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Sermon Text: Romans 13:1-7 at CTK, October 26, 2008
WHERE OUR HOPE LIES
Elliot has been preaching through some biblical passages that deal primarily with where our hope as followers of Jesus Christ lies, and in doing so he had mapped out the distinction between the kingdom of God, the heavenly and cosmic kingdom, on the one side, and earthly, temporal kingdom of man, or human kingdom on the other.
The Bible teaches that as members of the church of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that our ultimate hope, our primary means of advance, our final success is wrapped up in the definite, unwavering, indubitable success of the kingdom of God.
In short, Jesus has claimed the world as his own and he will settle for nothing short of the whole world. And because he is who he said he is, the Son of God, God incarnate, the Word by which the world was created and is maintained, we can find rest in the knowledge that he will not fail in his task.
There is no other way the story can end than with Jesus’ absolute, beautiful, just, and eternal rule over the whole world.
So what’s to keep us from joining a commune in New Mexico and wait it out. Sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? Yeah, it kind of does.
When you see the markets around the world in the tank; rogue states with nuclear technology, political uncertainty, political ads.
It’s enough to make you want to say “Come quickly Lord Jesus . . . and when you do, I’ll meet you in Sante Fe.”
OK, well, imagine this scenario:
Imagine that this is where you live. You live in a country in which have no say in your government’s actions, well, apart from protests and those don’t end well. In other words, the lucky ones end up in jail cells, if you get my meaning. The lucky ones do.
The head of your state is a young artistic type, around twenty years old, with no governing experience, and rumor has it that his mother is the one who really calls the shots.
Oh, when he is inaugurated, he has the Senate officially declare that his stepfather is a god,
That is the same stepfather who previously ran the nation and expelled a large ethnic population from your city, including many Christians, because he didn’t understand their religious beliefs.
This is the stepfather who died suspiciously, before his stepson came to power.
Not to mention the fact that the current head of state, the young man, is married to his stepsister.
Despite all of this, the public loves him, because among other things, he is extremely eloquent and speaks artfully about anything and everything.
Imagine that scenario, because that is what it was like to live in Nero’s Rome, and he is the governing authority whom Paul is writing about in the 13th chapter of Romans.
He is writing about Nero, though before Nero became the Nero that we think of. The mad tyrant who used blamed Christians when much of Rome burned because they were an easy target. Those nasty monotheists. The Nero who crucified Christians and then burned their bodies as porch lamps for his dinner parties.
This had not yet happened, but even from its start, things did not bode well for Nero’s rule.
This is the one of whom Paul writes to the followers of Jesus in Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
In other words, we today don’t have the luxury of thinking that Paul had in mind a government system that was easy to submit to. On the contrary, the authority was not only anti-Christian, it was theologically and politically rotten to its core.
And yet, Paul does not think that he has to qualify his statement in any way. He is frank, “Submit to the authorities” and if they didn’t understand him, he says it several more times with reasons.
Now, I want to talk about his reasons, because it is the reasons that give us a sense of how seriously Paul took the issue of submission to government.
He gives two kinds of reasons: One is practical, and the other is theological. I want to take the practical reason first.
PAUL’S PRACTICAL ARGUMENT: THE SWORD
In verse 3 Paul appeals to the Roman church’s sense of personal wellbeing. He writes,
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you
have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will
receive his approval, (Romans 13:3)
Paul is making a very practical argument here. If you behave in a way that is honoring to the authorities, you will be safe from the punishment.
He goes on to write in v. 4:
. . . for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he
does not bear the sword in vain.
Again very pragmatic.
Now we can’t accuse Paul of being Pollyannish on this point. He is not blindly optimistic about the goodwill of governing authorities. As a matter of fact, of all the Christians of his day, he would be the last one to be accused of naiveté when it came to civil government.
Before his conversion, Paul had wielded the power of the sword himself and abused it against the early church, supporting murder and imprisonment. Over the course of his ministry, he would be stoned, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned due to his irrepressible desire to talk about Jesus.
The Roman church would have known this, and many of them would have already experienced unjust treatment at the hands of the Roman authorities.
So neither they nor Paul is naïve on this point.
But here is what Paul is doing. Paul is making a statement about the role of human government and the Christian’s stance toward that role.
Paul is saying that government, even corrupt ones, perform a certain function in society. Primarily they restrain evil.
Governments do this in a variety of ways, through a legal system and law enforcement, certain regulations, defense of borders, and so on.
