Render Unto Caesar: Two Kingdoms

This sermon begins a 4 week sermon series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.

You can listen to audio of the sermon at

One of my life verses comes from 1 Chronicles 12:32, which is in the middle of a list of the people that were in David’s mighty men. It says, “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” I see myself, as a pastor and also in my own personality and wiring, to be called by God to be of Issachar—to understand the times and know what the people of God should do.

I am not a political person by nature. I do not follow politics very closely. I normally avoid talking about it. But I feel that I need, as a pastor, to take a look at what is going on in the world and to talk about how Christians should respond. I am not going to tell you what to think or who you should vote for. Instead, I want to provide some biblical and theological perspective on how Christians should approach their opinions and actions in the political arena. I would guess that in all your years going to church, you have heard pastors and church members tell you what to think and who to vote for, but you have never been taught how to think about issues and how to approach politics.RenderUntoCaesarFlyer

Several people have told me that I am brave to talk about this, which, frankly, freaks me out a little. I did not know I was being brave. I guess I just feel like we are living in a time of such angst and upheaval, and that the heart of much of this worry and fear is actually spiritual in nature.

Can you remember a time of more fear, more polarization, and more fighting? Where the discussions were filled with such hate and dishonesty? Where government seemed so much like the opposite of servants of the people? Where people disliked the main presidential candidates so strongly, and many dislike both of them? Racial tensions are high. This is one of the first times where freedom of speech and freedom of religion seem like they may not be an American staple forever.  And we are very unsure if the America that we inherited from our grandparents will be the same America that our kids and grandkids will know.

Now, the danger in wading into these topics is that people do get emotional and defensive over their politics, their political parties, and their beliefs. We live in a time when people are quick to be angry, to attack, or to jump to conclusions. Fear has a powerful influence on our behaviors. But we live a faith that talks about grace and forgiveness. The fruit of our lives are supposed to be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. I do not see these things much in the world today, especially in politics, but I think we need to nurture and develop them in the church. Let’s do that first through this sermon series as we wade into these difficult issues.

To begin, let’s look at a conversation that Jesus had with some Pharisees.

[15] Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. [16] And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. [17] Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [18] But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? [19] Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. [20] And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” [21] They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [22] When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, so they ask about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar—the ruler of the Roman Empire. It is a trap, because if Jesus says yes then the Jews will get mad at him for supporting the Roman Empire. On the other hand, if he says no, then the Pharisees can get him in trouble with the Romans.

Jesus sees right through the test, and reacts brilliantly. He says to get out a coin. They pull out a denarius, which has Caesar’s picture and name on it. Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They marveled at the answer, because it escaped the problem.

Jesus’ response not only shows his brilliance, but it is also very informative for how we approach faith and politics. There are two kingdoms. There is the Kingdom of this World and the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Caesar does have some authority in the kingdom of the world, and so people should pay taxes. But we are part of another kingdom.

Listen to how Jesus puts it in his prayer for the disciples on the night he was betrayed in Jn. 17:

[14] I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. [15] I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. [16] They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We are supposed to stay in the world, but we do not belong there. Listen to how Paul says it in Philippians 3:20-21: “[20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Paul uses political language—we are citizens of heaven. We are here waiting for our savior to transform the world.

This is the interesting second part of Jesus’ answer. Yes, we are supposed to render unto Caesar, but we are also supposed to render unto God what is Gods. And everything is Gods. As Psalm 24:1 says, “[1] The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,…” Or, as theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

We live in this world, but we are citizens of another Kingdom. We live here as an outpost or colony of this other kingdom. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon call Christians “Resident Aliens.” We live here, but our citizenship is actually somewhere else. And we believe that someday the Kingdom of God will take over the Kingdom of this world. We wait for that day and try to care for the world and the people that will eventually bow to their true sovereign.

There is a difficult set of questions that follows these biblical convictions—what is the relationship between these two kingdoms, and how do we live in both? How do we live as citizens of heaven and still render unto Caesar? How can we stay in the world, but not of it, but also not out of it?

