“Give to God what is God’s”
#10 in the Series “All I have Commanded You”
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to entrap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at him. Mark 12:13-17
Pilate entered the praetorium agan and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”
Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18:33-38
Over a period of twelve weeks, I have been writing a series of articles that set forth a summary of all that Jesus commanded us. In this series, I have suggested that we can picture these commandments as a wagon wheel with a rim, ten spokes, and a hub. The rim of the wheel is the priority for all of life: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” The first five spokes of the wheel are commands where Jesus calls us to a life that He calls “The Narrow Way” or “The Greater Righteousness.” The second set of five spokes represent Jesus’s commands that lead us into freedom. The first three freedoms he commands are: 1. Freedom to rest: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” 2. Freedom to have possessions forever: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” 3. Freedom from anxiety: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
We come to the fourth of these commands for freedom: “Give to Caesar (the government) what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Here Jesus issues a command to protect the freedom of conscience.
What makes the United States of America one of the greatest nations in human history is not principally our advanced technology, our unparalleled military might, our enormous wealth and natural resources, or even the diversity of our people. What has made the United States great is that it is the first nation in history to have truly attempted to implement this particular command of Jesus. We call this implementation by the name “the separation of church and state.”
Consider the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. During that election, what concerned many people was not that Kennedy was a believer, but whether or not the faith he held required him to accept interference from the pope. In the United States we want religious candidates, but not ones who will impose their religious beliefs on the country.
The model for what we like is Jesus himself. When Jesus was brought before Pilate on a charge of sedition against the Roman Empire, he did not deny that he was the King of the Jews, but he claimed that his kingdom was not of this world (and would therefore not interfere with Roman authority). This was a rather astounding claim and Pilate, cynical as he was, might have been inclined to dismiss the claim as an excuse by a some-time rebel who was turning coward under the threat of crucifixion. Jesus, however, advanced a proof of the claim that his kingdom was not of this world—the fact that his followers were not fighting to keep him from being handed over to Pilate. Pilate decided to test this proof. In accord with custom, Pilate offered to release Jesus. He didn’t do this only because he truly wanted to release Jesus (Pilate’s wife had had a dream concerning Jesus, and she definitely wanted Pilate to release him) but because he wanted to see how the crowd responded. When the entire crowd shouted “Crucify him”, that was convincing evidence of the veracity of Jesus’ proof. Jesus’s disciples did indeed not fight to have him released. Jesus’s kingdom was indeed not of this world and would not interfere with Roman rule of Palestine. This is why Pilate said he could find no basis to condemn Jesus. But the charge over Jesus’s cross read “This is the King of the Jews.” Pilate insisted on it, because it was his way of ridiculing the Jews whose “true king” was merely a spiritual king.
During much of human history the leaders of nations believed that religion was the key ingredient in united the country, the kingdom, or the empire. Most ethnic groups practiced something called henotheism—the idea that many gods may exist but the true god “for us” is “our” god. Even the nation of Israel seems initially to have conceived of Jehovah God in this way (though from the very beginning of Israel, when God called out Abraham in Genesis 12:1, He made it clear to Abraham that His purpose for Abraham was that in him “all nations of the world shall be blessed.”). Later, when great empires joined many peoples politically, they forced the peoples to render homage to a god or gods who represented the empire (the divinity of Pharaoh in Egypt, for example). The common worship of a divinity held ethnic groups together and the unity of an empire depended upon a spiritual unity. The Roman Empire of Jesus’s own day prided itself on its practice of tolerance—peoples of all the lands under the reign of Caesar had freedom to worship their own gods. But all the peoples were also joined by an official religion. The Roman emperor was not merely a secular official, he was also the high priest of the Roman religion.
How flabbergasted Pilate would have been if he could have looked into the future. I don’t think that he would have been surprised to see that within the next two hundred years, the Jews were to rise in violent revolt against the Roman rulers of the Promised Land. He would also not have been surprised to see that Rome was going to suppress each of those revolts in a violent and effective way, ultimately turning Jerusalem into a pagan city and erecting a temple to Jupiter where the temple of God once stood. What would have astounded Pilate is that the followers of this Jesus of Nazareth would ultimately conquer the Roman Empire without firing a shot. This Jesus of Nazareth would ultimately be worshiped in Rome and his representative (the pope) would ultimately bear the religious title that had previously belonged to the Roman emperor (pontifex maximus). Pilate would have been shocked to learn that the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire (Julian) would supposedly die speaking these famous last words “Galilean, thou hast won.” If Pilate could look forward twenty centuries he would find the followers of this same Jesus again suffering persecution from an evil empire and would look in astonishment as that empire, the Soviet Union, fell without a shot.
