What Does the Bible Say About Paying Taxes?

Did Jesus Pay Taxes?

Jesus on Taxes in the Bible
Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians to 'render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's' (Mark 12). Getty Images

Every year at tax time, these questions come up: Did Jesus pay taxes? What did Jesus teach on taxes to his disciples? And what does the Bible say about taxes?

A careful study on the topic reveals that Scripture is quite clear on this issue. Even though we may disagree with the way the government spends our money, our duty as Christians is spelled out in the Bible. We are to pay our taxes and do it honestly.

Did Jesus Pay Taxes in the Bible?

In Matthew 17:24-27, we learn that Jesus did indeed pay taxes:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?"

"Yes, he does," he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?"

"From others," Peter answered.

"Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." (NIV)

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell of another account, when the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in his words, and find a reason to accuse him.

In Matthew 22:15-22, we read:

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (NIV)​

This same incident is also recorded in Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26.

Submit to Governing Authorities

People complained about paying taxes even in Jesus’ time. The Roman Empire, which had conquered Israel, imposed a heavy financial burden to pay for its army, road system, courts, temples to the Roman gods, and for the emperor’s personal wealth. Nevertheless, the Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus taught his followers not only in words but by example, to give to the government any taxes that are owed.

In Romans 13:1, Paul brings further clarification to this concept, along with an even broader responsibility to Christians:

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." (NIV)

We can conclude from this verse that if we don't pay taxes, we are rebelling against the authorities established by God.

Romans 13:2 gives this warning:

"Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves." (NIV)

Regarding the paying of taxes, Paul couldn't make it any clearer than he did in Romans 13:5-7:

Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (NIV)

Peter also taught that believers should submit to governing authorities:

For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. (1 Peter 2:13-16, NLT)

When Is It Okay Not to Submit to the Government?

The Bible teaches believers to obey the government but also reveals a higher law — the law of God. In Acts 5:29, Peter and the apostles told the Jewish authorities, "We must obey God rather than any human authority." (NLT)

When the laws established by human authorities conflict with God's law, believers find themselves in a difficult position. Daniel deliberately broke the law of the land when he knelt down facing Jerusalem and prayed to God. During World War II, Christians like Corrie ten Boom broke the law in Germany when they hid innocent Jews from the murdering Nazis.

Yes, at times believers must take a courageous stand to obey God by violating the law of the land. But, paying taxes is not one of these times. While it's true that government abuses and corruption in our current tax system are valid concerns, that does not excuse Christians from submitting to the government as the Bible commands.

As citizens, we can and should work within the law to change unbiblical elements of our current tax system. We can take advantage of every legal deduction and honest means to pay the minimum amount of taxes. But, we cannot ignore God's Word, which explicitly instructs us to be subject to the governing authorities in the matter of paying taxes.

A Lesson From Two Tax Collectors in the Bible

Taxes were handled differently in Jesus' time. Instead of issuing payment to the IRS, you paid directly to a local tax collector, who arbitrarily decided what you were going to pay.

Tax collectors did not receive a salary. They got their pay by charging people more than they owed. These men routinely cheated citizens and didn’t care how they felt about it.  

Levi, who became the apostle Matthew, was a customs official in Capernaum who taxed imports and exports based on his own judgment. The Jews hated him because he worked for Rome and betrayed his countrymen. 

Zacchaeus was another tax collector mentioned by name in the Gospels. The chief tax collector for the Jericho district, he was notorious for his dishonesty. Zacchaeus was also a short man, who forgot his dignity one day and climbed a tree so he could observe Jesus of Nazareth better.

Crooked as these two tax collectors were, a critical lesson emerges from their stories in the Bible. Neither of these greedy men worried about the cost of obeying Jesus. Neither asked what was in it for them. When they met the Savior, they simply followed, and Jesus changed their lives forever.

Jesus is still changing lives today. No matter what we have done or how tarnished our reputation, we can receive the forgiveness of God.

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Does the Bible Say About Paying Taxes?" ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2018, thoughtco.com/bible-on-paying-taxes-700647. Fairchild, Mary. (2018, May 16). What Does the Bible Say About Paying Taxes? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bible-on-paying-taxes-700647 Fairchild, Mary. "What Does the Bible Say About Paying Taxes?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bible-on-paying-taxes-700647 (accessed May 27, 2018).