BEGIN WITH YOUR PRIMARY OBLIGATION TO SUBMIT TO GOD AND YOU WILL HAVE NO STRUGGLE SUBMITTING TO CIVIL GOVERNMENT
Grant Osborne: Matthew now returns to the controversies that are the core of this section. The three parables have established the guilt of the leaders and the nation for rejecting the summons of the Son of God to enter the new kingdom reality. In the four debates that follow the Pharisees and Sadducees prove their guilt by repeatedly “testing” Jesus and trying to gather evidence against him. As stated in the introduction to this larger unit (21:23 – 22:46), the four controversies relate to the major types of rabbinic questions:
- wisdom (22:15–22),
- mockery against a belief (22:23–33),
- moral conduct (22:34–40), and
- biblical contradictions (22:41–46).
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him lies at the heart of all “submission to government” passages in the NT (e.g., Rom 13:1–7; 1 Tim 2:2; 1 Pet 2:13–17). The point is not that allegiance to God is the antithesis of allegiance to government but that allegiance to government is part of allegiance to God. Yet at the same time God has the greater claim, and if a choice must be made, the believer must “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 4:19; 5:29).
Matthew McCraw: God has designed us to be loyal in multiple human relationships and institutions. However, none of these are to take the place of our loyalty to God. We must be devoted to and faithful to God and that to which He has called us. He is Lord of our lives and He has a design for our lives.
Richard Gardner: The substance of Jesus’ answer, Pay Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, could be paraphrased as follows: “Insofar as we live and participate in the civic order, there are civic obligations to fulfill. Our ultimate obligation, however, which sets boundaries and limits to all other obligations, is faithfulness to God, the ruler of all creation.”
Albert Mohler Jr.: Continuing their confrontation with Jesus, various leaders of the religious establishment now engage him in four debates. Threatened by Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment (cf. 21:45), the Pharisees attempt to have Jesus incriminate himself. The Pharisees combine forces with their rivals, the Herodians, to try to defeat their common enemy. Taxes were a volatile issue in Israel. If Jesus answers that it is appropriate to pay taxes to Caesar, he will be cast into disfavor among the tax-burdened people. If Jesus answers that it is not appropriate, his words may incriminate him as an insurrectionist against the Roman Empire. Seeing through their ploy, Jesus uses the denarius coin for paying taxes to make a profound counterpoint. As the Creator of all things, God has sovereign claim over creation. Giving to God what is God’s requires good stewardship of all he has created. This includes respecting governing authorities in a way that honors one’s primary allegiance to God. Jesus’ statement also clarifies his role at this point in God’s salvation history. He is not establishing a political kingdom to oppose Caesar. Rather, in this age God’s kingdom will operate within the existing political order, so those who respond to Jesus’ invitation into the kingdom will have obligations to governing authorities of this world (cf. Ro 13:1-17; 1Pe 2:13-17).
I. (:15-17) EXECUTING THE TAX TRAP PUTS OUR OBLIGATION TO CIVIL GOVERNMENT IN OPPOSITION TO OUR ALLEGIANCE TO GOD
A. (:15) Sinister Scheming – Planning the Tax Trap
“Then the Pharisees went and counseled together
how they might trap Him in what He said.”
Charles Swindoll: This is the only time the Herodians are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. The Herodians were a group of Jews loyal to Herod’s family —specifically, Herod Antipas —and thus in support of the Roman occupation and control over Judea. As such, they would have been in support of Rome’s right to exact taxes from the Jewish people. The disciples of the Pharisees, however, would have been opposed to Roman interference in the affairs of the Jews, God’s chosen people. Here we have the unprecedented alliance of liberal and conservative, secular and religious —working side by side to snare Jesus in a diabolical trap.
B. (:16) False Flattery – Preparing the Tax Trap
“And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying,
‘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.’”
Matthew McCraw: The Herodians were primarily politically motivated, whereas the Pharisees were primarily religiously motivated.
Under normal circumstances, these two groups may not even get along. However, when it came to trying to trick Jesus, they seemed to get along just fine.
Grant Osborne: The Pharisees don’t believe a word of what they are saying, but they are unconsciously stating absolute truth.
Stu Weber: The Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus first, beginning with hypocritical flattery. They addressed him as Teacher, partly to gain favor with the crowd, and partly to catch Jesus off guard. They claimed to know that Jesus was a man of integrity and that he taught the way of God, when in reality they believed him to be a heretic. . .
They also pointed out Jesus’ commitment to truth without consideration for the rank or social status of those who might agree or disagree with him. Jesus was known for being impartial toward all people and forthright in his teaching. They were hoping to coax Jesus into saying something politically incorrect.
Their statements about Jesus’ impartiality were intended to force him to take one side or another, thereby showing partiality. The question was whether it was right under Old Testament Law to pay the poll tax (we presume) to Caesar, the Roman emperor. The two groups that asked the question were on opposite sides of the issue. If Jesus answered, “Yes, it is right,” then he would show partiality toward the Herodians, who supported Roman rule. Then the Pharisees would accuse Jesus of sympathizing with the Romans. This was not a crime, but it was not a popular position among the Jews.
If Jesus answered, “No, it is not right,” then he would show partiality toward the Pharisees, who opposed Roman rule and saw Roman taxation as robbing from God. Then the Herodians could arrest him and bring him before Herod Antipas on charges of treason against the Roman Empire.
