Included in the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties are Bible passages that apply to the callings of civil government and of citizens. In the estate of the state you are in at least one of those categories. We are all citizens, and those who serve in the government do not only have the calling to be rulers over us, but they are themselves also citizens. In the Ten Commandments, the LORD says, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). We explain this to mean that we honour not only our parents, but all authorities. That includes the governing authorities. Our honour is their due because they represent God Himself in the care of His people.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, those who were most at risk of suffering persecution by the government, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).
Especially during tax season, there is a great temptation to view ourselves in opposition against the government. We always feel that they are trying to take something away from us that doesn’t belong to them. Conversely, the apostle Paul wrote: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7). Likewise the apostle Peter wrote: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to the emperor as supreme, or to governors sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). We don’t always believe that the government is acting in our favour, living up to their calling to punish those who do evil and to commend law abiding citizens. We feel that gives us a right to be defiant, to rebel, to withhold our tax money wherever we can get away with it.
There was plenty of government corruption going on in the time of Peter and Paul and yet they spoke on behalf of Christ to tell Christians to submit and obey and honour the governing authorities. Both Peter and Paul were executed by the Roman authorities, but there is no footnote to their letters telling us that they were wrong about honouring the government. Peter and Paul wrote their words of obedience and respect after they had seen what happened to their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
After being falsely accused by the chief priests and the council, they took Jesus to Pilate because the Jews could not impose the death sentence themselves. Pilate judged Jesus to be innocent and declared so several times. But in order to protect the public, to prevent a riot, and to preserve his own status as governor, he consented to their will and had Jesus flogged for doing no wrong, and then handed Him over to be crucified.
In their attempt to get the death sentence imposed, the chief priests accused Jesus of starting a rebellious movement against Caesar. They told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king. Well He did. The title had been established since before He was born. The angel told Mary, “The Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). When the wise men came to find Him, they asked King Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). From that time the opposition to this King became evident. The insurrection against Jesus began with the violent act of Herod in killing all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under, in an attempt to assassinate the infant King. And it reached its climax as Annas, Caiaphas, and the others threatened and manipulated the governor Pontius Pilate to have Jesus executed.
During the interrogation Pilate asked Jesus “Are You the King of the Jews?” … “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world… For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:33-37). Pilate responded with that famous question, “What is truth?” (v. 38). The truth is that Jesus is the King. He is the King, not only of the Jews by His ancestral lineage, He is the king of kings and lord of lords by His divine nature. He is the King to reign forever and of His kingdom there will be no end. We confess that in the Nicene Creed when we say not only that He “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,” but also that “He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”
That is the truth, and for Pontius Pilate personally, in his calling as the Roman Governor, the truth was what Jesus also confessed to him, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 18:11). All authorities have been instituted by God. Jesus recognized that and submitted to it, even though He was falsely accused and could see that Pilate was being manipulated and knew that Pilate would throw justice out the window in order to prevent a bloody uprising and save his own position.
If that was the truth for Pontius Pilate, what is the truth for you? Jesus is the King over all and those who are in authority over you have been given it by God. How then should you live under these authorities? Jesus submitted to them even though He knew they were going wrong. He spoke the truth to them and testified with boldness and confidence. That doesn’t mean that He refused to submit to them, but rather that He could submit boldly and confidently, knowing that their authority came from above and that the one who rules over all was working everything out for the salvation of His people.
In justice, Jesus took our sins upon Himself, our sins of rebelling against authority and the corruption we practice when we think we know better than those who have been divinely placed in authority over us. Jesus was condemned to death under God’s divine justice, because He took your sins upon Himself. Although He did not do these things Himself, He became the one who dishonours the government and seeks its overthrow. He became the one who tries to get out of paying taxes. He became the one who bends the laws to His own advantage. He became this one in order to take your place and to justly suffer the punishment you deserve, not only from human authorities, but also from the divine authority in heaven.
The King, your king, was crowned with thorns, and mocked wearing a purple robe with a dried reed in His hand for a sceptre. He was enthroned upon a cross and the royal decree read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” a title that has, ever since, accompanied the image of the ultimate authority, God Himself, reigning over His people in death. It was there upon the cross that God punished those who do evil. He punished them in the person of His Son. It was there that God rewarded those who do good, justifying the ungodly who place their faith in a King who subjected Himself to unworthy sinners.
This is the King who places authorities over you. In the civil realm that includes your mayor and the Niagara Region councillors, who don’t always make decisions that seem best for our community. Sometimes it even seems that there is corruption and self-serving motives among them. Your suffering King Jesus is the one who puts in authority premiers over our province, to govern things like education and health care, who are worthy of honour simply because God has given them their authority. This King Jesus is the one who put into authority our Prime Minister and the Parliament, who have legislated laws of death that go against the very commandments that He gave for the care and blessing of His people.
May the salvation that Jesus has secured for us through His death and resurrection, not only embolden us to speak what is truth to those in authority over us, but also embolden us to submit ourselves to them. It was their faith and confidence in Jesus that allowed Peter and Paul to submit themselves to the governing authorities, even after the execution of Jesus, and of Stephen and of James and after they had experienced their own sufferings at the hands of various authorities throughout the Roman empire. It was faith in the one who submitted Himself unto death and came out victorious from the grave that had them write to us to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. And it is faith in this same King Jesus that will enable us to confess our sins to Him, and to look for His aid if we should ever face the same fate as Peter and Paul, both executed outside of Rome for their faith in the One whose kingdom will have no end.