Human Governments and God's Kingdom
God planned to give Israel a king to conquer their enemies and bring justice, but Israel’s choice of and trust in a king to solve their problems was a rejection of God as king. It was similar to idolatry. Our study of 1 Samuel 8 naturally brings up the question - what is the relationship between human rulers and God? Between human governments and God’s kingdom? I’d like to divide our study up into three main parts. God’s purposes with human governments, God’s conflict with human governments, and God’s plan for his kingdom in relation to human kingdoms. We will conclude with three attitudes we should adopt.
God’s Purposes with Human Governments (Romans 13:1-7)
Let’s start by considering God’s positive purposes with rulers and governments. This text is hard to read when your guy isn’t on the throne, but easy when he is.
Romans 13:1–7 (ESV), “1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.”
Notice the key messages in this text.
- We must submit to governments and rulers because all governments that exist have been instituted by God. Humans didn’t institute government, God did.
- Verses 3-4 tells us God instituted government to be a terror to bad conduct (while approving of good conduct) and to be a servant of God - an avenger - to carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers. 1 Peter 2:13-14 says a similar thing - rulers are sent by God “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
- As an ordinary citizen, it is not right for me to avenge myself because I don’t have that authority (Romans 12:19, “never avenge yourselves”). But God has given governments authority to carry out God’s wrath.
- Verse 6: this is actually why we pay taxes. God has determined that governing officials should be compensated for being his servant and dispensing justice on the evil. We may like or not like the tax rate or everything taxes are spent on, but taxes are - in principal - compensation for a job God has setup.
- Therefore, governing officials are God’s servants for our good. We must submit to authorities, pay taxes, and show respect/honor to them. We should fear them (vs. 3).
It was probably challenging to speak with respect when all the Jews - including Priscilla and Aquila - were kicked out of Rome. We can certainly see and speak of wrong things our rulers or government is doing, but speaking with respect can be challenging when we don’t like what is going on. People in the world don’t do this. We need to be different.
God’s Conflict with Human Governments
Romans 13 is a helpful foundation for our study because when we see God speaking against rulers and kingdoms in Scripture, it is often because they are failing to do their job: punish the wicked and reward the righteous.
Conflict #1: when they fail to do their job.
- This is one of the key reasons why God destroyed Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Kings 21:16, “Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another…” (cf. 2 Kings 24:3-4 — as the reason why God destroyed Jerusalem) One way Manasseh led in Judah in this was by burning up his son to an idol.
- So, God urged Jerusalem’s leaders to do their jobs. Jeremiah 22:3 (spoken to the king of Judah), “Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”
- Some Christians have recently said that we really need is a government that keeps their own laws. But that’s not the essence of God’s desire - and it sounds a lot like the Medes and Persians. In fact, God pronounces a woe on the leaders of Israel for writing oppressive laws. Isaiah 10:1–2, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” Executing justice and writing fair laws relates to a lot of different areas: taxes, property, orphans, widows, foreigners, and human life in general.
- Talk. As Christians, when we express opinions about these subjects, it is super important that we don’t use a news station, political party, or the constitution as the basis for our opinion. I often hear more Fox News and CNN in our logic than the Bible.
- Injustice here. When we see injustice we should still be respectful, but we shouldn’t give any nation’s rulers a pass when it comes to executing justice. That’s their job. The first people who came to our country were not right to kill Native Americans and kick them off their land. The founding fathers who did participate in human slave trade were not right to do so. The way rulers over us today - and in other countries - are failing to do their job by continue to allow abortion to be legal. Abortion has been a massacre of human life. We shouldn’t expect perfection - that’s for God’s kingdom. But it is the job of rulers to “deliver from the hand of the oppressor.” As Christians, we lose our saltiness if we claim to stand on God’s word, but defend governments when they fail at their job.
Conflict #2: when they become arrogant and move beyond their appointed position.
This has been a problem since the garden. Eve wanted to be God herself.
- God’s condemnation of the king of Babylon in Isaiah is the most typical. Notice Isaiah 14:13–14, “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Nebuchadnezzar notably said in Daniel 4:30, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”
- God condemned the king of Tyre for arrogance and for unrighteous trade. They used their power to control global trade for unfair personal gain. (cf. Isa. 23; Ezek. 26-28; esp. 28:18).
- God raised up the king of Assyria to punish Israel and Syria, but God condemned his arrogance when he went for Jerusalem and others - seeking a more global dominion. He thought, “This is like taking eggs from a nest” (candy from a baby; Isaiah 10:5-19).
- ***God says in these texts that he will humiliate these kings and show them how powerless they really are. God hates arrogance.
- God clearly says he gives kings and kingdoms this power (Daniel), so it’s not wrong for a nation to be blessed with prosperity and power. God can use our nation and others to punish evildoers in other nations. But, there are dangerous to being in this position.
- One danger: we use our power to advance our financial interests and global control for even greater security. I’m nervous many wars are about money.
- Another danger: attributing our security, power, and prosperity, to our own wisdom and might - as if it is purely by our design and wisdom to be great.
