This weekend, millions of Americans will once again endure the filing and, in some cases, the payment of taxes.
Taxation has never been particularly popular among Americans, having once incited several dozen Bostonians to dress up as Mohawk braves and toss tea into a harbor. Christian perspectives on this event were mixed. In the months that immediately followed the tea incident in Boston, not every evangelical Englishman agreed that colonial taxes were unjust. “I am taxed; yet I am no slave,” John Wesley admonished fellow Christians in the colonies, and then went on to declare,
Nine in ten throughout England have no representative, no vote; yet … they enjoy both civil and religious liberty. … Who then is a slave? … See that negro, fainting under the load! … You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruit of our labors: this is liberty. The negro does not: this is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?
Despite our history of mixed feelings about taxes, the vast majority of Americans will provide the government with the requested forms on or before April 15, recognizing that, when you pay your taxes, the government reciprocates by providing you with vital services, such as not putting you in prison.
And yet, other than avoiding the unpleasantness of prison or penalties, why should Christians pay their taxes? Or should they?
Believe it or not, in the days when Jesus walked the dusty roads of the Levant, taxes were even less popular than they are today. This was particularly true among the perigrini—the more-than-ninety-percent of imperial subjects who didn’t possess the privilege of Roman citizenship. Hatred for taxation probably ran hottest in regions like Galilee and Judea. In fact, in the decades that followed the death and resurrection of Jesus, taxation was one of the tensions that triggered the Jewish revolt against the Romans. No wonder, then, that some of the religious leaders selected taxes as the topic of choice to trip up Jesus in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:19-26).
Why Some of What You Make Belongs to Caesar
“Is it lawful,” messengers from the religious leadership asked the teacher from Galilee, “for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:22). The taxes in question here were not the toll taxes paid to publicans like Levi and Zacchaeus (Luke 5:27; 19:2). The taxes in the messengers’ purview were poll taxes that people paid to Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor. These taxes, collected by governors on a regular basis, constantly reminded occupied nations that the Roman Empire ruled their lands. More than a century after the time of Jesus, a Christian orator named Tertullian referred to the poll tax as a sign of slavery.
The question from the messengers seemed tailor-made to cost Jesus either his connection with the crowds or his low profile with the Romans. If Jesus claimed that his people should pay the poll tax, his popularity among the populace could plummet. Plus, the religious leaders might accuse him of placing Caesar’s authority higher than God’s authority. If Jesus declared that it was not lawful for his people to pay taxes to Caesar, he might multiply his popularity among those who longed for a leader who would defy the Romans—but any such claim would immediately mark Jesus as a potential revolutionary, and the Romans would destroy him.
Jesus refused to answer the question directly. Instead, he asked to see a denarius. A denarius was the typical wage for a day of labor; the image and titles of a Roman emperor were stamped on the face of every denarius. Face to face with the emperor’s image, Jesus declared simply, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Caesar’s domain was a dictatorship dedicated to false gods. “Some of the taxes given by New Testament Christians,” Russell Moore reminds us, “would have gone to pay for crucifixion stakes. Some would have gone to feed wild beasts for the bloody circuses. Some would have gone to buy incense to be burned in honor of the self-proclaimed [divinity] of the Caesar.” Throughout the Roman Empire, state-funded temples enshrined prostitution, prophetesses in drug-induced ecstasies, and sacrifices to demonic deities.
Yet no government—not even the Roman Empire—rises without God allowing that state to exist (Daniel 2:21; 4:17). And, part of what a human government can legitimately demand from its subjects is a portion of people’s income. The verb translated “give back” or “render” in Jesus’ reply implied payment of a debt (compare Luke 7:42; 10:35; 12:59; 19:8). What Jesus was declaring was that everyone in the Roman Empire—even those who followed God’s law above all other laws—owed the emperor the debt of honor signified by the payment of taxes (see also Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17).
Years later, the apostle Paul would make much the same point when he wrote that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command. … Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes” (Romans 13:1-6). The denarii and drachmae in the people’s moneybags were minted by the Roman Empire. And so, Caesar had every right to demand a cut of this currency from the subjects who lived in his lands. To resist Caesar’s demand was to oppose God’s command. Christians submit in this manner not only to avoid penalties and prison sentences (“because of wrath”) but also to live out the gospel by doing what in right in God’s sight (“because of conscience”).
From the perspective of the Christian Scriptures, the only foundation for resisting the government is if the state’s delegates demand direct and personal disobedience to divine commands; even then, the paradigmatic pattern is to resist simply by persisting in obedience to God’s Word (Daniel 3:1-18; 6:1-13; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29). This is the pattern that undergirds the closing paragraph of the Manhattan Declaration, in which a broad range of representatives from the Christian tradition have declared together
we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other antilife act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.
Even in governments such as the United States where the people collectively comprise “Caesar,” this doesn’t mean that each individual constitutes his or her own regent, with the right to choose whether and when to render Caesar his due. The Constitution of the United States begins not with “me the people” but with “we the people”—the body politic represented by elected and appointed officials, who determine the size and shape of Caesar’s portion.
