The Decrees of Caesar and of God
December 20th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM
THE DECREES OF CAESAR AND OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-20-64 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message from God’s Book. It is entitled The Decrees of Caesar and of God. In the passage of Scripture that we read in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the first verse, are these words:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.
(And this enrolling was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be enrolled, every one into 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.
There was a very patent reason why the census that Augustus made of his Roman Empire, why the census in Judea had to be according to the custom of the Jewish people. They were very difficult for the Roman government to rule. They were rebellious in spirit and volative in temperament. So when Augustus made that world decree, that the whole empire was to be named by individuals, a universal census, in all the rest of the world census takers wrote down the names of the families as we do now in the United States, but according to Jewish tradition and Jewish custom, the only way that enrollment could be made was by lineage and genealogy. And in order to do it according to the way they believed, each one went to the house of his fathers, and there he was enrolled. And it was because of that habit and that tradition and that custom that prevailed in Judea that Joseph and Mary made their way to the city of David, because Joseph and his espoused wife were of the household and of the lineage of David [Luke 2:4].
When I turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, I read, “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” [Luke 1:26-27]. The angel Gabriel, in announcing the birth of this foreordained and foretold Child, made his way to Galilee; and in Galilee, to a city of Nazareth, and made that sublime and heavenly announcement to a virgin maiden there by the name of Mary [Luke 1:26-35]. But she lives in Nazareth; she lives in Nazareth [Luke 1:26]. Seven hundred fifty years before the angel Gabriel was sent on this mission to speak to Mary, seven hundred fifty years before, Micah had said, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, in Judea, but thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to rule My people Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, even from everlasting” [Micah 5:2]. What an amazing prophecy! Out of little Bethlehem there is to be born a Governor and a Ruler whose goings forth have been from of old, even from everlasting. From the beginning He was [John 8:58]; and out of that little town of Bethlehem He is to be born, He is to be incarnate, whose life, and whose decrees, and whose mandates, and whose sovereignty have been from everlasting [Micah 5:2].
Well, now how does God do that? The angel Gabriel is sent to Nazareth in Galilee to make this sublime and exalted announcement that out of her womb there shall be formed the Lord God Savior of the world; in Nazareth [Luke 1:26-35]. But seven hundred fifty years before, the prophet Micah said He is to be born in Bethlehem [Micah 5:2]. That is the background of the message this morning: The Decrees of Caesar and of God.
An astronomer can look into the heavens, and if he’s devout, he can see and he can outline the great purposes and mandates of God in the starry skies. He can see the handwork of God in the glorious chalice above us. A physicist, if he is a godly man, can see the workmanship and the creative wisdom of the Lord God in the infinitesimal cosmogony, the ether waves, the electrons, and neutrons, and the atoms, and the molecular structure out of which God made this complicated world; he can see the hand of God. A biologist, if he’s a godly man, can see the hand of God in the marvelous workmanship of anatomy, and life, and reproduction, and mitosis, and osmosis, and all of the miraculous things that enter into existence. A chemist, if he is a godly man, can see the hand of God in all of the marvelous actions and reactions and interactions that make possible the combining of elements to produce existence, and life, and fortune, and destiny. The same thing can be done by a godly man as he looks at the hand of God in human history, and in human life, and in human story; the moving, working sovereignty of God, as He brings to ultimate consummation the purposes He has decreed and ordained from before the foundation of the world. And we’re going to do that this morning. We’re going to observe the hand of God, the sovereign elective purpose of God worked out in prophecy; second, the sovereign hand of God seen in human history; and third, the sovereign purposes of God worked out in human life.
First of all, the hand of God, the decrees of God in prophecy: the angel Gabriel made his way to Nazareth to announce to a virgin maiden there, that she was to be the mother of this ordained Child [Luke 1:26-35]. But Micah said He was to be born in Bethlehem [Micah 5:2]. So the Lord God, in the imperial and eternal city of Rome, so far and far and far away, moved Augustus Caesar to make a decree that the entire world was to be enrolled [Luke 2:1]. And the sovereign Lord God created that tradition in Israel, that when a census was taken it was to be made according to the genealogical outlines of the lives of the people [Luke 2:1-5]. And those things conspiring and working together sent Joseph and his espoused wife on that journey out of Nazareth into Judea, and down to little Bethlehem, that it might come to pass that which was written by the prophet Micah seven hundred fifty years before: “Thou little Bethlehem, out of thee shall come, whose goings forth have been from everlasting; out of thee shall He come who is to be the Governor and the Ruler and the Savior and the Sovereign of My people” [Micah 5:2].
