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Church and State

October 22, 2023 |Church and State|Matthew 22:15-22

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

For the next two weeks we will look at the ways the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, having been thoroughly rebuked with the string of parables Jesus gave, that we have been looking at, try now to trap him with questions.

First, about taxes, second about the afterlife, and third, about the law. We will deal with the first of these this week and the last next week.

These questions come from three groups of Jewish men who approach Jesus to try and trap him in something he says in response to their questions.

First, the Pharisees send their disciples, along with a group known as the Herodians, then the Sadducees come, and finally the Pharisees come, each one with a question designed to elicit some reaction from Jesus that they can use against him. So far they have been wholly unsuccessful at refuting him, challenging his authority, and trying to stop people from listening to him.

After this round of questions, none of them question him again, rather it cements in their minds that he needs to die and they enact the plan that will ultimately lead him to the cross in a few short days.

It is in the face of that impending death that we find Jesus responding to this last desperate attempt at any legitimate way to remove him from his position of influence.

The first issue they bring to Jesus is a theological one with social and civil implications.

What is Jesus’ stance on the relationship between God’s people and the Roman state?

At this time the Jews had been under Roman rule for almost 100 years. The people who before that had enjoyed a period of almost 80 years of Jewish flourishing as an independent people.

Although not exactly the same, it is not hard to draw some parallels between their situation and see similarities with our own today.

As Christians, what is our relationship supposed to be with the governing bodies we find ourselves under?

Especially in what seems to be a steady, intentional, and progressive departure from the values we hold, the causes we care for, and the support and funding of things we absolutely disagree with.Since this is something that confronts us daily, we should be eager to hear how Jesus addressed it in his day, to his people.

We find this encounter in Matthew 22, beginning at verse 15.

I want to share with you three observations from our text and then see what we can learn from it as it applies to us today.

A Character Rightly Praised

Matthew 22:15-16 (ESV) 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 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.

We will not spend much time here, but I think it is beneficial for us to briefly look at their opening statements.

Teacher- a proper title given to Jesus

You are true- love the truth, speak the truth

Teach the way of God truthfully- you teach truly the way of God (essentially trying to butter him up which is funny with what they say next)

You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances- outward countenance

That is, they have seen that Jesus has no problem correcting the highest ranked leaders, Jesus has no problem interacting with the lowest Jewish woman, Jesus deals with everyone in a way that it is easily evident that he is not swayed by someone’s seeming importance, their outward achievements or merits, or their standing in society.

Now, with the exception of the last one, we have no reason to believe that they are sincere in their praise of Jesus’ character. Indeed, in the gospel of Luke, we find these plain words, Luke 20:20 (ESV) 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.

Their words are empty, their questions insincere, and their motives wicked. But, even if their motives are wrong, their praise is not.

Essentially they have come to the right person with their question.

Jesus is qualified to answer their most difficult questions about God, about life, about the afterlife.

He is the Teacher, he is truth, he teaches the way of God truthfully and with power and authority, he is so rooted in the truth of who he is and what he has been sent to say and do that he is not swayed by who his audience is.

How pitiful that they had their opportunity to ask Jesus a question, but because of their sinful hearts bent on trying to trap him in his words, they missed it.

Before we move on to their question, I wanted to just point out that these are the characteristics that we are commanded to possess as well as his followers.

You are true-

Ephesians 4:25 (ESV) 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Colossians 3:8-10 (ESV) 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Teach the way of God truthfully-

Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV) 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

You are not swayed by appearances-

James 2:1 (ESV) 1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

It is good to stop in the midst of the gospel narrative and contemplate what we see displayed by our Lord there. He is not only our savior, but he is our example, he is our pattern, indeed, the Bible says those who belong to him are being conformed to his image by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

This description, although given by enemies, nonetheless rings beautifully true of our Lord.

So the first observation is a Character rightly praised, Jesus deserved this praise, second we see…

A Tension Wrongly Represented

Matthew 22:17 (ESV) 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

What do you think, teacher who never swerves or strays from the truth, who shows no partiality, what do you think about this potentially divisive issue?

Is it lawful- is it right for the Jew? Should we? In Mark’s gospel we find their follow up sentence is "Should we pay them, or should we not?” Not just is it lawful, but should we do it or not.

