Submission to Authorities
Most people appreciate most of what Jesus said. But if you’re paying attention, occasionally you’ll run across some things he says which really bother us.
This church is a member of Acts 29, a network of churches planting churches all over the world. In 2013 our global director, Steve Timmis, wrote a book called I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That, in which he comments on those things Jesus said which are hard to be happy about. There’s Deny yourself and take up your cross… Love your enemies… Blessed are those who are persecuted… and so on.
Although Steve doesn’t cover today’s text in his book, it could easily make the cut. Because in today’s text, Jesus is going to talk about submission to authority.
The question of authority is at the heart of what we’ve seen in the last couple texts, and the texts we’ll be seeing over the next couple weeks: namely, Jesus’s authority as King. He has arrived in Jerusalem, his disciples celebrating him as King—and he is exercising his authority in the temple in a way which has infuriated the religious leaders who had, up to this point, maintained a vice-grip on the religious life of the people of Israel.
They lost the battle with him in our last text, when they tried to outright question his authority. So now they’ve figured out that if they’re going to trap him and debunk his authority, they may have to be more subtle about it. But it’s not going to go the way they hope.
Let’s read the text in its entirety first, and then we’ll see what to do with it.
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
So the religious leaders, knowing they can’t attack Jesus directly, send some spies in to talk to him. We don’t know who these spies are, but we can see that they are intelligent. Because what do they do first? They try to soften him up. They flatter him. “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.”
Of course, they believe none of this—if the religious leaders really thought he taught the way of God, they would be listening to him instead of trying to trap him. Or maybe they’re not interested in the way of God at all, but only in their own power.
Regardless, they show here that they are indeed crafty. And their craftiness is on display not just in their flattery, but in their question.
So once they feel he’s sufficiently flattered, they set their trap.
22 “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
It’s a brilliant question—not only because of the way they frame it, but because of the overall context at the time.
The “tribute” in question was a tax, and it was a very sore spot for the Jews. Josephus tells us that a couple decades before this time (Jesus would have been a child), Roman taxation had provoked a serious revolt. That revolt lead to the Zealot movement which was still going on, and which would ultimately result in the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So this was a seriously contentious subject in Israel at the time.
In addition, the tribute that every person owed Rome wasn’t a tax for public works. They weren’t getting new roads out of it, or better health care, or bike paths along the roads. This was a tax they had to pay simply for the right to keep on existing, and went straight into the treasury in Rome.
In other words, the tax itself was inherently unfair.
On top of that, those collecting the tax could set the rates that they wanted, give Rome what Rome required, and pocket the rest. So there was a good bit of abuse going on here as well.
To sum up: very few questions could have put Jesus in a more difficult spot.
And the way they ask the question makes it even riskier for him, because if Jesus answers either yes or no, they can get him. If he says, “Yes,” then they’ll accuse him of being more devoted to Caesar than to God—and the people will rise against him. If he says no, they’ll have ammunition against him to take to Rome, claiming Jesus is inciting people to rebel against the empire—and Rome will come to get him.
In other words, because they “feared the people” (v. 19), they want to trap him in such a way that the people will either agree with them (that this man Jesus is indeed a menace), or that will place the blame on Rome instead of on themselves.
But Jesus, as always, is one step ahead of them. He perceived their craftiness (v. 23), and asked them for a denarius. A denarius was a coin in the common currency, about a day’s wages for a laborer; this was the amount that had to be paid for tribute into the Roman treasury.
On one side of the coin, there was an engraving of the head of Caesar, with an inscription which signified, “Tibirius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, Augustus.”
So he asks them (v. 24): “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” Caesar’s.
And then he responds with a phrase which nearly everyone—Christian or no—has heard (v. 25):
“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
We all know this expression. In French today, it’s been shortened to include only the first half—Rendez à César ce qui est à César. It’s become an idiomatic expression. And most people know what this expression means.
