Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Have you had your WOO-HOO moment? And I see some reactions that reveal knowledge of what I am talking about but also some blank expressions. So let me explain: Woo-hoo is a NZ company that helps people get a tax-refund from the IRD. And they advertise themselves on TV or in the paper using people who receive a refund having a Woo-Hoo moment, as in Woo-Hoo! Unexpected money!
Well, in a far more lofty and important and reverent way, never in the history of anything to do with taxation has there been a more significant Woo-Hoo moment than the one we have just read. In fact, the response of Jesus about rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is one of those lines in Scripture that has become an almost universally known phrase in many languages. It is so memorable and brilliant! We see from v17 that those present marvelled at Jesus but His response is still studied by philosophers and rhetoricians and sophists today as perhaps the supreme example of succinct wisdom that ever was spoken. The situation Jesus was in and truth taught in just 16 words make His response quite astonishing. Indeed, it is so astonishing that it will take me about 3500 words to explain it and I will not come close to saying everything that could be said about it.
• Well, having recently been through tax-return time, most of us know about paying income taxes. And then there is GST, special taxes on things like petrol, alcohol, and tobacco, and fringe benefit tax; the list goes on.
• And in recent years, the government has brought in new rules about charitable organisations, like churches, which have tax implications.
• My daughter, recently, learned about the fact that you can tell the IRD how much you have given to the church, and provide a receipt, and get 1/3rd of the amount back as a kind of tax refund. And in her mind that was just crazy. Her logic goes – you give money to the Lord and then you get 1/3rd of it back from the government? So that was an interesting conversation. Is she right?
• In some countries, ministers, because of the nature of their work, don’t pay income tax. In other countries, like NZ, they do. Should they? Or not?
• Part of our income taxes go toward the health system which aborts babies. So should we stop paying our taxes?
Well, one thing is for sure and that is that you have not come here today for a lecture on taxation or to get answers to every ethical question you have about taxes. So rest assured, I do not intend to work though a list of issues like the ones I have mentioned and give you the Christian answer for each one. Our focus today, as always, is the person and saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is a very real question about tax that provides us with the opportunity to hear Him speak today.
For in this passage, JESUS TURNS A TRICKY TAX QUESTION INTO A TEACHING OPPORTUNITY. And what we will do is to briefly consider the context of this conversation and then some of the background details of the question these Jewish leaders ask. And then we shall be ready to consider Jesus’ response under two headings: Our LIMITED obligation to the GOVERNMENT and our UNLIMITED obligation to GOD.
But first of all the CONTEXT and the BACKGROUND DETAILS.
We are in a series of events that began with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week and ends on Friday with His crucifixion. So it began with the crowds adoring Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord and it will end with them crying out for Him to be crucified. And this series of events is how the situation gets from there to there; we need to see that this tax question and answer also is a part of why the crowds end up wanting Him crucified. As we said at the start of this series of events, the people think Jesus has arrived in order to overthrow the Romans. But what has He done in Jerusalem since then? The clearing of the temple and the answer to the question about authority and the parable have all been aimed not at the Romans but at the Jewish leaders. And this will continue with this tax question and answer today. For now, as we see from v12, the Jewish leaders still fear the people because they are sympathetic towards Jesus. But that is changing. Let’s see how:
1. Jesus is approached by the PHARISEES and the HERODIANS, who, as we noted last Sunday, were political parties. The Pharisees were opposed to Roman rule and the Herodians were sympathetic towards Roman rule. The Pharisees dislike Jesus because He has exposed their pride and self-righteousness. The Herodians dislike Jesus because they see Him as a threat. So despite the fact that they despise one another, their opposition to Jesus unites them.
2. And one thing we must give them credit for is that they are QUICK LEARNERS. Those of you here last Sunday afternoon will remember the first conversation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders as we see it in 11:27-33. Jesus asked them a question in v30. And as they weighed up their response, they could see that whatever answer they gave would get them into trouble. So now they try this exact same tactic with Jesus. And we can well imagine them congratulating themselves on being so very clever. They have Him, this time, surely! Whichever answer He gives, He will be in trouble. So let’s see why this is so.
a. In A.D. 6, a CENSUS was undertaken. And boys and girls, a census is when you count everyone living in the country. It happens here in NZ every three years. Every house in NZ will receive a form and you have to fill it out listing everyone who is living in the house on that night. Well, this was done in A.D. 6 so that the Romans could know how many people to tax and what the income would be.
i. And the Greek word translated as ‘taxes’ in v14 is kainsos, which through Latin and into English is Census. That’s why we know which tax is being referred to here.
b. Well, as you can imagine, THE JEWS HATED PAYING THIS TAX TO CAESAR. It was an annual reminder that they were subject to Rome. So as we said last Sunday, many people did everything they could to avoid paying the tax, including what we would call terrorist type activities toward tax-collectors.