Why All of Who You Are Belongs to God
Yet what about the second part of Jesus’ response? What did Jesus mean when he said to “give back … to God the things that are God’s”?
Just as Roman coins were marked with Caesar’s image, something must have been marked with God’s image.
What is it that was marked with God’s image?
Every human being is the image of God.
At the dawn of human history, God created Adam and Eve “in his own image” and “after his likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:2; 9:6), and it is this link between God and humanity that calls for every human life to be treated as sacred still today. When Jesus called the people to give Caesar his due, the coins in their purses bore lifeless representations of Caesar’s passing reign, but the people themselves were living images of the eternal God.
And yet, what does it mean, practically, to render ourselves to God?
In the simplest possible terms, it means joining with Jesus in fulfilling the mission that Adam and Eve failed to fulfill.
In the ancient near eastern context in which Moses wrote the accounts of humanity’s creation, to be made in God’s likeness was to be a son of God and to be created in God’s image was to live as a servant-king—as a vice-gerent who serves and shapes his domain for the glory of a greater king.
The Garden of Eden was a botanical temple, designed as a context for the glory and worship of God. As the living image and likeness of God, the mission of our primeval parents was to extend the borders of Eden and to raise up more image-bearers until the garden covered the globe and God’s glory filled the earth like waters that fill the seas (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). Adam and Eve failed in this mission, disdaining their fellowship with God and distorting their role as viceroys of Eden. So, God brought forth a new nation for his glory from a meandering descendant of Shem and a woman long past menopause. God raised up kings among Abraham’s descendants to exemplify his image and likeness. Yet, one by one, the kings of Israel followed in Adam’s footsteps, until—just as Adam was exiled from the garden temple—the people of Israel were exiled and their temple was torn to the ground.
But then, in the fullness of time, the very God who had planted a garden on the eastern edge of Eden slipped into human history through the birth canal of a Jewish peasant, and nothing would ever be the same again.
This child perfectly exemplified the image of God because he was not only the Son of God and the Servant King but also God in human flesh. It was he who told the men and women on the temple mount to render themselves to God as his image and likeness—which is to say, to join in God’s mission as sons of God and servant kings. Then, he did what no other king could do: having kept the law without flaw, he took the punishment for his people’s failure and rose in triumph over death. As people from every nation become heirs with Jesus through faith and participate anew in God’s image and likeness, the Spirit of Jesus is drawing them together even now into a new temple (Ephesians 2:19—3:21; 1 Peter 2:1-5). Through this temple, the glory of God is flooding the earth before our very eyes.
Rendering to Caesar, Whether and Why
The first part of Jesus’ reply dealt with whether God’s people should provide to Caesar the percentage of their income that Caesar’s representatives request. His reference to the image of God hinted at why.
Followers of Jesus pay taxes because this world matters. Yes, the corruption of our first parents has enslaved this world to “groaning,” to a yearning for redemption that no human pleasure can quell (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11; Romans 8:19-23)—but this groaning sphere of stone and water and dust matters to God. The entire cosmos swirls and twirls in a celestial dance that proclaims the very glory of God; despite the manifold failures of human government, states and societies reflect God’s order and provide a context for the fulfillment of God’s mission. Paul saw the state as an evidence of divine order in a sin-disordered world even during the reign of Nero (Romans 13:3-5)—an emperor who seems to have murdered his own mother and kicked his pregnant wife to death. Even imperfect governments curb human depravity, and this curbing of evil results in greater opportunities for God’s people to proclaim the gospel (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Paradoxically, followers of Jesus also pay taxes because this world is not the realm that matters most. None of the numbers on your 1040 form will last into eternity. National currencies, no less than kings and kingdoms (Psalm 75:2-8; Daniel 2:20-22), are tools that God raises up and tosses aside according to his will. It is, of course, foolish to pay more taxes than we rightly owe—but not because such payments violate our rights. It’s foolish because it leaves less to give away for the sake of a kingdom that will never fade. The cash in my wallet and the currency in my accounts are nothing more than ephemeral signposts of my placement in a world where the kingdom of Christ is not yet fully realized. The values on my payroll statements have no value in any domain that will outlast the moment when Jesus plants his feet on planet earth. Whether the currency is backed by gold or gravel or the government’s paper is irrelevant. In the New Jerusalem, the gravel will be gold, and the government will rest on the shoulders of a serpent-crushing King (Isaiah 9:6; Revelation 21:21). When I release my taxes to the government, I am not expressing confidence in the state’s competence to right the wrongs of this world. I am being reminded that this money is a tool that I can release without remorse because any values that are tied to these dollars and cents are indeed Caesar’s values—fleeting fragments of a kingdom that is passing away.
Reflect thoughtfully on the words of John Wesley. Christians in the Roman Empire were taxed more heavily, with less representation, and for far more worse purposes than anyone in the American colonies. Yet neither Jesus nor his apostles ever suggested violent resistance or revolution. What does that suggest regarding the appropriateness of Christian participation in the events leading up to the American Revolution?
Beale, G.K. The Temple and the Church’s Mission. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004.
Gentry, Peter, and Stephen Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
Hamilton, James Merrill. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.