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July 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 3 · pp. 30–33 

Hearing the Word

Jesus and the State

John Regehr


Since Jesus is both redeemer and model, we must look long and hard at how Jesus related to the civil and political authorities of his day. Of the gospel writers it is Matthew who most persistently hails Jesus as king and who makes a series of kingdom parables (chapter 13) the literary centre of the narrative. We may expect, then, that Jesus’ claims and those of the civil and political establishment will come into sharp relief in this gospel account. It is there that we shall look for guidance on our stance toward the state. The thesis which this look at Matthew will test is that he who takes Jesus seriously will of necessity clash with the state.

But immediately a complication arises. Jesus clashed with the Jewish religious establishment more than with the Roman authorities. We need to know something of the relationship between these two. Rome permitted much self-rule, and the Great Sanhedrin was permitted, within comparatively broad limits, to govern the civil affairs of Palestine in Jesus’ day. Since this civic authority was also the religious authority in Palestine, Jesus’ clash was largely with this religious/civic power block. And yet, the Roman presence is always in evidence. Jesus’ claim to kingship must be seen in that context.


Already the genealogy is a challenge to the civil and political authorities. Jesus is proclaimed king by right of lineage; he is the son of David (1:1, 6). The way the parallel lines of ancestors are grouped points to Jesus as another climactic pivot point of history (1:17).

The birth of Jesus may well be a paradigm for all Christians in all places and all ages (2:1-23). Jesus was born into a pagan rule, born when Herod was king. He became a threat immediately because there were those who spoke of his destiny and professed allegiance to him. If his rule were to be totally otherworldly, he would have been no threat to Herod and would be no threat now. Much later Jesus was to say it himself: “I have come to bring the sword!”

Herod spoke as governments have spoken ever since: “You have a great {31} cause; we’ll join you!” (vv. 4-8). It is to the credit of the wise men that they recognized and heeded the voice of God (vv. 9-12). Less perceptive men would have gone back to Parliament Hill and the White House praising those in the seats of the mighty for their endorsement and support of the divine cause! Herod rants until his steam runs out, and then quietly, resolutely, almost unobtrusively, God resumes his program (vv. 19-23), as he does for the members of his Kingdom who continue to be born, as was Jesus, in a pagan world.

The account of the temptation of Jesus provides a model for us. The choice regarding the direction his life was to take had been set most fundamentally at his baptism (3:13-17). The temptations tested both his understanding of his mission and his commitment to this direction.

In similar temptations the devil still offers other, more attractive, alternatives for setting the world free and becoming personally powerful at the same time. There is the bread route, the possibility of setting up an immense welfare system to provide for basic necessities so no one need ever worry.

Then there is the spectacular performance route. Men would acclaim as leader one who could bring together the resources of earth, mind, and spirit, and achieve things never dreamed of, such as alighting unhurt on the temple square, or the moon, or Mars. At this level, as well as at the former, Jesus could move up to a place of political power by providing for needs which are not at the core of man’s being.

The third alternative would be simply to acknowledge that there is a political system which is in the hands of the evil one and agree to become a part of it for the purpose of improving it. Jesus rejected all three alternatives. He still does. We don’t. Indeed, we have embraced all three.

Jesus’ teaching in this regard is surely prescriptive. Of course, the sermon on the mount is larger in scope than the issue we are considering, and yet the instruction of Jesus must be applied here as well.

Fundamental to the sermon (chapters 5, 6, 7) is the understanding that the Kingdom of God stands over against the kingdom of this world. Indeed, Jesus expects people who fit his description to be persecuted by the state and by the religious structures which are in league with the state (5:3-12).

The message is clear: It is precisely in being totally different that the members of the Kingdom of God have the effect on the world which God intends (5:13-16). The Kingdom person does not insist on maintaining his rights, or recovering his losses, or getting even. He is one who serves in the world, and does so with God’s kind of love (5:38-48).

We can serve God only if we serve him alone (6:24). Jesus insists that we trust God, not the system, even for life’s necessities (6:25-32).

“Christian” nations have cried, “Lord, Lord,” have prided themselves in noble deeds, charity, prison reforms, abolition of slavery, civil rights, equity for all, and have proceeded still to scheme for world supremacy by sacrificing the innocent. To build on anything other than the life and teaching of Jesus (even a tried and proven political system) is to build on sand (7:21-27).

