One of the perennial discussions that goes on in pulpits and pews as well as university classes concerns the relationship between Church and State. More specifically, between Christianity and the United States. How should we think of ourselves as Christians in this country? Are we a Christian nation? If not, how do we relate to non-Christians around us on the level of civil dialogue and involvement? How do we view the State and relate to governing authorities? Just days before he went to the cross, Jesus was confronted with very similar questions about Israel and Rome. Luke says,
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent (Luke 20:19-26).
In this cultural context, the question was loaded. It was on the minds of every Jews because it dealt with the political occupation of Israel. They are under the authority of the Romans government. And some believed that, as in the exile, Israel should just make the best of it and get on with life. Others, like the Zealots, believed that Rome was a scourge that needed to be driven out of the land. They believed in the violent overthrow of Roman occupation as a display of their zeal for God. It’s an emotionally, politically-charged question. Someone (maybe many someone’s) will be unhappy with your answer. So, the scribes and the chief priests are cunning in their question: Tell us, Jesus, what is lawful? Should we be paying tribute to Caesar, or should be should we rebel against Caesar?
Of course, in asking these things, they don’t really want an answer. They don’t really care what he says. It’s a trap. But it’s an important question and, despite knowing their intentions, Jesus doesn’t duck the question. It is important for us to understand his reply because as God’s people we are in a similar situation as Israel. Though Christ is our King, there is a Caesar who rules over us. So, how should we think about our response to him? How should we live under the rule of an unbelieving nation? Jesus gives two broad instructions that we want to think through and apply this morning.
Respect Rightful Authority
Jesus says, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:24-25). Jesus assumes that there some things that rightfully belong to Caesar. Why? Because government is inherently a good thing, being instituted by God himself. Do you remember what Jesus’ apostle, Paul says in Romans 13? “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). It doesn’t matter if your party is power, or even if just or godly leadership is in power. Anarchy and rebellion are not acceptable solutions to our problems. Why? Because human government has been ordained by God. Even bad government serves his purposes and restrains evil.
So, how do we actually do this? What does it look like to live respectfully of rightful authority? I think we can clearly point to three things. First, of all, we should pray for authority. This is actually commanded of us in 1 Timothy 2. Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim 2:1-3). Pray for the mayor and the sheriff. Pray for congress and our judges. Pray for our President. Pray for their well-being. Pray that they would have wisdom to lead. Pray that they would maintain order so that the gospel might freely go forward.
Second, we should submit to authority. Again, in Romans 13, we read: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:1-2). Christians ought to be good citizens. Do we have taxes to pay? Then pay them. In some ways, that’s the focus of the question here. Jesus paid taxes and so should we. But it goes beyond that as well. Are there laws that govern our behavior? Then obey them. Are there limits to our freedom that serve the common good? Then we allow our freedoms to be limited. Of all people, God’s people ought to be known, not as trouble-makers, but as those that seek to live peaceably among all peoples.
Don’t miss the impact of this. We can grumble about this that and the other, but Jesus is saying this as he stands in the middle of the Roman Empire. This is one of the cruelest empires to ever exist. An empire that would even slaughter Christians. Yet, following his Lord’s teaching, Peter could say of Rome, “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 to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. . . . Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:13-17). If God’s people can submit, survive, and even thrive in that empire, how much more in the country in which we live today?
Finally, we should engage with authority. As Christians, we are not limited in our interactions with government. In fact, where possible we should influence government whenever possible. So, like the centurion of Acts 10, or Paul making his appeal because of his Roman citizenship, it is good if we can participate at all levels of civil life. Think about the men like William Wilberforce who served in government. Because of his commitment to Scripture’s vision of human dignity and salvation in Christ, he worked for decades to end the British slave trade. That’s one way to engage with authority. Another way that is easy in our culture is simply to vote. You have an immense privilege to help influence who governs this country. Others do not have that kind of voice. Do not shrink back from that responsibility.
Jesus said we ought to respect rightful authority. But that’s only half the picture.
Remember our Ultimate Allegiance
Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25). Now, think about the immediate reason for him saying we ought to render to Caesar, Caesar’s things. He said, ‘bring me a coin and tell me whose likeness is on it.’ Now, on whom has God stamped his likeness? Us! Much like the description of craftiness takes us back to the garden of Genesis 3, so here we are taken back to Genesis 1 and 2 where God says that he will make humanity in his image, in his likeness.
So, think about what that means. If God deserves to have that which is his rendered to him and we are his, then it means that all of our life—mind, heart, soul, and strength—all of it is to be given to God. Thus, while Jesus called for obedience to Caesar, he outright rejected any suggestion of worship of Caesar. Instead, we are to worship God and God alone. And so, while we are to submit to earthly authority, that submission only goes so far. When the State becomes so corrupt so as to try to force believers to act in ways that contradict, then we refuse to submit. Our loyalty is clear when our commitments clash between God and Caesar.
For example, remember in Acts 5 when Peter and John are arrested for preaching Jesus. The Jewish authorities cannot really do anything so they just rough them up and threaten them. They find them preaching again and say, ‘Hey didn’t we just tell you to stop?’ And what do they say? We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). There is room, even for godly Christians for certain acts of civil disobedience.
More importantly, because God is our ultimate authority, God should also be the one in whom we place our ultimate trust. Governments will always fail and eventually pass away. Think about all of the great empires that ruled over the earth in ancient times. None of them remain today. Mark Dever says that though the government is a rightful authority, it is a temporary authority. He makes this clear as he recounts a time when the evangelist John Wesley had an occasion to be with England’s King. Wesley wrote:
I was in the robe-chamber, adjoining the House of Lords, when the King put on his robes. His brow was much furrowed with age and quite clouded with care. And is this all the world can give even to a king? All the grandeur it can afford? A blanket of ermine round his shoulders, so heavy and cumbersome he can scarcely move under it! A huge heap of borrowed hair, with a few plates of gold and glittering stones upon his head! Alas, what a bauble is human greatness! And even this will not endure.[i]
As the Church, no country is ever our lasting home, no Caesar is ever our true king. We lives as joyful exiles, looking forward to a lasting city under the reign of Christ our King. In him alone do we put our trust because he has displayed his love for us through his atoning work on the cross, and displayed his power through his resurrection from the death.
No leader, no government, no nation will ever provide any lasting salvation. That can only be found in Jesus. The proof is found in the nail-scared hands and feet of a divine man who is even now sitting at right hand of the throne of God.
[i] Mark Dever, “Jesus Paid Taxes” (sermon delivered on September 19, 2010). Summary notes provided by Colin Hansen, accessed online at: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/pay-your-taxes-but-trust-in-christ