1 Timothy 2:1-7
Fear God. Honor the Emperor.
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
We celebrated our nation’s 238th birthday Friday. I trust you enjoyed the festivities.
By comparison to some countries, we’re a young pup. The origins of Ethiopia go all the back to 980 B. C.; India, to 322 B. C.; the People’s Republic of China to 221 B. C. The present-day State of Israel began in 1948 but its history goes way back. Jews celebrated the 3,000-year birthday of Jerusalem in 1996.
By comparison to others, we’re getting on in years. Pakistan was formed in 1947. Syria became a nation in 1961, as did many of the Middle Eastern countries when the United Arab Republic was dissolved.
In North America, we’re the senior citizen: Mexico became a nation in its own right in 1810 when Spain pulled out; the present-day government of Mexico was established in 1917. Canada became a nation of its own in 1867.
So we’re 238 years old and, in light of the rapidly changing landscape of our country, one has to ask, “What does the future hold?” How many more birthdays will we celebrate as a sovereign nation? Are we at the beginning of a new era of growth and prosperity … or nearing the end of our reign as the greatest nation on the face of the earth?
I don’t have an answer for you today, and I can assure you I don’t have an agenda. What I have is a word from scripture that puts political debate in perspective – past, present and future – and assures us of the sovereignty of God over all nations for all time. It also puts the burden of responsibility on us, if we’re to be the nation we’re called to be.
The text is Paul’s admonition to Timothy, where he writes,
I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions,
and givings of thanks, be made for all men:
for kings and all who are in high places;
that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior;
who desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1-4)
Do you routinely pray for the leaders of our nation? Do you invoke God’s blessing on the President, the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House, members of Congress and the various Cabinet members and advisors?
Do you pray for the Governor and his family, the Lieutenant Governor and state senators and representatives? Do you pray for the leaders of Webster Parish and the City of Minden?
I’ll be the first to confess it’s a lot easier to pray for someone you like than for someone you don’t; for someone whose opinions you agree with, than for someone you strongly disagree with; for someone whose decisions take us in the direction you think we ought to be going – and maybe benefit you personally – than to pray for someone whose decisions take us in the opposite direction.
No matter, Paul told Timothy, “I exhort you to pray … for kings and all who are in high places.” This goes along with what he wrote in the 13th chapter of his Letter to the Romans:, where he said,
“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities,
for there is no authority except from God,
and those who exist are ordained by God.”
So, how are we to take this seriously and apply it sincerely to the political climate in which we live?
First, we need to understand that Paul was a theologian. He dared to think and talk about God and apply our relationship to God to our relationship to the State in which we live.
Paul not only believed in God’s sovereignty over the nation, he looked to God as the source of all things.
• If there is matter, God created it.
• If there is meaning and purpose to life, God determines it.
• If there is power, God yields it.
Paul would not have been able to conceive of a person’s holding a position of authority without God’s authorization. As far as he was concerned, whatever power we have, elected or otherwise, comes from God.
That’s not such a bitter pill to swallow when rulers and elected officials manage the affairs of state in such a way as to rise above self-interest and serve the common good.
But we all know this is not always the case. Power corrupts and that leads rulers to act ruthlessly. For example:
• Adolph Hitler ordered the extermination of over six million Jews.
• Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge massacred roughly one-third of the population of Cambodia.
• Slobodan Milosevic slaughtered countless Serbs in Bosnia in the name of “ethnic cleansing.”
Over the years the world has known some incredibly horrific rulers. Can you spell Attila the Hun? In Paul’s day, it was Nero. The very mention of the name was enough to strike fear in the hearts of Jews and Romans alike.
This didn’t sway Paul in the least. He was uncompromising: Power comes from God. And he believed that God is able to use both the righteous and the wicked to serve God’s purposes. In the end, God will have the last word.
Compared to other periods of history, we have it relatively easy. We may get bent out of shape over what the President says or Congress does or what the Supreme Court decides, but, as a rule, we don’t fear for our lives. It’s hard to imagine the injustice and oppression people at other times and in other places have experienced.
Look at the big picture. In 1998, we had a President who faced impeachment. It proved to be a flash in the pan. In 2004, a friend told me he was thinking about moving to another country if George W. Bush was reelected, that he was that inept. Not only was he reelected, he served another four years with distinction in the wake of 9/11.
We have a narrow view of things limited by the immediacy of the moment and tempered by our own personal prejudices. Paul would remind us that God is from everlasting to everlasting. Rulers come and go, as do entire nations and whole civilizations. Life goes on. Only God is eternal.
