In the Old Testament, the people of Judah were eventually defeated by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity. They were taken from the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem to exile in Babylon. This happened in 586 BC. Later, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians, taking the city of Babylon and expanding the Persian Empire to include Babylon and Judah and most of the Middle East. Then, he allowed the people of Judah to return to their land and rebuild their temple.
These events were foretold by the prophet Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 45:1-7. Isaiah was a prophet who lived in the 700s BC during the last days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, before it was conquered by the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was spared destruction by the Assyrians, but would later be conquered by the Babylonians. And yet, the Lord would raise up Cyrus of Persia to defeat the Babylonians so that the people of Judah could return home.
Note that in Isaiah 45, the Lord says that he has anointed Cyrus to subdue nations and that the Lord would go before him to pave his way to victory. The Lord is doing this for the sake of His people and so that all people may know that the Lord, Yahweh, is God, and that there are no others. He is God over all things, the creator of all things, and is in charge of all things, even Cyrus.
In fact, the Lord is over all government. As Lutherans we often talk about the Lord’s “Left Hand Realm” and His “Right Hand Realm.” The Right Hand Realm is the Church, it’s God’s people Israel, those gathered by Him around Jesus Christ. The Left Hand Realm is civil government; it’s the wielder of the sword on earth to keep order and enforce justice. In the beginning, before Adam and Eve fell into sin, there was no need for civil government or the Church, for that matter. The Lord dwelt directly with His people here on the earth which He created. Heaven and earth were one. However, once Adam and Eve sinned, they brought alienation and disorder into the world. And so God could no longer dwell directly with His people, due to sin.
But, He still cares for the people whom He created. He instituted civil government to keep order in the world and the Church to point people to Christ for their salvation; both realms of God’s kingdom have their proper role. And once Christ returns at the resurrection, there will no longer be the need for the Church or for civil government, because all sin and death will be removed from the earth and the Lord will again dwell directly with His people, no longer through Word and Sacrament in the Church and no longer through rulers he has charged with keeping order in the world, but directly, immediately.
Yet, we live now in this middle age where the world is fallen and there is sin and death in it. And so we live as citizens of two realms: citizens of the Church and citizens of civil government.
Now, the people serving in civil government may not realize that the Lord is in charge, just as Cyrus didn’t know the Lord, and just as many people in civil government today don’t know the Lord. Yet, the Lord is in charge of all things and government serves His purposes.
It was the same way in Jesus’ time as well. The Roman Empire was ruled by pagan emperors, and yet the Romans kept order, enforced justice, built good roads, and administered their lands well. They did not know the Lord, and yet they did the things that the Lord wills and which were helpful to the Lord’s people and, indeed, all people. They weren’t perfect, none of us all, and they often exceeded their proper authority, and yet they served under the Lord nonetheless. Good government keeps peace and so creates space for the Gospel of the Church to flourish.
But, many people forget this. Many people view civil government as if its run by the devil and is diametrically opposed to God’s rule. They forget that the Lord is God over all things, that He is God over the Church and God over civil government. Yahweh is God over everything. The devil is just an intruder in this world – he tries to take authority that is not his to have, he tries to sow disorder and corruption in this world. And notice that the devil does this both in civil government and in the Church; he attacks everything of God’s in order to create disorder.
In Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees have the opinion that civil government, particularly that of the Romans, is opposed to God’s rule. Perhaps part of this thinking is due to the fact that the Sadducees, their counterparts and rivals in Jewish culture of the time, cooperated with the Romans, and the Pharisees viewed themselves as “pure” and untarnished by the things of this world.
So, they ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By lawful, they are referring to God’s Law. That is, is it allowable or proper in God’s sight to pay taxes to civil government?
They’re not really asking this question honestly, although it’s an honest question in itself. But, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. If he says “no,” then they’ll take him to the Romans and tell them that Jesus is teaching sedition, which is what they eventually do anyway. If he says “yes,” then they’ll claim he’s a collaborator with the Romans. So, the Pharisees are trying to play “both sides of the coin,” so to speak.
Jesus turns the tables on them a little bit, like he does throughout the Gospels. He has them show him a coin, and they show him a denarius, which has an image of the Roman Caesar, or emperor on it. At this time, it probably would have been an image of Tiberius Caesar, who was evil, licentious, and covetous. No self-respecting person, Jew or Roman, would have liked to hang out with Tiberius.
So, Jesus asks them whose image is on the coin, and they say “Caesar’s.” Then, he says to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Caesar – despite his personal failings – is owed a certain amount of respect and tribute, since he helps to keep order and serves under the authority of God. This is why later, when Pontius Pilate is questioning Jesus and he says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus says, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11).
Similarly, this is extended to all civil government. Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:1ff).
Therefore, we are called to respect and obey civil government, because it owes its authority to God who Himself rules over all things. Civil government, the Left Hand Realm, has its God-given role in the world. Likewise, the Church, the Right Hand Realm, has its God-given role in the world. The Church goes forth with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bring people to salvation. Government goes forth with the sword to bring order to the world and punish the bad, and by doing so it creates space for the Gospel to flourish, even if it doesn’t realize it or intend for this to happen.
So, we’re called to obey civil government, and yet there seems to be a warning in Jesus’ statement that we give to government the things that are its and to God the things that are His. And in Paul’s letter to the Romans he also notes that we are to give what is owed. We owe to government our taxes, our support, our help. We don’t owe it our faith or look to it for our salvation; we owe that to God who is the only one worthy of our faith and the only one who can give us salvation. We “.. render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Civil government keeps order, the Church proclaims the Gospel.
Problems come in when either Realm oversteps its proper bounds. At times in history the Church has stepped into the role of civil government and forgot its mission to “Teach and Baptize.” Likewise, at times civil government has overstepped its bounds and sought to constrain consciences and call people to faith in it for salvation, as if God were redeeming the world through government, rather than through Christ.
We’ve seen examples of this throughout history. In the Soviet Union of the last century, people like Stalin urged people to look to him for all good things and punished those who looked to Christ instead. The same in Maoist China. The same before that in Hitler’s Germany, where Hitler sought to coerce and co-opt the Church to his own purposes. And in our own time the same tendencies are there for civil government to overstep its proper bounds and encroach upon the Church’s role.
When this happens we, as the Church, need to teach and admonish. And as citizens of the civil realm we need to contact our representatives, engage local, state, and national government. And for those who feel called, they should run for office or serve in other administrative capacities. For the government serves a Godly purpose, but at times it needs to be reminded of this purpose and of its proper role in the world. Salvation comes from Christ and is administered through his bride, the Church. Law and order comes through civil government. Each has its proper role, and God rules over both.
And when Christ returns there will no longer be the need for civil government, nor for the Church in fact. For, then heaven will be on earth, since God will again dwell directly with us, and there will be no sin or death in the world, no decay, no disorder. Everything will be perfectly restored and both realms will have completed their purposes.
This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians that of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest. It endures, because our faith will see the object of our faith – Christ – and our hopes will be realized – in the resurrection and the life everlasting. And then we will live in perfect love with God and each other forever in a restored earth. Until that day, we do the best we can as citizens of the civil realm and as citizens of the Church. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll undergo persecution, we’ll undergo trials. And yet, we – of all people, the bride of Christ – are those whom the world needs most, because we bring into this darkened world the restoring and redeeming light of Christ. Amen.
(Image: The Tribute Money, By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, 00.159.206_PS1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957525 )