And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17)
Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the conflict over slavery between the Union and Confederacy “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”
In his second inaugural address in 1865, he’d not changed his mind: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
And when asked by a preacher if he was sure God was on the Union’s side, Lincoln replied famously and summarily the question was not whether or not God was on their side but if they were on his.
So whose side is Jesus on anyway? Mine or yours? Ours or theirs? Would Jesus join the Tea Party? What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty? Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)? Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)? Where does Jesus stand politically: with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians? Would he plug his car in or gas it up or ride a bike?
The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)? Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who think s himself God? Or did he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?
While Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, he did provide enough for the apostles to unpack.
1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect. Christians should be the most faithful and honest taxpayers on the planet.
What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)? Caesar was no altar boy himself. He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods. Yet, Jesus said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).
After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. I think he’d be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!
2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State.
Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers. They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers. The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).
How we joyfully submit to the state often reflects how much faith we have in God to make good on his promise in the gospel. Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it? Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff. Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.
3) Jesus prioritizes the two kingdoms. Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s. He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other. We often separate them into the secular and sacred. Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution. He prioritized the kingdoms. He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.
He was prioritizing the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s). Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom; this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads. What Caesar does with those taxes and honor will be held accountable by God, but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.
The church should never be despaired by any administration. Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God. God alone determines the affairs of the world.
If it’s the end of the world, it won’t be because of President Obama or a nuclear Iran but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.
Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.
4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God. You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due. Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God? Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”
We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.
Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics. While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel. I fear what God might do if we don’t! We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel. We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30). We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We’d better fear God more than the state.
So, we pay our taxes on time. We do the speed limit. We buckle our seatbelts! We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with God’s law.
And even more, we joyfully preach Christ. And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. And on the way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, we speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).
For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end. So the amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse. The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus. Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re merely aliens and strangers here. We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.
Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s? We were stamped with the imago Dei—long before anything was stamped with any other image. Therefore, I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that.
Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy? In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel? What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or one sinner who repents? Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?
How would Jesus answer those questions? Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?
There will be hundreds of professing Christians gathered locally and thousands nationally for the National Day of Prayer in about a week. And they will be Christians who never gather with their local churches to pray. They will gather to pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched. But yet don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.
But God hasn’t ordained your town to be a house of prayer for the nations. He’s ordained the church as the house of prayer for the nations! God will change America, not when towns take a National Day of Prayer seriously, but when the local church takes her weekly day of prayer seriously. I’m not saying boycott the National Day of Prayer (I plan to be at our local one). I’m staying participate with far less expectation, investment and energy then than the local church gathers in prayer.
Would Jesus join the Tea Party? In one sense, who really cares? The question is are we part of his party? He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died. He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing that this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction. He’s more concerned about holiness than taxes.
So pay your taxes. Rally your candidates. But you’d better make sure you’re keeping God’s kingdom in Christ your primary allegiance. Get out the vote if you want, but make sure you’re getting out the gospel more. You’d better be sure to love Jesus and the church more than democracy and the State. You’d better make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) that you’re standing with Christ and his people.
And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God. Are they giving God what is God’s?