In French today, we use it to mean that every act should be credited to (or blamed on) the person who committed that act. For example, if one person tries to take credit for someone else’s good work, you could say, “No, no—give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. She was the one responsible, not you.”
Now obviously, that doesn’t make sense in this context—there’s no act to be attributed to anyone, they’re talking about money. So if that’s not it, what exactly does Jesus mean?
This text can be frustrating for us, because even if these spies are trying to trap Jesus for the religious leaders, we want to know the answer to their question too. Naturally, any time the Bible talks about submission to authority, the first question in our minds is, “What are the exceptions?”
We want to know what laws we must obey, and which laws are “optional”.
We want to know to what extent God calls us to submit to authorities, and in what areas we can get out of it.
If I’m going to get caught, then obviously I’ll obey. (Everyone slows down when they know there’s a radar up ahead.) But what if I’m at home, and I have a killer VPN which will hide my IP address, and no one will ever know if I download this movie illegally? Surely that’s okay, right…?
I love that Jesus isn’t afraid of disappointing us. He doesn’t give us a straightforward answer to this question. He doesn’t say yes or no—rather, he drives us to think much bigger.
So if we want to get to the heart of what he’s saying here, and really consider his answer, we’re going to need to do a bit of work.
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s...”
Jesus says two things here that we don’t naturally like. The first is that we should Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
In other words, God’s people don’t have the freedom to reject human authority just because they are God’s people.
We see this several times in the New Testament. Here’s just one example:
Romans 13.1-2, 6-7:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
This is hard for us to accept, or at least for us to be happy about: the Bible tells us to submit to the ruling authorities. In Daniel 2.21 we see that God removes kings and sets up kings—he is sovereign over the affairs of the world he created, and so we are called to submit to the authorities he has put in place.
The point of all this is that Jesus does not give us the liberty here to not submit to the authorities. We are to, figuratively speaking, “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
But unlike the idiomatic expression, Jesus’s sentence does not end there. It would have been much simpler if he had stopped there; but he doesn’t. He says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s...”
“…and to God the things that are God’s.”
What does that mean? We’ve seen that “the things that are Caesar’s” is obedience to the laws of our country, as long as those laws don’t require us to sin.
So when Christians read what Jesus says here, they’ll tend to say, “Okay, so he’s saying I’ve got my civil life over here, and my Christian life over here. In my Christian life—anything to do with moral decisions, say—I should obey God; and in my civil life I should obey the government.”
The problem is, the Bible never divides our life out in this way. The Bible never describes our life as being split up into different areas, as in, “This part belongs to France, and this part belongs to God.”
Look at the way Jesus says it—he never explicitly says which things are Caesar’s, and which things are God’s, because he wants us to think about it. And if we think about which things are God’s, the answer to our question becomes obvious.
Which things are God’s?
Everything belongs to God.
Even the “things that are Caesar’s” aren’t really Caesar’s at all, but God’s. Caesar himself is not his own master, no matter what he may think about himself: he is God’s.
So when we “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” we don’t do it for him; we do it for God. Because really, those things are God’s.
The apostle Peter says it this way, in 1 Peter 2.13-17:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
We are subject to the authorities, not because they deserve it, and not because they have earned it. No one besides God deserves our submission, and no one besides God could earn our submission.
Any time we submit to any authority, we do it for the Lord’s sake. We submit so that we might do good, and by doing good, testify to the goodness of the God we serve.
Now at this point, there are two very common objections.
Of course, the first objection is the most obvious, and that is: But surely there are limits to our submission. Surely there are times when we SHOULDN’T submit to the authorities.
Of course there are. In Acts 5, for example, we see the authorities charging Peter to stop preaching the gospel, and Peter responds (Acts 5.29), “We must obey God rather than men.” In other words, “No, we will not stop preaching the gospel, because God has commanded us to preach the gospel.” If the authorities order us to disobey God, then we aren’t going to listen to them or do what they say. We must obey God rather than men.
