“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (verse 17)
This was a trick question, designed to trap Jesus into making a statement that was guaranteed to get Him into trouble, either with His ‘fan club’ (the ordinary people who hated above all things having to pay taxes to their Roman overlords) or with the Romans themselves (who could be relied upon to take a harsh line against anyone fomenting rebellion). But Jesus’ reply not only avoided the trap; it also laid down a principle by which Christians ever since have tried to balance their religious and social obligations: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”(verse 21)
Christians and the State (Romans 13:1-7)
Every group of human beings must have some kind of leadership and social organisation. God does not prescribe or prohibit any particular form of government; but the principle of government is backed up by His mandate (John 19:11). It is the State’s job to regulate society to enable it to run smoothly, to restrain and punish evil, and to provide various public services. All these functions have to be paid for – and so taxation is inevitable.
All the writers of the New Testament are unanimous: Christians must be model citizens who pay their taxes and fulfil all other reasonable obligations (I Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1). This is not unthinking allegiance or cringing servitude, but voluntary Christian submission. We do not submit because the authorities ‘know best’ or because they have an intrinsically greater worth than the ordinary man, but because our authority (God) requires it of us.
The coinage ‘belongs’ to the State because it bears the image of the head of state; it is their stamp of ownership. So we, who bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26), belong by rights to Him. On top of this, Christians have been “bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:19,20) and belong to God in an even more intimate way. This does not mean that, as “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20), we can cut ourselves off from our ordinary obligations in secular society. But we must always remember that we have a higher authority than ‘Queen and country’.
We owe “Caesar” taxes, basic respect, and obedience to the rule of law – but not anything and everything without qualification or criticism. There are some things that the State cannot ask of us.
A conflict of loyalties? (Proverbs 24:21,22)
We are commanded to “fear God and the king” – and normally there is no problem resolving the two. But the fact that government has been instituted by God does not preserve it from abusing its power and becoming the tool of Satan. We therefore submit to it insofar as it operates under its divine mandate (Romans 13:3,4), but fight against it when it attempts to usurp God’s place (Revelation 13:7,8). In the first century, Christians refused to worship Caesar and were persecuted as a result; in the 20th century, Christians again suffered in the USSR and Eastern Europe when the State tried to enforce atheism. If the State commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then it is God we must obey (Acts 5:29). So, for example, the Hebrew midwives stood up to Pharaoh when commanded to kill all baby boys at birth (Exodus 1:15-19), and Daniel’s three friends refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s order to worship an idol (Daniel 3). Such disobedience can entail considerable personal cost.