THE DECREES OF CAESAR AND OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-20-64 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Decrees of Caesar and of God. In the second chapter of the Book of Luke, the passage that you just read, I read again the first verses:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus—
that word “Augustus,” sebastai in Greek, was their word for “god”; nobody used that word except as applying it to God, so “Caesar God”—
There went out a decree from Caesar God, that all the world should be enrolled.
(Now this enrolling was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be enrolled, according to Greek custom, every one to his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
The decrees of Jehovah God and Caesar Hod.
An astronomer can look into the chalice of God’s starry heaven and see the mighty handiwork of the Almighty: the great movement of planets, and the laws by which they are so faithfully governed. A physicist can do that in the microscopic world below us: the waves of ether, the microcosm of electrons, and neutrons, and protons, and atoms, and molecules, the infinite lacework of the sovereign and almighty God. A biologist can see that as he looks into the reproduction of life: mitosis, and osmosis, and all of the intricacies that go back of the creation of existence in this earth. And a chemist can do that: he can see the hand of God, the workmanship of the Almighty, in all of the chemical reactions of combining and rearranging the elements that form all life and materiality. And a historian that is godly, a theologian who is devout, can also follow the hand of God in history, as the sovereign purposes of the Lord are worked out in human life. So the title of the sermon: The Decrees of Caesar and of God; it’s a sermon on the sovereign purposes of God worked out in human life and story, and it follows three parts: the sovereign purposes of God, the decrees of God in prophecy; second, the decrees of God in history; and third, the decrees of God in human life, our lives.
First: the decrees of God, the sovereign elective purposes of God in prophecy. When I turn to the first chapter of the Book of Luke, out of which we’ve read this text, I see, “In the sixth month,” after the conception of John the Baptist [Luke 1:11-26, 36], “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel,” the same announcer from heaven who stood at the right side of the altar and announced to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist, “in the sixth month that same angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, there to announce to a virgin who was espoused to Joseph, of the house of David; the virgin’s name, Mary, that she was to be the elected mother of a foreordained, foretold Child, the Son of God” [Luke 1:26-35]. But the verse says that when the angel Gabriel was sent on his heavenly mission, he was directed to Galilee, to a city in Galilee, named Nazareth [Luke 1:26]. And there he made the sublime and celestial announcement to the Virgin Mary [Luke 1:27-35].
But seven hundred fifty years before, seven hundred fifty years before God had spoken by the mouth of the prophet, saying, “But thou, Bethlehem, but thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me who is to be the Governor of My people; whose going forth have been from of old, from everlasting” [Micah 5:2]. The Sovereign Almighty, who before the creation of the world, and before time, the Eternal from beginning to the end, the Everlasting to everlasting, He is coming down in human flesh, said that prophet seven hundred fifty years before, “and He is to be born in Bethlehem, in little Judea” [Micah 5:2]. And yet, when I turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, it says, “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, unto Nazareth?” [Luke 1:26]. But the prophet said Bethlehem! [Micah 5:2]. What did God do? Over there in Caesar’s imperial palace, in the eternal city of Rome, the emperor sends forth a decree [Luke 2:1]—isn’t it strange how men think they govern themselves, and they govern their principalities, and they live their lives?—this Caesar Augustus would have looked with disdain and contempt upon the people of God and the very name of Jehovah, but seven hundred fifty years before, God said Bethlehem [Micah 5:2]; and the angel went to Nazareth! [Luke 1:26]. And in the imperial palace in Rome, Augustus, “God Caesar,” sent forth a decree that all of the civilized world was to be engaged in a census and everyone’s name was to be written down and enrolled [Luke 2:1-5]. I would suppose for two purposes: one, to see the size of the conscripted armies he could raise; and the other, of course, was to tax the people.