- We need to be careful how we think and talk. We should absolutely give thanks for our nation. Everyone should try to see how green their grass is. But we must avoid arrogance that thinks our kingdom will just keep going up, up, up.
God’s Kingdom and Human Kingdoms
Ultimately, this lack of executing justice rejects God’s ways and this self-exaltation rivals God’s kingdom. Notice how Psalm 2 laments and responds to this.
- Psalms 2:1–3 NIV11-GK, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’” Nations and rulers are plotting together of how they can overthrow God and his king. Notice God’s response.
- Psalms 2:4–9 NIV11-GK, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’” God laughs at the ants plotting rebellion. God is setting up his Davidic king on Mt. Zion - King Jesus. God promises his Son that he will own the ends of the earth. Jesus will break the rebel powers in pieces and he will have world dominion.
In Daniel 2, God gives King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon a dream that speaks more to this theme - God’s kingdom crushing human kings and kingdoms.
- Nebuchadnezzar saw a great image of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. But then a stone - not cut by human hands - struck the image and broke it into pieces. Daniel 2:35, “But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
- Notice the interpretation. Daniel 2:44–45, “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever…” Daniel 7 speaks similarly, though “beast” imagery is used. The kingdoms of men are pictured as this image that a stone - God’s kingdom - will crush. God’s kingdom will fill the earth and bring these other kingdoms to an end while it stands forever.
I recognize this can be a challenge to see - God establishes kingdoms yet his kingdom will ultimately crush them all? How could the Kingdom of Heaven have any conflict with the kingdoms of earth when God’s kingdom is spiritual, not physical? I think this is a challenge because of how two NT texts have been interpreted in very recent years in our tradition.
Notice John 18:36. “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” Note how Jesus is saying his kingdom is not of this world in that it does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. The reason his servants aren’t fighting with swords is because his kingdom is not from this world.
Notice Luke 17:20–21 also. “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”” The Pharisees were looking for something observable to show God’s kingdom had come - a throne, walls, etc. Jesus says they won’t be able to observe God’s kingdom like human kingdoms. Then he answers their “when?” question by saying the kingdom was right now in their midst. This is equivalent to what Jesus said in Luke 11:20, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Here’s Jesus’ message: God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven, has already broken into the world and he is standing right in front of you. ME (Jesus). Jesus was how God’s kingdom had come upon them and was in their midst.
But this is different than how many in our tradition have recently interpreted these texts. In churches of Christ we often talk about how God’s kingdom is purely spiritual. “God’s kingdom is ruling over people’s hearts, not the world. He’s the king of my heart!” It’s true that God’s kingdom is spiritual. God does want to rule our hearts, but this isn’t what kingdom imagery is primarily communicating. Kingdom language is more about the rule of God. Psalm 2, Isaiah, Daniel and many texts speak particularly of the fact that God’s kingdom is not only spiritually conquering hearts, its conquering the world. Nations and rulers have rebelled against God’s will and corrupted the creation. People are doing what is right in their own eyes. But Jesus prayed in Matthew 6:10, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is all about causing God’s rule to be accomplished and his will done on earth. He’s conquering cities, nations, kings, and rulers to the ends of the earth until every rule is destroyed and God is all in all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). Therefore, though God has established kingdoms to execute justice and bring security, our permanent security is in God’s everlasting kingdom and righteous government.
How Should We Behave?
God is urging the nations to be reconciled under King Jesus. While we live in the kingdoms of men and wait for God’s kingdom to conquer all others, how should we behave?
1. Pray, give thanks, and seek the welfare of our rulers/nation (1 Tim. 2:1-4; Jer. 29:4-7)
- 1 Timothy 2:1–4, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God wants rulers to help their people live quiet and godly lives. We should pray for this to happen and give thanks to God when this does happen. I am super thankful that I can do that in the U.S.
- We are foreigners in the U.S. and we look forward to living in the fullness of God’s kingdom, so you might think we would want the U.S. to do poorly. But that’s not the case at all. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is super helpful. Jeremiah 29:4–7, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” One way to participate and seek the welfare of a nation is to vote. Who we vote for may be a mixed bag, but if one seems more likely to do God’s will than another, we should vote for them.
2. Warn peoples and rulers to kiss the feet of the Son of God. Psalms 2:10–12, “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” Believe it or not, God is not hoping rulers will ensure sure everybody can sleep with and worship who they want. He’s not interested in securing socialism or capitalism for the world. YHWH wants rulers and peoples to bow to Jesus. We don’t accomplish this by the sword, but by the proclamation of God’s word (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
3. Trust and worship Christ alone as king, not rulers or nations.
- Notice the sinful attitude of the people toward the beast. Revelation 13:4, “And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Notice the arrogant attitude of the people in Babylon regarding their city. Revelation 18:7, “‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’”
- Jesus alone is Lord. Lasting security will be found under his under rule alone. Psalm 146 is a helpful conclusion. The world is broken, but so many get angry or depressed when politicians don’t solve everything. Maybe our hope is in the wrong person.
Psalms 146:1–10 (ESV), “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; 7 who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”