THE COIN CONTROVERSY
Minimally edited from a Prayer Meeting exhortation by bro Linus Chua on 27 April 2001


“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and
unto God the things which are God’s.”
(Matthew 22:21)


This incident, recorded for us in Matthew 22:15–22, occurs right at the very end of our Lord’s earthly ministry. In just under two days’ time, He would have to face that cursed death on the cross. We read in verse 15 of how the Pharisees took counsel against Him to see how they might trap Him in His words. The Pharisees hated the Lord and sought to kill Him. See how the words of the Psalmist were being fulfilled in this very verse—“The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed” (Ps 2:2).


Notice in verse 16 that the Pharisees did not go directly to Christ. Instead, they sent their disciples. Perhaps they thought that they could deceive Christ into thinking that these disciples of theirs were not tempters but rather sincere students seeking to learn of Him. Thus, they hoped to catch the Lord off guard and trap Him before He realised what was happening. Notice again in verse 16 that the disciples of the Pharisees did not go alone but went with the Herodians. Now the Herodians and the Pharisees were by no means in agreement with each other. In fact, these two groups were usually at odds with one another. The Herodians were a party among the Jews that supported the Roman Emperor and his representative—Herod. They pledged their allegiance to Rome even though they were Jews, and they made it their business to persuade the people to subject themselves to the Roman authorities. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were haters of Roman rule. They were very zealous for the liberty of the Jews and wanted very much to be freed from Roman bondage. They believed that God had made them a free nation and that Caesar was not a lawful or rightful ruler. And so, although these two parties disagreed with each other on religious and especially political issues, they wholeheartedly agreed about Jesus and did not hesitate to unite against Him.


What was their question? It was simply this—“Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” And what was their trap? On one hand, if His reply was that it was unlawful to give tribute or pay taxes to Caesar, then the Pharisees, and especially the Herodians, would have every reason to bring the Lord before the Roman authorities and accuse Him for being an enemy of Rome. If, on the other hand, He gave an answer that was favourable to the tax, the Jewish multitudes gathered there, who until then still highly regarded and respected Christ, would turn against Him. And so it seemed as if Christ was truly trapped this time, having no way out.


But the Lord saw through their masks and exposed their hypocrisy. Not only was He undeceived by their deception, His answer was so astonishing that His enemies marvelled and went their own way. How then did the Lord answer them? He first requested that the coin, which was used to pay the taxes, be brought to Him; and that particular coin used for the poll-tax was the denarius. A denarius amounted to the daily wage of a soldier or a common labourer in Palestine during those days. It was made of silver and was minted by the emperor, who alone had the authority to issue coins in silver or gold. All such coins, including the denarius, bore an engraving of the emperor on one side and an identifying inscription on the other. The image and superscription of Caesar on the coin was especially offensive to the Jews because it reminded them of Roman oppression. But that was not the only reason. We must remember that Caesar, in Roman reckoning, was not a mere man but a divine person or, in other words, a god. Several Roman emperors were known to have accepted titles and appellations of deity for themselves. Julius Caesar was one. Another was Augustus Caesar, who even had coins minted proclaiming him to be the son of God. And so the idea of a divine emperor was repulsive and blasphemous to the Jews.


Now when the coin was brought to Jesus, He said, “Whose is this image and superscription?“ His opponents immediately replied, “Caesar’s!” Perhaps at that moment, they were eagerly anticipating the Lord’s next word. Perhaps, they thought that Jesus would most certainly speak a word against Caesar and Rome. After all, Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God, making Himself equal with God, and as God, He would admit no other gods before Him. And so surely He would take this opportunity to denounce Caesar as a false god, a blasphemer, and openly declare that it was unlawful to pay taxes to him. Instead, Jesus said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” A simple yet extremely profound statement that totally threw them off and sent them away dumbfounded!


Notice that Jesus used the word render and not the word give,[1] which the Pharisees had earlier used. The word render means to pay or to give back, implying a debt. It carried the idea of obligation and responsibility, and was not something optional. The Jews, for the most part, viewed the payment of taxes as not being a legitimate duty, and it was done only with great reluctance. Now Jesus declared that the payment of taxes was not only perfectly legitimate, it was also morally obligatory. Caesar had the right to demand of them their taxes. The very fact that the money they used bore the image and superscription of Caesar implied his authority over them. We learn from here that religion in no way exempts us from our civil duties and our obligation to obey the earthly rulers.


