Mahwah, NJ Bible Conference 2021
Human Government and the Believer
January 9, 2021
Study 1: Responsibility to Government
- John 19:11
- Romans 13:1-7
- 1 Timothy 2:1-2
The subject of the Christian's relationship with human government is a challenging one. It's easy to take a position such as "Of course Christians should obey the government" or "Of course Christians should resist the government." But in reality the biblical principles are more complex than either of those extremes. In addition, believers in different places and times may have to apply those principles to their circumstances in ways that others have never even thought about.
These complexities are illustrated in the statement by the Lord Jesus that Pilate, a corrupt, weak politician, nevertheless had received authority from God to use his position.
In this first study we will consider the Christian's responsibility to government. These can be summarized by three principles: Pray, Pay, and Obey. We should be the best citizens of any nation. Leaders need the Lord! Like Daniel, we can be used in the lives of individual government officials to be a testimony to them.
Human government was established by God in Genesis 9. Previously people had been permitted to live by their own consciences, but this led to the depths of violence and corruption which were judged by the Flood in Noah's time. Yet Noah failed in his responsibilities almost immediately; he became drunk, not being able even to govern himself. It is in such a world, with failing governments that yet have authority from God, that Christians find themselves today.
Since the subject of government is complex, we are going to try to focus first on the positive side of submitting to government. We will recognize in the second study that there are qualifications to this position. It is not a blind obedience. Yet submission is always presented as a choice and a privilege for Christians. It is a position that has nothing to do with the quality of leadership (compare 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1). Because the authorities are appointed by God, the Christian reverences God by choosing to submit to them.
We would emphasize that only God has absolute authority. John 19:11 indicates this by saying that God is the one who gives power to others. All other authorities possess a delegated authority. This began with mankind when Adam and Eve were delegated to rule over the earth. Noah received delegated authority in government, and this continued with the kings of Israel (e.g., 1 Kings 10:9) and the rulers of the other nations.
For the Christian, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). If we try to reign now, we are ahead of ourselves. The Corinthians already experienced the fruit of this attitude (1 Corinthians 4:8). By the time of St. Augustine, who wrote The City of God, there was confusion about the heavenly character of the Church.
We remember that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome who were experiencing some persecution from the government already. This became much worse as years went on. They were to submit, though, because it was a question not of Roman authority but of God's authority.
Government is designed to establish civility and order (even though it does not always do so). Authority has a similar purpose in the family, in the workplace, and in local Christian assemblies. Submission, then, is not optional. We don't have to agree before we can submit. Our primary authority is Christ Himself.
As we think of Christ Jesus, we compare John 19:11 and 1 Timothy 6:13, which says He had a "good confession" in the presence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. He acknowledged that Pilate had been installed in his office by God; yet He also made reference to Pilate's sin. His betrayer had committed the "greater sin," but this implies that Pilate had sinned as well. Still, the Lord's words were without insult.
Believers should not have to be condemned for having a rebellious spirit. Rebellion is never godly. We are not to suffer for doing wrong (1 Peter 4:15), and therefore we should reject every voice of defiance. We will reap what we sow. There will be laws which we disagree with that still are not anti-Christ or anti-God.
Among the Lord's disciples, Matthew was a tax collector and Simon (not Simon Peter) was one of the Zealots. Matthew worked for the government; Simon despised the government. Yet they both left behind those partisan allegiances and followed Christ, thereby uniting with one another as well.
This passage gives three reasons to be submissive. First, we reverence God Himself. Second, we maintain a good relationship with authority. Third, the office of authority should receive what is due to it (Romans 13:7). Notice the word "due" is not the word "deserve." We don't pay taxes, for example, only if we think the government deserves them. In Matthew 17:24-27, the question was asked about paying the temple tax. Clearly the religious leaders of the day were corrupt. The Lord even told Peter that it would be right to claim an exemption from the tax. But then He stated this important principle: We are going to pay it anyway so that we don't stumble the authorities. Everything we do should be considered in light of our testimony for the Lord, even in the presence of a corrupt government.
Notice too that even "honor" is due to government officials. This does not mean we cannot address failures in government. Even moral failings of leaders can be addressed. Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar clearly had a very good relationship in Daniel 4. Daniel wished that a dream of coming judgment would not happen to the emperor. He cared about Nebuchadnezzar! But he also was very blunt: "Break off your sins! You are too proud." This was a stern rebuke, yet it was not done to dishonor the king.
