We are going to begin a very important study in what is arguably the most important passage in all of the Bible, regarding how we as Christians are supposed to understand the earthly human governments under which we find ourselves. This is a massively important text, and if we rightly understand them and can appropriate them into our thinking, we can avoid some of the most common and disastrous mistakes that punctuate church history. We can start to think rightly about the role of government: what is the government there for, how are we supposed to relate to it, and how are we to interact with our government. This is something we deal with all the time, because we interact with the government on some level every day. So we need to think this through on a number of levels.
Romans 13 in context
I understand that Romans 13 is a bit of an excursus; it is a passage that sits out from the rest of the text. But it's there because chapter 12 ends with some statements that leave some gaping holes in our minds. It makes us think, Wait a minute—if that's true, then how are we supposed to function?
In it, we learn about not taking our own revenge. Look at verse 19, for instance. Paul quotes Deuteronomy and he says, "Listen, you're never to avenge yourselves; leave it to the wrath of God." "'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). That is what the Bible says about us not taking our own revenge. You are not personally, individually, given any authority, license, or permission from God to settle your own judicial score; that is prohibited.
So I am now left with a bit of a problem when someone steals my car or my camel, how do I deal with that? Do I start just lamenting the fact that none of this will be dealt with until the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20? Is that what I do? Do I just say, "Well, we've got to wait—wrath of God." Or do I think about the wrath of God coming now through some supernatural means? Maybe I start to pray for my car thief: maybe for a bad arthritic back, or Crohn's disease. "God, please, inflict him." We even learn that's not how we're supposed to pray; we learn that in Romans 12. But maybe the most obvious response to someone who gets their donkey stolen or their car stolen is a legitimate response, and that is call the injustice to the attention of the authorities.
Today, even that is questioned because we take these passages so out of context. We think, Well, I don't know, that doesn't seem Christian either. Maybe it's just about loving—love them, forgive them, they just don't understand. Maybe the car thief had a bad childhood, and we're Christians, so we just love them. Is there any legitimate place for picking up the phone and calling the cops?
Well, that's why we have these seven verses: it's one of the reasons for it. There's another reason for it that we need to catch, and I'll certainly drive this home in a few minutes, and that is if you take everything from chapter one to chapter 12, and you look at all that's been said, it has been a lot about our identity. Now, if we're Christians—especially in the first century—we've stepped out from the pack. We know we are not like everybody else: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world" (Rom. 12:2). I'm not supposed to be like everybody. I'm a different kind of bird in this world, because I am a follower of Christ. I have been told from the first chapter that Paul sees himself as set apart for God's business. When I think about these concepts of being under the law of God, chapters six and seven say I'm a slave of God. I've got a leader. He's in heaven. He's left me a constitution to live by. I'm like a lot of people who start to get real clearly in their minds who their boss is. They look at other people who say, "Well, you do what I say," and they're quick to say—as their kids like to say—"You're not the boss of me." I've got God as my boss.
'Established by God'
In two ways, we see this passage as part of the flow of Paul's argument. Number one: you need to realize that the authorities are there for a reason. Number two: you need to recognize that even though you're a Christian, there is a legitimate role the government plays.
In verse one, when Paul says "let everyone" to the people of Rome you need to understand that it's not just for you: this is for every person. "Let everyone be subject"—oh, that's an ugly word, isn't it? That's the word "submission." Now, why would that be?
The first answer to the question is this: "for there is no authority except that which God has established." Here are some words you need to underline there: "which God has established." Apparently authorities are from God. Every authority? Yes, "there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been"—here are three more words to underline—"established by God." Then he continues in verse two: "Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what"—here's another phrase to underline—"God has instituted." God set it up. Those who resist, if they want to resist it, do it to their own peril. They will incur judgment.
Paul goes on in verses three and four: "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." God's servant—wow, really? Yeah, he is for your good.
Verses four and five continue on, with Paul saying, "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." We were talking about an avenger and that we weren't supposed to be it, but he is the avenger. "[T]o bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities not only because of possible punishment"—which he already promised in verse two: you're going to resist, you're going to get this judgment of God through these leaders, so you should do it for that reason, but not only that—"but also as a matter of conscience." If God instituted it, if it's from God, if it's been appointed by God, then it's God's thing, and I ought to do what they say. I ought to be in subjection to it because it would be wrong not to.
Verse six says, "This is also why you pay taxes." Why do you do that? Well, you do it for authorities who 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 honor, then honor."
Our loyalties as Christians
The first thing I want to talk about here, as it relates to this text, is what comes before it. I already made the distinction—at least in a small way—that the first-century Christian is a little bit different than the twenty-first-century Christian: at least some of them are, in the way they approach Christianity. In the first century, if you wanted to step out from the pack and be a follower of Christ in a culture that was very un-Christian, non-Christian, and anti-Christian, you needed to recognize there was a price to pay. People were very careful, very thoughtful. As Jesus said in Luke 14:28, they "estimate[d] the cost."
