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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

Christians and Kings

Matthew 22:15-22

Lesson audio

It is a familiar passage:

Mat 22:15-22 NIV Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. (16) They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. (17) Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (18) But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? (19) Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, (20) and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" (21) "Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (22) When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

About This Incident

It helps first to know who these Herodians are:

·         First, they are the strangest of bedfellows for the Pharisees, for these are the political lackeys of King Herod – the Pharisees’ rival for power. That these two should make common cause shows the depth of hatred each had for Jesus.

·         They are not, primarily, a religious group but a political one. Herod’s concern in this matter is rebellion; he’s a toady to Rome and he keeps his throne by keeping the peace and collecting the taxes. Jesus seems a likely leader of a rebellion.

·         Perhaps more important than this is that they might not be known to Jesus by sight – and therefore are the ideal people to pull off this little trap.

Theories and traps

There were a number of theories about in Judaism of the time on why a devout, pious Jew should not pay taxes to the Roman government:

·         One was the “citizen of the world” theory. As the pious Jew was a servant of God, the ruler of heaven and earth, he therefore had no obligations to any government. He should then be exempt from Roman taxes, just as an American working in the United States would be exempt from, say, British taxes.

·         The other theory was the “saintly rebel” idea. If a man is saintly enough, that should be sufficient for any government. (A modern parallel might be Gandhi.)

The enticement, then, is that Jesus is so holy that he would declare himself exempt from taxation. It didn’t work – largely because of the character of Jesus.

The character of the teacher

The Pharisees and Herodians unwittingly provide us with the answer in their description of the teacher named Jesus. Let us see the standard they draw:

·         The teacher must be personally truthful, teaching the way of God, not of man.

·         He must show no partiality – as is demonstrated by Christ’s answer, equally suitable for Herodian and Pharisee.

·         Christ makes his point with their coin (nice of them to bring the visual aid to the lesson) – showing his desire for their own salvation. He does not just dismiss them out of hand.

He lays out for them the basic principle of the relationships between church and state. Find out what is owed to whom, and act accordingly. In more general terms, we must our responsibilities with regard to the state and fulfill them. All else belongs to God.

Relations with ANY form of government

Rather than jump right into democracy, and the upcoming elections, we begin by outlining the responsibilities of the Christian to any form of legitimate government. Most of what Paul wrote applies directly to the Roman Empire, which was certainly no democracy.


Why do we have any responsibility to the government at all? Why couldn’t we be just a citizen of the world, for instance?

·         First, God ordains those governments. He put them in place, and did so largely for our benefit. They benefit us; we should be willing to support them.

·         Our prime mission is evangelism and training disciples. This, history has shown, is best accomplished in a time of peace. (Think of the missionary explosion in the last half of the nineteenth century during the Pax Britannica.) The first duty of government is to keep the peace – which is to the benefit of the Kingdom of God.

·         We are specifically commanded to be obedient.[1]

·         Finally, there is the practical argument Jesus brings forth here. You use their coinage, you recognize their authority. A Confederate dollar bill is of no use at the grocery store; only at the antique shop. You use the roads, water, sewer and other services of government? Then support that government.

The Baseline Principle: Submission

What this amounts to is submission to the government. Submission is simply the right response to righteous authority. That requires a definition of that authority, but once that is done the Christian’s submission can then become a witness to the rest of society.[2]

The specifics

So just what is it that we are commanded to do? What are the duties that all Christians owe to their government?

·         We are to pray for our governments.[3]

·         We are not to curse our leaders, but respect them.[4]

·         We are to “fear the king” – and not join in with the rebellious.[5]

·         We are to “persuade with patience” – strive to make improvements in government in patience and wisdom.[6]

·         We are to seek the peace and prosperity of the nation – even if that nation is a conquering one.[7]

·         We are to pay our taxes.[8]

To all this we may add the duty of normal obedience. Stop at the stop signs and don’t run the red lights.

Relationship to Democracy

All this is well and good, and generally known to Christians. American Christians are prone, however, to add to this the idea that we should espouse democratic capitalism as the one God-approved system on the planet. This can be a discredit to the church if you are visiting another country.

So what does the citizen of a democracy need to do above and beyond what the Christian of any time and place needs to do? We may lay out the basic principles again:

·         Submission: find out the rightful authority and submit to it.

·         Do so in such a way that others will find the Gospel attractive.

Duties Unique

May I suggest the following things which are unique to democracy but fall within these guideline?

·         Participate in the political discourse of your time. Campaign, argue, letters to the idiots editors and so on.

·         Hold your leaders to account – morally. Make it clear to your leaders that corruption, abuse of authority and greed are simply not acceptable. The “bully pulpit” is ours.

·         Vote.

·         Uphold justice. Don’t duck jury duty; be outraged when justice is perverted.

·         For those who are called and gifted this way, run for office. Move within the political system. It doesn’t apply to most of us, but it could apply to any of us.

A straightforward list, but there is one section missing. What do we do when the government is evil and oppressive?

The problem with evil government

We must begin with one fact: if the government holds itself to be supreme over the issues of right and wrong, conflict with the church is inevitable. This is particularly true in the “last days,” when evil will abound.[9] So how do we conduct ourselves in this situation?

·         We must realize that our struggle is not primarily against the government, but the forces of Satan.[10] It often happens that the government recruits the hordes of police needed to threaten the populace by threatening each member of the horde. Our charity to others, even others associated with an evil government, must not fail.

·         Suffering is inevitable. Therefore, we must suffer in such a way that the Gospel may be heard – which, incidentally, causes God to bless us.[11]

·         If we need to flee oppression, do so.[12] Some of us have the strength to be martyrs to the cause; most do not. We are permitted to run – and spread the Gospel as we go.

·         We must look to our weapons – the weapons of God, not the world. We are to overcome evil with good. As one martyr (Bonhoeffer) put it, “It is immaterial whether the power be good or bad, what matters is that the Christian should overcome evil by good.”

It may be in all this that God, in his providence, will rescue us. But that should not matter to us.[13]

Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans, summed it up this way:

“By faith the Christian makes all things subject to himself; for he is neither ruled by them nor does he put his trust in them. He compels them to serve his glory and salvation. That is what it means to serve God and to rule as kings. That is the spiritual rule, of which we read in Revelation 5:10,

(Rev 5:10 NIV) You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."

The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than despising it. The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone. It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet.”

No matter how evil the government, it is only temporary. We are eternal. More than that we can say:

Rom 8:35-37 NIV Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (36) As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."[12] (37) No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Fear God; dread naught.

[1] 1st Peter 2:13

[2] 1st Peter 2:13-17

[3] 1st Timothy 2:1-3

[4] Exodus 22:28, Acts 23:5

[5] Proverbs 24:21

[6] Proverbs 25:15

[7] Jeremiah 29:27

[8] Matthew 17:24-27

[9] 2nd Timothy 3:1-5

[10] Ephesians 6:12

[11] 2nd Peter 3:14a

[12] Matthew 10:23

[13] Daniel 3:16-18 is a great example of this.

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