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By Stephen Green (First published in Christian Voice: May 2005)
Mat 22:15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.
Mat 22:16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.
Mat 22:17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
Mat 22:18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
Mat 22:19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
Mat 22:20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
Mat 22:21 They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
Mat 22:22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
It was one of those occasions where hostile Pharisees in Jerusalem tried to trip Jesus up with a seemingly impossible dilemma. The woman in adultery was another such. (See article in index) The woman and the brothers in the resurrection which was demanded immediately after this of Caesar was one as well, although it was a much poorer test.
Here, if the Lord had said, “Yes, it’s just fine to pay taxes,” he would have put the people against Him, and if He had said, “No, don’t pay it,” He would be reported to the Roman Governor. So what can He do. The answer startled them, and echoes down the ages.
“Whose is this image and superscription?” he asked. The only possible reply was “Caesar’s.” The coin was the denarius, worth a day’s wages. Then he said, “Render therefore unto Caesar’s the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
There are those who believe that this verse limits God. There is the realm of Caesar, which is the material world, or the political world, in this way of thinking, and this realm of Caesar is over here. Then there is the spiritual world, which is what God is concerned with, and that is over there. And never the twain shall meet, and God should just butt out of what appertains to Caesar. More particularly, they argue, you Christians, or even, sad to say, some of them say ‘us Christians’, must keep our noses out of anything political and keep our focus on those higher, spiritual matters, which is what God is interested in.
HOW MUCH BELONGS TO GOD?
Does that for a moment stack up? I don’t think so. For a start, we have to render unto God the things that are God’s. So how many things are God’s? A quick look at Psalm 24 shows that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” That is everything. Is it just inanimate objects that are the Lord’s? No, “the world, and they that dwell therein.”
So every single thing is God’s, and if we render unto God the things that are God’s, we render unto God everything. We are to give to Caesar merely the coins which enable Caesar to govern. This verse does not limit God at all. It limits Caesar.
Indeed, if Christians had to keep out of talking about public affairs, then what were the prophets doing? Isaiah was in the government. Jeremiah was at home in the company of kings and not shy to give advice which the Lord had given him. The idea that they should keep quiet about the big questions of their day would have shocked Amos and Hosea, and would have made no difference to them in fact they would have prophesied against it, just as Zephaniah did:
Zep 1:12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.
The men spoken of by Zephaniah had the same approach to those who say today that God is not interested in the realm of ‘Caesar’. They thought God was far distant, if alive at all, and was not in any way involved with the affairs of men.
GOD’S PLUMBLINE HASN’T CHANGED
It is possible to find really high-up evangelicals, let alone ministers of the established church and all shades in between, talking of ‘the secular’ or our ‘liberal democracy’ as if the public domain owes nothing to God whatsoever. But if God is capable today of doing good and doing evil to a nation, as Zephaniah says He was then, we Christians ought to be out there with Amos’s plumbline, measuring our laws and our practices to see if they accord with those of God, mindful of what He did to the gentile cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the gentile nations of Canaan, and the empires of Nineveh and Babylon. And we should be warning our nation.
Paul gave a description of the functions of rulers in Romans 13, writing under Roman occupation:
Rom 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
Rom 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Rom 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
Rom 13:6 For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Rom 13:7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
SEPARATE STATE FROM CHURCH, BUT NOT FROM GOD
He is speaking of the keeping of law and order almost exclusively. Government today tries to do a lot more, and gets a lot more wrong. Caesar is interfering into things which are not his concern, and we have a duty to say so. And when the state actively starts to do evil, it is certainly time to warn that Caesar is overstepping his mark.
The main point is that just as each individual is responsible to God for his actions, and each family, and every church, so is every nation state. Each of those “spheres”, to borrow from Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty”, derives its authority from Almighty God alone. Church might in one important sense be separate from State, but neither can separate itself from God.
So keep in your place, Caesar, stay out of what is not your business, and stick to what God has ordained you to do.