As Jesus was teaching in the temple in the lead up to His crucifixion, certain spies were sent by His Pharisee enemies to ask the Lord a loaded question: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus said yes then he risked offending the Jews who despised Roman rule, but if he said no he would risk defying the Romans themselves.
But what Jesus did next showed that he could not be trapped by human beings unwillingly. In reply, Jesus asked for a denarius. Then he asked the spies, “Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The spies were astounded by this answer and, according to Luke’s Gospel, “they became silent” (Matt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26).
What was so astounding about Jesus’ reply and why did it shock the spies into silence? The answer is that Jesus’ words were no cute witticisms. In Roman times, an emperor’s face could only appear on a coin by that emperor’s command. In fact, Roman currency was so tightly monopolised and regulated by the emperor that Roman coins were the property of the emperor, or the “Caesar”. In other words, the coins of Tiberius Caesar, who was the Roman emperor from AD14 to AD37 and who ruled during Jesus’ own ministry, were in fact the property of Tiberius himself. In a very real sense, then, the denarius that Jesus was given did belong to that Caesar. Jesus was telling these spies that the coin they gave him to look at was owned by Tiberius anyway, so just give it back to him in tax. As for God, we should give back to Him what truly belongs to Him.
But what belongs to God? The answer is found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, wisdom and power are said to belong to God (Gen. 40:8; Job 12:13), as well as strength, insight, dominion and awe (Job 12:16; 25:2). In the Psalms, King David also said that all kings, including himself, belong to God, as do the heavens (Ps 47:9; 115:16). But in the New Testament, something new is said to belong to God: His Church. In John 10: 1-18, Jesus describes Himself as the “good shepherd” who knows His sheep and whose sheep know Him “just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father – and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
Although Jesus preached about Himself primarily among the Jews of His day, Jesus’ status as the good shepherd applies globally, for all time, including for those of us living in Australia and beyond. As Jesus continued speaking, He said,
“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
According to Jesus, then, we belong to God, and Jesus always intended to be our one, true, good shepherd to shepherd us throughout our lives. We belong to God just as much as wisdom and power and all of God’s other attributes belong to God! What is also really exciting is that as part of God’s universal Church we mean the world to Him too. But whereas the riches and wealth of the vast Roman Empire belonged to Tiberius Caesar at one point, God’s possessions in his Church rank as God’s treasures for all eternity.