Show Me the Coin…Whose Portrait is This?  And Whose Inscription?

Matthew 22:20

November 18, 2007 | Brian Bill

A little boy wanted $100 very badly and prayed to God for a whole week, but nothing happened so he decided to write Him a letter.  When the Post Office received the letter addressed to God they forwarded it to the White House.  The President was both impressed and amused, so he instructed his aide to send the boy $5, thinking that would be a lot to him.  The boy was, indeed, delighted by the money so he sat down and wrote a thank you note: “Dear God, thank you very much for sending the money.  However I noticed for some reason you had to send it through Washington and as usual, they kept most of it.” 

This morning we’re going to address one of the most-well known questions of Jesus, one in which He gives perspective on what we owe God and government.  It’s the last week of Jesus’ life and He has just finished telling three parables with pointed applications to the religious authorities.  Amazingly, He’s now back in the Temple He had cleansed a couple days earlier.  

And as you can imagine these guys didn’t appreciate being called out by Christ.  Look at Matthew 21:45-46: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.  They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”  Because they couldn’t arrest Him, they regrouped and come up with another plan in Matthew 22:15: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words.”  The word “trap” means to entangle or ensnare like one would catch a bird or a wild beast with a net.  Instead of a frontal attack they resort to a stealthy ambush.

Still reeling from the punch of the parables, in chapter 22 they pose three questions that are designed to trip and to trap Jesus.  The first question has to do with paying taxes.  The second has to do with marriage and the resurrection (we addressed this the first week of our series) and the final question relates to the greatest commandment.  In each instance, Jesus answers with his own question that cuts them to the quick.  I love verse 46: “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

With that as background let’s read our passage in Matthew 22:16-22: “They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.  ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.   Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’   But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’  They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  Then he said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’  When they heard this, they were amazed.  So they left him and went away.”

Conspiracy (16)

As the Pharisees counseled together, they came up with a plan in verse 16.  They decide to send some of their disciples to Jesus, thinking that they would have a better chance of slipping under the radar.  Maybe they thought these students wouldn’t be recognized by the Savior.  Luke 20:21 refers to them as “spies.”  But instead of going solo, they team up with their arch-enemies, the Herodians.  The Pharisees and the Herodians represented the opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Just as things are heating up in our country as we get ready for the first political caucuses in less than 50 days, the political climate at that time was potent.  Conservatives and liberals today are going at it, so too, these two groups representing the far right and the far left, couldn’t stand each other.  

Let’s see if I can explain this by separating the congregation right down the middle.  Those of you on my left are the Herodians.  Say it with me: “We are…Herodians.”  Those of you on my right are the Pharisees.  Say it with me: “We are…Pharisees.”  Now let’s say it all together.  Now remember that you don’t normally like each other.  You’ve used attack ads on TV against each other.  You’re competing in the polls and you diss each other in the debates.

The chart may help explain the distinctives and differences between these two groups.

Herodians Pharisees

Secular Spiritual

Government God

Pro-Herod Anti-Herod

Pro-tax Anti-tax

Hated Jesus Hated Jesus

While they had opposite agendas and political platforms, the bottom line is that the Herodians feared that Jesus would undermine the rule of Herod and the Pharisees feared that He would upstage their religion.

People can say kind things about Christ but they resist committing their lives to that which they know is true

But now, these two disparate groups come together to take out a common enemy.  Mark 3:6 says that they plotted together to kill Jesus.  I’m reminded of Psalm 2:2: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.”  They begin by using flattery, hoping to soften up the Savior and make Him give an answer.  They use the respectful name “teacher” and affirm his integrity.  They identify Him as one who teaches the “way of God in accordance with the truth.”  In addition, they recognize that He doesn’t consult polls before stating His positions: “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.”  Everything they said about Jesus was true but they didn’t mean any of it.  We see that in our culture as well.  People can say kind things about Christ but they resist committing their lives to that which they know is true.

Questions (17)

Thinking they have Jesus right where they want Him, these political power players craft a question that they believe will put Him in a quandary.  Actually, its two questions: “Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Mark 12:15 adds, “Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”  This is like the “poison pill” question, and is much deeper than what our candidates think about immigration or the environment.  This was the question of the day and they wanted Jesus to answer it so they could attack Him and say, “Gotcha!”

What’s the tax rate in our country?  Just shout out some percentages for me.  It varies, right?  But almost everyone would say that their taxes are too high.  According to the Tax Foundation the average American had to work from January 1st to April 30th just to pay their taxes.  They call that day “Tax Freedom Day.”   The Israelites during the time of Jesus did not have exorbitant taxes but they resisted them because these taxes were a reminder that they were under the control of Rome.  Most of us would gladly pay these tax rates today.

  • Income Tax – 1%
  • Ground Tax – 10% of grain, 20% of oil and wine
  • Business Tax – When goods were transported to different cities, a tax was collected.  This was the job that Matthew had before he left everything to follow Christ (Matthew 9:9)
  • Poll Tax – 1 day’s wage (denarius).  Note: This is the same tax levied by Caesar Augustus that in God’s providence brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

This poll tax was hated by most of the Jewish people because it was a kind of loyalty litmus test.  Depending on how Jesus answered, He risked alienating the Jews or being labeled a traitor against Rome.  Warren Wiersbe writes: “If He opposed the tax, He would be in trouble with Rome.  If He approved the tax, He would be in trouble with the Jews.”  Depending on how He answered, either the Herodians would have Him arrested or the Pharisees would finally have the evidence they needed.  Which would it be?  Would He be an enemy of God or of the government?

