September 16, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer


ILL: In the 2004 presidential election, partisan fervor visited the University of North Carolina. Two students, one supporting George Bush, the other supporting John Kerry debated over a unique political question. Who would Jesus vote for?

Jesus didn’t reveal how he would vote, but we can be sure how he felt about the debate. When the exchange became heated, one of them slapped the other in the face. His opponent fell to the concrete patio, suffering a head injury.

What did Jesus have to say about politics?  It might surprise you!  Jesus said what is arguably the single most influential sentence in history about politics.  We’re going to take a look at that, and talk about how we as Christians engage in the political process.  And of course, I am going to insist that we are called to love our neighbors even when we disagree.  


What do you think Jesus said that is the most influential political sentence in history?


One of our responsibilities as Christians is to pray for our civic leaders.  Paul wrote to Timothy:

1 Timothy 2:1–4 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

We are to pray for “all those in authority”, including our governmental leaders nationally, in our state, and in our county and city.  We’re going to do that right now.

Introduction and offering:

That was Jenna Lee Nardella, 2004 graduate of Whitworth University, and founder and executive director of BloodWater Mission, giving the closing prayer at the Democratic National Convention a couple weeks ago.  What a wonderful prayer.  She prayed for both President Obama and Governor Romney—and prayed the same good things for both.  She prayed that all of us would conduct ourselves in the next 9 weeks in ways that would make our children proud.  She prayed that we would be humble and listen to each other and treat each other with respect, even when we disagree deeply.  And everyone said, “Amen!”  Let it be!  (Offering here.)

This is part 2 of Polarized.  I am talking about three things that polarize people in our culture: religion, politics and gay marriage (which is an example of where religion and politics collide).  Today, we’re going to talk about politics, and I am going to tell you who and what Christians should vote for.  NOT!  If that’s what you were hoping for, you’ll be disappointed.   Instead, we’re going to see what the Bible says about politics and how we’re to be involved.  We’ll see that Jesus introduced some revolutionary political ideas.  And we’ll finish by talking about how we’re to treat our political adversaries.

What is politics?  The word “politics” comes from the Greek words

  • polis = city or town;

  • polites = citizen;

  • politeuma = commonwealth or state;

  • politeia = citizenship.  

We get the words “police, politics, policy, metropolis” and many others from the Greek polis.

Politics is “the theory and practice of government”.  It is what we do to try to live together as citizens in a city, state or nation…or any other group of people.  There are politics in a family, in a church, in a life group, in a company, on a sports team.  Any time a group of people tries to live together or work together, there are politics.  What are the rules?  Who decides?  And who controls the resources of power and money?  Politics is what we do to live together.  Politics isn’t bad—it’s just inevitable!    

So here we are in America—over 300 million of us—trying to live together—that’s politics.  How many opinions are there?  At least 300 million.  That’s what makes politics so interesting, and so difficult.  Pick any issue, any candidate—and there are lots of opinions.  Sadly, many of the opinions are formed on false, or partial, or inaccurate information.  Not all opinions are created equal!  And many of these ill-formed opinions are being shouted, not spoken.  Political parties know we have short attention spans, so they specialize in sound bites and talking points.  And they have become spin masters, able to make their cause seem righteous and the other side’s evil, or their candidate sterling and the other side’s despicable.  It’s all very polarizing.  What are we to do?

The Big Idea: Christians are to be good citizens who work for the common good and love their neighbors.

1. A Biblical perspective on politics

Our main text today will be Mark 12.

Mark 12:13–17 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

This is the last week of Jesus’ life and his enemies are searching for a way to destroy him.  Two political enemies team up: the Pharisees and Herodians.  The Pharisees were deeply opposed to the Roman government in Jerusalem; the Herodians were in alliance with the Roman government.  Red; blue.  Conservative; liberal.  For Rome; against Rome.  But they teamed up with the shared goal of trapping Jesus.

“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?  Should we or shouldn’t we?  Yes or no?”  