Paul was a theologian. That’s the first point. He was also a pragmatist. He saw things as they were, not as he would like for them to be. He respected the given order of society of his day and didn’t try to change it, as if he could.
This is why he could say things like, “slaves, be obedient to … your masters…” (Ephesians 6:5), and ” Let the wives be quiet in the assemblies … (1 Corinthians 13:34). It’s not that he approved of the institution of slavery or the subjugation of women. It was simply a reality of the world in which he lived, and he accepted it for what it was.
If you read his letters closely, you’ll find that Paul never once mentioned Nero by name; he never advocated overthrowing the Roman Empire. His concern was not to challenge the status quo, but to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and invite others into a saving relationship with him. He told the Romans,
“Don’t be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
so that you may prove what is the … perfect will of God.”
In matters of civil obedience, Paul’s advice was practical: Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t cause trouble. Pay your taxes. Obey the law. Keep your nose clean. As he said to the Romans, “Rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil.” (Romans 13:3) Peter gave the same advice in his first letter, when he wrote,
“Subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake …
For this is the will of God, that by well-doing
you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men …
using your freedom … as bondservants of God. …
Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)
The bad news is that there are no perfect rulers; there is no perfect system of government. The good news is that this need not hinder us from being faithful.
The people of Israel kept faith for over four hundred years while living as slaves in Egypt. They did so, not because the Pharaoh was kind and just, but because they didn’t regard the Pharaoh as God. The same was true for the Babylonian exile. For seventy years the people of Israel sang the songs of Zion in a distant land and told the stories of God’s mighty acts, as they waited for God to set them free and bring them home to the Promised Land.
What’s amazing is that faith often grows stronger in times of persecution. Consider this:
• In the 2nd Century the Romans sought to destroy the Christian faith. Instead, they only caused it to scatter and grow.
• In the 20th Century the Communist Party did everything it could to abolish the Russian Orthodox Church. It only made it stronger.
• In the Middle Ages, Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, John Wesley was banned from the Anglican Church, and John Calvin was exiled from his native France; yet, each, in his own right, gained greater confidence under fire and grew all the more determined to reform the church of Jesus Christ.
And so, Paul urged his readers to keep their sights on the kingdom of God, not the politics of the day. As for those in authority, he makes no bones about it: Pray for them. That’s what he told Timothy; that’s what I think he’d tell us today.
So let’s see: Paul was a theologian. He was a pragmatist. He was also a product of the 1st Century.
Paul had no idea what it would be like to live in a representative democracy like ours. If you’d told him how we’re able to pick and choose our leaders and participate in the electoral process, he would’ve thought you were crazy: “No Way!” he’d say. It would’ve been inconceivable for him to imagine such a thing.
So, what do you think he’d say if he lived in 21st Century America? I think he would say, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”
• Do everything you can to use your freedom to serve God and make a difference in the world today.
• Support those officials you think best represent God’s will for this community, state and nation.
• Vote when elections are held, then speak up and let those elected know where you stand on the important issues of the day. By all means, pray for them, whether you voted for them or not. Pray that God will use them to further his will.
If you’ve known people in public office – and most of you have – you know that they listen to their constituents. They may not always agree, but they listen. So, don’t let the news and political commentaries get you down, do something constructive – talk to them. You may not be successful in changing the course, but at least you can say that you tried.
Take an active role in government at every level. That’s what I think Paul would say.
Now buckle your seat belts. We’re coming in for a landing. I think Paul would also point out that the character of a representative democracy is that it really does work to represent the people, as a whole. To put it plainly: What we see going on in our country today is a reflection of ourselves. If you don’t like what you see, then you’re the one who first needs to change.
Only as we’re more faithful can we expect higher standards of those we elect to public office. Only as we live as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, can we hope to restore our nation to its strong biblical foundation. God’s word to Solomon speaks as clearly to us today as ever:
“… if my people, who are called by my name,
will humble themselves, pray, seek my face,
and turn from their wicked ways;
then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin,
and will heal their land.”
(2 Chronicles 7:14)
Take this home with you: God was not speaking to those in positions of power and authority; God was speaking to common, ordinary people like you and me.
Let us pray: Gracious God, forgive our erring ways, our complacency, our self-indulgence. Give us a spirit of humility: that we may be open to the leading of your Spirit. Give us a spirit of resolve: that we may strong in our devotion to Christ. Give us a spirit of hope: that we may hold to the promise that all things work together for good for those who love you and are called according to your purposes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Copyright 2014 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.