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Render Unto Caesar

John 18:28 - 19:16

(A more conventional treatment of the character of Pontius Pilate may be found in the Life of Christ series.)

The founder of the church encounters the state. Up until this point, the Roman Empire is unaware of the existence of this man Jesus. His only acknowledgement is the famous “render unto Caesar…” In this passage, we see how the church-state relationship is always a tense one.

28Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

30“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

31Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. 32This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36Jesus said,

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”37“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38“What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

40They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.

1Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face.

4Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

6As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

7The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

8When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

11Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

12From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

13When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

15But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

16Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.

Urgent Necessity

The relationship between church and state has a long history of trouble in it. It is troubling in the best of times that such a relationship must be defined. Indeed, among the pearls of wisdom in this struggle are that things should be left vague, and arguments made over trivial, not important, items. In democratic states the method varies. There is an official Church of England, which has the right to hold canonical court upon its members. No such thing exists in the United States. But in all societies there is a set of boundaries which the state imposes upon the church – and the church resents.

Until recently, the relationship in the United States descended from the English legal system. The doctrine of “urgent necessity” prevailed. Any action against the church could only be justified if it met the criteria of urgency and necessity. A common example would be fire sprinklers:

  • They meet a “necessary” form of government – to save lives is a necessity for a government.
  • They are also “urgent” in that when the fire breaks out, it’s too late to install the sprinklers.

This doctrine reflects the nature of government and the nature of the church:

  • Government is said to be “temporal” - that is, existing in time. Its purposes are not eternal but here and now. It is therefore fitting that they should attempt to save lives from fire, for example.
  • The church is eternal, living in a temporal world. Her actions reflect the will of her Lord, Jesus Christ. As such, she is bound to a higher authority.

So we would like to think. But the state has been redefining its basis for power lately. The basis for power determines the kind of government which eventually will arise.

  • Power may be by conquest. It is indisputable at the time, but subject to a later conqueror. “Power grows out of the barrel of a cannon” (Chairman Mao). But to rest upon the people without a state sponsored terror, the people must be convinced that the government is legitimate.
  • Sovereignty may also be held to come from God (the “divine right of kings.”) In our time, this is held to be taken from the people. In this model, it is not assumed that the people are perfect; rather, that they are a safeguard against tyranny. This works well when most are Christians. Such a theory guided our constitution and (earlier) Magna Charta – the king is not above the law.
  • The newer theory is that sovereignty is derived from the people - in and of themselves. The government is ultimately responsible for favoring public opinion polls, but no longer under the law. This is a subtle change in democracies, and usually not announced.

The Jews and Caesar

We may now take a good look at how the Romans ruled in Judea, and the examples this brings to us.

Cozy relationship

To begin with, you need to understand that Rome ruled its conquered provinces by one of two methods:

  • The province might be considered unruly; if so, a Roman governor was appointed (and furnished with troops). Pontius Pilate is a good example.
  • If the province was stable and peaceful, the Romans would select a local sample of the nobility and use him as puppet ruler. Herod was such a man.

In support of either of these methods you would usually find a group of quislings. In this instance, the quislings come from an unusual source: the religious world. But note this: they saw religion as a way to social and political status. Their religion made them look good. The Romans were not such fools; they saw these leaders as being a good way to govern without the investment of sending more troops. It gave the citizenry the appearance of independence without the reality.

The true role of the state

Understanding the true role of the state is made much easier if you start with one fact: the state is temporal. It deals with the here and now, not the here and forever. The state should not interfere with the church not because the state isn’t good enough but because the state is established to deal with other concerns. Indeed, in our own history we have seen our government stand as a bulwark against those who would oppress the church. In this instance, Pilate would be concerned with the mob.

The demand of the state

Here we see Pilate maneuvering his quislings. There is no getting around it; this Jesus is innocent. But the leaders seem out for his blood. A good politician extracts from this unpleasant situation all that he can. “We have no king but Caesar” is the Roman loyalty oath.

Any government which is not based upon God’s authority is doomed. For all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Christ. Variation from this is rightly seen as corruption.

Christ and the State

Christ, in this drama, gives us three keys to understanding the relationship of church and state:

My kingdom is not of this world

If it were, the servants would fight for it. But to grasp the sword is to grasp the weapon of Satan. The power of the church is in weapons the world cannot begin to comprehend.

We are to be “in the world, not of the world.” We are not to seek the desires of power, the flesh or pride. Against the armor of humility the state has no weapon which will bite.

I AM a king

The kingship of Christ is clear: he is the king of Israel. He tells Pilate as much. He says he is a king, born to do just that, sent by the Father. He is there to testify to the truth – even approaching death.

His mission is so clear that the truth is brought forth as the source of the mission. It is still true today, those who seek the Truth, find Him.

This is why we are taught to intercede. Our rulers may seem powerful, but they are human too. We are therefore taught to intercede on their behalf – for their burdens are heavy, and all too few are those who are Christians.

No power if it were not given to you.

In this statement Christ tells us the fundamental legitimacy of government. Government, if it stays in its proper sphere, the Christian owes it both service and intercession before the throne of grace. It is the Christian version of Urgent Necessity.

The American Church

Early Days

It is sad to see the decline of the American governmental system – which parallels the American church. That is not an accident; Jefferson himself said that our system would not work except where there was a God-fearing people.

Our Founding Fathers were, almost without exception, Christians. They believed in the equality of all men, for that was revealed in the Bible. The fact that they did not include slaves nor women in that has taken us some time to address.

But you can see the Christian view all through our constitution. There is a balance of power; why? Because men are sinners! They must be watched carefully – hence elections. Similarly, the state, composed of sinners, should rule over the Church.

If this government goes bad, the church will be persecuted. (See Thomas a Becket). That’s the worry of this system.


We have changed. No longer is God the source of authority; the people are. This is government by opinion poll. This is coupled with the drive to abolish the church from public life. The concept of “sinner” is obsolete; therefore checks and balances are no longer necessary.

The biggest blow struck in this was the 1991 case before the Supreme Court in which the court threw out the doctrine of urgent necessity. When this was first published, the ACLU called for a constitutional amendment. Now, however, seeing how anti-Christian this is, they have changed their mind.


Forecasting is exceedingly difficult – especially when it concerns the future. But I think there are two continuing trends:

  • The ACLU will continue to use the courts to inflict political correctness. There are instances such as the one in Pennsylvania in which a young lady, wearing a cross on her necklace, was told to take it off. She was eventually suspended without pay for a year. Why? Because that would have allowed Christianity to have a chance in the work place.
  • On the local front, the ACLU will continue to threaten municipal authorities (which usually don’t have the revenue to go to court so much) to send a letter to cities, school boards and other local agencies threatening them with lawsuit if they do not conform. Zoning laws are especially useful for this.

The objective of all this is the humanist society; one in which Christianity cannot be mentioned, but all the fruits of “liberation” are in front of us all the time.

Have you prayed for your country today?

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