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Folks this morning we are tackling an interesting and very topical question: should we as believers obey authorities even when we disagree with them? To answer this question, I would like us to start by considering a slightly different challenge: As people who would follow Christ, there is a danger and a natural sinful tendency to two extremes: licence and legalism. Both of these can cause us to fall into thinking and behaviour which is unhelpful in living a life which brings glory to God and fulfils his purposes in our lives and in the world:
Licence emphasises our freedom as Christians – the Bible says we are free, we are no longer under the law and so we can take the attitude that we can do as we please. Paul warns us against this in Galatians 5:13. In this mindset, we can start to think and act in a way which is driven by our own desires, our own lusts and forgets about God’s holiness, God’s plan and purpose for our lives.
Legalism emphasises our compliance to the law – often going over and above the letter of the law to bind people and hold them captive to tradition that has nothing to do with God’s heart. Behind legalism is a desire to please people, a desire to show other how righteous we are and to puff ourselves us with pride. Peter confronts the other leaders in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:10 This trap is not so much focused on God’s holiness or on God’s heart and purposes but rather on our own self-righteousness.
I believe that at the heart of both of these traps are the sins of rebellion and pride.
We have been recently enjoying a study in the life of David. David had the incredible honour of being called a man after God’s own heart and we see from the life of David some incredible examples of a man who was not living in a state of licence or in a state of legalism but rather a man who was seeking to live according to God’s heart and do God’s will.
The Book of 1 Samuel starts with a terrible example of licence. God has set aside the tribe of Levi to act as priests and mediators between God and man – what an incredible and holy calling. God sets this tribe apart for himself and he says, you won’t have to worry about land or food or providing for yourselves as priests because I will provide for all of this – in effect God is freeing them from the normal grind of life so they can be focused and consecrated them as holy. But the priest Eli’s two sons, were “worthless men” – they did nothing of value with their lives, they did not love the Lord and they did not follow him. They were abusing their power and their freedom and taking the best of the sacrifice to the Lord to feast on for themselves and they were sleeping with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tabernacle. Here we have men who had a pretence of holiness but were living in licence, doing as they pleased and bringing great dishonour to the Lord. The Lord’s brings judgement against them in these words, “And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phineas, shall be the sign to you, both of them shall die on the same day. And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever. - 1 Samuel 2:35. We know how this is fulfilled and Samuel is the first prophet of Israel, he lives a life that honours God, he listens to God, right from a young boy and into his old age he is attentive to God’s voice and he is the one to anoint the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.
The second example we see in 1 Samuel is one of legalism. God has raised up Saul as the first King of Israel and has a very specific purpose for Saul. The first is to defeat the enemies of God’s people in the neighbouring lands and the second is to restrain the nation from evil. 1 Samuel 9:15-17. Saul is commissioned to have a purifying effect on the nation. Saul does pretty well in the first task, he is a mighty warrior and does indeed defeat the enemies of the Lord but unfortunately, he does not act to restrain God’s people.
We see two critical pivot points in the life of Saul where he acts against God’s will and both of them speak to legalism not to a heart true to the Lord. In 1 Samuel 13:8-14 we see Saul acting in what appears to be a righteous manner – he builds an altar to the Lord and offers a sacrifice but the sacrifice is not done to seek God’s will or to honour God, firstly, it is done in defiance of Samuel’s instruction to wait and secondly it is done to keep the people from scattering in the face of the enemy. Saul is not truly calling to the Lord, rather he is acting in fear not faith and is hoping this outward act of “so called” righteousness will convince the people to stick with him. He is using religion to manipulate – this is a true sign of legalism.
Samuel’s words are telling, “You have done foolishly. You have no kept the command of the Lord with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” 1 Samuel 13:14
In a very similar incident a few chapters later, Saul again is more concerned about what people think that what God has commanded and we see the other side of legalism, a following of the letter of the law and a justification in self-righteousness. Saul does not follow through on completely destroying the Amalekites and all their livestock – he keeps the best sheep and oxen aside. Saul justifies his actions by first claiming he has obeyed, he defends his righteousness and blames the people but then he claims to have kept the best livestock as a sacrifice for the Lord.