In either case, they thought, Jesus would show himself to be partial. He would also alienate part of his following, and he might incriminate himself under Roman law.
Stanley Saunders: The Pharisees’ disciples have been well coached. They flatter him with effusive, fulsome praise, emphasizing his integrity and impartiality. In fact, the success of their plot depends on Jesus’ integrity and lack of deference to the powerful (22:16). A simple, politically naive answer—either yes or no—best accomplishes their purpose. But Jesus is not the country bumpkin they think he is. They claim to know a lot about his character (22:16), but he knows the evil in their hearts (22:18; cf. 9:4; 12:24–25). He tells them he is aware of their hypocrisy (22:18), and then asks for the coin used to pay the tax, which they readily supply.
C. (:17) Opposing Obligations — Controversial Choice – Pay Poll Tax to Caesar or Not?
Presenting the Tax Trap —
“Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
Richard Gardner: It was not the amount, however, but rather the principle of subjection to Rome that aroused antagonism to the tax. Adding to the resentment was the fact that the coin used to pay the tax was stamped with a likeness of Tiberias Caesar, along with an inscription honoring him as the venerable son of the divine emperor Augustus (cf. w. 19-21a). Like others, the Pharisees found the tax distasteful, but reluctantly supported paying it.
Grant Osborne: There were three types of taxes for the Jews:
- the temple tax of 17:24–27;
- indirect taxes like customs duties, sales taxes, etc.; and
- the direct poll or head tax paid only by non-Roman citizens.
This is the third type, and it became a form of tribute paid by all subject peoples. The amount was one denarius paid annually by all adults, women as well as men. It was controversial and opposed by many Jews. Judas the Galilean led a revolt against this tax in AD 6. So the Pharisees feel this will get Jesus in trouble however he responds, either with the Jews if he says yes or with the Romans if he says no.
Matthew McCraw: So, we have the issue of paying money to the big bad rulers, and we have the issue with the actual image on the coin. All the while, the taxes are due. The religious devotees could accuse Jesus of supporting pagan rulers if He said to pay the tax and the political devotees could accuse Jesus of not supporting the government if He said not to pay the tax.
II. (:18-21) EXTRICATING HIMSELF FROM THE TAX TRAP –
SUBMISSION TO GOVERNMENT DOES NOT CONFLICT WITH OUR HIGHER ALLEGIANCE TO GOD
A. (:18) Exposing their Malicious Motivation
“But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?’”
Grant Osborne: Jesus wants them to know he has seen behind their charade and is fully aware their question is not an honest one but a “test” (as in 16:1; 19:3; 22:35) designed not to ascertain truth but to entrap him. As a result of such dishonesty, they are “hypocrites” (on this see 6:2 and esp. 15:7 and throughout ch. 23), hiding their true purposes.
David Turner: “Jesus recognizes the daggers in the men’s smiles” (W. Davies and Allison 1997: 215). He sees the evil motive behind the flattery and asks his questioners why they are putting him to the test. Satan is the first to test Jesus (4:1–11; cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Thess. 3:5; Heb. 4:15; Rev. 2:10), and others follow (Matt. 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35). Their testing of Jesus bears similarities to incidents in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’s opponents are often described as hypocrites in Matthew (cf. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51). His severe language unmasks their insincerity and prepares the reader for the extended diatribe in Matt. 23.
B. (:19-21a) Examining the Coinage
“‘Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.’
And they brought Him a denarius.
20 And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’
21 They said to Him,‘Caesar’s.’”
C. (:21b) Explaining the Fundamental Principle
“Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s;
and to God the things that are God’s.’”
David Turner: Perhaps the Herodians expected a positive answer and the Pharisees a negative answer, but both are astounded by what they hear. The anti-Herod Pharisees are told to pay taxes to the Roman government, evidently because the providence of God has placed the Romans over the Jews (cf. Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17; Abel 1969). The Herodians are reminded that their allegiance to God supersedes allegiance to the emperor. Both should recognize that the inscription on the emperor’s coin is wrong—he is neither God nor high priest—and his blasphemous coin does not belong in God’s temple (W. Davies and Allison 1997: 215). Jesus does not support the Pharisees by opposing Caesar’s tax, but neither does he support the Herodians by affirming total loyalty to Rome. Ironically, Jesus has truly taught the way of God despite the insincere flattery of his questioners (Matt. 22:16). W. Davies and Allison (1997: 218) correctly say that there is “no precise theory of governmental authority” in the aphorism of 22:21. Yet this passage is one of many biblical texts teaching that God’s providence places governments in authority and that believers ought to obey government as long as such obedience is not disobedient to God.
Charles Swindoll: Just as Caesar had minted coins with his likeness on them, God has placed His likeness on us (Gen. 1:26). As His image bearers, all humans owe Him our very selves. Physical, earthly treasures and powers are temporary. Why not give back to Caesar those trinkets of metal that have his image on them? God is much more concerned with what we do with the spiritual, eternal, heavenly dimensions of our lives. To give God the things that are God’s means to render to Him our whole being —to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5).
(:22) EPILOGUE – RETREAT IN DEFEAT
“And hearing this, they marveled, and leaving Him, they went away.”