Today, it's joining a subculture. You might get teased by some coworkers, but it's not going to cost you your job. Your kids probably won't get kidnapped, and you're not going to have your head cut off. The decision to follow Christ doesn't carry the same kind of weightiness. We at least need to get back into the sandals of the first-century Christian and realize that even though you may not feel it, it is the same kind of disengagement from culture to say, "I follow Christ." We are saying what every Christian has said throughout all generations, and that is: "when I sign up to be a Christian, I am signing up for a new leader."
Here is the appellation we find. Jesus is labeled a "king." More than that, when you enter our group, the Bible says you've entered another political term, a "kingdom." We need to realize that there is an identity issue that makes this passage, these first seven verses in Romans 13, a bit of a corrective.
It almost seems more jarring to them than it does to us, particularly some of you who grew up with flags of your nation draped around your pulpits and on your church stages because, to us, they all fit together nicely. In their day, it didn't fit together nicely. That's why these are jarring terms for Christians in the first century. "Hey, be submissive—submit yourself to the governing authorities." That was more of a difficult pill to swallow. We should at least recognize the dichotomy, the distinction, the disparity between being in line with the government and being aligned with Christ. We need to realize where our loyalties lie.
Pledge your ultimate allegiance
Every day, we need to pledge our ultimate allegiance. It's not to the United States of America or to this flag or to the republic for which it stands. As Christians, our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus, who has this title "king," and we are part of a community that is called a kingdom.
That is something that is supranational. It is above and overarching any national loyalties. It is something that goes far beyond that. That's why, as I hope you can imagine, Paul wasn't draping Roman flags over the pulpit of the church in Rome, or any other place in Asia Minor, or in Caesarea, or anywhere else. They recognized this was something much higher, different, and superior, and it was really the core identity of anybody who was going to be a follower of Christ.
To help with this, let's look at the words of Christ, who faced his national leaders, in the John 18. Let's at least get this clearly in our minds: that ultimately, you are a follower of the King of Kings, and you are part of a kingdom that has much more to do with who you really are than any passport and what it may say about your citizenship. In John 18, Jesus is facing Pilate. He's standing on trial before a Roman magistrate, and in verse 33, he's called to Pilate's headquarters again. Pilate asks him a question, and you must understand this in its context: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Now, that is a bit of a salacious statement made to a person who is in charge of the Jews there. It's as if Pilate is saying, "You don't have that jurisdiction. Rome is taken over; Rome is really the leader here, and if you want to know what's right, what's wrong, who's got the rights to mete out judgment, it's me—as the representative of the Roman Empire and the emperor. It's not you, and is that what you are? Are you the king of the Jews?"
Jesus answers in verse 34 with a little misdirection here. He says, "Is that your own idea … or did others talk to you about me?" Just like Jesus. "Is this what you think, or is this just what you've heard about me?" Pilate says in verse 35: "Am I a Jew?" He's saying, I'm not a Jew, I'm a Roman. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Meaning, Why are they doing this, why are they so upset with you?
In verse 36, Jesus says, "My kingdom"—by the way, who has a kingdom? Kings, so there is an admission that he is a king. "My kingdom is not of this world." Jesus' kingdom doesn't fit nicely into all the other kingdoms and nations of the world. "If it were"—if we were just one slice of the kingdoms of the world, then we would be fighting for this—"my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place."
Then Pilate says to him in verse 37, "You are a king, then!" Pilate is a smart guy. "Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." This is an important phrase. Who responds to the king here? Those who are of the truth. Now, who is of the truth? Is it just Jews? No, that point has been made throughout Jesus' earthly ministry. Though he comes to the Jew first, he is also now coming to the Gentiles, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. He is now presenting the kingdom to Jews and Gentiles, which is exactly what he commissions his apostles to do after the Resurrection: to take this to every nation, to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and the ends of the earth. Why? Because he is building a kingdom. He came to the world for that reason, "to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." And Pilate, in verse 38, says philosophically, "'What is truth?' … With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, 'I find no basis for a charge against him."
If you are a Christian, you are under the lordship of a king who has made you a part of the kingdom by your response to his gospel and his working repentance and faith in your heart. You are now a part of his kingdom, and that kingdom supersedes, transverses, and goes over into every kingdom of the world. There are Italians and Chileans and Bolivians and Canadians and you name it. People of the truth in all of those places are extracted out and called a part of his kingdom, and then he says this: "While I'm doing this, while I'm collecting a kingdom, I'm going to prepare that kingdom, and I'm going to bring that kingdom to Earth." That's why—when he taught us to pray in Matthew 6—he says what? "Our Father in heaven, / hallowed be your name, / your kingdom come, / your will be done, / on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:9-10). That's our first prayer: to acknowledge the great monarch of the universe, the King of Kings, the Father of the king, and to pray that his kingdom would come.
Oh, and by the way, while you're collecting more subjects for the kingdom, he says in verse 33 of that same chapter: "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness." That is your mandate. You live by the constitution of the king, which has a different set of rules than whatever country you might be from: whether it's the Roman Empire, whether it's part of the United States of America. No matter what nation you're from, this constitution—seeking his kingdom and his righteousness—is to be your priority. That is your core identity, so much so that everything in our lives should be future-focused toward the coming of the great king and his kingdom.
Living as expatriates
That's why Paul says in Philippians 3:20 that "our citizenship is in heaven." It's not here. He says, "[W]e eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:20-21).