1 Samuel 15:22-24 And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king." Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.
And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, 'I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.' - Acts 13:22
And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. - Samuel
So we return to our question today: Should we as believers obey authorities even when we disagree with them?
My challenge this morning is for us to deeply examine our hearts and ask ourselves, where is our heart this? Are we people who have a deep desire to do God’s will, to understand God’s heart and mind and to act in accordance with this.
Why is this important, because as we come to this question, we can approach it from a position of licence – a position that says, I don’t need to follow the law, I don’t need to follow the authorities because I am following God and therefore I take my instruction from a higher power, I am free from your control; I am a Son of God. While this may have some level of truth in it, if this is coming from a heart of licence, we will find ourselves living in direct conflict with God’s purpose. These are the people who disobey the law flagrantly and say they are free.
If on the other hand, we approach this from a position of legalism, then we may say, “Well this authority is in conflict with God,” they are not following God’s law, this is not a godly authority and therefore I can act in disobedience to them because I am above the law, I am righteous in myself. We may even go far as saying, I am willing to take the punishment for disobeying the law because I am following God but our legalism and self-righteous is not based in a desire to follow God and honour him but rather in a desire to be seen as righteous and to be a martyr for the sake of our own self-worth. These are the people who will be first to disrespect the authorities, speak evil of them or stand in violent protest and do so in the name of the Lord.
So how does God’s word instruct us on this topic? Actually the Bible has much to say about this. David’s life itself is a great example to us. In 1 Samuel 24 David has an opportunity to kill Saul, a man who had just murdered in cold blood the Priests of Nob. And yet David says he will not act against God’s anointed, the King of Israel.
Well you may say, that’s is fine for the King of Israel who was clearly anointed by God to lead Israel, but what of the secular authorities that rule in the world today. What about governments that have a clear agenda in conflict with God’s word, what about authorities that oppress Christians and the gospel.
As we turn to the New Testament, we see Christians living in just such a time. Rome rules the world. The Roman Emperor set himself up and was worshiped as a god. He had ultimate control and was ruthless and merciless – killing thousands of Christians and making them flee for their lives. Surely here we should see the Apostles calling Christians to arms or at least peaceful protest? At minimum, we should see Christians, standing against the Emperor, as Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego, in defiance of him setting himself up as a god. Surely, there should be some commentary to warn us against any allegiance to such an anti-christ.
Let’s turn to book which Paul addresses to all those living in Rome – the very heart and seat of power of this godless, pagan and evil secular authority.
In Romans 12, Paul gives incredible insights into the marks of a true Christian, someone who abhors evil and holds fast to what is good, a person to who loves their enemies, a person who lives in harmony with others, a person who is not overcome by evil, but one who overcomes evil with good.
And then in chapter 13:1-7 we read these very surprising word.. “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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, honour to whom honour is owed.”
Here we see some very important principles;
God appoints the rulers of the world. God is sovereign, God is using those is authority to fulfil his purposes, to meet out judgement, to do us good. He is above party lines, he is above communism or democracy or socialism or dictators or Kings or rules of any kind. While we may think we are in control of our destiny in the world, God has not let go of the reigns. While we may not understand God’s ways, we are limited in our understanding, we are limited in what we can see, how God is directing history and our opinions and view is shaped by our very narrow personal timeline and our selfish frame of reference. How does this impact me personally in my lifetime?
As God’s appointed rulers, we are to subject ourselves to their rule both because in going against them, we are rebelling against God and secondly, because going against them, we are rebelling against the rule of law – in other words our conscience.
