1 PETER #16: GOD AND GOVERNMENT

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I am free, no matter what kind of government exists in the country I live in. I am a servant of Christ, no matter how free I am politically. I am a follower of Jesus, who endured injustice, and instigated a kingdom that is not of this world. These things have profound impacts on how I relate to the governments of this world.

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1 PETER #16. 1 PETER 2:13-17

I will take this next section piece by piece, but we should keep in mind the whole section from verses 13 through 25, because we need to keep the context clear to understand it properly. Please read all of those verses (13-25) before continuing.

The ESV says “be subject to…” Other translations might say “submit to.” The thing we are told to submit to is “every human institution.” Just to clarify, Peter names the types of things he means: emperors and governors. In other words: “be subject to the government.” Right away, I would expect most Americans to bristle at this idea. I know I do, and I was not even raised in America. I don’t want to “be subject” to anyone. I want to be free. It gets worse when I find that it is the government to which I should submit.

Let’s start out with the qualifiers, exceptions, and objections – there are legitimate ones. Peter himself, on several different occasions, refused to obey governing authorities. If you want to find a couple of those, please read Acts 4:18-21, and Acts 5:27-29. In those cases, Peter and the other apostles were doing what Jesus told them to do: preaching repentance, forgiveness and salvation, in the name of Jesus. The authorities told them not to do it. Peter responded, in Acts 4:19: “”You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight—to obey you or to obey God.”

This gives us a clear understanding of certain situations. If obeying the governing authorities would lead us to disobey God, we calmly choose to obey God. In addition, we accept the consequences of disobeying the government. Peter and the other apostles were in and out of prison, and sometimes beaten or whipped, for their continual civil disobedience in this way. They never said: “You don’t have the right to imprison us!” They never reacted violently. However, they continued to obey God when there was a conflict between following Jesus and submitting to the governing authorities. You might say this principle in short is: “Obey God, and accept the consequences.”

I want to make sure this is clear, however. This civil disobedience came about only from a direct conflict between following Jesus and obeying the authorities. In other words, they didn’t disobey the government simply because they perceived it to be unfair, or unjust, or even criminal. The only cause for disobedience was when obedience to the government meant disobedience toward God. In other words they disobeyed only if the authorities were telling them to stop doing something that they must do as followers of Jesus, or to do something that God says is wrong (that is, sinful). So, if the government tells you your taxes are going up, or that you aren’t allowed to raise chickens in your neighborhood, or that you can’t park wherever you feel like, you have no Biblical case to disobey.

On the other hand, if the government tells you to stop reading your Bible, or to stop participating in church, or stop telling others about Jesus, you can disobey with a clear conscience – although you should also be ready to accept the consequences of your civil disobedience. In the second category, if the government tells you to do something wrong, like murdering someone, or lying, it is appropriate to disobey the government. Again, however, don’t be surprised if you end up in trouble for it. Peter’s point is that following Jesus is worth the trouble. We do need to understand that following Jesus won’t necessarily keep us out of trouble with the government, or our bosses at work.

There’s another caveat to add. The apostles and early Christians apparently saw nothing wrong with doing what they could to avoid conflict, and even to avoid unjust punishment from the government. When a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many Christians fled from there to other areas, and that, in fact, helped the gospel to spread. In plain terms, they ran away before they could be caught and thrown into prison (Acts 8:1-3). The Bible does not condemn them for that, and in fact, seems to see it positively.

Shortly after Paul became a Christian, he began to preach in the city of Damascus. The authorities came after him, and Paul’s friends helped him escape one night by lowering him over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). So, again, this is an example of someone running away from the governing authorities, and he is not condemned for it.

One of the times Peter was imprisoned is recorded in Acts 12:1-19. The apostle James was executed. The authorities were going to kill Peter, also, but, as the church prayed for him, an angel released him from prison. I want to point out that the church did not lead an insurrection that led to Peter’s release. No, they prayed for him, and trusted God with the result. After going to the house-church and telling them he was safe, Peter hid from the authorities. The Bible never suggests that it was wrong of Peter to hide for a while after escaping from prison.