Now, the Jewish nation had many, many reservations about a numbering, a census. Do you remember in the story of King David, one time Jehovah visited pestilence and death upon Israel because David was numbering the people [2 Samuel 24]. So in order to abide by that decree of Caesar, it had to be done in Judah according to the tradition of the Jewish nation, namely, that each one was to follow through with his genealogical heritage. And that meant each one was to go back to his family and to his house, and there to be numbered according to the genealogical tables of the people of God [Luke 2:1-5]. And when Caesar Augustus, when Caesar sebastai, when “Caesar God” the glorious one, when Caesar made that decree, it reached to the little city of Nazareth, where lived Joseph and his espoused wife, great with child [Luke 2:5]. And according to the habit and tradition and custom of the Jewish nation, they made their journey back to the house of their fathers, and the Child was born in Bethlehem [Luke 2:4-7]. What a surprise to God? No! Seven hundred fifty years before God had said, “Bethlehem, Bethlehem!” [Micah 5:2]. The sovereign purpose of God in prophecy.
And the whole story of the revelation of God is the carrying out, the implementation, of that same immutable and sovereign will. In the days of Israel, Jacob, he gathered around him on his deathbed those twelve sons [Genesis 49:1-2]. And he began at the eldest, and Jacob turned to Reuben and said, “God has refused you” [Genesis 49:3-4]. And he turned to the second, Simeon, and said, “God has refused you,” and he turned to the third son, Levi, and said, “God has refused you” [Genesis 49:5-7]. Then he turned to Judah, the fourth son, and he said, “Judah, the whelp of the lion; the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be” [Genesis 49:8-10]. Judah, the scepter shall not depart from Judah! [Genesis 49:10]. And when Pharaoh on the throne of Egypt decreed the obliteration of the Hebrew nation, and the destruction of every male child [Matthew 2:16], but God had said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah!” [Genesis 49:10]. And in 722 BC, when the bitter and merciless and ruthless Assyrian came and carried away Ephraim, and carried away Manasseh, and carried away Naphtali, and carried away Issacher, and carried away all the northern tribes [2 Kings 18:11], God said, “But the scepter shall not depart from Judah!” [Genesis 49:10]. And in  BC [Daniel 1:1], and in 597 BC [2 Kings 24:10], and in 586 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar came with his Babylonian horde and they destroyed Judah, and carried Judah into captivity [Jeremiah 52:4-16], but God had said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come!” [Genesis 49:10].
And when the emperors and the kings of the earth led their armies in waste and triumph over the earth, God said, “But Judah!” [Genesis 49:10]. Tiglath-Pileser, and Shalmaneser, and Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal, and Sargon, and Sennacherib wasted Israel; but God said, “Judah!” [Genesis 49:10]. And Nabopolassar, and Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar wasted and destroyed Judah; but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come!” [Genesis 49:10]. And Cyrus the Mede, and Darius the Mede, and Xerxes, and Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes; but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah!” [Genesis 49:10]. And Alexander, and Cassander, and Lysimachus, and Antigonus, and Antiochus, and Seleucus, and Ptolemy, and Antiochus Epiphanes; but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be” [Genesis 49:10]. And through all of the wastes of war, and through all of the marching of armies, and through all of the decrees of emperors and kings, God said He shall come of Judah [Genesis 49:10]; and Judah shall have a government, and a nation, and a life until He come” [Genesis 49:10]. And after the birth of Christ, the nation was destroyed and scattered among the peoples of the world [Deuteronomy 28:64]—but not until the sovereign purpose of God had been worked out in prophecy [Acts 2:23-36]. And if we had several hours, we’d carry that right on through to the time of the end, through our present day, the sovereign elective grace of God for His people and for us today and forever.