To pay taxes to Caesar- the tax in mind is a specific tax placed on the places of Roman occupation. (Reformed Expository Commentary) Matthew uses a specific term that denotes the Roman poll tax, or head tax on all adult males that followed a census. It was a Denarius a year, which is the technical wages for a day, but in terms of cost of living, a frugal, humble person could live on 100 denarius a year.

It was a small amount, but what it represented was larger. This poll tax was not levied against Roman citizens but against areas that had been conquered and were under Roman rule. It was a yearly reminder that they were not free. It amounted to a fee that Rome charged for them to live in their own land.

As people who had been promised this land, should they pay the tax that essentially said that it was not fully theirs?

Or not- the question was worded as to elicit a yes or no answer. Either yes, it was right to pay it or no, it was not right to pay it.

The tension is forced upon Jesus, pay the tax and dishonor God or do not pay the tax and rebel against Rome.

If Jesus said ‘yes’, the Pharisees would point out that God was their rightful king and they owed no tribute to any other King. In addition, Jesus would find himself on the wrong side of an increasing hostility towards the Romans from the Jewish people.

If Jesus said ‘no’ the Herodians would point out that he was encouraging the Jews to break civil law and perhaps report him to the Roman authorities as trying to start a rebellion or at least to fan the flame of insurrection. This group of men think they have come up with the perfect dilemma, because whether he said no or yes, he would lose standing with someone.

In this day, for the Jew, there would have been two taxes of this kind imposed on them. This civil one by Rome, and a religious one imposed by God in Exodus 30:13-14 (ESV) 13 Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD'S offering.

This religious tax of men over 20 was given to support the temple. This is the tax mentioned in Matthew 17 when men ask Peter if his teacher pays this tax.

Indeed, this is no small matter they have brought before Jesus. In part, it was this tax that led to the rebellion of the Jews against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple prophesied in scripture. For the Jew, this was a culturally loaded question.

Any internal tension that existed for the Jew is magnified by these religious men; heightened by the two parties represented, those that represented a strict adherence to God’s law and those who had embraced Rome’s rule, and then forced upon Jesus.

But, as we will see, he does not receive it.

(We do not have to engage with tensions wrongly represented. Like the question ‘if God is good, why is there evil in the world?’ which puts the presence of evil as indicative of God’s goodness, either way. It assumes they are mutually exclusive. If you accept this false tension, the common argument presented is that since there is evil present in the world, the only logical conclusion is that either God is powerless to stop evil or not good enough to care about it. This is a similar snare created by forcing tension between two things that are not in tension or wrongly representing the tension that exists. Let me say again, you do not have to respond to these arguments or strictly framed questions.)

Rather than respond to this falsely highlighted tension, Jesus responds by presenting…

A Balance Properly Presented

Matthew 22:18-22 (ESV) 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Why put me to the test- they do not care about which is the right answer, what is the right thing to do, the Herodians had already decided it was and the Pharisees resented it along with many of the other Jews. He saw through their flattery and discerned the malicious intent of their question.

You hypocrites- one of Jesus’ most common declarations of these religious rulers and their disciples in this last week. He uses it here and then later he will use it seven times to describe them in Matthew 23 and 24.

Hypocrite- comes from the stage world indicating someone who would wear a mask, or play a part. These men pretended to care about honoring God while their lives showed otherwise.

What does Jesus say? Show me the coin for the tax.

This tax you are concerned with the rightness of, show me the coin you use to pay it.

So they brought him a denarius.

Denarius- If this is the coin most scholars hold it to be, it was the Denarius of Tiberius. One one side it bore his image with the words which translate (Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus), and on the other side, an image of the wife of Augustus, Tiberius’ mother, symbolized as the goddess Pax, the Roman goddess of peace with the words translated (The greatest bridge-builder).

The symbolism is of course rich with idolatry. One the deity of Caesar, two, that he is the one who brings peace to the world.

Whether it was or it wasn’t, the coin was a symbol of the existing governmental authorities, they had the coin, symbolizing that they were in fact already prepared to pay the tax. Additionally, whatever coin it was, we know it had an image of Caesar and a corresponding inscription that claimed deity for the leader of Rome.

Then Jesus makes a statement that has been interpreted in various ways.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”

One possible interpretation is that Jesus is making a distinction between their fiscal responsibility to Rome and their rejection of the claims of his deity and of emperor worship that was a part of the Roman world. In this way, Jesus highlights that to do the one (pay the tax) does not mean embracing the other (worship of Caesar). I certainly think this is plausible, after all, one of the reasons the Jewish people resented this tax was that they felt it was a violation of the 1st and 2nd commands. To make a graven image and to have other gods. Jesus alleviates this thinking when he says, this coin, where did it come from? Rome, then give it back to Rome, but do not give to Rome what belongs to God. There is no tension here, but rather balance between your civil and the religious duties.

