I don’t think anyone would disagree that we live in turbulent political times. Over this last summer we have had a really ‘interesting’ time in British politics, We now have our third new prime minister in the UK in as many months, not to mention the parade of chancellors and other ministers who seem to change daily! Now we have our first non-white prime minister in history. Whether you agree with HOW he got into no 10, like him or hate him, we are living under another new government. I’ve already seen people on social media saying “not my prime minister” (following the trend in America which started when Donald Trump got elected). But like it or not, the form of democracy we live in means that Rishi Sunak is our Prime Minister. I’ve already seen some people following the American habit and declaring on social media, “not MY prime minister!” The question we must answer is not “is Rishi your PM?” But, “will you be a good citizen?”

More broadly, the last 4 or 5 years has seen real changes in politics all over the world. Up to, and including, armed conflict. We have witnessed demonstrations and riots all over the world for all sorts of reasons, every one of which is intended to promote some form of belief or ideology and to put pressure on governments to act to comply with whatever the cause believes. In our own nation, they have marched, vandalised property, glued themselves to roads and taken all sorts of other actions (because apparently vandalising stuff and inconveniencing people will persuade people that you and your cause are really righteous)! Personalities in politics have caused massive rifts between people—there are certain politicians all over the world for whom the mere mention of their name is enough to send people into a spin, and this goes beyond the countries they are in.

As Christians, we have to be really wise and careful about HOW we engage politically and ideologically with people around us. It is wrong for us to fall out personally with others, especially other Christians, simply because of a political view (I have personally had people break all contact with me simply because of my opinion on a political issue). We really MUST, whatever our political and social beliefs, work hard at living in peace with one another—when we fall out with one another, it damages our witness. That means that both when we express our own views and when we hear other’s views, we really must to give extra grace to those around us. This is IRRESPECTIVE of what side we stand on.

However, what we are looking at today is this. Given the rise of protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and other things which are, by and large, not aimed at individuals, but at the structures which we have in society around us, what does the Bible say about rulers and authorities and how (or if) we should obey their rules? It’s not about our interpersonal relationships, it’s about our relationship with civil authorities. Paul has transitioned from personal relationships in the church, to dealing with persecution, and now he moves his attention to living as a part of a larger society. This is what he says:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right, and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour
.

A couple of other passages also speak to this, and I’ll read them now:

1 Peter 2:13–17 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.

Titus 3:1–2 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

It is easy sometimes to use texts like these to bully people of good conscience to acquiesce to laws and practices in society they don’t agree with. Increasingly, they are becoming clearly and blatantly opposed to God’s word. We will be looking at obeying governing authorities and what that means this morning.

I want to take a few moments out to make a comment about the nature of government in the Bible and today. In Biblical times, ESPECIALLY in the Old Testament, governmental power was vested in one person, in a king or other ruler.

In our world today, very few nations are ruled over by one person, and those that are, generally speaking are ruled over by dictators, we are (in theory at least) self-governing through a system we call democracy, where power is not vested in one person, but in a representative group, here in the UK, we call it parliament, in America they have a Senate and a House of Representatives (I think).

My point here is to say that even though the Bible texts talk mostly about individuals (specifically kings or rulers), the principles in them also apply to governing groups.

It is the Bible and not culture which should determine HOW we relate to governments. We are different from the general population in that regard, where they only have one power or authority to live under. We have two. God and government. How do they relate to each other?

God is our Ultimate Authority

There are three forms of authority which form the foundation of our understanding here, autocracy, democracy and theocracy.

  1. Theocracy – theos (God) + kratos (power) = power is vested in God
  2. Democracy – demos (people) + kratos (power) = power is vested in the people.
  3. Autocracy – autos (him/her self) + kratos (power) = power is vested in the individual.

So, if you are autocratic in nature, you believe that the ultimate power over your life is and should be yourself. If you are democratic, you believe the people (represented by an elected legislature) should have power over the individual, if you are theocratic, you believe that God, ultimately, should have the power over you.

For the People of God in the Old Testament, God’s desire for their rule and organisation was that they would be a theocracy, that they would have no king and that God himself would be king. The period before the appointment of the first king (Saul) was marked by a series of judges. Israel was supposed to be different. All the other nations had a king. And the king ruled. For the Old Testament people of God, the intention was that there should be no king, no authority who ruled them, God himself will be their king, their authority. In fact, when they ask for a king, Samuel is told by God to give them one,

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you
(1 Samuel 8:4–8).

