Page through the New Testament and you will find that some of the most interesting chapters are Jesus’ conversations with leaders of His day.
Do you remember Nicodemus? He was a leader of the Jewish people who was getting more and more interested in Jesus. He came to Jesus one night to get some of his questions answered without being seen by his colleagues. He begins the conversation by paying Jesus a nice compliment. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs you do apart from the presence of God.”
He was amazed at Jesus’ miracles, but our Lord was not overwhelmed by Nicodemus’ praise. He replies, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Like millions of others, Nicodemus asked, “What does it mean to be born again? Sounds rather weird to me. Are you saying we can entering our mother’s womb and be born again?”
Jesus gave a clear answer, “What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus nibbled on that answer for a long time and only began to have some understanding of what Jesus was teaching after Christ’s crucifixion. We learn later that he was one of the men who anointed Jesus’ body in preparation for His burial.
Christ had introduced a new teaching which is at the center of our Christian faith. Humans have a physical birth and so we celebrate the day we entered this world. We live as citizens of this world participating in all of its joys and sorrows. This citizenship is very important. But we are more than a body. We are a soul or a spirit. According to the Bible, your spirit is the real you that is clothed in a body referred to by Paul as a tent which lasts for a few years, and then falls apart.
In contrast to the body, the spirit is eternal. If our spirit is to live in a personal relationship with God during our earthly journey for all eternity, there must be a spiritual birth where we receive Christ as our Savior and Lord.
Here, in one of these conversations with a Jewish leader, Jesus challenges us to think of ourselves as citizens of two kingdoms. Martin Luther wrote a great treatise on “The Two Kingdoms.”
Being born in this country automatically makes us citizens of the United States. Through receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we are born spiritually and become a part of God’s Kingdom.
Because Jesus had come to establish His Kingdom in the hearts of people, his enemies accused Him of claiming to be a king, and this leads us into another interesting story where Jesus stands in the presence of a political leader, Pontius Pilate. Unlike Nicodemus, Pilate had no interest in Jesus nor had he come to Him. It was Jesus’ enemies who brought Him to the governor asking for His crucifixion.
Pilate was not much interested in the case, but it was necessary for him to keep order among the Jews, which was no easy task. He asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
“So you are a king?” Pilate asked.
Jesus replied, “You are right in saying I am a King. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” Pilate answered. He was convinced that Jesus was just one more religious fanatic who was trying to make His place in history. The governor was not much concerned but simply wanted to get rid of the case. However, Pilate must have had some conscience, because he tried in different ways not to crucify a man whom he felt was innocent of any crime deserving death.
But the Jewish leaders would not have it that way. Jesus must die. Once again, Christ had talked about the two kingdoms, and the Church in all ages has confessed that Jesus is our Lord and King. Peter describes the Church in this way, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation belonging to God.”
This concept of belonging to two Kingdoms presents some interesting questions for Christians who have lived in all ages, not least today. Let’s look at three of these questions, especially addressed to those of us who live in a democracy.
1. Are there responsibilities to both the state and God’s kingdom?
The answer, “Yes.” Paul, in the 13th chapter of Romans, presents the Christian’s duty to the state. He refers to the authorities as God’s servants appointed to keep order, and concludes with these words: “Pay to all what is due them taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:7)
It is in the spirit of this verse that we, who live in a democracy, should add that it is our responsibility to be a part of the government and to offer our talent and time in serving, whether in the local, state, or national government. It is sad when we see gifted people unwilling to serve in government because working in the private sector offers better salaries and less grief.
We all know, after living through this last presidential election, how distasteful the political life can be, but government is of God and the people are called to serve.
I was at the polling booth early on Election Day. It was cold, but I was impressed when an elderly woman said, “It would have been much easier to stay home than to come here and vote, but this is my Christian duty.” For her, it was not only the duty of every citizen to vote, but it was a part of her Christian faith, and that is the way our Lord wanted us to think according to His Word.
Is it important to assume our responsibilities in God’s Kingdom? Every Christian understands that serving our Lord is a fruit of the Christian faith. We are God’s redeemed children and, out of love, we are called to serve Him
2. Might there be conflicts between the State and God’s Kingdom; and if there are, how does the Christian respond?
History is full of examples showing the conflicts that have existed between Church and State. Christians died by the thousands in the first century for the cause of Christ. The Roman Government was going to blot out the Christian faith. We hear much about the Holocaust and the killing of six million Jewish people.
Not to take anything away from the tragedy, but we must not forget that thousands of Christians also died for their faith in Germany and Russia. Thousands continue to die today. The conflict came when there must be a choice between God or Caesar.
When the decision must be made to follow Christ or the commands of government, the Christian is called upon to answer, “We have no choice. Jesus is Lord. We will follow Him.”
3. Can the Church and State live side by side with each serving the other?
The answer is, “Yes, and life in these United States is our proof.” In America, the government has seen the blessings God has brought to the nation through the faithfulness of Christian men and women. We have been free to worship our Lord. Committed people have served this land well.
George Washington, at Valley Forge, turned to God for guidance. Abraham Lincoln, on bended knees in the Oval Office, asked God for strength during the Civil War. Jimmy Carter picked up his Bible on a Sunday morning and went to his church to teach a Bible class emphasizing the words of Jesus, “You must be born again.”
Since our nation was established, we have enjoyed the right of religious freedom under the doctrine of separation of Church and State. Will this freedom to express our Christian convictions in public continue, or will the day of pluralism limit our Christian expression? We have seen some of our Christian freedom taken from us in the public schools.
No longer do we have Christmas programs with our children singing the carols. Rather, we have a winter program with Santa taking Jesus’ place. We still have the right to evangelize others seeking to bring people to Christ. It is important for us to face the question, “Where will our nation stand on these questions in another generation?” If Christians must choose between Christ and the State, on whose side will they stand?
Pilate discounted Jesus as just another religious idealist whose influence was no threat to the Roman government. Pilate was wrong. Pilate was soon gone. The Roman empire finally fell, but the Kingdom of God remains forever. Honor your government, but let Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, capture your spirit.