St. John's & Zion Lutheran Churches

Jesus Teaches About Church And State

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

Text: Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

You often hear the phrase “Separation of church and state.” While it is not in the U.S. Constitution, it basically is the concept that religion does not control the government and government does not control religion. We appreciate the fact that the government cannot tell us what we can and cannot teach. We are free to proclaim the entirety of God’s Word. The church also does not make the laws for the country. Working through the proper channels, we can petition and vote on laws that are in accord with God’s Word. It is a good thing for us to remember that, as Christians, we are citizens of two entities. We are citizens of the United States and citizens of God’s kingdom, at the same time. As we meditate on these familiar words of our Savior, we will listen as JESUS TEACHES ABOUT CHURCH AND STATE. 1. They Are Separate And Distinct and 2. Both Deserve Our Loyalty.

The events of our text took place during Holy Week in the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders had been questioning Jesus’ authority to teach. Jesus had answered their questions and then told several parables, warning the leaders about what it would mean to reject him. Still looking for some way to discredit Jesus, they came up with a plan to “trap him in his words.” (Verse 15) The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus with a question. It’s interesting that the Pharisees didn’t go themselves. Jesus had spoken in very stern language to them, and they didn’t want to confront him face to face again. To assist in the verbal attack, they enlisted the aid of the Herodians. This was a strange alliance, indeed! After all, the Pharisees believed in the supremacy of the Jewish nation. There was no love lost for the Romans. On the other hand, the Herodians were ready to follow King Herod in collaborating with the Romans. However, as the old saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Their shared hatred of Jesus moved them to work together to try and trap Jesus with his own words.

They came to Jesus with flattery: “’Teacher,’ they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.’” (Verse 16) They tried to catch Jesus with his guard down. Then, they ask a question that, on the surface, seems to be one seeking Jesus’ opinion on a very touchy subject: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (Verse 17) Of course, this was more than just an innocent question. They were trying to trap Jesus in his words. If Jesus said, “No,” then the Pharisees and Herodians, being the good citizens that they were, would have had no choice, but to report this to the Roman authorities. They would arrest Jesus and take care of him, so that he would no longer be a problem. On the other hand, if Jesus said, “Yes,” then he would lose all credibility with the Jewish people. Those people who had called him “The Son of David” on Palm Sunday, would quickly desert him. This group thought that they had a fool-proof plan.

Jesus, being the all-knowing Son of God, saw right through their plans. Jesus asked them to show him a coin for paying taxes. After the Jews admitted that the currency of the land was the Roman denarius, Jesus told them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Verse 21) With these words, Jesus taught those who heard that day that these two entities were separate and distinct one from another and that they owed both of them their loyalty.

This is a good time for us to remember these words of Jesus. The church and the State are distinct and separate from one another in the fact that each one has to do with separate parts of our life. The state, or government, is to be concerned with our physical welfare. They make laws to protect our property and our lives. They are there to help those in need and to promote the general welfare of their citizens. As we read through the clearest teaching about the government in Romans 13, we are reminded of these things. For example, we read in Romans 13:6, “The authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.” Earlier in that chapter, we read, “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” (Romans 13:3)

The church’s primary responsibility is the welfare of the soul. It is to be sure to point out the perfect law of God to people. The church is to tell people that God has a certain set of standards that are to be kept perfectly. It is to tell the people who break God’s laws that the punishment is death. The church is, then, called upon to point the repentant sinner to the cross of Christ, where the blood that was shed there has washed away all sins. The church’s main responsibility is to be concerned with the spiritual welfare of people.

These two entities are separate and distinct from one another. Each has their own sphere of influence in people’s lives. There will be some common interests, as each carries out their duties. However, the motivation to listen will be different for both. In speaking of the government, Paul writes, “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” (Romans 13:3,4) The motivation is pure law. We find our motivation for following what God tells us in his Word in passages like 2 Corinthians 5:15, “[Jesus] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” While we are part of both church and state, we see that they are separate and distinct from one another.

Also, as Jesus replies to their disingenuous question with the words, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” he shows us that we do owe something to both. The words “give back,” remind us that we are to give to each what is rightfully theirs. What is it? What do we owe to each?

First, let’s look at what we owe to the state, to the government. Again, we turn to Romans 13, “It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:5-7) We are to submit to the authorities, that is to say, we are to be law-abiding citizens. We are not to see what we can get away with. We obey the laws that have been established. Paul notes that, if we owe taxes, we are to pay them. This is not to say that we cannot take advantage of every legal deduction that we are allowed. However, we are not to look for ways to fudge the numbers. We note that we are also to respect and honor those in the government. Unfortunately, a lack of respect and honor for the governing authorities seems all too commonplace, especially in the last number of years. Just listen to the way that people talk about the president or the governor, whomever they may be. You don’t have to agree with all their policies, but it is necessary for us to show respect and honor for these people. This is especially true, when we remember these words from Romans 13, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God . . . The one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:1,4) When we disrespect or dishonor one of the ruling authorities, we are disrespecting and dishonoring God, for they are God’s representatives. We owe our loyalty to the state because it has been established by God.

Unfortunately, we have not always been as loyal to the government as we should have been. We have broken laws. We have not always thought or spoken the best about our leaders. For these sins, as well as all the others that we have committed, we deserved to hear the pronouncement of eternal death. However, God loved you and me so much that he sent his Son into the world to be our Savior. Jesus was perfect in every respect of his earthly life. This includes his respect for the government. As the almighty God, he was subject to no government. Yet, he willingly subjected himself to the governing authorities, even though the earthly government would wrongly put him to death. However, this death was necessary because this was how our sins were paid for. Jesus was punished in our place. Our sins have been washed away. Jesus showed that he had ultimate power and authority as he rose from the dead. He, further, showed his love for us by sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts, claiming us to be his own. As we are reminded of this, we cannot help but feel a loyalty to him to thank him for all that he has done for us. Paul wrote in Titus 2:14, “[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” We are eager to do what is good; we are loyal to following him, because of what he did for us.

Both the state and the church are owed our loyalty. There is only one time when we may be disloyal to the state, and that would be if they were to tell us to do something that is contrary to God’s Word. For example, if the state were to tell us that we cannot proclaim the clear truths found in God’s Word or tell others about Jesus, then we must follow the example of the apostles as they spoke to the leaders of their day. We would have to say at that time, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29) However, in all other circumstances, we owe our loyalty to the state. This is a result of our loyalty to our loving God.

As we talk about this subject, we are grateful that God has made us citizens of the United States. We have many freedoms in our country that so many other countries do not have. We realize that these freedoms come to us from our God through the government. We also thank God for the many blessings that are ours because, by his grace, we are citizens of his kingdom. We pray that God would always help us to be faithful citizens of both and give to each what we owe them. Finally, we pray that God would bless both the church and the state. Amen.