What Did Jesus Mean When He Said We Should Give to God the Things that Are God’s?


Having been created in the image of God, we bear the imprint of God, but we must still offer ourselves back to God if we are to be aligned with God.


The creation of Adam – Vatican Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy. Created by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I took some interest in a Facebook post at Bible Archaeology[1] about the image of Tiberius Caesar on a Roman coin like the one Jesus referenced in Matthew 22:15-22.[2] Some scriptural references and back ground facts are the subject of my writing today.

The story is well-known. Some Jewish leaders challenged Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

It was a ruse. They were trying put Jesus into the impossible position of aligning either with the Jews (against the Romans, losing credibility with them) or with the Romans (against the Jews, risking punishment for opposing Rome) on the issue of paying taxes.

Jesus famously asked for a coin, and then he asked whose image was imprinted on the coin. It was Caesar’s image, of course. Then Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Perhaps, my interest was piqued because I have written about the story before. I talk about rendering unto Caesar in the context of how Christians should respond to secular authority.[3] I wrote about Jordan Peterson’s comment, crediting the words of Jesus to the creation of the modern principal of the separation of church and state.[4] But I haven’t focused on what it is we are to “render” to God.

I am always excited to learn something new, and the Bible Archaeology post added some details I didn’t know. The first details provide the backstory to the story, which involves Judas the Galilean. The interrelationship of the two stories shows how intertwined, complex, nuanced and harmonious Scripture is within itself and with external facts discovered through historical and archaeological sources, among other things.

I appreciate the historians and archaeologists, like Bible Archaeology, that dig up corroborating details. In the Facebook post, they cite additional scriptural passages on Judas the Galilean that give us insight into why the Pharisees in Galilee challenged Jesus on the issue of paying taxes.

That Jesus was from Galilee is an infamous fact of continued renown. He is known as Jesus of Nazareth to this day.

His place of residence was infamous for reasons that may be lost on modern people, but it’s evident in the biblical narrative. When the Pharisees commented that no prophet comes out of Nazareth (John 7:52), they weren’t just alluding to the positive statement in Malachi 5:2 that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Galilee had its own negative reputation. We see that in the following interchange:

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:45-46)  

The Pharisees and Sadducees, who comprised the ruling religious council that was recognized by Rome (the Sanhedrin), were particularly leery of Galilee because it and the surrounding area were the origin of the Zealot uprising that was stirring up tensions with Rome. This Zealot uprising is eventually blamed for the Roman/Jewish War that led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

Many Sanhedrin members were jealous and threatened by Jesus who challenged their authority as religious leaders. Thus, they used the Roman concern about the Galilean uprising to their advantage to convince the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, to condemn Jesus to death:

“Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no guilt in this man.’ But they were urgent, saying, ‘He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.’” (Luke 23:4-6)

The reference to Jesus from Galilee would have reminded Pilate of the Galilean opposition to Roman ruler. After the death of Jesus, and the arrest of Peter and John for causing a stir for continuing to preach the Gospel Jesus preached, the Sanhedrin referenced Judas the Galilean when considering what they should do with Peter and John:

“After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.” (Acts 5:37)

By this logic (that other agitators from Galilee have come and gone), the Sanhedrin decided to release Peter and John with a slap on the wrist and an admonition to stop.

The added detail about Judas of Galilee gives us more of the backstory to the statement Jesus made about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Judas of Galilee specifically was the man who let Jews to resist complying with the census in Judea imposed by Quirinius to raise taxes for Rome around 6 CE.[5]

Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian, identifies Judas and “Zadok the Pharisee” as the founders of the “fourth sect” of Judaism in the first century.[6] They were theocratic nationals urging Jews that God alone was the ruler of Israel and that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome.[7]

This explains why the more conservative Pharisees, who were members of the religious leaders recognized by Rome put Jesus to the test about taxes. They were trying to pin him down about the Zealot uprising, being that he was also from Galilee.

They knew that many of the common Jews in Judea were sympathetic to the Zealots and bristled at paying taxes to Caesar. If Jesus supported the tax, he would lose credibility among his followers.

They also knew that the Zealots were a thorn in Rome’s side. A number of those Zealot leaders, like Judas the Galilean, were being arrested and killed for their treason against the Roman state. If Jesus refused to support the tax, he would be counted among them.

Jesus threaded the needle in answering the “impossible” question they put to him. It was genius. Holding up a coin bearing the image of Caesar he answered: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”

I imagine that the audience knew what he meant by giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The subject was taxes. Thus he was not telling them to stop paying taxes. He was saying, “Go ahead and give taxes to Caesar.”

I also suspect that the basic gist of what he was saying about God was also not lost on his Jewish audience, especially the religious leaders. They would immediately connect the image of Caesar on the coin to the image of God that Genesis says is imprinted on all human beings, being created in God’s image.[8]

People bear the imprint of God. Thus, while Jesus affirmed the obligation to pay taxes to Caesar, who’s image was imprinted on the coin, he also affirmed the obligation of every devout Jew to give themselves to God whose image was imprinted on them.

Though he leaves it to them (and us) to connect the dots, I believe Jesus was saying more than simply that we should give ourselves to God. Jesus was ultimately saying they/we should give ourselves to him, the Messiah that they were expecting (but didn’t recognize standing before them)!

Paul confirms this when he says of God, the Father, that “he delivered us from the domain of darkness” to “the kingdom of His beloved Son” – Jesus.[9] Thus, Jesus was implicitly saying that they owed their lives ultimately to him, though they might owe taxes for the time being to Caesar.

In closing, God calls us “to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God….”[10] The “new self” is the person we are meant to be. If being created in God’s image was enough, we wouldn’t have any need to “put on the new self”.

Having been created in the image of God, we bear the imprint of God, but we must still offer ourselves back to God (just as taxes were offered back to Caesar) if we are to be aligned with God.

The real point of what Jesus said about where his followers owe their allegiance, the ultimate point, is the latter statement – not that we owe taxes to Caesar, but that we owe our very selves to God!

Seek first the kingdom of God. That was the central message Jesus preached, and he came precisely to usher in that kingdom and welcome people to enter it.

His kingdom, however, is not of this world. Thus, we can still give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. When the two come into direct conflict, however, there should be no doubt who deserves our allegiance.


References:

[1] See Tribute Money posted at Bible Archaeology on Facebook October 27, 2021.

[2] “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”

[3] See How Should the Church Act Regarding Authority in Navigating by Faith, January 8, 2021, following the debacle on Capital Hill in which many people professing faith in Christ took to civil disobedience.

[4] See Separating Caesar from the Church in Navigating by Faith, June 21, 2018.

[5] See Wikipedia quoting Raymond Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories, Matthew 2 and Luke 2 by Raymond E. Brown (Liturgical Press, 1978), page 17. I note, for what it is worth, that I cite Wikipedia often because it is an open source of knowledge and information, but it is not infallible, and it is not without bias by the contributors. I find some of the references in this article to be extremely shoddy scholarship.  

[6] Ibid. citing Flavius Josephus, Antiquities Book 18 Chapter 1.

[7] Id. citing Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 40–41.

[8] Genesis 1:27

[9] Colossians 1:13-15

[10] Ephesians 4:23-24

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