Our theme of “Christ and Caesar” is a challenging one. It implies two masters each expecting loyalty and undivided service, yet what they stand for is so diametrically opposed that no man can serve both masters. The danger is that in trying to give service to both masters, conflict of conscience inevitably arises and a clear choice of allegiance is made to one and not to the other. In a fast paced modern world Caesar’s kingdom reigns over all things temporal and materialistic with undeniable power and authority. Christ’s values, precepts and commandments are viewed as irrelevant and restrictive of a full expression of our ambitions to better ourselves, giving only a tacit allegiance to Christ. The pressure to conform to this world’s standards and expectations is nothing new and certainly not unique to this generation. In all generations there has been the threat to abandon a God-centred life and to be drawn as if by magnetic force to a conformity to ‘Caesar’s’ world. In this article we look at the threat posed by the Canaanitish lifestyle to those who would be strangers and sojourners like their father Abraham.

When Abraham left Ur with all its city comforts and steeped in idolatry, he went out on a journey of faith. His family who had once been city dwellers were called upon to lead the life of nomads. In Abraham’s case this stretched out over one hundred years and in all that time he had no permanent abiding place. They all, Hebrews says, dwelt in tents to mark their disassociation with the lifestyle of the Canaanites (ch 11:9).

Abraham, the sojourner

Great promises were made of an eternal inheritance but coupled with them were assurances of God’s protective care and deliverance. The Apostle Peter refers to such promises as, “exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet 1:4). The apostle is telling us that the promises made to faithful men and women are designed to lift our gaze to contemplate the wonder of being partakers of divine nature, whilst at the same time to ward off the corruption of worldly lusts so easily gained when rubbing shoulders with unbelievers. We all know the need for constant vigilance since worldly lusts can so easily captivate our hearts.

Promises imply a future not a present possession and this is surely the case with Abraham (Acts 7:5). Again, it is the Apostle Peter who writes to the “strangers scattered” abroad who are the “elect”, chosen to inherit an incorruptible inheritance (1 Pet 1:1–5). Here Peter uses the word parepidemos for “strangers”, signifying sojourners in a strange place or as temporary residents alongside others, an exile with a lack of affiliation and a desire for a homecoming. Whilst their faith was tested during all that sojourn, their lives are a testimony to us that they were “kept by the power of God through faith” (v5). This is another interesting word. It is phroureo, signifying to mount guard as a sentinel. The God who had called them had mounted a guard over their lives and that of their families. They were safe, though in a worldly sense exposed to the machinations of evil men. Abraham and Sarah might have been exposed but they never lacked angelic protection. They were as stateless citizens, dwelling in a foreign land, without the rights of citizenship as would apply to “freeborn” people.

This trust in God is seen in many exchanges between Abraham and his family and the surrounding nations. The case of the king of Sodom is illuminating. Hard on the heels of the grand promise of inheriting the land forever (Gen 13) came the horror of Abram’s nephew being swept up in an international conflict. Lot was a hapless victim, a casualty of war (Gen 14:12). Abram rallied his instructed servants, covenanted with him, and with great faith and courage went out to rescue Lot and recover all the goods and people caught up in the conflict. It is Melchizedek who attributes the success to the “most high God, possessor of heaven and earth”, Who had “delivered (their) enemies into (their) hand” (v19,20). As a bystander to this interlude, the king of Sodom thought he would make a magnanimous offer, “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself” (v21). Abram saw the peril of any form of commitment lest he be in anyway indebted to this man, the ruler of one of the most infamous cities on earth. Abram firstly ascribed deliverance to his God, rejected even the most trivial of items belonging to this man and rightly apportioned some of the goods to his servants. Flushed with the success of this campaign, any lesser man might have been tempted to accept this generous offer and show a conciliatory spirit, but not Abram. It was a right royal snub! And lest Abram feel any regret for his treatment of this king, immediately he is assured, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Gen 15:1). He was right to have no affiliation with such a man for there was no common ground, no agreement between their values (cp 2 Cor 6:14–15). Abram was servant of the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth; by contrast the king of Sodom’s power and riches were as tawdry trinkets, as debased as the men of his city.