I turn now to the second great heading in this discussion, the decrees of Caesar and of God: I speak now of the sovereign purposes of God in human history, in human history. In the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, the prophet saw a great vision; and that vision God revealed to Daniel the prophet was an outline of human history from his day until the time of the great and final consummation [Daniel 2:1-45]. And God gave to Daniel the vision of a vast image of a man [Daniel 2:17-19]. His head was of gold. His breast and his arms were of silver. His thighs were of brass. His legs were of iron. And his feet were part of iron and part of clay, his ten toes [Daniel 2:32-33]. And God revealed to Daniel His ultimate purposes in human history. The head of gold was the great golden empire and kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar [Daniel 2:32, 38]. And according to the purposes of God and the elective grace of God, three things came out of that horrible and indescribable Babylonian captivity. In the waste of the temple, and the destruction of the holy city, and the enslavement of God’s people, three great things came out, according to His sovereign purpose.
One, first: the Jew was never an idolater again, never. From there on and until Christ comes, he is an indestructible monotheist! The Jew never turned to idols again. Second: out of that Babylonian captivity that fed an empire of gold, there came the canon of the Holy Scriptures set by Ezra the scribe himself. God’s Holy Scriptures were sealed, and the Book was canonized and kept inviolate forever, no man able to add to it, no man able to take away from it. Third: out of that Babylonian captivity, there came the institution of the synagogue, the precursor of the church, the services of which are like these that we know and worship in today. The sovereign purpose of God in human history.
And then the second great kingdom, the kingdom of silver, and the arms of silver, the Medo-Persian kingdom [Daniel 2:32, 39]. And in the days of those Medo-Persian kingdoms of Cyrus and Darius and Ahasuerus, God’s sovereign purpose in His people: they returned to their city, they built Jerusalem; in the city of Jerusalem they built again their holy temple; and Judah returned out of captivity [Ezra 2:1]. “For the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from his feet, until Shiloh come” [Genesis 49:10]. And in the days of the silver breast and arms of the image [Daniel 2:32, 39], God’s people turned homeward, their faces to the holy city and the temple of God [Ezra 8:35].
And the third great kingdom of Alexander the Great [Daniel 2:32, 39], the Greek Empire that brought one common language to the civilized world, and one common culture to the civilized world, that there might be a medium, and that there might be a solution into which God’s truth could be carried by every current and shared by every nation and every family under the sun. When Paul wrote to Rome, he wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote to Athens, he wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote to Corinth, he wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote to Thessalonica, he wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote to Ephesus, he wrote in Greek. When Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he wrote in Greek. When the four Gospels were written, they were written in Greek. When the Revelation was written, it was written in Greek. For God’s purpose was that there should be a common language and a common culture to announce to the world the good news of the Incarnate Lord God.
Then the legs of iron [Daniel 2:33, 40], the great Roman Empire broke into two parts: the Eastern Byzantium Empire with its capital at Constantinople, and the Western Empire with its capital at Rome; the kingdom of iron. Our Savior was born in an enforced peace. There were no wars on the face of the earth. And there was a common code of law. And there were roads upon which God’s messengers could travel from city to city, from nation to nation, from one tongue and language to the other over the civilized world. The purposes of God in human history!
And then Daniel saw the kingdoms break up, the kingdoms break up: the toes, the feet were part iron and part clay [Daniel 2:33, 41-44]. There will never be another ultimate kingdom, political in this earth, not until the end time, not until the consummation [Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45]. There will be divided nations: the East, the West, the Afro-Asian block, the European-American block, they will all be divided, the feet and the toes are part iron and part clay; they are broken up. And in the fourth century, in the 400s, the fifth century, in the 400s, there came out of the North the Vandal hordes. They went to war like cattle: they brought with them their wives, and their children, and their families. And where they moved, they moved for life or for death. And when the Vandals came in the 400s, a Teutonic, Germanic people, they overran Gaul, and they overran Spain, and they conquered all of North Africa, and finally they sacked the Roman Empire and the imperial city itself. And they were the most wanton wasters and destroyers and predators the world had ever seen. They burned the great libraries, they burned the great manuscripts, they slaughtered the teachers, they made culture a thing almost forgot in the history of mankind; so much so that within a few years the proud Latin language itself was never spoken again! The Vandals brought to the very nadir of story human culture, human art, and human literature.