The King is coming, and our hope is future. In the meantime, our citizenship is in heaven—we are "God's expatriates." You know that word, right? Expats are people not born in the country they live in. They're not natural citizens of that country, but they live in that country and they're from somewhere else. That's how God wants us to view ourselves. No matter what country you live in, no matter what government you're under, you are an expat. You really are from somewhere else; your citizenship is elsewhere, but you're to live here in this country, and you, according to our passage, are supposed to submit to the governing authorities. Really, however, this is not where you are from. Your citizenship is elsewhere.
We'll look at just one passage on this, if you would turn with me to Hebrews 11:13, as we find this word and this concept. "Expatriates," by the way, is a great word study, if you ever want to do it in English. It comes from Greek. They'll say in your dictionary that it's from Greek to Latin to English, but these are all Greek words that do reflect in Latin, and that is ex, which is "out of," and then patria, which is a transliteration of a Greek word into Latin. Patria means "homeland." It means "nation." Patria, if you study that in Old English always meant "heaven." "Heading to patria" was defined in early English because it was so dominated by the preaching of Christians, and it came from this text. Our real homeland, our real country, our real citizenship is in heaven, and that was so connected in early English that that's where that word came to be defined in our English language.
But it's also the Greek word we find in Hebrews. Hebrews 11:13 begins, "All these people were still living by faith when they died." Who were they? Well, look back up: Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Abel, all these righteous people. "They did not receive the things promised"—that doesn't mean he wasn't going to deliver it. It just means not yet. God didn't give them all he promised. If you want to go big on this and think largely, this has to do with God's ultimate fulfillment of his will on Earth. That hasn't happened yet.
Verse 13 continues: "[T]hey only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth." Their perspective was that Earth is not our home. We have a different orientation about something in the future. We don't see it yet, but by faith we greet it: we hang onto it, because it's coming. If that's the case, and if that's our homeland, then we're exiles, aliens, strangers here.
Verse 14 starts with the words "[p]eople who say such things," and I hope that you do say such things. I hope you're not just trying to Christianize America and live here and find utopia on Earth. It's not the biblical perspective, mentality, heart, or value. Here's what the Bible says: if you speak this way, it's clear you are seeking a patria, a homeland. It's patrius in Greek. You're seeking a homeland, a place of one's birth, which (by the way) is a theme in the Old Testament that you see in this kind of spiritual way, when it talks about the record of those who are God's having their birth recorded in Zion. Remember those songs? You're really a child of Zion. Your homeland is not here; your homeland is there.
The early church understood this. They cried out, Maranatha; they were always praying for the kingdom to come. They knew the Earth was not their home, and it's been going on since the beginning. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham: they were seeking a homeland. If they'd been thinking of the land from which they had gone out in the immediate context, as Abraham leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, they would have had opportunity to return.
Or for us—if it's about this life for you—you can do that. Good luck with that: you can rearrange all the deck furniture on the sinking ship and make the best of it. Put on a linen tablecloth, light some candles. But that's not the orientation of the Christian life. Verse 16 says, "Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one." See, verse 14 and verse 15 put together is the reason early English defined patria as "heaven," because that's our ultimate homeland.
Verse 16 goes on to say, "Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." I love that. If you have an earthbound focus, then God is ashamed to be called your God. But if your focus is then and there—not here and now—then God is not ashamed to be called your God, "for he has prepared a city for them" (11:16). That is great. There is a city and it's a big one. It's going to come down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 11 says that the angels will sing out and say, "The kingdom of the world has become / the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, / and he will reign forever and ever." The 24 elders sitting before God will "[fall] on their faces and [worship] God, saying: 'We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, / the One who is and who was, / because you have taken your great power / and have begun to reign.'" It's one of the best passages in the Bible, in my opinion.
That's the focus of the Christian life. We can't wait for the coming kingdom. If you are a Christian, your heart beats for that. That's Colossians 3:1-2—it says you are always thinking of it. Your mind is set "on things above, not on earthly things." You can't wait for the kingdom of God, when all the crooked paths are made straight, all the rough places plain, and when his power that is able to subject everything to himself transforms your lowly body to be like his body: glorious and powerful, regenerate, remade (Phil. 3:21). God is busy collecting his expatriates from across the globe.
The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. That's the Christian hope, that's the Christian focus, and that should be your core identity. I suggest that every morning, you wake up and pledge your allegiance to the king and to where your citizenship lies: to the kingdom of heaven. That would be a good place to start.
The necessity of Romans 13
If that's the case, you can see why this passage was needed, because I'm thinking, That's what I live for, that's what I'm all about. Then this guy's asking for more taxes? No way, man, you're not the boss of me. I'm a citizen of heaven; I don't have to do this. You're spending it on all that sinful stuff anyway. Forget it.
Romans 13:1 says, "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities." How many people? Non-Christians? No, every person. "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." They are from God, instituted by God, appointed by God. Well, it doesn't look like it—because I know God is really good, and these are not so good. In some places, it is really bad. You can't preach this sermon in certain places in the world because their leaders are clearly bad.
