More than meets the eyes

In general, the Jewish world of ancient times saw a direct relation between many things on earth and in the supernatural world. We hear Jesus speak of how children’s angels are constantly in the presence of God. The seven letters of Revelation are addressed to the angels of the churches. As Joshua prepared to begin the conquest of the Promised Land, he was met by the commander of the army of the Lord.

In the ancient world, many peoples saw their kings as divine. The Bible often speaks of rulers in spiritual terms, even using the term “gods” in Psalms 82 and 138, although that’s probably a bit of sarcasm. They are called “sons of gods,” recognizing their human nature with a link to the spiritual world. I did a study of Genesis 6 when I was in grad school, coming to the conclusion that the passage was talking about human kings. I would probably modify my view a bit now; I still believe they were human kings, but the terminology used probably indicates a demonic rebellion against God as well.

An interesting passage is Deuteronomy 32:8. Most versions follow the reading from the Masoretic text. The ESV chose to follow the Septuagint (and a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls) which reads: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” (Deuteronomy 32:8) [Masoretic text says “sons of Israel”] The passage goes on to read: “But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:9) This reading reflects the idea that the nations of the world were divided up. God kept Israel for himself and gave the rest to “the sons of God.” While God was king over Israel, others would rule the rest of the nations. Whether or not this reading is the original one, it reflects an ancient Jewish understanding of the relationship between the nations and the spiritual powers.

That helps us understand apocalyptic literature. Physical problems on earth are solved through cosmic warfare, heavenly beings defeating demonic forces. We read Revelation, for example, and wonder why John would describe the fall of Rome in such terms. If we were immersed in the Jewish milieu, we wouldn’t ask that question. The tie between earthly powers and unearthly ones would be assumed and expected.

All of this to remind us that as we look at the world around us, we need to remember that there’s much more than meets the eye. Our physical world is the tip of the iceberg. That’s one reason we have to place complete trust in God, for only He can navigate us through situations that are bigger than we can possibly comprehend.

The Case for Non-Participation: The Powers

I should have clarified in the last post that I’m specifically talking about non-participation in the military. The term “pacifism” brings lots of different ideas to mind, so I thought the term “non-participation” might be more helpful.

As I said before, the second major topic is that of the powers. In the biblical world view, the spiritual world and the physical world are connected. They aren’t identical, like in pantheism, but they aren’t separated by a great gulf, like deism. Specifically, Satan and his allies are at work in this world, just as God and his hosts are at work in this world. The Western mind has trouble accepting that; biblical writers wouldn’t have questioned it.

The nations are deceived and controlled by Satan (Luke 4:6; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; 6:12; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 20). They seek their own survival above all. In the Bible, Israel was to seek God and trust that He would see to their survival, but they had a hard time with that. They wanted to be like the nations around them, and they eventually got their wish.

Every nation, no matter how good or how evil, sets itself up as an object of worship. They demand obedience. Pledges and oaths. Talk of allegiance and loyalty. History taught in a way to instill civic pride and patriotism.

Even as the Bible teaches that authorities are to be respected and obeyed, it also warns us that the powers behind these authorities are limited by God, but they are not godly themselves. When God’s Kingdom comes in its fullness, they will not be a part of that Kingdom. They will be destroyed as the enemies they are. (1 Corinthians 15:24)

Though we live among the nations as strangers and exiles, living out a diplomatic mission as ambassadors of Christ, we are not to make ourselves a part of these nations. Their wars are not our wars. Just as the powers they serve are not our God, so their aims and goals are not those of our God. We are soldiers, but it’s a different army with different weapons.

Paul warns against trying to eat at the table of demons and at the table of the Lord. We can’t serve two masters.

Romans 13: Tying up loose ends

All right, let me try and tie up the loose ends from this series:

  • Paul begins a section of thought in Romans 12, speaking of how to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This lifestyle is highlighted by an attitude of love. Love for enemies, priority of peace, refusal to take revenge… all of this is a part.
  • Romans 13:1-7 is a part of that life of love. Rather than getting caught up in the social unrest of the moment, the Christians were to submit to this evil government. Though Paul recognizes that there are sinister powers at work behind the government, God has “ordered” those powers, keeping them within prescribed bounds.
  • If the Roman Christians will eschew the rebellious attitude typical of the Jews, Paul says that they need not fear the present government. This is especially true within the big picture of Christ’s return.
  • It bears repeating that the principle of honoring authority and obeying laws is repeated several times in the New Testament. This is part of living at peace and respecting others.

I really think that, because of the misuse of this passage, our discussion yesterday of what isn’t said here is as important as the discussion of what is said. If we’d limit ourselves to what Paul is actually discussing, we could actually learn a lot.

Romans 13: What it doesn’t say

Some passages in the Bible take on a life of their own, living independently of their own context. As such, they can be made to say any number of things, some not even remotely related to the original meaning. Frankly, Romans 13:1-7 is one of those passages.

Discussions on politics, on military service, on voting, on citizenship… this short passage can appear in any and all of those discussions. Before rounding out what the passage is saying, let’s take a moment to talk about what it isn’t saying:

  • Government was created by God.” You might can make that argument from somewhere else… though I’m not sure where. It’s my own personal belief that government naturally arose as man rejected God’s protection and chose to depend on other men. It’s the story that played out at Babel.
  • Christians are called to be an active part of their government” or “Christians are called to be good citizens” or “Christians have a civic responsibility to vote” or… Yeah, there are a whole bunch of related ideas that people try to support with this passage. Huh nuh. Think about the situation in the first century. Would any of those things have been remotely conceivable to Paul or the Roman Christians? We can’t take our situation and superimpose it on theirs. Again, you might be able to make those arguments somehow, but not based on Romans 13.
  • Christians must support just governments, but should oppose unjust governments.” Sorry… you can’t make this passage play both ways. If it applies to every government throughout history (which I don’t believe), then it applies to the good and the bad. If it was of limited application (which I believe), the direct application was to one of the cruelest, most unjust governments that has ever existed. If we submit to all governments, we submit to all governments: good and bad.

I could go on, I guess, but those are some of the main ideas. Care to mention any others? Or dispute what I’ve written here? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Romans 13: The rest of the chapter

Before leaving our examination of the text of Romans 13, we really should discuss the remaining verses in the chapter to round out our earlier discussion of the context.

Verses 8-10 discuss the pre-eminence of love, concluding with the statement: Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Verses 11-14 discuss the imminent return of Christ, and the effect that return should have on our lives. While many see a focus on Christ’ return as somewhat “pie in the sky,” Paul saw that focus as having a very practical effect, changing our behavior in almost every way. It is because of this imminent return that we do not live as others do (which reminds us of Romans 12:2). We do not focus on human desires but “behave decently.” We are to be clothed in armor of light, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.

These last two sections in the chapter echo the instructions given in Romans 12, reminding us that this section is a unit. We should not rip Romans 13:1-7 out of this context, as if it were a tract someone found and inserted into the book of Romans. As we interpret these 7 verses, we must do so in a way that is concordant with the previous chapter and with the remainder of chapter 13.