“Bible Dig” is a new series where we take short one-liners in the Bible and delve deep into its historical and contextual background to gain a deeper appreciation for the scriptures. Whether you’re new to the Bible or a hardcore Bible nerd, there’s going to be something for everyone. I’ll be throwing in as much intrigue, humor, and application along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy reading these as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
100 years before Jesus was born, there was man who flipped the entire Roman empire upside down. He transformed Rome into a world superpower by subduing half of Europe and brought the Roman political system to its knees. He was brilliant and charismatic, arguably the finest of his era. If it wasn’t for him, Latin probably wouldn’t have become the dominant language of the ancient world and we’d be missing a huge chunk of Paul’s letters. His footprints are still felt in today’s world, especially if you’re into anything that’s Italian.
But more importantly, he helped set the stage for this one-liner in John 19:15:
“But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.”
If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m talking about Julius Caesar.
However, Julius Caesar was already dead by the time these words were spoken by the chief priests. In fact, the emperor at the time was Tiberius. So, why are they giving allegiance to a dead man? How could his name hold so much weight?
Well this all points back to Julius Caesars’ (I’ll just call him Caesar going forward) achievements. To summarize his life without bogging you down in the details, Caesar lived a combination of both Robin Hood and Emperor Palpatine (from Star Wars, sorry if you haven’t seen it). Robin Hood in the sense that he was robbing the rich (and the outside Barbarians) to give to the poor, making him popular with the masses. Emperor Palpatine in the sense that he amassed his own army loyal to him only, while secretly plotting to overthrow the senate (government). The senate feared Caesar but could do nothing to stop his growth of power. An epic showdown would inevitably occur.
When we as Christians think about Roman government, we tend to envision brutal dictators such as Nero and Diocletian notorious for condemning thousands of Christians to be crucified or slaughtered in the Colosseum for their faith. Their reigns are perceived as Pagan, self-serving, and cruel as any modern dictator. But the truth is that Roman leaders were not like that up until Caesar came along.
In the old day of Rome there was no emperor. It was a republic similar with a setup similar to the US today. There was no president that ran the show but in fact there were two. These two leaders were elected by the people, and represented a specific house or political party. They would share equal authority and alternative who was in charge every other day. Interestingly enough, these leaders also had an extensive military background (you need at least 10 years of military experience to get the lowest level of office!) and would be the front-line generals to lead Rome’s soldiers into war. After a certain number of years, these leaders would step down from office and hand the power to someone else to be voted in. Only in the most dire military situations a dictator could be voted in who had completely authority. But surprisingly, when the crisis was averted every dictator peacefully handed the keys of power back to the senate. That’s how much honor Rome had back then.
So when Julius Caesar’s time as leader is about to be up, he does the unthinkable. Rather than relegate his power, he crosses the Rubicon River and marches his personal army against Rome. Caesar sparks a civil war that rocks Rome to its core. Caesar eventually wins and marches into Rome a victor. He overturns the old ways of the Senate and declares himself emperor for life. However, that was not enough. Caesar went as far as to assert himself as divine ruler. He painted his face red like the God Jupiter and created a new cult to worship him. His word was authority. This became the model for all emperors that would succeed Caesar. Rome evolved from a Republic to a Dictatorship in a heartbeat. You don’t get more pompous than that folks.
Now I hope we can see the depravity of John 19:15 when the chief priests declare their allegiance to Caesar. It was more than just a political statement. They were claiming that Caesar was their God and not Yahweh. They gave allegiance to a man, but not the son of man. They hated Jesus so much that they were willing to forsake everything they stood for to nail him on that cross. The chief priests were supposed to lead God’s people in righteousness but here they were blatantly committing apostasy. The irony is stunning.
Jesus said we cannot serve two masters. Either sin will be our master or the Holy Spirit. Money or God. Selfish pleasure or pleasing the Lord. What kind of declaration are we making by the way we live? What King is sitting on the throne of your life?