God or Government?

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I wonder if you’ve followed the story in the news of Rocco Buttiglione. He was nominated to be one of Italy’s commissioners to the European Union. But in the process, he said he believes marriage is right and other forms of sexual relationship are wrong. And as a result he’s basically been forced to withdraw. One EU politician said on the radio that having people like him would (quote) ‘… be a threat to European democracy.’

That’s a frightening example of just how intolerant people can be in the name of tolerance. I take it that EU politician thinks she’s being really tolerant - thinks she’s not judging anyone, not saying anyone’s right or wrong, not laying down the truth like nasty Mr Buttiglione. But in fact that’s exactly what she’s doing. She’s judging Mr Buttiglione. She’s saying he’s wrong. She’s laying down the truth. The difference between them is that he would defend her right to freedom of speech, whereas she wouldn’t defend his: she wants him out.

And what’s happened to Mr Buttiglione this week happens to us in smaller ways all the time – in meetings at work; in the classroom or seminar room; in everyday conversation. In our culture, Christians are increasingly getting into trouble for saying that certain things are right and certain things are wrong.

And this morning’s Bible passage is a real help with living in that situation. So would you turn to Matthew 22. We’re in a sermon series on Matthew chapters 22 and 23. The things recorded here probably happened on the Tuesday of the week Jesus died – three days before Good Friday. And Jesus spent those last days teaching in the temple in Jerusalem - the ‘headquarters’ of Judiasm. Look back to 21.45:

45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (21.45-46)

So the Jewish leaders had already made up their minds against Jesus, and were looking to get rid of him. Last week we looked at Matthew 22.1-14 – the parable of the wedding banquet - where Jesus warned these leaders that although they’d been invited into relationship with God, they hadn’t responded. In return, they stepped up their efforts to get rid of him, which brings us to 22.15, and my 1st heading:


15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity [literally it says, ‘we know you are true’] and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (vv15-17)

And if you’d been in the crowd you’d have thought how concerned these leaders seemed for the truth and for doing the right thing - little knowing that they were planning to kill Jesus and that within three days they’d have succeeded. V18:

18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?" (v18)

‘Hypocrite’ means looking like one thing on the outside but being another in reality. In this case, they appeared to want the truth about God, but in reality didn’t want it at all.

Now elsewhere, the Bible says that by nature none> of us wants the truth about God. The apostle Paul, in Romans 1, talks about

‘…men [and women - mankind] who suppress the truth by their wickedness’

It’s like our attitude to speed limit signs. We tend to suppress (ie, ignore) the truth of the 70mph sign because we want to drive at 80 (or whatever your temptation speed is). And by nature we suppress (ie, ignore) the truth about God so we can live as we please.

Now when people do that irreligiously, it’s more obvious. But one of the big lessons and warnings of Matthew 22 and 23 is that you can do that religiously, as well. Someone can call themselves a believer, can know the Bible and appear to put quite a bit of it into practice, can go to church, can lead in church, can even lead a whole church or denomination - and in reality be rejecting God.

So, applying this to today, to state the obvious: don’t assume that all professing Christian leaders are in fact Christian. That assumption will result in us being misled, sooner or later. Instead, come back for more of Matthew 22 and 23 and learn how to spot genuineness and hypocrisy.

But that test has to be applied to ourselves, as well. If we’re Christians, we need to remember that we still have this truth-suppressing habit knocking around in our spiritual sytems. And like the Pharisees, it’s possible for us to be religious and yet holding God at arms’ length. Eg, we can do that by just talking about the Bible. 45 minutes’ discussion last Wednesday in Home Group makes you feel that you’ve really taken God seriously. But actually the test of whether we’ve taken God seriously is whether we’ve put it into practice since then. Or we can hold God at arm’s length by being selective about the bits of the Bible we let challenge us. What about the bits about money and materialism, for example? And so on. We need to test our sincerity.

