Capital Punishment, War, and Loving Your Enemies

Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?

Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?

There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.

There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.

You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.

Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)

Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?

Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.

Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.

Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).

Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).

Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.

What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?

  1. God is a Just God

God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6

  1. Not All Killing Is Murder

Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.

  1. The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God

Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.

The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4

When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.

Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.

In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.

The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
-Psalm 33.16-19

Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.

Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands

The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness.  If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?

What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?

The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…

That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.

What About Justice?

Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).

In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.

This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.

God is the all-knowing, and perfectly-just Creator of life. As such, if God wants to use governments to execute His wrath against evildoers, He certainly has that right (Cf. Rom. 13.1-4).

But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).

Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.

What About Common Sense?

Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?

The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.

In A Democracy, Don’t Christians Have A Responsibility to Participate in Politics?

In a previous post I recounted nine things Jesus said or did that should influence the way Christians approach politics. Jesus never tried to gain power in the political system of his day. But, it has been argued that in almost every instance that the Bible references the Christian’s relationship with government, the governments were emperors or kings. Governments in that day didn’t allow for the public to participate in the same way they do today. Caesar and Pilate weren’t elected by popular vote.

We, however, live in a democracy where our government allows and encourages the public to be involved in the political process. Suddenly the governments are not “thems”, but rather the governments are “us” (or so it is argued). Does the Christians relationship to government and politics change in a democracy? Do modern Christians now have a responsibility to try to change society using political methods?

First of all it is not true that in democratic or any other kind of government that the people are themselves the rulers. They choose the rulers, among a select few individuals who have been given the opportunity to run for office. Once elected, these individuals tend to rule for their own selfish good and glory the same way other rulers in other forms of government rule.

Our Citizenship is in a Foreign County

Christians must remember that we are citizens of a foreign country. “For our citizenship is in heaven“, wrote Paul (Phil. 3.20). We are “foreigners” and “exiles” in our own country (1 Pet. 2.11). Does this basic relationship towards earthly governments change depending on the type of government we happen to be under?

Consider Paul’s words to Timothy:

“No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” – 2 Timothy 2.4

Our commitment to be a soldier of the cross doesn’t change based on the form of government we are under. As a soldier, we must not be distracted from our mission.

Jesus emphasized the contrast between the pagan path of greatness and the Christian path to greatness:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” – Matthew 20.25-26

The disciples of Jesus should abstain from the pagan desire to rule over others. This key distinction doesn’t change when the form of government changes.

Even if Christians themselves were the rulers, this raises another difficult challenge: How can a Christian fulfill the responsibilities of government and the responsibilities as a Christian at the same time?

Governments are to avenge evildoers (Rom. 13.4), yet Christians are forbidden from avenging themselves (Rom. 12.19). Governments carry out God’s wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13.4), yet Christians are to leave it to God’s wrath (Rom. 12.18). Governments do not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13.4), yet Christians are to feed their enemies (Rom. 12.20-21). Romans 12-13 only makes sense if it is understood that Christians are a separate entity, with separate responsibilities from the governmental authorities. If, in a democracy, Christians become one in the same with the government, Romans 12-13 must be seen to be commanding contradictory responsibilities at the same time.

Christians are to be in subjection to earthly rulers (Rom. 13.1). Every instance of “subjection” in the New Testament indicates the presence of at least two separate, and potentially opposing entities. If Christians are one and the same with government, are they then to submit to themselves? If “we” are now the government, how are we supposed to submit to ourselves? To the extent that government can desire something of us that we would not choose ourselves, they are a separate entity.

Earthly Governments Will Be Destroyed

If in a democracy, “we” are now one in the same with the government in Romans 13, are we also one in the same in 1 Corinthians 15 with the rulers and authorities and powers who will be destroyed along with the rest of Jesus’s enemies when He returns?

Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and all power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.

Surely we would not argue that simply because we live in a democracy that “we” are the rulers and authorities that will be destroyed in 1 Corinthians 15. How can we claim to be one in the same with the rulers in Romans 13, but not in 1 Corinthians 15?

When Paul speaks of Christians wrestling against authorities and rulers and powers (Eph. 6.12), did He envision Christians wrestling against themselves, since they are now the rulers in a democracy?

Absolutely not. The day will come when “Babylon” will be judged and destroyed. We should therefore heed the warning of Revelation 18.4:

Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins are piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”

If we are one in the same with government just because we live under a democracy, we should be very concerned! We should be seeking any way possible to get out! If we don’t “come out of her” we will share in the judgment she will receive.