So if you’re a police officer in 1942 and the Nazis order you to take Jews to the Vel d’Hiv to be sent to concentration camps, then yes, obviously, of course, disobey that order—even if it gets you killed. That’s not just acceptable; that’s right.
Or take the situation in China right now, where Christians are systematically persecuted for their faith. If the government tells you to renounce Christ or face prison, what do you do? You break the law, and remain faithful to Christ, no matter the consequences. (And I’m not trying to make light of that situation, I know how difficult it is.)
But let’s face it: most of us in the West today are not in that situation. Most of our laws are not sinful, but merely inconvenient. Most of our laws do not require us to sin. The speed limit does not require us to sin. Paying taxes does not require us to sin. Most laws which tell us what to do and what not to do actually help us to not sin.
And in all of those cases—in most cases we will encounter, in fact—we are called to submit to the authorities and obey them.
Or take another question which sounds different, but which in the minds of a lot of folks are often related: Where is the place of social justice in all of this? If we are to submit to the authorities, does that leave us room to fight for the rights of the oppressed?
Of course it does—like we said, God is our ultimate authority, and Jesus consistently went after and cared for those who could not care for themselves. And thank God for those people who feel that burden!
But Christians who have a heart for social justice often fall into a trap. It’s easy to believe that if you fight for social justice, you are by necessity fighting for the kingdom of God. And that’s just not true. Plenty of unbelievers have a heart for social justice too, and fight better than we do—and thank God for them! That’s the image of God in them shining through.
There should be something distinctly different about the way Christians fight for social justice, and why we do it.
Christians should be under no illusion here: it is not through social justice that the kingdom of God comes, but through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we fail in our efforts, his kingdom is not impacted in the slightest.
Whether ours is a good, healthy, free society where the poor and marginalized are cared for, or an oppressive dictatorship in which the poor are crushed and people are put in prison for their faith, God’s kingdom will come, through the power of the Holy Spirit in the gospel. His kingdom is his doing, not ours.
And it is for that very reason that we should fight for the good of others. We should desire justice for the persecuted, for the poor, for the marginalized, because God brought has justice to us. We fight for them because Christ fought for us. As God has loved us in Christ, so we should love one another.
Christian participation in social justice is a simple by-product of the grace we have received. Because all human beings have all been created in the image of God, we desire that all human beings have access to the same freedoms and blessings we have. And because we have received such grace in Christ, we desire that all human beings hear about this same grace.
But social justice is not the kingdom of God—it is one natural characteristic of the kingdom of God. Whether we succeed or fail in these efforts, Christ is the King of his kingdom, and his kingdom will come. That’s why Jesus isn’t taking any risks in saying what he says here.
The second objection often comes from another front.
Anyone who’s not a Christian—and even many Christians—upon hearing this, may come against a problematic question. Do we as Christians not find ourselves in a similar situation as, for example, those who live under a totalitarian regime?
Or to put it another way: We obey the authorities not because they deserve it, or not because they have earned it, but because we are submitted to God. OK.
But why does God deserve our submission and worship? How is submission to God any different from the cops who rounded up Jews at the Vel d’Hiv because they were afraid of recriminations?
Some Christians may be uncomfortable with this kind of question, but it’s a good one.
If we read the Bible, very quickly we’ll see that the kingdom of God is not a democracy. In a democracy we don’t have to choose between healthy protest and submission to our authorities. That’s how a democracy is run, and how change is brought about for good. We submit to our authorities, and when we feel they are wrong, we can protest, or vote to make changes to laws we deem unjust.
We don’t get to do that with God. There is no vote to be cast. What he commands, we must obey.
So if that’s the case—and it is—why is that a good thing? Why should we be happy about submitting to God’s authority?
We should be happy about submitting to God’s authority because unlike earthly authorities, he deserves it, and because he has earned it. We submit to him because we trust him, and we trust him because he deserves our trust, and has earned our trust.
He deserves our trust simply because of who he is. He is not a man, he is God.
He is entirely independent and self-sufficient: so he never acts out of any need.
