Matthew 22:15-22


As you can see, we now come to one of the most popularly quoted passages in all of Scripture – especially so right now during politically troubled times (excessive government spending and taxation).  There are a lot of questions right now.  How do Christians respond to government; do we really have to pay taxes; do we disobey authorities today in favor of a Biblical Theocracy; how important is our country’s constitution in this debate?

The questions go on and on; and, for Christians, the debate many times comes back to what Jesus said as recorded right here by Matthew!  And people from every political persuasion come here in order to bolster their positions!  And, of course, when that happens the Truth becomes more and more obfuscated, because men love to have their own thoughts and take their own positions rather than submit to objective Truth!

Obviously this is an enormous subject – coming up in the text (by the sovereign hand of God) at this time during the debate.  Bet we have an opportunity now to find out what Jesus said, to whom He said it, and why!  And, in so doing, we will be better able to obey Christ, speak the Truth and disciple the nations.

As we see in verse fifteen, having been under Jesus’ withering speech for some time the elders and priests go away.  But they don’t go away to salve their wounds, do they?  Being moved to uncontrollable anger and violence they go immediately into council.  And the purpose, stated by Matthew, is to decide how to “entangle Him in word,” or “speech” (here it could be translated either way [even “doctrine”] – the meaning is the same).  Of course the ultimate reason, as stated clearly by Mark, is to destroy Him.

But, once again, they seek to do that by getting Him to say something with which they can charge Him and put Him to death.  The word translated “entangle” (verse fifteen) is used only once in the entire New Testament – right here.  The translators of the Old Testament (and other, non-inspired, writings) into Greek used it several times, all of them (it seems) situations in which magic or witchcraft are used to trap or ensnare others to their destruction!

So it looks as if Matthew has gone deeply into the Koine Greek language to find an obscure word which richly describes what’s going on here.  And the bottom line is that the thoroughly debased, demonic and blasphemous leaders of the judaistic nation are linked, in inspired Scripture, with Satanic sorcerers and witches in their attempt to trap Jesus into saying something for which He can be charged and destroyed!

In their council meeting they conspire to take a particular course of action; and the extent of their deception is indicated in verse sixteen.  They don’t go back to confront Jesus themselves; that would be too obvious.  Instead, they send disciples – men who Jesus doesn’t know!  And they pretend to be something they’re not (which is the very nature of hypocrisy).  But we’ll get to that in a minute.

But with them are the Herodians (verse sixteen)!  In their rage and frenzy to eliminate this man Jesus (who has humiliated the elders of Israel in public, and who threatens stability with Rome) an unlikely coalition has occurred!

In the political life of Israel at that time there were a number of parties and factions.  And among them was a party called the “Herodians”.  The Herods were Edomites, you remember; and the first Herod was appointed by Rome long before Christ was born.  So descendants of Esau had ruled the descendants of Jacob for years – appointed by Caesar.

Now, among the Jews there were those who preferred being ruled by the Herods rather than direct rule from Rome!  In other words, even though there was, periodically, a Roman governor in Jerusalem (at this time it was Pilate), the Herod family was thought to be a “buffer” between the Jewish nation and the evil, Gentile tyrant from afar!  Even though the Herodians were the ruling representatives of Caesar in Israel they were thought to be better than someone directly from the emperor’s palace.  And the Roman tax on the people of Israel was partially used for the upkeep of this family.

So, in effect, things had deteriorated and decayed to such an extent that, for some, it was good for Israel to be split up into Tetrarchies and ruled by an Edomite family!  This is the result of individuals and families and leaders rejecting God’s Law in favor of man’s.  Chaos, anarchy and tyranny are inevitable when it happens!  But Israel was not free.  In their evil and gross disobedience, God had given them over to foreign government and local Edomite government!

But this political position was held by a significant number (although not a major party) in Israel.  And they were called “Herodians”.  There was normally some degree of hostility between the Pharisees and the Herodians.  But in this case the Herodians were useful to the elders.  So, as Matthew says at the beginning of verse sixteen, “they (the Pharisees) send forth their disciples to Him, with the Herodians….”  The Herodians are to be witnesses to Jesus’ answer when the Pharisees ensnare (entangle) Him in His speech!

Now, the approach to Jesus by these men is more fully described by the Gospel of Luke.  Here’s what he says:


“…and they watched Him, and they sent forth spies which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of His words, that so they might deliver Him unto the power and authority of the governor.”


