In an attempt to trap Jesus, His enemies asked Him whether it was right to pay taxes to the emperor. Continuing his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul explains what Christ’s famous response teaches us about our responsibility before God and human government.
We will continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. We will be reading from Luke 20:19–26. I ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
This record of an attempt by the authorities to trap Jesus in a question they could use against Him is given to us through the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and bears the stamp of the authority of God Himself. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.
Our Father, as we consider this text, we pray that You would stoop to our weakness, the frailty of our understanding, and give clarity to the meaning of what was taught by our Lord. We pray that our hearts, unlike those who were questioning Him, would not be set against Him but would receive Him gladly. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
The Rulers’ Hypocrisy
This portion of the gospel of Luke immediately follows the parable Jesus taught about the wicked tenants. He talked about that “stone of offense” that would be the chief cornerstone of His church, about which people would stumble. If they continued in their offense against that stone, the stone itself would crush them. So, in response to that parable, the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the officers of the Sanhedrin determined to trap Him in order to get rid of Him altogether.
We read in chapter 20 that the scribes and priests sought to lay hands on Him in that very hour because they perceived He told this parable against them. This was not a profound perception. How could they miss the implication of the parable that Jesus had just told them that was aimed at them?
In their fury, indignation, and rage, the rulers did not want to wait until Friday. They wanted to take Him right then. We are told that they sent spies to listen to Jesus, armed with questions to trap Him, but there was a pretense about them. We read that they pretended to be sincere, the very definition of hypocrisy. Their hypocrisy involved wearing a mask, cloaking insincerity, dishonesty, and an internal and invisible hatred. They carried on their pretense, dripping praise like syrup from their lips as they came to Him in great aplomb.
In their pretense of sincerity, the spies said: “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach rightly. We know that. We know, as Nicodemus has said before, that You’re a teacher sent from God, or You wouldn’t be able to do the things You can do. We understand who You are. We know that You wouldn’t teach any false doctrine, but You teach rightly.”
That is a pretty good mask of insincerity, because if the spies really knew that Jesus only had the ability and capacity to teach what is right, they would not be asking this question at all, but some other question. If you had the opportunity to ask Jesus any question at all—one chance, one opportunity—what would you ask Him?
I have so many questions up my sleeve that I cannot wait to go to heaven and ask, but I certainly would not ask Him about paying taxes to Caesar. There are different, more difficult questions to ask, but they chose that one because they were insincere, and because they did not believe that Jesus only told that which is right. They said, “You show no partiality, but You truly teach the way of God.”
Let me stop right there. If you find somebody behaving poorly in the Bible, let a bell go off in your head, because it probably represents you. We do not like to think of ourselves as being among the Pharisees and those who cleverly disguise their distaste for Jesus, but we are probably more like these people than those who truly believed that Jesus spoke the truth of God. If you believe that Jesus spoke the truth of God, if you really believe that, how might your life change? Secretly and inwardly, we have serious questions about whether Jesus spoke the truth about God.
Why Did the Religious Authorities Hate Jesus?
Before we get to the essence of this text and the question they raised to Jesus, I would like to ask a question of my own: Why did these religious authorities hate Jesus so much? When you talk to unbelievers today, they usually are very complimentary of Jesus. They will say: “I don’t believe that He was the Messiah or the Son of God, but Jesus was certainly a great person. He was a great teacher. Maybe He was a prophet,” and so on. Why did these authorities speak and feel the way they did, with such hostility towards Jesus?
I cannot give you all the answers about why they were motivated in this way, but before I get to the center of the text, I will suggest three reasons the religious authorities hated Jesus so much.
They Were Jealous of Him
The first reason I can suggest is this: the authorities were insanely jealous of Him. Why would they be jealous of the Son of God? Everywhere Jesus went He attracted huge throngs, multitudes, and crowds pressing around to listen to His every word, watching His every move. He was profoundly popular among the people.
The rulers of the Jews laid heavy burdens on their people. They approached the masses, the people of the earth, with a spirit of contempt. They looked down their noses toward the people. They would not think of having dinner with a tax collector. Jesus freely associated with what the Pharisees considered to be rabble.
The people loved Jesus and received Him gladly, but they felt judgment from the Pharisees. They felt that the only thing the Pharisees looked at was their sin. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had a certain contempt for the common people. However, they saw Jesus associating with the people, who cheered and loved Him. The Pharisees could not stand it because they were jealous.
