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Christ Confounds with the Word of the Kingdom, Part 1: Render to Caesar

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 2, 1999

Matthew 22:15-22

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Mathew chapter 22. We've been looking at a set of three parables for the last few weeks, parables which Jesus taught against the religious leaders of Israel. That whole section of the gospel of Matthew accentuates the coming judgment of God against Israel because of the rejection of the Messiah. They have rejected Jesus' person and message, they had rejected the message of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, and they would be judged, this section of Matthew reminds us. These parables provide a spiritual diagnosis of the state of Israel at the time in which Jesus was preaching. We can see a picture of Israel’s spiritual problem in the very stories that Jesus tells.

But, these parables also provide us with poignant pictures of Jesus' invitation to repentance as He sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly calls upon the leaders of Israel to turn from their wicked ways, and to flee to Him. Today, we come to the first of a series of exchanges, continuing exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. These conflicts which are occurring now during the last days of Jesus' life, focus on His person and on His claim and on His teaching, and they show again Jesus' divine wisdom and goodness, while exposing the evil of those who oppose Him.

The passage that we are going to look at today contains one of Jesus' famous declarations, so let's turn to Matthew 22, we'll begin in verse 15. Let's hear God's holy word.

Matthew 22:15-22

Our Father, we know that this word is for us, so before our hearts and minds turn to the projects of casting judgment upon these religious leaders, let us remember that You have given us your word to search out our hearts and see how we stand before You. So this day, by Your Spirit, apply this truth to our own hearts in such a way that we are not only attentive hearers, but willing and joyful and thankful doers of the word. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.


This exchange between Jesus and the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians is an ugly picture of men, religious men, supposedly religious men, who have plotted together to try and rob God of His glory. And yet, in their very plot, in their very scheme to rob God of His glory, God is much glorified in the response of Jesus Christ. I'd like to look at two or three things in this passage with you.

It divides fairly simply into three parts, if you'd look at verses 15 through 17, you'll see the plot which has been hatched by the Pharisees and implemented by their disciples, the scribes. And then if you look at verses 18 through 21, you'll see Jesus' reply, His response, His rejoinder to that particular plot and question. And then, if you look at verse 22, you see the aftermath, and the aftermath of this particular plot is very very important for what Matthew is teaching us today. So I’d like to look at this passage with you and look at these three sections.

I. The unregenerate heart standing before truth flatters for advantage and schemes to destroy.

Let's begin with verses 15 through 17 where we see the Pharisees setting a trap for Jesus Christ. And even as we see them setting this trap, we are learning a very important message. And that message is this: the unregenerate heart can stand before the truth and still attempt to flatter for advantage and scheme to destroy. The unregenerate hearts of the Pharisees and their disciples are standing before the truth Himself, and yet their response to that truth is simply to flatter for their own advantage and to scheme to destroy Him. Bear that in mind as we look at this passage. The leaders of Israel had been strongly rebuked by Jesus Christ in the last three parables that we studied, and so being frustrated in that circumstance, being frustrated as I’m sure they felt shamed, in front of the people of Israel as Jesus spoke very directly about their sin and the wickedness of their hearts, they go off by themselves and they plot together to lay a trap for Jesus.

And their plan set forth here in verses 15 through 17 is basically to pose a question to Jesus that is going to put Him in danger. They want to ask a question to Jesus that if He answers publicly, no matter how He answers it, it is going to get Him in trouble, either with the government, or with the people. And they particularly don't care which, as long as He gets Himself one way or they other. They are looking for a way that they can trap Him and get rid of Him. If He alienates himself from the government, they can call on the government to arrest Him and to prosecute Him, and eventually to execute Him, if they can pin a serious enough charge on Him. If He gets himself in trouble with the people, they hope to alienate the people from Him as they expose His unpopular teachings.

Now, though, we're told in verses 15 through 17 that the Pharisees are doing the plotting, this time they themselves do not carry out the plot; they call on their disciples to go carry out the plot. They send them to do the work. Now perhaps their rationale was something like the following: maybe they thought that Jesus would be more sympathetic and unguarded if He was dealing with students rather than dealing with seasoned rabbis who were in opposition to Him with whom He had already clashed. Maybe they thought that by sending students, Jesus would be a little more careless with His words and response, and they might be able to catch Him in a trap. Or maybe they just thought, well, you know students, they love a good theological debate, and Jesus will know that, and so He'll think that they are just trying to pick a fight and perhaps He'll be a little bit careless when He responds. He won't be surprised by the fact that they want to engage in a debate, and so that will provide good cover for their plot to be hatched. Or, perhaps they were thinking that Jesus would think that younger disciples would be more likely to ask a sincere questions of Him, than would those hardened Pharisees, and so again, they would provide a cover for Jesus to be caught off guard as this particular question is asked to Him. Or, maybe it was just that they had had so much of Jesus that they did not want to go through the humiliation of having to ask a question of Him themselves.

