In America, we are defensive about our rights, and we see in the Scriptures that Paul did not hesitate to use his right as a Roman citizen. Is it appropriate for Christians to be concerned about the government infringing on our rights? Lots of Christians are using this to justify not wearing a mask1 or continuing to defy government regulations on gatherings.
In the previous post, we examined the passages in Acts describing the apostle Paul’s interactions with various authorities. We noticed that even though Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship it was never to achieve some comfort or advantage for himself. We also noticed that Romans 13:1–7 gives governments broad authority over all citizens for the purpose of maintaining order. We closed that post with the following which we now must examine.
From People’s Rights (Part 1):
But, there is a much deeper issue here that we must consider. What is our relation to the governments of this world? Our Lord when standing before Pilate said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn. 18:36) The epistle to the Colossians was written as instruction for our walk in a world that is contrary to us. One of its main premises is “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…” (Col. 3:1) The name of the last Assembly mentioned in Revelation 3 is Laodicea. The name means “people’s rights” or “people’s justice.” What does all this have to tell us about our place in this world? These important issues are very much related to our topic and very necessary for us today.
Governmental authority and Paul’s rights
Although we have shown in the previous post that none of Paul’s experiences recorded in Acts allow us to support resistance to governmental authority we still have Paul asserting his “rights” elsewhere. Paul argued that he had a “right” to marry and take his wife on his missionary journeys (1 Cor. 9:5), his “right” to eat or not eat certain foods (1 Cor. 9:4), and his “right” to accept support of the saints (1 Cor. 9:12) for his labor among the assemblies. Notice all of these cases are related to his position as a servant of the Lord. In each of these cases the word for “right” has the sense of authority. That is, Paul has been authorized to act in a certain way. This authorization was derived from God who gave him the position of apostle in His Kingdom.
We saw in the previous post that God has given human government authority over us so long as its edicts do not explicitly contradict His own. We can say the “kingdoms” of this world are authorized by God for the punishment of those who act in an evil way (Rom. 13:4). But, then what is the relationship between these kingdoms and the Kingdom of God? This question brings us to the critical issue mentioned above.
The importance of the Lord’s words to Pilate
Having been condemned to death by the religious council (Matt. 26:63–66), the Lord Jesus was brought before Pilate. The most fundamental basis of our relationship to the world is given by the Lord Jesus when He stood before Pilate. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this exchange.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (Jn. 18:36)
John 18:36 must be the cornerstone of this present discussion. We cannot skip over the consequence so explicitly given in this verse! Jesus plainly tells us, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” If you wish to fight for some “rights”, who do you think grants you those rights? If you say, “The U. S. Constitution”, then that document represents the kingdom to which you belong! Mr. Darby wrote: “We do not mix in politics; we are not of the world: we do not vote. We submit to the established authorities, whatever they may be, insofar as they command nothing expressly contrary to the will of Christ.”2 Mr. Darby correctly saw that voting was evidence of being entangled in the world’s affairs.
Citizens of what?
In contrast, Paul preached the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22, etc.). The apostle Paul writing to the Philippians says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 3:20) “Citizenship” is inadequate. “It is associations of life, as ‘I am born an Englishman.’”3 This is important. The Greek noun politeuma used here has the sense of “commonwealth” , and is broader than just “citizenship”. The word includes the place to which believers are associated and belong, heaven, not just their legal status or being subject to the jurisdiction of heaven. True believers represent the heavenly kingdom, just as the false believers in Phil. 3:18–19 represent the earthly kingdom. So, if I wish to assert that I have certain “rights”, I am necessarily assuming a source and context for those rights. Who gives me those rights? What does my assertion imply about who I am serving and what defines my “associations of life?”
Colossians is the epistle that gives us the most detailed instruction for our pathway as strangers in a world that is hostile to us. If we do not appreciate our relationship to Christ, in whom dwells “all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” who is seated in glory, then we cannot possibly walk faithfully in a world that has rejected Him.
The apostle writes in Colossian 3:1, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Notice that we have been raised. This corresponds to what the apostle said in Philippians 3:20. This must be our perspective. We are surrounded by lost and dying men and women. The gospel of salvation through Christ needs to be preached in power. There can be no power if our lives do not reflect the need for the salvation we preach. Association with the world denies the most powerful evidence for the need of the salvation we preach. This is why the truth of John 18:36 is so important. The world is under judgment for the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory. God has not forgotten.
Do you really want to assert “your rights?”
All around us we see the signs of the last days and coming judgement. One of those signs is surely the clamoring for one’s rights. It is very solemn that the last Church mentioned in the prophetic history given in Revelation 2 and 3 is Laodicea. “Laodicea” means people’s rights.4 Names in Scripture are always significant. This one certainly connects with the general attitude prevalent today in the Church (2 Tim. 4:3) and in the world. Is not that because the Church has absorbed the attitudes of the world rather than witnessing against it. The Church of God has become the world Church. It should be shameful to us that the world simply counts Christianity as “one of the world’s great religions.” This is the Church about which the Lord says, “I will spit you out.” (Rev. 3:16) This is clearly a final judgment upon the Christian testimony because it has become distasteful to the Lord. 2 Tim. 3:1-10 contains a very sobering summary of the religious leaders in the last days, with verse 5 being especially powerful.
A final note about responsibility must be made lest anyone take what I have said to set aside natural responsibilities. The responsibilities of life, especially those derived from creation and those instituted by God are not set aside. Responsibilities for natural relationships are insisted on as well as the need for labor (Col. 3:18–23, etc.).
In addition, there is the example of the Lord Jesus Himself. His ministry was always toward those suffering in a world ravaged by sin. Just here we are afforded an example of the difference between right Christian ministry and the type of worldly endeavor I have criticised. Many Christian missionaries have devoted their lives to building schools and clinics where the needs of ordinary people can be met. They have not attempted to change governments or societies. Where the gospel is preached and received then societies might be changed “from the inside out.” That is a fundamentally different process from an attempt to force change to worldly organizations.
1. The government recommended and sometimes required persons to wear a facemask during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to reduce transmission of the virus from person to person. While the actual events pertain to a particular circumstance the principles I deal with here are of general applicability.
2. J. N. Darby, Letters: Volume 2, number 294 (Kingston-on-Thames: Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, No Date), 439.
3. J. N. Darby, New Translation. Footnote on Colossians 3:20.
4. Or, “People’s Judgment”. See F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible: Hebrews to Revelation. (Neptune: Louzeaux Brothers, 1932), 367.