Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Our Secondary Citizenship - 1 Peter 2:13-17

Audio available here

In a church like ours, where there are folks from several different countries, there may be some who are “dual citizens.” There are many ways in which a person may acquire dual citizenship, and it is not an uncommon occurrence in our world where travel is so quick and easy. According to the U. S. Government, a person does not lose their citizenship in America when they acquire citizenship in another country unless certain conditions are met. If a person applies for foreign citizenship voluntarily, and demonstrates by their statements or actions that they intend to give up U.S. citizenship, then they may lose their American citizenship. While they remain dual citizens, the law requires allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries.
We have been speaking for several weeks now about the fact that the followers of Christ are citizens of His Kingdom. This citizenship is not a pretend or imaginary issue. It is as real as your citizenship in America or any other country. While the government may not view Christians as having dual citizenship in the eyes of the law, in reality, we are very much dual citizens. As it stands, our citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom does not jeopardize our American citizenship. Our new Kingdom does not require that we renounce our earthly citizenship. In fact, the King of our new country agrees with the United States Government that you should obey the laws of both countries and demonstrate allegiance to both. While that allegiance is first and foremost pledged to Christ and His Kingdom, as long as there is no tension between the two, we are expected to live as exemplary citizens of our secondary homeland – America, or whatever country that may be.
There may be some who would feel that the Heavenly citizenship is some kind of pie in the sky that doesn’t really matter here and now. Peter has been reminding us that this citizenship is real and it is primary in our lives. By virtue of that heavenly citizenship, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possessions; we are merely strangers and aliens here. So, we must never take our heavenly citizenship for granted. But there is another error wherein a person might think that since they are primarily citizens of a heavenly kingdom, that they need not be concerned with the things of this world. One may think that the events and affairs of this world have no bearing on his own life. This person has become the epitome of the expression, “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” God would not be honored by any of His people being described that way. According to the inspired text we read today, the more heavenly minded we become, the more earthly good we should be. And though our citizenship in our earthly country is secondary to our heavenly citizenship, it is not unimportant. We have a responsibility as citizens of America, or whatever country we find ourselves in. Our faith in Christ does not eliminate those responsibilities, but rather clarifies and reinforces them. So, let’s examine these truths concerning the Christian citizen and our secondary citizenship.
I. The Christian citizen has a biblically informed understanding of the role of government.
All of us live under some measure of authority. Of course, the whole universe is under God’s authority, and those who belong to Christ have been brought directly under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But there are other authorities over our lives as well. We have bosses at work; we have civil authorities who make and enforce the laws that are binding on us. We might be tempted to reject those authorities as if they did not apply to us because we belong to Christ. If we really belong to Christ, what claim do other, lesser authorities have on us?
The follower of Christ understands that earthly authorities have a purpose in the plan of God. In fact, if we take God’s word seriously, we understand that there are no authorities except those which God allows to exist. Romans 13:1 says, “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asked Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus responded by saying, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus understood that the very authority that would ultimately order His crucifixion was an authority that God the Father had granted in His infinite wisdom and power. God is sovereign over where we were born, where we live, where we work, and over all authorities to which we must answer in this life. They may not all be favorable toward us, or toward Christianity, or toward God in any way, but if God wanted those authorities overthrown, He certainly has the ability to do so. The fact that He doesn’t indicates that He has a purpose for that authority, though we may not understand it.

In very general terms, all authorities that exist in our lives serve two very basic functions that are specified here in verse 14. First, they exist for the punishment of evildoers. Because human beings are all born in sin, we are capable of unimaginable evil. If there was not some restraint, some threat of penalty and punishment, some means of addressing and correcting evil in society, things would be infinitely worse than they already are. You recall perhaps the epitaph on the period of the Judges in the Old Testament: “There was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Consider this incident that occurred in Jedwabne, Poland in 1941. In that town, there were many Jewish people who enjoyed good relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors for many years. In 1939, Jedwabne came under Soviet control, and the local government was abolished. In 1941, Nazi Germany overtook the area. German officers informed the citizens of Jedwabne that if they wanted to eliminate their Jewish neighbors, they could have all of their property and assets. They were promised a small military detachment to assist them. On July 10, 1941, a mob of people gathered their Jewish neighbors in the town square and began attacking and beating them. Some 400 or so Jews, including women and children, were led away to an empty barn, locked inside, and burned alive. Those who tried to escape were shot.

