Revolutionizing Race Relationships

September 18, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #2

You are all sons of God though faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Jew-Gentile Relationship

The first century Roman world was in some ways remarkably tolerant concerning race and even religion. According to the Caesar as long as subservient conquered people would pay homage to the Roman gods along with the Emperor and obey Roman rule they were pretty much left alone to pursue their native culture and religion. If a nation refused to do so, then such tolerance ended. Jews in Palestine were such a people. Israel was a hotbed of rebellion. This ultimately led in 70 A.D. to the complete and utter desolation of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple—the Jewish cultural and religious center.

At the core of the Jewish rebellion was a desire to be free to pursue their own interests as a nation including the practicing of their religion. Embedded within this core was a prejudicial attitude toward non-Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus noted that the Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247; Apion, 2.210). This separateness evolved out of certain requirements of the Law. Because of their dietary requirements, ceremonial cleansing, and other such practices, most Jews viewed non-Jews as unclean. The physical mark of circumcision also separated the Jews from the rest of the population. This led to elitism and an entrenched prejudice toward non-Jewish people. As expected a pushback to this occurred from among non-Jews. In general the Jew-Gentile relationship in the first century was not a healthy one.

This is evident in Christ’s ministry. As he expanded the idea of God’s kingdom, he often prodded at the Jewish elitism identifying non-Jews as the heroes of stories (the Good Samaritan for example). He continually challenged the status quo. He wanted them to see the revolutionary nature of the kingdom of God. It was no longer just a Jewish domain nor was it ever designed to remain so. Then the apostle Paul—more than anyone else as he carried out his “ministry of reconciliation” among non-Jewish people—dealt with the struggle of Jew/Gentile racism within the church. One commentator writes of this:

From the Jews, whose view of Gentiles was filtered by Levitical prescriptions for ethnic purity, came accusations that Paul’s Gentile inclusiveness had polluted God’s covenant to His people. After all, the majority of Gentiles led unceremoniously unclean lives and held Judaism’s mores in contempt. From the Gentiles, whose view of the Jews was marked a by derogatory racial superiority, there arose a sense that Paul was futilely pandering to his kinsmen. After all, the Jews rejected their Messiah, seemingly forgoing God’s favor on them. For Paul to conjoin Jews and Gentiles together as the co-recipients of the gospel’s salvific power was to offer a gospel liable to shame from both ethnic groups.*

Fruther commentary:

The greatest threat to the Christian faith in the first century was racism. Jews and Gentiles detested each other. Both Jews and Gentiles perpetrated stereotypes. Both made false assumptions about the other. Both Jews and Gentiles thought the best way to live was at an advantageous distance from the other.*

Into all of this Paul speaks the words of Galatians 3:26-28 and it was totally revolutionary, radical and scandalous. It spoke to the very way people for generations had been identifying themselves—and proudly so–by their race, heritage and culture.

Galatia

The situation among the churches in Galatia was fairly typical of the racial dynamic of the day. Many Jews within the Galatian churches refused to accept non-Jews unless they also embraced certain Jewish traditions and customs. Paul refused this—calling their teaching “another gospel.” It was all about identity and there was just one identity that mattered—that of being in Christ. It superseded all others. In him there is neither Jew nor Greek. Within the kingdom of God our very identities are transformed. Our race takes a back seat to our faith. This was the revolutionary message to the Galatian churches then and remains so.

In Christ Race is Revolutionized

Jesus, through his death and resurrection, dramatically ripped apart the barriers of hostility that divide races (Ephesians 2:14). He is the God of both the Jew and non-Jew (Romans 3:29-30). He is the God of both black and white and every nation and tongue. It is in him and through his power that prejudice is overcome and a new revolutionary way of thinking about race and identity is lived out.

  • Redefine our Primary Identity. No longer are we to identify ourselves first as Jew/Gentile or back/white, etc. Our clothing has changed! We wear Christ as our primary identity. Even further our primary citizenship is no longer within the nation we reside. Instead it is in the kingdom of God. When we put on Christ in baptism—everything changes including the way we view ourselves. We identity first with him and his kingdom. Our priorities are revolutionized. We discover a new way of viewing other people. We are adopted into a family with a different set of values.
  • Racism is replaced with acceptance (Romans 15:7). We learn to accept each other in Christ Jesus. We are set free from suspicion and separation. It is Christ who binds us together in his grace. What brings us together in him becomes more valuable than what separated us before him. Instead of making worldly assumptions about one another based upon race or other factors, we are moved with the compassion of Jesus to accept and embrace one another based upon the fact that he saved us all with the same sacrifice. No one is superior to any other. Paul stated it clearly—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Who are we to consider ourselves better than anyone else (Romans 2:1-2)?
  • Relationships are revolutionized. They are, in fact, redeemed in Jesus. The old way of thinking is revolutionized. In God’s kingdom relationships are based upon God’s grace. In Christ we are made to be one people—not many. Race is secondary. Christ is primary. Since he destroyed all the barriers of separation, we are now set free to embrace, accept and love each other in a way that can be found no where else—a revolution of relationships that mark us as citizens of God’s kingdom.