Is this Paul, the Roman citizen speaking? No Peter also has this same instruction 1 Pet 2:13-17 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Here we see Peter referring to those who would use licence to avoid having to be subject to the authority and he adds a third reason to those we have already seen:
That we may silence those who want to disgrace God’s name by holding us up as rebels. Rather Peter says, do good. We should be model citizens – we should be ones being acknowledged by authorities as contributing to society.
In writing a pastoral, Paul was trying to encourage Titus in how to deal with the opposition of the legalists within his congregation and gives him this instruction: 3:1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
Here Paul is saying our obedience to authorities should be testimony to what has happened in our own lives, how we have gone from being self-seeking, angry rebels to being those who are obedient, gentle and who speak no evil of others. Samuels works ring in our ears, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.”
So what about Jesus, what did He have to say on this subject. Surely, the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of King and Lord of Lords, the creator God, sure he wasn’t subject to man’s authority.
In Matthew 22:15 the subject of taxes is raised. It is a sore point for the Jews, tax collectors where some of the most hated symbols of oppression from the Roman empire, hurting them where it was most painful, in their pockets. The Pharisees, the legalists, who follow the letter of the law and go so far as to make up their own laws, they come to Jesus and set a trap. They are ones who are so concerned about their outward appearance but inside are filthy and corrupt and so Jesus calls them white washed tombs, nice to look at but dead inside. In setting the trap they bring with them, the Herodians. The Herodians were supporters of King Herod who was under the Emperor.
“Teacher we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully and you do not care about anyone’s opinions for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
The trap is set, if Jesus answers that they should pay taxes, this will incite the crowd in anger against Jesus. If he answers that they shouldn’t pay taxes, the Herodians will set the authorities against Jesus and he will be answerable to the Emperor. Jesus is aware of their malicious intention and calls for a coin, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.”
Jesus neatly avoids the trap but he also is clearly telling us we have two obligations, one is to those in authority over us and the second, is our obligation to obey God. Often, we would like to find ways to avoid having to follow our responsibility to the first by using the second as a scape goat but Jesus says, manage the conflict and keep your conscience clean both before God and before man.
Are there times we need to stand against those is authority, yes of course. But does that give us licence to reject all their authority over us, no it does not!
When Saul was chasing David and came across the priests of Nob who had helped David, he commands his troops to put them to death. They refuse to kills the priests and Saul gets a foreigner to commit this despicable act of murder. The troops continue to follow Saul’s instruction but they will not step over the line in committing this act.
When John the Baptist takes a stand to condemns Herod’s evil, he pays for it with his head. When Peter and John refuse to stop preaching the gospel they are put in prison and this is their response when they are commanded to stop preaching: Acts 4:18-20 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
Folks if we are strongly convicted in our hearts to take a stand against a command from those in authority because we believe that what we are being asked to do is against God’s word, then we must be prepared to face the consequences and God will honour us, even if we lose our status in society or our very lives. However, we have to examine our hearts and check, are we acting in licence, is this a form of rebellion because we don’t want to obey those that God has put in authority over us. Or are we acting in legalism, is this a form of self-righteousness, are we trying to elevate ourselves above others because we want to be seen and make a name for ourselves. Neither of these are aligned to God’s heart or will. Perhaps you would like a clean neat list, that categorises where we should or should not act in disobedience but we each need discernment, as Jesus had, to know God’s heart, God’s mind, God’s will. If we feel convicted that God is leading us to act, it would be wise to check in with those God has put over you as shepherds and overseers of your souls. In some cases, God may be calling on us to follow those who have gone before us, and count the cost. Some before us have carried God’s word into places where it is forbidden to share His word, some have hidden Jews in their homes and protected them from slaughter, some have died for their faith or in defending the rights of the poor, the abused, the marginalised. There is a time for all these things, only let us never bring God’s name into disrepute by being those who speak or act from motives other than those driven by our desire to give to God what is God’s.
My prayer, is that in this generation, God would raise us god-fearing men and women of whom it can be said, like Samuel, like David, they are “a faithful priest or leader who shall do according to what is in God’s heart and God’s mind and God’s will.”