To Caesar What is Caesar's and to God What is God's

Most of us think of a “kingdom” as a place. But when Scripture speaks of the “kingdom of God,” it is not speaking of a place, a locality in the sky to which we shall fly away some glad morning when this life is over. Rather, the “kingdom of God” (or the “kingdom of Heaven”) is a fact, the fact that God is king. God rules. This is the heart of the “good news,” the gospel of Jesus the kingly Messiah and the gospel of God (Mark 1:1,14). The gospel is the good news that God, in Jesus, has reasserted his rule over Creation, taking it back from the “strong man” (Mark 3:27). In Mark’s account, Jesus demonstrates his renewed kingship by welcoming, forgiving, healing, feeding, teaching, preaching, and then… dying. That’s the kind of king God wants for his Creation, and always has wanted.

Many of us understandably visualize the biblical story as beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and ending with Jesus’ redeeming crucifixion and resurrection—the rescue of humanity. But truer to the full range of Scripture is visualizing it as beginning with Creation and then, not ending, but beginning again with the New Creation. The Fall and the Redemption come in between, where we are currently living. At one end, God the Creator rules; at the other end, God the re-Creator rules again, in Jesus the God-man.

Today, in the interim between the Creation and the New Creation, we live and move and have our being. God now rules in Jesus, but it doesn’t look like it most of the time. His kingdom is not visible in the way we think of visible. What actually is visible, however, Revelation calls “the kingdom of the world.” Paul refers to it as “the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2, ESV), that rebellious ruler who stirs up humanity to disobedience against their Creator.

We who follow Christ live our lives under the kingdom, the rulership, of God, but simultaneously, for now, we live within the kingdom of this world, which is subject to Satan, who controls from the background. Christ-followers, committed to the “gospel of God,” are members of both kingdoms. We have rulers, whether kings, queens, presidents, judicial bodies, chiefs, mayors, courts, committee chairs, moms and dads, or teachers and football coaches, to keep a lid on our fallen propensity to act selfishly, to take advantage of the weak for our own benefit.

Civil authorities exist to enact and enforce laws allowing life to continue in a tolerable way. But even those safeguards are subject to corruption, all the worse for ordinary life when high-ranking bullies may do just as they please, like Putin, for example. Christian Russians are themselves just as subject to the “secular” laws of their own land as their unbelieving compatriots are. Might it be better, then, to not be a believer in similar situations, to escape the troubles of our often-conflicting dual citizenship?
Many Christians have historically abandoned Christ for just that reason. If it costs too much to follow Jesus, carrying our own crosses, perhaps we’d rather not pay. We have that choice.

It’s no mystery what God’s kingdom requires of us. Moses insisted that it is unnecessary to send someone up to heaven or across the sea to find the secret information so that we can observe it (Deut 30:13). It’s all right there in black and white, written down as the Word of God in human language.
If we choose to remain faithful to our Lord and Savior, whatever troubles that may bring us, then, says Jesus, we are choosing to lose our life in faithfulness to God’s rule, rather than to save our life now only to lose it in the end. Of course, we’ve known believers who have lived quiet lives in our culture, right up into old age. That’s partly because in the United States, there are laws intended to protect us from bullying by people abusing their power. Not everyone heeds those laws, and not all laws are good laws, but generally this nation has remained relatively lawful, though with some horrifying exceptions.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Consider Jesus’ famous reply to some who wished to make him commit treason, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Makes good sense, and it shut up his challengers. But what shall we do when “Caesar-like” authorities want not only what is Caesar’s, but also what is God’s? What if laws are enacted or demands made upon us by the “kingdom of the world” that would force us to deny the Lord’s call? Paul describes what that call looks like: “Be like Jesus, putting others’ interests ahead of your own” (Philippians 2:4). Do not demand your rights, but give them up for Jesus’ sake. Give up whatever you think of as “your life,” if you must. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes an amazing spiritual experience he had, but adds that God gave him a thorn in his flesh to keep him humble about it. Rather than to fight for his personal rights, he endured insults, hardships, persecutions, and other difficulties, all for the sake of Christ. Living in the kingdom of Caesar and simultaneously in the kingdom of God, he chose to follow the values of God’s kingdom, whatever it cost him, and eventually it cost him his life.

We cannot escape our dual citizenship. For now, we who trust Jesus as our Lord must face daily decisions whether or not to conform our lives to God’s will. It may at some point mean the kind of suffering Paul experienced. Following Christ is not a matter of making this nation, or any nation, great through political power, but rather of seeking the power of Christ in what the world considers “weakness.”

Dr. Rich Erickson is an amateur photographer in Seattle, Washington, former member of the LB Seminary board, former pastor of Triumph LB Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, and a retired professor of biblical studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, still teaching occasional courses online.

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