What emerges from this is a true post-racial community. (It is not a community free of the reality of race. Nowhere does God ask us to ignore our racial heritage and culture. Paul allowed Jewish Christians to continue to practice circumcision, dietary customs and keep Jewish holy days—as long as it never superseded their kingdom identity or they attempted to enforce them upon non-Jewish Christians). It is a community that simply refuses to allow race to be the dividing line; to create hostility and separation; or to undermine the unity of God’s kingdom. It acknowledges that racism is sin in any and every form. It strives to present the kingdom alternative—the revolutionary idea that race is not primary, but Christ is. It is the revolutionary nature of the kingdom—a place that looks like this:

After this I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! –Revelation 7:9-10

Want to revolutionize race relations in our world? The only way is Jesus. The only place is in his kingdom.

 

Both quotes are taken from article entitled. “The Gospel, Unashamed: Race Relations in Rome, Part 2 on the Downline Ministry Blogpost of July 17, 2016. 

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The Kingdom of God is Revolutionary

September 11, 2017

The following is the introductory lesson for my fall class series at Levy–The Kingdom Revolution. More to follow. 

We may not really think about the kingdom in revolutionary terms, but it is so. It was as Jesus began more fully introducing the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount and then as he lived it out within the context of his ministry. It was as he died on the cross only to be resurrected three days later. It was when the first Christians changed an empire by faithfully living out the kingdom in taking Good News throughout the world. It remains so today—even if we do not fully understand or embrace it.

At the dawn of the in-breaking of the kingdom—before Jesus gathered a crowd around him on the Sea of Galilee to proclaim blessings and reimagine narrowly interpreted Scripture—God’s message to people had become muted, corrupted and reshaped into a stale repetition of ordinances and rabbinical traditions, which were mostly disconnected to the practical needs of daily life. Yes, there was an expectation of a Messiah and the coming of the kingdom, but no one ever expected the Messiah and kingdom that actually came. The Jews certainly did desire a revolution, but nothing like the one that really happened.

In some ways this mirrors our experiences today. As Christianity has become institutionalized we run similar risks of muting the revolutionary nature of the kingdom lest it upset the institution itself. We welcome the Messiah and the idea of kingdom, but too often attempt to micromanage both. Revolutions are not micromanaged however. They turn worlds upside down and change everything.

Everything Changed

One way to measure a revolution is the reaction to it from those whom it threatens the most. In terms of the kingdom of Christ this became obvious as entrenched religious leaders opposed Jesus. They saw him—and rightly so—as a threat to their orthodoxy. They recognized how his revolutionary teaching would change everything. What they failed to recognize was how this was God’s will and always had been.

To paraphrase Jesus, if they had really known the law and the prophets they would have seen the revolution coming. But they were blinded by tradition, self-interests, power and pride. As everything changed around them, they stubbornly opposed it, while ultimately moving to stop it. They failed, of course. After all, who can stand in the way of God?

The revolution was his idea—his plan to send his only Son to change everything. As respected author and theologian N.T. Wright explains:

The New Testament insists in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference.”  (from The Day the Revolution Began, pg. 39)

How the world is this different place is what we will examine in this study. Hopefully it can encourage us to be or continue to be a part of the difference—kingdom revolutionaries if you will.

Three Texts

In this study we will focus on three primary biblical texts. The first will be Galatians 3:26-28. Here Paul captures how everything changes once we clothe ourselves with Christ in baptism. Our identities undergo a revolution. The old ways of identifying ourselves give way to a kingdom redefinition. In the context of the writing it was revolutionary. It remains so in our context.

The second text is 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. In addressing a context specific problem among some in the Corinthian church, Paul shares some revolutionary kingdom ideas about relationships, personal rights and use of recourses. It is the kingdom teaching of Jesus lived out in the real world, but it is not easy. Revolutions rarely are.