For whatever reason, they send their disciples to ask this question, and to add even more potential danger to Jesus, this plot of the Pharisees was helped by the fact that not only their disciples went to speak to Jesus, but also a group called the Herodians. Now, the Pharisees and the Herodians hated one another.
The Herodians were the followers of Herod of Galilee. He was a ruler who was under the supervision and control of the Roman rulers in Palestine. He was part of a line of kings who stretched back to the Maccabean period in Israel’s history, at least they had a claim to that, and he hoped one day to be the ruler of Judea. And this group of Herodians, this was apparently a nickname of the people who supported Herod and his particular court and claim.

Now, they didn't get along with the Pharisees. The Pharisees at least claimed to love God's law, and claimed to be concerned about holiness and blasphemy and integrity, and various other issues connected with the roman rule and with the roman poll tax. The Pharisees were opposed to the poll tax on religious grounds. The Pharisees were very concerned about the religous claims of the Roman emperor, and even what was said on the coin which was used to pay the poll tax, even what was said about the Roman emperor on that coin. The Pharisees thought that those things that the Roman emperor claimed, and the things that were said about him on the coin used to pay the poll tax, were blasphemy! And so they often times agitated amongst their people about the poll tax.

Now, they didn't go as far as the zealots. The zealots wanted the people to take up arms and resist Rome, drive out the Romans, refuse to pay the poll tax. The Pharisees didn't go that far, but they were sympathetic to that particular approach. The Herodians, on the other hand, wanted the people to pay the poll tax. First of all, because their king, Herod, benefitted from the tribute that was paid. Second of all, because if people in Israel rebelled against that Roman poll tax, R would most likely respond by tightening their control of the region, and that would mean what? It would mean that Herod's power would be diminished. So even though the Herodians didn't like the Romans, they didn't want people to rebel against paying the poll tax, because they thought that it dimmed the chances of Herod to eventually be the king himself.

And so these two groups that hated one another, and by the way, the Pharisees probably hated the Herodians more than they hated the Romans, because the Herodians were "their own people," and yet, they were in collusion with the Romans. And so there was great animosity between these two groups, but in this passage, we see them coming together to try and trap Jesus.

Now, they pose a question to Jesus that would have presented a dilemma for Him. They ask Him, "Should the people pay the poll tax?" Apparently the Pharisees asked it, because of the way that the question is put. Look at verse 17, "Is it lawful to give a poll tax to Caesar or not?" Your see the question. They are basically asking, is it moral, according to God's law, is it moral to pay this poll tax?

Now this question posed Jesus a real problem. If Jesus responded by saying, no, it is immoral to pay the poll tax , immediately, the Herodians and the Pharisees along with them, would say, He is speaking treason. He is speaking sedition against the Roman powers, and we must turn Him over to the government so that He can be dealt with. Those who committed treason could face the death penalty.

So if He answered, no, you ought not to pay the poll tax , He was in danger of the arrest of the Roman authorities. On the other hand, if He said, yes, you should pay the poll tax, then the Pharisees would have stood up and they would have said, aha, you don't care about the law of God, because the Roman emperor claims to be divine. And the Roman emperor's coinage sets forth that claim explicitly, and this poll tax of every male in Judea is immoral because it requires a follower of the one true God to give tribute money to a man who claims to be God himself. And therefore, you don't care about the first or the second commandment, you don't care about God's law, and so simultaneously they would accuse him of not obeying the law of Moses, not teaching the law of Moses, and of being in favor of a tax that people in Israel didn't like. So, if He didn't get in trouble with the government, they thought, surely He is going to get in trouble with the people when He answers this question.

Now, let me go back and tell you just a few things about why these Pharisees and other devout people in Israel were concerned about this poll tax. Look at verse 20. If you looked on the coinage that was required to be used for the payment of this poll tax, this denarius that was brought to Jesus, Jesus points to the likeness and to the inscription. He says, what is the likeness, (that is, what is the image on the coin, like, you know, what is on the dime, what is on the quarter, what's the likeness on that particular coin?) And then He says, look at the inscription, what does it say. The likeness was a likeness of Tiberius Caesar Augustus who had had the coins made. The coins were probably minted in Spain, or maybe in southern France, and they were used all over the empire, and they were the ones that were used to pay this poll tax.