Also, whenever possible, Christians used the mechanisms of the government to get relief from persecution. Several times Paul used his Roman citizenship to force the authorities to treat him better (Acts 16:37) and give him a fair trial (Acts 21:22-29). So it isn’t wrong to dispute with the government through proper legal mechanisms.

It is important to understand these types of exceptions and qualifications. But the fact remains that, in general, we are supposed to be subject to the governing authorities. Paul too, affirmed that this is normal Christian practice (Romans 13:1-7) In teaching this, Peter and Paul were only passing on the teaching of Jesus himself.  When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, he said, in no uncertain terms, that people should pay them. These taxes were manifestly unfair to start with, and were collected by corrupt people who charged extra in order to line their own pockets. But Jesus told his followers to pay them anyway, and focus instead on the kingdom of God:

13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to trap him in his words. 14 When they came, they said to him, “Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? ”
15 But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought a coin. “Whose image and inscription is this? ” he asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

(Mark 12:13-17, CSB)

In a way, Jesus was saying, “The government is irrelevant. The corruption is irrelevant. None of that can stop the kingdom of God. None of that matters as much as your citizenship in heaven.”

So, the whole point behind the Christian attitude toward government is that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of God. We need to live like that, and that means that the actions of any particular government are not as important to us as our callings in God’s Kingdom.

The government when Peter wrote these verses was made up of layers of dictatorships upon dictatorships, and corruption upon corruption. The common people had very little freedom or opportunity. In other words, they put up with a lot of – [insert your own adjective] – stuff from the government, and Peter says, “obey the government anyway.”

If it is any comfort, you don’t have to like it. But the truth is, as much as I like to complain, I am still better off under the American government today than I am under any other government in the world at this time. In fact, I am better off under the American government today than I would have been in any other place in the world, at any other time in history, except possibly the American government of forty to fifty-seven years ago. (If you go back to earlier than 1964, you will find that the U.S. government legally allowed the oppression of minorities and women). So, compared to Peter, and compared to most of the population of the world throughout history, and even today, we don’t have much to complain about.

The point is though, even when we do have legitimate complaints about earthly government, our focus as followers of Jesus should be on our citizenship in heaven. Peter writes: “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom to cover up evil. Live as servants of God.” So we are free, no matter what the government does to us. And yet, even if we live in a wonderfully free society, we are bound to the Lord, and are His servants. Peter gives us the key: “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution…” We don’t submit to the government because it’s a good government. We do it for the sake of the Lord. After all, we are followers of Jesus. We should expect to live life as he did. This is the way Jesus lived with regard to the authorities:

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2:21-23)

It is not that we expect the government to always be good and just. It is rather that we entrust ourselves to God. And even when injustice occurs (as it certainly did, in the crucifixion of Jesus) God will bring goodness, glory and grace out of it, sooner or later.

Peter also uses as an example the instance of a Roman slave who is treated unjustly. He says, to such a person, “There is something bigger here than your experience of injustice. God will deal with the injustice, and it will be sorted out in the end. In the meantime, when you suffer unjustly, it is a credit to you, and there is grace for you in following in the way of Jesus.”

We often want to make our submission conditional upon whether or not the authority we submit to is good. We’re willing  to submit when we can see why it’s a good idea, or if we can see the position of the government is just. But if we think it is wrong, or unfair, we are inclined to think, “I don’t have to obey, because it isn’t just or fair.”

However, if you only submit to those authorities that you judge are good, you are left with a huge problem. Who, aside from Jesus, is truly good? You could find fault with any authority whatsoever, because all human beings are corrupted by sin. Not only that, but we are human beings, so we could not even claim that individuals should have authority over themselves, because we ourselves are also corrupted by sin, and if we are “in charge of ourselves,” so to speak, that means that we are under a corrupt authority. No, there is no legitimacy in obeying only when we think it’s fair. Again, we submit not because we approve of the government, but because of the Lord.

