(The following is an excerpt from my new release Christ Held Hostage: The Hijacking of American Christianity, available in paperback or ebook through Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com):
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mk 11:15-17)
For centuries many have conveniently assumed that Jesus taught only about personal love and private justice, that he did not get involved with the larger injustices of his day, and certainly not with politics. After all, they argue, religion is a private matter that should know its place and not intrude into the public sphere. Such a view is hardly biblical; it is practically Gnostic, separating the spiritual from the material. In fact, the Bible makes no such distinctions—not that spirit and matter are one and the same.
The Almighty holds the view that our religion, or spirituality, is reflected in everything we do, both publicly and privately, and our love for God determined by how we treat our neighbor, including how we respond to injustice. This concept is a bridge that stretches across both the Old and New Testaments.
True, Jesus was “a prophet, and more than a prophet.” He was also the Son of God, Messiah. Yet any study of Jesus cannot overlook his prophetic role. As a prophet sent to warn his generation, he stood in the great tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke out against the larger issues of corporate or institutional injustice, greed, corruption, oppression, and violence, in addition to issues of personal holiness and true piety. Yet in doing so, he was not simply carrying on a grand old tradition, but manifesting the very righteousness and justice of his Father’s kingdom reign.
One interesting case in point is Christ’s cleansing of the temple, an episode so important to all four Evangelists that it appears in every Gospel (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:14-17; Lk 19:45-46; Jn 2:13-17). Jesus enters the great open courtyard of the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, designated as a place for non-Jews to worship and beyond which they could not pass. Seeing the tables of the moneychangers and the stalls of those selling sacrificial animals, he makes a whip out of cords and begins driving them out. Like most of Jesus’ signs, this prophetic act has multiple layers of significance.
Perhaps most obviously, it fulfills the promise in Malachi 3:
Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…But who can endure the day of his coming?…For he will be like a refiner’s fire…he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…(Mal 3:1-3).
As he drives out the merchants, Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations.” The Isaian context of the verse reflects the Father’s heart for the Gentiles and those who had previously been excluded from the temple worship, and prophesies their eventual inclusion in Israel.
In overturning the booths of the moneychangers and the sellers of animals (specifically doves), Jesus is not protesting the changing of money or the purchase of sacrifices per se. These transactions were necessary, for temple taxes, tithes, and offerings could not be paid with the common coinage of the empire, with its blasphemous titles and images (“Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus”). Worshipers traveling great distances would perforce need to buy their sacrificial animals when they arrived. Instead, Jesus takes issue with the location, where the business is taking place: in the temple court, specifically, the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where Gentiles seeking to worship Yahweh could do so. The transaction of these very necessary and highly lucrative businesses, which Caiaphas the high priest had only recently allowed into the temple court, had turned this place of worship into a noisy, filthy bazaar!
Yet there are further levels of meaning to Jesus’ action, sometimes overlooked by interpreters, but certainly not lost on the temple hierarchy. For he concludes his prophetic statement about the Father’s house with “but you have made it a den of robbers.” The quote is from Jeremiah 7:
“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” (Jer 7:9-11)
In rabbinic teaching a quote from the prophets carries with it not only the meaning of the particular verse, but also the context as well. Here the Lord, through Jeremiah, takes his people to task for their hypocritical worship: they had preserved the outward forms of piety and worship without the inward realities of true godliness and holiness. They permitted idolatry, oppression, corruption, and violence and yet expected the Lord to receive their sacrifices, as though he were blind and his temple a refuge for ungodliness. The Lord warns them they are mistaken. They had merely to look to history and what the Lord did in the past when his people strayed so far and so unremittingly from the mark. Was not Shiloh, the place of his tabernacle, wiped clean by the Philistines? So he would do again to his temple in Jerusalem if they did not repent. (They did not, the judgment was carried out, and by 587 BC both the city and its temple had become a smouldering ruin.)
In both clearing out the temple and quoting Jeremiah, Jesus shines divine light on the corrupt practices of the merchants, who were part of an unjust but highly profitable system overseen by the temple hierarchy. Moneychangers charged a fee for their services (as they do today) and probably an exorbitant one. (If you have ever changed money at an airport, you know you pay for the convenience.) The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic writings, or “oral law” spanning six centuries) also hints at inflated price-fixing for doves, the traditional offering of the poor, during this period.
