Let My People Gather: What We Can Learn from an Ancient Church-State Debate

statues of ramses in abu simbel temple

1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the Risen King, ‘Let my people gather, that they may hear my Word, sing my praise, and remember my sacrifice.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord, that I should obey his voice and let you gather? I do not know this king, and moreover, I will not let your people gather.” 3 Then they said, “The God who raised the dead has told us, ‘You are to gather every Lord’s Day to proclaim the resurrection and to worship me, lest I bring pestilence or sword on you.’” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you risk the lives of your people and your neighbors? Get back to your homes and love your neighbors.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the cases of COVID are now many, and you want to risk the spread of more diseases!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded his health officials and tax officers, 7“You shall no longer let these people open their businesses, as in the past, or receive their stimulus checks. Instead, let them go and provide for themselves. 8Moreover, their annual taxes shall by no means be reduced, for they are selfish. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go worship our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
Exodus 5:1–9 (A Covid-19 Paraphrase)

Few doctrines are more important for churches today than understanding the relationship between church and state and the proper authority of each. In our church, we have taught from the New Testament what obeying the governor means and doesn’t mean, what love of neighbor entails, and how to walk in freely in society without binding the conscience of another. Yet, as I have been reminded by many other pastors recently (e.g., here, here), we also need to look at the Old Testament to find examples of saints standing up for their faith.

As Paul reminds us on multiple occasions (Rom. 4:25; 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:1–11; 2 Tim. 3:16), the Old Testament is not just for Israel. It was written for new covenant believers, and thus we should consider how men like Moses, David, Elijah and others stood for truth against tyrants like Pharaoh, Saul, and Jezebel—yes, that wicked queen who has been in the news recently.

We need to learn from the faith of the saints, not only because Hebrews 11 tells us too, but because we need courageous models to imitate. As our world continues to press against the church, we need to look beyond the evangelical leaders who tell us to trust that the intentions of government are good, and obey lest we ruin our witness. Instead, we need to look to biblical leaders, who in obedience to God, refused to make decisions based upon some social merit system with the government. Countless Old Testament saints knowingly invited the wrath of the king. Yet, instead of ruining their witness, this became the very means by which God’s power become evident to the redeemed and the unrighteous alike.

Today, we need many lessons in this kind of unqualified obedience to God. And one place where we find great help in this type of obedience is Exodus 5:1–9 and Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel gather at Sinai. Above I have offered a paraphrase of that passage. Though the whole of the chapter, as well as Exodus 6–7, provides wisdom for walking in our world today. For sake of space, we fill focus on these verses and how they apply to our current world. From them, I will list six ways that the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, or really between Pharaoh and Yahweh, instructs us today and why churches cannot simply wait upon the government to reopen the church. We must obey God and gather at our Sinai, the Mountain called Zion (Heb. 12:22–24).

I know that not all will agree with this application, but that’s why I’m writing. I am prayerful that this appeal to Scripture will provide one more biblical argument for gathering, even as governing authorities say not to and many Christian leaders are saying, “Wait. Be Patient. Don’t lose your testimony.” Yet, as our brother in Canada, James Coates, sits in jail for gathering God’s people to worship God, we cannot be silent and pretend that the governing authorities have the best interest of the church in mind. Rather, with eyes fixed on Scripture, it is imperative for Christians to understand what is going on and what has always been going on (John 15:18–25). With this pursuit of applied wisdom in ind, Exodus 5:1–9 helps us to better see the world around us today and how to gather when pressures and politics outside the church hinder the assembly of God’s people.

May the Lord give us the boldness of Moses and Aaron to obey God and stand before our governing authorities and say: Let my people gather![1] Continue reading

Weighing Obedience and Resistance: What Romans 13 Does and Does Not Affirm about Governing Authorities

tingey-injury-law-firm-DZpc4UY8ZtY-unsplashIn his commentary on Romans, Colin Kruse observes that in Romans 13 “Paul is drawing upon teaching in Jewish literature about God’s sovereignty over the rise and fall of earthly rulers” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 493). Supporting that claim, he lists a handful of key passages from the Old Testament, the Jewish Apocrypha, and Josephus. Here’s his list.

