A friend of mine who read my posts last week posed a couple of questions on Facebook and asked for my opinion on them. Both were great questions, and I wish I had more space to answer them then just a short blog post, but let me give it a try. I need two days to answer the first question, and then I’ll tackle the second.
First, let me point out that we should never try to build an argument about how Christians should live by relying on only one verse or passage from the Bible. The Bible is not easily broken down into lists of “do this” and “don’t do that” that can be applied in any circumstance. The Bible is not so much an instruction manual on living as it is a tool for getting to know the living God. So the question should not be, “Doesn’t the Bible say….?” It should be “What does the Bible tell me about God that will help me live in a way that pleases him?”
When asked about paying taxes to the Roman government, Jesus looked at the image of Caesar on a Roman coin and said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). He quietly passed on the opportunity to take a political stand against the Roman invaders ruling over the people of Israel – a stand that would have thrilled the political zealots in his audience while giving the religious leaders cause to have him thrown in jail by the Roman authorities. Some might say he was using Solomon-like wisdom to stay out of trouble. Others might say he was promoting tolerance and unity, as if to say, “It’s okay to be religious, but don’t let it affect the way you deal with other people.”
These are both tempting approaches to difficult situations where our faith and our culture seem to clash, but I don’t think either of these interpretations is consistent with everything else the Bible teaches us about Jesus. He wasn’t afraid of stirring up trouble for himself, and he had a lot to say about living in a radical way that really reflects your belief in God. Jesus’ real meaning in this passage is found in the rest of his sentence: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The real trick is figuring out what we owe to “Caesar” – the government and any other secular authority over us – and what we owe to God.
First of all, we owe to God obedience to his word, and that includes obedience to his command to “submit…to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), to “pay taxes” (Romans 13:6), and to pray for “all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We owe him trust in his sovereignty and a recognition that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and they are “his servants” (Romans 13:1-7). Yet we also owe God our undivided loyalty and allegiance: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3); “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So there will be times when we have to ask, “If I give to Caesar what is demanded by Caesar, will I be failing to give to God what is demanded by God?” Then, like Peter and John, we will be required to say, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?” (Acts 4:19).
Many people throughout the ages have chosen to listen to God rather than earthly authorities and they have been ridiculed, blackballed, thrown in jail, tortured, and even killed. Jesus was one of them. If that doesn’t get you thinking deeply about the choices you make in life, I don’t know what will.
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What is my mission as an author? The goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.