Jesus’s command that we “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” is perhaps the single teaching of his that has had the greatest influence in human history. Jesus makes a distinction between the duties of citizenship and the duties of conscience (the duty to God). I believe it is helpful to compare Islam and Christianity here. Both Islam and Christianity seek to transform human life. Islam seeks it by a transformation of society. Human life will be transformed when human societies become Islamic societies. These societies will be united on the basis of common religious practices (the five pillars of Islam) and a common law (shariah). In Christianity, however, the value of human society is not as great as the value of the individual before God. The individual’s relationship with God through faith brings about the transformation of the individual disciple whose witness serves as a transforming agent in his family and community.
Jesus did not preach freedom of conscience because he wanted the government protected from religious influences but because he wanted to protect the freedom of conscience of the individual and that individual’s faith from government coercion.
The United States was the first country where Jesus’s teaching regarding freedom of conscience was first attempted, and the Baptists were perhaps the one religious group most committed to this idea.
Thomas Helwys, a British religious leader who lived from 1550 to 1618, is considered one of the founders of the Baptist approach to Christianity. One of his contemporary Baptists, a man by the name of Edward Wightman, was the last person to be burned at the stake in England for heresy. Their heresy was to claim that people should only be baptized after they had themselves made a decision for Jesus Christ, and that the baptism of infants was no baptism at all. This was heresy precisely because it denied the foundations of the official religion of England (the Church of England) in which infant baptism was practiced in order to include all newborn children in the official religion from birth. Helwys wrote a book entitled The Mystery of Iniquity in which he argued that the Church of England was the Prophet of the Antichrist (which appears in Revelation). For Helwys any church that is propped up by the government is an instrument of Satan, precisely because it denies the essential identity of Jesus whose kingdom was not of this world. Not surprisingly, Helwys died in prison, but he died preaching the courageous idea that the Lordship of Jesus guaranteed religious liberty for all. Indeed, if a person cannot freely reject the Gospel, then they can never truly accept it, because the Gospel is offered to people in freedom.
Christians are commanded to be good citizens (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s), but their highest allegiance is to God. Because God reveals Himself in different ways to different believers, this means that sometimes Christians will be in tension with one another regarding the appropriate response to the government and its laws in any given moral circumstance. For Christians being one in Christ doesn’t mean that disagreements disappear. What we agree upon is that Jesus is Lord, and because Jesus is Lord each one of us must follow him with what light we are given.
One of the greatest expositions of the freedom of Christian conscience was written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a moment when he had been put in jail in Birmingham, a city well within the traditional Bible Belt of the USA. In response to an open letter written to King and his followers by some white Christian leaders, King wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, now considered a classic by all who seek to understand the relationship between faith and the duty of a citizen. King says that precisely because Christians love the law and they love their country, they have a duty to oppose unjust laws in a non-violent way. He lines out a whole process by which Christians may courteously oppose legal injustice, culminating in peaceful breaking of the law (in a manner which reminds us of the ancient Christians breaking the Roman law which required them to sacrifice to Caesar). King says that Christians should willingly bear the penalty for breaking even unjust laws, and that their non violent resistance after the model of Christ before Pilate will eventually show injustice for what it is and will give Christians the victory.
Ironically, much of the opposition to Dr. King came from people who also believed in the Lord Jesus and who were convinced that they were following him. This should not be surprising. We make mistakes by giving to Caesar what Caesar ought not to have and by giving to God what God has not asked for. Nonetheless, by protecting the Christian’s right to freedom of conscience, Jesus placed in each Christian’s life the possibility of being a powerful and prayerful agent of transformation, not only in their own individual lives, but by God’s grace and direction in the life of families, communities, societies, nations, and the world as a whole.