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« We Have Recourse to Grievance within the Law | Main | Your Economic Relationship: Jesus as True Riches »

Your Legal Relationship: Jesus as Judge 

(This post is a segment in the next chapter in my book, Hand in Hand: Deepening Your Relationship with Jesus Christ.)

Law and order has erupted into an incendiary issue in our time.  Police departments have been vilified, law enforcement officers have been targeted by assassins and protest movements have sprung up in response to perceived injustices against racial or religious groups. All this has ratcheted up social and political tension, and much confusion lingers over who is to blame in some cases.  Unfortunately, even if many situations grind their way to a resolution, attitudes and feelings are not likely to soon dissipate.  What does God think about this? Where do believers stand?  We may not have all the answers for our social order, but our view of the law must be crafted in light of our relationship to Jesus Christ. 

An old preacher once remarked that we are not citizens of this world trying to make our way to heaven; rather, we are citizens of heaven trying to make our way through this world. He expressed a noble sentiment, and true in a certain context, but we do have a temporal as well as an eternal existence.  In this world, we are governed by the powers that be, we possess political rights, we have legal standing that allows us to buy and sell, enter into contracts, and we have certain social obligations and privileges.  We play many roles other than as believers.  We are constituents, voters, taxpayers, employees, business owners, merchants, professionals, tradesmen, enlistees, patients, clients, customers, patrons, consumers, litigants, motorists and more.  Although we embrace both our rights and responsibilities as members of society, as believers, we do not exercise them independently of our faith.  Every act, role or behavior in life must grow out of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus acknowledged his social responsibility as a taxpayer.  When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes.” Matthew 17:24-25.  Jesus then told Simon to catch a fish and pay the tax with the coin he would find in the fish’s mouth.  Later, when the Pharisees tried to trap Him into an admission of a crime, He said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew 22:21.

Jesus met His obligations as a law-abiding citizen.  Since He was God incarnate, we might have expected Him to hold Himself above such petty regulations like paying temple tax.  Instead, He obeyed the laws that govern each of us in the temporal world.  The significance of His compliance cannot be overstated.  Had He broken the law, He would not have been faultless, nor would He have fulfilled the typology of the Spotless Lamb of God. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. Isaiah 53:7-8.  The sinless character of Christ enabled John to say, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29.

While we are not so commissioned as the savior of the world, nevertheless, Jesus is our example.  As believers, we must hold ourselves in a lawful obedience to those who hold jurisdiction over us.  We obey—not just because we fear punishment—but, out of respect for the law.  Let’s look at the following guidelines from Scripture as we explore the God-relationship connection to our role as citizens.

We Recognize the Powers that Be

God ordains government.  Without it, anarchy prevails.  The Apostle Paul articulates this position in Romans.  Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. Romans 13:1-3.  Yet, while affirming the truth of this scripture, we need to make an important distinction in understanding who or what ruling authority ascends to power.  God ordains government as a principle, but He allows man to determine the kind of government will prevail. 

Tyrants, despots and oppressive forms of government may rule, but they do not have the approval of God.  The Bible does not condone despotism just because it is practiced by those in power.  In these cases, rebellions, revolutions and military coups often occur as people or groups attempt to wrest power from those who hold it, or try to correct injustices they have suffered.  Power struggles and overthrows of governments have been recorded since the dawn of history, but they do not invalidate the basic principle that people need a government.  Good rulers enjoy the good will of the governed; bad rulers reap the wrath of their subjects. 

How should believers react to prejudicial treatment or laws that conflict with God’s Word?  If the situation calls for civil disobedience, then the higher law—the Word of God—should be followed.  The disciples encountered this problem.  And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:18-20. The disciples willfully disobeyed the command of the magistrate.  And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”  But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:27-29.   This final reply of Peter and the Apostles is key.  They considered themselves subservient to the higher law of God.

We should note, however, that if believers choose to disobey laws that conflict with God’s law, they must still submit themselves to whatever penalty the authorities deem necessary.  Sometimes, a Gamaliel steps in and stops the punishment.  “And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” Acts 5:38-39.  This Jewish leader spared the disciples from death, but the council still ordered them beaten. 

How did the church leaders respond to their punishment?  So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.  And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:41-42.  Indeed, there was a general anticipation that the Apostolic faith would, sooner or later, place the early church in direct conflict with Rome, or at least with the Jewish authorities.  The Apostle Peter weighs in on the subject in his first epistle.  If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. 1 Peter 4:14-16. 

We Respect Government Officials and Leaders

Although we may have political differences with those in power, it is important to still show respect and honor to them, and if not to them personally, to the office they hold.  Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 1 Timothy 2:1-2.  Two things are at work here.  First, we exhibit a Christ-like attitude when we pray for our leaders.  Jesus may have opposed the hypocritical religious leaders, but he responded to the Roman officials with respect.  Second, we fare much better through peaceful relations with the powers that be.  To stir up strife and instigate conflict runs counter to the mission of the church. 

When government policies violate our faith, or even when civil authorities abuse us, our relationship to Jesus precludes vengeful attitudes or acts.  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Romans 12:19. Those who pay back hatred for hatred and life for life operate by carnal rules.  The Philistines acted out of revenge against Israel, and God punished them.  Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because the Philistines have dealt by revenge, and have taken vengeance with a despiteful heart, to destroy it for the old hatred; Therefore, thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast. Ezekiel 25:15-16 (KJV).  Rather than revenge, Jesus exhorted His followers to respond exactly the opposite.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:38-39.

Peaceful protests do not violate the law, although there are no clear scriptural precedents for doing so.  Today’s cultural climate allows for marches, placards, symbols, speeches and other forms of protest. Indeed, many shocking acts in our world need a voice of opposition, if only to raise awareness of a particular issue.  To do so does not dishonor the government.  Believers can avail themselves of these demonstrations, but they must denounce all forms of violence or destruction of property.  We should also recognize that prayer is much more effective than political activism. 

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