In our usage, there is commonly a difference between power and authority. “Power” means the ability to get something done, whereas “authority” means the right to have it done, the right to command obedience. The ability might be the power of enforcement, but that is quite different from the right to command something. Many governments enforce things they have no right to command, and therefore no right to enforce. They do it anyhow because they have that ability, and do not care about someone else’s rights.
We can have the power to force something without the right to command it. That is THE major problem of civil government—for which God has the only answer.
That distinction between power and authority is latent in the Gospel lesson where a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant who is apparently dying. The centurion is an officer in the Roman army which is occupying Judea. They are, in that sense, an enemy of the Jews. But there were many Roman legionaries who had become God fearers, those who honored the religion of Judaism without becoming actual Jews by circumcision. Such was the centurion who pled with Jesus for help.
The centurion describes how he has the ability to command this and that to his servants. But he does not have the ability or authority to heal his sick servant. The centurion humbles himself, admitting that he has a need for one of his conquered foes. He knows that Jesus can do something which he cannot. And, the centurion recognizes something which startles even Jesus – that there is a connection between authority and healing. The centurion compares the authority which he has to order his servants with Jesus’ authority to command healing. He understands that healing comes from authority, a command, not from incantations or other abilities which some claim to have.
Jesus says that he has not seen such faith even in all Israel. His disciples standing around must have wondered about their own faith—who had known Jesus for some time.
The centurion understands that Jesus has an authority which very few have, that Jesus is indeed someone very special. He must certainly have heard of Jesus doing healings, but likely he also has seen Jesus heal someone because he is so certain that Jesus can heal his servant, even without coming to his home. He has only to say the word. That is authority. Command. Even the forces of nature jump to obey.
We secularized Westerners think of such things quite differently. We would not likely say that physical events such as healings can happen by command. But that is what both the centurion and Jesus are saying. And that is what the disciples learned from Jesus…, “In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk,” said Peter to a cripple. A command, not a pleading with God to heal the lame man.
The words of Paul that all authority comes from God are anathema today. They are routinely denied by Christians as well as by secular or pagan folks. Our denial of them is precisely the reason why we are in the political and economic chaos of today. God tells us over and over that if we will obey Him, our lives will go well. But we know better, thank you.
Paul declares that all authority comes from God, meaning, from God alone. It does not originate from any other source. We humans cannot produce our own authority, independently from God. That is not a thought which passes the minds of contemporary politicians of any major political party. It was a thought which was common among our founding American politicians, and which was standard legal doctrine in England and America. No law could contravene the law of God—which was the source of all law. We humans cannot invent our own law, we have only the law of God, which we are required to administer.
That has some rather radical (to us today) consequences. It means that any government which makes up and enforces its own laws (either by ignorance or willfulness) is an outlaw government. All legitimate government must be under the law of God. That is how it gains its legitimacy. There is no other way for a government to be legitimate. The primary purpose for civil government is to bring the use of coercive force under the law and grace of God.
American Christians in the 1800’s failed to clarify the logic of that, so that as the 1800’s wore on, secular legal experts, eager to dispense with the law of God, reinvented the old pagan way of making law, and gave it a new name, “positivist law”. That does not mean law which is especially positive, that is, good, but rather it means law that is posited, placed or put, as in “deposited”. The legal experts simply posit what they deem to be a good idea as the law of the land. It needs, they thought, no back up from God. Their own expertise is sufficient, they thought. They made up law by trial and error, to see what “worked best”— that is, according to their secular standards. In the end, it always comes to mean—by the standards of some individual or oligarchy. Tyranny.
That is the legal system by which we operate today. It is, by the standards of God, an outlaw system. Or, we might say, an anti-Christ system because it forbids the law of God, and denies that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords—that is, over all governments, all kings, all lords, all presidents.
That is no small matter because it always leads to legal chaos, as we see all over the West and in our own present administration. And that chaos leads always to more and more centralization of government and tyranny. Exactly what God warned the Hebrews would happen when they chose a king for themselves (see I Sam. 8). The only way to stem the tide of growing chaos is to have some strong man rescue society from the chaos by himself taking over—just as did Napoleon for the tragically disintegrating French Revolution. That, as our founding fathers understood, is where “democracy” leads—unless the people themselves are submitted to the law of God and insist that their government be likewise so. And then we are no longer a democracy, we are (at least in America) a constitutional democratic republic under God.
The Hebrews had a written constitution. Ours was not the first. The king was ordered by God to keep a copy of the Torah under his pillow, ready for reading. The law of God is our universal cosmic constitution—meant for everyone, every government. Star Wars included. Whether secular folks like it or not, that is why the Decalogue was placed by our founding fathers in the Supreme Court. The judges were to read it.