This was written in A.D. 56-58. You history buffs know that the Roman emperor at this time is Nero. He was a good, regenerate, born-again, Southern, right-wing Christian, right? Nero murdered his mother. Nero would take effeminate men and bring them into the palaces of Rome, dress them in women's clothing, and work himself through a mock wedding so he could have a new boyfriend because he had to quench his insatiable thirst for homosexual activity. That's the emperor. Then there was that little thing called the Roman fire in A.D. 64, which they say Nero probably set himself because he was so irritated with the Christians. When he set the fire, he then blamed it on the Christians and started a state-sanctioned systematic persecution of Christians.
Every authority that exists—that's what Romans says. Whatever it is. There is no authority except from God. If they exist, those that exist have been instituted by God, and you are to be subject to them.
Affirm the authority of God's flawed
This may be hard for us to process, but we need to affirm the authority of God's flawed—and that's an understatement in some ages and times, political cycles and proxies. According to the text, they're from God: instituted by God, appointed by God. That means they're put there by God for us to be subject to.
Quick word study on "submission," because you know some of these words here: the word translated "to be subject to" is the word hupotasso. The word hupo means "underneath," "under." Tasso means "to arrange," "to align," "to appoint," "to set in place." Hupotasso, "subjection," means that I put myself under. I make the decision to align myself under the authority of someone, and I willingly recognize the authority of that person. That's what submission means.
The picture is of the kids at a chaotic playground at an elementary school, and then a lady gets up and blows her whistle and says, "Line up, children," and the children go from chaos to lining up. They've been told that the teacher is the authority. The kids line up and they say, "Okay, recess is over—get in the line." That's a perfect picture of hupotasso. They align themselves under the authority who is there to make decisions, directives, laws, and commands. You are to line up under that and affirm their authority.
Now, the problem Christians have with this is that some of these governing authorities are bad. They're not good; they don't look like God's appointments, which is probably what our kids say about some of our babysitters. We put our kids under some babysitters and say to them, "Hey, you're in charge tonight." They are not what the kids are used to in mom and dad. But mom and dad give them the same speech every time: "You obey that babysitter. If they say it's dinnertime, it's time to eat dinner. You get in there and you eat dinner. And if the babysitter says, 'Clean up,' you clean up—you do it. And when they say it's bedtime, you go to bed. Because they are the authority for the night. You listen to the babysitter; you do what they say. You are under the babysitter's authority."
Let's say my kids see the babysitter on the phone with her bookie, making bets for the track. And they say, "Wow, dad doesn't do that—mom doesn't do that. That's not like them. You know what, I saw what you were doing, and you say it's bedtime, but I'm not going to bed. You have a gambling addiction at the racetrack. I'm not going to buy it." If the babysitter says it's time for bed, I expect my kids to obey because the babysitter is the proxy authority for the night. Even the imperfect ones. Even the ones that are really far from the parental standard of our heavenly Father.
The Bible does not differentiate for us here. It goes to great lengths to say there is no authority except from God. Those that exist, which is all the ones that do exist, have been instituted by God, and if you resist them, you're resisting something that God has appointed. You need to see our government as a bit of a babysitter, and behind it, you see the authority of God himself, though you may say, "That doesn't look like God to me." You have to submit, bring yourself under them willingly, align yourself, and say, "Yes, I will respond with submission and respect and obedience in all but a few cases."
Let's look at one more passage on this—1 Peter 2:13. That says it as clearly as any. Now, Paul wrote in A.D. 57—Peter is writing in A.D. 62 or 63, so Nero is well into his absolutely, notoriously sinful and immoral reign in Rome. Peter takes it even further. Look at verse 13: "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority."
First, if God tells us to do it, then we do it. Even if we can't do it for the person in office, we do it for God. That's what Peter says in verse 13. There's our nasty word again: "submission," hupotasso, be subject, get under, and affirm their authority over you—"For the Lord's sake." "To every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority"—and who was the emperor? Nero—"or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right" (1 Pet. 2:13-14).
"For the Lord's sake" is a good phrase to bracket. I am subject for the Lord's sake, because behind my leaders I've got to see God. It's hard to see God in my leaders sometimes—as clearly it was with Nero—but I see God behind my leaders, whether it is the PTA president or the President of the United States: to every human institution, "whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right. For it is God's will" (1 Pet. 2:13-15).
Did you catch that? "God's will." This is what God wants for us. "For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people," those who are always looking at us as rabble-rousers and troublemakers, and we're always trying to mess up the apple cart. But now, we're supposed to be the opposite. We are in subjection. It's the will of God, and we can silence their ignorant and foolish speculation. We are not insurrectionists.
Verse 16 says, "Live as free people"—because they're really not ultimately your boss; they're proxy bosses—"but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil." It would be evil for you to disregard those proxy authorities, because in verse 15, it says it's the will of God that you do submit to them. So don't be evil, but live as servants of God. That's what the phrase "for the Lord's sake" means. I obey, I submit, I respect, I honor, I pay my taxes, and I do it for God's sake, as a servant of God. "Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor" (1 Pet. 2:17).
