Good news had been proclaimed throughout the known world. After a long time of instability, war, and a proliferation of petty kingdoms, the gods strengthened the hands of the Romans to bring peace and prosperity. Augustus, son of the divine Caesar, had brought peace after great civil conflict; the pax Romana would endure for the better part of two hundred years, and represent a remarkable period of stability in world history. All were directed to continue to offer sacrifices to their gods in order to preserve the stability of the Empire and to celebrate and venerate the gifts of Rome through honoring the genius of Roma and her Lord, a son of the divine Caesar and Augustus.
This was the environment into which the Apostles and early Christians went about embodying the Kingdom of God in Christ, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, raised from the dead, King of kings and Lord of lords. They risked making known the Gospel of the Kingdom in the midst of the “gospel” of the Roman Empire.
In His life Jesus hinted at the upcoming contrast and conflict with the Roman authority in Matthew 22:15-22 and parallel passages. The Pharisees and Herodians sought to entrap Him regarding taxes (Matthew 22:15-17). Jesus skillfully evaded their trap while pointing to a profound truth. He requested Caesar’s coin to be brought forth, most likely a denarius; it would have featured the portrayal of Tiberius’ face along with “TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS” inscribed around it: Caesar Augustus Ti[berius], s[on] of the Divinized Aug[ustus] (Matthew 22:18-19). All faithful Israelites would consider such a coin blasphemous and an affront to God; to this end Jesus told all to give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, but to give to God what is God’s (Matthew 28:20-21). Give back to Caesar his blasphemous money; but dedicate your life and all that is in it to the God who gave you life and all things. Jesus’ declarations were not partisan, yet they certainly carried political connotations: do not give into the totalizing rhetoric of the Empire. Maintain devotion and loyalty to God.
In a similar way Paul exhorted the Christians of Philippi to recognize their citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Philippi was a Roman colony originally populated by the soldiers of Octavian Augustus; they greatly valued their Roman citizenship and standing. Paul told them to live as faithful citizens as informed by the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). Such Christians were not to live in rebellion against the Roman authority (cf. Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18); and yet they were to maintain their primary loyalty to God in Christ, considering themselves as citizens of the reign of God in Christ.
To this end Christians in the Roman Empire were reckoned as the “Third Way.” Pagan Romans and their pagan subjects represented the primary way at the time. Jewish people represented the second: very obvious in their dress and practices, begrudgingly respected as an ancient religion, since Moses was older than Homer. Christians, though, were the third way: they looked and seemed like everyone else, but they observed this new “atheistic” superstition. You could not tell whether a person was a Christian or not by how they looked; you could only know by confronting them or noticing certain changes in their lifestyles. To this end they were extremely subversive; their “atheism” represented an existential threat to the stability of the Empire.
How could Christians be seen as subversive? They proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). Indeed, Jesus’ Kingdom was not of this world and was from above (John 18:36), yet Jesus’ reign had implications for the earth (Matthew 28:18-20). The Thessalonians were not wrong to hear in Paul’s proclamation of Jesus a message turning the world upside down, acting against Caesar’s decree by declaring another king, Jesus (Acts 17:6-7). If Jesus is the Son of God, then Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, then Caesar is not. The Gospel of the Kingdom did not enmesh itself within the “gospel” of empire.
But how could Christians be seen as “atheistic” in light of their dedication to God’s Kingdom? The conflict came from their rejection of the gods of the nations as non-existent or demonic (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5-6). The Romans could prove tolerant of its subjects serving all kinds of gods under heaven in order to secure peace and prosperity for all; but a growing group of people denying all of the gods save the God of heaven undermined group cohesion and stability. Rejecting all other gods seemed impious to the Romans, and in their theology the worst possible idea: if more and more people did not provide the ancestral gods with honor and sacrifice, those gods could get very angry and cause great disruption, distress, and difficulty for the Romans and their subjects. And so whenever the Empire endured any kind of distress or tragedy, the Christians became the easy scapegoat: all of this misery has come upon us because the “atheistic” Christians have angered our gods, and we must coerce them back into serving the gods or eliminate them to ameliorate the threat. Furthermore, the unwillingness of Christians to offer sacrifices to the genius of Roma and/or its Emperors seemed both impious and politically subversive. We can thus understand why the Romans persecuted the Christians as they did, and why it was so important for Christians to maintain their witness for Jesus despite all such distress (cf. Revelation 12:10-12, 13:1-18).
Times may have changed; nevertheless, the powers and principalities have not. Empires today may not look exactly like the Roman Empire; their religions may not look exactly like Roman paganism. And yet Christians are still called to embody and proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom in the midst of the “gospel” of empire. Nation-states still put forth the “gospel” of their propaganda, and how their rule has brought peace and stability. When embodied and proclaimed properly, the Gospel of the Kingdom will continue to undermine the pretentious claims of the nation-states, and will rightly be seen as politically subversive. If the nation-state finds Christianity beneficial, it is only when the nation-state has successfully overseen the compromise and domestication of the Gospel of the Kingdom to serve its own interests.
The Gospel of the Kingdom is never partisan, but it cannot help but have political overtones. The Christian’s loyalty must always be primarily to Jesus, not to Caesar; Caesar is not okay with this. The embodiment of the Gospel is always a rebuke to Caesar’s ways and habits; Caesar looks upon this warily. The Gospel of the Kingdom will never square exactly with any worldly ideology or political platform; either the Gospel of the Kingdom is made primary and Christians find themselves as exiles and sojourners among the ways of the world, or the Gospel of the Kingdom is compromised to fit a political platform, and Christian witness becomes entangled in worldly partisanship.
Christians do well to follow the path of their Lord: they must give to Caesar the honor and taxes due him, but dedicate themselves fully to the God who gave them all things. Their loyalty to the reign of God in Jesus demands discomfort with the nature of Caesar’s reign. The Gospel of the Kingdom is at odds with the “gospel” of empire. Empires wither and fade; the Gospel of the Kingdom endures forever. May we serve God in Christ in His Kingdom and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry