Misusing Matthew 22:21: “Render Unto Caesar”

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

My well-intentioned Sunday School teachers slaughtered this text.  I learned our Lord was teaching church-state separation — but that was NOT His focus in this passage.  I also learned it meant we give God a list of “things that are God’s” — Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, giving, etc.  If your Sunday School lessons were like mine, push the reset button, clear your memory banks on this passage, and start over.

We saw in my last post (“Whose is This Image and Superscription?“) that Jesus drew the attention of His hearers to the idolatrous nature of the tribute coin, a Roman denarius, by pointing out the graven image it bore, and an inscription which said Caesar was a god.  If you haven’t read that post, I strongly encourage you to do so — this one will make more sense if you do.  While waiting for you, I’ll take the time to copy in the Scripture passage. 🙂

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.
16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.
17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

This is a Worship Question

The Pharisees and the Herodians thought they had Jesus in a trap (my Sunday School teachers WERE right about that :)).  They thought, whatever He said, that He would be in trouble, either with the Roman authorities or with the people.  They thought they were asking a financial and political question.  They were wrong.

By turning the focus to the idolatrous nature of the tribute coin and the inscription which called Caesar “divine,” Christ turned it into a question about who is God, who receives worship.  No longer is the question to whom you will pay taxes, but to whom you will render worship.  The word “render” here means paying an obligation.

This is an “Image” Question

So what are the “things that are God’s?”  If this is about worship, were my Sunday School teachers right after all?  Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, these are worship, right?  Actually, Jesus indirectly told His hearers what are “the things that are God’s.”

Render Denarius Bears Caesar’s Image Belongs to Caesar
Render What??? Bears God’s Image Belongs to God

We live in a relatively pagan society which no longer knows the Scriptures, but the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking knew the Scriptures from their youth.  The term “image” was one that would ring theological bells in the minds of His hearers.

Genesis 1:27

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Jesus was not talking about “Sunday worship,” but about complete ownership, a life of worship.  As so often, when you ask the Lord a question, the answer turns out to be a claim on your life.  God made you, you bear His image, and so you belong to Him — you owe Him yourself, it is a debt to be “rendered.”  The “things that are God’s” are simply everything we are and have — His image on us.

The Jews knew it.  They knew that what He had said was true.  The coin was idolatrous.  They were made in God’s image.  It really is the duty of man to render himself to God.  There was no trap for the Saviour here, but rather a rebuke of idolatry and a challenge to render themselves to God, whose claim is irrefutable.

“They marvelled, and left Him, and went their way.”  What else could they do?  He’d shown them to be the hypocritical idolaters that they were.  They were hardly going to go to the multitudes with this story.  The trap had sprung — but they were caught.

What About Church-State Separation?

Almost EVERYBODY seems to use this to teach the separation of church and state.  Are they wrong?  Well, not entirely.  But if it means that we belong to God, the common distinction between “things that are Caesar’s” and “things that are God’s” is flawed.   The focus of this passage is not on civil government at all, but on whom you will worship.

However, it implies what Jesus made very clear later:  “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).  In Romans 13 Paul directly taught Christians to obey government — and pay tribute.

Government’s God-ordained role is not to establish Christ’s kingdom in this world, or His servants would have fought, and would fight today to establish and extend His kingdom.  The principle of church-state separation, with different purposes and responsibilities, and different responses by believers to the two institutions, is Biblical.

That principle is implied in this passage — but it does a disservice to the central message of Christ’s response to make this a proof text for the church-state principle and turn the focus to that.  Christ calls us to abandon all forms of idolatry and render ourselves to God — that is the key point here.

Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Rightly Dividing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Misusing Matthew 22:21: “Render Unto Caesar”

  1. David Caylor says:

    “so often, when you ask the Lord a question, the answer turns out to be a claim on your life.” That line alone is worth reading this post. Oh, and the rest is great too. I am assigning the previous post about “Whose image…” to my kids for tomorrow’s writing assignment.

    Thank you!

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, David. Thank you for the comment.

      On longer posts, I choose a sentence or two for what shows up in archives and goes to Facebook. I chose.the sentence you quoted.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing what they write! 🙂

  2. Bruce Evans says:

    Hi Jon,
    Thanks so much for explaining so well why popular applications of that passage have always just seemed to miss the spot. Great post, thanks so much.

  3. Kenny B says:

    Great article. If Caesar wants the coin that bears his image give to him, but don’t worship him (Roman emperor/empire worship). Only worship God, as in render to God what is His.

  4. Thank you for your explanation! Makes sense!

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