I say all this with a great deal of trepidation. It seems to me that the rules are rapidly changing, and the American government and institutions are rapidly pursuing a course that will result in a great deal more legal injustice, even though they claim it is in the name of justice. I think it is a very real possibility that before long I will be confronted with whether or not I can follow my own teaching in this matter. Of course, I hope it isn’t my teaching, but that of the Bible. My point is, we live in a generation where this teaching will be severely tested.

Probably within eighteen months of when Peter wrote this, Emperor Nero began a horrific persecution of Christians in Rome, the city where Peter wrote this letter. During the worst part of it, Nero had Christians tied to stakes, and then burned alive, in order to light up the palace gardens at night. This was the emperor at the time when Peter wrote: “obey the governing authorities.”

Legend has it that Peter decided to flee Rome, along with thousands of other Christians. While he was on the way, he was met by a vision of Jesus. Jesus said, “Where are you going, Peter?” Peter took that as Jesus telling him to remain in Rome, and accept the consequences. Whether or not Peter had that vision, he certainly did stay in Rome, and he was killed by the Emperor that he told his readers to obey. He absolutely put his own words into practice.

So, too, we must be prepared to accept the consequences which come, which might involve the loss of a job, or even a career. In some instances, it might involve being fined, taxed unfairly, and possibly even imprisoned. Our own property might be taken from us. We Christians have a history  of peaceful resistance that spans millennia, and even today, Christians in various parts of the world are imprisoned, lose their own rightful property, and sometimes are killed, as they follow Jesus, and refuse to return violence for violence.

Again, there are clearly instances where we will have to disobey governing authorities. And again, I say that according to the Bible, this must be a peaceful disobedience, one that accepts the consequences without returning violence for violence

I have occasionally heard American Christians say things like: “If they come to take my guns, they can have them by the end that shoots the bullets.” Or, “They better bring an army when they come for my house.” Believe me, I understand the sentiments. I truly do. I feel those same feelings. It feels like there could be a time when our very freedom is at stake. But Jesus has made us different than that, better than that. Because we belong to Jesus, we are free, no matter what kind of government we live under. We can allow our property to be confiscated because we have “property” in the New Creation that can never be taken from us. Everything we have in this life is only borrowed, anyway.

Certainly, if such a thing happens to me, I will fight it by every legal and peaceful means I can employ. But in the end, the way to achieve freedom is to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. If we taught more and more people in our country to follow Jesus, political freedom would  not be an issue. Even secular writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the freedom experienced by Americans was directly connected to the fact that so many Americans were Christians at that time. If you want to “fight for freedom,” live like a follower of Jesus, and encourage others to do the same. If enough people follow Jesus, government won’t be an issue. However, according to Jesus, government isn’t an issue in any case.

In the meantime the point is, I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom before and after I am a citizen of any country on earth. Obeying the government whenever I can, and peacefully disobeying when there is a conflict with following God, becomes a way to follow in the path of Jesus, and to proclaim to the world that we have found something far better than anything this world has to offer.

Jesus Supports Big Government!

caesar denarius

Please do not comment on the title. Read the whole blog first!

Christianity is not a political revolutionary movement, or a political movement of any sort. We do not achieve our goals through government, and we are not stopped from achieving them by government. We should pray for, and be at peace with, governing authorities, as much as we can be without disobeying Jesus. But generally, government just doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: human beings are made in the image of God. We owe our ultimate allegiance to Him. 

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Matthew #78. Matthew 22:15-22

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In verses 22:15-45, Matthew records three incidents in which the religious leaders tried to embarrass Jesus with a trick question, and one instance where Jesus, in a way, gets them back with his own question.

The first question comes from the representatives of the Pharisees, accompanied by the Herodians. A little cultural/historical background is helpful here. The Herodians were those people who openly supported the ruler-ship of the family of King Herod the Great. I think it is no mistake that the Pharisees sent their representatives with the Herodians, rather than coming themselves. Herod’s family, and the Herodians who supported them, were generally hated. Imagine your country has been invaded and conquered by a foreign power. The conquerors have installed a new government that will do what they want, and they will try to control you through this new government. The people who support the new government are the Herodians.