The last text is Romans 12-15:7. This longer context again speaks to the personal transformation process that comes with the kingdom revolution. Here Paul revolutionizes such values as love, zeal, integrity, and other personal behavior. The fact is for the revolution to actually to make a difference it has to start within. Why else would Jesus state that the kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21).

The Revolution Personified

It is no mistake that these three texts were written by the apostle Paul. His story, perhaps, like none other most clearly represents the degree of change that accompanies the kingdom revolution. Here was a man whose life so completely transformed that it barely resembled what it once had been.

Here was a Pharisee of the Pharisees; a man who completely embodied Judaism; passionate to the point of persecuting; until he met Jesus and was totally transformed. Here is how he stated it:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

Stop and read that again. “I no longer live.” Everything changed! He joined the revolution.

He did so because he became aware—as must everyone who joins the revolution—that what the kingdom offers is of far greater value than anything else anywhere else. This awareness would later lead him to say things like this:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).

Is Paul an outlier? Was this just a special dispensation asked of a man who would be an apostle—or are we all called to this? The answer to that reveals much about us. Is it truly a revolution within that changes everything or is it something less? If it is something less then can it really be a revolution? If it is not a revolution then what will really change? It is my guess that Saul of Tarsus had these questions to wrestle with once. Now it is our turn.


Money and Me

July 12, 2017

Worried About Money

So I am enjoying a kind of preaching sabbatical due to different circumstances intersecting (regular Sunday off, preaching intern, mission trip), which provides me a rare opportunity to plan my next sermons over a longer period. All year my preaching focus has been themed around “seeking first the kingdom of God”–obviously from Christ’s incredible Sermon on the Mount. During the summer I have narrowed that focus to what I call “kingdom values.” Next up my plan leads me to address the use of and attitudes toward money in the kingdom (so Levy be warned!) It will not be a “sermon on giving” (or as the classic Marvin Phillip’s line goes–a “sermon on the amount”), but rather what Christ taught about money and possessions along with how they are best used in his kingdom.

As I have been reading and ruminating over this, it has caused within me a growing tension. It has resulted in me coming face-to-face with and acknowledging my own weaknesses and failings in this regard.

It can be rather convenient for preachers to pick out our texts, work our sermon plans, and have a go at the church without ever allowing the message to become deeply personal. After all, we have to move from one sermon to the next fairly quickly. Sermons are our products. We have to produce one weekly, which often does not allow time for self-reflection. Due to the accidental sabbatical I am enjoying self-reflection opportunities right now–and it is working me over.

I admit to always having a struggle with money. I grew up with very little of it and have never managed to accumulate a great deal of it. Overspending, though, has never been much of a problem. I hate debt even though I have never been totally free from it. I don’t sense within me the love of money that is rooted in all kinds of evil. I don’t have any great internal problems or hesitancy with contributing.

It is just this–I worry too much about it.

Interestingly enough this has only increased within me as I have gotten older. It has compounded due to having younger children. I now find myself on occasion being fearful about the future–will I have enough to help them through college? What will happen if I am not able to keep working? Are we sure we have enough money to cover all our responsibilities? Some of this may seem like typical concerns. Some of it quite honestly is just an irrational lack of faith. But it is the tune Satan keeps playing for me in the recesses of my mind.

Let me make this clear however–it does not come from a kingdom perspective at all.

In fact, Christ teaches exactly the opposite. Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom and God will provide. Prioritize your money and resources from a kingdom perspective and be set free from our consumer driven social conditioning. I know this. My wife, Terri, reminds me of this quite frequently. God has always had our back, so why worry now? But I still do. Therefore the tension mounting within me.

I confess this here for a few reasons. First, confession really is a balm for the soul. It puts your struggle out there, forcing you to deal with it differently than if it is kept hidden. Second, preaching about money sometimes can be a tricky proposition. I want Levy to know that I am first preaching to myself. That my agenda is not just to challenge others to live out the kingdom values, but also to embrace them more fully myself. And third–to seek prayers from others on behalf of my struggle.

I must overcome Satan’s song with the beautiful words of Jesus:

So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or”What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. –Matthew 6:32-34

Money and me have always had a complicated relationship. More than anything I want that relationship to be better defined and prioritized God’s way. I want to be set free of the tyranny of worry and fear.

