Government in the New Testament
In the first two posts in this series I set out firstly the concept of political authority in theological terms, and then in yesterday’s post what this meant for how we should view government: as both legitimate but limited. I’ve also briefly touched already on the position of government and political authority in New Testament teaching, but here I want to delve a bit deeper. In particular I want to explore what impact a full understanding of the Lordship of Christ has on our engagement in politics.
Tom Wright has written extensively on this subject and a theme he returns to time and again is that Christianity has underplayed the political purpose in Christian thought, and as a result misread key aspects of the gospels and epistles.
This revolves around an incomplete understanding of what Jesus achieved through his death and resurrection.
If we understand Jesus as Lord, and subsequently understand that Caesar, or what ever contemporary ruler has taken his place in different times and contexts throughout history, are not Lord, we are free to step back and take a broader view of what Lordship means.
We’ve already referenced Jesus before Pilate, and his declaration that whatever political authority he exercised had been given to him.
You see, Israel wanted a liberator. They wanted a saviour who would vanquish their foes, free them from oppression and enforce the laws that were ignored.
But the coming king did not look like that.
Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem with chariots to overthrow the Roman oppressors. The Messiah who for hundreds of years they had awaited did not back the Pharisees and insist that the law, in all its detailed regulations governing every aspect of daily life, was strictly enforced. This king did not even remove himself from the enemy occupiers to create a kingdom on earth without blemish.
For Jesus those who broke the rules and those who enforced the rules were both equally wrong.
He confounded his critics and he confused his supporters.
The way that Jesus engaged in public life was completely different to anything they expected.
So when Jesus came before Pilate we see very clearly the meeting of two different kingdoms, the kingdom of the Roman Empire and the political authority that it exercised. And the Kingdom of God fully represented in the person of Jesus.
The point that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it is instead an entirely spiritual one.
No, Jesus’ kingdom is not derived from this world, but it is designed for this world.
Tom Wright puts it like this: “Precisely because it is the kingdom of the wise creator God who longs to heal this world, whose justice is aimed at restoration rather than punitive destruction, it can neither be advanced nor attained by the domineering, bullying fighting kingdom methods employed in merely earthly kingdoms”.
This is how Jesus redefines what Lordship means.
Yet at exactly this point he also declares support for the existence of earthly rulers. In affirming that Pilate does have authority he is advocating government over anarchy.
The worst form of government is not dictatorship but no government at all. I’d suggest that even the very worst ruler is better than a world where we are all our own tyrants and the weak are crushed in our desire to achieve the best for ourselves that we can.
God did not send his son to destroy the world but to rescue it from evil. And the structures of human society are part of the good of creation that he came to redeem.
During Jesus’ ministry the disciples squabbled over who would get to sit on his left and his right, and Jesus sees all this as an adventure in missing the point.
He radically restates that the rules of this earth lord it over their subjects but under his kingdom the greatest must be the servant. Mark 10.45 offer the conclusion to this dramatic reversal: “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.
This is more than just a statement about the work of Jesus on the cross.
It is a radically counter imperial statement. To quote Tom Wright once again: “it is an invitation to understand the atonement itself … as involving God’s victory not so much over the world and its powers but over the worldly ways of power.”
Romans 8 gives us a fuller picture of our hope for a new creation. It upstage the hope of Rome that is entering a new stage of its fruitfulness. It goes beyond our wildest dreams as to what a new creation could look like.
And this links back to what we’ve already considered: the ultimate recourse of an earthly authority is to take away life.
Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise of a future resurrection, makes this exercise of power somewhat futile. Death has, after all, been defeated.
The Lordship of Christ needs to be considered alongside the biblical themes of creation and judgement. Together, in harmony, they show us the good news. That the God who made the world now rules the world through his son Jesus.
In the closing section of Romans, 15.12, Paul echoes Isaiah 11 saying “Jesus is the one who rises to rule over the nations, and in him the nations shall hope”.
This Lordship is not just over heaven, it is not just for the ultimate future when everything will be restored to Him. It is also for the present time, for this penultimate future where we catch a glimpse of God’s coming kingdom.
And in response we are called to be the bringers of hope. The carriers of healing to a broken world. And show that Christ’s rule is good news for all.