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Christianity is not a political revolutionary movement, or a political movement of any sort. We do not achieve our goals through government, and we are not stopped from achieving them by government. We should pray for, and be at peace with, governing authorities, as much as we can be without disobeying Jesus. But generally, government just doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: human beings are made in the image of God. We owe our ultimate allegiance to Him.
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Matthew #78. Matthew 22:15-22
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In verses 22:15-45, Matthew records three incidents in which the religious leaders tried to embarrass Jesus with a trick question, and one instance where Jesus, in a way, gets them back with his own question.
The first question comes from the representatives of the Pharisees, accompanied by the Herodians. A little cultural/historical background is helpful here. The Herodians were those people who openly supported the ruler-ship of the family of King Herod the Great. I think it is no mistake that the Pharisees sent their representatives with the Herodians, rather than coming themselves. Herod’s family, and the Herodians who supported them, were generally hated. Imagine your country has been invaded and conquered by a foreign power. The conquerors have installed a new government that will do what they want, and they will try to control you through this new government. The people who support the new government are the Herodians.
The reason the Pharisees are doing anything with them at all is to try and trap Jesus with a trick question. If he endorses taxation, it will be unpopular with the people, and it may even be seen as an endorsement of the oppression of the Romans and Herodians. But if he openly says there should be no taxation, the Herodians will be right there to witness it, and it could very likely lead to his imprisonment by either them, or the Romans. Remember, this was not a free society, where anyone had the right to say what he pleased. If the Romans or Herodians didn’t like what Jesus was saying, they would have no reservations about putting him in prison, and there were no laws stopping them from doing so.
It seems like the perfect trap. Either he gets put in prison, or he publicly supports a hugely unpopular government, and loses a large number of his own followers.
In those days there were a number of different sorts of coins (there was no paper money). Some of the coins were used only in local regions or provinces; these were stamped with the image of the governor or ruler of the province. There were other coins that were used throughout the Roman empire. These coins were stamped with the image of the Emperor. Obviously, when paying taxes to the Roman Empire, one used the Roman coins which were stamped with the Emperor’s image.
Jesus points this out, and then says his famous line, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But it is his second line that contains the real zinger. Most of the Jews who were listening probably knew the Old Testament pretty well; certainly the representatives of the Pharisees did. Genesis 1:27 says this:
27So God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
It is a foundational fact of both Jewish and Christian theology that human beings are created “in the image of God.” Therefore, when Jesus adds: “and give to God what is God’s,” everyone listening would have understood that Jesus was referring to Genesis 1:27, and the fact that human beings bear God’s image. So coins have the Emperor’s image; Jesus says, “Fine, give them to the Emperor.” But people bear God’s image, therefore, human beings belong not to the government, but to God. We may owe taxes to Caesar, but we owe our very lives to God.
As I write these words, I am thoroughly disgusted with the political and governmental climate in the country where I live – and yet, it is probably better here than most other places in the world. I think, in this day and age, it is important to remember how Jesus viewed government. I believe I can sum up Jesus’ attitude toward human government in one word: irrelevant.
The government at the time of Jesus was incredibly corrupt and oppressive. There was no free speech. Freedom of religion was limited. Taxation was crushing. Laws were arbitrary and brutally enforced. The rich and powerful were firmly in control, and they arranged things for their own benefit, and were, to a large extent, above the law. In the midst of this situation, enters the Son of God, with the power of God, on the mission of God, and he did not do anything to change the government. In fact, he rejected the times when people attempted to get him involved in government:
14When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This really is the Prophet who was to come into the world! ” 15Therefore, when Jesus knew that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain by Himself. (John 6:14-15, HCSB)
Jesus had opportunities to make political changes. He deliberately rejected these opportunities. Time and time again Jesus spoke about a government, a “kingdom,” but it was not an earthly kingdom. He was concerned with the kingdom of Heaven. He never suggested that earthly government should be used to create or support, or accomplish the purposes of His kingdom. When questioned by governmental authorities about his political position, this is what Jesus said:
36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV2011)
When questioned about taxes, as here in this passage today, Jesus says, basically: “Pay your taxes. But give your life to God.”
I think Christians, particularly in the Western world, would do well to pay close attention to this. Christian Conservatives need to hear this: The government in Jesus’ time was large, inefficient and imposed unjust taxation. It limited freedom of speech and religion. Yet, Jesus did not try to reform the government. His goal was not (is not!) to create a wonderful, free, political system. He came for human beings, made in the image of God.