These questions have been at the heart of the American experiment since America declared its independence. Many of the people who came to this New World were fleeing the persecution of state religions. The Puritans, the Presbyterians, and even the Catholics had found themselves persecuted in Europe in places that had established religions that were tied to the governmental structures. Part of the vision of this new nation was to be sure that there would never have a state religion.

Thomas Jefferson said it this way in a letter in 1802: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” This is the place where the language of separation of church and state comes from, though it was not original to Jefferson.

In light of this, why is it that America has been described as a Christian nation? Well, to be clear, there was never a moment when everyone in America was a Christian. Christianity was never the accepted religion of the American government. While the founding documents of our country do refer generally to God and a Creator, there is no specifically Christian language in those documents.

The Forefathers were not all Christians, but many were. For example, John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who was a very influential Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in a general God but not specifically in the Christian faith, like Benjamin Franklin.

Thomas Jefferson would probably be described most accurately as a Unitarian. He actually published a book called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in which he literally took a razor and glue to the gospels and took out anything miraculous, including the resurrections, so that you could have the moral teachings of Jesus without all that unbelievable stuff or without believing him to be the Son of God.

Despite the fact that America was never all Christians and was not made to be a Christian nation, America was founded on a strong and agreed upon Judeo-Christian ethic. The Fathers saw religion and morality as critical for a society to work well. George Washington said it this way during his Farewell Address, September 19, 1795:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

For society to work, it needs moral people. Moral people must be developed by religion, because government cannot develop moral people. The church must do that.

Here is what has happened in America. Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, has always had a place of prominence and dominance in this country. I think the number of true believers who were genuinely trying to follow Christ has always been relatively small, but for generations people were nominally Christian.

The world is different. We are not living in anything resembling a Christian nation anymore, and I think Christians are in denial about just how morally corrupt we are. Can you remember the blue laws—when things had to be closed on Sunday? When I was a kid, restaurants were open for lunch on Sundays, and people would dress up so that people would think they went to church even if they didn’t. Pastors wouldn’t do marriage if people were living together. If we had that rule today, pastors would never do marriages. How the times have changed!

You see, the church began as a fringe movement—a minority position that gained strength as it was shared between cultures and peoples. Since that time, whenever Christianity has been linked with political power, it has eventually been disastrous for both the church and the government. The church relies on its political power instead of trusting in Christ, and the church gets weaker. The weak church leads to moral indifference, which is devastating to the nation. The nation then tries to control morals, but their only means is by trying to control all behavior.

Compare that to the church around the world. The church is booming in Africa and Asia right now, and even growing in secret in many Muslim countries. But here and in Europe, where religion is free and has been privileged, the church is very stagnant and homogenous.

This problem is exacerbated by the way the church has outsourced much of its work to the government. It is our job to care for the poor. It is our job to care for orphans. It is our job to care for widows. And we get mad when the government does not do a good job at those things or does not do them with the kind of love and compassion that the Bible calls for. But of course the government isn’t going to work like the church. That is the church’s job. And our churches are struggling financially, but we have to pay taxes to the government for doing the things that the church should be doing.

I wish I had more answers for you today, but for today we primarily need to have some context and understand how we got here. For now, let me just end with a few core or baseline convictions for Christians about politics.

  1. Christians should care about what goes on in the world around us. It is God’s world, after all, created by Him and bought back from sin by Jesus on the cross. He is going to come back someday and take it back. We should care about it.
  2. Christians should be engaged in politics. You cannot just say you care or complain about things. You have to act. Christians should know what is going on, vote our convictions, have dialogue about the issues, consider running for office, and pray for our government officials.
  3. The best thing that Christians can do for our nation and our world is to be a strong church. We have the responsibility to develop moral people, build community to talk about and deal with issues, and take care of the poor, the orphaned, and the disenfranchised.
  4. This is probably the most important thing for Christians to hear in our world today: remember where your ultimate citizenship lies. That is where your hope really lies. And no matter who the president is or what the policies are, your hope is Christ.

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