Veni. Vedi. Vici.
These were the comments of Julius Caesar about a short battle he had just won -- part of what historians describe as his great military advance on earth. He came. He saw. He conquered. And in doing so, he brought military power and prestige to Rome along with it. This became his claim to fame, and little did the rest of the world at that time know that such a military victory would spark an even greater controversy in the near future -- a controversy about his divinity. Even though many of his close associates didn't consider him divine, his reputation and fame as such spread like a wildfire nonetheless, and it eventually got him assassinated, thereby throwing Rome into a civil war. Out from among this civil war there emerged a victor not only of military power, but a victor of god-like authority on earth. This victor, or winner, was none other than Julius' adopted son, Octavian. Octavian took the title "Augustus," meaning "honorable One," and declared emphatically that his father had indeed become divine, and in becoming divine, Augustus Octavian Caesar was to be officially deemed the "Son of God" throughout his empire. After taking this title upon himself, it didn't take long for people to realize that the politically correct answer to any question about who the "Son of God" was, would have been Caesar Augustus.
Caesar Augustus ruled his massive empire from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D., and as the Scriptures record for us, that included the time of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:1) all the way through his life as a teenager. After he died, Tiberius reigned in his place (Luke 3:1) and took upon himself the honorable title of divinity as well. Since then, archeologists have discovered various artifacts corroborating these proclamations of divinity, one of which is a denarius (a coin) with an abbreviated inscription that says, "Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus." On the other side of that same coin is an image of Tiberius enthroned as a mediator, and above that image is the inscription, "Pontif Maxim," a reference to himself being the High Priest among the college of Pontiffs in Rome. It was, in fact, a coin like this one that was shown to Jesus shortly after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he cleansed Herod's temple of it's idolatrous worship (Matt. 21:1-17; 22:15-22).
Matthew 22:15-22 is where we find an account of this coin being handed to Jesus. In that narrative we learn that the Pharisees allied themselves with their enemies, the Herodians, in order to plot against Jesus and entrap him, thereby building a case against him for unlawful (and punishable) deeds. It is peculiarly interesting that the Herodians are found to be conspiring with the Pharisees. The Herodians were a political party that supported the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, and the Roman empire's rule over the Jews, even though, according to extra-biblical records, we know the Pharisees considered the Herodians to compromise Jewish political independence. But why wait until Jesus enters Jerusalem to conspire against him? Why not attempt to entrap him before his triumphal entry? We aren't told by Matthew. But because Matthew's narrative is structured this way, the confrontation by the Pharisees and Herodians upon Jesus in Matthew 22 is really best viewed as a commentary upon Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem and his claim to be The Divine King of kings (which began in the previous chapter).
In Matthew's narrative, we learn that both religious parties conspire against Jesus and attempt to flatter him with pious expressions of student-like curiosity, saying:
Teacher! We know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully. And we know you don't care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Therefore, please tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? (Matt. 22:16-17)
Because the subject of "lawful" taxation is like a hot potato in Christian circles -- everyone wants to pass it on to the next person and no one wants to be caught with it in their lap -- the main point of Matthew's narrative often gets completely overlooked. It seems to me that the point of Matthew's narrative is not to teach the Law, or even the way in which taxes could be lawfully paid, and so any attempt to use this passage as a prooftext for how to pay taxes lawfully is really missing the point. As I mentioned a few moments ago, it seems that this portion of Matthew's narrative functions as more of a commentary upon Jesus' triumphal entry. Let me explain further what I mean by this.
In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked by both the Pharisees and the Herodian party whether it is was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. And obviously, no matter which answer Jesus gave, whether yes or no, his words could have been twisted to imply a claim to greater authority than either God or Tiberius Caesar, thereby causing Jesus to fall into their political and religious trap. So Jesus responded wisely by asking them for a coin with which taxes to Caesar were paid. They brought a denarius to him, which, as was shown a few moments ago, contained an image of Tiberius Caesar on it. Jesus then took the coin and asked whose image was on it, to which they promptly replied, "Caesar's." He then suggested to pay both God and Caesar, but to Caesar, only those things which bear his image, yet to God those things which bear His image. As you can imagine, this created a dilemma for the Pharisees and Herodians, because it exposed the false dichotomy with which they were attempting to entrap him. But Jesus remained faithful to the truth and to the way of God, neither caring about their opinion, nor being swayed by their pious appearance. Jesus was Lord whether they wanted him to be their Lord or not. But Jesus also knew that the leadership of Israel didn't really want him to be their Lord, which is what makes the history surrounding his triumphal entry so profound. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a direct challenge to the tremendously corrupt and evil powers that existed in the first century.
This example of faithfulness on Jesus' part is a lesson which Christians need to learn and apply in every age, but it's especially important to keep in mind during this season of Lent as we await Palm Sunday (the day in which Christians commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry as the King of kings), Good Friday (the day of Jesus' passion), and Pascha (the resurrection of Jesus). As we just saw in Matthew 22, Jesus was not a careless man, easy to be entangled by the entrapments of powerful enemies of God; and neither should Christians be. When the world confronts the Christian with claims about Jesus's Lordship, and how he really is not presently reigning as The King of kings, we should not care about their opinions or be swayed by their pious appearance. We should recognize that every worldly authority -- whether it claims divinity for itself or not -- is still subservient to the real King of Kings, the Son of God, Jesus Christ the one and only Pontif Maxim.
Jesus is King whether men accept him as the ruler of their lives or not. The world may want to claim a king of their own, and they might even get the military power and prestige that comes along with it, but Christians aren't flattered by worldly crowns and great military escapades which expand earthly empires. Christians cherish the humble glory of a life subservient to a King who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and cleanses earthly temples of their man-made glory. Christians cherish the faithfulness of King Jesus because he is the way of God; he is the Truth even though many people prefer to believe in lies. Jesus is the Son of God whether Caesar claimed that title for himself or not. Men can claim anything they want for themselves, and they can even pay tribute to whatever man-made image they want. But if Jesus is true and he really did teach the way of God truthfully, then people had better pay tribute to the God who made man as His image. In other words, they ought to pay tribute to King Jesus. Sure, they ought to pay Caesar his tribute too, especially in those places where it is legitimately his due, but even Caesar would some day have to face the real Son of God. And if Caesar had to give an account before the real King of kings, how much more accountable are the worshipers of Caesar and other idolaters going to be on the day of judgment?
For our own well being, let us keep in mind as often as possible, but particularly in this season of Lent, that the one thing all men have in common is death. All men are appointed to die, and after that to face judgment for their own sins. And that judgment is going to come from God, the one and only, living and true judge of their sins (Heb. 9:27). But the great news of God's revelation is that He Himself has provided salvation from sin. It was that same Lord who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey long ago that also was crucified, died, and was buried as the only righteous man in history, and on the third day he rose again according to the promise of the Scriptures. Therefore men can face Him with their sins atoned in full if they die to self and live for Him. God's promise to us is that,
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:9-13)
Those who live and die with their own precious idols will not be saved from sin. Those who idolized Herod's Temple, like the Pharisees and Herodians, are dead, and they died in their sins. All those who worshiped Caesar and confessed his divine lordship over all are dead, and both Caesar and his worshipers died in their sins. But Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of all know that he is not dead. They know Jesus conquered through death, and the proof of his victory over death and it's enemies is his resurrection. The proof of his Lordship over your life is the pentecostal outpouring of His Spirit upon all nations (through which you believe today). Therefore, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. Let us render unto God everything that is His, keeping in mind that everything is His.