Many Christians have a philosophy of what a “good government” should look like, and for most their philosophy is closely connected to their religious beliefs. Some have taken this so far that they have no problems with singing “God Bless America” in worship, having the American flag flying in front of their church building, or having quotes from the founding fathers posted in their classrooms. After all, “God ordained government,” right? So what could possibly be wrong with such demonstrations of patriotism in our places of worship?
Yet very few can explain the answers to questions such as:
- “Where did human governments come from?”
- “What was God’s purpose in ordaining these governments?”
- “What kind of relationship did God expect His children to have with these earthly governments?”
- “What did the prophets foretell about the destiny of earthly governments?”
God Ordained Government
In the garden of Eden, God was the only ruler. Yet beginning with Adam, man continued to rebel until the earth was divided into a multiplicity of kingdoms after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Throughout the Old Testament, God expected Israel to remain separate from these Gentile kingdoms refraining from making alliances with them. When Israel adopted the form of government that was used by these earthly kingdoms, God viewed this as a rejection of His kingship over them. As a result of this rejection of God, Israel ended up enslaved by these governments. During this time of exile, the prophets foretold a time when God would return as King, and earthly governments would be destroyed.
Throughout this time, God did continually ordain these earthly governments as His ministers, through which He punished evildoers and taught important lessons to His children. Yet throughout the Old Testament, God’s faithful children maintained a submissive relationship with the earthly governments which surrounded them, continually trusting that God would vindicate His people by ultimately defeating these wicked nations.
So here’s a question: Did Jesus change all that? Did Jesus reintroduce earthly Gentile governments in a kinder and gentler light? Did He in fact endorse these governments in their claim to rule over people in social, economic, and all other areas of their life? Did Jesus start a new mindset towards governments, beginning a new trajectory, because of which Christians can now work through earthly governments to provide protection for the weak and vulnerable? Or to protect private property and keep people safe from our enemies? Or protect fair wages for workers? Or to otherwise encourage morality in our society?
Certainly, if anyone had authority to change the relationship of God’s people towards the Gentile rulers of the world, Jesus, the “Lord of lords” is the one who would have had that authority. Yet in everything Jesus said and did, Jesus was an enemy of the state. No, Jesus was not a lawbreaker. No, Jesus was not the William Wallace of His day, leading some sort of great Jewish revolution against the Romans. No, Jesus was not the leader of a great tax rebellion.
He was submissive to the governing authorities. He was a peacemaker. He taught the importance of loving His enemies, even those who had aligned themselves with the state (such as Matthew the tax-collector). But He was an enemy of the state nonetheless. Herod viewed Him as an enemy when He was born, and the Romans executed Him as an enemy on the cross. As the King, Jesus will destroy all of His enemies, including the rule, the authority, and the power of the state (1 Cor. 15.24-26).
Consider what we know about Jesus’ relationship towards the governing authorities under which He lived.
Jesus: Enemy of the State
- At the time of His birth, Herod viewed Jesus as a threat, and attempted to have Him executed as a child.
- Jesus and His family were forced to live as exiles in Egypt.
- When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan tempted Him with all the political power in the world. Jesus had every opportunity to reform His world with a “good government,” yet He rejected this offer, choosing rather to obey the Scriptures where it is written “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.”
- During His ministry, the ruling elite often sought to have Jesus executed, refraining only because they “feared the people.”
- John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus. This task included commanding soldiers not to forcefully take money from anyone (Luke 3.14).
- John the Baptist’s task also included rebuking King Herod publicly by applying the laws of God to the head of the state. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6.18).
- Jesus often spoke out against the supporters of King Herod. “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8.15).
- Jesus characterized King Herod as “that fox” (Luke 13.32).
- Jesus forbade His disciples from living like Gentile government officials. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 20:25-26).
- Jesus denied that the tax collectors had the right to collect taxes from “the sons” (i.e. sons of God). His condemnation of taxation was clear enough that Jesus had to clarify that He was not calling for tax rebellion as the appropriate response. “Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them… give it to them” (Matt. 17:25-27).
- On another occasion, Jesus challenged his hearers to examine their personal allegiance (Luke 20:22-26). Both Caesar and God claimed to be divine and rightful rulers of the world (hence the examination of the inscription on the coin). When Jesus said “Render unto Caesar that things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” He revealed that Caesar’s claims to the world and God’s claims to the world are mutually exclusive. He left his questioners amazed as they were left to consider what really belonged to Caesar and what really belonged to God.
- This helps to explain why Jesus was accused of instigating tax rebellion during his trial, an accusation that would have been laughed out of court unless Jesus was publicly recognized as having been opposed to taxation. “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King’” (Luke 23.2).
Jesus was an enemy of the state. Any attempt to repaint Jesus as a nice, government supporting, patriotic citizen does not do justice to the texts. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is continually shown to have been at odds with government officials. When texts (such as “render unto Caesar”) are taken out of context, and twisted so as to make it sound like Jesus placed his stamp of approval on government-initiated theft and violence, the gospels lose their coherence. Why would Jesus continually exalt God’s laws above state authority in one breath, and then suggest that state officials have a special exemption from laws such as “thou shall not steal” in the next? Why would Jesus criticize the way that Gentile rulers lord over other people in one breath, and then approve of their right to lord over men in the next? Why would Jesus instruct soldiers to refrain from forcefully taking money and deny the right of the tax collectors to collect taxes, if He believed that Caesar was right in his claim to that money? Why would Jesus be executed by His government if His government saw Him as a good supportive citizen?
The Kingdom of Heaven
All that Jesus did in confronting earthly rulers is because His allegiance was given to a different kingdom – the Kingdom of God.
.Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. – Matthew 9.35
The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. – Matthew 24.14
It is important to note that while Jesus had an antagonistic relationship with the governing authorities of His day, He never advocated violent opposition to them. Jesus never advocated tax rebellion. Jesus understood that their positions of power came from God (“You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” [John 19.11]). Jesus continually turned the other cheek when He was confronted by His enemies. He continually submitted to their authority, even to the point of death.
He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. – 1 Peter 2.23
Jesus understood that His victory over the Roman rulers would not come by political strength, but rather by submission to God. In this, He left us an example to follow (1 Pet. 2.21).
Long ago, the prophet Daniel had prophesied that the Kingdom that Jesus established would be in opposition to, and ultimately destroy the kingdoms of this world.
In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. – Daniel 2.44
The only source of power possessed by earthly governments is threat of the power of death. With the resurrection of Jesus, the power of death is destroyed, and the fate of all the kingdoms of this world is sealed.
Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and all power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. – 1 Corinthians 15.24-26
In the meantime, let us never forget the destiny of the governments under which we now live. We have no obligation to pledge our allegiance to any of these condemned kingdoms. We have no responsibility to give reverence to their flags. We must be careful not to maintain the pagan myths of state power, knowing that because of King Jesus, their power has been destroyed.
Our responsibility is go and make disciples, proclaiming to them that “All authority” has been given to King Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” May we continually give thanks to the Father that He has “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1.13). May we continually dedicate our loyalty, our allegiance, and our lives to Jesus, the enemy of the state.