Practically speaking, if you commit a crime, even if you are a Christian, saved by grace, you deserve the punishment of the state. This is how the state maintains order and protects its citizens.
Paul goes on, (Romans 13:4-5):
For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the
wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s
wrath but also for the sake of conscience
When you place yourself on the wrong side of the law, you are not only offending the civil authority, you are offending God.
In other words, if you are driving 95 down the freeway and there isn’t a woman giving birth to a baby in the back seat of your car or someone else in need of emergency care, you aren’t just offending the cop who has his radar on you; you are offending God.
If you are stealing music and movies on the internet, and you giggle because there is no way you are going to get caught, you are offending God.
If you are getting free cable from your next door neighbor, or you got your cable man to give you the premium package for a fivsky, you are offending God.
Are these all man crimes?
If your stealing lipstick from the Clairol counter . . .
You are willfully giving up God’s gift of a clear conscience.
Freedom in Christ means freedom to honor the authority that God has put over you, and the freedom to enjoy the relative order that government brings to human life.
PAUL’S THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT: STATE AS DEACON
Second, there is a theological reason to submit to authority. Paul is clear that human authorities receive their authority from God, and because of that they are his servants.
Romans 13:1 For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
And in Romans 13:4 civil authority is called “God’s servant for your good.”
The Greek word there is “deacon” the same word that we get the name of the church office from. The state is a deacon of God.
In Romans 13:6, he calls civil authority “ministers of God.”
These are surprising words to give to a secular, human institution.
“There is no authority except from God”
In other words, no created thing can inherently bestow authority on a human institution, not bloodline, not a constitution, not majority opinion, not some presumed notion about what will bring about the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people.
In other words, the authority of government cannot rest alone on a vague notion of social contract or consent.
These sources of authority are ephemeral, they are vaporous, they have no anchor in reality.
Authority cannot come alone from the creature, it has to be bestowed by the Creator, by the ultimate authority.
Everything else is secondary.
Human government is authoritative because God is authoritative and he bestows authority.
REBELLION AND COMPLACENCY
The recognition that God is the ultimate fountainhead of authority has two major applications that I want to dwell on for a moment.
First, because God is the ultimate authority, we cannot respond to human government with rebellion. Second, we cannot respond with complacency.
First, rebellion is not an option for the Christian. This is why the Christian cannot condemn political authority as merely a power-play made by self-interested individuals and parties bent on advancing their own personal agendas.
That is not to say that people don’t do these things. Of course they do these things. They’re people.
But Paul is reminding us of a deeper, biblical understanding of civil government and ultimate authority.
He is reminding us of the divine realpolitik that the realists don’t know about, and that is this:
God works through the fallen systems, the corrupt desires, and the self-interested parties that inhabit the corridors of human government.
He works through them.
Though many of them do not know it, the agents of human government are servants, deacons, of the living God, and they will be appraised by him for how they use the civil authority that he has given them.
This is how God can call the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” in Jeremiah 43:10; and how he can call the Persian king Cyrus “my shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28. Even more startling, Isaiah calls Cyrus the Lord’s “anointed.” You know what that word is in Hebrew “Messiah.”
Human governance doesn’t happen apart from God’s will, it happens because of God’s will.
And that universal rule of God is amplified in the person of Jesus Christ.
What do we find in Matthew 28:19-20? The passage is often called the Great Commission because it is where Jesus commissions his apostles to go out and proclaim the good news about Jesus.
Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is a bold charge. In fact, if it came from any other person, you might think they were insane. “Go therefore, and make disciples of the nations?” What? How am I supposed to do that Jesus?
I can’t even get those cameras at the intersection to stop taking my picture and you are telling to make disciples of the nations.
Which nations? Russia. Azerbaijan, Korea, China, Saudi Arabia? How are we supposed to do that?
But look at verse 18. Look at what Jesus says before giving the commission to go out.
Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Jesus is saying, “They are already mine.” This is the fact upon which the commission is founded. “They are already mine.”
“You are not going into foreign lands. I own them. I give them their authority. That’s the good news. Go tell them about it.”
For several years, I had the privilege of teaching pastors who were converts from Islam to Christianity and who had chosen to remain in their native countries shepherding local churches. All of them came from restricted environments. They all had endured some sort of provocation from the government because of their faith and calling as pastors.
One in particular was an Arab man living in N. Africa. Now he was from the southern region of his North African country, which means basically that he lived in the desert. He lived in a small town in the desert, what we might call back-woods. And like in America, the back-woods towns in North Africa can be pretty rough places. Especially for a Christian.