Christian liberals also need to hear something. During the time of Jesus, the people in power were the rich fat-cats who controlled everything for their own benefit. The government did nothing for the poor. The government was fundamentally unfair, and it allowed rampant unfairness to flourish. Yet, Jesus did not try to reform the government. His words about loving and caring for others were not spoken to representatives of government, but rather, to his followers. He never advocated for government as a solution for poverty, or in fact, anything.
Not only did Jesus not advocate the government as a solution for anything, but also he did not speak out against it as a problem. He treats government almost like the weather: it is what it is. Jesus spoke truth to power. But in his teachings, government is more or less irrelevant as a means to helping human beings.
Unless you are reading this from someplace where you could go to prison for speaking the thoughts I am expressing here, you are in a better political system than Jesus. But in that situation, Jesus didn’t try to make things politically fair. His concern is much bigger than politics.
I want us to remember that the church that Jesus established has always survived, and even thrived, in places where the government was powerful and unjust. For the first three hundred years after Jesus, it was illegal to be Christian in the Roman Empire, and often, Christians were brutally persecuted. After Islam took over most of the Middle East in the seventh century, the government was generally oppressive toward followers of Jesus. Christians have not enjoyed much freedom in communist countries. There has never been a time when Christians enjoyed political freedom all over the entire world. There is always someplace where culture, or government, or both, is unfavorable to Jesus followers, and to our ministry of hope in Jesus Christ. And that government opposition has always been completely ineffective in silencing the message of the gospel.
The Bible teaches that we should be good citizens, as far as it is possible without disobeying God.
13Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority 14or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16As God’s slaves, live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor. (1Pet 2:13-17, HCSB)
Scripture also tells us to pray for those who have political power:
1First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1Tim 2:1-4, HCSB)
It also teaches us to speak truth to those in power, and stand up against the government when it tries to make us disobey God, or silence the message of Jesus Christ.
27“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, 28to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place. 29And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness. (Acts 4:27-29, HCSB)
26Then the commander went with the temple police and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. 27After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28“Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us! ” 29But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:26-29, HCSB)
I don’t believe it is a bad thing to be politically active, if you feel the Lord calling you to it. These days, in many places in the world, we have wonderful governmental systems that allow ordinary citizens to work for change. It is entirely appropriate, at times, to make use of those opportunities. It is good and right to speak truth to those in power. But as we do that, we need to remember several things.
- Our hope is not in government, nor in political change.
- Neither government nor politics can stop the ongoing work of Jesus in this world.
- Our mission as Jesus followers is not to create a better government, but to make disciples of all peoples. Jesus did not suggest government as a means for doing this.
Christianity is not a political revolutionary movement, or a political movement of any sort. We do not achieve our goals through government, and we are not stopped from achieving them by government. We should pray for, and be at peace with, governing authorities, as much as we can do so without disobeying Jesus. But generally, government just doesn’t matter.
What does matter is this: human beings are made in the image of God. We owe our ultimate allegiance to Him. As I write this, we are in an election year in the United States. A lot of American Christians are pretty upset about what has happened both this year, and in recent years, with politics.
Let me suggest a few questions to help us gain the perspective of Jesus about government.
Maybe you are upset that the system seems to reward big corporations, and make the rich richer. But are you as concerned about selfishness and greed in your own life as you are about those things in politics?
Perhaps you feel that the political elites in this country seem to be able to do as they please. But are you as interested in holding yourself accountable as you are in holding them accountable?
Are you upset about taxation, and having your money go to things that you don’t support, like abortion? What about this: where else does your money go right now? Are you using it to support missions? Are you using it to help impoverished families around the world? Are you using it to support the teaching and preaching of the gospel?
Some folks are concerned about the possibility that freedom of speech and religion is diminishing in the Western world. But let me ask this: are you even using it? Are you sharing your faith with your co-workers and friends and neighbors? Are you offering to pray for them? If you aren’t doing it now, why does it matter if someone makes a law against it?
You see, the things we get upset about in government are sometimes the things that Jesus wants to address in our lives.
We belong to God, not the government. I’ve shared some of the correction that Jesus’ words here bring to us. But his words also bring hope. We belong to God. Human beings do not have any ultimate power over us. We can be at peace, regardless of what happens politically. As Jesus said, earlier in Matthew:
28Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. 31So don’t be afraid therefore; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:28-31, HCSB)
No matter what happens, we are in His hands, and he cares for us more than any government ever could.