But out of the terrible sacking and destruction and want and pillaging of the Vandal, there came two things. One: the Vandal had an indescribable awe and reverence for the Word of God. He destroyed every manuscript, he burned every library, he destroyed every piece of art he could find; but when he found the Word of God, he held it before him in awe and in holy reverence. And Western civilization began with the Bible as its basic primer. In the destruction of Roman and Hellenic culture by the Vandals, the foundation was laid for the modern Western civilization in which you and I live, which is built upon the immutable and unchangeable Word of God [Isaiah 40:8]. The Vandal revered God’s Book. And second: out of the awful waste and dark, dismal despair of the crushing and wasting in the breaking up of the Roman Empire, and the wanton oblivion of culture, out of it arose the greatest theologian in the story of the church: Augustine of Hippo. He died while the Vandals were besieging his city of Hippo. And he lived watching the Vandals destroy civilization. And out of it he wrote the incomparable and the immortal City of God. In the waste of the kingdoms of this world, and in the loss of government citizenship and human property and life, above the ruins there shall rise, said Augustine, the more glorious kingdom of our Lord Christ, and he called it the City of God. The sovereign purposes of Jehovah in human history.
May I read a poem that I came upon? It’s called “Finale”; finale, the great climactic consummation, “Finale.”
God’s hand is on the organ keys
To sound the tones of days and years
That end the march of centuries—
And swift the great crescendo nears.
Nor cannon’s crash, nor thundering car,
Nor death bomb hurled from war-torn skies,
Nor shouted boast or threat, can mar
That glorious anthem’s onward rise.
Supreme above the “high command,”
With all their councils may decree,
The Highest shapes with sovereign hand
The final chords of destiny.
Held fast in that all-bending sway
Vast armies move with clanking tread,
A crushing, ravening horde today—
Tomorrow numbered with the dead.
Even now a mightier chord resounds,
The grand finale sweeps along,
And suffering earth’s remotest bounds
Join with all heaven the victory song:
“Rejoice! He maketh wars to cease,
He setteth captive peoples free.
He bringeth everlasting peace,
Immortal love! Eternity!”
[“Finale,” Eugene Rowell]
God’s sovereign hand in human history, working, moving, guiding, decreeing to that ultimate and final and glorious consummation.
Now the third: God’s sovereign hand in human life, in human life. In the story of Joseph, sold as a slave into Egypt [Genesis 37:26-28], then the hunger, and the coming of his brethren to find food in Egypt [Genesis 42:1-3]; and when Joseph disclosed himself to his brethren [Genesis 45:1-8], in their lamentation, Joseph said, “Ye meant it for evil, ye thought it for evil; but God meant it for good” [Genesis 50:20]. And out of the sojourn in Egypt, God shaped those nomadic Bedouins into the congealed strength of a great nation [Leviticus 26:13; Joshua 24:17]. “Ye meant it for evil; but God meant it for good”; the sovereign hand of God in human life [Genesis 50:20].
