This sermon was delivered in two different contexts this morning. A link to the audio of this sermon as it was preached live at Amherst Presbyterian Church (Amherst, New York) is here. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of that delivery. Also on this page is the video that I recorded for Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church (Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) to use in worship this morning. My prepared text is also below–though you may see more differences comparing this to the audio at Amherst than to the video. The passage today is a well-known one. Whether you feel like you are going through a time of testing right now or you feel like things are going fairly well, may this sermon about the testing of Jesus by the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians bring you encouragement. I will be in the pulpit at Amherst Presbyterian Church and also by video at Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church again this coming Sunday. And for the purposes of search engine optimization I need to say testing a few more times: testing, testing, testing.
I would imagine that all of us have questions for Jesus. We have questions borne out of curiosity. We want to ask Jesus to explain various things in Scripture. We have questions about suffering and evil. And many of these questions may be out of genuine piety and devotion rather than being attempts to test God. You may simply want to mine the depths of the mind of Jesus. The Pharisees had that opportunity. They had devoted their lives to studying the Hebrew Scriptures and now they had the great honor and privilege of asking the living Word to unpack its meaning. But sadly the Pharisees had much more sinister intentions and they were not alone. Their primary opponents, the Sadducees, had the same goal. These “political parties” decided to pick up where Satan had left off after the three temptations in the desert. Thus in Matthew 22 there are three times that one or the other group tested Jesus by asking trick questions. Today and next Sunday we are going to look at the two times instigated by the Pharisees. Their first attempt totally ignored the adage about mixing religion and politics. Indeed, they were so eager to win that they made an alliance with a third party—the Herodians. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, the Herodians were traitors. The Herodians supported the rule of Rome through the wicked Herods. But they were willing to overlook their differences and conspire together to try and entangle Jesus in His words. So the Pharisees sent their disciples—probably some nonthreatening young students in the Scriptures—with some Herodians to test Jesus. And as we will see, they asked a trick question. If Jesus simply said “yes” then He would cease to be popular among the crowds who were all that stood between the Pharisees and killing Jesus. If Jesus said “no” then He would be identified as a member of another third party, the Zealots who were Jewish nationalists that wanted an armed insurrection, and Herod would have Him killed. This is why they presented it as a yes/no question – neither option was a good one for Jesus – but Jesus saw it as a false choice and His answer left them speechless. Listen to how Jesus passed the test:
Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus gave the right answer: render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
In the image and likeness of Satan, His opponents failed their own test because they were more concerned with Caesar’s kingdom than God’s kingdom. Both the account in Luke and this one in Matthew show that the people questioning Jesus in this encounter were playacting or pretending to care about the kingdom-rule of God. Matthew’s version makes this clear when Jesus calls them “hypocrites.” English Bibles aren’t translating that word. They are giving you the English letters to sound out the Greek word, which comes from the world of theater for someone who is an actor. Not only does Luke call them “spies” and say that they “pretended to be sincere” but Luke tells us that Jesus “perceived their craftiness,” which sounds like the serpent in Genesis 3. Matthew’s version alludes to Satan’s influence by having three episodes of testing beginning with the one we’re looking at today just as Satan did to Jesus in the desert. Moreover, the seed of Satan are often associated with world government in Scripture. And if you asked them, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar?” they would have simply said, “Yes.” They participated in the Roman economic and political system. Jesus says, “Show me a denarius.” And when they bring one we know that Jesus is charging Israel’s political parties with being about the business of Rome and not the kingdom of God. The scribes and chief priests also did more than just participate in this system they even collected the tribute for Rome and the currency they would use to pay it would be the denarius. What Israel’s religious leaders were doing was incredibly unpopular. One of the themes of the Old Testament Prophets was that Israel should not have paid tribute to other nations for protection but instead should have trusted God. So for many people this was a real question of conscience. They hated that Israel was an occupied nation under Roman control. But the religious leaders of Israel were all collaborators with Rome. (Jesus on the other hand did not have a denarius on Him. I mentioned earlier that at the other extreme were the Zealots who wanted to rebel against Rome and did not want to pay the tribute. But Jesus refused to join them too. Jesus was not just another political revolutionary but a religious reformer. And when those testing Him produced a denarius, like a good teacher Jesus asks them, “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?”)