But there was an image of that emperor, and the emperor claimed to be divine. In fact, on one side of the coin, the inscription said, Tiberius Caesar Augustus, which literally translated means Son of the divine Augustus. The emperor was claiming to be the son of god, He was claiming to be a god. On the other side of that coin, it said Pontifect Maximus, literally translated, high priest. Therefore, the coin that was used to pay the poll tax was actually part of a claim by the Roman emperor to have not only political control over all those in his empire, but also spiritual control. Do you see why devout Jews would have grated against this command?

Can you imagine, if today, a high ranking leader in America were to claim to be the Son of God, and to mint coinage which indicated the same, and required you, on April the 15th, to pay your taxes in that coinage. Don't you think there would be some conservative evangelical Christians who had a problem with that? Well, there were a lot of people in Israel who had a problem with that. They said, you know, that breaks both the first and the second commandment. This man claims to be a God, and he makes an image of himself on the coin. This man claims to have the right to be worshiped and so, he violates both the first and the second commands. And so this is a very thorny question which is being asked to Jesus Christ. However legitimate that question was for devout Jews, and later for Christians who would face the same problem in the empire, it is very important for us to realize that these disciples of the Pharisees were not asking Jesus the question because they cared about His answer. They were only asking Him this question because they wanted to trap Him.

Right here in this passage, we have an ugly picture of an unchanged, unrenewed heart standing before Jesus Christ. It doesn't worship Him, it doesn't care about what He thinks, it simply schemes in order to try to destroy Him. And so through this whole ugly scene in verses 15 through 17, we learn this: that the unregenerate heart, even when it is standing before truth, doesn't accept it.

So oftentimes Christians present the truth of God and people reject it and they wonder, what did I do wrong. Do I need to present the truth better this time? This passage reminds us that if your eyes are blind, you can't see the truth no matter how large it is in front of you. Here is Jesus, the truth Himself, and all these men are trying to do is figure out how to get Him out of the way, they don't care what He says.

Notice also that Jesus was on guard against their scheming and flattery. Jesus was not taken in by their flattery. We, too, must be beware of the smile of the world, beware when too many count with you, beware when the world flatters you. Jesus was not taken in by this particular ruse, He was on guard.
And at the same time, this question, however insincere it was by being put by these disciples of the Pharisees, was an important issue for many devout Jews, and it would become a very important issue for Christians in days to come, and so Jesus' answer to the questions is significant, even though they meant it for evil, God meant this question to be asked for good. Even though the disciples of the Pharisees meant this question to entrap Jesus, God meant this question to be answered for the good of His people.

II. Jesus reveals His glory in His wisdom in His answer

And so we turn to Jesus' response in verses 18 through 21. Now, I want you to see that Jesus does four things simultaneously in His response. First of all, He sees their hearts. He knows what they are up to! He knows that they are trying to trap Him. Secondly, He rebukes the Pharisees for their error; thirdly He rebukes the Herodians for their error, and fourthly He sets down a principle which is going to be obeyed by His people until He returns again. All four of those things He does simultaneously in a split second response to an unexpected question. So in this passage we see Jesus revealing His glory through His wisdom in answer to these wicked men. Jesus' response, Jesus' answer is nothing short of brilliant. Even the scheming traps of evil men are used to glorify God.

He perceives their motives, and goals, He knows their hearts, look again at verse 18. Jesus, we are told, perceived their malice, and He just says to them, point blank, He says, why are you testing Me? It's as if Jesus is saying to them, I know exactly what you Are doing, I know exactly why you are doing it, you think you are going to trap me, and i'm going to answer the question anyway.

It's like a baseball player standing up at the plate and telling the pitcher, before the first pitch, by the way, I'm going to knock this one over the centerfield wall, and it is going to go about 500 feet, now watch me do it. Jesus is saying, I know exactly what you are trying to do; I'm going to answer you anyway, and you're not going to trap Me. And so, Jesus, in response to this question, rightly brands them as heretics. You see, they were pretending to do one thing, while they intended to do another. And so when Jesus called them hypocrites, He is not just name-calling, He's not trying to say something mean about them, He is telling the truth. They literally are pretending to do one thing while they intend to do another. They are pretending to be genuinely speaking and inquiring to find out the answers to these important questions while their whole purpose is to trap Jesus and to get Him out of the way. And so, Jesus' words in verse 18 are perfectly suited to this situation.