But, what justifies this absurd sounding assertion that God already rules all governments? The fact is that if you ask a pagan or secular person what is the source of government authority, the government’s right to command other persons, and the people’s obligation to obey the government—they cannot come up with any reasonable explanation. They end up just having to assert their authority. And maybe think you a fool for denying their assertion.
Well, then, what is the Biblical justification for the rulership of God over all things? As English law once recognized in print, the justification was that God, being the creator of all things, owns them, outright, 100%. Just as we recognize that the creator of a book, or a song, or a new invention can have a copyright or patent on it and decide how it will be used, just so, God, being the absolute creator of all things, has, as it were, an eternal patent and copyright on the cosmos. He wholly owns everything. Owning something means that you have the ability to say how it will be used. That is because the creator of something is the only being who logically can give that thing is “reason for existence”. No one else can do that, only the creator, precisely because He created it.
This principle that there is a designer of the cosmos is the foundation for the growing “Intelligent Design” movement, successfully countering the secular/pagan notion of evolution.
“Reason for existence” is the only logical basis for moral obligation. God, being the source of moral obligation, can obligate any and all of us, as He chooses. That is why all civil governments are obligated to assent to the law of God, to administer that law, and to refrain from making up their own laws independently of God’s law. The law of God is universal, covers all possible situations, and is understandable by the people—in well under 1000 words, believe it or not.
Christians have allowed this secular/pagan nonsense to become the “law of the land”. It is outlaw law. And we Christians must learn how publically, politely, and gracefully to proclaim the truth—which is why I am preaching this sermon with these Bible passages.
Deuteronomy 4 takes this theme further. Moses tells his people, “I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me… Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear of all these statutes, will say, ‘surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him.”
Moses tells them to make these things known to their children and to their children’s children. He told them that the law of God will “be their wisdom”. That is a statement which I would never have thought until about 1992 when I began to take seriously the law of God myself, not only for myself personally, but for the public arena.
I discovered that America had been formed as a Biblical nation, that is, that our founding documents could have been written only by a people who understood and believed the Biblical principle that we are both personally and corporately responsible before God. Everyone of our founding fathers would have assented to that. It was not a perfect beginning for us, but it had the basic principles which we Christians then failed to develop.
We spent much of our time during the 1800’s fighting with other Christians rather than with the secular influences which were growing steadily. Evangelicals, by supporting the government school system, even sided with secularists—to control the Roman Catholics who were coming over from Europe. Government schools created a monumental disaster, which as much as anything in the last two centuries, sealed the fate of Christian culture for the 20th century, and probably most of the 21st. On the good side, home schoolers are winning that battle, with some possible great advances coming in New Hampshire.
Moses tells the people that their government will be a “witness to the nations”. Amazing. There is hardly an American alive today, I suspect, who sees America in that role. Every week, I go out Friday mornings on a two hour prayer walk, praying primarily for two things, that God will raise up truth-seekers and truth-speakers, and that God will raise up among us Americans witnesses for Godly government, both here and abroad, that we will become a missionary nation, that “city on a hill”, a testimony for the whole world. People must learn that their political freedom comes from God just a much as their personal salvation freedom. Our founding fathers understood that.
Moses goes on: “Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire… and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….?” “Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you….”
There is that promise again—keep these commandments and it will go well with you. These commandments are for your good. They will enhance your lives and your relationships. They are a light upon your path. They are your wisdom, even in the eyes of the pagans out there. Why would you be your own worst enemy by deserting God who has saved you and wants you to prosper?
We Christians MUST learn how to say the same thing to our people, to our voters, to our government. It is a provable fact of life—that when you do things God’s way, they go better. I know of no contradictory evidence in any area of life. Why cannot Christians stand up and say that?
The answer, I believe, is because we do not know how to be truth-seekers. And we are not typically very good even at position-defending.
The first business of any political order is to decide who is God, who owns the cosmos, who has authority to rule over people, to command others to obey. The first and most important question of politics is just that. Who owns the cosmos? We have in practice only two choices: God or civil government. As one Speaker of the House of the 1850’s said, “We will be ruled by the Bible or by the bayonet.” God or tyranny—take your pick.
For at least 150 years, we American have sadly chosen to drift towards tyranny. We are well along that path. We Western Christians are currently a sorry lot, so often just like the Hebrews. But we can, by the grace of God and a lot of hard work, repair the damage to our own witness, and learn again the meaning and substance of Biblical government. We need government first for ourselves, our salvation, and then, people secure in the Lord, out in the public arena.
It begins with “Jesus is Lord”. Jesus is King of all kings, and Lord over all lords. That is our message to the world. He cannot be our savior unless He is King over ourselves first, and then including most emphatically, civil government.