How to Honor the Government

This lesson is all about How to Render to Caesar and Render to God what is his (Paying Taxes and being a Good Steward).

Passages: Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26

Purpose: To develop the character quality of gratitude and respect (honor) for government. Jesus taught His disciples that one way to express these qualities is to “…render (aorist Imperative) to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s”  (Matthew 22:21). This command also addresses our responsibility to give ourselves fully to God because we were made in His image which was marred through the “fall of mankind” (Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12-14) but can be recovered through the cross (Romans 5:15-21).

Historical Background: Chronologically this narrative (Matthew 22:15-22) occurs the Wednesday before the crucifixion. Jesus had just been proclaimed to be “The King of the Jews” two days before as He entered Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11). The multitudes had hoped that He would enter Jerusalem and free Israel from Roman bondage. It was ironic that the next day Christ cursed a fig tree because it reminded Him of Israel’s fruitlessness (Matthew 21:18-19a; Mark 11:12-14) and attacked Israel’s own religious system (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48).

His actions of entering the temple and overturning the tables of the money changers were questioned as to the source of their authority. Those asking this question were the Pharisees. Jesus impedes the answer to their question with one of His own. Jesus asked, “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” (Matthew 21:25). The Pharisees found themselves in a dilemma. They desired Christ’s answer but knew it was contingent on their own. They sought to trap Jesus and found themselves trapped. When they realized the implications of answering they answered “We do not know” (Matthew 21:27). Then Jesus didn’t reveal the source of His authority to them.

Jesus proceeded to teach three parables which taught the Pharisees would be excluded from the Kingdom.

  1. The two sons (Matthew 21:28-32)
  2. The vineyard (Matthew 21:33-44)
  3. The wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14).

The religious leaders understood the parables were spoken against them and their intensity of resentment toward Jesus grew (Matthew 21:45-46; Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19). He opposed them and brought to light their hypocrisy and pride. Also, His growing popularity among the people concerned them. He claimed to be Messiah, the Son of God, and He cleansed the temple without getting their permission first! He was genuine; they were false.

The sort of authority they would have sought would have been in the form of rabbinical papers (the authorities of old). After they were publicly unmasked as hypocrites by the three parables they realized they had to do something. They designed a simple strategy which would discredit His ministry. They were hoping to ask Him a question in such a way that either way He answered, He would be in trouble. The question was about paying taxes. The Pharisees thought they could trap Christ this time.

Commanded in the Gospels: Matthew 22:21 (render), Mark 12:17 (render), Luke 20:25 (render). Men who would take more than what Rome had ordered to be collected were swindlers (extortioners KJV), were despised, and often associated with harlots and other public sinners (Matthew 5:46; 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17; Mark 2:15,16; Luke 5:29,30; 7:34; 15:1 ,2). These tax-gatherers had offices (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27) and a number of them repented (Matthew 10:3; 21:31-32; Luke 3:12-13; 5:27; 7:29; 18:10-11, 13; 19:2).

Illustrated in the Book of Acts: The Jews often tried to stir up Roman authority by suggesting that Christ or His followers were acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar (Acts 17:17). The Sanhedrin brought Christ before Pilate and falsely accused Him of opposing payment of taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2). This was a deliberate distortion of Christ’s teaching.

Amplified in the Epistles: Romans 13:6-7

Discussion Questions:

1. What where the Pharisees plotting to do to Jesus? (Matthew 22:15) While Jesus continued to teach the crowds in the Court of the Gentiles, “the Pharisees” gathered privately in another part of the Temple to plan their next move. Because they were still afraid to take action against Him directly they cleverly planned to trap Him.

Mark 12:13 and Luke 20:20 provide a purpose clause (hino – “in order that”) to help us identify their intentions. Mark 12:13 says,”…in order to trap Him in a statement.” The word for “trap” (agrevo is rendered by the KJV as “catch” and literally means “to take by hunting.” It is used metaphorically of the Pharisees and Herodians seeking to catch Christ as He spoke.

Luke 20:20 uses a different word but translates it “catch.” It literally means, “they might take hold of” or “seize his words.” The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping to trap or catch him in some subversive statement against Rome that would ensure His arrest and execution as an insurrectionist. They wanted to “catch Him in some statement, “so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20), who at that time was Pilate.

2. Who were the Herodians? (Mark 12:13) Matthew 22:16a says, “…along with the Herodians.” The Herodians were not normal allies of the Pharisees. In fact, the two groups were usually at odds with each other. Not much is known about the Herodians besides what can be inferred from their name. The Herod family was not Jewish but ldumean, descendants of Israel’s ancient enemies the Edomites. Beginning with Herod the Great, they had received favors from Rome in the form of various high political appointments, including rulerships over parts of Palestine.

