The Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies; but their common foe brought them together. The Pharisees opposed the Roman poll tax for several reasons: (1) They did not want to submit to a Gentile power; (2) Caesar was revered as a god; and (3) they had better uses for the money than to give it to Rome. Since the Herodians were the party supporting Herod, they were in favor of the tax. After all, Herod’s authority was given to him by Caesar; and Herod would have had a difficult time staying in power without Rome’s support.
Palestine was an occupied nation, and the Jews had no special love for their conquerors. Every tax the poor people had to pay was another reminder that they were not free. The Zealots, an “underground” organization of fanatical Jews, often staged protests against Rome. They would oppose any Roman tax.
It is easy to see why the Pharisees and Herodians chose the poll tax as the bait for their trap. It appeared that no matter which side Jesus took, He would create problems for Himself and His ministry. 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.
Jesus immediately saw through their scheme. He knew that their real purpose was not to get an answer to a question, but to try to trap Him. They were only acting a part, and this made them hypocrites. On this basis alone, He could have refused to answer them. But He knew the people around Him would not understand. Here was an opportunity for Him to silence His enemies and, at the same time, teach the people an important spiritual truth.
Each ruler minted his own coins and put his own image on them. The “penny” (denarius) had Caesar’s image on it, so it belonged to Caesar. “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” was His reply. “And give back to God what belongs to God.” In this simple, but profound reply, Jesus taught several important truths.
Christians must honor and obey rulers. This is taught elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom. 13; 1 Peter 2:13–17; 1 Tim. 2:1ff). Christians have a dual citizenship, in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and on earth. We must respect our earthly rulers (or elected leaders), obey the law, pay taxes, and pray for all who are in authority.
Christians must honor and obey God. Caesar was not God. While governments cannot enforce religion (Acts 5:29), neither should they restrict freedom of worship. The best citizen honors his country because he worships God.
Man bears God’s image and owes God his all. Caesar’s image was on the coin; God’s image is on man (Gen. 1:26–27). Sin has marred that image, but through Jesus Christ, it can be restored (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
The relationship between religion and government is personal and individual. It is right for the people of God to serve in government (remember Daniel and Joseph). But it is wrong for government to control the church, or for the church to control government.