But more importantly, Christ went on to teach that we must “render to God the things that are God’s.” Now Christ was not separating the secular from the spiritual. He was not saying that one owes allegiance to human government in regard to material things and allegiance to God in regard to spiritual. Instead, He was saying that the things which are God’s do not belong to Caesar and should never be offered to him, but only to God. We see an example of this truth being applied during the first three centuries when the Church suffered great persecution under the Romans. Many Christians were required by Roman officials and soldiers to burn incense at the altar of Caesar and to say the words, “Kaiser Kurios” or “Caesar is Lord”—implying that Caesar was a divine person. And many, who refused to do so, were put to horrible tortures and deaths. These early Christians had obeyed our Lord’s teaching—never to render to Caesar the things which belong to God.


Application


What lessons may we learn from this incident? I’ll like to draw our attention to four:


Firstly, we ought to marvel at the infinite wisdom of Christ. Surely none but He could conceive of such a wise answer that utterly silenced His opponents. Eliphaz, one of Job’s three friends, described God in this way—“He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness: and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong” (Job 5:12–13). These words are especially applicable to Christ in this incident.

Who is a wise Counsellor and Guide like unto Christ? Christian, are you faced with difficult circumstances in life or situations that require wisdom beyond yourself to deal with them? Are you faced with a dilemma at work or at home that threatens to overwhelm you? Are you in a strait betwixt two, not knowing which way to turn? Then turn to Christ for wisdom. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths (Prov 3:5–6).


Secondly, we must examine ourselves to see if our lives indeed bear the image and superscription of God. We are the Lord’s coins (Lk 15:8–10). Just as the denarius bore the image and superscription of Caesar, we too must bear the image and superscription of Christ. Whom do we belong to? Whom do we resemble? If we belong to God, we should resemble Him. But if we do not belong to God, then we belong to the Devil and will resemble him. Remember the Lord’s indictment of the people in John 8:44 when He said, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” In this world, we will either resemble God, our Heavenly Father, or Satan. Whose image and superscription do we bear? Are we like those described in Colossians 3:10, “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him…,” and again in Ephesians 4:24, “And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness”? In this life, all who truly belong to God will receive His grace of sanctification—whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. May all of us be found to be true believers, and may the image of God be more and more renewed and restored in us.


Thirdly, if we belong to God, then we must render to Him the things which are His. The Apostle Paul wrote, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6:19–20). We must be careful to render to God the things which belong to God. Christian, are you very careful and meticulous in ensuring that you render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, for example, in filing your income tax? Will you not also be meticulous in rendering to God that which is rightfully His? Remember that the word rendercarries the idea of an obligation, not an option. But remember too that God loves a cheerful giver, and we ought to render to God out of a grateful and willing heart like the Psalmist, who uttered those precious words, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” (Ps 116:12). Let us take time this day to consider all of God’s gracious benefits towards us. And let us render to Him all the glory, honour and praise due to Him. There will be no end to praising God. In fact, praising God will be our chief employment in Heaven for all eternity. But let us begin even now and so enjoy a foretaste of Heaven.


Finally, we must pray that God would gather in all His lost coins and that the glorious light of the gospel may still shine in our dark and decaying generation. Samuel Rutherford, in one of his letters to a friend, wrote, “I am sorry for our desolate kirk [i.e., church], yet I dare not but trust, so long as there be any of God’s lost money here, he shall not blow out the candle.” Indeed we must pray without ceasing and labour all the more diligently for the salvation of God’s lost coins scattered throughout the world. And for those of us who have already been found, we must pray that we will be more and more renewed after the image of our Heavenly Father, and may bear His image and superscription, to the praise and glory of His Name.


Linus Chua (edited by J.J. Lim) 

Bro Linus Chua has expressed a subjective call to the ministry and
is under the care of the Session in preparation for seminary training.



Endnote

[1] The word render in Greek is apodidômi, which is a compound word made up of a preposition apo meaning “from” and verb didômi meaning “give.” Although it is translated 9 times as “give” in the KJV, it almost always carries the idea of debt or recompense. The Pharisees and Herodians had used the word didômi, which means no more than “give” or “grant” (ed.).