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October 15 The Two Kingdoms
You know the saying. The only thing we can be sure of in life is death and taxes. People in Jesus’ day didn’t like to pay taxes any more than we do, likely even less so, because their taxes were given to support their hated Roman conquerors. Jesus’ enemies among the Pharisees chose the painful and controversial subject of taxes to set a trap for him. Was it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? If Jesus said, “Pay the taxes,” then the crowds might well turn against him, thinking that he supported the Romans. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay,” then his enemies could accuse him of treason and hand him over to the authorities. It was a no-win situation if there ever was one. Or so they thought.
But Jesus, fully aware of the trap his enemies had planned, asked to see the Roman coin used to pay the tax. The coin bore the image and inscription of Caesar, and that provided the answer to the controversy. To his enemies and to the watching crowds—people who bore the image of God their Creator—Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, the coin is Caesar’s, so give that to him. You are created in the image of God, so give yourself to God.
Like the crowds of Jesus’ day, we too must pay our taxes and we owe allegiance to an earthly government. We are citizens of this earth who live within a certain nation, state, city and county. We, however, know something about those earthly governments and their authority that is unknown to most earthly rulers. We know that their existence and their authority to rule comes from God.
The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “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 … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
You probably know the old song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His hands.” The title of that song is true enough. God does have the whole world in his hands. And when we describe God’s rule over all things, we talk about God’s “two hands” and the two kingdoms over which he rules, the kingdom of his right hand and the kingdom of his left hand.
What we call the kingdom of God’s left hand, is a way to describe God’s rule over all people, Christian and non-Christian alike. In the kingdom of his left hand, God works through earthly rulers and their laws to promote what is good and restrain evil. Certainly not every earthly king or ruler governs in a godly way—that is very rare—but even unbelieving rulers, those who misuse their power, have that power only by God’s authority. Our Lord Jesus himself stated that clearly as he stood on trial before Pontius Pilate.
Pilate threatens Jesus with his power. "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus isn't impressed. He knows the true source of power. "You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above." Yes, Jesus would look powerless on the cross. But on the third day, the glory of God would be revealed and Jesus would be raised from the dead. Working through the world’s leaders, moving and removing them as he wills, God’s Sovereignty prevails-- always.
Martin Luther was a redeemed child of God, and he was, just as we are subject to earthly rulers, to Frederick the Wise and his successors, the rulers of the territory of Saxony in which Luther lived. Luther was also subject to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
Luther lived in an age and place where there was no separation of church and state as we know it, and the reformer had opponents in both. Through his study of God’s Word, Luther rediscovered the truth of the Gospel, that we are saved not by works, not through buying church-authorized letters of pardon, but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, our Lord and King whose blood paid the price of our salvation. But the Roman Catholic officials acted to silence Luther eventually declaring the reformer to be a heretic.
Working in concert with the church, the emperor Charles V declared Luther to be an outlaw; if Luther was a danger to the church, he was thought to be a danger to the state as well. Thus, the reformer could be captured and killed, and no one was to give him aid or assistance. But God was at work through the kingdom of his left hand to protect his busy monk. Luther’s territorial ruler, Frederick the Wise, acted to protect him and secretly arranged to have Luther kidnapped and hidden away in Wartburg Castle for safety. And yet, even though he was declared to be an outlaw and condemned by earthly rulers, Luther advocated obedience to government.
For Luther knew from Scripture that earthly rulers have their authority from God. However- Luther also knew and taught that when rulers decide to forbid the teaching of the Gospel, then they must not be obeyed! Following Luther’s lead, the princes and rulers who embraced the faith of the Protestant Reformation vowed to obey God rather than men, and they risked their lives to declare their allegiance to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. Many years later they would win the right to worship and study scripture as they please.
What we call the kingdom of God’s right hand is his rule over his Church. By God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been brought into this kingdom, where he rules over us with his Word and forgiveness. Unlike the kingdom of God’s left hand where Christ is not preached and God is undiscovered, here Christ is preached and God is known. In the kingdom of God’s right hand, we find that human attempts to “get our act together” is futile. Any righteousness we have is a gift from God.
Only in the kingdom of the right hand can we see God at work in the kingdom of the left hand. That is the key to understanding the 2 kingdoms of God. We inhabit the kingdom of the left hand seeing things as they truly are with the eyes of the kingdom of the right hand. We know that both kingdoms belong to God, for God is sovereign over all things. In that sense, there is no separation of church and state.
In fact, it can be said that the wo kingdoms of God are actually one kingdom with two governments. For the church also has organization, structure and responsibility. Like the OT people of Israel in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, God commands us also to pray for the earthly nation, states and cities in which we live. For ours is a dual citizenship, we live as citizens of the kingdom of God’s right hand and the kingdom of his left hand. We know that God really does “have the whole world in his hands” as we live under his care & protection. We live here now as our Lord Jesus lived among us, living in love, service and obedience.
As the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:16-17, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Words to live by, in God’s right hand, the church and in God’s left hand, the state. Amen.