NO KING BUT CAESAR
“We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
What would happen if Jesus rode into the nation’s capital the way he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? On that day long ago, Jesus rode on a donkey, accompanied by crowds of his followers waving palm branches acclaiming him as king. Picture Jesus riding not on a donkey but on a motorcycle or in a car, accompanied by people waving posters proclaiming him as leader. What if that happened this very day in Washington or Ottawa, Abuja or London, Moscow or Beijing?
If Jesus rode into the nation’s capital, would politicians bow before him or try to arrest him? Would the Supreme Court honor him as the ultimate judge, or would they throw Jesus out and rule him unconstitutional? If Jesus rode up to your local public school, would the school board ask his advice on curriculum and invite him to teach, or would he be banned from school property? If Jesus walked into your church, would he like what’s happening there, or would he throw out those who treat the church more as a business than as a place of prayer? If Jesus walked into your workplace, would you like having him there to watch you work, or would you want him to leave so that you could continue business as usual? If Jesus walked into your home while you were watching TV, would you invite him to have a seat, or would you be ashamed of what you were watching and quickly switch channels and hope he would hurry up and leave?
Jesus isn’t terribly upsetting as long as he keeps his distance. It’s when he shows up that he’s a problem. Jesus isn’t very troubling as long as he’s a matter of personal opinion and inner feelings. It’s when he claims kingship and asserts his authority that he makes us uneasy. Most people don’t mind Jesus as long as he knows his place. But Jesus won’t stay at a distance or reduce himself to an inner feeling. He claims kingship and insists on ruling over all things.
King Jesus is King of kings, ruler of presidents, prime ministers, governors and mayors. King Jesus is the supreme judge, and all other judges and courts must answer to the supreme court of Christ. King Jesus is head of the church, and all priests, prelates, pastors, and parishioners must give account to him. King Jesus is master of education, and every school and university, every principle and professor, every board member and administrator, faces an evaluation of how their teaching and research line up with his truth. King Jesus reigns over the workplace, and every CEO, manager, and worker must report to him. King Jesus has jurisdiction over the home, and every father, mother, boy, and girl, must face him.
Clashing With the King
Before Palm Sunday, many people in Jerusalem had only heard stories about Jesus but had not actually encountered him. To them, he was little more than a rumor from far-off Galilee. But then Jesus showed up, not as a story or a feeling but as king. Jesus called Jerusalem “the city of the Great King” (Matthew 5:35), and when Jesus rode into the city on Palm Sunday, he was acclaimed as king. He fulfilled the Bible’s prophecy which said, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). The crowds of Jesus’ supporters who entered Jerusalem with him that day shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38).
Not everyone was glad to see King Jesus ride in. Some wanted him to stay away, and if he wouldn’t stay away, they would get rid of him. Religious leaders and government leaders alike weren’t happy about this king. The chief priests didn’t want a Messiah to mess with their system. When Jesus claimed divine authority over the temple and drove the priest-approved merchants and money-changers out of the temple, they took speedy action to have him killed. When they seized Jesus and held a hasty trial in the middle of the night, they couldn’t make any charge stick except one: he claimed to be Messiah, a King on a level with God himself.
The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, [the Messiah] the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:63-64)
When Jesus said that, did the priests and elders bow before him and say, “He is worthy of worship”? No, they exclaimed, “He is worthy of death.”
They didn’t have the legal right to kill anyone themselves, so they brought him to the governor, Pontius Pilate, who did have authority to enforce the death penalty.
And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.”
So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. (Luke 23:2-3)
Jesus had never spoken against paying taxes to Caesar, so that accusation was false. Still, he did claim kingship—not as a politician competing for power or tax revenue but as the royal champion of truth.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason, I was born, and for this reason, I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:36-38)
When you hear Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this world,” you might say, “Whew! That’s a relief! For a while there, I thought Jesus might interfere with this world. But no, his kingdom is not of this world. It’s of another world and has nothing to do with this one. I’m glad his kingdom is purely spiritual. That way my politics, my education, my family, my work, my money, my entertainment, my time—everything in the real world is up to me and has nothing to do with Jesus. Whatever he’s the king of, it has nothing to do with my everyday world. If Jesus can give me a place in heaven and a special feeling inside, I might ask him into my heart and figure on seeing him in heaven someday. But his kingdom is not of this world, so I can ignore him in everyday matters.”
If you think that way, you don’t understand what Jesus meant when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus was not saying he had no authority in political and worldly matters. He was saying that his kingly authority comes not from this world but from God himself. His reign does not depend on the fighting ability of his followers but on God’s power. Jesus rules by divine right, not human might. His reign does not depend on humans or on this world’s institutions. His kingdom is not of this world, but it is over this world. Jesus claims the right to reign over us humans and over our institutions such as government, church, school, business, and family.
Shortly after Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he told the governor, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). The God of heaven whose Son Jesus is and who gives Jesus royal authority is the very same God who enabled Pilate to be governor. For every decision Pilate made as governor, he would have to answer to the Lord who gave him that jurisdiction. Indeed, every governing official must answer to the Lord for how that ruler handles his God-given jurisdiction.
This is true not just for rulers but for each of us and the domain we influence. Every one of us is given some measure of power from above, some jurisdiction, and we are accountable to King Jesus for how we handle our power in various spheres. Politicians have power over citizens. Pastors have power over congregations. Parents have power over children. Teachers have power over students. Bosses have power over workers. Artists and entertainers have power over their imaginations. Our powers in these various spheres or jurisdictions come from God and are under Jesus’ authority. We must honor him in all we do, not clash with his kingship. We handle our powers rightly only when we are in line with the truth Jesus came to reveal.
What Is Truth?
Pilate didn’t want to face the truth. He didn’t want to know the truth about God. He didn’t want his own character and decisions to be measure by the truth of Christ. When Jesus said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” Pilate stopped listening. “What is truth?” Pilate retorted. Then he walked away without waiting for an answer.
Many politicians aren’t very eager for their actions to be measured by God’s truth. Jean Chretien was Canada’s Prime Minister for ten years until stepping down last year. He is Roman Catholic. But Mr. Chretien violated biblical truth and church teaching by funding abortion and pushing for government approval of same-sex marriage. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta, said Mr. Chretien “doesn’t understand what it means to be a good Catholic” and “risks his eternal salvation.” Media pundits were outraged. So were members of Chretien’s cabinet. Minister of Heritage, Sheila Copps, reacted hotly to the bishop’s statement. She thundered, “That’s not something that you take to the political arena. Every Canadian, regardless of their religion, has to reconcile their beliefs with their god, their Allah, their guru, that’s why we live in a country that separates the views of religion from the views of the state.” That’s a long-winded way of sneering, “What is truth?” But Ms. Copps, Mr. Chretien, and the new leadership of Canada, won’t be answering to their own guru or their own Allah. They will answer to King Jesus, whom some of them claim to believe in but whose truth they choose to ignore in their decision-making.
Many in the United States take a similar approach. Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Sun, says that theology is now just a relic or an academic oddity and is completely ignored in practical affairs. “This is a cause for celebration,” he says. “Our principled secularism is part of what makes America the hope of the world.” That statement is foolish for at least two reasons. First, America is not the hope of the world, nor is any other nation or political system. Jesus is the hope of the world. Kirsch’s second error is his praise of secularism. If America is in any way good or beneficial, the benefit does not come from secularism.
The Truth About Secularism
What is secularism? It is thinking and acting as though God counts for nothing, as though Jesus is not king at all, as though the supreme authority is a politician. Secularism produced the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Secularism produced the cruelties of communism under Lenin and Stalin. Secularism produced Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime. Secularism produced the bloodbaths of China under Mao. Secularism produced the socialist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who paid lip service to Islam but championed secularism and deliberately based his police state approach and cult of personality on Stalin’s secular dictatorship. The notion that secularism can save the world has destroyed countless lives.
Sometimes the word secular can be used in a more limited and healthy sense to mean that the official institutions of civil government are separate from the official institutions of the church. Preachers have their area of responsibility under God, politicians have their area of responsibility, and one should not try to dominate the other. Back in the year 1700, a prominent Dutch preacher named Wilhelmus a` Brakel wrote,
Since the Lord Jesus alone is King… everything must transpire in strict conformity with Christ’s rule. He wills that the church shall always be separate from the state, and that the church will be governed by ecclesiastical authorities as the state is governed by civil authorities.
The church is not to rule over the state and the state may not rule over the church, but each must limit itself to its own domain… Thus church and state are fully separate from each other… Thus must everyone function within his own sphere.
Pastor Brakel wrote this a century before Thomas Jefferson wrote about separation of church and state. Government should be secular in the sense that it not be an arm of the church. Government’s task and sphere of responsibility is to establish a just civic order, not to preach the gospel or define sound doctrine. Politicians and pastors have different callings. Neither may dictate to the other—but both will ultimately answer to King Jesus for how they handle their calling. As a preacher, I am accountable to Jesus, and every politician is also accountable to Jesus.
A government that’s secular in a healthy way does not try to be a church, it’s not headed by church officials, and it doesn’t control the church. But many modern governments are not just secular in sticking to their own sphere and staying out of the church’s sphere. They embrace secularism. These governments operate as though they answer to no higher authority, not even God. They don’t just want to separate church from state. They want to separate government from God. They want to make human rulers the final authorities with no sense that they are under God and answerable to him.
This type of secularism is nothing new. Even religious people resort to secularism when it seems convenient. The priests and elders who wanted Jesus dead resorted to secularism when they were trying to persuade Pilate to crucify Christ. At one point they told Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). They refused even to consider whether Jesus really was the Son of God; they simply assumed that he wasn’t, and thought he ought to die for saying he was. Pilate was shaken to hear that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and he looked for some a way to let Jesus go without political damage.