The Jewish historian Josephus has nothing good to say about the Sadducees, the aristocratic and priestly class, who lived in extreme luxury. 90% of the population were poor farmers and craftsmen; yet they supported the priestly elite, who took 50% of the GNP in tithes, taxes and other extra-biblical surcharges. If this kind of racketeering were not enough, the temple hierarchy had their own police gangs, called “men of violence,” who terrorized the populace and ruthlessly cracked down on any hint of rebellion.
In short, the situation was so extreme in its corruption, so ripe for judgment, Jesus would have had to have said something. After all, justice is central to God’s kingdom.
His condemnation of these greedy practices within the context of a prophecy of doom on the temple and its priesthood did not escape the watchful ears of the priests, who saw in Jesus a threat not only to their authority but to their livelihood as well. Not surprisingly, we are told they immediately took counsel together as to how they could kill him (Mk 11:18).
We know that Jesus was charged with blasphemy (from the perspective of the Jewish law, Mk 14:64) and insurrection (from the Roman, Lk 23:1). These charges served as a legal covering for a kangaroo court. John writes (Jn 11:53) that it was on the heels of the explosion of popularity after the raising of Lazarus that the plot to kill Jesus realy crystalized, and it is John who most likely places the cleansing of the temple in its proper chronological order (early in Christ’s ministry).
Apparently, the temple hierarchy never forgot the embarrassment they suffered on that day. Indeed, when they looked for charges against him at his “trial,” as well as for insults to hurl at him while he hung on the cross, they would refer back to this episode and his statement about rebuilding the temple (cf. Jn 2:19; Mt 26:61; Mk 14:58; 15:29).
Jesus’ indictment of their religious hypocrisy and his “peculiar” interpretation of the law caused him to be hated by the Pharisees. They were more numerous and popular with the people, but it was the Sadducees, representing the corrupt ruling class, who wielded the real day-to-day power, in collaboration, of course, with the Roman authorities, who depended on them for keeping order.
Thus, the average Jew of Jesus’ day would have had two iron boots on his neck: Rome and the temple hierarchy. And it might be debated that the latter was the heavier and more ruthless.
Like many a prophet before him, his prophetic summons against the aristocracy and their systemic greed and injustice, from the beginning, made him not only a “person of interest,” someone worth watching, but also a serious threat that had to be destroyed.
Christ and Caesar
While it is true that Jesus did not specifically command his followers to protest or practice civil disobedience (and the unrest that characterized Palestine at that time was rife with examples), the political context has changed dramatically from the first century. Jesus’ band of followers was made up of Palestinian Jews, most of them provincial yokels from Gentile Galilee, looked down upon by the more sophisticated and religious Judeans. Like the vast majority of first-century Christians, Palestinian Jews were not Roman citizens; they could not vote. They were an oppressed minority living under an imperial occupation which afforded them few if any rights.
Today, however, many Christians have the great privilege to live under more democratic governments, whose leaders are elected by the people. Under such circumstances, believers have a reponsibility to be informed and educated participants in a political process. Thus, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings on peacemaking and caring for the poor and maginalized, for example, or even simply loving one’s neighbor, take on new dimensions of responsibility.
There is a tension in the New Testament between the idea of being a “good citizen” for the sake of the gospel (Ro 13:7) and “obeying God not man” (Ac 5:29). In Romans chapter 13 the apostle Paul addresses the duties of the Christian toward the state:
Let everyone be subject [Gk. hypotassestho] to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit [Gk. hypotassesthai] to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)
Paul is hardly speaking about blind obedience to authority here. He speaks in generalities. Government in general is ordained by God to establish order and prevent anarchy, just as the Almighty has established the human family to give order to society and to defend and nurture children. However, that does not mean that government is always good or that it will not at times overstep its boundaries or even become utterly corrupt. Just like the human family, even the best government is tainted by the sin of a fallen world.
Paul’s context includes the assumption that the ruler or authority governs justly (e.g., “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right”). The Letter to the Romans dates from about AD 55-57, during the early reign of the emperor Nero, who was at that time still popular among the people and under the management of handlers who were able to curb his more obvious excesses (i.e., before his utter deterioration; the fire at Rome and Nero’s subsequent persecution of Christians was eight years later, in AD 64). His principate followed thirteen years of relatively mild rule under his great-uncle Claudius (AD 41-54). (When dealing with empire, all standards are relative, as is the concept of a “good emperor.”) Up to that point, whatever persecutions the church had experienced were largely local, sporadic, and unsanctioned by the Roman government, which tended to treat the problems arising from the new sect as a squabble within Judaism (a religio licita, or “legal religion,” of the empire).
