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When Jesus answered the question about paying taxes to Caesar, who had established his authority over Israel by force, he pointed out that humans have responsibilities to two kingdoms. The first and most important responsibility we have is to God. What we owe to him as our creator and redeemer is that we fear, love and trust in him above all things. The second responsibility we have is to the government, Caesar. What we owe him as God’s representative, is honor, respect, and obedience as long as it does not interfere with our responsibility to God. That’s the approach that we see Daniel, and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego take, and the approach we see the Apostles take when facing the Sanhedrin. Even in situations where they realized that they had to disobey those in authority over them on earth, they did so with respect.
In our world today there seems to be a general disrespect for those in authority. We have all seen videos of the way some people have treated policemen who are just standing in a line doing their job. We hear the kind of names that are used for people in authority and the kinds of things of which they are accused, often falsely. And if those accusations are later proven to be false, they are still excused and defended by those who say that all current authority must be torn down and replaced by any means necessary.
All of us have been guilty at one time or another of showing disrespect for those in authority especially if their views don’t agree with ours. We can learn a lot from the respect for authority shown by Daniel, the three men, Peter and John, Jesus, and Paul. They showed respect to those in authority even when they were being persecuted by them.
Why do we owe honor, respect, and obedience to those in authority like government officials, and policemen? We might be tempted to think that we only have to answer to God and to ourselves, why do we have to listen to them? Paul spells it out very clearly. No authority exists except by God, and the authorities that do exist have been established by God. They are God’s representatives in the community, the state, and the country, just as parents are God’s representative in the home. They serve in their position only as long as God allows them to do so.
Remember our reading from Daniel? It illustrated what Paul said in his sermon in Athens, From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. Earthly kingdoms come and go, and God makes use of them, whether good or bad, to carry out his plan of salvation. He used the stubbornness of Pharaoh as an opportunity to display his power over and redeem his people from what was considered the dominant power in the world at the time. He used Nebuchadnezzar to bring judgment on his people and rescue a remnant. He used Cyrus to send them back to Jerusalem and set the stage for the birth of the Messiah. He used Herod and Pilate and the Jewish leaders to accomplish his plan of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God raises up rulers and kingdoms, and no matter how powerful they become, he brings them down when they oppose his purpose. But his kingdom, the kingdom of the rule of Jesus Christ in the hearts of believers and over all that exists, that kingdom lasts for all eternity.
God is in control. He has established governments, authorities, whether kings, or governors, or prime ministers, or democratically elected leaders, for a good reason. Therefore the one who rebels against the authority is opposing God’s institution, and those who oppose will bring judgment on themselves.
What is God’s good reason for establishing authority? He knows that the desires of the human heart are only evil all the time. People’s sinful nature needs to be kept in check or anarchy will take over. The job he has given to those in authority is to keep peace and order in society, to keep the acts of the sinful nature in check. The tool he has given the authorities is the carrot and the stick, the law. Do what is good, and you will receive praise from the one in authority, because he is God’s servant for your benefit. But if you do wrong, be afraid because he does not carry the sword without reason. He is God’s servant, a punisher to bring wrath on the wrongdoer.
Paul reminds Timothy to encourage Christians to pray for those in authority, pray that they would do what God has called them to do well so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Unbelievers may submit to those in authority only because they don’t want to experience punishment; they don’t want to pay a fine or go to jail. As believers, we have another reason to submit to those in authority. We submit, Peter says, because of the Lord, because it is his will. Just as it is in the case of employee and employer, we realize that we are not serving people, we are serving God. Peter also reminds us of the kind of effect this can have on others. Serving those in authority because we are serving God not people will help silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live an honorable life among Gentiles who slander us as evildoers (today we might say, as unloving) so that when they observe your noble deeds, they may glorify God on the day he visits us.
We certainly know from experience that those in authority don’t always use their authority in a proper way. Instead of being servants and working for the good of people they think only of themselves and use their authority to enrich themselves, or to promote their own agenda. Everyone is born sinful. There is no such thing as a perfect leader or a perfect form of government. But notice that Paul reminds us that God expects us to give honor, respect, and obedience even to bad authorities, as long as they are in power, and as long as they do not try to force us to go against what God has commanded. Give everyone what you owe them; taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed (notice he doesn’t say deserved), and honor to whom honor is owed.
Those of us here today enjoy a blessing that very few have had throughout the history of the world. We still enjoy religious freedom. We don’t have a government like Peter and John had that tells us “you better stop preaching that Jesus died and rose again, or else!” If we have authorities who seem to be more concerned about serving themselves than in serving us, we have the freedom to vote, or run against them ourselves.
Although it has not always been followed or enforced, our founding documents reflect the truth that all people are created equal and that our rights as humans come from the one who created us. In this time when people are trying to divide us by color, or ethnicity, or anything else they can find that makes us seem different, it’s good to be reminded of what makes us the same. Every human is a special creation of God, a descendant of sinful Adam and Eve, a person for whom Jesus lived and died. He wants ALL to be saved and he has paid the price of salvation in full for all. Learn to look at everyone you meet, every authority, every neighbor, everyone, through that lens. See them as a special creation of God and as someone for whom Jesus died, and that he wants to be with you and him in heaven.
When you look at people that way; when you realize what God has done for you in Jesus even though you deserved the opposite; when you realize that instead of letting you get the punishment you deserve for all the times that you have disrespected, dishonored, and disobeyed those in authority he gave your punishment to Jesus; then you understand the kind of love that Paul is talking about. The only debt that can never be repaid, that will continue to all eternity, is the debt of love that we owe to God. And since there will be other people living with us in heaven, just as there are always people around us now, our debt of love for them continues for all eternity. The will of God has not and never will change. His will is that we love him above all things and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.
If you love God and your neighbor, you give those in authority the honor, respect, and obedience their position of authority requires. If you love God and your neighbor, you remain faithful to your spouse until death. If you love God and your neighbor, you help everyone else preserve and protect their property and means of income. You do all you can to avoid doing harm to your neighbor by words or actions.
If those things don’t describe you, does that mean you are not a Christian, that you are lost forever? No. It means you are human. It means that you have given in to temptation. It means that you have allowed yourself to be influenced by the world, conforming to it instead of being transformed by the power of God in word and sacrament. It means that you can confess that you are no better than anyone else. If left on your own, you would be condemned to eternal punishment. It means that Jesus is your only hope. Look to him for forgiveness. See his love for you as he hangs on the cross. See your sins placed on him. See them paid for in full. Let his love and forgiveness fill you with love, a love that moves you to let no debt outstanding other than the continuing debt of love, for God first and for one another.