Conclusion

Thankfully, “we” are not the government. We represent a different kingdom. The kingdom in which we enjoy citizenship will be delivered to the Father when all the other kingdoms are destroyed. We are to change the world, but we are not to use the same methods the world uses. Our power to change the world is rooted in prayer and sacrificial love. Whatever distracts us from this task should be avoided.

Living in a democracy certainly makes it easy to be politically involved if we choose to do so. But that doesn’t mean we have a responsibility to do so. If anything, it means we must be even more careful to maintain the important distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.

Not of This World? Prove it!

Jesus cited the fact that His disciples were not fighting for His self-defense as the proof that His kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus was facing trial before Pilate as a suspected Jewish revolutionary, Pilate gave Jesus a chance to explain His actions. In response, Jesus didn’t simply proclaim “My Kingdom is not of this world”; He pointed to the non-violence of His servants as proof to substantiate His claim.

Two thousand years later Jesus’s kingdom is still not of this world. But can we prove it like Jesus did? Can we still point to His disciple’s refusal to fight to bear witness to this fact?

Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me? Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify  to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18.33-37

What Did Jesus Mean By “Not of This World”?

A commitment to nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of His Kingdom. Of course the differences between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms go far beyond whether or not the servants of those kingdoms fight or not. There are many ways in which the Kingdom Jesus preached is “not of this world.”

  • Their source of authority is different. Earthly kingdoms are led by men, while Jesus’s kingdom has its authority in heaven.
  • Their ability to influence the behavior of their citizens are different. Earthly kingdoms seek to reform behavior by use of outward force, while Jesus’s kingdom seeks to inwardly transform hearts.
  • Their boundaries are different. Earthly kingdoms are divided by geographic or racial boundaries, while Jesus’s kingdom is universal in nature.
  • Their source of power is different. Earthly kingdoms look to the power of the cross (or other weapons used to impose the threat of death), while Jesus’s kingdom looks to the power of the cross (i.e. the willingness to submit to death).

But of upmost importance, we must not miss the one key difference that Jesus actually points to in His answer.

  • Their response to evil is different. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would have been fighting”

When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7.7). Elsewhere John would say, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.15).

The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to a worldly way of doing things and a Godly way of doing things. The commitment of Jesus’s followers to nonviolence is at the heart of this difference.

Jesus Proved It. Can We?

Jesus didn’t just claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. He pointed to the observable fact that His servants were not fighting as proof.

If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.

Just a short time earlier He has rebuked Peter when Peter attempted to come to his defense (Jn. 18.10-11).Had Peter, or any of the other disciples been fighting at the time, Jesus’ claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you image Pilate’s response if such had been the case? “What do you mean your Kingdom is not of this world!? Then how do you explain the actions of your disciples!?” But as it was, Jesus’ disciples were not fighting, and Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.

Did Jesus Really Teach Non-Violence?

Did Jesus really teach that his disciples should totally and universally reject fighting? Or did Jesus teach that His disciples should refuse to fight in limited situations, while acknowledging the right of the sword to earthly kingdoms?

The argument goes something like this:

“When Jesus said, “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting”, he acknowledged the right of worldly kingdoms to use violence. By implication, if He and His servants were defending an earthly kingdom, then they would be fighting. Fighting in defense of earthly kingdoms should therefore be seen as at least permissible, and possibly even necessary. As Christians, we are subjects of the kingdoms of this world (Rom. 13.1). Therefore while it is never right to fight for the sake of His non-worldly kingdom, Christians may fight to defend the kingdoms of this world.”

Some Considerations

I know of many faithful Christians who sincerely strive to rightly divide the Scriptures who have arrived at an understanding similar to this. In fact, I myself once held to this limited nonviolence view, and I did so with a most sincere faith. The considerations I wish to offer must not be read as “judgmental” towards anyone who holds that view or had acted upon that view. I wouldn’t want to have my faith unfairly judged by any of my brothers or sisters, and I assure you, that is not the intent of these considerations. Due to my belief that my Christian brothers and sisters who hold this view do so out of a love for truthfully understanding Scripture, I invite you to wrestle with some of these objections.

If you can answer these objections with satisfaction, you will continue to hold your view with even more confidence. If such is the case, I hope you will share with me your counter-objections so that I too can continue to strive for a better understanding.

If perhaps you cannot think of a good answer for these objections, for the sake of truth, I hope you will continue to ponder and meditate on these verses with a humility that will accept whatever truth is to be found therein.

