Lisa Sheffler, author
I remember getting my first passport. A year or two after we got married, my husband and I saved up enough money to go on a trip to Europe. We filled out all the paper work, dug our birth certificates out of storage, got our pictures taken, and applied for a U.S. passport. That passport declares that no matter where we go in the world, we are citizens of the United States.
Like everything else in our lives as Christians, how we understand our role as citizens should be guided by our relationship with God. Because even though we are citizens of an earthly country, we have dual citizenship, and our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom and a divine king.
Yet, how many of us have thought deeply about how our kingdom citizenship affects our earthly one? Sure, we may have tried to think about issues and candidates in a biblical way, but have we gone to the Word of God and considered how it guides the way we think about our citizenship in general?
That’s our aim in this series. We want to go straight to the Bible and invite the Holy Spirit to guide us as we think through what it means to have dual citizenship. We are citizens of heaven and citizens of an earthly nation at the same time. Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at five key passages in the New Testament that reveal the wisdom of Jesus and the apostles.
In case you’re concerned, let’s address the elephant (or donkey) in the room. If you are eligible to vote in the upcoming election here in the U.S., don’t worry, we aren’t going to tell you how to vote. Our series isn’t about a particular election. It’s about how Christians at all times and in all places should relate to governments of all types in ways that reflect the character of Jesus Christ. As a church, what we want is for all of us to more closely align with Christ in how we think about our role as citizens. Our ultimate loyalty belongs to King Jesus, and we want to be people fit for his kingdom.
Week 1 | Matthew 22:15–22
One of the things every church is tasked with is helping people apply the Bible to their everyday life. So you’ll see sermon series on marriage, seminars on parenting, and workshops on how to be a Christian in a secular workplace. These resources help us meet all kinds of life challenges using the Bible as our guide. But one area that is given less attention is how to live and act as citizens of a nation. Sure, pastors will sometimes discuss important issues such as abortion or express concerns about religious liberty. Outside groups will try to mobilize church-goers to achieve certain political ends that reflect “Christian values.” But we need to go beyond specific hot-button issues and learn to think holistically about our role as citizens.
As we’ll see over the next few weeks, how we engage in political activity as a follower of Jesus is as important as any political end we achieve, no matter how righteous. And how we think and interact with our political environment can have a huge impact on our spiritual health, our witness for Christ, and our relationships with other people.
This week, we’re starting with a foundational text from the ministry of Jesus. As best we can, we’ll need to transport ourselves back to Biblical times, because the Roman empire was a very different world from where we live now. But what we’ll find is profound insight from Jesus that can help guide us through the corrosive politics of our day. We’ll begin by looking at the passage as a whole, and then break it down as the week goes on.
This story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It comes as part of a series of confrontations that Jesus had with the religious leaders during the final week of his life as they were looking for reasons to have him arrested and executed.
As you read the passage, notice the way the religious leaders try to trap Jesus and the brilliance of his reply.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
How were the religious leaders hoping to trap Jesus?
Before we consider how Jesus’ words can guide us in the 21st century, let’s think about what they meant in the first.
In the three Gospels where this story appears, it is told after Jesus’ triumphal entry where he entered Jerusalem to the shouts of his followers. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The religious leaders were jealous of Jesus’ following, irate at his refusal to show them the honor they thought they were due, and fearful that his popularity could bring the wrath of Rome down on tiny Judea. In spite of all the miracles that Jesus had done, the Pharisees refused to see him as their true Messiah, and wanted to see him dead (John 11:47–53).
During Roman occupation, several self-proclaimed Jewish “messiahs” had attempted to stir up revolts, but each one had been ferociously put down. So the question the Pharisees were asking was not an academic one. Jesus’ answer mattered. If Jesus had been seen as encouraging rebellion against Rome by telling people not to honor Caesar and pay him tribute, the Pharisees would have had the evidence they needed to bring him before the Roman leaders and accuse him of insurrection.
If he endorsed Caesar’s tax, he could have been seen as not only complicit in the Roman occupation of the promised land, but in promoting the worship of Caesar. The coin in question contained an image of Caesar and the inscription “Son of God” and “High Priest.”
As he had done throughout his ministry, Jesus answered this query in a way that spoke to the immediacy of his circumstances, and also to the eternal, spiritual significance of what’s being asked. This was not just a political question. And while Jesus knew he had come to Jerusalem to die, he would not give the Pharisees a legitimate reason for his arrest.
Jesus was no earthly insurrectionist, but the true Son of God who would liberate humanity from bondage to sin and death. His call to the people gathered in front of him was not to follow him into bloody conflict, but to one day accept that his shed blood on the cross would bring them peace with God. As we’ll discover in this series, his instructions have bigger implications than even whether to rebel against an unjust government or live peacefully under it. Jesus is teaching us how to live as citizens in his eternal Kingdom even as we occupy an earthly nation.
- Since this is the start of a series, take some time to prayerfully reflect on your current thinking. No matter where you are a citizen, how do you think about your country and the government that runs it? How do you think about your obligation and allegiance to this nation? How does your faith affect how you interact with government?
- Now spend some time in prayer. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide you according to the Word. When it comes to issues of citizenship, invite him, over the course of this series, to search your heart and reveal to you any ways that he might change you to be more like Jesus.