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This is one of the classical Scripture passages dealing with the separation of church and state and what each contributes to the other realm in perfect harmony. Our society today sees numerous abuses on both sides:

– The state trying to usurp functions and loyalty due only to God

– Anarchists stirring up revolution in the name of “righteousness” while failing to yield rightful allegiance to the God-ordained governing authorities

How are we to navigate through the complexities of this important arena?

The enemies of Jesus have attacked his authority as being illegitimate and been blown away. Now they try to trump his authority by putting him in jeopardy with the Roman rulers. Jesus here gives a teaching that is so clear and irrefutable that He shuts the mouths of His scheming critics who are attempting to lead him down the pathway of insurrection to the Roman government. They imagine that they have posed the perfect trap question. But Jesus destroys their false binary option with a more comprehensive unified view of the relationship between church and state.

Deffinbaugh: 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.


A. (:19) Attempt to Capture Jesus

1. Urgency of the Opposition

“And the scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour,”

2. Unnerved by His Popularity

“and they feared the people;”

3. Understanding Jesus’ Indictment of Them

“for they understood that He spoke this parable against them.”

Deffinbaugh: 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.

B. (:20) Attempt to Discredit Jesus

1. Surveillance

“And they watched Him,”

2. Spies Under Disguise

“and sent spies who pretended to be righteous,”

3. Strategy

“in order that they might catch Him in some statement,”

4. Sinister Scheme

“so as to deliver Him up to the rule and the authority of the governor.”

Geldenhuys: The deadly nature of this new attack launched against Jesus becomes clear from the fact that, in order to carry it out, the Pharisees act in unison with the Herodians in an unholy alliance (Mark xii. 13), so that the two parties, as a rule bitterly hostile to each other, are temporarily united in the conspiracy to destroy their common foe (cf. also Mark iii. 6).

Lenski: these disciples of the Pharisees are to pretend to conscientious scruples about the tax as though wondering whether they as righteous men ought to pay it; and the Herodians are sent along as witnesses whose word would go much farther with Pilate than would that of any disciples of the Pharisees.



A. (:21-22) Asking the Question – Supreme Lordship of God or Caesar?

1. (:21) Insincere Flattery

“And they questioned Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth.’”

Lenski: This elaborate preamble will certainly induce Jesus to live up to the estimate thus made of him: he will consider no man, not even Caesar in Rome, when he gives his answer. He will speak without the least reserve to men who think of him so highly. And he is thus assured in advance that, whatever men like the Sanhedrists would do, the men who are not speaking to Jesus will prize his answer and will thank him for it with all their hearts. The scheme was certainly beautifully devilish.

MacArthur: And there are two reasons they talk the way they talk. One, they want to elevate Jesus in His own mind to make Him feel proud so that He’ll try to act in a way that’s consistent with what they’ve said. Secondly, they want to show that they agree with the people because this is how the people thought about Him. “Teacher – ” people thought He was a teacher, and an astute one at that “ – we know you speak and teach correctly.” That was the popular view. You’re getting the popular view right here. They’re telling us what conventional wisdom was, what the people thought. “You teach and speak correctly. You’re not partial to anyone, but teach the way of God in truth.”

Hughes: Their strategy was perfumed with flattery. Flattery is the reverse mirror-image of gossip. Gossip involves saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his face. Flattery is saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind his back. How ingratiating their language was—like puffs from a perfume bottle: (squeeze) “Teacher, you’re always right.” (squeeze) “Preacher, you don’t play favorites. You show us the true way.” How sweet it seemed!” Like politicians, preachers are peculiarly susceptible to flattery. It is a professional titillation. A preacher, extravagantly flattered by a fawning parishioner, responds, “What you say is very kind, and of course, untrue. But tell me more about your thoughts …”Of course, Jesus, the Preacher, smelled it for what it was—the stench of duplicity. Jesus well knew the wisdom of the Word: “a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5). “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips” (Psalm 12:3).

2. (:22) Illogical Binary

“Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

This is not an either/or situation

Donald Miller: the spies sought to place Jesus in a dilemma, so that he would be condemned whichever way he replied (vs. 22). If Jesus approved paying the tax, he would incur the disfavor of the people by appearing to be unconcerned about the burden Rome had placed on them, as well as indifferent to God’s Lordship as supreme over that of Caesar. On the other hand, if Jesus denied the lawfulness of paying the Roman tax, he could be reported to Pilate, who dealt summarily with such people.

Geldenhuys: So the object of their question was (verse 20) to compel Him to give an answer that would enable them to accuse Him to the Romans of incitement to insurrection. That such was indeed their aim, also appears form the fact that at Jesus’ trial they did not shrink from bringing this accusation against Him falsely before Pilate, that He “perverted the people and forbade them to give tribute to Caesar” (xxiii. 2), notwithstanding that He had taught the very opposite.

Wuest: This payment [poll tax] was objectionable to them for two reasons, first, because it was a sign of subjection to a foreign power, and second, because the coin with which it was to be paid, the denarius, bore the Emperor’s effigy stamped upon it. And this Emperor, it was Roman law to worship as a god. The compulsory use of the denarius could not but increase the scruples of patriotic and religious Jews.

B. (:23-25) Answering the Question – Legitimacy of Both Church and State

1. (:23) Perception of Their Motivation

“But He detected their trickery and said to them,”

Morris: “their craftiness” – (panourgia carries overtones of unscrupulousness, “readiness to do anything”, AG).

Jesus sees right through them; He knows their hearts (John 2:25) and inner motivations. He can detect the trap they are trying to spring on Him.

2. (:24) Presentation of Object Lesson

“’Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?’

And they said, ‘Caesar’s.’”

Anyabwile: The Lord is not an anarchist. We can never justify disobedience to civil authority with appeals to Jesus.

Deffinbaugh: 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).

3. (:25) Proclamation of Main Principle

“And He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,

and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Donald Miller: Although the Zealots based their tax resistance on religious grounds, there is little doubt that economic motives entered into it also. Jesus, therefore, was suggesting that one should not confuse the claims of Mammon with those of God. Furthermore, the resistance to Roman taxation was based on a political conception of the Kingdom of God. The Zealots – and even the Pharisees, who were not so extreme in their views – equated the coming of the Kingdom with freedom from Rome. Jesus was here intimating that the Kingdom did not depend on political deliverance from Rom. They could offer to God their whole loyalty within the framework of the Roman government. Deliverance was there through a Messiah who was not to battle against Rome, but was to surrender himself to the suffering of the Cross, and thus call to himself a new People who would see that the Kingdom had come in his deliverance from sin and death.

Morris: It left no room for an accusation of disloyalty to Caesar, but also stressed loyalty to God. Jesus is saying that a man is a citizen of heaven and of earth at the same time. This does not mean dividing life into compartments, as though the duties of either citizenship could be discharged without reference to those of the other. It means that man has more than one loyalty and that he can neglect neither. The State must be respected and its directions complied with in its own proper sphere. It follows that the State rightly collects taxes to discharge its functions. . . The Christian’s first and overriding loyalty is to God. This does not justify him in renouncing his loyalty to Caesar, but it does mean that he must always bear in mind that the most significant area of life does not belong to Caesar. If Caesar strays into that area he can command no loyalty.

Deffinbaugh: hey 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.


A. Frustrated

“And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people;”

Lenski: The vicious intent was completely frustrated.

B. Fascinated

“and marveling at His answer,”

They were astonished that Jesus could so expertly navigate their trap and avoid any entanglement.

C. Finished

“they became silent.”