  1. Jesus did not express approval for fighting for earthly kingdoms

The argument is based upon an unproved assumption: that it is right for all servants of worldly kingdoms to fight for those kingdoms. The argument acknowledges that it would be wrong to fight for the kingdom of God. In this argument, the rightness or the wrongness of fighting depends on the nature of the kingdom being defended.

However, if the text is studied carefully it is seen that Jesus was making a clear distinction between the nature of His kingdom and the kingdoms of the world, between the servants of His kingdom and the servants of the Kingdoms of the world. He simply stated, without approval or disapproval, the recognizable fact that servants of earthly kingdoms fight for those kingdoms, while His servants were not fighting for His kingdom. If it is right to fight in the defense of worldly kingdoms, that position must be proved elsewhere in Scripture. It cannot be assumed from John 18.36.

  1. The servants of Christ of whom He spoke were also subjects of an earthly kingdom

The argument holds the position that Christians are right to fight for earthly kingdoms because of their dual citizenship and dual allegiance to both the kingdom of God and to their earthly government. Therefore since they are in both kingdoms, they have responsibilities towards both kingdoms. Just as Christians stand in defense of the Kingdom of God, so they should also stand in defense of their earthly kingdom.

Yet we must remember that the non-fighting servants of Jesus also had earthly citizenship in the nation of Israel, yet they still refused to fight. They were “in the world” (Jn. 17.11), but they were not “of the world” (Jn. 17.16). The distinction between Jesus’s servants and the servants of earthly kingdoms remained despite the fact that they were subjects and servants of an earthly kingdom. If we were to draw any implications from Jesus’s words, we must say “The servants of the kingdoms of the world (with the exclusion of Jesus’s servants, who though “in the world” are not “of the world”) fight for those kingdoms.”

  1. The thing that makes Jesus’s kingdom “not of this world” is the character of the servants

We cannot say that it is wrong to fight for the kingdom of God because of its spiritual nature, but it is right to fight for earthly kingdoms because of their physical nature. When Jesus drew a distinction between His kingdom and worldly kingdoms, the distinction did not rely on the nature of the kingdoms themselves, but rather on the nature of the servants of those kingdoms.

The spiritual nature of God’s kingdom does not prevent anyone from fighting for it. Theoretically, if someone decided to use violence in defense of the principles of God’s kingdom, they could. They could easily pick up a gun and fight against someone in the name of defending  spiritual principles of justice, righteousness, feeding the hungry or limiting the spread of evil in the world. In fact, people fight for Godly ideals such as these all the time. That doesn’t make it right, but it is certainly possible to fight for the principles and ideals of the kingdom of God. The nature of the Kingdom of God and its spiritual principles does not prevent anyone from fighting for it, except to the extent that its nature has changed the nature of its servants.

Christians love their enemies (Mt. 5.43-36), leave judgment to God (Rom. 12.17-21), pursue “peace with all men” (Heb. 12.14), and follow in the nonviolent steps of Christ (1 Pet. 2.21-24). This character does not change when they are called to defend a kingdom of an earthly nature. That is because their commitment to Christ never changes. If anything, they see the threat of earthly enemies as an opportunity to make the distinction between earthly kingdoms and God’s kingdom even more profound.

Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. Can we prove it?

Recognizing the Real Enemy in Charlottesville

The political violence and hate demonstrated in Charlottesville over the weekend was as predictable as it was tragic. One person was killed, and dozens others were injured, and hateful rhetoric continues to be spewed back and forth between the different sides. In a society where politics is seen as the answer to almost every problem, battle lines are frequently drawn, goodwill is quickly eroded, and the very worst in people is often brought to the surface.

When such battle lines are drawn it is dangerously easy to over simplify matters of good and evil. It is dangerously easy to condemn Antifa with its violent left wing rhetoric. It is dangerously easy to vilify the alt-Right, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and fascists. Everyone is expected to pick a side. It is dangerously easy to turn certain politicians into the devil, or to turn the media into a slew of demons. It is dangerously easy to typify “those like us” as basically good and “people like them” as basically evil. We tend to turn ourselves into angels and our opponents into Satanic forces of evil. It is easy to think this way and far more convenient than having to step back from the rhetoric we continually see on social media and think clearly about right and wrong.

