Two millennia ago, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). The most apparently powerful earthly head-of-state ordered a census because the empire needed more tax revenue to fund its budget. At least in Judea, this required people to register in their ancestral tribal homes.
Unforeseen by everyone at the time, except a young Jewish couple and a few of their confidante relatives, the greatest outcome of this plan to stimulate the Roman economy was that it moved the fetal cosmic Head-of-State from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where according to prophecy he was to be born.
The Story of History
Emperor Augustus unwittingly was serving Christ the Lord and his kingdom.
In fact, the Romans unwittingly served Christ and his church in many ways. They invested heavily in technology and infrastructure throughout the empire. Their administrative, management, and communication systems were in most ways unparalleled at the time. They established Koine Greek as the common trade language in the large region encircling the Mediterranean Sea — including backwater Palestine.
Most profoundly, the Romans adapted and honed crucifixion as a method of execution, which provided the vehicle for Jesus’s substitutionary atoning death for the world.
These examples and any number of others unintentionally served the fulfillment and rapid spread of the Christian gospel as well as the amazing growth of his church in the first few centuries of its existence.
God’s Work Among the Nations
It’s an awesome, unnerving thing to contemplate: Despite all the imperial pomp, human talent, military power, political intrigue, atrocities, books written, philosophy debated, speeches delivered, schools established, and day-to-day living of millions of ordinary people in that great empire, Rome’s most influential and enduring legacy was one it never intended to produce (until perhaps Constantine): global Christianity.
History is the story of Christ the Lord and his kingdom.
Such a statement will be met with angry accusations of arrogance. And yet, history is bearing it out.
- Ancient Egypt was a mighty civilization, yet its enduring legacy is the Exodus of Israel.
- Assyria and Babylon were mighty civilizations, yet their enduring legacies are the deportation of rebellious Israel.
- Media-Persia was a mighty civilization, yet its enduring legacy is the restoration of Israel.
- Mighty Rome witnessed the hinge of history as God brought Israel’s Old Covenant to glorious fulfillment in the Messiah and the New Covenant burst into life and swept across the empire with its gospel arms open wide to the Gentile world.
And so it goes. The great empires of history rise, rage, vainly plot, oppose Christ the Lord, and eventually fall (Psalm 2:1–2). And still, in spite of themselves, they ultimately and unwittingly serve Christ’s rule and purpose.
The United States Exists to Serve Christ’s Church
The United States exists to serve Christ the Lord. As we approach the next presidential election cycle, we will pray with confidence to our God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We will declare truth in the public squares, seek to persuade others to end immoral, unrighteous policies, and we will vote.
And as we do, we will not put our trust in the horses and chariots of earthly powers. As our nation chooses its next head-of-state, we will remind ourselves that the United States is subject to the King of kings (Revelation 19:16) whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7:14). And we will remind ourselves that the main thing happening in the world is not the preservation or advancement of American democracy, but the fact that the King is at this moment gathering into one holy nation (John 11:52, 1 Peter 2:9) people from every tribe and tongue (Revelation 5:9) that he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
If we want to really know what’s going on in the world, we cannot depend on CNN or Fox News. We will keep our eyes on the global church. She is at the center of history.
The cosmic Head-of-State is allowing the U.S. to exist in order to serve, even unwittingly, the advancement of that one true Nation. As with the great civilizations of the past, America’s enduring legacy will be how her freedoms, wealth, ingenuity, and technology facilitated the spread the gospel, especially to the remaining unreached of Christ’s people(s).
And when the United States is gone, the church will still live, endure, and advance.