This is a political question; let me give you the back-story.  Rome levied many taxes on its subjects, but this particular tax was the census tax; in fact, the Greek word for “taxes” here is kenson, taken directly from the Latin word census.  The tax was one denarius per year, and you paid it for the privilege of being alive and under Roman rule.  One denarius was an average day’s wage for a common worker, so it wasn’t a lot of money.  But the Jews hated this tax for a couple reasons.  

First, it was a symbol of Roman oppression.  Why should I pay you a tax just to exist?  Second, it was paid with a coin, a denarius, that had an image of Caesar—at this time, Tiberius—and an inscription that read: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus”, and on the other side, “High Priest.”  Remember, the Jews didn’t make images because of the second commandment forbidding making and worshipping images.  And they didn’t believe Caesar was divine—they believed in one God, and it wasn’t Tiberius!  So the coin itself with which the tax must be paid was offensive.

The Romans first levied this tax in AD 6, and immediately, the Jews rebelled.  A freedom fighter named Judas the Galilean (he’s mentioned in Acts 5:37) said that taxation was no better than slavery (sounds like our American forefathers!).  Judas rallied some fighters, stormed Jerusalem and cleansed the temple of foreigners.  He called all the Jews to arms and to refuse to pay the tax.  What did the Romans do?  They sent in troops and crushed the rebellion, crucifying Judas and about 2000 of his followers.  The crosses lined the roads as not-so-subtle reminder to pay your tax!

But the cry, “No tribute to the Romans” never died out and was very much alive in Jesus’ day.  Judas the Galilean had cleansed the temple and refused to pay the tax.  Now 30 years later, Jesus the Galilean has cleansed the temple, and they’re asking, “what does he think about the tax?”  Is he a revolutionary?

So can you see the trap?

If Jesus says “No, don’t pay the tax,” the Herodians will report him to the Roman government and he’ll be arrested and executed for starting a revolt.  

If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” the Pharisees will spread the word with the masses and his popularity and influence will end.  Either way, they ruin Jesus.

Jesus’ answer is brilliant. “Bring me a denarius.”  Notice that Jesus has to ask someone for the coin—he doesn’t have one.  “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  Caesar’s image and inscription were on the coin because it was his.  Coins were minted from his wealth; it was literally Caesar’s silver.  

So, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  The coin belongs to him; give it to him.  But it’s the second half of the answer that is revolutionary.  “And give to God what is God’s.”

Jesus separates Caesar and God, and that had never really been done before.  In the ancient world, kings ruled by divine fiat.  Kings claimed that their authority came from the gods, or that they were gods.  There was no such thing as separation of church and state; in fact, no one had ever expressed the idea, until right now when Jesus does.  

Historian Rodney Stark wrote, “In ancient civilizations the concept of a ‘state church’ didn’t really exist because people did not distinguish between them as two institutions.” Something would have to happen in the world for state and religion to be regarded as separate spheres.#  That something happened right here: Jesus separated Caesar and God.  

John Ortberg points out, “Ideas like individual rights, limited sphere of government, separation of the freedom of worship from the power of the state, and freedom of conscience would all be a part of reflecting on what Jesus meant when he talked about “that which belongs to Caesar.””#  Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Jesus for our freedoms!

Jesus says that there are things that don’t belong to Caesar but to God.  You should give Caesar what is his: we’ll talk about what that is in a moment.  But there are things that aren’t Caesar’s.  Worship doesn’t belong to Caesar; ultimate allegiance doesn’t belong to Caesar; the title Lord doesn’t belong to Caesar.  And most importantly, you don’t belong to Caesar.  All these belong to God.

Jesus separated Caesar and God.  It would get him killed.  

John Ortberg writes: “To Rome, the existence of the gods immensely enhanced Caesar’s authority. To Jesus, the existence of God immensely limited Caesar’s authority. The kingdom of Rome is not the kingdom of heaven. There is another sphere above Caesar’s, to which everyone — including Caesar — will give account. An untried idea is being put forward here — one we might call the separation of church and state. The original opponent of this idea was not the church; it was the state.”#  

When you read the history of the church, every time we’ve lost the separation of church and state, every time the church and state marry, the state wins and the church loses. The church has never done well when it is merged with the state; it operates best from the margins.