The Herodians had no love for Jesus and may even have been instructed by Herod Antipas to try to instigate His death or at least imprisonment. It was that tetrarch who had imprisoned and eventually beheaded Jesus’ forerunner and friend, John the Baptist, and when Herod heard of Jesus’ miraculous works, he was afraid that He was John risen from the dead. But he was also curious to see Jesus in order to witness His miracle-working power (Luke 9:7; 23:8). Sometime later, certain Pharisees who were friendly to Jesus warned Him to flee Perea because “Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). Consequently, during the latter part of His ministry, Jesus had avoided the territory of Herod because of the hostility toward Him there, “for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).

Any Herodians, even if they were Jews as these men were, would have had strong allegiance to Rome, and it was doubtlessly for that reason that the Pharisees asked some of them to accompany their disciples as they confronted Jesus. Should Jesus fall into their trap and make the expected objection to paying Roman taxes, the Herodian Roman sympathizers would serve as credible witnesses. Although the Pharisees despised the Herodians as irreligious traitors, it well suited their purpose to enlist these men’s help in entrapping Jesus.

3. How did the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians address Jesus? (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21) They addressed Him as “Teacher” (didaskos]. To address a Jewish man as “Teacher” was a high form of honor, reserved for rabbis who had distinguished themselves as astute students and interpreters of Jewish law and tradition. The Talmud said, “The one who teaches the law shall gain a seat in the academy on high.”

4. How did these disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians play the hypocrite and flatter? (Matthew 22:16b; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21) They pretended to admire Him and flattered them with three statements. Matthew 22:16b says, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.” Mark E. Moore writes that they were saying to Jesus:

  1. You are a man of integrity, therefore, we can follow your example in this.
  2. You accurately teach the will of God, therefore we can trust your opinion on this.
  3. You are not swayed by men, therefore we can believe your answer will be unbiased. No one was fooled by their false flattery.

Not only the Old Testament but rabbinic tradition strongly condemned flattery and hypocrisy. Despite the fact that rabbinic tradition condemned flattery and hypocrisy, Luke 20:20 says, “So they watched him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor.” They acted as if they sincerely wanted an answer to the question they were about to pose.

5. What question do they ask Jesus and how does it appear to be a no win situation for Jesus? (Matthew 22:17) They solicited Jesus’ opinion with this question: “Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” It is clear that their simple question is designed to trap Jesus. If he says, “No,” the crowds will be delighted, of course. They hate taxation. More than one third of their income goes to pay Roman taxes. While the crowds would have loved Jesus to ban taxation, the Herodians would have immediately arranged for His arrest and execution. On the other hand, if Jesus says “Yes, we should pay taxes to Caesar,” the people, urged on by the Pharisees, will stop following him. After all, any Messiah who can’t throw off the shackles of Roman domination (and especially taxation) is not worthy of support. Jesus appears to be trapped!

So, if Christ had legitimatized the payment of taxes, He would have seemed to abandon Israel’s hope; but if He had denied Rome the right to collect taxes, He would have been guilty of treason.

6. What motivated them to pose this question? (Matthew 22:18, Mark 12:15; Luke.20:23) Jesus knows what they are up to and calls them on the carpet. Matthew 22:18 says, “Jesus perceived their malice” and Luke 20:23 says “He detected their trickery.” He knew the men who posed the question were not the ones who devised it; and that the words of praise they had just showered on Him were not motivated by admiration but “malice.” The word “malice” (poneria) is better translated “wickedness” (KJV) or “iniquity.” This word speaks of the evilness of their plan. It must have hurt when Jesus identified them as “hypocrites” publicly. Jesus exposes them as hollow people, actors, pretenders, fakes. Mark 12:15 says, But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.”

Jesus calls for a coin. The very fact that they have a Roman denarius in their possession indicates they accept Roman rule at some level. After all, you can’t accept a government’s right of coinage without also admitting its right of taxation.

7. What was a poll tax? (Matthew 22:19; Mark.12:14) The name “poll-tax” (kensos) is taken from the Latin censere, from which is derived the English census. Of the many taxes the Romans exacted from occupied territories, none was more onerous to Jews than the poll-tax, a tax payable yearly by every individual and therefore sometimes called the head tax. Among other things, it was for the purpose of collecting the poll-tax that Rome took a periodic census, such as the one that had required Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-4).

