Heeding the Highest Power: Part I (Acts 5:27-29) | Jared Betts

Obey God, Not Men

Now that the holiday season is over, we are back in the book of Acts where we find ourselves in the same portion of Scripture we left off with, which was the governing authorities flaunting their power over the apostles, and they in return refusing to comply with their demands stating on a couple of occasions, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge…We must obey God rather than men.”

This text gives us a wonderful opportunity to begin to deal with the matter of civil government and our relation to it as individuals, as well as the church.

I said we are going to begin to deal with understanding civil government because there truly is far too much to consider within such a small speaking window. Our goal is to understand what our Christian duty is toward the state, so that we might be Christlike citizens within it.

Many are well aware of the Scriptures statements on the matter. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” You have Romans 13:1, which says that:

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.”

We are instructed in Titus 3:1 to be subject to rulers. 1 Peter 2:13-17 says:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”

I have come to realize that though we are aware of these commands, many of us do not understand them.

 Some believe that Paul and Peter are calling for Christians to obey any and all authorities without question and without hesitation. Their thought process is like that of the people in the day of the 16th Century Scottish Reformer, John Knox, who he quotes as saying:

“We must obey our kings, be they good or be they bad; for God has so commanded.”

This sort of thinking seems to be the predominant thinking of the day and it is sheer foolishness. It not only fails to recognize that submission is not equivalent to obedience, but also reveals a skewed conceptualization of the church which is to be the pillar and support of the truth, a flawed interpretation of the Scripture which teaches contrary to such thinking both explicitly and implicitly; and details numerous occasions where people defied the governing authorities. For example:

  1. The midwives in the book of Exodus who did not follow the king of Egypt’s order to kill the Hebrew children.[1]
  2. The three young men in the book of Daniel who refused to worship the image of King Nebuchadnezzar.[2]
  3. Daniel himself refusing to adhere to king Darius’ edict.[3]
  4. The Apostle’s who refused to comply with the commands of the Sanhedrin.[4]

Lastly, and most pertinent to our topic today, thinking that “we must obey our kings, be they good or be they bad, for God has so commanded” displays a deficient knowledge of civil government.

We want to ascertain the extent of our subjection to the state. In other words, we want to discover the limitation of our submissiveness if there are any. In order to see this, however, we need to first understand the purpose of civil government. Is there an objective function for the state, or is the state given free reign to function in whatever way it sees fit? What is the extent of the government’s authority? Are there limits to its rule? What is its purpose? It has been said:

“If a citizenry does not know the purpose, functions, and limitations of the State, then the State can do whatever it wants to do because the citizenry doesn’t realize anything improper is being done.”[5]

Understanding the function and purpose of civil government is certainly a matter of great importance to us given the current condition of our nation and the blatant overreach that has been occurring for some time now and has been clearly manifesting itself through recent polices and mandates under the guise of “love and well-being”. It was C.S. Lewis that said:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Lewis’ words are practically prophetic. Tyranny by the way, is an arbitrary or despotic exercise of power. It is, by definition:

“The exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigor not authorized by law or justice or not requisite for the purposes of government.”[6]

It is critical we grasp that tyranny occurs whenever the government functions in a way that is contrary to its lawful and just purpose. Please keep this in mind.

A man by the name of Matthew Trewhella said this:

“Often one does not notice things in Scripture until a real life situation brings it to the foreground out of necessity.”

The current condition of our nation is forcing us to evaluate our understanding of church and state. Within our text, the apostles understood something that seems to be all but forgotten in our day, especially among the church, which is that civil authorities possess but limited power and jurisdiction, and the objective power they do possess is for a very clear purpose, and the duty of Christians is to remind them of that.

For us to do this, we must understand the purpose and function of the state. All we need to do to understand this is to turn to the all-sufficient Scripture of God. Ironically, the answer to the current situation in our lives is found in the text of Scripture people misunderstand to teach unbridled obedience to any and all human authority, which is Romans 13.