i. In Acts 5:37, we read about a time after Jesus’ ascension when the Jewish authorities were trying to work out how to shut down the preaching of the apostles. And we are told about what one of the Pharisees, Gamaliel, said during their discussions. He reminded them about Judas the Galilean who appeared in the day of the census (referring to A.D. 6) and led a band of people in revolt. He was killed and all his followers scattered. So Gamaliel’s advice was to leave the apostles alone because they would probably fizzle out like Judas had done.
ii. You get a sense then of the turmoil and upset that existed among the Jews about this tax.
iii. And it wasn’t just a financial thing or a being-subject-to-Rome thing, either. THE COIN that Jesus asked for was the common Denarius. On one side it had the head of Caesar Tiberius and on the other it had a picture of him seated on a throne. On one side it said, “Tiberius Caesar, son of Divine Augustus,” suggesting that Caesar was a god, and on the other side it said, “Pontifex Maximus,” which means ‘High Priest,’ claiming that Caesar was the highest religious figure in the Empire.
A. You boys and girls will know whose head we have on our money, right? It’s the Queen’s head, isn’t it. And this is in recognition of her being the reigning monarch of NZ. And we are fine with that. But imagine if on the money she claimed to be god and the head of the church!!!
B. So you can imagine how upsetting this was for the Jews who were commanded to worship God alone and not to worship images – the first and second commandments of the 10 Commandments. To them, then, this very coin was an out and out idolatry. It was an abomination.
c. So as I said earlier, being quick learners, these Jewish leaders have come up with what surely must be the perfect trap: They say to Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” If Jesus says ‘No,’ the crowds will be very pleased but the Herodians can run off to Herod and the Roman authorities and submit evidence of Him being a treasonous rebel. But if he says ‘Yes,’ then the crowds will be very disappointed.
d. And before we unpack the significance of Jesus’ answer, at its most basic level, WAS JESUS’ ANSWER ‘YES’ OR ‘NO’? Was He saying pay the tax or don’t pay it? It was ‘Yes,’ wasn’t it. He was saying pay the tax. For most of the people there, if not all of them, what they heard, from the one they hoped would lead the overthrow of Rome, was pay Caesar’s tax. You begin to see then why the crowd goes from praising Him at the beginning of the week to wanting Him crucified on Friday. He is not the Messiah they want, after all.
But if that is all we hear in Jesus’ answer then we miss a whole lot! So with all that has been said in mind let’s think about the implications of what Jesus said under the first of our two headings, which is OUR LIMITED OBLIGATION TO THE GOVERNMENT.
I. Having asked them whose likeness and inscription was on the coin and having heard them reply, “Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
A. And note firstly the word Jesus uses, “RENDER.” In Greek it is apo-didohmee – literally, give back. And the implication is clear – the coin belongs to Caesar so give it back to him. There is a sense of debt here; of paying what’s owed. You Jews walk on roads paved by the Roman treasury. You are protected by soldiers paid by the Roman treasury. You drink water from aqueducts paid for out of the Roman treasury. So if you receive the benefits of Rome, you have to pay Rome’s taxes.
B. And as we continue into the NT, we see more that fills out what Jesus teaches here. And I am sure that many of you will know which passage we are going to turn to next? Turn with me please to Romans 13:1 (p. 948).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 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.
1. As v1 explains, civil government is established by God. It is by the sovereign plan and appointment of God that Elizabeth is NZ’s Queen and that Prime-minister John Key and the National Party and its coalition partners govern NZ and that Jerry Mataparae is the Governor General and that Leanne Dalziel is the mayor of CHCH and that the NZ police and the court system oversee law and order in NZ. And we are to render to the civil authorities of NZ the things that are the NZ civil authorities’. Tax, revenue, obedience, respect, and honour are to be given to lawful authority.
a. We may not cheat on our tax returns.
b. We are to obey the speed limit and we are not to text while driving.
c. We vote when elections are held
d. We serve as jurors when we are called to do so
e. And we serve in the army to defend NZ, for example.
f. And we do so because civil government is established by God.
C. But there is a second reason why we do this, which is spelled out for us in 1 PETER 2:13-15 (p. 1015).
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.
1. You see, there were then and there have been since those who accuse Christians of being bad citizens. So Peter says, pay your taxes and obey the laws of the land so Christianity’s critics can say nothing bad about you in this respect.
a. This was the EXAMPLE of the Lord Jesus Christ; He was a good citizen who obeyed the laws and paid His taxes (as you will see from Matt. 17).
b. But also, your fellow citizens who do not yet believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins are not likely to listen to you SHARE THE GOSPEL if you speed down your street doing wheelies, without wearing a seat-belt, and brag about how you avoid paying taxes, and call the police the ‘pigs’ and mouth of about the Prime-minister and have kids who run round the neighbourhood smashing the letter-boxes and painting John 3:16 graffiti everywhere. Right? So the very gospel is at stake in this matter!