At that point, the religious leaders dropped all God-talk and resorted to secularism. ”They told Pilate, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’” (John 19:12). Pilate responded by bringing Jesus out and saying, “Behold your king!” (John 19:14)
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. (John 19:15)
That’s the motto of secularism: “We have no king but Caesar.” If Christ is rejected as the final authority, human government unavoidably becomes the final authority. This not only destroys the spirit and eternal destiny of humanity but also destroys freedom and civic well-being.
In the period of history when Jesus’ enemies cried, “We have no king but Caesar,” the Roman Empire was in the process of declaring its emperors divine. The pattern repeats itself over and over: where Christ is not honored as Lord and God, it is only a matter of time until people look to their government with godlike reverence and fall under the dominion of dictatorship. Freedom flourishes under God; freedom fades without him.
Relativism and secularism often go hand in hand. Relativism recognizes no truth beyond human opinion, and secularism honors no authority higher than human authority. Relativists claim to promote freedom of thought, and secularists claim to promote political freedom. But we must beware of the relativism which sneers, “What is truth?” and we must beware of the secularism which insists, “We have no king but Caesar.” If we reject the Lord and make man the measure of all things, the practical result is that human government will dominate more and more areas of life. It recognizes no higher standard of justice and no limits on its authority. Humanistic government plays god, becoming ever more powerful and less moral. When relativism and secularism take over, tyranny is not far behind.
Even a written constitution is no guarantee against tyranny. Relativistic judges treat the constitution as an evolving document and make it mean whatever they wish. If they have little respect for God’s commands, it’s hardly a surprising that they would not feel bound by the original meaning of a human constitution.
Lately some American politicians have been suggesting that all young people should either be drafted into the military or else be required to work a number of years in civil service. Let’s be blunt: this is a call for slavery. Government would be enslaving young people for a few years against their will to work on whatever projects the government wants. Some who loudly oppose the old-time plantation owners who owned slaves seem to think that slavery is good as long as it happens on a government-run plantation. Now, military service may be honorable and civil service may do some good, but the moment government forces people into its service to do its bidding, it has made them slaves. When we have no king but Caesar, government becomes god, and it can do to us and our children whatever it wants. In denying the rule of King Jesus over all spheres of life, government progressively expands its own rule over all spheres, controlling education, dominating the workplace, directing business, confiscating income, meddling in families, regulating religion, and seeing young people as its own property to be enslaved as Caesar sees fit.
Three thousand years ago the Israelites demanded a king for themselves. Before that, God had been their only king. Civil government was not centralized, and Israel was a loose confederation of units that each had its own leadership. But the people rejected that arrangement and demanded big government like the nations around them. God said, “They have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7), and he said they could have a king like they wanted. God warned that a king would force their sons to serve in the military and do other government work. He warned that their daughters would be forced to do whatever the king wanted them to do. He warned that the king would seize whatever he wanted by means of taxes and then distribute the wealth to those he wanted to enrich. God warned, “You yourselves will become his slaves,” (1 Samuel 8:17). But the people kept demanding monarchy, and they got it, along with the loss of freedom God had warned of.
The Return of the King
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Lord was reclaiming his kingship. Jesus was the royal Son of God, and he was also from the human line of King David. Jesus would not be a political tyrant like other heads of big government, and he would not rely on military power like worldly kings, but his triumphal entry into Jerusalem did reveal him as king.
Jesus insisted that his followers place loyalty to him above loyalty to any worldly government, and for that he was crucified. The written charge against him was an accusation of kingship. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a warm feeling in someone’s heart; he was crucified for being king and God. Still today he is crucified. The Bible says if we’ve known God’s truth and the powers of the coming age but then reject Jesus, “we are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:6).
Palm Sunday is a time to remember not only that King Jesus rode into Jerusalem long ago but that he rules the universe right now and that the king will return to earth in glory and power. It might be today, it might be some other day, but the day is coming. So live each day the way you would if Jesus were about to arrive. Don’t crucify Jesus all over again. Repent of sin, receive him as Savior and Lord, and handle each sphere of your calling the way you would if King Jesus were looking over your shoulder—because he is!
When Jesus returns, you can’t say, “Well, I thought you were only king of souls. I didn’t know you claimed authority in every area of life.” If a relativist says to the returning King, “What is truth?” Jesus will say, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). If a secularist says, “God doesn’t belong in politics—we have no king but Caesar,” Jesus will say, “I am King of kings and Lord of lords. ‘Before me every knee will bow’” (Isaiah 45:23). In that day we will know with certainty that Jesus is supreme not just over the soul but over the body, over the whole person, over all human affairs, over the whole universe. Every knee will bow, and there will be no king but Jesus.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.