There is a postscript to this incident. Abraham was taught a salutary lesson when after he had prayed for Lot’s deliverance from the destruction of Sodom, the angel of Yahweh rained down fire and brimstone upon that wicked city and all its inhabitants. There had not been ten righteous persons in that city to spare it from a catastrophic overthrow. Yahweh, the judge of all the earth, had done right. The gross sin of Sodom was very grievous and Abraham was better off away from it up in the hill country. Though Lot was a “just” man, vexing “his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds”, his attempts at adjudicating in Sodom’s courts had been to no avail and in fact his association with such an evil society had fatal consequences for his wife and family (2 Pet 2:7–9). He might have intended to be independent and a voice for justice but it was nullified by the all-pervading vice and corruption. Sodom was a fleshpot of iniquity; a cauldron of sensuality in its most vile forms. He should have fled from its fleshly idolatry. In the end Yahweh forced a way of escape for him (1 Cor 10:13,14). Christ leaves us with a grim message, “Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32). In the light of Christ’s return that message is more relevant to us than to any other generation!

Amongst the Philistines

Abraham’s sojourn took him amongst the Philistines (Gen 20). Sarah was at terrible risk of violation when held by the king of Gerar and the outcome is not to Abraham’s credit but rather to Yahweh’s deliverance of His own. Abraham’s version of events to Abimelech was, “I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake!” A desperate solution to a desperate situation! Imagine the prayers ascending from the hearts of these two since Abraham’s concern for his own safety had jeopardised the safety of his beloved wife. To her credit Sarah shows an amazing “trust in God” and a “subjection to her husband”, overcoming the ‘terror’ of her confinement (1 Pet 3:5,6). Abraham and Sarah were united without recriminations between them. Perhaps as a direct consequence Abraham was extremely wary of any further associations with the Philistines. His muted response to the overtures of Abimelech and Phicol is quite telling (Gen 21:24). When they made a covenant at Beer-sheba it was to secure for his flocks the water supply, which had previously been forcibly taken by Abimelech’s servants. Ironically it is Isaac who is forced to protest a generation later to the same people over the seizure of the wells dug by his father (Gen 26:15–23). Rather than demand what was rightfully his, he ‘agrees with his adversary quickly’ and moves on, only to have to move on again. Finally he is left alone and God blesses this ‘stranger and sojourner’ who would not press his rights of possession. And again, in an echo of Genesis 15:1, Yahweh responds with the assuring words, “I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Gen 26:24). Here are men and women of maturing faith and reliance upon their God, Who responded to their needs and at times delivered them from much evil. Occasionally and at times of necessity they procured provisions for their flocks but generally they adopted a stand apart yet respectful attitude to their Gentile neighbours. On more than one occasion Yahweh was acknowledged by these Gentiles as being with the patriarchs and at times they were reproved and told, “Touch not mine anointed” (Gen 21:22; 23:6; 26:28; Psa 105:14,15). Let us learn the wisdom of non-entanglement with the Gentiles. If necessary we give way rather than demand our rights, suffering ourselves to be defrauded. If ever we are in perilous situations let us never fear, for our God is the same God of Abraham Who was his “shield and (his) exceeding great reward” (Gen 15:1).

