The dangers of idolatry ever confront us – even the believer in God. And one key area of idolatry is to put the state ahead of God. This can happen in many forms. In an obvious and extreme form, we saw this happening last century in Germany. How many German Christians put a political party and its megalomaniac messianic leader ahead of their own faith?
To a lesser extent, we saw this during the corona crisis with far too many believers putting the state high on the pedestal. Many folks calling themselves Christians seemed to have a greater fear of corona than they did of God. And how many Christians ran with the belief that the state could do no wrong?
Too often whatever government rulers told the people to do, they would do it, no questions asked. They made the state absolute, even though the biblical Christian knows it has only delegated authority and limited power. Consider the almost complete silence of Christian leaders concerning the closures of houses of worship, and severe restrictions on church services.
The idea of religious people denouncing the one true king (God) while bowing down to the secular state is not new of course. It has been happening for millennia, and we have the perfect example of this with the religious leaders who preferred Caesar over Christ. In John 19:12-16 we find the ultimate and shocking example of this:
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.
This is one of the more appalling things we read about concerning the events of the crucifixion. Here the Jewish leaders reject their rightful king and choose a pagan ruler instead. As J. Ramsey Michaels puts it, “It is the final irony. Not content with rejecting Jesus, ‘the Jews’ reject their own Jewishness.” Rodney Whitacre provides more detail on this:
Here are the spiritual leaders of Israel denying the very faith they are claiming to uphold in their rejection of Jesus. God alone was Israel’s king (Judg 8:23; 1 Sam 8:4-20). The human king was to be in submission to God as a son is to his father (2 Sam 7:11-16; Ps 2:7). These ancient attitudes found expression in one of the prayers these chief priests prayed every day: “May you be our King, you alone.” Every year at this very feast of Passover they sang, “From everlasting to everlasting you are God; beside you we have no king, redeemer, or savior, no liberator, deliverer, provider, none who takes pity in every time of distress and trouble; we have no king but you” (Talbert). The hope was for a redeemer to come, the Messiah, who would be a king like David. “But now hundreds of years of waiting had been cast aside: `the Jews’ had proclaimed the half-mad exile of Capri to be their king” (Brown).
As Andreas Kostenberger puts it: “By professing to acknowledge Caesar alone as their king, the Jewish leaders betray their entire national heritage, as well as deny their own messianic expectations based on the promises of Scripture. This, then, is the Fourth Evangelist’s point, especially for his first Jewish readers: the Jewish rejection of the Messiah involved religious compromise and a failure to worship God.”
Yes, that is the heart of it: “religious compromise and a failure to worship God.” As I said above, too many believers are involved in such compromise. Let me tease this out a bit further by looking more closely at the idea of kingship.
As Gary Burge reminds us, a major theme of John 18-19 is the kingship of Jesus: “From the wounded man in the garden (Malchus, meaning ‘my king’) to Jesus’ sustained discussion with Pilate, the word ‘king’ occurs over a dozen times. Even on the cross, Pilate insists that Jesus be labelled ‘King of the Jews’ instead of the compromising ‘This Man Said I am King of the Jews’ (cf. 19:21).”
The idea of kingship of course has to do with rule. And the idea of the kingship of Jesus has to do with his rightful claim to rule over the entire human race. But it was not just the Jews who rejected God’s rule, but all of us. We all say, along with the citizens in the Parable of the Ten Minas: “We will not have this man to rule over us” (Luke 19:14).
That is the actual state of the human condition. We do not want God to reign over us. We want to be our own boss – our own god. There is much that can be said on this, and many who could be quoted from. But I quite like what R. C. Sproul says about this, so let me run with him.
In his 1974 book, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? (Tyndale, 1988; originally published as The Psychology of Atheism – Bethany, 1974), he has a concluding chapter on “The Human Quest for Autonomy”. He discusses how the rule of God is in so many ways at odds with most Americans:
A central motif of the New Testament, the kingdom of God, is a concept alien to basic American thinking. A monarchy, even with Christ on the throne, threatens our basic principles of democracy. Perhaps the aversion to sovereignty that is so integral to the American mentality partially explains the tendency in American church life to relegate Christianity to an isolated “spiritual” or “religious” sphere of national life. There seems to be a process of systematic containment by which the sphere of God’s authority is safely restricted to one day in the week and one institution in the culture. To be a nation “under God” does not include the idea that the political leaders are under the authority of God.
He goes on to show this attitude of unfettered autonomy goes right back to the garden:
Then comes the serpentine promise, the promise of blessing that goes with autonomy, Sicut erat dei – “You will be as god!” This is the essence of the primordial temptation – to be like God, to have no restraints, no limits, no crowding of self-desire by the rule of another. To be autonomous – that’s the temptation.
The irony of humanism, which seeks the deification of man, is that it has its origin not in the creed of the ancient agnostic philosopher Protagoras, Homo mensura (“Man is the measure of all things”), but in the promise of a serpent, Sicut erat dei. Humanism was not invented by man, but by a snake who suggested that the quest for autonomy might be a good idea.
Sproul appeals to Psalm 2:1-3 which says:
Why are the nations in an uproar; And the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand; And the rulers take counsel together; Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart; And cast away their cords from us!”
He says the scene “depicts a massive conspiracy to overthrow the authority of God and His anointed One.” He then says this:
Why the hostility? Why do the kings rattle their swords in belligerence? The answer is obvious: They despise the rule of God, for it restricts their freedom. Again, the goal is autonomy. The rule of God is regarded as ropes and chains binding them and keeping them from unbridled pursuance of their desire. So the secret weapons are unveiled, the battleships come out of dry dock, the nuclear stockpile is tapped, and the troops are mobilized as the whole world joins the cosmic liberation movement. With the infantile resolve of the child who seeks to quench a blazing fire with a piece of straw, the rulers set themselves against the sovereignty of God.
The response of the Lord God to this revolution is not unconditional surrender; it is not a flurry of actions born of panic; it is not a desperate plea for negotiation in the context of a guarded truce. Rather, “The one who sits in the heavens laughs.” He is temporarily amused by this act of collective insanity. But His laughter turns to anger as He mobilizes His own power to vindicate His Anointed.
Throughout biblical history we see repeated acts of rebellion against God’s sovereign authority. The consequence of these acts is the consequence of the Fall. God punishes with poetic justice. His punishment is in kind. The quest for autonomy produces not liberation, but the loss of freedom. The New Testament describes fallen man as being in bondage, a slave to his own passions.
If ever there is a genuine paradox to be found in Holy Writ, it is at the point of freedom and bondage. The paradox is this: When one seeks to rebel from God, he gains only bondage. When he becomes a slave to God, he becomes free. Liberty is found in obedience. The Anglican poet John Donne understood this when he wrote in a sonnet, “Except You enthrall me, never shall I be free.”
Yes quite so. Ironically, while mankind – and even far too many who call themselves Christians – are seeking to get out from under the rightful rule of God, in a vain attempt to be “free,” they are quite happy to enslave themselves to other gods, including the sovereign state.
Mankind has not changed. Two thousand years ago they cried, “We have no king but Caesar.” Today they still make similar calls. Anyone or anything but the One True God.