By the way, it couldn't be any stronger than that for a guy who, after the Roman fire of A.D. 64, ends up turning the state's persecution against Christians and—in that—kills two of their most prominent leaders: the author of Romans 13:1-7, and the author of 1 Peter. Peter and Paul both died at the hands of Nero. Well, had they known that, would they have written these verses? Yes, because Paul is saying very clearly that every human authority and every leader is instituted by God.
A distinctively Christian disagreement
I'm not saying you agree with your leaders. Do you think Paul and Peter agreed with the homosexual marriages going on in the Roman palace? No way. They clearly preached God's Word about God's design for marriage. They don't agree with them. But here's what you need to understand, which is really going to ruin your daytime talk radio habits. You can disagree, but you need to disagree in a distinctively Christian manner. Even those who call themselves "Christians" are voicing vitriol and hostility, the slander we hear every day across the airwaves. It is not a Christian response.
Here is what the Bible says in Titus 3. You can disagree, but you've got to do it this way. Titus is the pastor, and Paul is telling Titus what to preach to his congregation. He says here in verse one, "Remind the people to be subject"—there it is, hupotasso—"to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, …" Now, there's a comma there after "good," and not a period, right? There's no new subject here; keep reading on in verse two: "To slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone."
Now, if you don't disagree, that's great, but you have to disagree within the confines of verse two: because of your submission to governing authorities, you cannot speak evil, you cannot quarrel, you have to be gentle, and you have to show perfect courtesy. Even in governments like ours, that allow us an avenue through which to dissent and even provide revolutionary opinions, this is the governing constitution for Christians. I don't speak evil, I avoid quarreling, I've got to be gentle, and I've got to show perfect respect or courtesy toward all people.
Why? Here is the perspective in verse number three, as the thought continues: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Do you see what he's implicating here? That our leaders—like Nero—may be this way, but that's not who we are anymore, and you ought to have sympathy when you look at our leaders and you can't stand what you see. The perspective here is that you better dissent with the right attitude, because their foolishness, their disobedience, their enslavement was ours. We recognize our testimony, and we have a distinctively Christian disagreement.
There is a time to dissent; there is even a time for us to say, "We cannot do that—we have to go this direction." That is fine. But all the time, our attitude needs to be: "We respect the authority, even when we disagree with the one in authority." That's critically important. We have lost most of that in our society. It used to be a tenet of American culture, but it's not anymore. Now we make sport of being disagreeable, angry, and speaking evil of one another, particularly our leaders.
All authority is from God
Let's consider the statement that all authority is from God. Every authority has been instituted by God, and all authorities have been appointed by God, and let's start to recognize that doesn't just include the good leaders and the good authorities. Let's abandon the naïve views of God's sovereignty, because that's precisely what I'm talking about. I hate to say it, but that's probably a very popular view in church: certainly across the board and even in churches like ours. We think, "Hey, if it's good, God gave it, and if it's bad—well, we did that, and God had nothing to do with it." Let's try and challenge that a little.
In Daniel 4, Israel was having some bad political days. As a matter of fact, the Knesset—their parliament—had been disbanded. Now, who is Daniel, and where is he, and how did he get there? Sunday school grads all know the answers to those questions. Daniel was a Jew, and he was a young Jewish boy who was bright and intelligent. He was a prisoner, and he was in Babylon. He wasn't even in Israel, Judah, or Jerusalem. He was miles away across the desert, in the Mesopotamian region of Babylon, and he was a conscripted prisoner of the Babylonian court—King Nebuchadnezzar in particular.
How did that all come to be? Well, Nebuchadnezzar—the guy he was working for—had swept his armies up over the northern portion of the desert, gone into Jerusalem, killed the armies of Israel, ransacked the city, taken all the gold, and leveled the sacred temple, the center of worship. Then he took all the rich people he didn't kill back to Babylon. He took the bright young hopefuls, the Harvard prospects; he took them all to Babylon and put them in his personal service. All he left in Israel were the poor, the poverty-stricken, and the wanderers about the decimated streets of God's Promised Land.
That is the pagan, ungodly, despotic leader and Daniel is working for him. God is giving Nebuchadnezzar dreams, and God is enabling Daniel to interpret those dreams. Chapter four has the second dream that he is relaying to Daniel. We're going to pick up the narrative as he says to Daniel, "Hey, here is what I dreamed," and what we're going to find out about the dream is that this was a portent to what would happen to Nebuchadnezzar. He was going to go through everything described here, including this time of becoming like an animal and wandering around, eating grass, growing his fingernails real long, and acting like a beast. Here he is, telling Daniel the dream that predicts his own demise: temporary though it was.
This is the dream as he relays it: "Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him. The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict." That's another reference to the angelic class. So here it comes: they're mediating the message from God. What's the message? It's that "so that the living may know that 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."
Now, that's a weird time to say such a thing, because it looks like the good guys are losing—and they are. You mean to tell me God's in charge? Yes, he rules the kingdom of men. He doesn't rule it directly—he rules it through the proxies on the planet that he put there, and that's what it says next. He gives "all kingdoms on earth … to anyone he wishes." They don't just happen; it's not random. It's really not about elections, battles, wars, and campaigns. It's about God choosing these things. As one old pastor said, "There's really only one electoral vote." God is doing it all. He gives it to whom he will. And if you think, "Wow, how did that guy possibly get power?", then look at the next phrase: "and sets over them the lowliest of people."
