Jesus, in Matthew 22:15–22, used the image and inscription on a silver coin to respond to a trick question about taxes. But his answer deals with much deeper issues than paying taxes. How do you relate to governing authorities and a culture that is antagonistic to the kingdom of God?
Give to Caesar what belongs to him. How should you, as a citizen of the kingdom of God, relate to civil government? The Pharisees combined with the Herodians to trick Jesus with a question. Their flattery helps to bait the trap. The very language of “give money to Caesar” may imply that they “gave” money, but did not acknowledge that they owed it to him. Although their motives were false, and were recognized by Christ as such, the question as to what is owed to civil government, particularly an ungodly civil government is a legitimate question. Josephus, the historian, records a rebellion against the Roman poll tax, led by a Galilean named Judas. Christians ask similar questions: Is it right to pay taxes that are used for sinful purposes (such as funding abortions)? How do you as a Christian, relate to the government? When do you submit? When do you have to obey God rather than man?
Christ commands you to obey the government. Jesus, after rebuking their insincerity, asks for a coin, the coin used for paying taxes. Interestingly, Jesus (in his poverty) did not have such a coin on him. But the questioners were able to produce one, despite their objection to the image and engraving on it. They bring a denarius, a coin with an image of the emperor, and an inscription describing him as divine. Jesus asks whose image (portrait) and inscription is on it. They answer, “Caesar’s.” Jesus commands you to render or pay to Caesar what is his. The very use of the emperor’s coin indicated at least a de facto submission to his authority. The money was issued by Caesar, and as his subjects, taxes were owed to him. The government does have a legitimate authority. It has the power of the sword, and is owed taxes and honor, Romans 13. You owe the king submission, 1 Peter 2:13,14. Pray for those in authority, 1 Timothy 2:1,2. Christians are not anarchists. Nor are they tribalists. Keep priorities straight. “Tribalism thrives on fear: the fear of losing our freedom, our safety, or our country. But the gospel reminds us that our true freedom is not freedom from persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), but freedom from the guilt of sin and the fear of death (1 Cor. 15:55–57). Our true safety is not found in the things we hold in our hands, but in the reality that we are held in the hands that hung the stars (John 10:28–29). Our true country is not even our beloved nation, but rather the new creation (Rev. 21–22).” (Jeremiah W. Montgomery, “Christianity and Tribalism,” “New Horizons” October 2021, p. 17)
Give to God what belongs to him. Acknowledge God’s sovereign authority. The government is not all-powerful, though it tends to continue to accumulate power. That tendency was evident in atheistic communism, but can be just as powerful in a democratic government. The sovereign will of the people is a phrase our politicians tend to use. Even the state is subject to God. It is his servant, Romans 13. Give God what is God’s! That puts a vital qualification on the demands of the state. Jesus is making the point that his questioners, while debating what was to be given to Caesar, were neglecting to give God what was owed to him. The priests and leaders had just questioned his authority, Matthew 21:23-27. The point of the parables of the tenants and the wedding feast is that the people who should have recognized the Messiah were rejecting him. At the heart of giving God what is his is rendering to his Son the reverence and trust which he demands. “[E]cclesiastical power differs in kind from all political power. Even under the Old Testament, state and church, though closely connected, were not identical. Christ much more clearly defined the difference, however, between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 22:21; John 18:36).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol 4, p. 415)
Since you are God’s image, give yourself to him. Jesus’ language focuses on image (portrait) and inscription. Jesus’ choice of words recalls Genesis 1:26. The coin bears Caesar’s image, and is to be given to him for taxes. That which bears God’s image is not a piece of metal, but you! “Man was created in the image of God, a self-conscious, free, responsible, religious agent. Such identity implies an inherent, native, inalienable obligation to love and serve God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind.” (John Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 47) Mankind was created in God’s image, and, though in a twisted sense, continues to reflect the character of God. That image is being renewed.Sin has distorted the way in which we reflect God’s image. What was intended for good has been used for evil. Christ, who is the very image of the Father, came to renew you in his image, Ephesians 4:20–24; Colossians 3:9–10. Jesus calls you to give yourself, including every aspect of your life, to God as your grateful service.
None of us enjoy tax time. But there is no greater joy than giving yourself to the God who made you in his image.