So in all of prophecy God’s hand moves, and shapes, and destines, and determines history according to a mandate and a decree made in heaven before God created this world [Ephesians 1:4]. In the forty-ninth chapter of the Book of Genesis, in the tenth verse, Israel, God’s prophet, Jacob, God’s prince is speaking to the twelve patriarchs. He turns to Reuben, and God has rejected Reuben [Genesis 49:3-4]. He turns to the second son, Simeon, God has rejected Simeon. He turns to the third boy, Levi, God has rejected Levi [Genesis 49:5-7]. He turns to the fourth son, Judah, and Israel, the prophet of God, says to Judah: “But thou Judah, but thou Judah, the lion’s whelp, the scepter shall not depart from Judah [Genesis 49:10], nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be, Judah” [Genesis 49:8-10]. And when Pharaoh decreed that all of the male children of the Hebrews should be slain, and the tribes should be destroyed from off the face of the earth [Exodus 1:15-16, 22], God said, “But thou Judah, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.” And when the merciless and bitter and cruel Assyrian came in 722 BC and took away Ephraim and Issachar, and Manasseh, and Naphtali, and the ten tribes, and carried them away [2 Kings 18:11], God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come.” And when Nebuchadnezzar came in 605, in 597, in 587 BC and carried Judea into captivity [2 Kings 24:14-16], God had said, “But thou Judah, 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 49:10]. And the monarchs and the emperors and the kings marched up and down the world with their triumphant armies, and wasted culture and civilization and life, and destroyed Judah.
Tiglath-pileser, Shalmaneser, Esarhaddon, Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal—but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” [Genesis 49:10]. Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar—but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” [Genesis 49:10]. Alexander, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Lysimachus, Cassander, Antiochus Epiphanes—but God said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” [Genesis 49:10]. Caesar, Julius, Augustus, Antony, Tiberius—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 only after the birth of Jesus the Christ was the nation of Judah destroyed and scattered among the nations of the world [Luke 21:24]; the sovereign hand of God in prophecy. We must hasten.
The sovereign hand of God in human history: in the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, the prophet saw an outline of human story from his day in which he spake until the consummation of the age [Daniel 2:1-45]. He saw the image of a tremendous man. The head was of gold; the shoulders and the arms were of silver; the thighs were of brass; the legs were of iron; and the toes were of iron and of clay [Daniel 2:31-33]. The hand of God, the decrees of God in human history: the head was of gold. That, said the prophet, is the kingdom of Babylon [2 Kings 24:14-16], presided over by Nebuchadnezzar [Daniel 2:32, 38]. And the hand of God in the work, even in the pillage and the destruction of Nebuchadnezzar: for out of the captivity of God’s people, out of the captivity of Babylon, there arose three great things. One: thereafter the Jew was forever an irreconcilably and determinedly monotheistic; he never turned to idols again. Second: out of that Babylonian captivity, that empire with the head of gold, there arose the canon of the Holy Scripture, made by Ezra, God’s scribe himself [Nehemiah 8:1]. And it was sealed and forever. Third: out of that Babylonian captivity there arose the institution of the synagogue, the continuation of which is the church assembly as you know it and in which you worship God today.
Then the breast made out of silver, and the prophet said that is the kingdom of the Medo-Perisans [Daniel 2:32, 39]. And during the days of the Medo-Persians, the Jew, by the commandment of the emperor, returned back to Jerusalem, there to rebuild the temple, there to rebuild Jerusalem, and there to rebuild a Judaism centered in the holy and immutable word of God [Ezra 1:1-4].
And the thighs were made out of brass, and the prophet said that is the kingdom of Alexander, the kingdom of Alexander [Daniel 2:32, 39]. Alexander the Greek, Alexander the Great, and he gave to the civilized world a common culture and a common language, bound together in a common civilization. And the prophet said the legs of iron, that is the Roman Empire [Daniel 2:33, 40], the greatest, the strongest the world had ever seen, divided ultimately into two parts, an Eastern Roman Empire, a Byzantium Roman Empire, and a Western Roman Empire, a Roman Empire. And in those days, in those days when the Roman Empire ruled the civilized world, they brought an enforced peace, and they made common laws, and they built roads so that one part of the empire was at home with every other part; all of that, just in order, by the mandate and the decrees of God, that the Savior of the world might be born and His name might be known throughout all the civilized families and peoples of this earth.
Then, then, said the prophet, shall the kingdoms break up, after His birth, after His coming shall the kingdoms break up into many parts, like toes, ten toes broken up into part clay and part iron [Daniel 2:33, 41-43]. And in the fifth century, in the 400s, there came down out of the North and out of the East Teutonic hordes known as the Vandals. They were like cattle; they carried with them their wives, and their families, and their children to war. And they descended upon the Roman Empire, and destroyed Gaul, and they destroyed Spain, and they destroyed Africa, and they destroyed Italy itself. They were one of the most merciless and ruthless and cruel predators the world had ever seen. They destroyed the classics, they destroyed the great libraries, they destroyed the literature, they murdered the scholars and the teachers, they brought civilization to its most cultural low that the world had ever known, the Vandals who destroyed the Roman Empire in the 400s. But out of the destruction of the Roman Empire by those Vandals, the breaking up according to the prophecy of Daniel into those part iron, part clay pieces [Daniel 2:41-43]—and you’ll never have another world empire according to the prophecy of the Word of God [Daniel 2:44-45]—in the breaking up and the destruction of that Roman Empire in the 400s, two glorious things were given birth.