Some governments have been extremely unrighteous, such as the Nazi regime of about 80 years ago. We realize there may be times to speak against government. But we must avoid the habit of simply finding a Bible verse to justify our own opinions. This kind of testimony requires dependence on the Lord in every circumstance. We give to Caesar what is his, but we must also give to God what is His (Matthew 22:21).
We have seen Christians lead revolts. Often they believe they want to improve the world by making their own circumstances better. Is it right to demand that we live in comfort as Christians while praying for the poor and persecuted believers in other lands? What selfishness is on display! Nebuchadnezzar (before his conversion) and the subsequent empire of the Medes and Persians were both bad in their own way. We are not going to find comfort just because we change a regime.
We can be confident that God judges governments. He will not allow corrupt leaders or nations to remain unpunished. Many prophets speak about this (for instance, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, and Nahum).
No matter what we think about Christians actually serving in government roles (remember that one brother, Erastus, was called the "chamberlain of the city," Romans 16:23), it should not be our goal to create a Christian government or Christian nation. If our brand of Christianity cannot flourish in a climate of socialism, communism, fascism, capitalism-- if we cannot imagine being a Christian with a Democrat or a Republican in the White House-- then we probably do not have the right idea about the Christian faith.
In addition, notice the context of Romans 13. Just before this passage we read many exhortations in Romans 12 about doing good; and right after this passage we are told that the main thing is to love one another, including our neighbors. This is the work of the Christian! Let us not turn over our privileges of Christian testimony to the government. Doing good, caring for the poor, displaying acts of charity should be active in the Christian community. The government cannot love; that is not what it is for. But we can and should display the love of Christ. This is what will change people around us, no matter the political climate.
We obey and do good not just to stay out of trouble but in order that others will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). We might even have an outward display of obedience but have a complete lack of submission in our attitudes. Do we have complaining, rebellious attitudes? Our attitudes are truly the first testimony others will notice.
We should add the subject of praying for the authorities, as 1 Timothy 2:1-2 instructs. When we know the Lordship of Christ ourselves, we will intercede for those over us. This is to be our attitude regardless of the character of the officials. It's an attitude that leads to godliness.
Study 2: Responsibility to God
- Acts 4:17-20, 5:27-29, 40-42
In Acts 4 and 5 we read about Peter and John as they speak with the Sanhedrin, the council of religious leadership. The leaders intended to forbid them from preaching the gospel. What is a Christian's responsibility to God in such a circumstance?
If governments mandate disobedience to God or, on the other hand, prohibit obedience to God, believers would choose God over government. Examples include demanding actual evil, such as murder of babies (Exodus 1); or displacing God's honor with worship of other gods or of man (Daniel 3, 6). Believers under the Nazi regime had similar decisions; and so do we.
We must be able to identify whether a situation represents governmental evil or is simply something that is inconvenient or unpleasant for us. At the same time, let's not use government actions as reasons for ignoring God's principles. For example, there may be realistic precautions and other considerations that affect our meeting together during a health pandemic; but we should not use these things as excuses.
We have considered delegated authority, but there is also "robbed authority." Satan claimed to possess authority over all the kingdoms of the world, but he had robbed that authority from mankind. Ultimately God's Man will claim His rightful authority over those kingdoms.
We also notice that there are unseen powers at work to influence and corrupt the governments of the world. A spirit of lying was permitted to influence the prophets of Israel (1 Kings 22); and demonic powers appear to have influence even over kingdoms, such as the "prince of the kingdom of Persia" who resisted God's angelic messenger (Daniel 10:13). This is important to keep in mind.
The authorities asked Peter and John about the power they claimed (Acts 4:2). They knew the answer! If we are not clear that we are acting because of the power of the name of Jesus, we are on the wrong footing. They had a positive, God-centered answer to support their actions, not simply a complaint against corrupt leaders.
This power was expressed because of the activity of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8). His empowerment will always move us in the correct direction. We recall that the Lord Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them words to say when they stood before government officials (Mark 13:11). In addition, any disobedience must not be done with disrespect. In Acts 23, Paul apologized when he was informed that he had disrespected the high priest.
This type of opposition to wrongfully applied authority will have a cost. Peter and John were beaten. Yet before they were released, they presented the principles for the council's own consideration: "What would be more correct: following you or following God?"
After their release, their prayer shows that they recognized the supreme authority God has. Christ said all authority in heaven and earth is His (Matthew 28:18). The disciples knew that the council's actions contradicted His authority-- yet the way in which they expressed this was significant. Like the Lord, they "threatened not" (1 Peter 2:23). Like the Lord, they posed a question to make their point (compare John 18:33-34).