He Exposed Them
The second reason I think the rulers hated Jesus was because He exposed them. Before Jesus came, the Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees and scribes, set the moral standard for the community. They sat in the highest places in the synagogue. They were the ones most honored and celebrated for their virtue, but their virtue itself, as Jesus taught repeatedly, was a pretense. It was external.
Jesus said: “You’re like dead men’s tombs, whited sepulchers painted without blemish on the surface, but inside filled with dead men’s bones. You clean the outside of the platter, but the inner side is filthy. You do everything possible to hide that impurity, grime, and filthiness from public view. You pretend to be righteous, and you don’t just pretend to be righteous, but you major in that pretense of being righteous. That’s why you’re called Pharisees, the ‘set apart ones.’”
The Pharisees started as a group in the intertestamental period. They were upset because the people were abandoning the purity of the covenant they had made with God and were being lax in their morality and in their obedience to the commandments of God. So, the Pharisees said, “We’re going to come together and draw apart from the common masses, and we’re going to set a moral example.” These were the conservatives of the day.
The Pharisees had a high system of honor and virtue and committed themselves to obeying God. One sect among the Pharisees believed that if they could keep every law God gave in the Old Testament for twenty-four hours, it would prompt God to send the Messiah to Israel. But many things happened between the formation of the Pharisees and when they appeared in the New Testament, where they masqueraded as devotees of righteousness and obedience.
In a word, the Pharisees were counterfeit. They were fake. They were phony, and nothing ever reveals the distortion of the counterfeit like the presence of the genuine. You can fool some people some of the time and most people all the time, but you cannot fool all people all the time.
When Jesus walked the earth and manifested true righteousness and holiness before the eyes of the people, it did not take brilliance to discern the difference between the real and the counterfeit. So, the Pharisees were exposed, and because they were exposed by the true and authentic holiness of Christ, they could not wait to get rid of Him, and they hated Him.
Recently I preached at a funeral of a dear friend of mine who had often talked to me about things of God and had once asked me this question: “R.C., does Jesus grade on a curve?” After almost fifty years of being in the classroom with students in university and seminary, I understand what it means to grade on a curve. You grade on a curve when you are a bad teacher and give a bad examination, such that everybody flunks the exam.
The old axiom is that if the students did not learn, the teacher did not teach. Because we must cover our own failures, we decide to admit: “My test wasn’t exactly fair, so I’m going to grade it on a curve. If you’ve made an F, and it was a high enough F, I may grade it up to a C or a B.” There is a formula for doing that.
To break the curve means, in a classroom full of thirty students, twenty-nine of them flunk the test, and one student makes a ninety-eight. Every time I have seen that happen in the classroom, the student who made the ninety-eight would sit there with a smile, and I might say, “So-and-so made a ninety-eight in this test.” Then would the rest of the students get to their feet and begin to applaud and cheer that student? No, that never happens. They would not be able to stand the person who broke the curve.
I told my friend at the time: “No, the bad news is Jesus doesn’t grade on a curve. A lot of people think He will, but there is no curve. The good news is that He broke the curve, but He broke it for us.” That was the point of Jesus. He broke the curve, but just like normal students cannot stand somebody who breaks the curve, so the Pharisees hated Him because He exposed their failure.
They Were Afraid
The third reason I think the Pharisees hated Jesus is because they were afraid. They were afraid not so much of what He would do in His wrath to them, but afraid of the consequences of welcoming Him in their midst. Why were they afraid? Look at the history. In almost every generation of Jewish people going back to Abraham, the people lived under the domination and oppression of a foreign nation.
You have heard of the Pax Romana, and there was also the Pax Israelia. The Pax Israelia, or the peace of Israel, was always extremely short-lived. Almost always, the people were conquered, living under the oppression and tyranny of their enemies, like Rome in this case.
Throughout Jewish history there had always been those committed to revolution, who wanted to throw off the yoke of tyranny of the foreigners who held them captive. You see one revolt after another in the history of Israel, and one revolt after another being quashed by the power of the enemy.
Numbered among Jesus’s disciples were people called zealots. There were at least two of them, probably more, in the company of Jesus. It was the goal of the zealots, like Jihad today, to free their people from oppression by Rome. If you were in a position of authority and power, as the Sanhedrin members were, you feared the consequences of a revolt against Rome. That is on almost every page of the New Testament.