Then He says, bring me the coin which you use to pay the poll tax. And so they bring Him the denarius. And then He holds it and He says, look, whose inscription is this? Who's image is this? Who's inscription is this? And Jesus turns the question on them, and having asked Him that question, they have only one choice, and that choice is to answer, Caesar's . And so Jesus once again makes them answer the tricky question that they had asked Him. Is it lawful to pay the poll tax? Jesus' response, and He makes them say it, is, who does the coin belong to in the first place? Caesar. He minted it. And so He makes them answer the question that they think that He is going to be tripped up on.

But He doesn't stop there. He goes on to give a fuller response to their question. In verse 21, He says this, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's." Jesus uses a different verb in His response than they had used in their question. They put the question this way: is it lawful for us to give the poll tax to Caesar? And Jesus says, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. He uses a different verb. Why does He do this? Because He is saying, when you pay that poll tax, you aren't ‘giving a gift to Caesar.’ Caesar has already built you roads, Caesar has already given you justice courts, he has set up military protection for you, police and various other civil benefits. Therefore, if you have a problem with Caesar's provisions, you shouldn't be protesting the poll tax, you should have protested in the first place when he did the other things! You accept the roads, you accept the protection, and then you pretend to have religious scruples over paying him for it! So you give back to Caesar what already belongs to him! But you give to God what belongs to Him. And Jesus is saying, you know that only God is to be worshipped, only God is God, only God provides the high priest. So you don't worship Caesar as a high priest, you don't acknowledge him as a high priest, you pay him his money for his roads and for his protection, but you don't worship him as high priest. That belongs to God.

And so when we give praise to God, we are simply giving to Him what is already His due, even as we pay taxes to Caesar, we are just giving Him what is already due. And in one sentence, Jesus says more about the church/state relationship than most people say in a book, and I wish that we had time this morning to go into the implications of what Jesus said in response, but this is the main thing that I want you to see here. Jesus is speaking to people who were pretending to be religiously scrupulous about the payment of this poll tax. They were pretending to be very zealous for God's law. And there are people like that in our society today, they are very concerned about the wickedness in the society around them, but they are not concerned themselves to give to God what God's due is. They make a lot of noise about the rigidness of society, but they don't give their own hearts to God. Jesus is waiting for them. You render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and you give to God what belongs to Him.

III. Despite the divine wisdom of Jesus’ answer, hearts are unchanged.

Jesus' words pierce, and they amaze, and we look at verse 22, and indeed, even those who came to trap Him were flabbergasted. Hearing Jesus' response, we see them amazed, but still unbelieving. They're amazed by Jesus' wisdom. They don't know how He slipped this trap! They were expecting Him to be caught in its clinches, and Jesus slips the trap. But they still don't believe in Him. Once again we learn that despite the divine wisdom of Jesus' answer, their unbelieving hearts are unchanged. The tempters were filled with awe, wonder with amazement at how Jesus had responded to their question, but they were not converted. Look at the words of verse 22: "Hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away." Matthew Henry said: "You expect to read, ‘they were amazed and submitted to Him.’ That is what you expect to read; you expect to read, ‘they were amazed and followed Him.’ But what you read is, ‘they were amazed and left Him.’"

See, it is not enough to be amazed at Jesus. Jesus doesn't want your amazement, He wants your whole life. He wants your fellowship, He wants your submission. He wants your acknowledgment that He is the king of king and Lord of lords. And He wants your acknowledgment that His way of salvation is the only way of salvation, and that His finished work on the cross is the only way that you'll have fellowship with God.

Jesus doesn't just want amazement, He wants worship. These men were amazed, but they wouldn't worship. They couldn't see the kingdom. They couldn't see His kingdom, they couldn't see His glory. And so they couldn't love Him. And the only reason that we love Him is that He opened our hearts to believe His word. Now there is a warning in that, isn't there. There is a warning for everyone who is obstinate before the presentation of the gospel, and whose hearts are hard until the spirit makes them soft. And we must humble ourselves before the Lord and beg that He would soften our hearts to respond to the truth. See, the problem was not that they had not seen enough truth, the problem was that their hearts were hard to the truth. May God grant us soft hearts to see the king and see His kingdom, and love Him. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we praise You for the Lord Jesus. He is awesome, and wise, and glorious in His dealings with man. But we would not simply be amazed at Him, we would worship and love Him for the saving of our souls. So by the grace of the Spirit we pray that You would open our eyes to behold Him through His life eternal. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.

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