Well my friend told me about a time that he was having a tea at a local shop and a man struck up a conversation with him about Christianity. Now this wasn’t just any man, but a police officer who was known around the town for his bad temper. He could fly into a rage at one moment and then be your best friend the next.
So my friend was cautious as he sat down to the police officer’s table. The conversation started off friendly enough. The officer wanted to talk about Christianity and my friend was answering his criticisms as calmly and graciously as he could, but soon, just as he feared, my friend realized that his conversation partner was getting angry.
First he starting clenching his fists, waving his hands, beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
The conversation ended abruptly when the officer got the attention of two of his buddies walking by, grabbed my friend and took him to the police headquarters where they beat him until their anger burned off.
Now my friend, being a convert from Islam to Christianity, really had no means of recourse here. There was no complaint office for him to call. He had no alternative but to attempt to flee his country, and he couldn’t do that because he felt called to pastor in the town where he grew up.
So a few weeks passed without him running into the police officer. Then one day he was walking down the street and someone called his name. It was the officer. This guy was smiling at him and waving him over to have a cup of tea with him. My friend walked over sat down and said, “Before we start, how about this, why don’t you beat me first, and then I will talk to you about Jesus.”
The officer stared at him for a moment and then started laughing.
At the time that my friend told me this story, he had met with the officer three more times and each time was able to share with him the gospel without getting beaten.
But here is what struck me about this story. The pastor told me this story without a hint of cynicism or irony. His point wasn’t “Look how bad we Christians have it down here.”
Or “ Can you believe how corrupt our police are?”
His point was, “Isn’t it great that I get to talk to people about Jesus?”
For him, that’s the moral of the story.
Here is a man who is truly disenfranchised. His world is closer to the world that Paul is describing in Romans 13 than my world is. My world is cake compared to his.
And yet he rejoices that he could share the gospel with the volatile, corrupt civil authority that God had appointed over him.
Did my friend know that he was unjustly punished? Of course.
Did my friend know that there is a better way to be governed? Absolutely.
If given the chance to vote, would he support a government that is more tolerant of Christians and Christianity? Absolutely. As he should.
But that is not the system of government that the Lord has appointed over him, and he acts accordingly, advancing the gospel, loving the church, honoring the authorities.
[As an aside, there are instance when biblical civil disobedience is the right thing to do, for instance when obeying the human authority means disobeying God. This occurred to Paul and it occurs today in countries like China where certain core aspects of the gospel are banned from discussion. In those cases obey God, but do so in a spirit of respect and honor for the authority that God has appoionted.
Note though that valid civil disobedience is not a part of what Paul is saying here.]
So the ultimate authority of God has two applications. First it rejects rebellion as a legitimate response to government.
Second, it means that we can’t be complacent toward the civil authority either. We can’t be complacent to the power that God has placed over us.
In v. 7, Paul writes, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
What is important about this passage is that, though Paul begins with practical commands (to pay what is owed to government), he moves to matters of the heart. The words “respect” and “honor” mean more than simply to obey.
We aren’t merely called to follow the rules; we are to have hearts that are well-disposed to the governing authorities, and because of this disposition we obey in all the practical ways.
So we can’t get away with begrudging obedience, cursing under our breath as we fill our tax forms each year, cursing the policeman who gave us a ticket, regardless of our personal political views about the size of government and traffic laws.
And I realize that this is a very hard thing to say, but Paul in unequivocal, and Christ was too when he compared rendering to Caesar what is Caesar to rendering to God what is God’s.
This is not about the power of positive thinking either: we aren’t supposed to simply will ourselves to support the civil authority, just think happy thoughts about our government.
Instead we are called to honor civil authority because we honor the God who bestows that authority. We honor government, because we believe in a God who is active in appointing and evaluating and ultimately judging every king, prime minister, president, governor, senator, court, and police department according to how they dispense the authority that God has given them.
Because God has appointed Caesar as his servant, our respect for Caesar is an expression of our faith in God. One flows from the other.
The difference for us on this side of the innovation of democracy is that those of us who are citizens are the subjects of the government but we are also its purveyors. We are the ones who elect those men and women who act in roles of leadership.
Because we have the power to do something Paul could not have dreamed of, because we have the power to peaceably replace a ruler by a majority of votes, we are both the subjects and the rulers that God has appointed.
As most of you know, November 4th our country will hold its general election. If you didn’t know that, I am glad that you have come out from under the rock. I hope you will stay with us. It’s nice here.
