Jesus said this when Tiberias was the Caesar of Rome. He was a good administrator, but of course, he was not a Christian. He knew no Christian influence at all, since Christianity was born during his reign. So apparently Jesus was calling the Jews to render to a pagan Caesar some kind of honor.
The whole saying goes like this: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What is God’s? The answer: Everything is God’s. So the point seems to be: When you realize that all of life, including all of Caesar’s rights and power and possessions, belong to God, then you will be in a proper frame of mind to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
When you know that all is God’s, then anything you render to Caesar you will render for God’s sake. Any authority you ascribe to Caesar you will ascribe to him for the sake of God’s greater authority. Any obedience you render to Caesar you will render for the sake of the obedience you owe first to God. Any claim Caesar makes on you, you test by the infinitely higher claim God has on you.
Rendering to Caesar is limited and defined by rendering to God. What is Caesar’s is determined by the fact that everything is God’s first, and only becomes Caesar’s by God’s permission and design. Only God decides what is a rightful, limited rendering to Caesar. The only reason God ordains the rights of a Caesar is for the sake of God.
Thus Peter says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him” (1 Peter 2:13-14). “For the Lord’s sake” is Peter’s way of saying, “Everything is God’s; and this limits what is Caesar’s and how you render it to him.” Namely, render to Caesar nothing that you cannot render for the Lord’s sake.
Peter and Jesus are calling for Christians to have the mindset of an alien and an owner at the same time. “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a cloak of evil, but being servants of God.” We are God’s servants, not the servants of any government. We are free from all governments and human institutions, because we belong to the owner of the universe and share in that inheritance (“fellow heirs with Christ”). We are aliens in the U.S.; we serve the owner of the world.
God has made us and bought us for himself (1 Corinthians 6:20). We are slaves of no man and no government (1 Corinthians 7:22-23). Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We are aliens and exiles on the earth (1 Peter 2:11). We are not “at home” here, but await the Lord from heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8).
In this freedom from the world and from Caesar God sends us for a season back into the “foreign” structures and institutions of society to bear witness that they are not ultimate, but God is. We are to live out the alien ideas of another kingdom in the midst of our earthly homeland. There will always be tension as we live in these two kingdoms. But God sends us in not out.
Beware of rendering too much to Caesar the way Pilate did (John 19:12). And when you render to Caesar do it only “for the Lord’s sake.” If you cannot, do not. May the Lord give us grace and wisdom to be the salt and light of God in an alien land.