The authorities feared the Romans. They feared that Jesus would lead an insurrection, cause another uprising, and consequently bring a bloodbath on the people. So, rather than shoot Him in the front of His chest, they wanted to shoot Him in the back.
Around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, I was invited to give a series of lectures in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, Romania, and a week of lectures at a Reformed seminary in Budapest, Hungary.
I heard a little bit of the background of this seminary. It was called a Reformed seminary, but during the entirety of their occupation by the Soviet powers, the people there had no exposure to Reformed theology. This Reformed group in Hungary was ruled by bishops, and one of the first things the communists did when they conquered the nation was to undermine the clergy and get them in their pockets.
By way of collaboration, virtually every one of the bishops bowed down before the communist rulers and surrendered their faith. Not only did they surrender their faith, but they also expelled anybody in their midst who was faithful to biblical theology.
One of the professors who defended the authority of the Bible was summarily expelled from the faculty because the communist rulers did not want to hear that, and the bishops played right into their hands. In a short time, the whole faculty of the seminary was under the thumb of the communist rulers and their regime.
They still had a bronze bust of John Calvin on the staircase between the floors of the seminary. The unusual thing about this bust of Calvin was that its head was inordinately shiny. The reason it was so shiny was because there was a tradition among the students that when they had to go for an examination, they would pause in the staircase and rub their hand over the head of John Calvin for luck. Can you imagine the incongruity of that? If there is any man’s name in the history of the church more disassociated with the concept of luck, it was John Calvin. But the students would stop at nothing to gain some advantage in taking their examination, so they rubbed old John Calvin’s head on their way to the exam.
There were decades in which not a single word of orthodoxy was taught in this institution. Then I was invited to come and lecture for six hours a day for five days on the inspiration, authority, and infallibility of the Bible. There had been nobody remotely close to that position in decades to appear as a professor in this environment. I came when the faculty was as hostile as they possibly could be. As well as the bishops, there were a couple hundred pastors there. It was my task to give an apologetic for the defense of sacred Scripture.
It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life, because when I would invite questions from the faculty, not a mumbling word was ever asked. They opened not their mouths. The pastors would come up in tears and say: “I knew that the Bible was the Word of God, but I just couldn’t defend that. Not in this environment.”
Around the time of the Hungarian Revolution, parents were forbidden to pray with their children. It was the law of the government. In school, the children were asked, “Did your parents pray with you?” If the children said, “Yes,” the parents would be incarcerated because prayer was forbidden.
Do you understand how, during the Nazi regime, most of the pastors in Germany succumbed? There were those who did not, who were martyrs and were heroic in their defiance of the Third Reich. Or in Stalin’s Russia, how many of the bishops of the Orthodox Church surrendered their faith because they did not want to be martyred?
In a similar way, the Pharisees said, “If we let Jesus continue with what He’s teaching, we’re at risk.” Caiaphas would say a few days later, “It is expedient that one man die for the good of the nation” (John 11:50). What was he thinking about? “If we don’t get rid of Jesus, we’re going to have the Roman government on our back. We’ll have another revolution, another blood bath, and it will be a holocaust for us.” They did not want to be associated with the One troubling Israel.
So many times when Christians stand their ground and receive arrows, the arrows are shot into the Christians’ back rather than their front, because their brothers and sisters do not want them to rock the boat and bring the wrath of their enemies upon them—remember that as we follow in the footsteps of Christ. So it was that the rulers hated and despised Jesus, for those reasons and perhaps others.
Is It Lawful to Pay Taxes?
Finally, the spies got to their point, and they brought their question before Jesus: “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar or not?”
“Is it okay for us to pay our taxes? We know that our taxes are used for lots of things that aren’t good. We know that our taxes are used to support evildoing, and so is it important for us to refuse to pay our taxes? What does a godly person do?” That kind of question was wrapped up with implications, so they made it simple. “Is it lawful for us, from God’s perspective, to pay our taxes to Caesar?”
Jesus was never one to give a simple answer of yes or no. He again returned a question with a question. He said, “Does anybody here have a Denarius?” A Denarius was a coin the value of basically one day’s labor for a working person in Israel. Somebody there had a Denarius and brought it before Jesus, and Jesus said to that person: “Whose image is on that coin? Whose likeness is found on the Denarius?” So, he answered by saying, “Caesar’s.”