Wrestling Jacob

Jacob’s life was a continuing wrestle with the will of God and the best intentions of man’s devising, but it is in the matter of his family’s involvement with Shechem’s men that we see the tension of living alongside Gentiles. Jacob had been assured, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest … I will not leave thee” (Gen 28:15). He has mixed fortunes with Laban and confesses at the end of his life before Pharaoh that, “few and evil have the days of the years of my life been” (Gen 47:9). Jacob tried to live the life of a sojourner, having seen the grief of mind that his brother Esau had brought upon Rebekah his mother through his taste for worldly pursuits and faithless wives. Yet this separateness failed to impress Dinah who resolved to see and be seen by the daughters of the land. This was courting disaster since she was taken by Shechem and defiled by him. All would be well, the Hivites said, if by giving Dinah to Shechem they could intermarry, they could trade, get possessions and dwell alongside them. Shechem wouldn’t even ask for a dowry, just “give me the damsel to wife!” The reply was treacherous: “Be circumcised … and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people” (Gen 34:14,16). This from the mouth of sons of Jacob, a stranger and sojourner! The Hivites showed their real intentions. By submitting to this request, they believed that the outcome would be, “Shall not their cattle and their substance and every beast of theirs be ours?” By Dinah’s folly, Jacob’s family was so close to being assimilated into the kingdom of the Hivites. The threat was averted by the deceptive slaughter wreaked by Simeon and Levi. In the heat of their jealous anger they seized all their wealth, cattle and goods and persons. Jacob was beside himself with anxiety: “I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house” (Gen 34:30). If he could but lift his eyes, Jacob would have held on to the assurance given to his fathers that an angel was there guarding them as a sentinel, but calamity lowers the gaze to fear the worst! There is a lesson here nonetheless. Sometimes the angel saves us from our folly. A foolish philandering with the world can so easily unleash a succession of events that could destroy us. The world is too powerful a force to play games with! Later Jacob, in blessing Joseph’s sons, used telling words, “The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads” (Gen 48:16).

Ye have nothing to do with us

The issue of keeping one’s distance from unbelievers, albeit superficially kind and cooperative, is well illustrated in the experiences of Ezra and Nehemiah. The adversaries waged a constant war of attrition upon the builders of the Temple. “Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do” was their first thrust, to which they replied, “Ye have nothing to do with us to build … but we ourselves together will build” (Ezra 4:2,3). Nevertheless they hired counsellors to frustrate their purpose, alleging to Artaxerxes that Jerusalem was a “rebellious and bad city”. But the “eye of their God” was upon them for “Yahweh had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria unto them, to strengthen their hands” (6:22). Whilst “the good hand of his God was upon him [Ezra]” the “holy seed” was corrupted. Ezra with tears declared that the land to which they had returned was polluted from one end to the other with all the Canaanitish abominations and filthiness. Therefore he appealed to them, don’t marry them, don’t seek “their peace or their wealth for ever” (ch 9:12)! The call went out to “separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives” (ch 10:11). The danger was clearly more from within than from without; for alliances formed through marriage with unbelievers would weaken their heritage more than a direct threat from beyond the walls. That is true of every generation. But it’s more than marriages. Professional, business and sporting associations are equally capable of consuming our time and interest away from the Truth and away from our families. Ezra’s senior, straight-forward thinking is what we need today. Work-related special holidays and weekends away from wife and family are full of lurking dangers. Declining is the wisest course and the best example.

Nehemiah had been given a royal commission to build and govern the fledgling city of Jerusalem, arising from the ashes of the Babylonian overthrow. His enthusiasm was contagious, his leadership inspiring. He spared himself no effort in working alongside the labourers, ever vigilant of any sign of attack and suspicious of the true intent of any outsiders who offered help. His adversaries poured scorn on the work, they joined forces to fight, repeatedly they wanted Nehemiah to meet with them outside the walls, they sent an open letter to undermine the morale of the people, they sought private audience with Nehemiah yet, despite all that intrigue and scaremongering, the wall was finished in fifty two days. This “work was wrought of our God” (Neh 6:16). What was the key to the success of Ezra and Nehemiah? They had a clear sense of identity. Like Abraham, first and foremost they were servants of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth and made the invisible more prominent than any threats or favours of man. They recognised that Yahweh was a gracious and merciful God yet, in punishing His wayward people, He was right and just. For such faithful men their plea was that Yahweh might remember them for good. May our God remember us for good for our steadfast loyalty to Him and our encouragement to abhor the evil and cleave to that which is good.