The Real Enemy

Jesus was born into a society where thoughts of revolution and war were brewing. Political violence was becoming more and more common. Israel thought of themselves as the “good guys.” After all, they were “God’s chosen nation.” The Romans were the bad guys. People longed for a “Messiah” who would raise an army and throw off the yoke of gentile oppression once and for all and thus usher in the promised “last days” and “age to come.” Every few years a self proclaimed “Messiah” would come along, gain some support, and try to do just that – usually resulting in crucifixion and bloodshed at the hand of the Romans.

Then comes Jesus. Jesus was also ready to fight a battle, but it wasn’t the battle people were expecting Him to fight. It wasn’t even the same kind of battle. In fact, based on the Sermon on the Mount we see that fighting itself, in the normal physical sense, was precisely what Jesus was not going to do. Jesus was fighting against a different kind of enemy all together.

Jesus saw Himself as fighting a battle against Satan and his evil spiritual forces.

And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan. – Mark 1.13

What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him. – Mark 1.27

He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who he was. – Mark 1.34

Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was. – Mark 3.11-12

The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul”… “And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand… But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.” – Mark 3.22-27

Immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him…He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”…

And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. – Mark 5.1-20

And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. – Luke 10.18

And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day? – Luke 13.16

Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat. – Luke 22.31

The devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him… After the morsel, Satan then entered into him. – John 3.2, 27

For all the things I don’t understand about Satan, unclean spirits, and demons, one thing is certain: Jesus recognized the reality of dark spiritual forces at work in the world.

If we will take a moment and recognize the existence of Satan and his spiritual forces, and if we consider that Satan is capable of influencing “us” as well as “them”, then our focus should shift. In all four gospels, Jesus only directly addresses Satan by that name two times. The first time was during the wilderness temptations (Mt. 4.10). The other was when he was rebuking one of his closest friends for resisting God’s plan (Mk. 8.33).

When we see conflict between two parties, it is not a simple as just picking a side. If we will learn to view the world in light of this spiritual reality, the battle lines shift. It is no longer a battle between “us” and “them”. The battle is between God and Satan.

With this new reality in view, enemies can be seen as within reach of God’s blessings. And our allies, those whom we have always thought of as fighting on the “right” side, suddenly need to be examined a little closer.

The Real Battle

Jesus recognized that He came to fight a war. It wasn’t a war of independence from the Romans. It wasn’t a revolution against King Herod. He didn’t join a fight for national freedom. He didn’t go to war against oppressive and hateful political powers. He didn’t seek to overthrow corrupt local leaders.

The real battle was far deeper, far more significant, and far more important. Jesus was in battle against Satan himself. And though Satan certainly used the Romans and influenced the Jewish leaders, Jesus continually remembered that Satan was not one to be identified with any of these.

It was necessary for Him to keep his mind set on this truth, for had Jesus turned and identified the Romans or the Jews as his enemy, and opposed them rather than opposing Satan, He most certainly would have lost the real battle.

The Real Victory

If Jesus saw Satan as the real enemy, how did He suppose the battle would be won? Early in His ministry in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had pointed forwards to how this battle was to be won. The enemy would be defeated, not by a political victory over his opponents, but rather by turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and demonstrating love towards his enemies (Mt. 5.38-48). This is how the Kingdom of Heaven would be established and the victory would be won.

Of course the end result of such so-called “foolishness” is predictable. Everybody knows what happens to people who don’t fight back: the bad guys win and the good guys lose. The fact that Jesus ended up being crucified should strike us as no surprise.

And yet, it was in this “loss” to his so called “enemies” that the real victory over the real enemy was secured.

By refusing to resist evil, Jesus refused Satan. By resisting the opportunity to revile his enemies in return, Jesus resisted Satan. By withstanding any desire to threaten his enemies, Jesus withstood Satan. When Jesus overcame the cross, He overcame Satan. By his willingness to “lose”, the real victory was won. “By His wounds, you were healed.” (2 Peter 2.22-23).

What this means for Charlottesville

What does all of this mean for Charlottesville, and all the other political conflicts we see in the world? It means that it is time for us as Christians to fight. Or as Peter put it: “arm yourselves!”

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with this same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. – 1 Peter 4.1-2

Or consider the way Paul summed up this warfare:

Stand firm against the schemes of the devil, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Put on the full armor of God! – Ephesians 6.11-13

We are at war. But it is eternally important that we recognize who the real enemy is. We are in a battle against Satan. To defeat Satan we must arm ourselves, but not with just any weapon of our choosing. The weapon we must take with us is the mindset of Christ. The armor we must put on is the armor of God.

