In Mark 12:13-17, Jesus deftly answered the question posed to Him about paying taxes, providing a reply that enabled Him to escape both the ire of the Roman government and the anger of the Jews who were unhappy with the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. Yet His reply that the Jews should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (v. 17) also indicates that the Roman authorities had certain things that belonged to them, a right to demand particular forms of obedience from the people whom they ruled. Our Lord’s instruction on this point is part of Scripture’s broader teaching on civil government, which we will study more carefully over the next few days.
The proper role of government receives lots of attention in the pages of the Bible. Under the old covenant, for example, Israel was ruled by divinely anointed kings who were subject to the Mosaic law (Deut. 17:14–20). These kings generally had different duties than the priests and the prophets, the other authority figures in ancient Israel, although there was some overlap as well. For example, the priests offered sacrifices and the kings, except on extraordinarily rare occasions, did not. We cannot point to this separation of duties as an example of modern notions of the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, the fact that the kings had specific things over which they were normally responsible and others for which they were not usually responsible indicates that God has always had a defined role for the state in the outworking of His plans.
With the fall of Judah and the end of the Davidic monarchy, God’s people found themselves living under a succession of pagan rulers—Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. Thus, when we read the New Testament, the church does not live under a theocracy. The roles of state officials and church officials are now more sharply defined and distinguished, though as we will see in due time, this does not mean the state can do whatever it wants and is not accountable to God.
Today’s passage demonstrates that even secular governments are ultimately established by the Lord, for Romans 13 is addressed to Christians who were living under Roman rule, not the Israelite theocracy. Thus, our obedience or disobedience to civil authorities is ultimately a matter of obedience or disobedience to God.
As we will see, God’s authority supersedes the authority of the civil government, so we must have a nuanced view of civil obedience and disobedience. Still, that the Lord establishes civil governments reveals that government is not evil in itself. Evil governments may appear at times, but the general existence of authorities to preserve law and order is a good thing. Let us thank God for the gift of government, which protects us from civil anarchy.
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