The reason the Pharisees are doing anything with them at all is to try and trap Jesus with a trick question. If he endorses taxation, it will be unpopular with the people, and it may even be seen as an endorsement of the oppression of the Romans and Herodians. But if he openly says there should be no taxation, the Herodians will be right there to witness it, and it could very likely lead to his imprisonment by either them, or the Romans. Remember, this was not a free society, where anyone had the right to say what he pleased. If the Romans or Herodians didn’t like what Jesus was saying, they would have no reservations about putting him in prison, and there were no laws stopping them from doing so.

It seems like the perfect trap. Either he gets put in prison, or he publicly supports a hugely unpopular government, and loses a large number of his own followers.

In those days there were a number of different sorts of coins (there was no paper money). Some of the coins were used only in local regions or provinces; these were stamped with the image of the governor or ruler of the province. There were other coins that were used throughout the Roman empire. These coins were stamped with the image of the Emperor. Obviously, when paying taxes to the Roman Empire, one used the Roman coins which were stamped with the Emperor’s image.

Jesus points this out, and then says his famous line, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But it is his second line that contains the real zinger. Most of the Jews who were listening probably knew the Old Testament pretty well; certainly the representatives of the Pharisees did. Genesis 1:27 says this:

27So God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

It is a foundational fact of both Jewish and Christian theology that human beings are created “in the image of God.” Therefore, when Jesus adds: “and give to God what is God’s,” everyone listening would have understood that Jesus was referring to Genesis 1:27, and the fact that human beings bear God’s image. So coins have the Emperor’s image; Jesus says, “Fine, give them to the Emperor.” But people bear God’s image, therefore, human beings belong not to the government, but to God. We may owe taxes to Caesar, but we owe our very lives to God.

As I write these words, I am thoroughly disgusted with the political and governmental climate in the country where I live – and yet, it is probably better here than most other places in the world. I think, in this day and age, it is important to remember how Jesus viewed government. I believe I can sum up Jesus’ attitude toward human government in one word: irrelevant.

The government at the time of Jesus was incredibly corrupt and oppressive. There was no free speech. Freedom of religion was limited. Taxation was crushing. Laws were arbitrary and brutally enforced. The rich and powerful were firmly in control, and they arranged things for their own benefit, and were, to a large extent, above the law. In the midst of this situation, enters the Son of God, with the power of God, on the mission of God, and he did not do anything to change the government. In fact, he rejected the times when people attempted to get him involved in government:

14When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This really is the Prophet who was to come into the world! ” 15Therefore, when Jesus knew that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain by Himself. (John 6:14-15, HCSB)

Jesus had opportunities to make political changes. He deliberately rejected these opportunities. Time and time again Jesus spoke about a government, a “kingdom,” but it was not an earthly kingdom. He was concerned with the kingdom of Heaven. He never suggested that earthly government should be used to create or support, or accomplish the purposes of His kingdom. When questioned by governmental authorities about his political position, this is what Jesus said:

36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV2011)

When questioned about taxes, as here in this passage today, Jesus says, basically: “Pay your taxes. But give your life to God.”

I think Christians, particularly in the Western world, would do well to pay close attention to this. Christian Conservatives need to hear this: The government in Jesus’ time was large, inefficient and imposed unjust taxation. It limited freedom of speech and religion. Yet, Jesus did not try to reform the government. His goal was not (is not!) to create a wonderful, free, political system. He came for human beings, made in the image of God.

Christian liberals also need to hear something. During the time of Jesus, the people in power were the rich fat-cats who controlled everything for their own benefit. The government did nothing for the poor. The government was fundamentally unfair, and it allowed rampant unfairness to flourish. Yet, Jesus did not try to reform the government. His words about loving and caring for others were not spoken to representatives of government, but rather, to his followers. He never advocated for government as a solution for poverty, or in fact, anything.