The people of God rejected God as their authority. Sort of. What they didn’t understand was that whatever authority any human exercises is subject to the authority of God.

In John 17:1–2 Jesus says, Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. God has the authority, yet he gave authority to Jesus. It is in that authority that he gives us eternal life.

At the end of Matthew, Jesus is giving the disciples the instructions we know as the great commission. Matthew says it like this: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18–19).

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says God seated Christ at his right hand in the heavenly realms far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:21).

On Patmos, the disciple John has a vision given to him by God, and right at the start, he writes to the seven churches in Asia. We read in Revelation 1:5 that he describes Jesus like this Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

John 19:11 Jesus speaks to Pilate … You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above Jesus specifically says to Pilate that his authority is not ‘internal’ it is external. Is Jesus talking about Caesar—who appointed Pilate? Or is he talking about God? My own feeling here is that Jesus is pointing out to Pilate that it is God and not man who stands in authority.

When I was in the army, there was an authority structure. Until I became one, I obeyed the Non-Commissioned Officers, the NCOs obeyed the Commissioned Officers, and they, in turn, obeyed their commanding officer. He obeyed the authority above him and so on. Lower ranking officers all obey the higher ranking officer, and ultimately all authority in the army is vested in the highest rank of all—commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In the British Armed Forces, that is the monarch. If the king tells you to do something, that order supersedes any order given by any other superior officer. So, as a general rule, you obey authority unless that authority itself is subservient to a higher one, and therefore, since God is the ultimate authority, His will is the will that takes priority. My commander in chief is not, and never has been the Queen, or now King (even when I was in the military), my commander in chief is the king of kings. And so should yours be.

God is in Ultimate Control of our lives

But not only is the ultimate authority God’s, His is the control as well. In the Old Testament, there is a swathe of history of the people of God where they were subject to a succession of foreign powers. They were taken to Babylon, into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 605BC, Cyrus, King of Persia overruns Babylon in c.559BC who sends some of the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild (2 Chronicles 36:22), his son Darius is king while Haggai is prophesying to Zerubbabel about the rebuilding of the temple failing (around 520BC), The events recorded in Esther happen around 460BC, while Xerxes is on the throne (Xerxes is Darius’ son and Cyrus’ grandson), and Artaxerxes, who is Xerxes’ son, sends Nehemiah back to complete the rebuilding of Jerusalem in 430BC, some 170 years later. Assuming 30 years for a generation, the Jews had lived under hostile foreign government and power for well over 5 generations. My point here is that leaders and governments rise and fall, laws are made and repealed, and the people of God survive them all. However dark things may seem to be in our generation, we can live with confidence, knowing that God is in control.

If we read Isaiah 44 and 45, 3 times, God describes Cyrus (who is a pagan king by the way) like this …

  1. Isaiah 44:28, He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please
  2. Isaiah 45:1, This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut
  3. Isaiah 45:13 I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.

Paul notes this in Acts 17:26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.

Daniel is living under the boot of a foreign power, but recognises this: Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning(Daniel 2:20–21). He also says, the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people (Daniel 4:17).

Jesus tells us that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing about it.

David recognises it, Psalm 2:1–6 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”

1 John 5:19 does say that the whole world is under the control of the evil one, but that same passage says, we know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them (1 John 5:18). Of course, we have to parse out what is meant by ‘harm’, but the verses all reinforce that God is ultimately in charge and allowing those opposed to God to control us is not the way of faith in Christ.

Some things which come from those points.

Do not fear

Note that if we are punished for doing what is right (even by the authorities), we can be confident of this: Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:13–14).

Jesus talks on multiple occasions about not being afraid, it’s not often specifically about not being frightened of authorities, but His exhortations not to be afraid of people doesn’t exclude the authorities, and on occasion, he speaks directly about not fearing them, so for example, Luke 12:11–12, Matthew 10:16–20 and Mark 10:17–20 describe Jesus telling the disciples that when they are taken before authorities, not to be afraid of them, Matthew’s account puts it like this, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Luke says our motivation about this is rooted in fear of God I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:4–5).

Disobedience? To God? Or to Authorities?

