“Is it Lawful to Pay Taxes to Caesar, or Not?”

Excerpted from my sermon on August 23, 2020 at Big Springs Community Church, Montague, CA

In Mark Chapter 12, the first group who asked Jesus the question about paying taxes were Pharisees and Herodians. The Pharisees were legalists, believing that obeying the Law of Moses and their own additions to the Law made them righteous before God. The Herodians were Jews who cooperated with the Roman occupiers for money and privilege so they supported taxes. Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, used to be one of those hated tax collectors.

Their trap question was, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (v 14) They thought that Jesus had no way out of this question. If he said yes, then they would charge him of supporting the Roman taxes. If he said no, he would be accused of teaching “tax revolt.” They even prefaced their question with a bogus praise of Jesus, saying he is a true Teacher teaching God’s law and not swayed by anyone’s opinions or appearances.

Jesus knew their hypocrisy but did not say anything at first. Instead, he asked for a coin, and asked them whose image is imprinted on the coin: it was Caesar’s. So his answer to their trick question was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v 17). His enemies marveled or were amazed at him; more accurately, they were dumbfounded.

This teaching has three major applications, especially with the relationship between faith and culture, and specifically, between California’s order banning churches from gathering indoors for worship. In the last few weeks, Grace Community Church in L.A. and its pastor, John MacArthur, has openly defied this order. How does this action relate to Jesus’ teaching about obeying Caesar?

The first application is that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God (1 Pet 2:9) and the kingdom of man (1 Pet 2:13-17). We must obey the laws of both kingdoms: taxes and other duties as citizens of our nation, and Christ’s commandments as citizens of his kingdom. We are to be subject to the civil authorities because they have been appointed by God (Rom 13:1-2). Civil governments are established by God for that very purpose: so that society and nations will have “civility” and order, because God is a God of order (1 Cor 14:33). They are also God’s surrogates for punishing evildoers and rewarding the good (Rom 13:3-4).

Second, although we are dual citizens, we should not mix the affairs of the two kingdoms. The church, the kingdom of God, must not meddle into the affairs of the state, the kingdom of man, and vice versa. In all of church history, when this distinction is violated, the results have been disastrous. In the medieval age, the church wielded the power of the sword of the civil magistrate, torturing and executing those whom they judged as heretics. Kings also had power over the church, influencing the appointments of Popes, cardinals, bishops and other church officers. Wars, torture, persecutions and horrible, unlawful executions resulted in this mix-up of the two kingdoms.

Third and last, there is a point where Christians are allowed by Scripture to disobey the laws of the kingdom of man. In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested and imprisoned for preaching the gospel, but an angel of God freed them, and they began preaching again in the temple. They were re-arrested, but told the authorities in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” After they were beaten, they were ordered to cease preaching. But as soon as they were released, they disobeyed the order and began preaching again.

The question for us today is, “Are we in an Acts 5:29 situation?” And the short answer is “No,” but I would qualify it with a “Not yet.” Why? Though the authorities still allow us to worship outdoors and online, there are signs that the civil authorities are slowly squeezing the rights of Christians and churches. It would be well to remember the words of Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who first supported Hitler and the Nazis. But after the Nazis controlled even the churches, he started opposing them. As a result, he was sent to prison and concentration camps.

First they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Many Christian pastors today think, “That will never happen here!” So they have criticized MacArthur’s action. But our leftist state government is obviously anti-Christian and would do anything to silence Christians. We see this in its inconsistency, hypocrisy and anti-Christian prejudice.

While they prohibit indoor worship, they allow casinos, movie theaters, gyms, stores and malls to open. They even allow screaming “protesters” to gather in the thousands. But churches cannot open their doors. These anti-Christian authorities are licking their chops at the prospect of taking over the government after seeing not even a whimper of protest from churches. Imagine what a socialist power would do to the churches; we just have to look at the Soviet Union, China and North Korea, whose Marxist-Leninist slogan against churches is, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” While churches are still allowed to worship outdoors, there are limitations to outdoor worship. For example, yesterday, because of the heat and the smoke of fires, a church just outside the SF Bay Area decided to disobey the state by worshiping indoors. I’m sure that many other churches did the same for the same reasons. Churches, especially those in cold-weather locations, must start thinking how they are going to hold worship services outdoors in freezing temperatures, rain and snow. We might as well revert to the medieval age when Protestants were forced to worship in the forests and mountains in freezing conditions (see “Waldensians: Medieval Reformers”). Or model after the underground churches in China.

Our Constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech, religion, press, peaceful protest, and petition. Christians must be watchful that these freedoms that even Scriptures support are not violated by the authorities.

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