One: the Vandal had an uncanny and an inexplicable awe and reverence for the Holy Scriptures. And when the Vandals destroyed the libraries, and they destroyed the classics, and they destroyed the literature, and they destroyed the culture—so much so that within a few years the great, proud Latin language was forever a dead spoken language; they even destroyed the language in which the civilized world had been taught to obey the emperor of Rome—in all of that waste and destruction, the Vandal had a reverence for the Holy Word of God. And it became the primer of the new civilization, the civilization you know as Western; our civilization today. They destroyed the Hellenic basis and the Roman basis, but they gave the Western civilization the awe and the reverence for the Word of God, and Western civilization was built upon the Bible.
The second thing out of the ruthless, merciless destruction of the Roman Empire by the Vandals: out of it came the sublime and exalted works of the greatest theologian since the days of the apostles. His name is Augustine. He died while the Vandals were besieging his city in North Africa, the city of Hippo. But in those days of the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the destruction of civilization and of culture, Augustine wrote the glorious City of God, the basis and the thought of which is this: that those civilizations crumble, and our possessions are taken away, and our very lives are destroyed, and the kingdoms of the earth crumble into the dust. The kingdom of our Lord Christ, the city of God, shall endure and abide forever and ever [Daniel 2:44-45].
One of the most moving poems I’ve read in recent days is entitled “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, 1942]
God’s sovereign hand in human history: don’t you be afraid—He still reigns [Isaiah 46:9].
Now in the moment that remains, may I speak briefly of God’s sovereign hand in human life, in human life? When Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt [Genesis 37:26-28] and finally his brethren appeared begging for bread, and when Joseph disclosed himself to his brethren [Genesis 45:1, 4], he said a sentence we ought never to forget: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” [Genesis 50:20]. To us it seems so dark; but to God it’s a part of the weaving pattern of light. You know, being students of the Word of God, you know that practically all of Paul’s ministry was spent in jail. God’s great apostle and preacher, like caging an eagle, but most of his life of ministry was spent in prison [Ephesians 6:20]; but out of it, first, four times a day the Praetorian Guard was changed. Four times a day another soldier from the elite army, the personal army of the emperor of Rome, four times a day that guard was changed to whom Paul was chained, to whom Paul was chained [Philippians 1:12-14]. Can you imagine being chained to the apostle Paul? It wasn’t long until the gospel of the Son of God was in the very heart of Caesar’s household [Philippians 4:22]. And you will read in the story of the Christian gospel message that it was the soldiers who carried the glorious gospel of the Son of God over the Roman Empire; chained to the apostle Paul. And second: out of the enforced quiet and meditation of those imprisonments, Paul wrote the thirteen epistles that comprise the majority of our New Testament. God meant it for good.
Out of the imprisonment of John Bunyan, the most incomparable allegory the world has ever seen, Pilgrim’s Progress to Heaven. Out of the terrible and bitter exile, banishment of Roger Williams in 1635, the first state the world ever knew announcing full and complete religious liberty: God meant it for good. Because Pastor Clement Moore had no money with which to buy presents for his little girls, he wrote them a poem: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Because a Tyrolean village had an unbelievable snowstorm that crushed the church and ruined the organ, the pastor and the organist wrote a song that the choir could sing without musical accompaniment. We know it as “Silent Night.” And because, and because a mother had no place to lay her Child, and no money with which to buy clothes for the newborn Infant, she laid Him in a manger, and wrapped Him with rags [Luke 2:7], that we might have a High Priest who could be touched with the feeling of our necessities and infirmities [Hebrews 4:14-16]—because anybody could feel free to come and to kneel at a manger [Luke 2:15-16]. God meant it for good. These are the decrees and the mandates of God. Sometimes to us, and especially when we live through them, difficult to understand; but in heaven’s glorious refrain, in God’s immortal symphony, each note, each color, each sound, each providence has an infinite and heavenly part.
We must close. While we sing this song of appeal, somebody you, give himself to Jesus; somebody you, put your life in the fellowship of the church; while we sing our song of appeal, make it this morning: “Here I come, pastor, and here I am. I give my heart in trust to the Lord.” Or “I put my life in the fellowship of this dear church.” Make it now—what a beautiful day in which to come—while we stand and while we sing.