From time to time Christians may be prompted by events in the nation to question what their obligations are to civil government. Some may be drawn to the libertarian point of view that sees government as essentially evil and advocates virtually no governmental control in our lives. Others, leaning more toward the socialist perspective, may support the idea of expansive governmental intervention in the lives of its citizens. At tax time, however, nearly everyone tends to wish, if not openly advocate, that government would just go away and leave us alone. It is interesting that this tension exists in a country such as ours, for we have been, until recently, blessed with a government that was generally supportive of Christian values and that was not an impediment to the pursuit of faith in Jesus Christ. Few in the world’s history have lived in such a political environment, certainly not the first Christians, who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
During the Lord’s ministry on the earth, the Jews used every possible means to have something with which they could accuse Him. In one attempt, they asked Him if it were lawful to pay the poll-tax (Mt. 22:15-21). His answer, they assumed, would with put Jesus at odds with the Roman government, or at odds with the Jewish people. His response, however, did neither of these things. Instead, it put His accusers to flight.
In Mt. 22:19 the Lord asked the Jews to show Him the coin used to pay the poll-tax. In v. 20 He asked whose image was on the coin. The answer, of course, was Caesar’s image. It was at this point that the Lord said, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (vs. 21).
This simple, yet profound, answer is still our guide today. As the Lord’s people, we are bound by our obedience to the gospel to follow every command of the Lord (Mt. 28:20). Therefore, we too are to render to Caesar (our government) the things that belong to Caesar. In context this means that we must pay our taxes in accordance with the laws of our land. We don’t have to be happy about it, but we must do it because our Lord requires it of us. In application this means the we must always conduct ourselves in accordance with the laws of society, as good citizens ought to do. Christians should never be law-breakers, but rather should be an example of how godly people live.
There is, however, more to our obligation. The Lord also said to render “to God the things that are God’s.” The things that are God’s are our lives spent in obedience to His word. This most certainly refers to our souls, which His Son purchased with His blood (1 Cor. 6:19-20; Acts 20:28), but it also includes our earthly possessions, which His Son promised to provide to us if we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33). In addition to this, rendering to God the things that are His involves the focus of our minds upon His word so we will handle it accurately (2 Tim. 2:15), and so we will share it with others so they will have the opportunity to be saved (Mt. 28:19-20).
Understood in all of this, of course, is that when Caesar’s things contradict God’s things, our first obligation is to God. Human governments will always tend toward things that violate God’s will. We are seeing more and more of this very thing in our current government. Nevertheless, God’s word instructs us that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We are, after all, citizens of God’s kingdom first (Phil. 3:20). Then we are citizens of our earthly nation. If we keep this priority straight, then we will be good citizens of both realms.