Citizens of Heaven
You may have heard that there is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” While likely apocryphal, this “curse” does say something about human nature and desires. The kinds of things that make front-page news, the kinds of things that are “interesting,” are often quite unpleasant or downright horrible. Wars are “interesting.” Natural disasters are “interesting.” Ebola outbreaks are “interesting.” ISIS is “interesting.” Given the nature of that which is interesting, I think it is safe to say that most of us would prefer to live in boring times.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election season has certainly been “interesting” as well. The anger of many American citizens has propelled nontraditional candidates to the forefront of the debates and discussions in both major parties. All of this is forcing Christians in America, once again, to think through some important questions. And these questions are relevant not only to Christians in America, but also to Christians in every nation. How are we as followers of the King of kings to relate to the kingdoms of this world? How do we respond if the nation in which we live is or becomes tyrannical and oppressive toward Christians?
In order to answer such questions, one of the first things we must do is have a realistic grasp of our actual situation. We must understand, for example, that Christians in 2016 are not the first to live in “interesting times.” The invasion of Rome by barbarians was interesting. The Black Plague was interesting. World War I and World War II were interesting. Every generation has lived in “interesting times.”
Furthermore, the people of God both before and after the incarnation have repeatedly suffered under tyrannical and oppressive governments. If we are at all familiar with Scripture, this should never come as a surprise. Jesus clearly informed His followers: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19). When the people of God faithfully follow Him, walking in holiness, the enemies of God will hate them.
In the Old Testament, the people of God suffered in Egypt under Pharaoh. This should not have been a surprise because God had told Abraham that this was exactly what would happen: “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be a afflicted for four hundred years” (Gen. 15:13).
Note the word “sojourners.” Several times throughout the Torah, Moses commands Israel to treat strangers justly because they too were once “sojourners” in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). The same word is also used to describe Israel in her own land (Lev. 25:23; 1 Chron. 29:10–15). Even for Israel, that piece of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean was never her ultimate home. The faithful were always looking for a better country, a heavenly country (cf. Heb. 11:13–16).
Faithful Israelites also suffered in the Babylonian exile. As a result of gross apostasy and idolatry, the ultimate covenant curse fell upon Israel (cf. Lev. 26:33; Deut. 28:64). We can learn much from faithful Israelites such as Daniel, who lived under the rule of the Babylonians. He and other God-fearing Jews submitted to the rulers with respect, and obeyed them as long as what was commanded of them did not require them to sin (Dan. 3; 6).
When we turn to the New Testament, we see the same basic principles applied to the situation of Christians. Jesus and the first-century Christians lived under an idolatrous and oppressive Roman government. Its laws did not correspond fully with God’s laws. Worship of the emperor was expected. Corrupt and wicked men were found at every level of leadership. Because of this, many Jews at the time called for armed rebellion against Rome, but every attempt at insurrection led to brutal repression and massacres.
What about Jesus? How did He instruct His followers in regard to their relationship to the Roman civil magistrates? Did he call for insurrection? For tax revolt? No, when the Pharisees and Herodians attempted to trap Him, asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” He confounded them by saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:15–23). Paul instructs believers in exactly the same way, saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7).
Paul and the other New Testament authors provide us with several basic principles that help us answer that question and that help us understand our relationship as believers to earthly civil magistrates. First, we are clearly told who we are. As believers in Christ, we are citizens of heaven. As Paul puts it: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Peter uses the language we encountered in the Old Testament and calls us “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:13). Jesus Christ is our King. We are, first and foremost, citizens of His kingdom. Our relationship to the lands in which we were born, then, is somewhat comparable to that of an ambassador who lives in a foreign land. We may have a love for the land in which we temporarily reside, but there is always a homesickness. We long to see our true King.
Second, Scripture clearly tells us who the earthly civil magistrates are. According to Paul, they are God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They are “ministers of God” (v. 6). Their authority has been given to them by our sovereign God, so we must understand that they have been “instituted by God” (v. 1). From the most benevolent kings to the most wicked emperors, from the wisest of senators to the most foolish of presidents, all of them have been placed in their positions of authority by our sovereign God.
This means, third, that as Christians we are to submit to these earthly authorities. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1, cf. v. 5). We are to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). Furthermore, because we know that God has placed us under these authorities, we are to be subject to them, not in a begrudging way, but in a way that demonstrates respect (Rom. 13:7; 1 Peter 2:18). Peter told the Christians to whom he wrote, for example, to “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
Fourth, Christians are repeatedly instructed to do what is good (Rom. 13:3; 1 Peter 2:15; 3:8–17). Peter writes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:12). Of course, doing good means that if the civil magistrate commands us to sin, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:27–32).
What does all of this mean for Christians today? Recognizing who we are and where our true citizenship rests should help us view the various nations in which we now live from a truly biblical perspective. Resting in the sovereignty of God means that we do not allow ourselves to be swayed by the politics of anxiety and fear. We do not give in to hysteria because we know our Lord reigns even when the nations rage (Ps. 2). Because our citizenship is in heaven, our hopes do not ride on earthly election results. We do not hope in candidates with “Messiah complexes.” We already have a Messiah. We work for truth, and we vote for candidates who we believe will make an effort to support truth, but our world does not end if the candidates for whom we vote do not win the day. Our Father in heaven is sovereign and wise and is in control. Our ultimate hope is not in any election. Our hope is in our Father in heaven.
Furthermore, understanding the biblical teaching means that we do not let an appropriate love of our homeland (patriotism) devolve into idolatry. We do not say, “My country right or wrong,” because sin is sin no matter who commits it. However, we also do not let disappointment with the faults and follies of our nation lead us to despair or cynicism. We do not drop out and cease to speak the truth when a Supreme Court ruling does not go our way. But we also do not call evil good or good evil in order to win the love of the world. Our goal must not be to get the world to love us but to proclaim the gospel in order that God might call more of His enemies out of the darkness of the world (Rom. 5:8–10).
Knowing that earthly authorities are ministers of God also means that Christians do not engage in disrespectful mockery and dishonoring of those whom God has placed in positions of authority. Our sovereign God placed George W. Bush over the United States for eight years, and He more recently placed Barack Obama over the United States. In both cases, He did so for His own good and wise reasons.
Ultimately, if we understand what Scripture teaches on these subjects, we know that our God is sovereign, and we trust Him fully. We are to live, therefore, with a hope that rests in our sovereign King Jesus. To Him be all glory and honor.