If you were to look at a Denarius at the time Jesus was doing His ministry publicly, the emperor in Rome’s name was Tiberius. He was the son of Augustus Caesar, who was emperor when Jesus was born, but now the authority had passed to Tiberius.
Jesus said, “Whose image is on that coin?” On one side of the Denarius, the name and picture was that of Tiberius, and it said in Latin, “Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus.” Do not miss that. “Tiberius Caesar, the divine son of Caesar Augustus.” On the other side of the coin were simply the words Pontiff Maximus.
Do you know what a pontiff is? He is the Pope or a priest, and in this case the inscription on the coin meant, “the highest priest.” Not just a priest, not just a high priest, but the superlative priest, the highest priest. So, Tiberius Caesar, like his predecessor, considered himself a god. It said on the coin, “Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.”
It might have said on the coin, “Son of the deceased Augustus.” Our pastoral prayers often start by recognizing some of the attributes of God: “God, You are eternal, You are infinite, You are immutable.” This “god” Augustus was not eternal, he was not infinite, and he was not immutable. He suffered the mutation of dying.
We say about Jesus, “Thou art our only Great High Priest.” Jesus is in a class by Himself as our supreme High Priest. Tiberius Caesar and Augustus Caesar had no capacity and no power to intercede before God for us. The task of being our Great High Priest falls to Jesus and to Jesus alone.
So, Jesus said: “You see the picture. You can read the words, ‘Son of the divine Augustus, supreme high priest.’ Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Even Unjust Taxes Must Be Paid
When God established government and held governors responsible for how they administer justice, He gave government the authority and right to levy taxes. Governments have always gone overboard with how they levy taxes. We understand that in history, many programs of taxation have been confiscatory, oppressive, and unjust, creating awesome burdens upon the people. It was typical of the rulers of antiquity, as it is today, to impose burdens upon the people through taxation.
The question was, “Should we pay our taxes?” The New Testament is very clear. Even if the taxes are unjust, even if they are confiscatory, even if they are oppressive, it is our obligation to pay them.
One word of caution: do not ever help enact an unjust tax. If you are a Christian, do not ever vote for a tax on your neighbor that is not on yourself. Christians do it every time they go to the polls. They will vote for a tax on you that is not on them, and they contribute to the oppression and injustice. God does not give you the right to do that. The government might give you the right to do that, but God does not.
In the meantime, even though the tax may be unfair, I must pay it. We read in the beginning of the Christmas story that in the days of Caesar Augustus, a decree went out that all should be enrolled going to their own city. Enrolled for what? For purposes of taxation. Caesar Augustus said that all people had to go to the town they were born in to register for that tax.
Joseph, who was with Mary, who was pregnant, stood up and said: “Not me. I’m not going to Bethlehem. My wife’s going to have the Messiah, and my wife might die, and the baby may die on that difficult trek from here to Bethlehem.” No, that’s not what he said. It was unjust, it was oppressive, and it was unfair, but Joseph said, “Mary, we’re going to Bethlehem.”
It does not matter if it is unfair or inconvenient. The only time we have the right to disobey the authorities is if they command us to do something God forbids or forbid us from doing something God commands. So, Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” It was not a popular message, but then He went on to say, “and render to God the things that are God’s.”
Give God His Due
Caesar commanded a loyalty oath to the Roman Empire from each person in the empire. The loyalty oath was simply that every person had to stand up in the square and say, “Kaisar Kyrios, Caesar is Lord.” The first confession of the Christian church in the first century was Iēsous Kyrios: “We’ll pay our taxes. We’ll drive our chariots within the speed limit, but we will not say Kaisar Kyrios, because you are not the Lord—Jesus is Lord.”
For that reason, Christians became human torches illumining the gardens of Nero and fodder for the lions and gladiators in the Colosseum, because they knew who the Lord was. They said: “I render unto God the things that are God’s. I don’t worship the government. I don’t worship Caesar—Tiberius, Augustus, Julius—any of them. We worship God and God alone. We understand that our High Priest, who gave the perfect sacrifice once for all to redeem our sins, was not Tiberius or Augustus Caesar; it was Jesus who paid the price for our redemption.”
So, Jesus answered: “Give Caesar his due. He’s due taxes, but not worship. He doesn’t intercede for you or make atonement for you. Those things are to be given to God.” In the presence of the people, we are told, the spies were not able to catch Him, but they marveled at His answer and remained silent.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.