God, The Source of All Authority

I believe that when one begins to consider the topic of civil government, they should begin by understanding that the concept of earthly authority did not originate with man, but with God. Just as He is the designer and definer of marriage and human sexuality, He is the designer and definer of government. He ordained it. We saw earlier in the first part Romans 13:1 that every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. The latter part of the verse tells us why:

“For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

Before I go any further, I must point out the fact that since God is the One who established civil government, the concept of civil government is, therefore, not an evil thing, but good thing. This should cause us to guard ourselves against two extremes of thought.

  1. The first is called Passivism.

Some people look at matters of human government as merely an “earthly” matter; and since Paul says to believers that this world is not our home, that “our citizenship is in heaven”,[7] and that we are not set our minds on the things of this world, that we do not really need to give much consideration to these things at all. They are a matter of “little importance” to the Christian. We just need to go with the flow and not worry about them because God is in control, and just need to focus on giving people the gospel.

We should realize that our nation is in the situation that it is in because the church in America has ceased to be the pillar and support of the truth in the public square. In other words, the things we are currently experiencing in our land are in part a result of passivism in the church, as well as failing to realize that when the church directs government to its God-given duty it will of necessity be evangelistic.

  • The second thing we must guard against is what is known as Anarchism.

Anarchism is the idea that formal government of any kind is unnecessary and wrong in principle. Anarchy regards individual liberty as the only just rule of society. A state of anarchy is one that is want of government. It is a society in which there is no law or supreme power. It is, therefore, a society full of chaos and lawlessness because everyone is a law to themselves. Ironically, anarchists never actually escape governmental form. It of course will be subjective and brutal.

If you want a current example of anarchy, consider CHAZ, which is the acronym for the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that was established in Seattle, Washington in the summer of 2020.

One journalist described it as a place where “No laws or rules applied…except for one: ‘No cops allowed.’” The journalist goes on to say this about their time in the zone:

“During five undercover days and nights in the zone, I witnessed a continuing experiment in anarchy, chaos and brute-force criminality… Crime has surged inside and outside the zone… On Saturday morning, a shooting erupted that left at least one person dead and another injured near a border checkpoint. Police were reportedly met with resistance when they tried to get to the victims, who apparently were then taken in private cars to the hospital…

The journalist reported of one man being arrested for allegedly “sexually assaulting a deaf woman who was lured inside a tent.” The article also describes how police are unable to get to victims of assault, rape, and theft that is going on in the autonomous zone. The journalist goes on to make these observations:

“Though the CHAZ claims to have no rules, it quickly developed a complex code of conduct that varied from zone to zone and even the time of the day. For example, those in the garden area, who are mostly white, need to make sure they do not “recolonize” the space.

…Lacking agreed-upon leadership, those who have naturally risen to the top have done so with force or intimidation. For example, rapper Raz Simone, real name Solomon Simone, patrols the CHAZ on some nights with an armed entourage. Simone, originally from Georgia, has an arrest record for child cruelty and other charges. He usually conducts his patrols carrying a long semi-auto rifle and sidearm…

Not everyone in the CHAZ recognizes Simone’s police-like presence, but no one is willing to stand up to him and his group. There have been consequences for those perceived as challengers or threats. Independent Los Angeles-based journalist Kalen D’Ameida recorded Simone and his crew in the early hours of Monday. He was spotted by one of Simone’s men, who manhandled him and demanded he turn over his mobile device. Simone’s team chased D’Ameida and tried to drag him to the security tent. He escaped by hiding in a construction site outside the CHAZ until police responded to his 911 call.

Those unfortunate enough to have homes or businesses within the CHAZ — an estimated 30,000 residents — have no say over their new overlords. Residents have discreetly voiced their concerns to local media. Gunshots and “screams of terror” at night have been reported. A resident of an apartment building came out twice to ask protesters to leave the alley where the entrance is. They brushed him off.

Every business and property inside the CHAZ has been vandalized with graffiti.”[8]

This is anarchy! Government’s purpose is to prevent atrocities like this from ever happening.

When the apostle’s say we must obey God rather than men, they are not of the belief that we should not give any consideration to the state or that formal human government is unnecessary and wrong in principle. They were fully aware that civil government is a good a thing, for God is the One who ordained it. They were neither indifferent or indignant to it because of this truth, nor should we be. It is because of this truth that we should rather strive to understand what He has designed it for.