This story vividly illustrates that human beings are capable of doing the unthinkable when left without restraint of any kind. We might say, “But do we not have the Word of God? Do we not have God’s authority? Is a government really necessary to punish evildoers?” Make no mistake, God’s justice will eventually and perfectly prevail against all unrighteousness. But in the meantime, God has sovereignly chosen to use human authorities to exist to enact justice against wrongs that are done. Martin Luther said, “Since we are not all believers, but the majority unbelievers, He has enacted and ordained so as to save the world from anarchy that the civil power should bear the sword and restrain the wicked, in case they are not disposed to observe the peace, they may be compelled to do so. This He executes through the civil powers, so that the world may be ruled for the good of all.”

You like the idea of having someone you can call when your home has been burglarized or when your life is threatened, don’t you? Civil authorities are granted the right to exist by God in part for this very reason. But there is another reason specified here as well. Peter says that governing authorities exist for “the praise of those who do right.” Historically, governments have treated peaceful and law-abiding citizens both fairly and favorably. Have you ever been driving down the highway and noticed that a police officer was behind you? It doesn’t matter how fast you are driving at that moment does it? You begin to get nervous. “What did I do?” And then there is that sweet feeling of relief as he changes lanes and moves on past you. Why do we feel that way? If we weren’t doing anything wrong, is there any reason to be afraid? That’s what Paul says in Romans 13:3-4. “Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good.”
All of this is to say that as followers of Christ, we have a correct understanding of why governments exist and what their proper function is. The Bible has instructed us on this so that we understand that God allows and uses civil authorities for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. Now, with that understanding, what should our attitude toward government be?
II. The Christian is commanded to adopt a positive attitude toward authority.
Every president has ups and downs in approval ratings. George W. Bush enjoyed a 90% approval rating at one point in his term. It was on September 21, 2001. On October 31, 2008, just days before the presidential election, his approval rating was 25%. President Obama enjoyed a high approval rating of 69% at one time. It was January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration. In recent weeks, he has had the lowest approval rating of his term at around 44%. If we were to poll the congregation to state our approval or disapproval of the President, we would probably have strong and diverse opinions. Some would be adamant about their frustrations with this President. Others would be exuberant about their approval of him. But all of us, whether we approve of the president or not, have a biblical obligation to him. Not only to him, but to other authorities as well. Peter tells us here what our attitude should be toward those whom God has allowed to have authority over us.

First, he says that we are to submit to them in verse 13. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” This is not an isolated statement in Scripture. It is reinforced by Romans 13:1 which says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities,” and by Titus 3:1-2 which says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” In fact, Paul even says in Romans 13 that to resist the authorities that are in power is to oppose the ordinance of God, since there is no authority except that which God allows to exist. In Titus 3:3, Paul contrasts the behavior of the Christian who submits to rulers and authorities with our lives before we followed Christ, in which we were “foolish …, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.”

We see submission to the civil authorities in the life of Jesus. When questioned about whether or not to render taxes to Caesar, Jesus examined a denarius coin and said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They acknowledged that it was Caesar’s image on the coin. Jesus said, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.” By this, He inferred that the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears his image; the life, on the other hand, belongs to God since it was made in His image. We see submission to civil authorities even in the hours before Jesus’ death. When Peter brandished his sword to attack those who were coming to arrest Jesus, the Lord said to him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” But Jesus did not ask for those angels. He did not oppose Herod’s and Pilate’s authority to put Him to death, but acknowledged that their authority was derived from God Himself.

So, we have clear commands from Peter and Paul, and numerous examples in the life of Jesus, indicating that we are to submit to the government. And it bears mention here that all three of these were put to death by the very government to whom they admonished others to submit. This government was increasingly hostile toward Christianity, depriving them of every liberty that we as Americans cherish, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the word from the Lord and His apostles remains unchanged. The followers of Christ are called to submit. Not only are we to submit to those authorities which are favorable toward us, but “to every human institution.” This submission is voluntary, not as a result of forcible coercion or compulsion. It is freely given in recognition that God is ultimately sovereign over all authority.

