Politics & The Manger
Jesus was born into a nation mired in political conflict.
Political conflict is as old as civilization itself. The fight for power, profit, and self-determination has existed since Adam and Eve were chased out of Eden. The history of the world has been one of strife between families, cities, and nations. And when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, political tension and anger was rife throughout the then-known world.
Luke’s version of the Christmas story begins with these words, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). On the political level, the decree of Caesar was the reason Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem where Jesus would be born. Whether he knew it or not, Augustus guaranteed the prophetic fulfillment of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem.
By the time Jesus was born, the Roman Empire had extended its rule throughout Europe and North Africa, all the way to Palestine (Israel). These various areas were governed directly from Rome by officers sent out for the purpose of keeping provinces under the heel of Rome. To ensure submission, there was a Roman military contingent charged with maintaining order and reminding people that they were subject to the Caesars, who demanded the worship of their subjects.
The Jews hated Roman rule, and with good reason. The people were heavily taxed for the benefit of Rome and its citizens. One of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot, evidently a member of a political faction that plotted to restore Jewish nationalism and throw off the Roman yoke. Yes, Jesus was surrounded by political factions and hostility.
The Pharisees plotted how to entangle Jesus with His words, so they asked Him, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). What a trick question! If He said, “No,” He would be reported to the Roman authorities and charged with treason against Rome. If He said, “Yes,” He would be vilified by the people. “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?’” And then, after being given a coin with the image of Caesar, He made this famous declaration, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). It was not about Caesar or God, but Caesar and God.
For us in the United States, the heightened political rhetoric and the distrust and quest for power have reached new levels. Never before in history has a populace been bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle filled with shrill voices, outrageous accusations, and blatant propaganda. We have not been down a path quite like this before. And frankly, I have little hope that we can enter 2021 with anything that resembles national unity and a rational discussion about what is best for America.
That said, I’d like to highlight was does give me hope—the fact that no amount of political unrest can eclipse the confidence and certainty we have in Christ. This year especially, I am looking forward to celebrating that hope anew as we enter the Christmas season in just a few short weeks. Though we may not have national unity, we can find unity within the church, the body of Christ.
A Clear-Eyed Look At What’s Ahead
Pastor Lutzer gives you his perspective on what’s ahead in 2021 [this article was written for Moody Church Media in 2020], including a prescription for how believers should live in a time of cultural turmoil. Because “headwinds” are coming, he urges believers to lead lives attuned not to earthly but heavenly values.
Q: Okay, you introduced the subject. What do we learn from the politics of Jesus’ day that applies to us in America?
A: First, the Caesars of this world, including the President of the United States, ultimately serve under the pleasure and purposes of God. If God could use a pagan king to make a decree that would give Joseph and Mary a reason to travel to Bethlehem, God can use our politicians to accomplish His ends. Remember Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who hated the Jews and slaughtered some Galileans while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple? To him, Jesus said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Yes, we elect our politicians, but can we pause for a moment and remind ourselves that God is still in charge? Whether or not our favorite politician wins an election, we must look beyond the results and fix our eyes on God.
Q: But what is God’s role if we lose the rule of law here in America? How do we as Christians respond to proposals that we know would destroy our freedoms, paralyze our economy, and otherwise throw us into a political and cultural quagmire?
A: We serve “Caesar” to the best of our ability, but we maintain a higher loyalty. Historically, Christians have been here before; political restrictions of religious freedom have been common in the history of Christianity. This is not a time for a casual commitment to Christ and the Gospel. In 2021, we can expect headwinds against us, politically, legally, and racially. This is a time for the church to retrench—to ask some hard questions of how we keep our congregations unified among divisive political parties and endless standoffs in the year ahead.
Q: Okay, speak to the church. Congregations and families have been torn apart because of the polarization of our politics, the vilification of those who don’t adhere to “political correctness,” not to mention racial issues.
A: The unity of the body of Christ is going to be greatly tested. Will we be determined to see the unity we have in Christ as stronger than racial, political, and economic differences? Or will the body of Christ be fractured by siding with one political party or another and submitting to racial polarization? Will we speak to the culture or be co-opted by it?
Q: So, what are your predictions for 2021?
A: The news is not good. 2020 began with a worldwide pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, shut down our economy, and created a sense of hopelessness, which is seen through a spike in suicides. We have also lost the rule of law, and we can be sure that 2021 will continue with blaming, shaming, accusing, and political wrangling.
If I have a word to the church at this time of political upheaval, it’s to remember the words of Jesus, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). We had better attune our entire lives with heavenly values, not earthly ones.
This means we commit ourselves to daily prayer and repentance, generosity for gospel-driven ministries, and the boldness of the early church, which was not intimidated by threats and intense persecution. This is not a time for us to hide in our bunker and not offer a word of hope in this, our divided and enraged nation.
Q: Can we end with some hope?
A: Yes! Let’s not allow politics to eclipse our celebration of Christmas! We can allow the Christmas story and Christmas carols to touch our hearts and prepare us to worship the birth of our King. In His presence, all other political rulers must bow! Remembering that will get us ready for 2021!