 

 


The Kingdom Difference

June 14, 2017

kingdomofgod

Recently while on vacation I met up with a good friend for lunch. As usual our discussion was wide ranging. Part of the conversation concerned how my 2017 preaching theme of seeking first God’s kingdom was transforming me—as well as my understanding of God’s kingdom—in profound and unexpected ways. The next day my friend texted me stating that he would enjoy a further conversation about this, specifically how this was personally affecting me.

I’ve ruminated over this a great deal in the few weeks since. Surprisingly I find it somewhat difficult to articulate it adequately. I have twice posted since about the impact the kingdom is making. It remains a journey for me—a process to grasp just how deep and wide the challenges of the kingdom are. Some of them I do not like. They make me uncomfortable and expose too many of my weaknesses.

But I am going to take a shot at it and attempt to explain what I am learning. To me the kingdom of God:

  • Is not about me. I really enjoy things being about me. I like to get my way. I dislike having to compromise. I generally believe that I have the best ideas and typically have a strong desire for events to turn out in my favor. But unfortunately this is not a kingdom focus—actually it is far from it. Read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)— Christ’s first public teaching about the kingdom and its values—and you will see it threaded throughout. Then later (Matthew 16:24-26) he makes it even clearer. There just is no self-focus in the kingdom and I haven’t figured out how to get around it—even though a large part of me wants to do so.
  • Is about submission. Here we go again. The kingdom is about me submitting my will to the Father’s. Christ himself emphasized this (in John’s gospel) and modeled it perfectly—in a way I cannot even imagine. In order to fully embrace God’s kingdom and thrive within it I have to give up. Period. My old self will has to die and be buried according to Paul in Romans 6:3-4. Out of that submission God will raise me up anew and begin his process of reshaping me for the kingdom. Nowhere, however, is there ever a claim that this would be easy. Worthwhile—definitely, but easy, no. I typically like easy.
  • Is others oriented. I guess at this point, this could go unsaid. I posted about the “least of these” kingdom focus earlier. They are the others.
  • Upends conventional wisdom. Starting with the idea of submitting and giving up, but going deeper. The poor, the mournful, the pure, the merciful, and even the persecuted—they are the blessed ones. Enemies? They are not to be hated and destroyed but to be loved (when was the last time I prayed for or had a loving spirit toward a terrorist? Yea. Tough.). Being first is not what matters—being last does. Have a lot of money, land and stuff? Maybe the best use of it is not to invest it to gain more stuff, but to diverse yourself of it and give it away (like many did in Acts). Someone strikes you, don’t strike back, but rather turn the other cheek. Put your swords away. Go the second mile. Those are the actions reflective of God’s kingdom. Its values indeed come from another place (John 18:36). All of this creates big-time tension within me. Can I–coming from the place of conventional wisdom–really put into practice these unconventional teachings?
  • Is all about trust. And this is where the true test for me comes. I can know all of the above in an academic, skim-the-Bible-kind of way, but do I trust God enough to personalize them and go all in? The trust-building promises are all there. Seek first and God’s got your back–no need to worry. Humble yourself and God will elevate you in his way. Give of yourselves and God will give back many times over in various ways. Be last and then become first in the kingdom. To actualize this I really have to let go of the control of my life and hand it over to God. Can I see past the short-term to grasp the endgame of God? Short-term none of this has any appeal to me. Long term? I must trust God explicitly. It is the only way to see the value of what he is asking. It is the only way to really make the kingdom become present and alive within me (Luke 17:20-21). This, as they say, has rocked my world.

This is where I am—venturing out in baby steps toward greater trust and in so doing finding God changing me; learning to view people, possessions, and priorities differently; all while being constantly confronted by the kingdom. Sometimes I manage to be selfless through it all, but sometimes I don’t. I suppose that why it is called seeking–it remains a process.

In the end it is all about God’s will. That is the kingdom difference. I find myself praying more like Jesus:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.


God and Government #4

October 27, 2016

Here is the last lesson in the series. I enjoyed teaching this at Levy over the last month. 

Our last text to consider in this study is 1 Peter 2:13-17. This is an interesting text and context out of an interesting letter. Peter’s audience was not a single church. Instead he addressed his letter to…

God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:10)

As addressed, the original recipients of this letter were Christians living in various parts of the Roman Empire. The purpose of the writing was to offer encouragement and fortification for the trials they all faced, which Peter acknowledged first in 1:6. That Peter would address them as “strangers” set the agenda for the letter. He would pick up this idea again in 2:11-12 (immediately before the text of our study). Overall his teaching focused on their calling as God’s chosen people. This calling led to an understanding that the world offered no lasting home. Here Christians are just “aliens and strangers”. Peter would detail what that looked like lived out within a hostile world. One point of emphasis within this involved living in such a way to counter criticism. One way to do that would be to submit to governing authorities.

