When we hear the name of “Caesar,” most of us think of Julius Caesar, the most famous, or perhaps infamous, of Roman rulers. Yet Julius Caesar is never mentioned in Scripture, as his era was in between the Old and New Testaments. So, who is this Caesar we are talking about, and what are we rendering unto him?
Answering a Question with a Question
Here’s a little bit of background. Throughout the Gospels, we see many examples of Jesus taking a question and turning it on its head. His response to a yes-or-no question was often answered with another question, in a way that provided nuance, deeper meaning, and clearer context. We have likely heard the saying, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” which is a quote from Jesus as he is giving one of these “answer a question with a question” type of responses. But what does the phrase really mean, why did Jesus say it, and how does it apply in a world where there is no longer a Caesar?
“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’ But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him. ‘
Who Is Caesar?
The Caesar specifically mentioned by Jesus is Tiberius Caesar, who was in power from AD 14 to AD 37. For our application, to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (or give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s) simply gives us a guideline of how to Biblically relate to any governing authority we are subject to.
In the context of the time Jesus lived in, Caesar represented the Roman government that harshly ruled Israel. The phrase applies to us in this way: every person on earth lives under the authority of a government, and Jesus instructs us to honor that government to the extent that we can.
This applies to a healthy, free government as much one that is as cruel as the Romans were. This is not an easy teaching, nor is it meant to be. Yet there is a great deal of peace and security that comes from understanding it, especially in turbulent time such as ours.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Muni Yogeshwaran
The Pharisees and the Herodians: Who was Asking the Questions?
This encounter stands out as one of the greatest conversations in recorded history. Those familiar with Scripture are used to the Pharisees questioning Jesus and trying to catch him in a trap. However, the Herodians are also in on this one. So who are the Herodians?
While the Pharisees were the staunchly religious group that embraced traditional Jewish teachings and generally opposed Roman culture, the Herodians were a Hellenistic group who happily embraced Rome’s secularism, as it secured them political power and seemed to them the best way to secure stability. To be clear, these two groups had nothing in common except a common dislike of Jesus and his growing group of followers.
The question is set up in such a way that if Jesus says paying Roman taxes is acceptable, then he will be speaking against those who hate the Roman government. This would have played into the hands of the Pharisees who would not dare say such a thing themselves.
However, if Jesus said he opposed the tax, he would find himself at odds with the Herodians and supporters of the Roman authorities, and Jesus would now be considered an open enemy of Rome. It appeared to be a win-win for these opposing forces to join together against Jesus.
The Kingdoms of the World and the Kingdom of God
Jesus responds by doing what Jesus always did: he forced those around him to look at things from a heavenly perspective and not a worldly one. As Christians, we are citizens of Heaven while also being citizens of this world. Trying to navigate between the two can be difficult for so many of us, but Jesus reminds us that while we are to honor the government with our income, more importantly we are to give our all to God.
The Government and Our Civic Duty as Believers
This verse does NOT mean that we blindly go along with unjust laws, nor does it mean that we should avoid political involvement altogether. Nations benefit greatly from Godly people who are involved and active. Yet we should do so while keeping in mind that Jesus did not get involved in debates about governmental policies. He certainly could have, and many of his followers probably wanted him to. Yet he never did, and neither did any writers of the New Testament. They instead point us to follow the laws of the world while fulfilling our more important obligations to God.
Paul writes in Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Peter also addresses the Christian’s relation to government in writing, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
The early Christian church was being persecuted from every side, and believers had every reason to be anti-government and fight against the rulers of the day. Yet we see something different. They were regularly involved in conversations with those authorities, and chose to treat them with kindness and respect, even when they were directly opposed to their faith. Even when their very lives were on the line.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Jjneff
Our Response to Render Unto Caesar
Our path as believers is to follow the example that has been set before us.
Honor those that govern us, while speaking out in respectful ways when laws are unjust.
Show respect to those in authority, while praying for God to work in their hearts and lead them to himself.
Above all, we must remember the second half of the verse. When we “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” we more importantly “render unto God the things that are God’s.” Do not be swept up into political anger, nor the idea that the world is doomed if your candidate doesn’t win.
God’s Kingdom, of which you are a citizen, is eternal, His laws are just and perfect, and his reign is unending.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Josh Appel
Jason Soroski is a homeschool dad and author of A Journey to Bethlehem: Inspiring Thoughts for Christmas and Hope for the New Year. He serves as worship pastor and in Colorado and spends his weekends exploring the Rocky Mountains with his family. Connect on Twitter, Instagram, or at JasonSoroski.net.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.