Not only did Jesus not advocate the government as a solution for anything, but also he did not speak out against it as a problem. He treats government almost like the weather: it is what it is. Jesus spoke truth to power. But in his teachings, government is more or less irrelevant as a means to helping human beings.

Unless you are reading this from someplace where you could go to prison for speaking the thoughts I am expressing here, you are in a better political system than Jesus. But in that situation, Jesus didn’t try to make things politically fair. His concern is much bigger than politics.

I want us to remember that the church that Jesus established has always survived, and even thrived, in places where the government was powerful and unjust. For the first three hundred years after Jesus, it was illegal to be Christian in the Roman Empire, and often, Christians were brutally persecuted. After Islam took over most of the Middle East in the seventh century, the government was generally oppressive toward followers of Jesus. Christians have not enjoyed much freedom in communist countries. There has never been a time when Christians enjoyed political freedom all over the entire world. There is always someplace where culture, or government, or both, is unfavorable to Jesus followers, and to our ministry of hope in Jesus Christ. And that government opposition has always been completely ineffective in silencing the message of the gospel.

The Bible teaches that we should be good citizens, as far as it is possible without disobeying God.

13Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority 14or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. 16As God’s slaves, live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor. (1Pet 2:13-17, HCSB)

Scripture also tells us to pray for those who have political power:

1First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1Tim 2:1-4, HCSB)

 

It also teaches us to speak truth to those in power, and stand up against the government when it tries to make us disobey God, or silence the message of Jesus Christ.

27“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, 28to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place. 29And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness. (Acts 4:27-29, HCSB)

 26Then the commander went with the temple police and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. 27After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28“Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us! ” 29But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:26-29, HCSB)

I don’t believe it is a bad thing to be politically active, if you feel the Lord calling you to it. These days, in many places in the world, we have wonderful governmental systems that allow ordinary citizens to work for change. It is entirely appropriate, at times, to make use of those opportunities. It is good and right to speak truth to those in power. But as we do that, we need to remember several things.

  1. Our hope is not in government, nor in political change.
  2. Neither government nor politics can stop the ongoing work of Jesus in this world.
  3. Our mission as Jesus followers is not to create a better government, but to make disciples of all peoples. Jesus did not suggest government as a means for doing this.

Christianity is not a political revolutionary movement, or a political movement of any sort. We do not achieve our goals through government, and we are not stopped from achieving them by government. We should pray for, and be at peace with, governing authorities, as much as we can do so without disobeying Jesus. But generally, government just doesn’t matter.

What does matter is this: human beings are made in the image of God. We owe our ultimate allegiance to Him. As I write this, we are in an election year in the United States. A lot of American Christians are pretty upset about what has happened both this year, and in recent years, with politics.

Let me suggest a few questions to help us gain the perspective of Jesus about government.

Maybe you are upset that the system seems to reward big corporations, and make the rich richer. But are you as concerned about selfishness and greed in your own life as you are about those things in politics?

Perhaps you feel that the political elites in this country seem to be able to do as they please. But are you as interested in holding yourself accountable as you are in holding them accountable?

Are you upset about taxation, and having your money go to things that you don’t support, like abortion? What about this: where else does your money go right now? Are you using it to support missions? Are you using it to help impoverished families around the world? Are you using it to support the teaching and preaching of the gospel?

Some folks are concerned about the possibility that freedom of speech and religion is diminishing in the Western world. But let me ask this: are you even using it? Are you sharing your faith with your co-workers and friends and neighbors? Are you offering to pray for them? If you aren’t doing it now, why does it matter if someone makes a law against it?

You see, the things we get upset about in government are sometimes the things that Jesus wants to address in our lives.

We belong to God, not the government. I’ve shared some of the correction that Jesus’ words here bring to us. But his words also bring hope. We belong to God. Human beings do not have any ultimate power over us. We can be at peace, regardless of what happens politically. As Jesus said, earlier in Matthew:

28Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. 31So don’t be afraid therefore; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:28-31, HCSB)

No matter what happens, we are in His hands, and he cares for us more than any government ever could.