I found a very interesting article today by Michael F. Bird called Counter Imperial Gospel: Only One King. It makes the point that during the early Roman Empire, the claims of "Jesus Is Lord" ran right up against the claim that "Caesar Is Lord" and it was very controversial and subversive. It is a short post:
As I read more of Greco-Romans sources, I’m increasingly convinced that the gospel would have been perceived as counter-imperial. Paul’s colleagues in Thessalonica were mobbed because: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This story reminds of an an episode from Caligula’s life described by Suetonius (Caligula 22):
“Upon hearing some kings, who came to the city to pay him court, conversing together at supper, about their illustrious descent, he exclaimed,
Eis koiranos eto, eis basileus.
Let there be but one prince, one king.
He was strongly inclined to assume the diadem, and change the form of government, from imperial to regal; but being told that he far exceeded the grandeur of kings and princes, he began to arrogate to himself a divine majesty. He ordered all the images of the gods, which were famous either for their beauty, or the veneration paid them, among which was that of Jupiter Olympius, to be brought from Greece, that he might take the heads off, and put on his own.”
Evidently, Caligula did not like the idea of their being other kings in other lands. So one must wonder what his response would have been to the first Roman Christians who believed in King Jesus. Would the birth narratives of the Gospels that establish Jesus’ Davidic and Divine credentials be a potential rival to Roman claims about the origins of their Emperors?
The implications for us today involve the competition between Jesus as Lord and the existence of other king and kingdoms and empires that vie for our allegiance. As Christians in a North American context, we are used to thinking that we live in a Christianized culture, so we don't have to worry too much about idol worship or about a culture that tries to subvert our worship of God. But, we do. We actually live in a world that is set against us following Jesus so it constantly calls for our allegiance to it and to its ways, often violently so. If you really take seriously the call of Jesus on your whole life, you will run into ways in which the kindgoms of this world oppose you and call for your submission to them.
In the ways that we deal with money, sex, and power, we find that Christ gives us an alternative to the world system. In how we treat other people, in whether or not we love our enemies, in how we deal with our possessions, and in where we get our worth from, we find that a Christian who takes seriously the commands of Christ will find himself in contrast with the world and its dominant culture. This even happens in areas that are considered to be heavily influenced by Christianity. We find instead that those areas are often influenced by a cultural religion that in key ways are something very different than biblical Christianity (for example, the South during Segregation days when it comes to race or now when it comes to consumerism and material prosperity). To truly live for Christ will often mean that you have to step away from allegiance to Caesar, and that can be a very difficult thing to do.
We need an alternative community that can live out the implications of the Kingdom and the Lordship of Christ, what Eugene Peterson calls a Colony of Heaven in the Country of Death. Enter the Church.