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So Who Was Caesar?

The signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence took pains to say they were not rebelling against Britain on a whim or petulantly, but that their break came after a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” of which they list over two dozen. Furthermore, they had “petitioned for redress in the most humble terms,” but their “repeated petitions [had] been answered only by repeated injury” by the “tyrant,” namely George III of England.

They all assumed that the proper default position was submission to the current government and that revolution was a radical option. In thinking so, they reflected the biblical teaching on the believer’s relationship to government—the principle laid out in Mark 12:17, where Jesus says we should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The same note of respect appears in Romans 13:1, where Paul says, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” and in 1 Peter 2:17, where Peter says, “Honor the emperor.”

But who were these rulers when these words were spoken? Who was Jesus’ Caesar, Paul’s “governing authority,” and Peter’s “emperor?” Were they good men that a Christian would love to follow?

First, Jesus was born in Bethlehem under the reign of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus,1 mentioned in the familiar nativity story of Luke 2. In Jesus’ youth, Tiberius became the emperor, and also bore the honorific title of “Caesar,” from which we derive such words as “Czar,” “Tsar,” and “Kaiser.” (Luke 3:1-2 says that John the Baptist, Jesus’ herald, began his ministry in Tiberius’s 15th year of rule.)

Tiberius was a first-rate general who became a second-rate emperor, and at the time of his death (perhaps by smothering), no one mourned his passing. He did have the distinction of being on the throne when his subordinates in Palestine executed both John the Baptist and Jesus.

Paul and Peter lived—and were executed—under an even more odious emperor, Nero. To help secure his power, he had his mother executed. And he murdered many Christians as scapegoats for a fire that consumed most of Rome.

So why in the world would Jesus and the Apostles urge their followers to cooperate with the government? Both Paul and Peter explain that government is ordained by God to keep good order, and so, they taught, by implication, that anarchy is a godless position. Furthermore, each ruler who sits “on the throne” is not there by accident, but is part of God’s political economy for the world.

Does this mean that the ruler’s rule is absolute, that a believer must go along with whatever he says? Not at all, for, as Jesus says, some things are God’s and not Caesar’s. Not long after the Lord’s ascension, the apostles put this principle of limited earthly authority to work. When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council with a measure of delegated power, “called [Peter and John] and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” they answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,  for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).

So yes, God’s children are to respect the government, even when it is not particularly respectable. But the highest respect and deference is due the Lord Himself, and where earthly powers presume to require spiritual and moral compromise from their followers, then confrontation is perfectly in order.

In this connection, over half a million Americans have signed the Manhattan Declaration on behalf of the “sanctity of life,” the “dignity of marriage,” and “freedom of religion.” They pledge that, in defense of these principles, “no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate [them] into silence or acquiescence.” They raise the prospect of civil disobedience should the government seek to bully them into compromising compliance. And they close with this statement: “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.” Thus the tradition of the Apostles continues.


Dr. Michael Haykin describes who Caesar Augustus was and his importance in the narrative of the Bible. This video is one of over 200 videos in BibleMesh’s The Biblical Story Course. It is found under ERA 5 – “After the Exile”, lesson 25.