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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Church and State

Matthew 22:15-22

In our time it has become fashionable to raise again the ancient debate about the relative roles of church and state. The argument has been going on for some time – indeed, ever since the time when Israel asked for a king. Indeed, there is in this week’s paper an article about some Christian commune in court about whether or not they needed a permit to put on a musical on their own property. (Discussion) Christ here gives us what appears to be cryptic advice:

(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.

Just the facts

This is an amusing incident. To understand how the crowd would have reacted to this intellectual tour de force, you need to understand the situation.

The players

The Pharisees were, by all tests, the right wing fundamentalists of their day. Strict in observance of the regulations they had added to the law of Moses, they were thorough legalists. Their loyalty to God, in their own mind, was absolute. The Herodians, on the other hand, were the left wingers of their day. Worse, they were the Benedict Arnold party. They were the political supporters of the House of Herod – and Herod owed his throne to the Roman Empire. For these two parties to get together over anything was a rare event. In this instance, it is a common enemy.

Indeed, both parties saw Jesus as a threat. The Pharisees saw him as a threat – and a very disturbing one – to their conception of God. If Jesus is right, then they are indeed the worst of hypocrites. The suspicion must have troubled them greatly, buttressed as it was by the facts. The Herodians saw his popular following, and assumed (it is, after all, what they would have done) that he was a revolution in the making. So both needed him out of favor – or out of the way.

The coin

The coin in question (translated “penny” in the King James and “denarius” elsewhere) is about a day’s wages for a working man. It’s not a very large coin, about the size of an American penny, but made of silver. (The Romans metallurgy was not so skilled as ours at making counterfeit coins). One such coin was required of each person in the Roman Empire as a poll tax – in other words, it cost you a day’s wages just for the privilege of living in the Roman Empire for the year. This is probably the tax that is in question.

The coin itself would probably have had the image of Tiberius Caesar on it. Interestingly, the reverse side of the coin would have carried the words, “pontifus maximus,” or “high priest,” meaning high priest of the Roman nation. So there is plenty for the legalist to quibble about.

The background

There are two instances fresh in the minds of all which have happened this week and which bear on the question:

·         First, Jesus has cleansed the Temple. One of the sets of traders thrown out were the money changers. They took your Roman coins and exchanged them (at a very profitable rate, of course) for official Temple coins (shekels). Do you recall that inscription?

·         The other has just happened: the Pharisees have just challenged him to tell by what authority he teaches and does his work. So the question of “authority” is fresh in everyone’s mind.

The test

The test is what appears to be a clever trap. If Jesus says it’s lawful, then he sides with the Herodians and loses favor with the people – which pleases the Pharisees nicely. If he says it’s not lawful, then he’s a revolutionary. The Romans can now deal with him, which pleases both parties. It looks foolproof.

Jesus reply is indeed shrewd. Note that he first asks them for the coin. Perhaps he doesn’t have one, but more likely he wants to make the point out of their own purse.

·         The point is simple. If you use the king’s money, you are acknowledging his authority in your daily actions. If you don’t, you’re saying it’s worthless here.

·         The same point applies today. Suppose you have a genuine Confederate dollar bill. Show it to someone, and they’re bound to ask you, “How much is it worth?” No matter how much you love Dixie, you measure its value in Yankee greenbacks.

·         Even in our day, the government owns the currency (you own the value of it). It’s illegal to “deface” the currency of the United States, for example. It belongs to our government, and every day we use it we acknowledge their authority over us.

The Dichotomy

To this day there has been a dichotomy in Christian thinking about the government. One view is expressed in the thought that this world is Satan’s kingdom, and cooperation with this world is submitting to the authority of the devil himself. The other view is that the Christian is to be submissive to all authority! Let’s look at the verses for each:

Wisdom of the Serpent

(Eph 6:12 NIV) For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

The words used here are

·         Rulers (Greek arche, from which we get our prefix “arch” as in archbishop), and

·         Authorities (Greek exousia, used commonly of local authorities)

·         Powers of…world (Greek kosmokrator, kosmo= cosmos, world, and krator being the ending for Lord in Cristus Pantokrator, meaning Christ, Lord of All)

We recall also from the temptation in the wilderness:

(Mat 4:9 NIV) "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

And how could Satan give it to Him unless it was his to give in the first place?

So we see the genesis of the Christian view that governments (and all else in the system of this world) are part of Satan’s kingdom.

The Harmlessness of the Dove

But there are other passages, often quoted, which suggest that these same authorities are from God:

(Rom 13:1-8 NIV) 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. {2} Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. {3} For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. {4} For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. {5} Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. {6} This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. {7} Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. {8} Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.

This passage certainly suggests that submission to authorities is a Christian duty. So it would seem that the Christian is to view his government as benign, an instrument of God. How can this be resolved?

The Inevitable Conflict

I submit to you, gentle reader, that the conflict is inevitable and fatal. The logic is relatively simple:

·         The state, given enough time, will eventually come to think of itself as supreme. I know of no system of government which has not come to this conclusion, as indeed ours is today coming to that conclusion.

·         No state – not the most barbarous and dictatorial – can long survive without the consent of its governed. That consent may be obtained at gunpoint, of course, but even when it is the dictator attempts to control the flow of information so that the people will conclude that the government is wise and just.

·         Therefore any religion which holds that the state is not supreme must ultimately come into conflict with government. Sooner or later it will happen. Later, if the founding of that government is made upon solid Christian foundations, sooner if not – but inevitably.

·         And only one can be the victor. Either the government wipes out the Christians (as the Japanese did during the Middle Ages) or God overthrows that government. Only one can be supreme.

So what, then, is the Christian to do about it?

The weapons of the Christian.

The people who put in chapters and verses sometimes did us less than a favor. Remember that passage from Romans, which sounds so absolute? It doesn’t really start there. Go back and take it from the preceding verse:

(Rom 12:21 NIV) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You see the point: The obedience Paul is stressing is not one of exalting the state – but rather one of overcoming evil with good. Of course the government is evil; it’s composed of sinners. Peter puts it this way:

(1 Pet 2:13-17 NIV) Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, {14} or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. {15} For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. {16} Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. {17} Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Note that phrase, “for the Lord’s sake.” We are not submitting to the government because the government is great. We are submitting for the Lord’s sake. We are submitting to show people that the idea that Christians are “bad” is false.

This is the specific instance of the Christian weapon. For example, how has the Promise Keepers movement dealt with the “exposé” by the National Organization of Women? Did they produce a piece of counterpropaganda? No, they invited one and all to come and see reconciliation, observe healing and racial harmony, and experience men rededicating themselves to their wives and families. They are overcoming this evil, with good.


There is a point in here we may have missed. The coin belongs to Caesar, and we recognize that by his image on the coin. We, as Christians, are made in the image of God. We are the coinage of his kingdom. Just as Jesus told them to use Caesar’s coins to pay our debt to Caesar, so we must use God’s coin to pay our debt to God. We are debtors; “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another,” Paul said. And how is such debt to be paid? Only in the coinage of the kingdom, the lives of the saints.

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