In addition to submission, the Christian is called to honor authorities. In verse 17, Peter says specifically to “honor the king.” We might protest and say that the king, or the president, or the governor, or some other authority figure is not worthy of honor. Isn’t it interesting that there aren’t any footnotes or parentheses here? In fact, it is very much like the command to honor one’s mother and father. There is no qualification given in that command, nor is it abrogated elsewhere in Scripture. It’s the same with other authorities. The issue is not whether they are honorable. The issue is whether or not we will obey the Lord’s command to honor them. We can afford someone the honor of their position, because it is established by God, without endorsing them or their actions.

Donia and I were in Ukraine in 2000, on a ship in the middle of the Black Sea with 200 Americans and 200 Ukrainians. During a slow day, some of us were sitting around in the lounge talking, and some of us began telling jokes about Bill Clinton, who was still in office at that time. Suddenly, a Ukrainian Christian looked toward us with fire in her eyes, and she began to rebuke us sternly for dishonoring our president. She quoted Scripture to us, like this passage in 1 Peter, and then she asked us, “How often do you pray for your president?” There was a silence you could feel. Most of us could not even look her in the face. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I felt a conviction from the Holy Spirit in my heart and the sudden need to be alone in repentance and confession. We are not commanded in Scripture to agree with or approve of those in authority. We are not commanded to endorse their policies. But we are commanded to submit to them, to honor them, and yes, even to pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now, the question arises, “Why?” Why should we render such submission, such honor to authorities who may be even opposed to the Christian faith, as those in Peter’s day were?

III. The Christian has a specific motive for his attitude toward the government.

Notice in the text that it is not for the government’s sake, the sake of the authorities, or for our own sake that we honor and submit. Rather, it is for the Lord’s sake (v13). “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake.” Again in verse 15 we are told that this is the will of God. How often do we say that we are trying to find God’s will? There’s really no need to go looking for God’s will when He’s revealed so much of it in His Word. If we haven’t begun to follow what He’s already made known concerning His will, why would He reveal more of it to us? It is His will for us to submit to and honor the authorities that are in place in our lives. He tells us why this is His will: “That by doing right, you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

In Peter’s day, people were making all kinds of allegations about Christians, accusing them of treason, incest, and cannibalism to name a few. Peter considers these claims to be both ignorant and foolish. It is ignorant in the classic sense of the word, meaning that it is a statement that is not based on knowledge. No person who understood what Christians believed or practiced would utter such accusations against them. And people who speak in ignorance are certainly foolish. And there are two things this world will seemingly never lack: ignorance and foolishness. Today, foolish people make ignorant claims about Christians just as they did in that day. But notice that God’s will takes this into consideration. I would prefer the text said, “God’s will is for them to not make such claims.” But instead, God’s will has less to do with them and more to do with us. His will involves how we respond to foolish and ignorant claims. And His will is that we do right, and thus prove them wrong. Why is it that Christians are being increasingly accused of hate crimes? I think it is in part because there have been no shortage of hateful people who claimed to be Christians. But if we would do right, would anyone believe such allegations against Christians?

And what would doing right include? Look at verse 17: honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. Do we live that way? We might say, “I can’t honor people who live in such dishonorable ways.” But we are not called to honor their lifestyles. We are called to honor them as people, in part because their lives are valuable because they were made in God’s image and Christ died to redeem them. How about our love for the brotherhood? Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” One reason the world doesn’t take us seriously is that they see how we treat each other inside the family of God. Our love for each other is supposed to add credibility to the claims of Christ. Do people see that? Do they see that we live God-fearing lives? Or do they see no difference in our behavior at all? Do people see us as exemplary citizens, or as perpetual grumblers always complaining about the government? We should be leading the way in showing honor to the authorities in order that others would see Christ in and through us. Then they would be unable to make ludicrous accusations against us, and if they did anyway, no one would believe them.

Let’s look at verse 16 now and consider one final aspect of our dual citizenship.
IV. The Christian has a responsibility to act out his or her faith.

Act as free men, Peter says. We are free people. Not free in the typical American sense. We are free because we are in Christ. We are free from sin, free from fear, free from bondage. There can be no chains placed on our faith. Authorities, regardless of their earthly power, cannot compel us to become Christian or to abandon our faith in Christ. We are free people. And in some cases, such as is the case here in America, we are free in other ways as well. We are free to gather, free to worship, free to speak out for Christ, free to proclaim the Word of God, and free to vote our convictions at the polls. And we should exercise those freedoms to the fullest extent as we feel led of the Lord. If we are free, we should act as free men.