All Earthly Authority is Delegated by God

Since God possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, He is, therefore, the source of all authority. It all derives from Him. Since this is true, this means that all authority is a delegated authority. As Paul says, “There is no authority except from God.” All authority is “established by” Him. It originates with Him. Those in governing positions only possess what God has given them.

            Now, it is imperative we grasp this. This means that with delegation comes accountability, which means that since the government derives their authority from God, they are then accountable to who? Him. Believer and unbeliever alike in positions of authority are accountable to the Almighty. There is no exception.

            Since there is accountably, there must be a function for the state to be held accountable to and Romans 13:1-4 tells us exactly what that function is to be:

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Rulers are servants of God. The word for minister here is the Greek word Diakonos from which we get the transliterated word for deacon, which means servant.

Now some have erroneously interpreted this to mean that civil offices must be held by deacons of the church. This is not at all what Paul is teaching. The Greek word for deacon is used a plethora of times throughout the New Testament, and most of the times it is not referring to the church office. What Paul is driving home is that just authority is not a thing to be shunned, but a thing to be submitted to because it is from God and for good. As Paul says “It does not bear the sword for nothing.” It is not designed to bear the sword against good, but evil:

“It is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

All Earthly Authority is Limited by God

Now it is very important that we hone in on this, because we are dealing now with ethics. We are dealing with matters of morality. We are dealing with what is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is evil? The state is designed by Does the state determine morality? Do civil authorities get to determine what is ethical? Has human government been given the authority to do this?

What our cultural would like us to think is that it does and that morality is but a social construct. Basically, majority rules in the realm of morality. This thinking views good and evil as subjective and fluid matters that change with the time and with the culture. Because we are such progressive thinkers in our day, what was once upon a time deemed abominable, reprehensible, and evil can now be considered admirable, irreprehensible, and good. Does the state have the power to alter morality? Not one bit! Morality is objective and absolute. It transcends us. Trewhella right observes that:

“The tyrant State abhors an objective standard to which it is accountable, rather it flourishes in a subjective environment.”[9]

Civil Authority is a minster, which means that it is a servant, which means it is subservient. A diakonos is one who executes the commands of another. Who then is the Master that the civil authorities of this earth are to look to? God, for there is no authority except from Him. His Word and Law are what provide the standard of right and wrong, and good and evil. Rulers are to govern according to God’s rule. They are limited by the standard with which they are to reign.

Let us not forget that the Law is a reflection of His holy character, and since He is immutable so is the standard that is an expression of who He is. In other words, since He does not change, the Law which reflects Him never will either. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever. It constantly provides the nations of this earth with an objective standard by which God might reign through them.

They do not get to determine what is good or evil. Their duty is to derive their understanding of good and evil from God’s Word, and establish laws informed by it. This is something that was commonly understood throughout history. 18th Century legal scholar, William Blackstone, said this of God’s Law:

“Upon these two foundations, the law of nature, and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these…. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are found only in the Holy Scriptures.”

As James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence said:

“Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine.”

Realms of authority have been designed by God to mirror His justice. As a servant of God, it is to be limited to the use of His objective standard.

            What I wish us to see is that they are to use His standard so that they might wield the sword with a limited purpose as well. Civil government is to be a rewarded of the one who does good, and a punisher of the one who does evil according to the Word and Law of God.

Genesis 9:6-7 gives us a glimpse of God establishing civil government after the flood and reinforcing what is known as the cultural mandate. He says:

Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.
“As for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Human government was established because of the fall of man. The real important question is what does it serve? It serves to protect the rights of people, such as the right to life, the rite to a family, the right to property and possessions, the right to a fair trial. A murder is put to death to protect the life of others. An adulterer is punished to protect the family unit. A thief is penalized to protect people’s possessions, and a perjurer is punished to protect people from an unfair trial.

By God’s design, civil government is to wield the sword in a manner that protects the inalienable rights that God has bestowed upon each, and every individual created in His image so that they might fulfill the cultural mandate of being fruitful and multiplying and populating the earth and subduing it. By the way, this mandate implies the right to life, the right to family, the right to property, the right to work, and I’m sure there are several others hidden in there by implication.     