The denarius has the likeness and inscription of Caesar and thus belongs to Caesar and should be rendered to Caesar. You will remember from Luke’s version of the Christmas story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Augustus had himself proclaimed divine and added to the name he used at the time, “Son of the Divine.” Augustus died something like fifteen years before the ministry of Jesus and Augustus’ son Tiberius became the new emperor. In the ancient world money was a common form of propaganda. And the denarius was no exception. It now had the likeness of Caesar Tiberius on it and it had an inscription that read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” So the denarius itself makes a political and religious statement. It also makes a statement of ownership. The denarius belongs to Caesar. It is his currency. And Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” The denarius belongs to Caesar, so give it to him. (Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is a minor point. But now we turn to the heart of the matter: What belongs to God? The audience may have connected this message with Jesus’ cleansing the Temple. The Temple belonged to God, but the religious leaders of Israel acted like it was theirs and put it at the service of Rome. Or they may have connected this message with Jesus’ cursing the fig tree or the parable of the tenants who refused to give God the fruits that belong to Him. We know that ultimately everything belongs to God, even the denarius, because God is the Creator. But the Temple and the fruits of repentance belong to God in a special sense. The key here is the parallel between the likeness and inscription on the denarius and what bears the likeness and inscription of God. All human beings belong to God, even Caesar, because humanity was made in the image and likeness of God. Thus when Jesus says to render to God the things that are God’s He is calling the Pharisees and Herodians to repent of imaging Satan and turn to Jesus. For everyone who believes in Jesus belongs to God also as our Redeemer.)
Human beings with a renewed likeness and inscription of God belong to God as their Creator and Redeemer and render themselves to God. You do not need a tattoo that reads, “Belongs to God.” First of all, you have been created in the image and likeness of God. Of course, we know such image and likeness language from Genesis 1. It reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:26-27). And I assume that you are familiar with what happened next. We can sum up the implications of Genesis 1-3 as saying that people were originally created in the image and likeness of God but due to Adam’s fall that image and likeness became distorted. Then when we turn to the New Testament we see that Christ came to do the work of new creation and is the very image of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15). Christ was made in the image of God without distortion and He renews His people in God’s image and likeness. Therefore, the Christ, the firstborn of all creation (cf. Col 1:15) and the new creation, was given all authority in heaven and on earth. And Christ has dominion over the entire earth just as the original design had been. So Jesus’ answer tells us about Himself that He is the very image of God and about His work that He will renew His people in the image of God. Jesus was wholly and completely devoted to God. He belonged to God the Father and He rendered His body to the plan of God the Father. Caesar Augustus’ claims to the contrary—none of us are divine, only Christ. Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. Everyone who trusts in Jesus are children of God renewed in the image of God. We have God’s likeness and belong to our Redeemer. (So if you belong to God then how do you render yourself to God?)
The Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians refused to render themselves to God but Jesus rendered Himself to God even through His death on the cross and we follow Jesus.
Those testing Jesus refused to render themselves to God because they were prosecuting the task of the seed of the serpent. They were part of a plot to entangle Jesus in His words, which they pretended to praise. They asked this question about paying taxes out of malice. And at the end of the passage they still had not repented. They weren’t any more ready to render themselves to God than Caesar was because they hadn’t been renewed in the image and likeness of God either. They marveled and they left Him and went away. They had lost this test. But this would not be the last time they would test Jesus. Indeed, they were among those who mocked Jesus on the cross, saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; let God deliver Him now, if He desires Him. For He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ (Matthew 27:42f). (On the other hand, Jesus practiced what He preached. He was the only authentic person around. He rendered Himself to God even through His death on the cross.)
Thus we who follow Jesus will render ourselves completely to God. We don’t ask, “Is it lawful for us to render to God the things that are God’s?” Of course, it fulfills the law to render yourselves and all that you have to God – the law that Jesus summarizes as, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37ff). So we render ourselves to God. We give to God what is already His because we belong to Him. God’s kingdom-rule is far more important than the nations of the earth. Jesus did not come to set up a kingdom like the nations, He did not come as to be that kind of king. Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And He has brought the kingdom of God amongst us. When we pay taxes, it is out of submission to God because God put those authorities in our lives. When we show respect and honor to various governing authorities, it is because we honor and reverence the true God above all else. When we respect all human life as made in the image of God, we are rendering to God what belongs to Him. Indeed, rendering ourselves to God transforms the way we look at everything from politics to work to home. Rendering to God the things that are God’s looks like the Christian who uses all of their money and possessions for God’s purposes – not just the portion you put in the offering plate, definitely not just the portion you pay the state, but all one hundred percent is for the purposes God has for it. When this grips you, then you will look at money differently. Rendering to God the things that are God’s looks like the Christian who uses their time wisely – taking time to rest, taking time to enjoy family, taking time to study Scripture, taking time to pray, taking time to serve others. You will even learn to look at time differently. Rendering your all to God looks like the Christian who loves and worships and honors God not just for an hour on Sunday morning but with everything that you do. I’m not giving you a list of things to do or asking you to take a test. I’m simply describing what God may do through you because Jesus passed the test with flying colors, purchased you with His blood, and renewed you in the image and likeness of God. You belong to God in life and in death. Thanks be to God. Amen.