In the New Testament, do you realize that most of Paul’s ministry was spent in prison, in jail, in bonds, in stocks, in chains, and in dungeons? Oh, what could be the wisdom of the Almighty in taking His greatest apostle and caging him like an eagle plucked out of a starry sky, and bruise him with iron weapons, and hide him behind irons bars? [2 Corinthians 11:23-25]. It’s hard to think—God ought to have sent him down every road in the Roman Empire, God ought to have set him free to preach the gospel in the marketplace of every city, God ought to have sent him to every language and people under the sun; but instead God chained him, and made him a prisoner! [Ephesians 3:1]. But two things came out of it. One: every day four different soldiers of a Praetorian Guard were chained to the apostle Paul, four every day [Acts 28:16; Ephesians 6:20]. And can you imagine being chained to the apostle Paul? It was not long until the elite guard of the Roman Caesar, every one of them, heard the gospel of the Son of God, and Caesar’s household was permeated with Christian converts and disciples of Jesus [Philippians 1:12-14]. And when you read of the story of the conquest of the Roman Empire by the gospel of the grace of the Son of God, you will find that no small part of that conquest was due to the testimony of the Christian Roman soldier who out of Rome carried the good news to the British Isles, to the lands of Africa, to Armenia and the Far East, and throughout the bounds of the European continent. God meant it for good [Genesis 50:20]. And second: out of the imprisonment of the apostle Paul, came those infinitely precious letters that would never have been written except for the quiet and meditation and years of thought as the Spirit of Jesus formed in his mind those words, and those syllables, and those sentences, and those letters that comprise most of our New Testament today! [2 Peter 1:20-21]. God meant it for good; the sovereign hand of God in human life. I must hasten.
Couldn’t we stand here all day and speak of that? John Bunyan, John Bunyan, under Charles II in the Restoration, John Bunyan placed in prison in 1660 to languish in Bedford jail for twelve years, until 1672: but out of those years of incarceration, he saw visions of heaven, and wrote the incomparable Pilgrim’s Progress from this earthly life to the world that is yet to come, the greatest book outside of the Holy Bible itself. God meant it for good. And could I speak of Roger Williams, who in the bitter cold of the winter of 1635, was exiled and banished from the colony of Massachusetts? But finding a haven with Canonicus and the Indians of Rhode Island, he built there the first governmental state in the earth that proclaimed full and complete religious liberty. God meant it for good [Genesis 50:20].
Because pastor Clement Moore, a preacher who had no money, and wanting to give something to his little girls, and having nothing wherewith to buy, he wrote for those precious little daughters the immortal poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” their Christmas present. God meant it for good. And because a Tyrolean village found itself buried in snow, and a heavy weight destroyed a part of the church and ruined the organ, the pastor and the organist wrote a carol that could be sung without accompaniment. It is entitled “Silent Night, Holy Night.” God meant it for good [Genesis 50:20].
And because a maiden girl had no soft bed in which to lay her newborn Child, she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes—didn’t have any little dress, didn’t have any little coat, didn’t have any little quilt—she wrapped Him in rags, and laid Him on the hay in a manger [Luke 2:7], that we might have a great High Priest who could be moved with the feeling of our necessity and our infirmity [Hebrews 4:15]. For anybody would feel free to come and to kneel at a manger. Anybody would feel welcome, however crude, however rude, however dressed, however poor, anybody would feel welcome kneeling before a manger. God meant it for good [Genesis 50:20].
And all of life’s story is like that: if we just had eyes to see and faith to know the incomparable mercy and grace and purpose of God in our lives; the hand of God in the story of our days. Light and dark, silver and gold, joy and gladness, defeat and success, all woven together in the infinite pattern of the love and mercy of God, even for us: God means it for good [Genesis 50:20].
We’re still on television and radio. Maybe you’ve never given your heart to the Lord, maybe you’ve never bowed in yielded surrender to His purpose for you; do it now, do it now. “Lord, I give to Thee the issue, all the issue of my life, whatever, however, whenever.” Maybe you’ve never taken Jesus as Savior; do it now [Romans 10:9-10, 13]. Open your heart, “Lord, come in, come in.” And here in this great auditorium in this vast throng, somebody you, give himself to Jesus, make it now. A family you, coming into the fellowship of the church, make it this morning. What a beautiful and glorious hour in which to respond. On the back row of that highest balcony, there’s time and to spare; down a stairway, down to the front, “Here I come.” And on either side, into these aisles and to the pastor, “Pastor I give you my hand; I’ve given my heart to God.” Or, “We’re putting our lives with you and these dear people in this precious church.” Come now, make it now, come this morning, while we stand and while we sing.