A set of readings and devotions on civil government at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls, SD, on June 30, 2019.
Genesis 9:1-7 – The Institution of Government
In his book A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote about life in London and Paris. In many ways, history is a tale, not of two cities, but two kingdoms. God has set up two kingdoms in this world – the earthly kingdom – governed by governments – and a spiritual kingdom he leads through the church. The week of July 4th we take a look at the earthly kingdom God has given us and thank God for it and recognize what it is and isn’t.
While God doesn’t specifically detail the very beginning of the two kingdoms. In Genesis chapter 9, we see God give the basic reason for the earthly kingdom: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” God instituted the government to protect us, for justice.
We see the need for government and order when you look at the context of our reading. God gives these words to Noah after the flood. Order and justice had collapsed so badly God felt the need to start over again and flooded the earth. On Pentecost, we saw how it only took around a hundred or so years for the people to get away from God. So we will see later that there are limits to the government. But we see without a doubt in Genesis, God instituted the government for your good to bless you and protect you.
1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. 7 As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” – Genesis 9:1-7
Psalm 2 – The Limits of Government
Do you ever look back on when we were young and dumb? Did you ever do something really foolish and got hurt and your mother responded something like “what on earth were you thinking?” David does something similar in Psalm 2. He takes a look at the world and its attempt to ignore or even rebel against God and he just sighs and asks “why?” “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” Many rulers act like they are gods. Some are even foolish enough to believe it. While it would be so easy to look at conceited leaders and scoff, there are many times in my life I have acted like I am the master of my life and destiny. I make plans either apart from or in spite of God. And David reminds me in Psalm 2, it’s laughable to God. A little league baseball team has a better chance of beating the World Series champions than people do of rebelling against God.
That’s why God has placed limits on earthly governments. They are concerned with the here and now. They are charged with keeping peace and justice in this life. But the moment they claim more for themselves. The moment they tell me what to believe, the moment they tell me to disobey God, the moment they think they can act as God; God laughs.
In fact, God has already set someone over earthly governments. Psalm 2 is really about Jesus. He rules over all. God says in verse nine he rules with an iron scepter – a picture of strength. He will dash those that disobey him to pieces like pottery. It may not feel like God is in control always. But he rules over all and will settle scores in the end. The Psalmist even urges leaders: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.” When governments follow godly laws like the 10 Commandments, we see people prosper. Why? Because God has designed this all to bless us.
1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.3 “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” 4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. 5 Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 6 “I have installed my Kingon Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” 10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. – Psalm 2
Romans 13:1-7 – Submission to Authority
The Apostle Paul begins Romans 13 saying: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.” What does it mean to submit? What does it mean to submit? It means giving up your power and authority to someone else. In the case of government, it means recognizing that God has set up governments for our good and we are praising God when we respect their authority. Paul says: “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” But what if they’re jerks. What if it’s a bad, corrupt government? I don’t actually have to respect and obey them then right?
I may not like the government officials over me. A government might be like the Chinese government and active prohibit Christianity. God is still over that government and working his will through it. I still submit to my government. After all, think of the government over the Apostle Paul as he wrote these words! The Roman government was thoroughly corrupt. Christianity was already persecuted and would be even worse in the coming years. Paul was thrown in prison and beaten for preaching about Jesus again and again. Yet, he still says, submit to the governing authorities established by God.
Why? Well, one point he makes is that when we focus on the earthly kingdom’s role – it blesses us and protects us. The sword of justice doesn’t inspire fear in the upright but terrifies those who do wrong. More than that, I willingly submit to the government because I am following the will of my Lord and Savior. I want to follow the will of my Savior. He happily submitted for you and me. Jesus lived perfectly in your place. He never complained about how arrogant or stupid his government was. He submitted to its will – even when its will was that he would unjustly die. Why? Because that innocent death paid for every time you mocked your government. It paid for every time I complained about a law. And so I show my thanks to God by following his will and submitting to the government, not because it deserves it, but because it is God’s will.
There will be times that the government is at odds with God’s Word though. Today our government supports the murder of the unborn in abortion. It supports a definition of marriage different than God’s definition. I still can submit to my government and not make use of every liberty I am afforded here. I will always choose and support life even if my government doesn’t. I will always follow God’s will for marriage, even if it means I am mocked or more in my society.
However, if our government were to ever over-step into the realm of the spiritual kingdom of God and try and order me what to believe or command me to sin, then God’s Word leads me to join the Apostles when they had to say: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Yet, submitting to the government means that I may have to suffer the consequences of following God rather than man. If I am a doctor ordered to perform an abortion and I refuse, I might lose my job and I accept that. As a pastor, I know full well the ability to marry a man and a woman may well be taken away from me in my life time because I will only perform a Christian wedding. I someday could even be fined for such a conviction. I accept this truth, not because I have some amazing faith beyond others. I say this because God keeps me in his gracious care and assures me: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. – Romans 13:1-7
Mark 12:13-17 – Render to Caesar and God
There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. When Jesus says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” It brings up the question, what do I owe to the government? As God’s representative to work justice in this world, I owe the government my respect. I might disagree with the government. I might detest certain things they do. Yet, Martin Luther wrote about authority in his explanation of the fourth commandment: “We should fear and love God that we do not dishonor or anger our parents and others in authority, but honor, serve, and obey them, and give them love and respect.” Governing is difficult work. So I respect those that put their lives into it. They also desperately need my prayers – especially when they do things we do not approve of. I pray that God lead them to godly decisions, not what is popular in the eyes of the people. I pray that God use their decisions to allow us to continue proclaiming the gospel in its purity here. In addition to respect and prayers, yes, I owe the government my taxes. I owe my taxes, not because I see all these benefits from them. I sometimes hear someone say that they don’t pay taxes because they don’t see a personal benefit from it. If you ever get frustrated paying taxes, think of how bad it felt paying taxes in Jesus’ day. Pay taxes to a corrupt government persecuting you with corrupt tax collectors you know are openly ripping you off. Well, I give my taxes not out of personal benefit but because of what I owe to God.
What do I owe to God? I owe him everything. He created me. He lived for me. He perfectly obeyed his government for you. He sacrificed himself to take away my sins. He cares for me each and every day – sometimes through the government. So we live our lives in thanks for all that God has done for us. And we do that even in how we respect and follow our government. The entire life of a Christian is one of praise and thanks to God. We’re not just Christians here in church. We’re Christians serving God when we fill out our taxes. We’re Christians following Jesus in the voting booth. Let all you do, be in thanks for what Christ has done for you.
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. – Mark 12:13-17