Paying for the support of the occupying forces and providing the many beneficial services for which Rome was famous required an enormous amount of money, necessarily supplied by taxation. Consequently a land tax of one tenth of the grain and one fifth of the wine and oil produced was assessed annually, as was a one percent income tax on wage earners. Customs taxes on merchandise were collected at all ports and major crossroads.

The Romans offered many services to conquered peoples, not the least beneficial of which was the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. Because of their strategic military and commercial locations, many countries of the Near East had had little respite from war for centuries. They fought one invader after another and were ruled by one conqueror after another. At least under Roman protection they were free from war and could travel in relative safety anywhere in the empire. The Romans also provided Via Romana, valuable roads and aqueducts, many ruins of which still exist today.

Although the poll-tax may not have been the most costly tax for most people, it was the most resented by Jews. Perhaps it was because they considered themselves as personally belonging to God rather than to Caesar. It was the census tax that incited the insurrection of Judas of Galilee in A.D. 6 that was instrumental in the deposing of Herod Archelaus and his replacement by a Roman governor. Judas’ rallying cry was that, because God was their only God and Lord, the census tax would not be paid to Rome. As Gamaliel reminded the Sanhedrin when Peter and the other apostles were being questioned in Jerusalem, the rebel Judas “perished, and all those who followed him were scattered” (Acts 5:37). It was the nationalistic, anti-Roman sentiment of Judas on which the Zealot movement was built and that was behind the rebellion of A.D. 66 that led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple four years later.

It was therefore not by accident that the Pharisees had instructed their disciples to induce Jesus to make a statement about the poll-tax. If He gave an answer favorable to the tax, He would become despised by the Jewish multitudes who until then highly admired Him. In that case, the Jewish leaders would then be free to arrest and have Him executed without interference from the populace. But they presumed He would answer otherwise and openly declare that the tax was both unjust and ungodly and should not be paid to the oppressive, pagan Caesar, thus incurring the wrath of Rome as an insurrectionist.

8. What kind of coin did they bring Jesus? (Matthew 22:19b) Disregarding Jesus’ harsh accusations against them, the men readily “brought Him a denarius,” being more than glad to help Him fall into their snare. The specific coin used for the poll-tax was the denarius, which amounted to the daily wage for a soldier or common laborer in Palestine. Although several coinages, including Greek and Hebrew were used in Israel at the time, and exchange from one to the other was easy, only the Roman denarius could be used to pay the poll-tax. It was a silver coin, minted expressly by the emperor, who alone had the authority to issue coins in silver or gold. All such coins, including the denarius, bore an engraving of the emperor on one side and an identifying inscription on the other.

That fact made the coins especially offensive to Jews for three reasons:

  1. For one thing, the emperor’s picture was a reminder of Roman oppression.
  2. The coin itself had an offensive inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and on the flip side, “pontifex maximus” (“the most high priest”).
    1. The coinage of Christ’s day was more than secular; it was religious. The emperors, who believed they were high priests, also believed they were gods.
    2. They often usurped the authority of God by having large numbers of people killed. Many Christians lost their lives because they failed to worship the emperor. Emperor worship was a part of the Roman Empire.
  3. The Mosaic Law specifically forbade the making of images (Exodus 20:4). In modern Israel, certain extremely orthodox Jews strictly forbid the taking of their photographs, because the resulting picture is considered a graven image.

9. Why did Jesus ask them to describe the coin? (Matthew 22:20) Jesus simply holds up the coin and asks whose picture is on it. Matthew 22:20 says, and He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They must have seen where he was headed even as their answer slips from their tongues. The logic is so simple and yet so profound: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.

10. What command does Jesus give in Matthew 22:21? (Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25) Matthew 22:21 says, they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render (aorist Imperative) to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

Christ here recognizes two divinely constituted spheres of authority. In the one sphere God is supreme. In the other, Caesar has delegated authority. Christ’s statement anticipated Paul’s teaching that all civil authorities are constituted by God (Romans 13:1-7, John 19:10-11). As such they are God’s ministers to maintain law and order and to provide an atmosphere in which righteous men may live in peace (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

The word “render” is the command of Christ in this narrative. This command is an aorist imperative which denotes urgency and literally means to “pay” or “give back” (apodidomi) implying a debt. It carries the idea of obligation and responsibility for something that is not optional. This is one of the commands of Christ that must be taken seriously. Jesus teaches here that we owe them to the government as surely as we have financial obligations to God as part of our stewardship (Malachi 4:8-12).