THE TEXT

Submission to all governing authorities—specifically to kings and governors—is called upon “for the Lord’s sake.” This qualifier is significant. Remember the type of government under which these Christians lived. It was not at all favorable to Christian faith. It was often oppressive, unjust and cruel. Why submit to such an immoral governmental system? That is what God asks of his people. He asks because even such evil governments are used to “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” He asks because it is his will for his people—these strangers—to demonstrate their heavenly citizenship by “doing good” everywhere they happened to live and not to become involved in civil disobedience. Compare this text to both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-5 and there is remarkable consistency of message.

Each of these contexts (and in ours) it is taught that Christians becoming involved in rebellion against those in governmental authority would be counterproductive to the spread of the gospel of Christ. Peter further explains why it is vital for Christians to submit to their rulers—to counter criticism or as he states, “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Christians were subjects of incredible rumors and misinformation—blamed for incidents not their doing. So it was crucial for Christians to not add any fuel to the false flames. “Peaceful and quiet” lives were the apostle’s mandates.

This could be accomplished four ways:

  • Showing proper respect to everyone
  • Loving each other—the brotherhood of believers
  • Fearing God
  • Honoring the king

But what if everyone was not worthy of respect? Even in the church? What if the king was corrupt? It does not matter. This approach is coming out of a respect first of God and his will. This is all done first “for the Lord’s sake.” It is a kingdom first perspective, which takes maturity to understand and practice. Just consider the next section of teaching—to Christian slaves. They were instructed to submit, obey and respect their masters—even the “harsh” ones. Why? Because it was “commendable before God.” Why? Because “to this you were called.”

It is the same principle. Christians are not to rebel but to respect and submit to those in authority even if that authority is unjust—because in so doing the principles and message of God’s kingdom are furthered. It is exactly why Christ endured the insults and sufferings without retaliation. We benefit from his submission. Others will benefit from ours. Ultimately the kingdom of God will triumph. We have to think more broadly than just the here and now. So we honor the king (even if he is Nero), we pray for him, we do our best to live at peace with everyone by living out the kingdom values as aliens and strangers in our world. This is God’s calling and will for us.

21st CENTURY APPLICATION

So how does all of this connect to us living in a democratic form of government in the 21st century USA? To answer this—again we must remember that the NT texts were not written specifically to us or to directly answer our questions. Understanding that and doing our best to apply the teachings of these texts to our situation, here are some consistent principles to consider:

  • Do our best—regardless of the type of government under which we live to submit and live at peace. Do not engage in civil disobedience or unrest. Our kingdom citizenship supersedes any earthly citizenship and living that out is paramount.
  • Pay our taxes and our debts. Give no one the chance to slander Christ in this regard.
  • If forced obey God rather than man—just like the apostles in Acts 5:29. But remember this still does not give permission to engage in anarchy. Persecuted Christians in the first century died not fighting but praising. Eventually their example won the world.
  • We are called to “honor the king” with no qualifications—even if we do not like his politics.
  • Christians can participate in the governmental process and use their rights of citizenship in peaceful and lawful ways (as Paul did—Acts 22-29) and in ways lawfully beneficial to the spread of the kingdom. Christians should not however partner with politics in any unequal way (2 Corinthians 6:14) nor should we expect the government to be “about the Father’s business.”
  • The latter is our call and that is why the NT so emphasizes living as strangers and aliens; living peaceful lives that are in submission to those who govern us. It not through ballots or bullets that the kingdom of God will spread. It is through quiet and determined faith lived out—consistently upholding the values of God’s kingdom.

God’s call is unchanged regardless of the type of governmental system under which we live. Live first the kingdom of God. Be the best citizen possible in demonstrating what it means to be first a citizen of heaven.

 


God and Government #3

October 20, 2016

Here is the third lesson. I will post the last one next week. Thanks for the feedback so far! 

Our study takes us next to Ephesus and the text of 1 Timothy 2:1-4. Included here is a snippet from Paul to Timothy—instructions for him to pass along to the Ephesian church:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

As we continue to allow Scripture to inform us and shape our thinking/relationship with those who govern us, these words can further our understanding.