In the end, this is not just about our rights as Americans. This is about the rights of every man, woman, and child who bears the image of God. God has bestowed these rights upon everyone, and it is the States job, whether believer or unbeliever, to recognize these rites and to protect them. Their standard is an objective one, and at the risk of over simplifying things, their jurisdiction is limited to this purpose. They are to reward those who do good according to God’s standard, and wield the sword against those who do evil. That is it.

When we understand God’s intended function for government, we can quickly see that civil disobedience is not only necessary when the state seeks to forbid what God has commanded, or commands what God forbids, but also when the state strives to reign in a realm in which they have no rule or jurisdiction in.

Caesar has not been given jurisdiction in the church. He is not the head of the church, Jesus Christ is! Caesar has not been given jurisdiction in the family unit. Husbands are the heads and the wives the coregent in governing the affairs of the household. Lastly, Caesar does not have jurisdiction over your face!

When the governing authorities are functioning in accordance with their God-given purpose and within its jurisdiction we are to subject ourselves to them because they are mirroring the justice of God. When the State rules justly, we must submit to them, and we should desire to subject ourselves to them because, as Peter says:

“Such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

The most pertinent question at this point is what about rulers who are a cause of fear for doing good and a rewarder of evil? What do we do with them? What do we do when governing authorities seek to rule outside of their jurisdiction? For the love of God and the love of people we civilly disobey them in the areas in which their rule contradicts God’s character, nature, and will, and submit to whatever consequences they seek to thrust upon you.

When Caesar crosses his limitations, he must be defied. Civil disobedience reminds the state Who they are accountable to and what their responsibility is. It aims to get them to acknowledge that they are the real anarchists for they have deviated from God’s purpose for them. We defy them because they are defying the One we are all accountable to, which is God Almighty!

Looking to the Possessor of All Authority

Why do we do this, and how do we do this? Is there a biblical precedent for this? We will discuss that next time. For now, let us end by remembering that Jesus Christ possesses all power and authority both in heaven and on earth.[10] He is the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. He is the supreme authority over the kingdoms of this world. He is the Ruler over the realm of man.[11] Everything and everyone is subject to Him and is to look to Him for direction. As one of my favorite 16th Century Frenchman said:

“The higher worldly powers must be limited and regulated by the principle that God must be in sovereign control of His empire and that we must not turn away from His Word…Sovereignty must always remain in God’s hands…all dominions and principalities must be subject to Him…Are those installed in an office endowed with some natural right? Absolutely not! They possess only what God has given them. What then are all the kings, princes, and others who have dominion in this world if not God’s sergeants and officers? When they undertake a project outside His authority, even taking position against Him, am I obliged to obey them? Certainly not! From this let us learn that when rendering dutiful obedience to those who have some authority over us, we must always add the condition that God does not lose His right…Those who have the sword in hand must consider what God had in mind when raising them to their position…they are there so that God, through their administration, may reign among them and their subjects and be served and honored in the process.”[12]

Let us never forget that Jesus Christ is the only wise Sovereign to whom every knee is to bow. Everyone ought to give Him them their love and allegiance, but even if people do not, we must give Him ours. He came and lived a perfect life for us and died a perfect death for us. He earned for us a righteousness according to the law of God, and bore for us the penalty of our sin upon His body on the cross. He satisfied the wrath of God towards us upon His person. He died for all who turn from themselves in repentance and cling to Him through faith trusting that He died, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring them to God. The proof that there is real forgiveness and life in Him is that though He died a heinous death, He now lives never to die again. He died for us so that we who live might no longer live for ourselves but for Him.

In the end, we must heed the One who possess all power and authority in heaven and on earth. We must heed the highest power over us. We must obey God rather than men.

[1] Exodus 2:15-20

[2] Daniel 3:8-18

[3] Daniel 6:1-10

[4] Acts 4:17-18; 5:27-29

[5] The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government, by Matthew J. Trewhella; Page 24

[6] The New Twentieth Century Dictionary; Page 1861

[7] Philippians 3:20

[8] https://nypost.com/2020/06/20/my-terrifying-5-day-stay-inside-seattles-autonomous-zone/

[9] The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government, by Matthew J. Trewhella; Page 22

[10] Matthew 28:18

[11] Daniel 4:17

[12] John Calvin; Page 144-46

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