This has some ponderous (heavy, weighty) implications:

First, a government does have the right of taxation. If we cheat on our taxes, we are disobeying the ordained authority of God (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

Romans 13:1-7 tells us… Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

The word “tax” in Romans 13:6-7 is phoros in the Greek text. Rome had one tax called kensos in Greek, and that was a head tax, or census. Every person paid it.

Then they had the poll tax, or land tax. That is what Paul is referring to in Romans 13:7. This tax was like our income tax. An assessment was made on land, property, slaves, and capital. The taxable amount of one’s possessions was determined, the appropriate tax rate applied, and then the person was charged the tax. So Paul says to pay your income tax.

Second, Paul also instructs believers to show respect or honor to government officials. The Greek word for honor denotes “assigning a price or value to someone.” It can sometimes refer to money. 1 Timothy 5:7 says, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” This would refer to respect and compensation. So our phrase in Romans 13:7, “honor to whom honor is due” could be translated, “Give money to whom money is due.”

It can also mean “respect.” It is best to see Paul as using two words that refer to money, (tax and duty), and two words that demonstrate attitude, (respect and honor). We are to pay our taxes and duty with an attitude of respect and honor. We should respect government officials for their position despite their perspective or personality.

We should be grateful for the provision and protection that is ours in this country; and thank God for placing us here where we have such freedom and prosperity. Our government leaders may not always please us as Christians, but we should be grateful to live in such a benevolent society. As we prosper we should thankfully pay our taxes, and not think of it as a chore we hate or despise.

1 Peter 2:13-17 says to Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

But, what about… What if Government spends our tax dollars inappropriately? We don’t obey a government because we like what it does, who’s in charge, or how it spends its money.

11. Is there ever an appropriate time for civil disobedience? (Acts 4:19; 5:29) There are appropriate occasions for civil disobedience (Acts 4:19; 5:29). However, civil disobedience should only be reserved for times when the government asks us directly or individually to disobey what God has commanded us to do or not to do. The same Peter that taught “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors…” told those in authority that he would not stop preaching the gospel because he was under a higher authority that had commanded him to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

12. Whose image was on the coin that Jesus was displaying in His hand? (Matthew 22:21b) The image on the coin is Caesar (Tiberias). Obviously, if his picture is on it, then it belongs to him. So what should we do? “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

13. Whose image were the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians made in? (Matthew 22:21b) God’s image! Jesus says, “Then render… to God the things that are God’s.” As Jesus looks around the audience, he sees men and women who are as clearly imprinted with the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). They have an obligation to give their lives to Him. But even now, Jesus the Messiah stands before them. Instead of following Him, as God intended, they are trying to trap him. They are, in this very moment, robbing God that which is due him.

14. How did they respond to Jesus’ answers to their questions? (Matthew 22:22; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:26) Matthew 22:22 says “And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.” Luke’s Gospel says, “And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent” (Luke 20:26).

The Pharisees and Herodians are stumped. They have laboriously contrived this “impenetrable” question. Their scheme was foolproof, yet in less than fifteen seconds this uneducated Galilean dismantles their question, exposes their motives, and convicts their hypocrisy. All they can do is walk away with their tails between their legs.

Application Questions:

  1. What was your attitude toward authority in your younger days? (Compliant? Obedient? Rebellious?)
  2. What bothers you the most about government? (Taxes? Scandals? Regulations? Waste? Nothing?)
  3. How has this command impacted your soul?
    1. Mind/Attitude – thoughts
    2. Will – decisions
    3. Emotions – feelings
  4. In your life, what belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?
  5. How well are you giving to each?

The questions and answers for this study were gleaned from the following resources:
1. Serendipity Bible for Groups by: Serendipity House, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998
2. The Expositors Bible Commentary, Volume 8 by: Frank E. Gaebelein (General Editor), Zondervan Publishing House, 1984
3. New Testament Commentary- Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark by: William Hendriksen, Baker Book house, 1975.
4. Mark- A Portrait of the Servant by: Edmond D. Hiebert, Moody Press, 1974
5. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.
6. The Gospel According to Mark by: William L. Lane, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1974.
7. He Came to Suffer by: Thomas R. Lovejoy, Grace Community Church, 1984
8. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 7 6-23 by: John MacArthur Jr., Moody Press, 1988.
9. Word Studies in the Greek New Testament: Volume 1 by: Kenneth S. Wuest, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1950.
10. The Chronological Life of Christ Vol.2 by: Mark E. Moore, College Publishing Company, 1997
11. The Words and Works of Jesus Christ by: J. Dwight Pentecost, Zondervan Publishing House, 1981

[Richard D. Leineweber Jr. © Copyright 1994]

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