But we must never use our freedom, Peter says, as a covering for evil. Our freedom must not be exercised in disobedience of God’s clear commands. Just as, in Christ, we are free from sin, but not free to sin, so when it comes to our civil freedoms, we must not use them in ways that violate God’s ordinances concerning our relationship to the government. Church meetings must not become political rallies; Christian gatherings must not become the seedbed of treasonous acts; Christian speech must not become occasions for dishonoring the authorities or stirring up rebellion. Rather, we must use our freedom to demonstrate ourselves to be Christ’s servants. Our freedom should be exercised in seeking the welfare of our society, in showing kindness to those in need, showing love to one another, and in praying for our leaders. Just because we have the right to act in certain ways does not mean that it is right to act in those ways. If we have the right to bear arms, it does not mean that it is right to bear arms at all times for any reason. We have the right to free speech, but not all speech is right. We have the right to assemble, but not all assemblies are for right purposes. We need to evaluate all of these and other activities, not according to our Constitutional rights, but according to our Christian responsibilities. Christ has given us the right to forsake our personal rights for His higher calling. Do our actions in society demonstrate that we are the servants of Christ?

Now, we cannot leave this subject without one final word about a matter that is within the scope of this passage but is not addressed here. This is the question of whether or not it is ever right to oppose the government or the authorities, be they civil authorities or those at work or in any other sphere of life. I believe Scripture gives us examples of a precedent that those times do occur, but they are rare exceptions. The rule is submission and honor. The exceptions occur when man’s laws and God’s laws come into clear contradiction with one another. In those cases, we must obey God and oppose the human authorities. These cases would be those in which we are either commanded to do something that God forbids, or forbidden from doing something God commands. Consider the command issued by Nebuchadnezzar to worship the idolatrous image in the days of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the idol because they knew God had commanded them to have no gods before Him. Some time later, another king, Darius, commanded anyone who prayed to any god or petitioned any man other than the king, would be thrown to the lions. But Daniel did not obey this command. He continued praying, three times every day, and even in front of an open window. But in both of these situations, there was still a sense of submission even in the acts of disobedience. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego understood that their disobedience would lead to the furnace, and they accepted those consequences. Daniel understood that violating the king’s edict would lead to the lion’s den, and he accepted it. In both cases, God’s people entrusted themselves to the Lord as they submitted themselves to the penalty for their actions. In the New Testament we find the apostles threatened by the authorities in Acts 4 to speak no more in Jesus’ name. The problem was that they had been commanded by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. So, in Acts 4:19-20, they said with great boldness, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And they said this knowing that imprisonment and death were very real possibilities as a result. Of course, the ultimate example of this is Jesus Himself. Had He renounced His claim to be the King of kings, the Son of God, the Savior and Messiah, then He would have likely been spared the cross. But Jesus held fast to the truth of God, and accepted the death that the authorities ordered. As Peter says in verse 23 here, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We must follow His example, empowered by His Spirit.

Yes, there may come those times in our lives when we have to resist authority. We must obey God foremost, and never disobey Him in order to obey lesser authorities. But those cases are going to be rare. It is not just when the authority in question, whether or at work or in society or any other time, inconveniences us or does something we don’t approve of. It is restricted to cases when the authorities command us to do something God forbids, or forbids us from doing something God commands. And if and when these things occur, we are not called to start a revolution, but rather to stand on our convictions, state our case, and accept the consequences that come, even if it is death.

The call to follow Jesus is the call to live on a higher plane. We have different values, different priorities, and a different perspective from others. We have become citizens of a greater Kingdom. But we have not lost our earthly citizenship in the process. We demonstrate our citizenship in the greater kingdom to others through our conduct as citizens of a lesser kingdom. We of all people have a biblically informed understanding of why government exists, and our posture toward the authorities that God has providentially placed over our lives is to be one of submission and honor. We are to pray for those authorities. We are to exercise our freedoms in ways that bring honor to Christ, our true Master and King. We should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, reflecting God’s glory to those around us and stimulating a desire in others to know the One we follow and to experience what we have experienced in Christ by His grace.

Perhaps today God is speaking to your heart about these matters. This is God’s word. He has spoken; it is our task now to respond to Him as He speaks to us about these things. Perhaps God is speaking to you about your own relationship to Christ. Do you know Him as Lord and Savior? He died for your sins and is risen again, and He can transform your life if you turn to Him.

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