And if you’d not yet call yourself a Christian, but you’re just investigating Christianity, this incident in Matthew 22 is a challenge to the sincerity of your investigations. Are your questions sincere (in the way that this question about tax wasn’t)? I remember meeting up with someone who said he wanted to investigate Christianity. And he fired question after question at me, which I was happy to answer - ‘Hasn’t science disproved Genesis?’, ‘What about suffering?’, ‘How can you believe in a God who’d send people to hell?’, ‘How can Jesus be the only way to God?’ And so on. And when people ask questions, I don’t just assume they’re smoke-screens. But after a while with this guy I said, ‘I’m happy to talk more, but can I ask you: if I answered all your questions to your satisfaction, would you be prepared to let Jesus become Lord of Your life?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t think I would.’

Which illustrates this first lesson about human nature: by nature, we don’t want the truth. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit in us to change that – and even then, we must be aware that that old truth-suppressing habit is still knocking around in us.

Onto my 2nd heading. In these verses, there’s also:


Verse 16 again, part way in:

"Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity [literally, ‘we know you are true’] and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (vv16-17)

The trap is that whichever way he answers, they could use his answer against him. If he says it’s right to pay taxes to Caesar (ie, to the occupying Roman government), they can accuse him to the Jewish people of being disloyal to Israel and to God. And that could lose him the majority good-will of the people in an instant. On the other hand, if he says it’s not right to pay taxes to Caesar, they can accuse him to the Romans of treason - and treason could get you crucified (which, in Jesus’ case, was their aim).

It’s the kind of question that would have had us calculating, ‘What if I say this?... What if I say that?’… How will people respond? How much could telling the truth (or some of the truth) cost me?’ Like the Old Testament Proverb (29.25) says, ‘Fear of man will prove to be a snare.’ But Jesus had this unique freedom from the fear of man. V18:

18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" 21"Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." 22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (vv18-22)

That word ‘amazed’ is a strong one. It’s the word Matthew uses when he describes Jesus calming the storm: ‘The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’’ (Matthew 9.27) It’s the word Matthew uses when he describes Jesus’ healings: ‘The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing.’ (Matthew 15.31). It’s the word for saying that they felt in the presence of a man who was more than just a man.

And this answer in v21 had the same effect. They were amazed. Because he had this unique capacity to know and tell the truth and this unique freedom from fear of man. And it was because of his relationship with his Father in heaven. Just like you can only really explain his works - the calming of the storm, the healings, and so on - by his relationship with his Father, so you can only really explain his words by his relationship with his Father. That unique relationship with God, the fact that he came into our world from God, meant he had access to truth that we simply don’t have - and that he said it out of obedience to his Father, totally unaffected by fear of man.

Well, again how does this apply to us? We began thinking about what it’s like for us in our culture (or for a Mr Buttiglione in European politics), where you’re not supposed to say anything is true or right or wrong. Because the culture thinks that those are just personal beliefs and that you can’t claim they’re absolute and for everyone - because you’re just as human and finite as the next person.

But the point is: Jesus is not. Jesus is not just as human and finite as the next person. Jesus was God’s Son become human, with that relationship with his Father that gave him access to truth that we simply don’t have. And by depending on what Jesus said, we do have access to absolute truth that’s true for everyone.

And we need to explain to people where our truth-claims come from. You’ve probably noticed how, in the media, Bible Christians are often labelled ‘traditionalists’. The culture just assumes that the reason we think our beliefs are true is that they’re very old and they’ve stood the test of time. But that’s not it at all. The reason we think our beliefs are true is not that they come from way back in time, but that they come from outside time - they come from God’s Son, stepping in to our world in human form, stepping in from ‘God’s side’ outside time, to ‘our side’, inside time.

And without Jesus and the access he gives to the truth, the best people can do in trying to decide what’s right and wrong is to justify an action by its results. So, eg, on the news the other day they interviewed a mother who’d gone abroad to have a (so-called) ‘designer baby’ so that tissue from its umbilical cord could be used to treat her first child’s illness. The interviewer asked her, ‘But do you think it was right to destroy the embryos that weren’t any use for treating your first child?’ And she replied, ‘All I can say is: he’s healthy again for the first time in years.’ Ie, the results justify the decision. And that will become more and more common in our culture. V17:

17”Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to…?”

Only Jesus can answer the question of whether it’s right (not convenient or pragmatic or utilitarian; right) – because he is uniquely true and our source of truth.



What about this particular question in v17?