That's what Nebuchadnezzar needed to recognize about himself: you are nothing unless God puts you there. By the way, that's a reminder of what Jesus said when he stood before the leaders and Pilate said, "Hey, I got the authority to kill you." Remember what Jesus said? "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above" (John 19:11). This is the point of the passage. The Most High rules the kingdoms of men, and he gives that ruler-ship to whom he will, and he sets over it even the lowliest of men. That's what we're thinking sometimes: How did that guy get there? Well, that's God at work. That was something Nebuchadnezzar was about to learn, because all these bad things he just dreamed about were going to happen to him.
But turn back to Daniel 2. Daniel already knew all this and had actually already said all of this. This is how God operates. There is no naïve view of God's sovereignty here. Look at Daniel 2:19b-20: "Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said, 'Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; / wisdom and power are his."
Now, you have some wisdom, and you have some power. Some of you have more wisdom than others; some of you have more might than others. You're in positions of power, and you have things. But here's what you need to learn about this passage: it's all on loan from God. God possesses that, and he gives it out. To put it in philosophical terms, as Paul addressed the professors of Athens in Acts 17:28, "For in him we live and move and have our being." There is not a synapse firing in the hard drive of your brain that does not function or explode based on the command and involvement of God. We're not deists; God didn't create it and walk away. He is actively involved, so much so that Paul writes the Colossians and says, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17).
The next line in Daniel is "[h]e changes times and seasons" (Dan. 2:21). Well, no, that's based on the rotation of the planet, and that's all based on the orbit around the sun, and that's why time's as … yeah, but the six septillion-ton rock we call "Earth," spinning at 1,000 miles per hour through the cold vacuum of interplanetary space, wasn't the cause of an explosion. Sorry, Dawkins. According to the Bible, that thing is spinning without any fuel tank, and it's not plugged into anything because God is keeping it going. God is doing the work. He changes times and seasons. When it comes to votes or campaigns or military wars, "he deposes kings and raises up others" (Dan. 2:21). God is taking responsibility for all this. He's got it all: he hands the wisdom and might out, he changes seasons and times, he removes kings, and he sets up kings. "He gives wisdom to the wise / and knowledge to the discerning. / He reveals deep and hidden things; / he knows what lies in darkness" (Dan. 2:22). He has no problem with knowledge; He knows it all. "[A]nd light dwells with him" (Dan. 2:22): it's like he's got a flashlight on his forehead. He sees it all. "I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors: / You have given me wisdom and power, / you have made known to me what we asked of you, / you have made known to us the dream of the king" (Dan. 2:23). He thanks God for giving the interpretation of the dream, and he goes on to talk about it.
Drop down to verse 36: he describes it, and it relates to Nebuchadnezzar. "This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king." It's the statue dream—the statue with the head of gold and the feet of clay. "Your Majesty, you are the king of kings" (Dan. 2:37). Is there a capital "k" on the first "king of kings" there? He is the monarch, the ruling monarch of Mesopotamia that had conquered all the ancient known world, so he is the king of all the lords and the kings of the ancient Near East. He is the despot of the world at the time. It's like the Roman emperors of later times.
Now notice this: "The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory" (Dan. 2:37). It's all on loan from God. "[I]n your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold," the head on the statue.
What's the point? The point is there is only one electoral vote. The bad kings like Nebuchadnezzar aren't something that God "lets happen" or "allows": it's something that God causes and does. Do you see the difference there? Can you extract that from your vocabulary when you say, "How could God let this happen?" That's a ridiculous question. God doesn't let it happen, unless you have an immature, naïve view of God's sovereignty. God causes it to happen. God decrees it to happen. God does it. Well, just the good presidents, right? No. He certainly doesn't put the bad dictators and tyrants in place, right? Yes, he does put them in place. All I'm doing is extrapolating on the basic phrases in Romans 13. God institutes them and appoints them: they're all from him, even the worst of them, the pagan Babylonian dictator. Those are phrases that are very biblical, as spelled out in the Bible.
The Lord has done it
One more passage on this before I leave this thought—Isaiah 44. This is true of every ruler, every power, every governor, every king, every prince, and every leader: everybody who is in a position of power is there because God has placed them there. Do you know how many verses I started writing down when I started thinking, "How can I communicate the all-encompassing complete and exhaustive involvement of God in every leader in the world?" It's everywhere in the Bible. God is putting people up in places and positions of power.
You think Babylon is bad enough, but here's another king who is being prophesied about through Isaiah. Now this is about 700 B.C., 200 years before the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. If you know anything about Isaiah, you've got the first 39 chapters and also a lot of bad news. You get to chapter 40 and things look much more positive, because God is saying, "Even though the bad things are coming on you, and Babylon is going to take you into captivity, I haven't forgotten you. I love you, you're my covenant people, and there is a future for you guys." From chapters 40-66, we get a lot of encouraging things that Handel's Messiah was written from this section. Well, in this discussion, he says, "After the Babylonians take you away, I'm going to bring you back." Here is how he describes it.