So, as you can see from Luke’s Gospel, there was a plot to conceal their intent – to send people Jesus didn’t know, to pretend to be just men seeking the answers to troubling questions, to trap Him into saying something which would incite rebellion against Rome, in order that they could deliver Him to the governor (whom they secretly detested) who was the local, Roman law enforcement official! (Pilate)

So this was a truly demonic conspiracy, born from pure hated for God’s Messiah, and necessitated by fear of the crowds following Jesus!  If they could somehow get the Roman governor involved in destroying Jesus, then the people wouldn’t come after them!  Get the governor, who they detested, to do it!

Now, you can see how these men approached Jesus here in the remainder of verse sixteen.  The sweetness just oozes; and the flattery flows from their mouths like warm honey.  And they pretend to have tender consciences regarding the subject matter!  “Didaskale”… (teacher)… “we know that you are true, and you teach the way of God in truth; and you have regard for no one, for you do not look to the external form of men….”

You see, they’re building a case for their own integrity here – putting Jesus at ease with flattering words; being submissive to His superior stature and intellect, trying to win Him over so He would feel “safe” in saying something!  And, at the same time, they’re laying the Theological groundwork for Jesus to deny the emperor’s right to tax Israel!  (Something that could get Pilate involved!)

Do you see the implication of the question in verse seventeen?  Here it is:


“Say therefore to us what it seems to you.  Is it permitted to give tribute to Caesar or not?”


The plot thickens, doesn’t it?  The Pharisees reasoned that if this man Jesus follows through with the claim that He is Messiah, Son of God, He will assert original authority and deny Caesar tribute!  And with the Herodians as witnesses, He will be charged with treason against the emperor (getting the governor involved).  But on the other hand, they reasoned, if He says, “pay tribute to Caesar,” then that would be the same as denying His own sovereignty!  And as a last resort they could try Him for blasphemy!

That’s the entanglement of this diabolical plot.  But, as always, the elders and priests of Israel, having forsaken the Law of God long ago, reasoned with the reason of men.  Not only were they pretenders (hypocrites), but all of their presuppositions were false.  More about that in a minute.

But first we need to look into this situation with the “tribute”.  Kensos is the Greek word Matthew uses; while Luke uses another more general word which means the money that one nation pays to another.

But here it is what is called a “capitation tax” – the tax that each individual is to pay for his own person.  It’s a poll tax in essence.  But Israel already had a poll tax!  And every male twenty or over was to pay it.

So for Rome to levy a poll tax (through the Herodian family) was particularly offensive to Israel – especially since the amount required by the Herods was so heavy (it was far more than that which God required), it was so heavy that (twice) the imperial Roman government compelled Herod to reduce the tax in order to head off trouble!  (One of the problems in our time is the heavy taxation.  It’s more than what God requires of us.)

As the letters of Peter and the Revelation of St. John say, in those last years before the destruction of Israel many false prophets and messiahs would appear and manifest themselves.  And one of the marks of the false prophets or messiahs was to be their railing against authority!

And the histories of those days do, indeed, recall a number of these who claimed messianic authority.  And one of the clear indications of their spurious claims to messiahship was that they urged all of Israel to refuse to pay the Roman poll tax!  And they tried, in the name of God and Scripture, to rally the people around a tax rebellion!

Why did they do that?  Because, they said, levying a tax upon the people is a sovereignty issue!  God, they said, is the only one who is sovereign, and, therefore, the only one who can prescribe a tax.  (false messiahs)  So if the people pay Herod and the imperial Roman emperor a poll tax, it’s submission to his authority; it’s the same as paying tribute to another god!

So, to many in Israel (enflamed by false messiahs and false prophets), paying the tax was a religious issue!  And it was galling to pay a head tax in Israel and a head tax to the emperor; it was as if there was a “polytheism” going on… a dual sovereignty, if you will.

And the emperor saw it the same way!  In fact, the Roman coins that were used to pay the tribute had the emperor’s likeness on them.  It was the denarius, as verse nineteen says.  A silver coin; and it had other religious symbolism engraved on it as well!  (As Ross Justice, Christian numismatist would say, the “charagma” the character was stamped in the metal.  So there is a relationship between numismatics and character.  For the Biblical Christian it is the “stamp” of the Spirit of Christ as His people live in submission to His Word.)

But the emperor of Rome saw himself as a man-god (divine) before whom all nations would bow and pay him tribute!  His character was stamped on the coin.  (The name “Caesar” became synonymous with “absolute emperor”… all over the known world.  The German “Kaiser” and the Russian “tsar” both derive from the Latin “Caesar.)

But this little nation Israel was a constant aggravation.  Fortunately for them the existing threat of overwhelming military force kept the factions generally together; and the numerous small insurrections there weren’t serious enough to force their annihilation.  (At least not until 66AD!)