Interpretation of Romans 13 turns heavily on the meaning of the verb hypotassesthai, which here, as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, conveys the sense of voluntary submission motivated by love. Christians are not bound to obey secular authority out of cringing fear. Rather, they submit freely out of love for both God and neighbor (cf. 13:8-10). For they know that such authority comes from above, that it (at least ideally) seeks their welfare and that of their neighbors, and that ultimately, it remains answerable, just as they are, to the same Higher Power.
Fast-forward forty years, from Romans to the book of Revelation (c. AD 95). The rift between church and synagogue has become a chasm. The new faith finds itself increasingly exposed and vulnerable under the searchlight of the Roman government, whose emperor (Domitian) has grown paranoid of any possible subversion threatening the consolidation of his power. Whereas previous emperors were declared “gods” only after their deaths, Domitian takes the honorific title to an entirely new level by bestowing it upon himself while alive.
Christians in the province of Asia (western Anatolia), where the new faith is strong and officials anxious to curry favor with Rome, are suffering for refusing to take a pledge of loyalty to the state, which involves offering incense before the emperor’s statue. The penalty for non-compliance includes imprisonment, confiscation of property, or even death. John’s letters to these churches are full of comfort and hope, as he urges them to remain immovable in the face of such intimidation and injustice. He depicts the empire as a vast conspiracy of greed, cruelty, and idolatry under the control of the dragon Satan, whose earthly representatives are the emperor and his henchmen—a portrait of pure evil arrayed against the people of God. Under such harrowing circumstances faith clearly dictates peaceful but stubborn resistance rather than submission.
Is it possible for the followers of Christ to be both good citizens yet also revolutionaries devoted to change? Jesus understood that tension very well—perhaps best captured in his teaching on taxation:
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, 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 the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 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.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him. (Mk 12:13-17)
The question posed is intended as a snare: if he comes down in favor of paying taxes to Rome, he will be discredited before the people, who resented imperial taxation. Yet, if he objects to paying taxes, he can be accused and arrested as inciting insurrection against Rome. Jesus is caught in a no-win situation—or so they think.
Too often, perhaps, we take the narrow view that Jesus comes down decidedly in favor of paying one’s taxes. Taxation, after all, is a necessary prerogative of government, from which all derive benefit. Indeed. Yet if that were all Jesus says, why are they so amazed at his reply? He would have simply fallen into their trap. No, Jesus’ answer is something much more shrewd, deep, and profoundly revolutionary. What is perhaps more obscure, and intentionally so, is that it is phrased with such ironic humor as to offer no perceived offense to Rome.
For the average pagan Roman officer or civil servant, the divinization of deceased emperors was a mere posthumous honor, not taken too seriously. That the emperor was Lord and Master, however, was another issue. Yet, in regard to the denarius tax, Rome simply wanted her money.
In effect, Jesus says, “Do you object to Roman taxation because of the blasphemous title and idolatrous portrait on their coinage? Are you truly jealous for God? Or are you simply resentful at parting with your silver? If the former, then Rome has given you a prime opportunity to object: send the coins back where they came from. [Not simply render unto Caesar, but more accurately, give back.] Don’t work for money, which perishes, but for my Father’s kingdom, which will never pass away. As for the blasphemous title on this coin and Rome’s claim to ultimate loyalty, worship God alone.”
Christ’s response, therefore, is a stinging rebuke of the Pharisees, not only for their hypocrisy in colluding with the hated Herodians, but also for their love of money (cf. Lk 16:14). Jesus assumes that governments have the competence to tax, but, more importantly, he also administers a searing rejection of the tendency of human government to attempt to command the consciences, absolute allegiance, or worship of its citizens.
Under most circumstances, the followers of Christ are to be model citizens. Yet, when push comes to shove, in any show-down of ultimate loyalties, God wins hands down. Thus, we are to obey government in as much as it asks us to do things that are right, fair, and just, or at least not against God’s law (such as paying taxes), but no believer is expected to obey an unjust law —an unjust law being not one that is merely inconvenient, unpopular, or unfair, but one that would force the Christian to disobey God’s higher law or cause one’s neighbor to suffer unjustly. Quoting the firebrand English republican and political theorist Algernon Sidney, American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79) stated emphatically, “That which is not just is not law.” Garrison’s context was the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), which required citizens in free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves.
“Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). We often overlook how radical that prayer is. Do we know what we are asking for? Bringing heaven to earth? God’s will, his justice, holiness, peace, unwavering love? The kingdom of God was and still is as revolutionary as one can get. As N. T. Wright concludes,
When I pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, I cannot simply be thinking of a condition which will begin to exist for the first time after all human beings have either died or been transformed à la I Corinthians 15:51. If I am to be true to the giver of the prayer, and to those in the first Christian generation who prayed it and lived it, I must be envisaging, and working and praying for, a state of affairs in which the world of the ‘state’, of society and politics, no less than the world of my private ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life, is brought under the Lordship of the King.
Our citizenship is a heavenly one, our allegiance to a greater kingdom that is both present and not yet. Nevertheless, this heavenly authority, being even more determined in what it demands, calls us to an earthly obedience to the highest of all laws, that of love. The Bible is filled with commands for God’s people to confront corruption, greed and injustice wherever it festers but to do so in a way that is respectful, peaceful, and humble. The concept of civil disobedience is a completely biblical one. The apostles were “civilly disobedient” when they were ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching the gospel (Ac 4-5).
Yet how do we reconcile the gospel’s demand both to love our neighbor and to resist no evil person? What if our neighbor is the victim of a robbery or some form of injustice? As Martin Luther explains, the true Christian might not avail himself of his rights for his own sake, but will certainly defend the rights of others:
In this way two propositions are brought into harmony with one another: at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly. You suffer evil and injustice, and yet at the same time you punish evil and injustice; you do not resist evil, and yet at the same time, you do resist it. In the one case, you consider yourself and what is yours; in the other, you consider your neighbor and what is his. In what concerns you are yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian, in what concerns the person or property of others, you govern yourself according to love and tolerate no injustice toward your neighbor. The gospel does not forbid this; in fact, in other places it actually commands it. 
This love of God and neighbor, therefore, rather than any personal vendetta, is the Christian’s motivation for action in the political arena, and yes, at times, even for resistance against the state. Luther refers to a specific case in which certain German princes, under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor, were demanding that all copies of the New Testament in private hands be surrendered and that citizens obey the Pope:
In short, this is the meaning as St. Peter says in Acts 4 [5:29], “We must obey God rather than men.” Thereby, he clearly sets a limit to the temporal authority, for if we had to do everything that the temporal authority wanted there would have been no point in saying, “We must obey God rather than men.”
If your prince or temporal ruler commands you…to believe thus and so, or to get rid of certain books, you should say, “…Gracious sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey. But if you command me to believe or to get rid of certain books, I will not obey; for then you are a tyrant and overreach yourself, commanding where you have neither the right or the authority,” etc. Should he seize your property on account of this and punish such disobedience, then blessed are you; thank God that you are worthy to suffer for the sake of the divine word. Let him rage, fool that he is; he will meet his judge. For I tell you, if you fail to withstand him, if you give in to him and let him take away your faith and your books, you have truly denied God.
Many American evangelicals focus a great deal on their rights as Christians. Sensational tales of government overreach or claims of impending persecution of Christians in this country (often exaggerated) swamp our email inboxes, forwarded by well-meaning but credulous souls. There is a whole industry that seems to cater to their fears. Would that we would get as exercised when the rights of other groups, much more vulnerable than we, are daily being infringed (the poor, veterans, African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants)!
In his commentary on Romans chapter 13, C.E.B. Cranfield remarks:
The proper exposition of Paul’s words involves for the Christian living in a democracy the translation of them into the terms of a different political order. Such a Christian can, and therefore must, do much more for the maintenance of the state as a just state. His hypotassesthai will include voting in parliamentary elections responsibly, in the fear of Christ and in love to his neighbour, and, since such responsible voting is only possible on the basis of adequate knowledge, making sure that he is as fully and reliably informed as possible about political issues, and striving tirelessly in the ways constitutionally open to him to support just policies and to oppose unjust.
Questions to Consider:
Some argue that religion is a private matter that should know its place and not intrude into the public sphere. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Does it surprise you to consider that Jesus took so courageous and public a stand against systemic injustice? That it may have been this very stand that made him a target for the temple aristocracy? Why or why not?
What do you think Jesus means by “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? How do you interpret it? How does this teaching apply to the biggest problems you are facing today? That out country is facing?
There is a tension in the New Testament between the idea of being a “good citizen” for the sake of the gospel and “obeying God not man.” How has that tension manifested in your life recently? How have you been able to resolve it? What might God be calling you to do to practice love of neighbor?
Prayer: Heavenly Father, forgive us wherein we have ignored the more radical, world-changing demands of your kingdom and settled for a strictly private gospel. Help us to be both good citizens and good neighbors who love our country but hate injustice.