We have talked a lot about obedience to authorities, how, and why we should be good citizens. But are there occasions when we have a greater responsibility to be disobedient. The basic rule of civil obedience is found in Matthew 22:15–21:

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us, then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

My take is this, be a good citizen and obey civil authorities, but they are not God and should never take God’s place. We should obey laws (even stupid ones), pay our taxes, and generally live quiet and obedient lives, but, since our primary allegiance is to God, there may be occasions where we cannot, or we must not, obey civil authorities. When there is a conflict between the laws of man and the laws of God, the law we comply with is not man’s law, it is God’s law.

It is not right to use civil disobedience simply as a mechanism for changing a law we don’t like or agree with. Breaking the law is warranted only when authorities, either through legislation or some other form of pressure, seek to:

  1. Compel actions which are forbidden by God. AND/OR:
  2. Forbid actions which are commanded by God.

Compulsion by Authorities

In I Samuel 14, Saul declares a compulsory fast for the day—on pain of death. Jonathan doesn’t hear about the new law, and he eats a honeycomb that he finds in the forest. When Saul finds out, he orders his men to kill Jonathan. This is their response, the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death (1 Samuel 14:45).

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the image Nebuchadnezzar set up You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace (Daniel 3:10–11). Note 3:8 describes the motivation of the Chaldeans who maliciously accused them. The compulsion here is to worship a golden image, and Exodus 20:1–7, the second commandment, says, You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. They refused to comply with a law that contravened the Law of Moses.

Prohibition by Authorities

The Disciples in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:28,29). Having been commanded not to preach the gospel (forbidding a command), their response is, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Note that the motivation for the disciple’s actions is obedience towards God, not disobedience of the law.

In Daniel 6, A law was created with a command not to pray or ask anything of anyone except the king, all the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counsellors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions (Daniel 6:7). Note here that the law was created with the express purpose of trapping Daniel (cf. Daniel 6:5).

The bottom line is this, very often people will try to manipulate or compel us to act in a way which is incompatible with being a Christian. Either by forbidding action which God commands, or by seeking to compel actions God forbids. For the most part, such pressure is personal and exerted by family, friends, the work environment and so on, and refusing to bow to such pressure may be difficult, it may even cause us to lose friendships or our jobs, but we will not be arrested or prosecuted for it. However, increasingly, the threat is that a law will be passed which flies in the face of the law of God. It has already happened elsewhere, it will come here. When the time comes, our responsibilities are clear. We must obey God, not men.

Acts 5:27–32
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

After being flogged and ordered not to preach in the name of Jesus, what did they do? The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 5:41–42). Note that although they disobeyed the authorities, the disciples were ready to suffer the consequences.

In Daniel 6, the friends were thrown into the fiery furnace. Acts and church history show us that early believers went to prison and many of them, ultimately, went to their death because they saw God’s law as being superior to man’s law. If and when we see God’s law as superior to man’s law, and when we give it priority, we may expect arrest, imprisonment, the confiscation of our property, in short, we must be prepared to suffer for openly living out our faith in a Godless society.

Points:

  1. If our leaders and governments are exercising authority given to them by God, then it is ultimately to God that they will answer. Not the electorate.
  2. As citizens of heaven, as ambassadors in a foreign land, we do not claim diplomatic immunity, we show due respect and comply with the law of the land we are ambassadors to. Our primary allegiance, however, is to our eternal head of state, to God, and we are to obey him. We must refuse authority when it contradicts God rule in our lives. DO NOT obey any laws which contravene God’s law.
  3. God is in control of our future, not those governments. These governments rise and fall, they come and go, and God stays constant throughout time.

Conclusions

This brings us full circle. When we are secure in God’s rule and leadership over every aspect of our lives, we can rest in God, whatever government is in power. I would go so far as to say that a Christian who is overly troubled when a new regime comes to power has not fully grasped the significance of this. Or citizenship and our security is found in heaven, it is not reliant on anything the government does or does not do. We have, in a sense, dual citizenship, we are citizens of the nation we were born to, but we are now, primarily, citizens of the nation we were born again to. We became citizens of heaven, and our allegiance has transferred from earth to heaven. That is why we are described as ambassadors and foreigners on earth. The writer to the Hebrews describes people of faith like this (he’s looking back at those who have already died, but the truth hold for us too) …

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13–16).

Because our lives and our security are not dependent on the laws and regulations put above us by men, because we are answerable, not to human authority, but to the authority of God, and because God stands above and beyond the governments and authorities of this world, when we obey human authorities, we are, in reality obeying God himself. AND Obeying God is our surest expression and indication of our faith – after all. Jesus himself says, why do you call me Lord and yet don’t do what I say?