We might ask how we can tell if national laws overstep their authority. The test is in Acts 4:19, when the disciples asked if it would be "righteous" to ignore God's principles. This is the key: Will our actions be righteous? They said, "We have to speak about Jesus Christ because God has commanded us to do so." That is another test: What has God commanded?
Notice in Acts 4:29 that the believers asked God to look at the threats and-- what? change the current power structure? help them get one of their own members elected to the council? No, they prayed for boldness in the face of those ongoing threats. Some Christians today would rather see a change in government before they are willing to exercise boldness in the face of challenges to our faith.
Even the act of praying is often forgotten. How good to see that these disciples knew the importance of prayer as a resource!
The point about God's commands is also important to emphasize. These believers were not just complaining about their preferences. There are already places in the world where it is illegal for Christians to meet. What if we were told that? Must we demand our right to fellowship with, say, 150 other Christians in a public setting? Or would we be willing to meet with 10 others in a house or a forest or a cave? We sometimes think we must have everything the way it has always been. Such demands are based not on righteousness but on preference.
Further, notice that in challenging times the unity of the believers was enhanced. It was in this context that they cared for one another, provided for one another, and fellowshipped together (Acts 4:32-37). The devil does not care how he interrupts our sense of unity. Often we find believers arguing with each other about how to address challenging times. We must intentionally embrace our God-given unity instead.
It's essential to have the right worldview concerning Christ. Our unity will grow out of that. These believers knew that He was a rejected Stone (Acts 4:11) but also an exalted Prince and Savior (5:31). If we want to honor Christ, there will always be someone next to us. Peter might be the one to speak, but Peter and John were there together.
Can a Christian ever appeal to the laws of the land regarding our treatment? On one hand, we do not demand our rights in this world. We have the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). Yet there are examples when it is appropriate to expect the government to act justly. Paul and Silas refused to leave the custody of the Philippian jailer until their righteous testimony was vindicated by the authorities (Acts 16:37). When there was a threat against Paul's life, he exercised the right to be protected from harm (Acts 23). This is not a lack of faith. It's the expectation that government will do what it is supposed to do-- namely, support what is good and suppress what is evil (Romans 13:3-4).
Sometimes we claim to have genuine concerns but are not really being honest. Jacob pretended to be concerned about the young ones in his family and his flocks. His brother Esau could not say anything about that. It might be a real need. Yet Jacob's behavior afterwards showed it was only a faked reason. In his heart he never really cared about the young ones but only about himself (Genesis 33:12-17). Similarly, when the building of the temple stopped in the days of Haggai, the people made excuses about waiting for the right time to build (Haggai 1:2).
If our behavior is merely tradition, we will easily give it up. A true burden and desire in our hearts is what is needed.
Study 3: Gods Righteous Government
This third session presents God's perfect, righteous government to come. This period has been called the Millennium, the world to come, established at Christ's appearing in glory. If we love His appearing (2 Timothy 4:8), we will love and revere Him right now. God has always looked for a man to rule over the world-- and He has found Him! It is Christ, His well-beloved Son. The government of the world will rest upon His shoulder-- not "shoulders," plural, but "shoulder," singular. His strength is great.
In context, this section of the prophet Isaiah emphasizes the great threat from the Assyrians. This was a present danger to the people of God. We read, for example, about the siege against Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-37). This is a literal danger in Isaiah 10; and there is also a prophetic aspect when the Assyrian will be a future threat to Israel during time known as the Great Tribulation.
But that threatening government will be lopped off and chopped down (Isaiah 10:33-34), and then God will say, "I have a Branch. My Ruler will be installed in His rightful place" (11:1). In some translations, chapter 11 begins with the word "And," showing that it is intended as a direct contrast to the closing of chapter 10. Later, chapter 11 is followed by a beautiful song of praise in chapter 12.
There is no one like Christ, the great Ruler in righteousness. He displays perfect wisdom, might, and counsel. Even if these characteristics are totally lacking in government today, He will bring them in.
Isaiah presents "the Son" as the answer to the unrighteousness around us. In chapter 6, King Uzziah had died. He was the king who defiled the temple by imposing his presence among the priesthood. Isaiah goes into the presence of the Lord and sees Jehovah's glory; and then, in chapter 7, God's answer was the Son who would be conceived and brought forth by a virgin (verse 14).
He is even linked with Jesse instead of David (Isaiah 11:1, 10) as if even David must be set aside in comparison to Christ. The Spirit is upon Him-- the "Spirit," singular, who has all these wonderful characteristics.