He never changes: so he is always fair, and always faithful.
He is holy, and altogether perfect: so he deserves to be revered, because none of us are holy and perfect.
He is all-powerful: so his will is never frustrated by evil.
He is sovereign: so whatever authorities are in place, are there because he put them there.
He is all-knowing, and all wise: so he always makes the right decisions, and gives the right commandments, for the right reason.
He is angry against sin: so he is perfectly just, and will always act for what is right and good.
And he is perfect love: so he never commands anything of us, or ordains anything in the world, that will be for our harm.
Simply because of who he is, he is worthy of our trust and obedience.
And not only does he deserve it, he has earned it.
He hasn’t just told us about his goodness; he has proven his perfect goodness to us in Christ.
If we ever wonder whether God understands our suffering, understands what it is like to live in this broken world, we need look no further than Christ. Christ came to live our life and die our death, and to be raised that we might be reconciled to God. He suffered everything we have, and more. He endured every common pain and temptation, and more. And he did it so that we might be free, and declared righteous, and made holy, and spend eternity enjoying him.
God deserves our joyful obedience, and he has earned our joyful obedience.
So we don’t need to wait for the authorities—whether the police, or the government, or our bosses at work—to be perfect before we submit to them. We can joyfully submit to them now, because Christ is King, and we are submitted to him, and he has placed us here, in this time, in this place, and we trust that he did the right thing by putting us here. Should they tell us to sin against God, we have a higher King, and we obey him. But if they don’t, we can let go, and trust that God knows what he’s doing.
We’d do well to remember that that is exactly the way Jesus himself reacted to the established authorities. Submitting to our earthly authorities does not mean that everything’s going to go well for us. Obeying every earthly law does not mean that they’ll react kindly to us.
Jesus was always perfectly submitted to the authorities—even the religious authorities. He never once broke a law, or did what the authorities in Jerusalem or in Rome had outright told him not to do. He was perfectly obedient in everything. But he was obedient in such a way that proved very clearly that his real authority was not them. His real authority was his Father. And that drove them crazy, to the point where even though he had done absolutely nothing wrong, they killed him.
And even then, he remained submitted to the authorities.
Think of one of us in his place—perfectly innocent of any wrongdoing, wrongfully accused of blasphemy, facing the most excruciating death penalty imaginable. How did he react to it all? He didn’t hire a lawyer. He didn’t fight for his rights. He submitted his rights to the authorities in question, because he was submitted to the higher authority of his Father.
And people just don’t know what to do with that kind of radical obedience. Peter told us to be submitted to the authorities so that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. We see in v. 26 that these “spies” sent to trap Jesus were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
Of course they did—how can you argue with Jesus? Not only is he always right, but there’s always so much more to what he says than is readily apparent.
Sometimes that’s frustrating to us—why doesn’t he speak more clearly? Why does he use parables to teach? Why does he answer a simple question with the kind of vaguely mysterious statement he gives them here?
He doesn’t speak more clearly for two reasons: to shut the mouths of his enemies (and as we see, he succeeds); and because he’s a good teacher.
He doesn’t just want us to passively receive information; he wants to train us to think well. He doesn’t just want us to have an answer to a question about taxes; he wants us to be able to do the right thing no matter what the situation—whether it’s taxes or work or parenting or school or friendships.
He wants us to see that human authorities and human governments are no threat to his kingdom. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. There is no contradiction between the two. He’s not threatened by taxes given to Caesar; he’s not threated by our obedience to human authority. He is secure in the power of his own reign, the might of his own kingdom, the strength of his own power.
And he wants to show that his kingdom isn’t built through the kind of strength we would try to show in his place. He wants to show that the strength with which he builds his kingdom is strong enough to humble itself. To put others first. To turn the other cheek. To die for his enemies, in order to save them.
That is the strength he calls his followers to have. That is the means by which he calls us to act in our world. Because no matter what, we serve a greater King, who is always faithful, and who is always good.