Tim Keller, in his message, “Arguing about politics”, says that in this single sentence, Jesus refuses political simplicity, political complacency, and political primacy.

  • Political simplicity.  They pressed Jesus for a yes or no answer, and Jesus refused to give one.  The answer wasn’t that simple.  Beware of political simplicity, of trying to reduce issues to simple yes or no’s, and then trying to make Jesus fit on one side or the other.  It’s rarely that simple.

  • Political complacency.  We don’t withdraw from the system and refuse to participate.  We give Caesar what belongs to him.  

  • Political primacy.  Caesar isn’t Lord.  There are things that don’t belong to Caesar. Politics is not the only way or even the prime way we solve our problems.  

In one of the most influential single statements in history, Jesus affirmed the legitimacy of human governments and teaches his followers to be good citizens.  But human governments are not the final authority; God is.  Duty to Caesar is surpassed by duty to God.

So what is our duty to Caesar?  

2. Give to Caesar: what are our political obligations?


We read earlier the passage from 1 Timothy 2 that called us to pray for kings and all in authority.  Paul told Christians to pray for an emperor that was hostile to their faith!  Lesson: pray for our president whether you agree with him or not!

Jeremiah 29:7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

The prophet Jeremiah is writing to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.  They have been conquered and deported and are living in captivity in a foreign country.  God tells them to settle in and make themselves at home; they are going to be there for 70 years.  But He also tells them to pray for Babylon (their captor and oppressor), and seek its peace and prosperity.  Even in exile, even in a foreign land, they were to pray and seek its peace and prosperity.  The New Testament describes followers of Jesus as “aliens and strangers”.  

1 Peter 2:11–17 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

I am a proud and grateful US citizen, and at the same time, an “alien and stranger”.  The words mean I am a resident foreigner; think of a US ambassador serving in another country.  Just like the Israelites were foreigners in Babylon, Christians are resident foreigners wherever we live.  

ILL: In the Letter to Diognetus, written in the second century, it says, “They (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as aliens.  They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”#

Paul says our citizenship is in heaven, and our first allegiance is to God.  Yet we pray and seek the peace and prosperity wherever we live.  We are citizens of heaven, but good citizens on earth as well.  And it starts by praying for our leaders and our nation.


Romans 13:1–7 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Paul tells the Roman Christians to submit to the governing authorities—even though those authorities were hostile to their faith!  He makes it clear that God has instituted the state to maintain order.  The opposite of government is anarchy.  So Christians obey the law.  Peter echoes Paul’s words:

1 Peter 2:13-17 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.

Submit for the Lord’s sake—do it because you are a Christian—this is Christian citizenship.  But what if the governing authorities are wrong?  What if they command you to do something that violates your faith or conscience?  Then we respectfully disobey.  When the Jewish authorities told the apostles to stop preaching Jesus, here is their response.

Acts 5:29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!

We obey God first.  There are things that don’t belong to Caesar.  When the state is wrong, we obey God rather than men.


Romans 13:6-7 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Paul echoes Jesus here: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.  Give everyone what you owe him.  If you owe taxes, pay your taxes!  Paul wrote this in an empire where they were taxed without representation.  Here in America, we have a long history of tax revolt—starting with the Boston Tea Party in 1773—and we have a representative voice in our taxes.  But like them or not, we’re to pay our taxes.  And we’re to give respect.


1 Peter 2:16-17 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Show proper respect to everyone.  So much of our political discourse has become tainted by disrespect.  It is one thing to disagree and say so; it’s another to mock, ridicule, belittle and call names.  

One of the books I read in preparation for this series is Civility, by Stephen L. Carter.  Carter is a law professor at Harvard, and a Christian, and he argues in his book that our lack of civility is bad for our democracy.  For democracy to work well, he says, we must love our neighbors.  This means treating each other with basic respect.  I said last week that we owe every human being a measure of respect as someone created in the image of God, loved by God, and as someone for whom Christ died.  We don’t have to agree, but we must learn how to disagree respectfully.  We must be civil: show proper respect to everyone.    