Jesus does not treat persons who are a part of the political power structure with any less concern and respect than he does others. He is quite {32} prepared to help the centurion by healing his servant. He does so without rebuking him regarding his vocation. As a matter of fact, Jesus lifts up the centurion as an example of faith. Imagine saying of someone in the Winnipeg police force, “Such faith I have not found even among Mennonite Brethren” (8:5-13).

In Jesus’ experience the religious and the political establishments joined forces in their opposition to the truth. In the mission instructions he gives to his disciples (10:16-42), Jesus voices that expectation: “They will flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings.” In that order? Always? Today, too? (See also 13:20-21).

We today are driven back to the third of the temptations in the wilderness. The religious system has joined forces with the systems of this world. Ostensibly it may be done to help humanity by influencing the power structure. At base it may be a desperate attempt to save itself.

The inevitable result of such joining of forces is that the religious establishment asks support from the state so that it can be preserved. When truth threatens the religious structure, the plea goes out to the civil government. Jesus was performing miracles on the Sabbath (12:9-14). This disrupted the system, and the religious system would soon ask the political powers to remove the menace.

When the time is ripe Jesus walks with deliberateness into the lions’ den (16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). It is the religious establishment which will take the initiative against him, but the state will sanction and execute their wishes.

Jesus sees this action as normative. Each disciple must accept the reality that if the moment is ripe, he must opt for death at the hands of the enemies of truth (16:24-27). This is the price of allegiance to a kingdom which diametrically opposes the kingdoms of this world (see 20:25-28).

The bonding between the religious establishment and the political power tightens as the drama advances. Since the religious group is more concerned about public opinion than are the Roman authorities, and if the plot has to be executed during the festival days, then it will have to be the Romans who actually perform the execution (21:23-27). Dialogue now goes on between the dominant religious group and the political wing of the religious establishment, the Herodians (22:15-17). Jesus can hardly advocate the separation of “church” and state, since both are together in opposition to the truth. Therefore he speaks of recognizing one’s responsibility to the state without cutting back on one’s primary responsibility to God (22:18-22). His great concern is that God not be short-changed.


The final pages of Jesus’ life bring into sharp focus the issues which I have read from the gospel account.

In Jesus’ final discourses he speaks again of the basic expectation that those who take him seriously enough to matter will in fact be persecuted (24:9-18). The “nations,” the pagan authorities, cannot endure a genuine Jesus-person. The pressure exerted by the pagans creates dissension among {33} the Christians. False prophets will arise—ironic repetition of the Old Testament story—who will speak what the political authority likes to hear.

It was the religious establishment that wished him to die (26:3-5, 14-16). Is it that the religious establishment is more threatened by naked truth than is the political power? It takes a show of power to put the political structure on the defensive. That is why the religious group had to lay on Jesus a charge which the Roman procurator was forced to take seriously.

When the ripe moment had come, Jesus did not seek to escape (as he had on several earlier occasions, 12:15; 14:13; 21:17; cf. John 12:36). He moved with determined resoluteness into the lion’s mouth (20:17-19), rejecting a defense based on the implements of violence which were being used against him.

There comes a time when silence is best (26:57-68; 27:11-14). At a time when the consciences of evil men are drowned in mutually incited rage, words must fail.

Jesus did not use the Roman power to protect himself against the religious establishment (27:11-14). Surely it would have been possible to tilt Pilate, capitalizing on his waffling nature (so familiar to the Jews from previous experiences) and exploiting the additional pressure from his conscience and his wife. Jesus chose rather to trust in God, even if that meant accepting death.

The way Jesus chose to go is not an easy way. It isn’t as though one can make a fundamental commitment at one point in life, and then expect easy sailing. Jesus made his choice when he left Nazareth, and again when he was baptised, and again when he was tempted in the wilderness, and again when upon the feeding of the 5,000 the mob wanted to make him king, and again when the Greeks wished to invite him to new fields, and again in Gethsemane. Even so, when the moment of agony crushed his spirit on the cross, he struggled with doubt: “My God, why!” Yet in the end he sighed with triumphant resignation, and yielded himself to God in death.

Not an easy way, to be sure, but a possible one. Not a popular way, but the best. Lonely, painful—certainly; but how could we choose another when we know the end!

Dr. John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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