One way that we honor the governing authority is to participate in its system of governance that the Lord has appointed over us. No matter how fallen that system and structure of governance is.
The system and structure is fallen. It is corrupt. Do you feel better now?
You see, the Bible teaches that when sin was introduced into the world, all of creation was subjected to its damaging burden, even the systems that are put in place to help order our lives.
Systems of commerce and business are fallen and will fail. Do I need an illustration for this? Family systems are fallen and will fail. Again, the point is perhaps obvious.
Government systems are fallen and will fail us time and time again. We should not be surprised. Perhaps more relevantly, we have no right to be cynical. A Christian does not have the right to go before God in repentance, to confess his utter wickedness, confess deep failure and need for Christ, and then have the gall to speak self-righteously about the shortcomings of government.
You have no right. You are something of an ungrateful servant if you do.
And you do not have the option of opting out. As much as you may want to, as much sense as it might make after you watch our government almost do something genuinely good and then fail miserably short of the goal, you can’t opt out.
You can’t say, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” You just can’t.
Here is a very practical point of application.
The primary way that we participate in that system of government is through the voting process. We are not disenfranchised the way that Paul was and the way that many Christians today are in their own countries.
Instead God has appointed those of us who are citizens (and of age and not felons) to wield a small but meaningful piece of our civil authority. He has appointed us as micro-Caesars (at least I didn’t say Little Caesars), and we should honor God in the way that we use that authority.
Honestly, I can think of very few legitimate reasons not to vote.
Some Christians feel that if there is a particularly important issue that none of candidates gets right, then that is a reason not to vote.
For instance, there is a large number of well-meaning Christians, not from our tradition necessarily, but from other traditions, who are pacifists, and since there is rarely if ever a truly pacifistic candidate running for any office, they generally refuse to participate in the electoral process.
As author Lauren Winner writes,
We should vote because we cannot say, with certainty, that the future
practices of the president will be those we cannot condone. Our history, and
certainly our present, is replete with examples of presidents doing things
that conflict with the politics of Jesus (to borrow a phrase). But there are
also examples in our history of elected officials using the power of
government to love the least of these and to promote peace. Our system does
not necessarily produce war, but an election boycotted by pacifists is more
likely to produce war than an election in which pacifists vote.
Lauren Winner, Christian Author (Review of Electing not to Vote:
Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis.
In Sojourners magazine)
What is true of the issue of pacifism is true of most issues whether it is abortion, education, tax policy, when to go to war, how to go to war, and so on.
Still by opting out of the process, they have abdicated the authority that God has given then to influence future actions of the government.
One way to ensure that your God-given civil authority is void is to refrain from voting.
Of course this also means that you will often have to be able to discern the so-called “lesser of two evils,” and to do that you need to take the time to learn about what the issues are and prayerfully consider them in light of what God says in the Scriptures.
This means recognizing the rule of Christ, submitting to the system of government he has appointed over you, and thankfully participating in the role that he has given you in it.
The Scriptures provide a framework out of which we can make wise decisions as micro-Caesars.
In other words, when you find yourself facing a difficult decision, how do you vote in a way that honors a God who is the source of all authority, a God who favors fairness and justice, a God who bestows dignity on a humanity made in his image?
How do you vote in a way that gives expression to your love of your neighbor as yourself? How do you vote in a way that protects the weak, the poor, the truly disenfranchised of our society and around the world?
We don’t hand out voting guides at CTK, and that is not just because we want to keep our tax-exempt status. We don’t hand out voting guides because we do not perceive that as a healthy role of the church in the world.
We don’t see the Christian life as a list of does and don’ts that need to be checked off, and we certainly don’t see the Christian’s obligation to the state in that way.
Instead we point to God’s Word encountered alone and in community. Ask questions of it, seek counsel, see your life formed by it, so that when the time comes for you to wield the authority that God has given you, you can do it with a clear conscience.
And we don’t do it because our hope ultimately lies in our civil power, or the activity of government, we do it because we love Jesus our King and he has claimed the world as his own.
Do you know what Paul writes to a young church leader named Timothy,
He writes this:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers,
intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– 2 for kings and all
those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness
and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior . . . (1 Timothy 2:1-3)
God gave us government, blemishes and all, and it pleases God our Savior when we acknowledge the gift he has established over us, we submit to it, we give thanks for it, and we enjoy the order that it brings.
This is pleasing to God.