Isaiah 11:2 presents "the Spirit of the Lord" and then six more features. This verse can be linked with Revelation 5:6 (and three other references in Revelation) where "the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth" are mentioned. Of course there is only one Holy Spirit. Indeed, there is only one God; yet He is known in a three-ness or Trinity of His being. The Holy Spirit is seen here like that. It takes all these features to express how He is present during the reign of Christ.
It's beautiful to see that even on the throne Christ will still be that dependent One as He administers the kingdom for God. Although He has received the right to judge, He only judges according to the will of His Father (John 5:22, 30).
The Spirit rested upon Him in His time of humility and will continue to rest upon Him in His reign of power. Also, He obtains victory by the breath of His lips (Isaiah 11:4). This is a reference to the Word of God (see Revelation 19:21). We too have these resources: the Spirit of God and the Word of God.
Notice that Christ will not judge merely by what He sees or what He hears (11:3). How many times have we concluded something based upon what we saw on the Internet or heard through social media or some other means? People say, "I know what I saw; I know what I heard." Well, perhaps; but you don't know what you did not see, and you don't know what else you should have heard. By contrast, Christ will judge in righteousness (verse 4).
If we desire to exercise the same type of righteous judgment, we must interpret the present in light of the future. If we study the Lord, we will discern the difference between truth and falsehood.
He will not rule in extremes but in equity. There will be justice for the poor, who are frequently mistreated because of their powerlessness. The wicked will be removed. There will even be a singular wicked one, the "man of sin" who embodies the antichrist spirit, and he too will be removed (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 8-9).
He displaces all governments. We must not try to do that on His behalf. Bad theology about future events and improper beliefs about our role in this world will prevent us from acting correctly. If the Church worships at the seat of power or idolizes the role of government, we will prostitute our heavenly calling by trying to achieve an earthly goal which is Christ's right to establish.
We should absolutely care about righteousness and justice in our personal lives and in the quality of circumstances around us. We are still the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But the conditions of peace will only exist when Christ is installed on His throne. Even the animal kingdom will enjoy that peace! How much more will mankind appreciate that time. Romans 8 describes the groaning of creation as it waits for that day.
It's wonderful to see how God will remove all violence from the earth. Even the predatory instincts of animals will be changed. If you want to have a lion as a pet, you could! At the end of the book of Jonah, God mentions not only the people of Nineveh but also the cattle of the city. He loves all that He has made.
- Isaiah 9:6, 11:1-12, 32:1
Imagine what it will be like for those living in that millennial kingdom when they read about all the wars and death of the book of Revelation. They will be shocked! It will be unbelievable to them because they will only know conditions of peace.
This is what occurs when righteousness reigns. In the very place where Christ was rejected, He will be glorified. He will preserve the meek (Isaiah 11:4), an important characteristic of His people and even of Himself. A child will lead the creatures (verse 6), and all the earth will have the knowledge of the Lord.
What is the impact for us now? May Christ be exalted in our hearts already! As we consider that sure word of prophecy, He will rise like the Day Star in our hearts right now (2 Peter 1:19). When He reigns in our lives, we too will have rest and peace in our hearts.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
Zebulon and Naphtali and the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel were suffering in great darkness (9:1). Yet a great light would rise upon them (verse 2)! What is that light? "Unto us a Child is born." For God's people, it is Christmas every day. The Child has been born, and God's light has come.
Moreover, "a Son is given." He is the Eternal Son. And His government will be distinct from everything we know now. Righteousness normally cannot exist with peace because righteousness demands that I must be dealt with. But Christ will reign in peace! God has done a work through the death and resurrection of Christ in order to deal with everything that righteousness would require.
Note again that it is only "His shoulder" which sustains the government. When, as a Shepherd, He rescues His lost sheep, He places it upon His shoulders (plural), which represents double security. Yet the whole universal rule will only require one shoulder.
Evil that remains unaddressed will only increase. Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." Yet His one shoulder will be enough to halt the activity of wickedness throughout the entire world.
Also, we learn about His name, which is also singular and yet is presented in these several aspects. He does not only have a wonderful name (as in Judges 13:18), but His name is "Wonderful."
In addition, His name is Counselor to bring help and understanding. He is called the Mighty God. He is Father of Eternity, providing blessing. He is the Prince of Peace, the one who is its source and has secured it for us.
The impact of such a government and such a peace will never be interrupted. Violence and corruption will cease. No one will have to say, "Know the Lord," because everyone will know Him (Jeremiah 31:34). This is the one whose coming kingdom we await.