Tertullian, an early church father, expresses his interpretation of what Jesus said in a similar way when he says to render "the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself…"[14]

Throughout history, others have interpreted it as saying that we should disentangle ourselves from the government and its benefits so that we owe Caesar nothing. They have advocated a complete separation for the people of God from any government. That Jesus is pointing out that since they have accepted Roman rule they should respect Roman rule, if they had rejected it, there would not have been a problem to begin with.

Others interpret it as Jesus not so much answering the question of the legitimacy of civil taxes, but rather placing the emphasis back on the individual to decide what things rightly belong to Caesar and what things rightly belong to God, encouraging them to question where their highest allegiance lies.

Unfortunately, Jesus does not expound here, but rather leaves us with a short, unexpanded answer.

But fortunately, this teaching, concerning the people of God and the state was picked up by Jesus’ apostles, namely both Peter and Paul and repeated time and time again, where they expounded on it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 13:6-7 (ESV) 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Titus 3:1-3 (ESV) 1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3

1 Peter 2:13-17 (ESV) 13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Timothy 2:1-2 (ESV) 1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

These verses, taken in conjunction with what Jesus says, implies that there is no tension in being a citizen in the household of God and paying taxes of the government under which you find yourself civilly. To go even further, Peter says we are subject to human institutions for the Lord’s sake, that we should be upstanding citizens where we find ourselves in order to glorify God.

Paul goes further, and commands that Timothy urge the churches he served to pray for and be grateful for the governing authorities.

One of the things that is telling is how quickly they produce a Roman coin, used for this tax, meaning that they had them to begin with. The hypocrisy of these men is evident not only in their false motives and their question as well, but their actions.

Did they not enjoy the relative safety Rome provided them, did they not enjoy the increased trade and travel possible by Roman roads, did they not enjoy the benefits from Roman engineering in things like the aqueducts? To make use of the benefits of being under Romans rule but to reject the responsibility to support it exposes their hypocrisy.

But, as Jesus often does, he presses deeper. Here is where I want us to land this morning.


Render to God the things that are God’s.

Let’s begin with the natural man. Does he not enjoy the blessing of the sun and the rain? Of the food the Earth produces, of the ecosystem God created? Does he not enjoy the blessings of family, and of life itself? There is a sense in which every man, woman, or child owes themselves to God for his manifold blessings.

As we progress to the Jews, who heard this directly from Jesus’ mouth? Did they not owe God for their many blessings?

He had made them a nation, he had given them revelation of Himself, laws to instruct them, and a tabernacle to worship the one true, living God with. Do Jesus’ words not highlight the way these religious men and their teachers, although enjoying the privileges of being one of God’s chosen people, had withheld the very obedience that they owed him? In the way they drew near to him in their words, but their hearts were far from him. In the way they nullified God’s word by their traditions.

To go further, what about you Christian?

The Bible says that God has given you salvation, forgiveness from sins, that he has made you a part of a people who were not a people, that he has given you the Spirit of Truth, the comforter, that he has promised to never leave you or forsake you, he has given you his church to care for you, his gifts to bless you, and his word to guide you.

Are you trying to enjoy the blessings of God without rendering to him what is his, mainly and plainly, yourself?

We worry about increasing taxes, we complain about government overreach, we dislike what we owe the government all the while enjoying the benefits and privileges bestowed upon us by and through it. But have you ever stopped and thought about what you owe God?

The Bible says that, as a Christian, a blood bought, redeemed man or woman, that you are not your own, you have been bought with a price, (ESV) So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:21)

Paul says what Jesus implicitly states and what we so often ignore. If you believe that you owe your very existence to the God of the Bible, then you should live your life in light of his directions. And as someone who claims to have a special relationship with him, such as the Jews did in Jesus’ day and as Christians do today, to not do so, is, as Jesus says here, hypocritical.

It is playing the part rather than embracing the call.

I pray today that as we have looked at this encounter with Jesus you have been challenged to ask yourself not only about your views on government, but about your highest allegiance and the way that it is evidenced in your life.

Let us pray.

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