jesus. Jesus was not the problem, but the solution, and yet they failed to see it, or to accept it even if they did understand that He was the Messiah. Unfortunately, I find many professing Christians resorting to political means and methodology because of our spiritual impotence. When we turn from dependence on God, we turn to human means and instrumentality. How often we depend more on politics than we do on the power of God to solve our problems. Let us find Him sufficient. Let us go about our task using the implements of spiritual warfare, not the secular crutches of politics. Let us look to God and not to men for the establishment of righteousness on the earth.
On this Fourth of July weekend, may I remind you that the gospel is our Lord’s “Declaration of Independence.” It is only by faith in His death on the cross that you can be truly free. He is the truth that sets men free. May you experience that freedom today.