17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (v17)

They had no sincere desire to know, but Jesus gives them an answer which gives us a lesson on relating to government.

At least some of Jesus’ questioners hated the idea of living under a pagan ruler – whose sympathies and laws were often anything but in line with God. They looked back to the ideal time when Israel was a ‘theocracy’ (‘theos’ = God) – ie, when God was basically the government, and he ruled them through prophets and kings. But that had ended with the exile and they were now living with the occupying Roman forces as their government. So at least some of them didn’t want to hear Jesus say, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ But, v21:

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (v21)

So Jesus is saying that in principle, the two are not in conflict. Because like Paul says in Romans 13.1:

The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13.1 – see vv1-7 in full)

Ie, governments, and authority structures in schools and universities and hospitals, and business regulations, and speed limits and so on are ultimately put there by God, for our good:

So in the picture, the large crown stands for God; underneath him, the small crown stands for government. And giving Caesar what is Caesar’s is part of giving to God what is God’s. Ie, part of our commitment to God is to honour the demands that government legitimately makes on us.

So that’s the picture. Jesus is not separating life into a ‘spiritual part’ and a ‘non-spiritual part’. It’s all under God’s kingship and therefore all ‘spiritual’. So driving our cars or filling in our tax returns are as ‘spiritual’ a matter as praying or being here. And notice that it’s God above, and separate from, government. By contrast, Islam would basically merge the two crowns in my picture and say, ‘God is the government’ - hence the ideal of the Islamic state where state law is religious law, and religion is imposed by the state. And also by contrast, the secular totalitarian state would basically say, ‘Government is god’. The secular totalitarian state would cross out the large crown I the picture (saying, ‘God doesn’t exist’) and then claim that government (or The Party, or the Fuhrer, or whoever) demands your ultimate allegiance. But Jesus says: God is above, and separate from, government.

So in principle, there’s no conflict, because government is a God-given institution for our good. But in practice, there is conflict since the will of any government is not going to be perfectly in line with God’s will. So, eg, we pay taxes which are spent partly on things that are against God’s will – things that are utterly immoral and foolish. But we should still pay them (whilst at the same time objecting to their wrong use and arguing for wiser use).

In practice, the conflict can be more severe than that – and will be for some of our international brothers and sisters when they return to home countries with governments much more hostile to Christianity. Eg, what do you do when your government bans the spreading of the gospel? Well, at that point, when Caesar’s demands conflict with Gods demands, we must obey God. And in this country, there will increasingly be issues where we must obey God and will unavoidably therefore get into trouble with ‘Caesar’ (with the hospital committee, or the governing body, or whatever).

Now since in the UK we live in a democracy, two other important responsibilities come out of this. One is the responsibility to influence what government gets in, by voting thoughtfully. The other is the responsibility to influence government once it is in - to aim to bring the will of government more in line with God’s will. That’s because Christian morality (so-called) isn’t just for Christians. The will of God for human life revealed in the Bible is for all human beings, not just Christian ones, and it’s part of love for our neighbour that we work for legislation and social policy that reflects God’s will as far as possible.

And I find an invaluable help to that is being a supporter of the Christian Institute. They watch the media and the government to see what decisions are about to be made in Parliament; they work on how to argue for legislation that’s more in line with God’s will (on grounds that non-Christians will find persuasive). They then write to supporters to say, ‘Here’s what you can pray and do…’ If you don’t know about the Christian Institute, do pick up their literature from the back of the building. (Readers using the web might like to visit the Christian Institute’s website, www.christian.org.uk). I’ve written to the Duke of Norfolk, among others, in urging peers and MP’s to vote for certain things, and he wrote back a delightful letter (starting, ‘Dear Garrett…’ - it was like being back at school on surname terms!) He said how much he appreciated those who’d written to him and how it strengthened his resolve to vote.

So those are the three lessons from this part of Matthew 22:

1. A lesson about human nature: We don’t by nature want the truth, so let’s watch our sincerity - whether believers or investigators.
2. A lesson about Jesus: he is uniquely true, and our source of truth in a culture that denies there is such a thing.
3. A lesson about relating to government: according to Jesus, giving government what is government’s is part of giving God what is God’s.

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