The Book of Psalms

Tuesday: Church and State


Theme: Jesus before Pilate
In this week’s lessons, we see that the state has a legitimate authority from God, and is therefore responsible before God to use that authority for righteousness rather than for wrong.
Scripture: John 19:11
To help us think through this whole church and state matter, we need to turn to the trial of the Lord Jesus Christ before the chief representative of the Roman authorities in Palestine, namely Pilate, as recorded in all four of the gospels. We are going to be looking at John’s account in chapter 19. Early in the trial the issue of whether Jesus was a king had come up. Pilate needed to examine Jesus on that charge to see if Jesus really did make himself out to be a king who was challenging Caesar’s authority.
Pilate had concluded after listening to Jesus that he was innocent of any wrongdoing against Rome, and therefore Pilate intended to set him free. The people didn’t want him freed, however. So when their charge of kingship failed, they went after Jesus on another accusation. They said that Jesus still deserved death because the Jews have a law against making oneself out to be the Son of God.
We are told that when Pilate heard this he was even more afraid (v. 8). He took that kind of thing seriously because the Romans believed that there were half-human, half-divine beings. So he called Christ back in again, and he began to interrogate him once more. He asked Jesus where he came from. At this point, Jesus didn’t say anything. Pilate was entirely unqualified to interrogate him on a spiritual matter. What did Pilate know about these things? Jesus said nothing, and Pilate got offended and said, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (v. 10). The word for “power” is exousia in Greek. Pilate is saying that he has the authority as given by the state to execute or release.
Here is where Jesus gave the reply that I think is perhaps the most helpful of any sentence in the Word of God in helping us formulate the stance over against the state. Jesus said to Pilate that he would have no power over him unless it were given to Pilate from above. Therefore, the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate is guilty of a greater sin (v. 11).
I would like to take that passage with Christ’s words about authority and put it over against the more popular text from Matthew 22, in which Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When we do that, we can formulate the various options for the proper relationship between the church and the state. I think there are four of them.
The first option comes from those who would say that the sole authority is God, and therefore Caesar has no authority at all. In the early church there were people like this. They were the anchorites. They went out into the desert to cut themselves off from any social interaction and contact with the state because they regarded it as corrupt and illegitimate. We have something like that in Evangelical Protestantism in the attitude of those who believe that we should be as separate as possible from secular involvements. So we shouldn’t serve in politics or vote in elections. We shouldn’t work for a company unless it’s a Christian company, and other things like that. They try to cut themselves off as much as possible.
The problem with this is that Jesus didn’t take that attitude at all. Here was Jesus before Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire. Not for a moment in his entire trial did Jesus suggest that Pilate was exercising an illegitimate authority. In fact, verse 11 says precisely the opposite. It recognizes that Pilate has authority, and that authority is given by God. But does that mean there are no limits? Can Caesar do anything he wants and Christians just have to sit back and take it? No, that does not follow. Because while there is a legitimate authority, there is nevertheless an illegitimate exercise of that authority.
If we turn to the Word of God for guidance, we find instruction at several points. For one thing, we’re told that the state has no right to forbid the proclamation of the gospel. Jesus has told us to do that. We are to go into all the world to teach and baptize. And if the state says we can’t do that, well, Christians must disobey the state. We have an example of that in Acts 4 and 5, where the disciples were commanded by the Sanhedrin not to preach or to teach in the name of Christ. When they nevertheless went out and did that again, they were brought back and questioned. The religious leaders asked them the question, “Didn’t we forbid you to teach or preach in this name?” The disciples answered, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God to listen to men or God, you must judge, but we will do what God tells us. We have seen Christ and we are witnesses of these things.”
Study Questions:

What was the first charge made against Jesus by the religious leaders before Pilate?
When this first charge did not work, what other direction did they take to try to get Pilate to pronounce judgment on Jesus?
What is the first option given for the proper relationship between the church and the state? What is wrong with this approach?
What is one thing that the state does not have the authority to do?

Prayer: Pray for Christians in parts of the world where they do not enjoy religious freedom. Pray for wisdom and courage to know how to live for Christ.

Study Questions
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