If we go to war against the wrong enemy, we will of necessity have to take up the wrong weapons. If matters are oversimplified, the only path to victory over hate, is with hate; the only victory over violence, is with violence; the only victory over political power is to seize political power. If we seek to win the battle against the wrong enemy we will lose the war against Satan.

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in Spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for this very purpose – 1 Peter 3.8-9

Resurrection: The Redemption of Our Bodies

(You can go back and read a preliminary article, “After Life: Where Do Christians Go When they Die?” here.)

The Christian hope is for a bodily resurrection from the dead.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. – Philippians 3.20-21

Observe:

  • We are waiting for Jesus to come from heaven
  • When He does, He will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body
  • He will do this by the authority that He possesses to subject all things to Himself.

This, right here, contains in a nutshell what the whole New Testament teaches about the subject of resurrection. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which we will receive that body.

Similarly notice Colossians 3.3-4:

You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Observe:

  • Going to be with Jesus in some sort of invisible, hidden existence, is not the final hope.
  • In fact, we are already “with Christ in God” right now, in a hidden secret way.
  • What will change is that our secret and hidden existence with Christ will be revealed. It will become unhidden. It will become visible.

Perhaps the clearest passage on the bodily resurrection can be found in Romans 8.9-11:

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Observe:

  • If the Spirit of God dwells in you…
  • Then the same Spirit that rose Jesus’ body from the grave…
  • Will give life to your mortal bodies.

Paul was not the only New Testament author who wrote of the resurrection.

See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not appeared as what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. – 1 John 3.1-2

Once again, the resurrected body of Jesus, with all its glory and purity, will be the model for our own transformed bodies.

John records Jesus making some of the clearest statements about the resurrection:

Truly, truly, I say unto you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgement, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. – John 5.25-29

All who are in the graves will come forth! Just as Jesus’ body was not left in the grave, so also, when we receive our new bodies, will our graves be emptied. His body somehow used up the substance that was left in the grave. Our current body will not disappear, nor will those old bodies be left in the grave but rather will be transformed to be as He is.

No study of the resurrection would be complete without considering Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

In 2 Corinthians 4.7-10, Paul compares our current bodies to jars of clay. Currently, in these bodies, we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always “carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.”

In verse 16-18, Paul reminds us that the reason we do not lose heart is because of the coming eternal glory. Paul then continues his discussion by comparing our bodies to temporary, earthly “tents”, and contrasting that with our future, permanently built “house” of a body.

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. – 2 Corinthians 5.1-5

We are going to put off our earthly tent (or tabernacle). There is a new house, a new dwelling place, a new body that is waiting for us in heaven with God. We earnestly wait to be clothed with this new body from heaven. Our current, mortal bodies will be swallowed up in life.

Observe: When we receive our new bodies, we will not be clothed less than we are now. We will be clothed more than we are now. If Paul is right (and he is), right now we are only a shadow of our future selves. Our future bodies will be even more real, even more complete, and far more permanent than our current bodies.

Two Different Types of Bodies

And finally we come to 1 Corinthians 15, the most complete discussion on the resurrection found in Scripture.

Apparently there were some in Corinth who were denying that our bodies would actually be resurrected from the dead. Paul discusses just how central this is to Christianity.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. – 1 Corinthians 15.16-20

Not only is the resurrection a reality, but the harvest of the resurrection has already begun. Christ is described as the “first fruit”. He is the model of what is to follow with the rest of us. Our graves will be empty like His. Our bodies will be raised like His. We will have bodies like his.

Paul continues to address objections to this idea by demonstrating that our future body will be different from our current body. To speak of a bodily resurrection does not imply that our future bodies will be exactly like our current bodies.

It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, ‘The first man’, Adam, ‘Became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. – 1 Corinthians 15.42-45.

Our current bodies are dishonorable and weak. They are described as “natural”. The Greek word here is “psyckikos”, sometimes translated “physical”. That is, a body that is animated or governed by the “psyche”, the Greek word for “breath” or “soul.” (Notice the comparison to Adam, who was a “living soul”).

Our future bodies are described as glorious, powerful, or “spiritual.” The Greek word for “spiritual” is “pneumatikos”. That is, a body that is animated or governed by the “pneuma”, the Greek word for the “Spirit”. (Notice the comparison to Jesus, the second Adam, who became a “life-giving spirit”).

Unfortunately, in the English language “physical” and “spiritual” are often used to denote “tangible” from things “non-tangible”. Therefore some have used this verse to suggest that our future existence will be less than bodily.

