July 12, 2017: Verse of the day

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Deception

Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (20:22–25)

The greatest admiration that could be paid to an esteemed teacher was to elevate him by asking difficult questions, particularly those regarding the law of God. Assuming that they had Jesus where they wanted Him, His enemies posed a carefully crafted query for Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” By lawful they were referring not to Roman law, but to God’s law. They thought they knew that the biblically correct answer was negative, and that that was the answer the people would expect. The people believed that the land of Israel and all that it produced belonged to God. Consequently, they hated paying taxes to occupying pagan idolaters.

And there were diverse taxes imposed by the Romans, including income taxes, land taxes, import taxes, and transport taxes. But the tax the Jewish people hated most was the poll tax everyone paid for living under Rome’s authority. They found it especially offensive because it suggested that Caesar owned them, while they passionately viewed both themselves and the nation as solely God’s possession. Taxation was a constant source of friction between the Jews and Rome, and played a large part in both the rebellion led by Judas of Galilee (a.d. 6–7) and the Jewish revolt of a.d. 66–70, which ended in the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus.

The leaders thought that they had forced Jesus into an impossible and inescapable dilemma. They were certain that to avoid alienating the people, He would have to affirm the popular view that paying taxes to Rome was violating the law of God. But such a response would leave the very popular Jesus open to the charge of inciting an insurrection against Rome. If He gave that answer to their question, they would dispatch the Herodians to inform the Romans, who would need to seize Jesus, dashing the hopes that He was God’s king.

Jesus, however, detected their evil attempt at trickery. “Show Me a denarius,” He demanded. A denarius was a silver coin minted by the authority of the emperor, worth equal to a day’s wages for a Roman soldier. In Jesus’ day, a denarius would have had the image of Emperor Tiberius’s face on the front, and on the reverse side, an imprint of him sitting on his throne wearing priestly robes. Because the Jews considered such images to be a violation of the second commandment (Ex. 20:4), which prohibited idolatry, they avoided carrying such coins. When one was produced, Jesus, without hesitation, asked, “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” The obvious answer was given: “Caesar’s.”

The profundity of Jesus’ next statement should not be lost in its simplicity. “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” He told them, “and to God the things that are God’s.” The Lord’s point was that people are to fulfill their obligations, both materially to human government and spiritually to God. Render translates a form of the Greek verb apodidōmi, which refers to giving back something that is owed.

There are some things that belong, in the providence of God, to the temporal realm. God Himself had brought Israel under Roman rule and Caesar was their earthly ruler. They were to support his rule because all government is ordained by God to protect the innocent, and restrain and punish evil, as Paul noted in Romans 13:1–4:

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. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 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; 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.

The Romans did those things. They were powerful militarily, and provided peace, security, and protection. The network of roads and shipping channels they created facilitated the flow of goods and commerce that added to their subjects’ prosperity. It was legitimate for them to expect those valuable services to be supported by those who benefitted.

The same is true today. Christians are citizens of this temporal world, under the authority of human government. At the same time, they are subjects of the kingdom of God, under the rule of God and Christ. In the worldly realm, they are to meet their obligations to those governing powers that God, in His sovereign providence, has placed in authority over them. That is true whether they live in a democracy or a dictatorship. In either case, they are to both fear God and honor the king (1 Peter 2:17). Jesus affirmed the right of governments to collect taxes for their support because they are ordained by God for man’s well-being and safety. Without such ruling powers, there would be anarchy, chaos, and destruction. When a government, however, commands believers to do what God forbids, or forbids them to do what God commands, it must be legitimately disobeyed (Acts 4:19; 5:29).

On the other hand, Christians are always required to render to God the things that are God’s. He is the one to whom we belong and whom we serve (Acts 27:23). To Him belong solely our souls, worship, praise, trust, love, and obedience.[1]


25 This verse has been understood in various ways. Some have argued for an anti-Zealot reading, while others have detected a strong subversive tone behind the saying. Still others note the ironic nature of the saying without suggesting that it supplies a general principle. For a helpful survey of the history of interpretation and the issues involved, see C. H. Gibling, “ ‘The Things of God’ in the Question Concerning Tribute to Caesar (Lk 20:25; Mk 12:17; Mt 22:21),” CBQ 33 (1971): 510–27; J. D. M. Derrett, “Luke’s Perspective on Tribute to Caesar,” in Political Issues in Luke-Acts [ed. Cassidy and Scharper], 38–48.[2]


20:25. Jesus had a simple retort. Give Caesar what he controls, and give God what he controls. Caesar’s image is on coins. Let Caesar have coins. God’s image is on people. Let people be devoted to God. This would include all people, for Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Certainly people are more important to God than things, so Jesus placed devotion to God on a higher plane than devotion to Caesar without indicting himself as opposed to either God or government (see Rom. 13).[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2014). Luke 18–24 (pp. 134–136). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Liefeld, W. L., & Pao, D. W. (2007). Luke. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 299). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Butler, T. C. (2000). Luke (Vol. 3, pp. 335–336). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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