Summary: Giving unto God those things that belong to God is a bit tougher than we think!
“A pickup full of Manure”
To understand this text we need to understand the Herodian philosophy. As these men came to try to “catch” Jesus in his words we know that their intentions were evil. The Herodians were likely part of the court of king Herod who supported his kingship (probably because it added to their power). They had chosen to sit under the puppet kings in hopes of one day being freed by Rome to be a power all their own.
Therefore, when these men come to do some word-jousting with Christ, along with the Pharisees, it is likely that they were looking for Jesus to speak some treasonous and rebellious words in order to get him into hot water with the Roman government. If that didn’t work, then the flipside was that the people, who resented Roman rule, would turn against Jesus if he was supportive of the government, especially in relation to taxes.
Jesus publicly stated that he saw the trap that they had placed for him. Yet he took the time to respond to the question. He held up a coin and declared that what belongs to Caeser should be given unto Caeser and what belongs to God should be given unto God.
Most people focus on the concept that Jesus was saying that Christians should be good citizens and pay their taxes. Although this is a true statement and is amplified by the apostle Paul in Romans 13, this was not the focus of Jesus’ statement. Jesus always focused on spiritual application and this is no exception.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem the crowds gathered shouting Messianic phrases and clichés, much as they had when Judah Maccabees entered Jerusalem in about 165 B.C. in an attempt to restore levitical worship. Maccabee had been seen as a Messiah and the people assumed that Jesus had come to free them from the oppression of the Roman government. However, Jesus did not go to the governor’s mansion. He did not march up to the Roman army barracks. Instead, the first place he went was the temple. The fervor of the people died away as they realized that Jesus did not consider himself to be a military champion but was more along the lines of a religious reformer.
The next morning, Jesus cleared the temple of the moneychangers, etc. His zeal wasn’t for political upheaval and reform, but for spiritual revival. The Pharisees were concerned enough about this that they approached him and demanded to know by what authority he was doing these things. Jesus informed them that if they would tell him the source of John’s baptism (God or men) he would gladly respond to their question. This was the simplest test of spiritual discernment. The Pharisees, however, saw it as a trap. They refused to respond. Since they refused to demonstrate even an ounce of spiritual discernment, Jesus saw no need to respond to their question about authority. The message was clear to all around. They should not have had to ask about the authority of Christ, they should have been able to discern it.
Jesus hammered this point further in the first part of chapter 12 with the parable of the tenants. The Pharisees immediately recognized that the parable was about their response to the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus. They are embarrassed and angered, but powerless because they fear the crowds.
Later, when they approach him about the tax money, they admit that Jesus is:
1) a man of integrity
2) not swayed by public opinion
3) teaching God’s Word properly
Note, that these three descriptions of Christ, though offered through hypocrisy and deceit, are true about Christ and the exact opposite of the very people asking the question.
It was a politically divisive question. It was carefully calculated to either bring down upon Christ the power of the Roman government or to raise the ire of the people who deeply resented paying taxes to the occupying government. Jesus offers an answer that is more spiritual than it seems on the surface.
First, it was more spiritual because these people had taken God’s authority as their own. They had contrived their own interpretations and loopholes, etc. They had not given the glory to God that belonged to him. They had refused to abide by the concept of bringing glory to God through right living. Instead, they had sought to receive glory and honor of men by their own conduct. Throughout the gospel we are provided with images of the hypocrisy and unrighteous conduct of the Pharisees.
However, the spiritual implications are even stronger for believers today. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 6:19-20) Paul reminds the believer that he or she belongs to God. As believers, we belong to God, paid for with the terrible price of the incorruptible blood of Jesus Christ. Since our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, we should not use it for our own purposes. In I Corinthians 6 the application is primarily in regards to sexual sin.