Confrontation (18)

They start out flattering Jesus and then He flattens them.  Jesus sees right through the phoniness of the Pharisees and the hatred of the Herodians.  I picture them high-fiving each other and strutting around.  But it didn’t last long.  Look at verse 18: “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” They were hypocrites because they were not really interested in what they should do; they just wanted Jesus to incriminate Himself.  

Coin (19)

Instead of replying, Jesus rebukes them.  Before they can say anything, Jesus asks for the coin used for paying the tax.  It’s interesting that Jesus does not have one of these coins on Him.  The Pharisees were probably excited to give Him one because they thought He would side with them and thus alienate the Herodians.  

Could you take out a coin from your pocket or purse right now?  Don’t worry – we’ve already taken the offering!   If you have some extra change and the person next to you didn’t bring any today, could you share a coin with him or her?  Acts 4:32 says that the early church shared everything in common so we might as well practice this: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Could someone throw me a coin?

Jesus holds up this coin that was used to pay the poll tax.  It was minted in Rome and was made out of silver.  All eyes are on this coin now.  He shows the “head side” and everyone sees the head of the emperor and this inscription: “Tiberius Augustus Caesar: Son of the Divine Augustus.” On the “tails side” Caesar is seated on a throne with these words underneath: PONTIF MAXIM, which translated means “Highest Priest.”  He wears a diadem on his head and is clothed as a high priest.  

Questions (20)

With everyone looking at Christ and the coin, we hear Him ask two questions: “Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?”  The answer is obvious and they answer quickly, but then they realize the implications of what they’ve said.  And Jesus has them right where He wants them.

Command (21)

I picture Jesus flipping the coin back to whoever let Him borrow it.  Psalm 9:16 says: “The wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.”  The tables have turned because they now need to answer Christ’s question: “‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  Then He said to them ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…’”  The word used here for “give” is translated as “render” in the King James.  It literally means to “give back what is his; to deliver or return.”  The coin belongs to Caesar, so give it back to him.  The very grammar Jesus uses is possessive: whose portrait…whose inscription?”  Their taxes were not optional; instead they were an obligation.  Caesar is owed because he owns it.  

1. Our Responsibilities to the Government. 

1 Peter 3:17: “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”  I see at least four responsibilities that we have. These first three come from Pastor Kenneth Trent.

2. Obey. 

Romans 13:1-2: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” 

3. Pay. 

Romans 13:6-7: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”  This reminds me of the person who realized he didn’t pay enough tax and so he sent an anonymous letter to the IRS: “My conscience is bothering me.  Enclosed you will find $175 which I owe in taxes.  If my conscience continues to bother me, I’ll send you the rest.”

4. Pray. 

1 Timothy 2:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

5. Stay. 

Titus 3:1: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” Let the government see us doing good things and make sure we are not giving Christ a bad name through what we say or do.  Let’s live in peace and be considerate of other citizens.  As Americans we have the right and the privilege to be involved because we live in a democracy.  Don’t pull out but stay involved.  Vote your values.  In a study released this week by New York University, 66% of students said they would give up the right to vote in the next presidential election in exchange for free tuition.  20% said they would exchange their vote for an iPod touch. 

1. Our Responsibilities to God. 

Jesus could have stopped with the first part of His answer and silenced both sides, but He’s not finished.  We can’t stop with our obligations to the government.  We have “dual citizenship,” not a “duel citizenship.”  Our responsibilities to the government and to God are not meant to be at odds, though we know from Acts 4:19 that when they are, we must choose to obey God.  We have responsibilities as citizens of earth and responsibilities as citizens of heaven.  It’s not either/or but both/and.

Notice the little word and:  “…and to God what is God’s.’”  We have a two-fold debt made up of horizontal and vertical obligations.  Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

2. Live. 

How do we know what belongs to God?  What bears His image?  I’m just going to walk around this room and see if I can find something…or someone bearing His inscription.  Wait a minute.  Every one of you bears His mark.  Since Genesis 1:26 says that we are made in His image and created by Him for His purposes, we are to live full-throttle for Him.  Government takes 30% or so but God rightfully deserves 100%.  God has a claim on His creation because the Almighty owns us.  We owe the one who owns us.

Let me ask you three questions.  

  • Have you been baptized?  If you’re a born-again believer, and you have not been baptized since coming to saving faith, it’s time to take the plunge.  Our next service will be held two weeks from today.  
  • Can others see God’s inscription on you?  One way to see God at work is develop an attitude of thankfulness.  Our Thanksgiving Eve service this Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. may help you do just that.  
  • Are you helping others whose image has been marred by sin to come to faith in the one who can recreate them? 

3. Give. 

I belong to Him and everything I own is His as well.  Or to say it another way, my person and my possessions are stamped with His ownership.  Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Just as the government is owed our taxes, we owe God because He owns everything.  We should be granting God His due.  It’s not really optional; because He owns it, we owe it.  We owe the one who owns us.

Conclusion (22)

If you’re amazed, then accept what He’s done for you

Check out verse 22: “When they heard this, they were amazed.  So they left him and went away.”  They were amazed and yet they went away.  They could find no blame so they just left in shame.  Do you know people still do that today?  Don’t just listen and then leave.  If you’re amazed, then accept what He’s done for you; believe and then receive Him as your Lord and Savior.

Earlier I divided you into Herodians and Pharisees, but actually the whole world is divided into only two categories: The lost and the found.  If you know Jesus, say this with me: “I am His!”

Our money says, “In God we trust.”  Do we?  Do you?  We are God’s coins, God’s valuables.  Rendering to God what belongs to God implies the surrender of all that I am and all that I have.  It’s time to give ourselves back to Him…because we owe the one who owns us.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?