Notice carefully that Paul did not compare a physical body with a spiritual non-bodily existence. Paul compared two types of bodies. One type of body will be animated by man’s soul, and the other type will be animated by God’s spirit. If we are to be animated and governed by the Spirit, this necessitates that we have some sort of body that will be animated.

Will it be different from our current bodies? Absolutely. When Jesus was given a resurrected body, he could do some pretty weird things, like showing up in a room with his disciples without opening a door to come in (John 20.19-20). Yet He most certainly existed in a Spirit-governed, tangible, bodily existence; a body which could be touched and which could eat fish (John 21.12-14).

Why This is So Important

As Paul concludes his discussion of the resurrection, he does not say, “So therefore, it doesn’t really matter what you do here and now with your body, because one day we are all just going to die and go to heaven, somewhere above the bright blue, in some sort of non-bodily existence, floating on clouds and playing harps forever.”

He says:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 15.58

Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what we do right now with our bodies is important. The work we do for the Lord will not simply be left behind us in the grave. But rather because our bodies will rise again and be incorruptible, what we do right now in our bodies matters. Because of the resurrection, we have work to do, work that is not in vain. The Christian hope is not looking forward to the day when we fly away from our bodies to somewhere above the clouds, but rather our victory is found in the bodily resurrection from the dead.

O death, where is your victory;

O death, where is your sting?

After Life: Where do Christians Go When They Die?

My mom was killed most unexpectedly in a car crash in May 2013. We buried her in a quiet grave yard in rural Tennessee, behind the Old Philadelphia church building with a view of Ben Lomand Mountain rolling beautifully in the distance. The evening following her funeral, my family gathered inside that old church building to sing hymns.

When you step inside the Old Philadelphia building, you step back in time. This building, built in the early 1800’s, with creaky wooden floors, uncomfortable wooden pews, and oil lamps above each window, stands as a memorial to many of the faithful Christians who have worshiped there over the last 200 years, many of whom are buried in the same field as my mom.

My whole family was there; my grandparents, my fiancée, my siblings, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my dad. But we all knew somebody was missing.

As we sat there singing, my mind kept questioning: Where was my mom? Of course we knew her body was in the grave, but where was she? I wondered, if in some sort of spiritual sense, if my mom was there in that old church building with us, singing right along. Was she in some sense aware of what we were doing? Did she have any sort of spiritual consciousness at all? What is heaven like? What is paradise like? In what way is her existence right now, as dead, different from what her existence will be like after the judgment day when Christ returns?

As I sat there singing familiar songs about heaven, my mind drifted to all the other faithful dead Christians lying in that field. I’ve never met any of them, but I know I hold a common bond, a common faith, and a common hope along with them. Could they hear us sing? Were they cheering us on? Had they met my mom yet?

And then as my mind continued to wonder, I had an almost creepy thought: What will that field be like on the resurrection day? I shuddered to myself as I imagined zombie-like creatures coming out of the graves. Then again, I tend to think that the resurrection day will be much more glorious rather than creepy, but the mystery and unknown of what all that day will entail has continued to capture my imagination.

All of these weird thoughts and questions have stuck with me. I feel as though I will never be able to answer most of these questions, at least not in this life. But every time I think about my mom, my mind goes back to these thoughts. What is the Christian hope? What will it be like when I get to see my mom again?

The Redemption of Our Bodies

Romans 8:23 describes the Christian hope simply like this:

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

The Christian hope is for the resurrection from the dead.

The Biblical description of this hope is very different from what many people think the Bible says about heaven. Many people have this idea of dying, and then going directly to either heaven or hell, in a direct, post-death journey. Here, in heaven, Christians will enjoy some sort of spiritual, non-physical, non-bodily mystical (or perhaps angelic) existence with God and the angels. This existence in our minds is very vague and difficult to understand in light of the physical world we now enjoy, but it is trusted that it will be worth it.

Some people hold to a very similar view, but they understand that there will be a preliminary stop on the way to heaven. This belief goes something like this: upon death, Christians go to paradise. Then, at the end of time, on the judgment day, when the world is destroyed (and with it, all that might remain of our current bodies), faithful Christians will complete their journey into heaven where they will enjoy some sort of spiritual, non-bodily existence (or if we do have a new body, it will be an unimaginable, non-tangible kind of “body”).

Both of these misconceptions leave out the very important Biblical teaching of the resurrection from the dead. Or at the very least, they try to incorporate the resurrection as a small detail, or perhaps only a symbolic description of the eternal life we will one day enjoy.