"Remember these things, Jacob for you, Israel, are my servant. / I have made you" (Isa. 44:21). You weren't a random action of procreation; this isn't a random consolidation of nomadic tribes that got together and made a nation. No, God put them together, God formed them, and God created this group. "[Y]ou are my servant; / Israel, I will not forget you" (Isa. 44:21). God did this for a reason. When it comes to their sin, God knows he's going to send them off to Babylon, but he wants to let them know something: "I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, / your sins like the morning mist. / Return to me." This is what's going to happen historically; after 70 years, they're going to come back—"for I have redeemed you" (Isa. 44:22). He has paid a price to cancel out their sins. "Sing for joy, you heavens, for the Lord has done this" (Isa. 44:23). You want a simple phrase for the sovereignty of God? Here it is. God is taking credit for what happens: he has done it. "[S]hout aloud, you earth beneath. / Burst into song, you mountains, / you forests and all your trees" (Isa. 44:23). Now, God, how can you get off talking to all the trees of the forest? They are his. This is a great verse about his overarching supremacy, his sovereignty over all things. "[F]or the Lord has redeemed Jacob"—we all ought to cheer this—"he displays his glory in Israel" (Isa. 44:23). That's his redemptive purpose: to glorify himself.
Verses 24-26 say, "This is what the Lord says— / your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: / I am the Lord, / the Maker of all things, / who stretches out the heavens, / who spreads out the earth by myself, / who foils the signs of false prophets / and makes fools of diviners, / who overthrows the learning of the wise / and turns it into nonsense, / who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, / who says of Jerusalem" now here's the pertinent part—"'It shall be inhabited.'"
We had a bunch of prophecies that Jerusalem is going to be decimated and uninhabited; now you're going to say that God makes a decree and decides in heaven that it's going to be inhabited? "[O]f the towns of Judah, 'They shall be rebuilt,' / and of their ruins, 'I will restore them'"—oh, they will be ruined, but God is going to raise them back up—"who says to the watery deep, 'Be dry, / and I will dry up your streams,' / who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd" (Isa. 44:26-28). Do you know who Cyrus is? Cyrus is the Persian king after Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, Nabopolassar, all these Babylonian kings. Cyrus wins a battle in 539 B.C. and wipes out the power structure of the Mesopotamian despot, who was really the despot of the whole world: the Babylonian emperor. Now the Persians are in charge.
You know how far removed this is from Israel and all that's going on in Israel? We have now the conqueror of the one who conquered Israel, and God is saying, "You're my shepherd. I'm going to use you to direct things and people. The Persian king—he's my shepherd." Get this clear: Cyrus "will accomplish all that I please" (Isa. 44:28). Was he a Christian? No. Do you understand that every single ruler, every leader, every president, every king, every minister of every government of every panel of every cabinet, every prime minister, is placed there by God, and you can put their name right there in Cyrus's place? They are his shepherds, and they fulfill his purpose.
Why would God bring us such bad people? Well, have you ever thought for a minute that it's maybe because we're bad? We've got to think this through. Part of what God does in appointing leaders is doing what he wants, and you need to recognize that a lot of it is in response to our sin.
Isaiah wrote this was around 700 B.C.; Cyrus wasn't even born yet. When Cyrus's mom was picking out Cyrus's name, she was playing right into the hands of what Isaiah had written in probably 712 B.C.. Cyrus was named in the Scripture, right here before he ever won his first battle, before he ever sucked his thumb, before he was ever born. What does God say? He did that for his purpose. "[Cyrus] will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt,' / and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid'" (Isa. 44:28). Why is that important? Who was the one who decreed that Israel be rebuilt, that Jerusalem be rebuilt? Cyrus. That's exactly what God appointed him for.
Let's go to chapter 45. "This is what the Lord says to his mashia, to Cyrus" (Isa. 45:1). In this translation, mashia is "anointed." Mashia is the Hebrew word for "messiah." In Greek, it's christos. Christos is translated "Christ," "Messiah." It's translated here as "anointed" because that's what a messiah is: it is someone who had been anointed. Kings were anointed, at least in Jerusalem. They were anointed to show they were sanctioned by God to be the leader, the messiah.
We call Christ the "Christ" and the "Messiah" because he is the ultimate King of Kings, but every king was seen from Israel's perspective as being anointed. When Cyrus was anointed—if they even had anointing in Persia—or when Nebuchadnezzar or Nabopolassar or Tiglath-Pileser was sanctioned as the great leader of his nation, what did God have to do with that? Well, God had everything to do with that. He says, "He is my anointed one." When the candidate wins, God stands back and says, "That was my candidate." What? Yes. Good, bad, or ugly, God is appointing people for his purposes. As a matter of fact, he brings them through their campaign strategies.
Isaiah 45:1 continues: "whose right hand I take hold of"—in this case, Cyrus wins battles in the Ancient Near East to become king—"to subdue nations before him." That battle was in 539 B.C., against the biggest world ruler, Babylon. "[A]nd to strip kings of their armor, / to open doors before him / so that gates will not be shut: / I will go before you" (Isa. 45:1-2). Now we think of that for missions work and pastoral candidates and evangelistic crusades, but he sang that about a pagan Persian king who was going to conquer the Babylonian king.