There are two more, and I have no verses for them because they are unique to our representative democracy, which didn’t exist in Bible times.


We are privileged to be citizens in a democratic republic where we have a voice in electing our representatives and crafting our laws.  I believe that we have a duty as citizens—but also as Christians—to make our voice heard.  And the first way to do that is to vote!

In the 2008 election, 64% of voting-age citizens cast their vote.  More than 1/3 of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  If you don’t vote, don’t complain!  If you are not registered to vote—register.  If you are registered—vote!  And take the time to inform yourself on the issues and candidates so that you vote intelligently.  I know—it takes a lot of time to be informed—but it’s our country, and our state, and our city…and it’s our duty to vote.  Vote your convictions.  As a Christian, your convictions should be shaped first by the Word of God, and not by public opinion polls.  Know your Bible—and let God’s values shape your convictions and your vote.  

Speak up!

In this series, I’m arguing for civility, for respect, for love of neighbor.  But that doesn’t mean I’m arguing for silence!  You and I have an obligation to speak up, to say what we believe and why, and to work for the causes and candidates we believe in.  

ILL: Pastor Martin Niemoller was a pastor who at first supported Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and then opposed him and was arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp from 1937-45.  He wrote these famous words:

First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Speak up!

Remember: slavery was abolished in England and America largely because of the work of Christians who spoke up.  Later, the civil rights movement was led largely by Christians.  Of course, some Christians opposed both efforts, to our shame.  But that doesn’t negate the fact that Christians spoke up and led the change.

Some people want to silence Christians; they say, “Keep your religion out of politics.”  But Christians have the same rights in our democracy as anyone else.  We have the right to speak up and work for what we believe.  You can’t be true to either your nation or your God if you separate your faith and politics.  This doesn’t mean we are trying to force our morals or views on anyone else.  It means we are trying to convince others of what we believe to affect change—that’s how a democracy works.  By the way, slave-owners used this argument—“don’t force your morals on us”—against Christian abolitionists!

Someone may say, “You can’t legislate morality.”  But isn’t that exactly why we pass legislation—to say, “This is right and this is wrong.”  Legislation won’t change anyone’s heart, but it is a political acknowledgement of shared moral boundaries.  If Jesus is Lord, he is lord of our politics too!

So speak up!  And work for what you believe in.  But do it respectfully.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: pray, obey, pay, respect, vote and speak up!

3. Give to God: what are our spiritual obligations?

Give to God what is God’s?  What belongs to God?  You do.  You bear the image of God.  Just like that denarius bore the image of Caesar and belonged to him, you bear the image of God and belong to Him.  Your life is not your own.  You belong to God.  He has first claim on your allegiance and love and life.  

You don’t belong to Caesar; you don’t belong to the state.  We have obligations as citizens, but you belong to God, and no one else.

Your first and highest calling is to be a follower of Jesus.  Give yourself to God!

4. Love those with whom we disagree.

Last week we started with Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan, and I said that we have to love our neighbor.  We must love our neighbor even when he is our enemy, or when he is a different race, religion, or political persuasion.  We must love those with whom we disagree.  If you don’t love your adversary, you can win the argument and lose the person.  But we have to remember that Jesus died for the person, not the argument.  Love your neighbor!

I’ve said that you need to speak up for what you believe in, and do it respectfully.  We also need to listen respectfully to those who disagree with us.  This is very difficult to do when we feel strongly about something.  Some of these issues arouse strong emotions: abortion, taxes, gay marriage, taxes, the economy, taxes.  People get fired up about this stuff!  And when one person gets fired up, others do too, and we usually end up in a shouting match and no one wins.  Ask God to help you control your emotions.  

And remember that most political issues are complex issues that won’t yield to simple answers.  They won’t be solved by sound bites and talking points.  We need robust and respectful political discussion.  We need to listen to and understand each other.  As Jenna prayed, we need each other to solve our problems.  One side won’t fix it.  We need each other…so love your neighbor!