Topical Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation….
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
So begins the most famous document in American history. A document adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4 in 1776. A document which laid the foundation for the freedoms we celebrate on this, our nation’s 228th birthday.
But what did Mr. Jefferson and his fellow patriots mean when they said, “all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? According to the document, we are creatures of a Creator. How are we to relate both to Creator and country? Let’s explore the question, then we’ll turn to God’s word for the answer.
Explore the issue
I was on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary when my good friend and former student John Moldovan became an American citizen. John’s father was killed by the Romanian Communist government for preaching the gospel; John was persecuted terribly by them until a human rights group won his release to America.
Now he was becoming an American himself. He invited Janet and me to the ceremony. After this wonderfully moving celebration, this very perceptive believer made an interesting statement: “My first allegiance through it all has been to Jesus my Lord. Now I owe allegiance to America as well. I’m a citizen of two countries.”
So are we all. We live in America, but we also live in the Kingdom of God. We love our nation, but we also love our Lord. We serve Christ, but we also serve Caesar. How?
According to God’s word, life begins at conception, so abortion is wrong. Yet the state allows it. Should we bomb abortion clinics, or march in protest? Or should we change our beliefs to match society? What should we do?
What about postmodern moral relativism in the schools? Pari-mutuel wagering and lotteries? The perception of Christians in the media and entertainment industries? How do we live in two countries, especially when the two don’t appear always to agree?
We are not the first to ask the question.
It is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus is teaching the crowds gathered in the Temple corridors. Now the unlikeliest of political coalitions comes against him.
The Pharisees hated the Roman occupation. But they also hated Jesus. They considered his grace-centered message in violation of the Law and its demands. He was a heretic whose influence must be stopped.
The Herodians supported the Roman occupation in every way. They and the Pharisees were in constant political conflict. But they also saw Jesus as a threat to the Empire’s power. Like the Pharisees, they wanted him arrested or even killed.
So they “went out and laid plans to trap him in his words” (Matthew 22:15).
Luke gives us their underlying motive: “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20).
The Pharisees sent some of their “disciples” to him (v. 16), students at one of the two Pharisaic theological seminaries in Jerusalem. Their youth might endear them to Jesus; at any event, they would be less recognizable to him than their leaders.
After patronizing him with compliments, they spring their trap: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (v. 17). Their grammar requires a “yes” or “no” answer. And either will serve their purpose.
They have pushed a very hot button. The “taxes” to which they refer was the poll-tax or “census” tax paid by all males over the age of 14 and all females over the age of 12. It was paid directly to the Emperor himself.
And it required the use of a coin which was despised by the Jewish populace. This was the “denarius,” a silver coin minted by the Emperor himself. It was the only Roman coin which claimed divine status for the Caesar. On one side it pictured the head of Emperor Tiberius with the Latin inscription, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.” On the other side it pictured Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, with the Latin inscription, “high priest.” It was idolatrous in the extreme.
The tax it paid led to a Jewish revolt in A.D. 6 which established the Zealot movement. That movement eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in A.D. 70. At this time that movement was growing in power and influence. They were asking Jesus to take a position on the most inflammatory issue of the day.
If he says that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, the public will turn from him in revolt and his influence will be at an end. If he says that it is not, he will be a traitor to Rome and the authorities will arrest and execute him. Either way, the hands of these schemers will be clean, and they will be rid of their enemy.
Accept your appointment
Here is Jesus’ timeless answer. He asks for a denarius, and then asks them, “Whose portrait is this?” (v. 20). They tell him that it bears the image and inscription of Caesar. And he replies, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21). If taxes belong to the nation, pay them. If worship belongs to God, give it. Give to each what is due. Live in two countries, a citizen of both.
Paul clarifies this image of citizenship when he calls us “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). An American ambassador lives in a foreign country, under appointment by his president at home. When our ambassador John Negroponte presented his credentials to Iraq’s president and foreign minister on Tuesday, he continued this historic tradition. So long as Mr. Negroponte lives in Iraq, he will obey the laws of that nation. He will give allegiance to its leaders and people. But always he will have a second allegiance, an even higher allegiance to his home country and her leader. He will serve Iraq, but he will also serve America. And if he must choose between the two, his loyalties are clear.
Like him, we are each to obey and support our governing authorities:
“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” (Romans 13:1).
“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” (Romans 13:6-7).
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2; cf. Titus 3:1-2).
But we are also to obey and serve our Lord:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).
“You kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).
Why? “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth” (Proverbs 8:15-16).
Peter explains well the relationship between Christ and Caesar: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right…Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13-14, 17).
Love people, fear God, and honor the state. Do not fear people or state, but God alone.
In other words, serve your highest authority. When you can serve Christ and state, serve both. If you must choose, choose Christ.
The same apostles who taught us to serve the Empire were martyred by these emperors because they would not stop preaching the gospel. Because they chose to serve Caesar unless they could not also serve Christ. Serve your highest authority, always.
We’ve been exploring the biblical worldview as regards Christian citizenship. So what does this doctrine mean? How do we live in both countries, representing our Lord as his ambassador on this foreign soil?
We give taxes, as Jesus teaches here.
We give obedience to the government whenever we can also obey our Lord. Luther said, “It is necessary to have governments because we are sinners.” We need them, and must obey them so long as we can also obey Christ.
We give service as God directs. We become involved in public leadership and political engagement. Plato said, “The punishment of wise men who refuse to take part in the affairs of government is to be live under the government of unwise men.”
We give witness. We are salt and light to this decaying, dark planet. We preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, we use words.
And we give our intercession. This is our most significant act of patriotism.
Rees Howells was a Welsh miner and great prayer warrior. During the dark days of WWII in England, he felt compelled by God to organize a “company” to pray with him for the nation. They prayed day and night from May 16-30, 1940, before the pending invasion of England by the Nazis.
On September 15, the Battle of the Air came to its climax, as the German air raids on London peaked and the British had no air reserves left. The Luftwaffa was free to take Britain, when they inexplicably turned and left for home. But their actions were not inexplicable: Rees Howells and his prayer partners had been on their knees, day in and day out for the week before. And their prayers won the day for their country.
The commander-in-chief of the British Fighter Command later said, “At the end of the battle one had the sort of feeling that there had been some special divine intervention to alter some sequence of events which would otherwise have occurred.”
Will you today give taxes, obedience, service, witness, and intercession to this nation we love?
The Declaration of Independence ends thus: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Let’s join them.