Theme: Jesus, the Final Authority, the Bible, His Perfect Word
This weeks lesson teaches us that no one can fool Jesus because he is God.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said,“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
I have often pointed out that Jesus’ answer to the question about taxes suggests four options that are useful in grasping the nature of the states authority and the rightful limits of a Christians compliance with it. These options are: 1) God alone as an authority with the authority of Caesar denied, 2) Caesar alone as an authority with the authority of God denied, 3) the authority of both God and Caesar but with Caesar in the dominant position, and 4) the authority of God and Caesar but with God in the dominant position.
1. God alone as an authority. The first option is one some Christians have embraced at some periods of history, especially when the state has become excessively oppressive or corrupt. In the early church there were persons called anchorites who went off into the desert, thereby separating themselves from all social contacts and living, as they believed, solely for the service of God. From that early movement monasticism was born, and for that reason I call this first option monasticism.
Yet we must not think of monasticism as something practiced only in the early church or by members of the monastic orders. It is also the approach of evangelical Christians who so separate themselves from the world that they withdraw from the surrounding culture, refuse to participate in elections, have only Christian friends or work only for a Christian company.
2. Caesar alone as an authority. The second option is that of most unbelievers and sometimes even of so-called Christians: the choice of Caesar alone. I call this option secularism. It was the way chosen by the Jewish leaders at the time of Christ’s trial, when they told Pilate, incredibly in light of their past history, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
This is the most dangerous of the four options, because if God is left out of the equation, Caesar is left with no ultimate accountability. He has nothing to restrain his whims or cruelty.
In America we recognize the need for checks upon governmental power. In fact, this is the way our three main branches of government have been set up: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. Each has both its own distinct authority, as well as a check on the authority of the others. We call this a system of “checks and balances,” and we have it because we recognize that persons in power are untrustworthy. But if that is true on the merely human level, how much truer is it on the cosmic level. Human rulers regularly conspire against God (Psalm 2). Therefore, if we turn our backs on God, we are at the mercy of our governors.
3. The authority of God and Caesar but with Caesar in the dominant position. This is an option many persons would claim they hold, but it is the stance of cowards. This is because, if God’s authority is recognized at all, it must be supreme simply because God is supreme by definition. That is what it means to be God. Thus if anyone claims to obey the state before God or rather than God, while nevertheless still believing in God, it can only be because he is afraid of what Caesar can do to him.
This was the case with Pilate. He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him. He declared him innocent and even tried to release him. But in the end he gave in and had Jesus crucified. Why? It is because he was afraid of Caesar. Toward the end of the trial, when Pilate was holding out against their wishes, the Jewish authorities played their trump card, crying out, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). As a result of that implied threat, Pilate, who feared Caesar and wanted to be Caesar’s friend more than anything else in the entire world, gave in and condemned the sinless Son of God.
The irony is that Pilate failed to secure Caesars friendship even so, because a few years after Christ’s trial he was removed from office by the proconsul of Syria and was banished to France, where he died.
Why is it important to have accountability for people in government?
What happens if we abandon the authority of God?
Notice times when you act out of fear rather than faith in God. When you do so, to whose authority are you bending?