Consider the lyrics to some of the songs we frequently sing.

There’s a beautiful place called heaven
It is hidden above the bright blue
Where the good who from earth ties are riven
Live and love an eternity through.

Above the bright blue, the beautiful blue,
Jesus is waiting for me and for you.
Heaven is there, not far from our sight,
Beautiful city of light.

“Above the Bright Blue” – Charles Pollock, 1903

Somewhere, Somewhere,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!
Land of the true, where we live a-new,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!

“Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” – Jessie Pounds, 1897

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day

“O They Tell Me of a Home” – Josiah Alwood, 1890

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

“I’ll Fly Away” – Albert Brumley, 1932

What do all these songs have in common? They all describe the Christian hope as heaven, where loved ones are currently waiting for us. We are told there is a beautiful isle that is somewhere above the bright blue, and this heaven is the ultimate Christian hope.

Yet, none of these songs mention the resurrection from the dead. It’s not that these songs outright deny the resurrection, but the resurrection is at best marginalized into a minor detail not worth mentioning while we continually sing about and emphasize the ultimate hope of heaven.

If we commit ourselves to describing the Christian hope using Biblical terms, we find that the resurrection from the dead is not just a small, insignificant detail. It is not as if we are buying a car that happens to not have power windows. If we miss the resurrection of our bodies from the dead, we are missing the engine that drives the whole vehicle of our hope.

What Happens to Christians When They Die?

How does Scripture describe death? What happens to Christians immediately upon death but prior to the resurrection day? Do they have a continued existence right now? If so, how is that existence described, and where do they currently exist? Can we rightly say that “Christians go to heaven when they die?”

The Body Remains Asleep and Lifeless

James compares dead faith to a dead body.

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. – James 2.26

Upon death, the body of the Christian lays in the grave motionless and spiritless. Death is therefore sometimes referred to as falling asleep.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. – 1 Thessalonians 4.13

Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7.60

That is, the body itself is asleep. It is lifeless. This sleep can be described as a “rest.”

And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them. – Revelation 14.13

The Christian Departs

Although the body lies dead, there is a part of the person that continues on after death. Paul spoke of his death as if he himself would be departing on a journey.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. – 2 Timothy 4.6

So the question is “where do we depart to?”

For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better. – Philippians 1.21-23

We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 5.8

Just as Paul expected to depart and be with Christ, similarly we read the words of Jesus Himself to the thief on the cross:

And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise. – Luke 23.43

So what happens to Christians when they die?

  • Their bodies are dead, remaining asleep, breathless, spiritless and lifeless.
  • They themselves depart, and are separated from their bodies, and go to be with Christ.

Does this mean that Christians can expect to “die and go to heaven”?

Although the Bible never uses the word “heaven” to describe our destination upon death, I don’t have a problem with those who wish to describe this temporary destination with that word. After all, Jesus is currently “seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”, and we are departing to be “with Christ”.

So is it fair to say that dead Christians are currently in heaven? Sure. But would it not be simpler to describe this temporary destination in the same way the Bible describes it? The Bible describes this temporary destination as being “with Christ” in a place that Jesus referred to as “paradise.”

According to Scripture, there is some sort of continued, non-bodily existence after death and prior to the resurrection. Some will call this “life after death.” Some may describe this as “flying away” to a “beautiful isle of somewhere” that is “above the bright blue.” This is a place where we can anticipate that “loved ones are waiting for me and for you.”

But it is very important to realize that this is not the end of the story. “Going to heaven when we die” is not the final Christian hope. This is not what the New Testament teaches is the final destiny for Christians. For Christians, our hope is found in the resurrection of our bodies.

For more on the resurrection, please continue reading “Life After-Life: The Redemption of Our Bodies.”

God’s Unwilling Servants

Not every minister of God serves God willingly. God often uses people to carry out His will in the world. Quite often people do not realize that God is using them as His ministers. In their minds, they are pursuing their own desires and answering to no one but themselves. Yet God still uses their rebellion to accomplish His purposes in the world.

The following four examples illustrate the important implications of this truth.

The Assyrians

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I sent it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of my fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations…

So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”
For he has said,
“By the power of my hand and by my wisdom I did this,
For I have understanding;
And I remove the boundaries of the peoples
And plunder the treasures,
And like a mighty man I brought down their inhabitants,
And my hand reached to the riches of the people like a nest,
And as one gathers abandoned eggs, I gathered all the earth;
And there was not one that flapped its wings or opened its beak or chirped.”

Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?
Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it?
That would be like a club wielding those who lift it,
Or like a rod lifting him who is not wood. – Isaiah 10:5-7; 12-15

Assyria was God’s instrument to punish Israel. God’s authority over Assyria was so complete it could be compared to an axe, a saw, a club, or a rod in the hand of one using these tools. God was using Assyria as His tool to accomplish His will.

Assyria did not know they were serving God’s will, neither did they have any desire to do so. In fact their desire was contrary to God. Their arrogant hearts were set on destruction. Their only intention was to serve their own desires.  When God needed to give a violent punishment, He chose a violent people.

The LORD had made everything for its own purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble. – Proverbs 16:4

God’s decision to use Assyria to minister to His will does not mean that He approved of their evil ways. Once He was finished using them for His purpose in Jerusalem, He would punish them for their arrogance. Just as no axe can exalt itself over the one who chops with it, neither would Assyria be able to escape unpunished.

From Isaiah 10 it is seen that God can use wicked, unwilling servants to accomplish His will. Sometimes it is the wickedness of nations that makes them especially fitting for the work that God has in mind. God does not force anyone to act wickedly by controlling their choices, but once those choices are made, God can use their wickedness as an instrument of His wrath.

The Babylonians

Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness…

‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. – Jeremiah 25.8-10, 12

Here God refers to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as “My servant.” Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful, idolatrous, pagan ruler. Though not a willing servant, Nebuchadnezzar was a servant of God nonetheless. Notice the phrases “I will send”, “I will utterly destroy” and “I will take.” He was a servant of God in the sense that God was using Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish His purposes.

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians would then be punished for their wickedness. Later in Jeremiah (especially chapters 50-51), God identifies the nations He would use to punish the Babylonians. These too could be described as “unwilling servants.”

Cyrus, King of the Medes

It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd!
And he will perform all My desire.’
And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’
And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’

Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed,
Whom I have taken by the right hand,
To subdue nations before him
And to loose the loins of kings;
To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut;
I will go before you and make the rough places smooth;
I will shatter the doors of bronze and cut through their iron bars.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden wealth of secret places,
So that you may know that it is I,
The LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.
For the sake of Jacob My servant,
And Israel My chosen one,
I have also called you by your name;
I have given you a title of honor
Though you have not known Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
Besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me;
That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun
That there is no one besides Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other. – Isaiah 44.28-45.6

Here Cyrus is referred to as “My shepherd” and “His anointed.” Just as God had used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to accomplish His purposes, so also He would use Cyrus.

Yet God said of Cyrus, “you have no known me.” Cyrus was a pagan authority, who did not willingly serve God. He did not even know God. Yet He was still used by God as His minister.

Finally, notice the purpose to which God would use Cyrus. Cyrus would act as God’s shepherd “For the sake of Jacob My servant and Israel My chosen one.” God would see to it that the beneficiaries of Cyrus’ reign would be His children.

The Old Testament continually illustrates the theme of God’s sovereignty over the governing authorities. The authorities were established by God and served God (though unwillingly) to accomplish God’s purposes. The purposes to which God used these unwilling servants were to inflict fear and punishment on those who were evil, and to bring about good for the faithful children of God. God did not allow them to rule violently for nothing; their violence served God’s purposes in the world. Once God used them for their purpose, they were held accountable for their sins.

This brings us to the unwilling servants of God which are described in the New Testament.

All Other Governing Authorities

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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 the 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. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. – Romans 12.17-13.6

Christians are forbidden from acting as ministers of vengeance. To the contrary, Christians are to repay their enemies with good, while leaving vengeance to God to execute through his appointed ministers. Just as in the Old Testament, God still uses the governing authorities as his instrument by which He executes vengeance on evildoers.

Paul draws a distinction between Christians and the governing authorities, and a distinction between the Christians’ response towards evildoers and the response of God towards evildoers through His established ministers. He has forbidden Christians from doing the very thing He has established the governing authorities to do. Even though the governing authorities do not serve God willingly, He still uses them to accomplish His purposes.

Implications

Throughout Scripture God frequently uses the wicked as His ministers to punish evildoers and to bring good to His children. God often established rulers and nations of which He did not approve to accomplish His purposes.  In spite of using them as His instruments, He continually held wicked rulers responsible for their sin, and would punish them for their evil.  God has promised that He uses these governors for the good of His children. Christians should therefore learn to trust God to work out His plans in spite of the wickedness of the rulers He may use as His ministers to bring about these plans.