"[A]nd will level the mountains; / I will break down gates of bronze / and cut through bars of iron. / I will give you hidden treasures, / riches stored in secret places" (Isa. 45:2-3). "No," God is saying, "these aren't good bounties, but you're going to get them because I am going to make you win." "[S]o that you may know that I am the Lord, / the God of Israel, who summons you by name. / For the sake of Jacob my servant, / of Israel my chosen, / I summon you by name / and bestow on you a title of honor, / though you do not acknowledge me" (Isa. 45:3-4).
If you think God only chooses candidates or leaders or emperors or dictators or whoever they might be because they're God's person, you need to understand that this person could be counted among those people who don't even know God, but God is putting them in positions of power. "I am the Lord, and there is no other" (Isa. 45:5)—that means God is in charge, God does this, God is running the whole planet. "[A]part from me there is no God. / I will strengthen you, / though you have not acknowledged me" (Isa. 45:5): that's the mystery of God's providence. "[S]o that from the rising of the sun / to the place of its setting / people may know there is none besides me" (Isa. 45:6). God is in charge; God is running this thing. In him all things consist.
"I am the Lord, and there is no other. / I form the light and create darkness, / I bring prosperity and create disaster; / I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isa. 45:6-7). Do you still have an immature, naïve view of God's sovereignty? These verses should solve the problem. He puts good kings in place and bad ones in place. He puts good candidates up and in the office, and he puts bad ones in the office. He does it; he's in charge. When it's good, of course, that's the end product: that's his goal, working all things together for some eschatological good. "You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; / let the clouds shower it down. / Let the earth open wide, / let salvation spring up, / let righteousness flourish with it" (Isa. 45:8). That's the ultimate end. "I, the Lord, have created it" (Isa. 45:8).
Now, this may sound familiar: "Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, / those who are nothing but potsherds / among the potsherds on the ground. / Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'" No, that's ridiculous. Clearly potters have rights over the clay. Do you still have this kind of peer perspective with you and God? Do you think God's just our helper? Do you understand that the transcendent God of the universe does whatever he wants with the powers of men, with the will and power that he dispenses and delegates to the people to plan it? God does this. Every ruler is in place by God.
You may look at God's grand scheme and say, "Why did Cyrus come to power, and why did Cyrus win the Babylonian battle of 539 B.C.?" Well, people said, "Because he's a great leader." Here's a quote about the Persian Empire, about Cyrus: "Following his death, Cyrus became a figure of legend, credited with political shrewdness and military ability. Many in the Greek world saw Cyrus as the ideal leader." Okay, I realize that, but there is not a single thing Cyrus did that God didn't plan, decree, and do for a greater purpose. He was a pawn in all of this. I know that's very demeaning for us as human beings: to recognize that God is God and we're not. That would be a good place to start for Christians, a good place for us to go on a Sunday morning at church. God is God. There is no other. God is sovereign; we are not. God decides who is going to be in charge of the PTA and the United Nations. He does that—good, bad, or ugly.
As Paul said to the Corinthians, "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7). I mean, I guess it's okay to tip your hat to Cyrus, because those are great battles, but don't let him take all the credit—God did this work through him, regardless of how all the elections work out, regardless of what happens with all the revolutions in the Middle East, regardless of what happens in Knesset or in Israel, whatever happens anywhere.
I'm not asking you to be passive. But let's start with this foundational principle: the authorities that exist, exist from God. Because of that, we have to align ourselves under whatever human government we find ourselves under. In doing so, we affirm the proxy leadership of God—no matter how flawed that leadership may be—because it is God's plan for the person to lead their country with the leadership that is in place, to have the judicial system run by the judicial judges that sit in place, to have the things happening all over the world happen, whether they are good or bad, moral, or immoral. Because of that, we need to—with a great sense of peace in our hearts—do what the Bible asks us to. We need to submit and we need to pray; it asks us to do this all the time.
Just one more verse, in 2 Kings 25. Nebuchadnezzar had come in and routed Zedekiah, the last king of the southern kingdom. There were some righteous people there who said, "What do we do now?" Here is what God said: "Do not be afraid of the Babylonian officials … Settle down in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it will go well with you" (2 Kings 25:24). God is saying, "Don't be afraid; it's all part of my plan."
In the meantime, we pray. Is that not what Paul asked us to do? We need to pray, pray for them. That feels weird because we don't agree with them, but that's all right: pray for them. The church leader Tertullian of Carthage, in the second century and the turn of the third century, wrote this about his prayer for his leaders: "Without ceasing, for all our emperors, we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged, we pray for security for the empire, we pray for protection to the Imperial House, we pray for brave armies, we pray for a faithful senate, we pray for virtuous people. We pray for a world at rest. Whatever as man or Caesar an emperor would wish, we pray."
If we become people who—with respect and honor—recognize the proxy authority and the sovereignty of God, that's going to silence the foolish talk of our critics. As God said to the Israelites in 2 Kings 25, we are not afraid. We will live in the kingdom, we will submit to the king (even if he's the king of Babylon), and it will go well with us. The babysitter may be really bad, depending on the political cycle, but let's be submissive for the sake of our heavenly Father.
Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.