Ephesus

It is not unexpected to find Paul addressing this topic in the Ephesian context. Externally this was a church born (so-to-speak) out of a riot (Acts 19:23-41). Civil unrest had accompanied this church planting—so the idea that they would need clear instructions about not participating in such, but rather in praying for those in authority is not surprising. Further in unpacking the internal situation of the church in Ephesus—it was in turmoil due to false teaching (likely among leadership/elders) creating strife among its members, particularly young widows. A quick look at the verses following our immediate context demonstrate the situation—men needing to direct their hands toward God in prayer and not toward each other in anger and disputing. Women needing to act in accordance to God’s will in demeanor and in worship practice. In the larger picture, those in this church had issues with God-ordained authority. They were not living peaceful lives. For this to spill over and into their community (especially after already being connected to a riot) would not accomplish God’s will. So Paul urges a prayerful stance be taken toward all people, but specifically for kings and those who govern in order to live peacefully and quietly in their community. Note the connection here—peaceful lives could result from praying for/honoring those who govern. Becoming involved in civil unrest most certainly would not. One Bible commentator wrote:

“For kings and all who are in authority” The Bible does not teach the divine right of kings, but it does teach the divine will for organized government (cf. Rom. 13:1,2). The theological issue is not whether we agree with our government or whether our government is fair. Believers must pray for governmental officials because they are in God’s will in a fallen world. Believers know from Rom.13:1,2 that all authority is given by God, therefore, as followers of Christ we respect it. This statement is all the more powerful when you realize Paul is asking believers to pray for governmental leaders like Nero! (Bob Utley from Bible.org)

This was the challenge for the Ephesian Christian, but it also remains a challenge for us as well. We may not always agree with those who govern us. We may not have supported them politically. But we have been instructed to pray for them and to not engage in any civil unrest, but instead strive to live peaceful and quiet lives.

This is What Pleases God

Just in case we question this teaching, Paul clearly informs that this approach to those who govern us is “good” and is what “pleases God.” Again, this should not be unexpected. It is consistent with the other New Testament teaching on this topic (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and is exactly the approach Jesus, himself, adopted.

In using the terms “peaceful and quiet” Paul emphasized the importance of both being free from external strife and from inner turmoil. Christians must demonstrate their faith by calm living, which can be quite challenging in times of crisis and tension, but as in Ephesus—is so crucial to pointing people toward the kingdom of God and the hope it offers. Instead of turmoil our focus should be on godliness and holiness.

Why this is good and so pleasing to God is revealed in the text—God is eager for all men to be saved! This salvation comes only through Jesus. Quiet and peaceful lives; those free of the turmoil and tension of the world; those focused on the values of the kingdom instead of the vices of the world are reflective of him and will draw people to him. Conversely, lives full of unrest, engaged in disputing behavior, and demonstrating anything but peace cannot lift up Jesus.

Fairly straightforward message here—Christians are to be engaged in the kingdom business of seeking and saving the lost. Becoming involved in the kinds of disputes that arise out of political strife (or church strife for that matter) will hinder this pursuit. So, pray for those who govern and do your best to live quietly and peacefully while seeking first the kingdom of God. This is what is good and pleases God. Coming to this knowledge of truth releases strife—for everyone!

A second-generation restoration leader among churches of Christ, David Lipscomb, had very strong opinions concerning the Christian’s relationship with government. He was an influential editor of The Gospel Advocate during the early 20th century. He wrote a book entitled Civil Government. Here is an excerpt:

The principles in the Sermon on the Mount are diverse from and antagonistic to the principles that have obtained and must ever obtain in all human governments. No human government can possibly be maintained and conducted on these principles laid down for the government of Christ’s subjects in his kingdom. The spirit that prompts the practice of the principles is opposed to the spirit needful for the maintenance of human governments. The two spirits cannot dwell in the same heart, nor the same temple, or institution. A man cannot be gentle, forgiving, doing good for evil, turning the other cheek when one is smitten, praying ‘for them that despitefully use and persecute’ him, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance on the evil-doer, as the human government is ordained to do, and as it must do to sustain its authority and maintain its existence.

While we may or may not agree with him—I borrow his words to highlight that the purpose of God’s kingdom and the purpose of governments rarely intersect. In this political season—let’s more than ever depend upon and trust in God, quietly going about pursuing his will, disengaging from the anger/confusion swirling around the election, while praying for those who govern us. It is what pleases God and will accomplish more good in the end. This we can learn from Ephesus.