By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—all who rule on earth. (Prov 8:15–16)

In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him. (Prov 21:1)

With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. (Jer 27:5–7)

He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. (Dan 2:21)

The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. (Dan 4:17, 25, 32)

For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans. (Wis 6:3)

The government of the earth is in the hand of the Lord, and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time. (Sir 10:4)

He will for ever keep faith with all men, especially with the powers that be, since no ruler attains his office save by the will of God. (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.140)

Standing upon this biblical worldview is important not only for understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 13, but also for understanding its limits. In other words, as Paul commands believers to willingly submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 4), he does not mean that governing authorities have absolute autonomy or unchecked authority. As Romans 13:4 says, they are “God’s servants,” hence subject to God himself. And it’s this point of reference—the relationship between governing authorities and God—that we need consider more fully.

Far too many have a simplistic, even child-like, understanding of Romans 13. And if the church is going to survive our post-modern, post-Christian world, we need to think more carefully (read: more biblically) about Romans 13. Continue reading

Lawful Love: How the Law Preserves and Propels Our Love

law loveFor the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
 – Romans 13:8 –

What is love?

Often it is defined as some sentimental feeling. Some emotional experience. Some pitter-patter in your chest. Rarely, is love associated with law-keeping, rules, or righteousness.

In our “if it feels right, do it” sort of society, love does not shack up with legal requirements. But in the Bible where love is defined by God (1 John 4:8) and demonstrated on the cross (1 John 3:16), love is regularly related to the law. In fact, Romans 13 says, “Love is the keeping of the law” (v. 8) and “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Likewise, Galatians 5:14 reads, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Following the teaching of Jesus, Paul reiterates his Lord’s view of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). And later in the same Gospel (22:36–40), Jesus explained that the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments: to love God (Deut 6:4) and to love neighbor (Lev 19:18). Indeed, against popular opinion, the Law was not given to merely enforce rules. It was given so that the people of Israel might love one another with absolute righteousness. To say it differently, God’s love is defined and delimited by covenantal laws. Continue reading

A Debt of Love: How God’s Grace Makes Us Debtors with an Infinite Bank Account

love1Owe no one anything, except to love each other, . . .
 – Romans 13:8a –

Proverbs repeatedly instructs us to reject financial commitments that make us slave to the lender (Prov 22:7). It is good stewardship to buy what we can pay for and not to spend more than we have. But what would happen if you received an infinite inheritance? What kind of moral obligation would you have “spread the wealth”?

Imagine that the unbeknownst to you an oil baron died and left you all of his fortune. Though never communicated to you, your father had saved this man’s life by sacrificing his own. Indebted to your father, this tycoon had promised to one day repay his kindness. With no children of his own, he decided on his death bed to give his “saviors” children his entire estate.

What would you think? Surely, this windfall would provide you an endless supply—more than you could ever exhaust. If such a boon came your way, how would you employ this vast treasure? Would you live a life of unfettered hedonism? Or would you strive to follow in the footsteps of your father and improve the lives of others? Continue reading

Is Capital Punishment Biblical?

deathIs Capital Punishment Biblical?

By now, you’ve probably heard the news about the ‘botched’ execution of an Oklahoma inmate. On Tuesday of this week, two days after I referenced Genesis 9:6 as a proof-text for capital punishment, Clayton Lockett, a man convicted of rape and murder died 43 minutes after his lethal injection failed to produce the effect of a sedated death. This kind of gruesome execution leads ethicists, politicians, humanitarians, indeed all of us to question the use of capital punishment.

As Christians, such incidents should grieve us, but as always we must turn to Scripture to find God’s perspective. And on this issue, like so many, God is not silent.

What Does the Bible Say?

Throughout the Bible, God is presented as sovereign over life: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god besides me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none who can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39). “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6).

As the Sovereign Creator and Just Potter, he has the right to give life and take it away. In Adam, we deserve death, not life (Rom 5:18-19), but such a sentence of death does not permit man to take the life of another. Just the reverse, only God has that right.

Still while God alone has authority over life, there are two primary texts that describe God giving humanity a right to execute a murderer: Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:4. In other words, while men in and of themselves have no right to take life, God has ordered a world that endows states the right to take the life of renegade life-takers. Continue reading