Picture the scene. Boris and Jeremy join forces. Conservatives and Labour make a pact. Two warring parties work together to usurp a new political force in their capital.
On the eve of a general election, it all sounds rather improbable. But in 33AD – in a nation perhaps more politically divided than our own – it happened. ‘And they sent to [Jesus] some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.’ (Mark 12:13)
The Pharisees were accepted by some as the true authority owing to their zeal for the law. The Herodians were accepted by others because of their association with Herod. Yet remarkably these two political foes join forces to raze a new king surging in the Jerusalem polls – Jesus.
How do they seek to fell him? They try to tie him to a more powerful and more unpopular authority. No, not Trump… but Rome. They throw Jesus a coin – a hated silver denarius. A coin worth a day’s wages and a coin that represented Roman taxation. And they ask Jesus if they should pay it. If Jesus says ‘no’ the authorities will seize him. If Jesus says ‘yes’ the masses will riot. It’s heads Jesus loses; it’s tails they win.
Yet this episode ends not in anarchy, but in amazement as Jesus sticks to his previous allegory – the Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-11). For as Jesus explained to the crowds, the vineyard (which represented God’s kingdom) will now be given to others. God’s kingdom, which God’s people were previously born into, would now be given to those born of the Spirit – those able to recognise the owner’s son.
No longer a nation state
Hence, shortly after Mark 12, God’s true people became God’s true vineyard. God’s kingdom would no longer be a nation state. The Church, comprised of every nation, would be the alternative polis where pleasing spiritual fruit may be offered to the owner.
As a result, Christians live in two kingdoms. They are citizens of both Church and state. Their true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), yet their earthly citizenship remains. They receive the passport of baptism when they enter the Church, but their actual passports are not also thrown into the river upon profession. British Christians belong to the truly united kingdom, Christ’s Church, yet they also belong to the literal United Kingdom.
So returning to 33AD, and the political question about authority and taxation… do God’s people submit to a vile government? Jesus’s response is striking: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (Mark 12:17).
His political riposte is not only stunningly clever, it is stunningly instructive. According to Jesus this evil, pagan, non-Christian Roman government is a legitimate authority. The fact that God’s people now live in his kingdom under his law does not remove the fact that they still live in particular kingdoms with particular laws.
Evangelicals may feel disgruntled about the United Kingdom in which we live today. We might feel even more disgruntled post-election. Yet on 13 December – when we shall know the victor – we are to remember that whether it is a Boris or Jeremy government (or, who knows, even a Jo or Nigel government) we are to be subject to them.
‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.’ (Romans 13:1-2)
Does that mean that Boris or Jeremy are to be obeyed in all things? No, Christians must be willing to disobey their government if the state tells them to do something which is directly opposed to King Jesus’ law.
When Emperor Nero, a few years later, told Christians to worship him. Christians did not trot out, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ and bow. They were slain for such ‘rebellion’, as many brothers and sisters are, sadly, today. We must certainly be willing to disobey the UK Government and face the consequences.
Yet what of those who will govern us in 2020? The next section of Mark 12 reminds us that not only are our rulers tenants of a momentary kingdom, but that they will rise to judgement. During their fleeting season of power, politicians may band together against the risen and reigning King (as the Herodians and Pharisees did), but we are to remember that Christ will soon usher in His forever kingdom.
‘Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 2:10–12)
Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London.