Citizens of Two Countries
James C. Denison, Ph.D.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation….
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
So begins the most famous document in American history. A document adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4 in 1776. A document which laid the foundation for the freedoms we celebrate on this, our nation’s 228th birthday.
But what did Mr. Jefferson and his fellow patriots mean when they said, “all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? According to the document, we are creatures of a Creator. How are we to relate both to Creator and country? Let’s explore the question, then we’ll turn to God’s word for the answer.
Explore the issue
I was on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary when my good friend and former student John Moldovan became an American citizen. John’s father was killed by the Romanian Communist government for preaching the gospel; John was persecuted terribly by them until a human rights group won his release to America.
Now he was becoming an American himself. He invited Janet and me to the ceremony. After this wonderfully moving celebration, this very perceptive believer made an interesting statement: “My first allegiance through it all has been to Jesus my Lord. Now I owe allegiance to America as well. I’m a citizen of two countries.”
So are we all. We live in America, but we also live in the Kingdom of God. We love our nation, but we also love our Lord. We serve Christ, but we also serve Caesar. How?
According to God’s word, life begins at conception, so abortion is wrong. Yet the state allows it. Should we bomb abortion clinics, or march in protest? Or should we change our beliefs to match society? What should we do?
What about postmodern moral relativism in the schools? Pari-mutuel wagering and lotteries? The perception of Christians in the media and entertainment industries? How do we live in two countries, especially when the two don’t appear always to agree?
We are not the first to ask the question.
It is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus is teaching the crowds gathered in the Temple corridors. Now the unlikeliest of political coalitions comes against him.
The Pharisees hated the Roman occupation. But they also hated Jesus. They considered his grace-centered message in violation of the Law and its demands. He was a heretic whose influence must be stopped.
The Herodians supported the Roman occupation in every way. They and the Pharisees were in constant political conflict. But they also saw Jesus as a threat to the Empire’s power. Like the Pharisees, they wanted him arrested or even killed.
So they “went out and laid plans to trap him in his words” (Matthew 22:15).
Luke gives us their underlying motive: “They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20).
The Pharisees sent some of their “disciples” to him (v. 16), students at one of the two Pharisaic theological seminaries in Jerusalem. Their youth might endear them to Jesus; at any event, they would be less recognizable to him than their leaders.
After patronizing him with compliments, they spring their trap: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (v. 17). Their grammar requires a “yes” or “no” answer. And either will serve their purpose.
They have pushed a very hot button. The “taxes” to which they refer was the poll-tax or “census” tax paid by all males over the age of 14 and all females over the age of 12. It was paid directly to the Emperor himself.
And it required the use of a coin which was despised by the Jewish populace. This was the “denarius,” a silver coin minted by the Emperor himself. It was the only Roman coin which claimed divine status for the Caesar. On one side it pictured the head of Emperor Tiberius with the Latin inscription, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.” On the other side it pictured Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, with the Latin inscription, “high priest.” It was idolatrous in the extreme.
The tax it paid led to a Jewish revolt in A.D. 6 which established the Zealot movement. That movement eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in A.D. 70. At this time that movement was growing in power and influence. They were asking Jesus to take a position on the most inflammatory issue of the day.
If he says that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, the public will turn from him in revolt and his influence will be at an end. If he says that it is not, he will be a traitor to Rome and the authorities will arrest and execute him. Either way, the hands of these schemers will be clean, and they will be rid of their enemy.
Accept your appointment
Here is Jesus’ timeless answer. He asks for a denarius, and then asks them, “Whose portrait is this?” (v. 20). They tell him that it bears the image and inscription of Caesar. And he replies, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21). If taxes belong to the nation, pay them. If worship belongs to God, give it. Give to each what is due. Live in two countries, a citizen of both.