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Icebreakers

Use one of the following questions to open up discussion.  (If you have first-time guests, be sure to have people give their names as they answer the icebreaker question.)

  1. How do you feel about paying taxes?
  2. To what extent should we obey the governmental authorities?

Our study: Return to sender

“For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”

1 Corinthians 6:20 (NASB)

“Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”

1 Peter 2:17

Objectives

Small group members and guests will:

  1. Understand the Biblical view on the authority of governments
  2. Commit to set Jesus and His Kingdom as the first priority
  3. Experience the blessing of giving back our lives to God

Study

Read Matthew 22:15-22:

15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”

21″Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Who are the Pharisees and the Herodians? (v. 15-16)

The Pharisees are a religious group known for their high standards of purity and adherence to the Scriptures and are highly esteemed by the general population.  The Herodians are allies of the Roman occupation and seek political and institutional power.  These groups have fundamentally different doctrine and aims and is highly unusual for them to ally – they must view Jesus’ teaching as a threat.

Why do they want to trap him?  What does trapping him entail? (v. 15)

The last time we see the Pharisees “laid plans” (or to “take counsel”, or “plot”) to trap Jesus  they are figuring out a way to try and kill him (Matt 12:14).  Trapping him can entail two things:  1) often students questioned rabbis on their teaching to show the rabbi’s ignorance the superiority of the questioner 2) they want Jesus to say something that they can legally use against him.

Why do they call him “Teacher”? (v. 16)

Jesus is called “Teacher” three times in Matthew and only by outsiders; His disciples never use that title.

Why flatter him thusly “‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” ? (v. 16)

It is a common rhetorical (argumentative) practice at the time to greet a hostile audience with complimentary words (see the opening statement to Felix, the Roman governor, in Acts 24:1-4).

The comment that Jesus does not show favoritism (literally “does not look at people’s face”) is doubly ironic: 1) God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34, Rom 2:11, Jas 2:1, 9) 2)  if they knew that was the case, why open with flattery?

Why do the Pharisees, experts in the law, ask for his opinion? “Tell us then, what is your opinion?” (v. 17)

Questioning a rabbi about his opinion about the law or its application is common in Jesus’ time.

“‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'” (v. 17)

The tax questioned about here is not the Biblically mandated temple tax that Jesus pays (Matt. 17:24-27).  This tax is a direct tax (based on the census) levied by the Roman government on all Jews (including women and slaves) and is representative of the political subjugation of the Jewish people.

Jesus is ostensibly left with two options:  support taxes (which is unpopular) or oppose taxes (which is illegal).  Taxes are so fantastically unpopular that they had previously led to revolts (one happened in AD 6, led by “Judas the Galilean”, compare with Acts 5:37).  Opposing the taxes is illegal and would be counted as sedition and punishable by crucifixion.

How does Jesus “know[ing] their evil intent” (v. 18)

Jesus need not supernaturally read their interlocutors’ minds because the craftiness of the question is apparent.

“‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” (v. 20)

The word translated as “portrait” is literally “image”.  The coins that were in use had the image of Tiberius August Caesar with the inscription “Son of God” (Divi Filius) on the front and the inscription “High Priest” (Pontifex Maximus) on the back. The Roman Imperial cult claimed that Caesar was “the son of God”, God in the very flesh, and he was also the high priest of that cult.  Anything that portrayed Caesar’s image was considered idolatrous and blasphemous (Ex 20:3, 20:4) and were abhorred by law-abiding Jews; possession of such a coin would make one ritually unclean.  Once, when the Roman army attempted to march into Jerusalem with their battle-standards (which had Caesar’s image on them) a riot occurred.

The first irony is that the Jews rioted to remove the standards but not the coins proving they value the coins.  Jesus is clear that there is no intrinsic value to material possessions (Matt. 6:19-34).  The second irony is that the Jews, not Jesus, are in possession of the idolatrous coin (v. 19) and because of that are ritually unclean yet are still in the temple.

“‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'”

This it the climax of the story – Jesus claims there is no inherent contradiction in paying taxes and obeying God.  Jesus here stands firmly in the prophetic tradition which did not support blind nationalism (Jer 27:6-22, 29:4-9; Ez. chapters 8 and 9) and this opinion is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom. 13:7, 1 Pet 2:13-14).

But there is a more subtle meaning behinds these words:  I believe that Jesus uses the word “image” to evoke Gen 1:27 – man is created in God’s image.  While the original question posed to Jesus concerns the tax, Jesus insists that we may return things to the one whose image is stamped on it: the coin to Caesar, ourselves to God.  We are God’s currency.

Finally, a kingdom’s sovereignty and range of power are directly related to currency: a kingdom’s sovereignty can be seen in its ability to manufacture its own currency, and a kingdom’s range of power is seen by how far and wide the currency is accepted.  God’s Kingdom’s power is show by the fact that His currency – those who are made in His image – covers the whole earth, something no earthly kingdom can claim.

Application

Being subject to the earthly rulers and following their laws is a non-negotiable.  That means no illegal downloading of music, no underage drinking, no drug use, and no tax evasion.

For those who work under a boss, this also means that there is no Christian way to slack off at work or cut corners.  If you signed a contract, you are bound to the terms of those contract and obedience to God covers those areas as well.

I am of the opinion that if we cannot submit to earthly authorities, we will find it impossible to do so to the Heavenly authority.  Obedience does not start with lofty spiritual goals, but can be seen in the constant small steps we take towards perfect obedience in our daily affairs.

Prayer Time

  1. Thank God that He has made creation and that he made it “very good”!
  2. Ask God that He might restore His image through forgiveness and renewal
  3. Ask God to highlight any areas in which our obedience to Him or any authority that we are subject to is imperfect.  Repent of any areas that are brought to mind.
  4. Ask God to empower us to turn over our lives to him perfectly, as everything we are is but His.
  5. Pray for the missionaries far afield who must be obedient to governments in dangerous places and may have to give their lives in obedience to God.  Ask God that they would glorify God in their living and in their dying.
  6. Pray for our leaders and our government, that they might have the wisdom to lead the nation closer towards God and not further away.
  7. Thank God that we our blessed with a nation where we are not persecuted for meeting together.
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