In our last article, we saw that on the Wednesday of “Passion Week” the Lord was challenged by different groups of people and individuals on a range of subjects. This was the day of Arguments and Answers. The first question He faced was a spiritual challenge from the Sanhedrin (11:27-12:12). They were concerned with the source and nature of the Lord’s authority to act as He had done on the previous day. The second challenge was political and came from “certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians” who desired to “catch him in his words” (12:13). The subject of this challenge was the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.
A Political Challenge: the Question about Taxes (12:13-17)
First, we have the Approach of the Pharisees and Herodians (vv13-15a). Then we have the Lord’s Answer to them (vv15b-17).
The Approach (vv13-15a)
The men who approached the Lord were Pharisees and Herodians. These two disparate groups had united together against the Lord on earlier occasions in this Gospel (e.g., 3:6; 6:14-29; 7:1-13; 8:15). This was a commissioned group, sent to the Lord for the specific purpose of catching Him in His words. They wanted the Lord to say something by which they could discredit Him in the eyes of the common people or accuse Him before the Roman authorities.
They used flattery. “Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth” (v14). They tried to honey a trap, claiming that they viewed the Lord as honest, forthright, impartial and trustworthy. They wanted Him to speak openly and unguardedly so that they might trap Him.
The challenge was the trap. It was a dilemma carefully concocted to make it seemingly impossible for the Lord to give an answer without setting Himself at odds either with Roman law or with popular opinion. It was an attempt to force the Lord into a compromising position which would then be taken advantage of. “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?” (vv14-15a). The inclusion of the final question, “Shall we give, or shall we not give?” was a further attempt to make the Lord speak with absolute clarity on the actions that people should take. This could lead to charges against Him for publicly inciting anarchy.
The Answer (vv15b-17)
They attempted to place the Lord on the horns of a dilemma, but He skillfully avoided their trap. He would not be enticed by their flattery or entrapped by their cunning. He perceived their true intent, “knowing their hypocrisy,” and said to them, “Why tempt ye me?” (v15). They were playing a part, pretending to respect Him while seeking to destroy Him.
He then asked for “a penny, that I may see it” (v15). The “penny” was a denarius, which was the only coin accepted for the payment of taxes in Judaea at this time. This coin, used to pay the Roman tax, had on it the image of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Apparently, it also contained an inscription, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” The visual aid was presented and the audience addressed: “Whose is this image and superscription?” They had to testify to that which was obvious: “Caesar’s” (v16). The Lord then drew out the principle. “And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v17).
The lesson is that they are to give to Caesar that which is his due, just as they are to give to God that which is His due. Notice that the Lord clearly distinguished between Caesar and God. By doing so He refused to accept the divine claims of the Roman Caesar. However, their acceptance and usage of the coins with Caesar’s image upon them demonstrated clearly that Caesar’s authority was over them, and this implied his right to exact tribute from them. In daily life they benefitted from the Roman authorities in many ways; they therefore had the duty to pay the tax they owed for these benefits.
If, however, they owed Caesar a part of their income, what did they owe to God? If the coin bore Caesar’s image, what is to be said of the person who bears God’s image? If Caesar’s authority ensured many benefits for the Jews, was God not the ultimate source of all their blessings? If they owed Caesar a part of their possessions, they surely owed to God nothing less than their whole persons.
The people “marvelled at him” (v17). He had answered the question but avoided the trap. His opponents could not grasp hold of His words to trap Him. He had discredited the divine claims of Caesar by contrasting him to God; but He had also recognised the legitimate claims of Caesar upon the people. It is little wonder that the people marvelled; such perfect wisdom causes us to wonder also.
Caesar, as representing human government, has authority in the life of the believer (Rom 13:1-7). This authority is, of course, not limitless. Supreme authority belongs to God alone, and when the demands of civil authority clearly rival the authority of God in the believer’s life, God’s authority must be recognised as pre-eminent (cf. Act 5:29). Thankfully, such situations do not presently predominate in the West, though this may soon happen. May the Lord give us the grace to navigate such circumstances with divine wisdom if we are faced with them.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.