D. And remember also, just in case you are forming this objection in your mind, that the Roman government that Jesus and Paul and Peter were talking about was a morally and religiously CORRUPT GOVERNMENT. But that did not exempt God’s people from their obligations as citizens. So, neither can we convince ourselves that we are free to break the law or not pay our taxes because we disagree with what the NZ government is doing.
II. And yet, having said all of that, I have entitled this point Our LIMITED Obligation to the Government. So what are the limits of this obligation?
A. Well, earlier in the service we read the story of SHADRACH, MESHACH, AND ABEDNEGO. It is an incredible story, isn’t it boys and girls! S/M/A though refused to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, even though a law had been passed requiring everyone to do so. They didn’t know if they would survive the fiery furnace but what they did know is that it was wrong to worship another god. So they refused to obey that law.
B. And in Acts 5, we read about a time that the Jewish leaders commanded the Apostle Peter not to preach about Jesus anymore. But listen to how Peter responded: He said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter, at pain of death, would not obey that law because it was contrary to the command of Christ.
1. So, if the Queen or the Prime-minister was to claim to be God and require us to worship her or him, or else be killed, I trust that you and I would be in the group that says, Jesus Christ is our only God and Lord. You, we cannot worship. We would rather die.
2. And, if the government forbids us from worshipping God or preaching the good news about Jesus, I trust that you and I will be in the group that says, We must obey God rather than man, as we continue to worship God and preach Christ.
a. And to give you a concrete example, I am officially recognized, by the government, as someone who can officiate at marriages. But if a law was passed requiring me, as a minister, to marry two homosexuals, or be imprisoned, I would not be able to obey that law even though it meant imprisonment.
As Christians then, we have a limited obligation to the government.
And we have already begun to see why it is limited as we continue with our second and last heading, which is our UNLIMITED OBLIGATION TO GOD.
Jesus continues, “And [render] to God the things that are God’s.” Like every other Caesar and king and Prime-minister and governor, Tiberius came and went, both from public office, and, eventually, from life itself. But as we remember from Pastor Wynja, God is, is! The God of the Bible is without beginning and end. He is eternal God. And as Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Romans 11:36 says, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever.” And of course, Jesus, the man who speaks these words in the presence of the Jewish leaders and the crowds is the Son of God who with God is eternal and deserving of all glory and honour – Colossians 1:16, “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Rightly then may we paraphrase Jesus in this way: Give to Caesar his silly little coins! BUT!!!! GIVE TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S!!!
I. And so, as we have already seen, this is a warning to Caesar and to every other civil authority, including ours here in NZ, to KNOW THEIR PLACE. Jesus warns them here not to claim honour that does not belong to them or to interfere where they have no business interfering.
II. But what are the things that are God’s that we must give to Him?
A. Well, we could say EVERYTHING for, as we heard a moment ago, Psalm 24:1 teaches us that everything belongs to the Lord.
B. But seeking some more concrete examples: PSALM 96:8 says, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts!” And the first Commandment is clear about this also: “You shall have no other gods before me.” We are to worship God and God alone.
C. 1 COR. 16:1-2 says, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside … as he may prosper.” So during our worship services, we give to God the things that are His. Out of thankfulness for our great salvation in Jesus, we worship Him by giving Him His tithe and our offerings.
D. 1 COR. 6:18-20 says, “Flee sexual immorality … you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body.” We give to God the things that are God’s when we keep sex within marriage.
E. And finally, to show just how all-encompassing this command of the Lord Jesus is, consider 1 COR. 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
1. So boys and girls, when you eat the broccoli that you don’t really like, because Dad told you it is good for you and you must eat it, and you know the Lord wants you to obey Dad, you are eating to the glory of God; you are giving to God the things that are God’s.
2. And brothers and sisters, when you, unseen by anyone else, pick up a few discarded lolly wrappers that others have thrown onto the floor during a church service, because you want to serve others in the same selfless, humble way that Jesus Christ served you, you are giving to God the things that are God’s.
I trust you have seen, then, how Jesus Turns a Tricky Tax Question Into a Teaching Opportunity. We believers have a limited obligation to the government and an unlimited obligation to God. And we pay our taxes and we obey the laws of the land and we do all to the glory of God because of what is on display at the this table spread before us. Jesus “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” In Him, we have the complete forgiveness of all our sins. So “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” He is the Lord of all glory. He is why we “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Amen.