In the closing of his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul includes this surprising note: “All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4: 22).
What? There are followers of Christ in the emperor’s household? The same Caesar who is holding Paul in prison and who will eventually see to it that Paul is executed? Talk about a clash of kingdoms!
Both Jesus and Paul were acutely aware there could be no merger of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, but neither could there be a tidy division. Jesus’ shrewd instruction in Luke 20:25 to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” carried the unspoken premise that all things belong to God. He later said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). Paul wrote the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
We all need a healthy sense of perspective about government, human and divine. Empires rise and fall; all human governments, from dictatorships to democracies, are deeply flawed and unworthy of our ultimate allegiance. At the same time, one can be a citizen of the kingdom of God despite the political realities under which one lives.
Jerry Eng, who serves the Gospel of Christ in Malaysia, knows he could die for preaching the message of Jesus, but every Sunday he gathers the faithful under the cross and around the table to share a simple meal anticipating the eventual triumph of the reign of God. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we signal our allegiance to the true kingdom and the true king.
Prayer: To you, O King, we bow in grateful surrender, yielding ourselves to your service. We earnestly pray that our way of life might be worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unite us at this table with all our brothers and sisters around the world. Strengthen those who lift up the cross at the risk of their freedom and even their lives. May the bread and wine they and we consume be a foretaste of that feast to come, when the kingdoms of this world have crumbled and only the kingdom of God will stand. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Robert F. Hull Jr. is retired professor of New Testament, emeritus, at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.