But the coin itself (with his charagma imprinted) became a symbol of the ruler’s dominance.  So to pay the tribute, i.e. the coins, to Caesar meant to acknowledge his power and authority (divinity).  And to approve of giving tribute to Caesar was to acknowledge the legitimacy of his power and authority!  (That was the thinking in Israel.)

So the issue implicit in the Pharisee’s question to Jesus here in verse seventeen is, “With which side of the tax issue would you prefer to be associated when you are tried and executed?”  Because, as I said earlier, in their understanding of civil government, if Jesus says “pay tribute”, He has automatically relinquished any claim to sovereignty; and the elders can then try Him for blasphemy.  On the other hand, if He says, “Don’t pay the tribute – only God is sovereign,” then He proves Himself to be another rebel insurrectionist; and the Roman governor will try Him for treason.

Now.  What is Jesus’ response to them (verses eighteen and nineteen)?


“But Jesus, having discerned their wickedness, says, ‘Why do you try Me, hypocrites?  Show Me the tribute coin.’  And they brought to Him a denarius.”


By Divine discernment Jesus was able to see the entire attempt to entangle Him in doctrine, or speech.  The legal web was woven for Him, and He saw it all immediately!  But, as I said, the assumptions and presuppositions of humanistic and demonic reasoning are not God’s ways.  Jesus was not entrapped by them at all; because God’s sovereignty isn’t abrogated or even threatened by paying tribute to earthly authority!

The apostle Paul interprets Jesus’ words here perfectly when he says to the Church at Rome (chapter thirteen), that rulers have their power directly from God, and they are His ministers (diaconas). 


“Wherefore you must needs be subject,” he says, “not only for wrath but also for conscience sake.  For this cause pay tribute also….”

“Therefore render to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor….”


“Hypocrites,” Jesus says, “why do you try Me?”  Not “tempt” as some translations have it – but to “try”; why do they provoke Him with their insidious and hypocritical attempts to trap Him?  Every attempt, from the beginning, has begun with hypocrisy and ungodly assumptions; and every one has ended in ignominious defeat and total embarrassment for the hypocrite leaders of Israel!

“Hypocrites, why do you try Me?”  Show Me the “nomisma” – the tribute coin sanctioned by law.  “Nomisma” is the Greek word from which comes our word “numismatic”; and you’ll hear the word “nomas” also – the word law.  This is the coin that, by law, was stamped with the character of Caesar – for the individuals and nations of the world to pay tribute to Caesar.  It had been used for many years in Israel.  In fact, Joseph and Mary probably registered for the census and paid their capitation tax with denarii before Jesus was born.

In verse twenty Jesus asks them whose image and inscription was on the coin.  And they responded, “Caesars” (verse twenty-one).  “Then He says, ‘Render’ (give back; answer the claim), ‘Render therefore what is Caesars to Caesar, and what is God’s to God.’”  His answer left them absolutely speechless, and they went away!

The payment to Caesar (answer the claim!) is not only your unquestioned obligation, it is your moral duty!  You have two taxes to pay – one to Caesar for the welfare of the Roman emperor, and his governors, and for the upkeep of the state; and the other is the tax that God requires.  Everything belongs to God, including the emperor and the Roman Empire.  So answer the claim for dues, tax, tribute, fear, honor!  And answer the claim to God for what He requires – tax, tithe, fear, worship, love, obedience, etc.!

Obedience is due to all authorities under whom we find ourselves.  Israel’s rebellion and disobedience had led them to be placed under Roman rule and law; and they owed the tribute due to Rome!  And obedience to God requires obedience to all He establishes over us.  For there is no power except that which He institutes.

Later on, as we all know, Israel resisted Rome.  And the emperor’s patience wore out.  The Jews chose to rebel; and it led to the worst war in history – the wholesale slaughter of many millions, and the death of a nation.  Neither the Roman imperial answer nor the Jew’s revolutionary answer offered anything except death and disaster.  Only God’s answer brings life.

Although Jesus’ answer to the hypocrite leaders confounded them and ended any basis for accusation against Him, they still accused Him of perverting the nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar – as recorded in Luke chapter twenty-three, at verse two.  Their plot was to kill Him, and, ultimately, it didn’t really matter that He was completely true and just.

And now let’s not use this verse ever again apart from the Truth therein.  There were two taxing authorities in Israel, and Jesus affirmed the obligation to pay both!  Let us humiliate ourselves before God and His Word.

We’ve often said here that all authority is God’s authority.  They all belong to Him – whether they acknowledge Him!  They are established by Him and they are taken away by Him.

We don’t honor our authorities because of the office; and we don’t honor them because of the man – or person.  We honor them, and pay tribute to them, because they belong to God!  And He is the One Who has established them and caused them to be in authority!  And He said we are to honor His authorities.