Opposing Caesar (1)
“...and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
In the Roman Empire during the two centuries following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there was no more dangerous place to stand than in opposition to the decrees of Caesar. The Roman Emperor’s authority was regarded as absolute and final. We see how easily Pilate was cowed into violating his own conscience and casting aside the advice of his wife when the crowds warned that if he let Jesus go he would no friend of Caesar.
The power of Rome was maintained through a system of puppet monarchies, governorships, and military jurisdictions. While Rome was willing to allow local authorities to keep order, ensure the collection of revenues, and otherwise further and support the interests of the Empire, disciplined and well-armed troops stood ever at the ready to suppress and destroy any opposition to Caesar. When Paul was sent from Jerusalem to Caesarea, 470 soldiers accompanied him. And we can be sure the temporary loss of this considerable contingent did not significantly diminish the number of soldiers still available in Jerusalem (Acts 23:23).
Thus, to be charged in public with “opposing the dogmas of Caesar” – the literal translation of our text – was no casual matter. The only thing worse than being the focus of such a charge was to be charged also with “practicing” – again, our text – “another king.” Caesar was the only legitimate and ultimate king in Rome’s jurisdiction. More than that, Caesar was nearly a god, with sole authority, working through the Roman Senate to grant a measure of legitimacy to the many religious sects that were scattered around the Empire. But we can be certain that no religious sect which denied the Emperor’s authority, contravened his decrees, and publicly pledged loyalty to another king would be long tolerated.
The first Christians – such as Paul and those who accompanied him in Thessalonica – were not political activists. They did not draw up political agendas, plot the overthrow or subvert the authority of local magistrates, or call for the dismantling of the Empire. Indeed, the first Christians taught that Roman government was divinely established and intended by God Himself for the good of humankind (Rom. 13:1-4).
But the message they proclaimed, and the lives they pursued consistent with that message, were easily enough interpreted as being a threat to the status quo. Paul and the early Christians proclaimed the advent of a new Empire. They insisted that a new and eternal King had taken His seat in the heavenly realms – above Caesar and even above all gods and deities, men and nations. They declared that this King was calling all people to repent and profess loving allegiance to Him, and to seek the progress of His Kingdom as their highest priority in life. And they showed by their lives of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit that they were not your typical citizen of the political entity maintained by Rome.
So, it’s no wonder that, when the people of Thessalonica heard this charge, they “were disturbed.” This rebellion, this opposition to Caesar, was happening in their own city, and Roman retribution against incipient rebellions was typically not very discriminating. Collateral damage was not only inevitable, but intentional. The first Christians were indeed turning their world upside-down, because they understood, believed, lived, and proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom and the reality and inescapability of the Kingship of Jesus Christ. And that manner of life, we can be certain, will “disturb” the caesars of every age.
This week’s series, Opposing Caesar, is available in a free downloadable format, suitable for group study.
For more insight to this topic, get the book, Worldviews in Conflict, by Ronald Nash, from our online store. We also encourage you to begin your own group study of The Manhattan Declaration, a concise and eminently reasonable call for Christians to take their stand against the encroachment of the State.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.