The single most important truth that must define how we think of politics and how we live politically is the fact that Jesus, having risen from the dead, is now the king.
Right now you may have inwardly groaned. “Really, we’re going to talk about politics? If so, you’re not alone. A good number of people would say that we should keep politics out of Christianity—that we can lose sight of why we’re really here if we let our message drift and become too political.
Except, the problem with this is that we seem to care a whole lot about politics. We read the news about it, we talk about it, we vote about it. Because politics, whether we like it or not, is part of being human. At its core politics is just the question of how we do things together. We’re not self-sufficient individuals; we belong to and depend upon a society. We need each other. So how do we work and decide things together? That’s a really important question. It’s something we want to do rightly. We can’t keep politics out of Christianity. We need to consider how to think Christianly about politics.
On the other hand, a good number of other people coming from the other side of things: we need to keep Christianity out of politics. Focusing on the idea of the separation of church and state, they argue that religion shouldn’t have a role in government.
Except, there’s something even more problematic about this, because, well, it’s not the truth. It ignores a political reality that is more important than who wins the primaries or even the presidential election next year, a political reality more important than the makeup of the Supreme Court. The single most important truth that must define how we think of politics and how we live politically is the fact that Jesus, having risen from the dead, is now the king. Not just a spiritual king. Not just the king of Christians. He is the KING of this world.
It’s interesting to me that in an age that is so politically obsessed we seem to overlook how utterly political the gospel is. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus’ summary of the gospel, is a political statement about a new government; “Jesus Christ is Lord,” Paul’s summary, is declaring a new governor. It is a political declaration.
Right before Jesus went to the cross, he said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” From the time of Adam until that moment, Satan had taken on the role of the ruler of this world. Sin and death reigned, and at a government level, different human empires sought to lay claim to ruling this world. But Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world. Now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” On the cross, Jesus dethroned the enemy and vanquished Satan. After rising from the dead, Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That is a political statement. And he gives them a political task: spread the word. Declare to all humanity that Jesus is the Lord. If they are willing to surrender, declare forgiveness and initiate them into my rule by baptizing them, train them to live under my rule as disciples.
The political reality in which we now live is that Jesus is the ruler of this world. Jesus has been given the highest authority, the name above all names, and one day, we are told in Philippians every knee shall bow in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue will acknowledge what is already true: “Jesus is Lord.”
As we look around and see a society that seems to be completely unaware of this, it might seem a strange thing to say that this is our political reality. But the thing is, just because people are unaware of a major political change does not make it any less real.
This past week I came across the strange story of Hiroo Onada. Hiroo was a Japanese WWII officer, trained especially in guerilla warfare tactics. He was sent to an island in the Philippines, and as most of the Japanese military were evacuating it, he was given the mission to sabotage whatever he could to make things more difficult for the Allies. He was told never to surrender until the Japanese army came back for him. And so he, and a few other soldiers hid in the mountains, occasionally emerging to burn fields, steal food, occasionally kill farmers, before again disappearing.
Six months later, in August of 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. A couple of months after that, leaflets were dropped in the area Hiroo was hiding out with the news of this surrender. But Hiroo had been trained in counterintelligence and believed it was a trick. He would continue to obey his orders.
7 years later, more leaflets were dropped, this time with pictures and words from the family members of Hiroo and the few other remaining soldiers, telling them that the war was indeed over. And yet Hiroo remained unconvinced: he still lived and fought as a soldier for an empire that no longer had any reality. For many years Hiroo continued to live in the hot mosquito-ridden jungle, surviving on coconuts and rice and stolen food, continuing to show allegiance to his nonexistent government during all the 1950’s, and 1960’s even into the 70’s. Throughout that time completely unaware of all the things that had changed. Only in 1974, when Hiroo’s commanding officer, who for many years was now a simple bookseller, came back to him to hand to him the country’s formal order to stand down, did he choose to do so.
Now imagine that things were a little different—that it wasn’t just Hiroo and a couple of his friends; imagine it was an entire island that was like Hiroo; imagine if an entire island continued to see themselves as enemies of the Allies and tasked with defending the Japanese Empire. Imagine if people sent radio transmissions and leaflets, but this island considered it a hoax. Messengers came, but they imprisoned or killed them. Basically, unless there was a military invasion, an island like that could live in denial for years, decades even, holding on to an allegiance to a defeated empire. And yet, such a situation wouldn’t change the fact that the Japanese empire had been defeated.
There is a sense in which this is our current situation. Jesus has won; he is the king. And he has declared a season of amnesty, when any who turn away from their rejection of him can join his kingdom and experience his good and loving rule. In this season of amnesty, this season before Jesus returns and every knee will bow, human governments still have a role, but a very limited one. Those leaders who recognize the kingship of Jesus will understand that thy are in essence, glorified babysitters, seeking to maintain order and peace as the gospel of Jesus’ reign is proclaimed.
All of that is the way things actually are. But that’s not how most people think of it. Most of our world is still living in denial, like Hiroo committed to the former way, the way of human rebellion, the way that has already been defeated.
And that puts us, the church, in a rather complicated place. On one hand, we are living in a society that is in denial. More than that, we’re part of it, dependent in many ways upon a community that does not recognize its rightful king, still living as if the war is not over. And yet we, wherever the church meets—we are political societies seeking to live out the political reality that others cannot see. Our chief political task, by far more significant than, for example, how we vote, is to be a community living together under the rule of Jesus.
So how do we do that? What does that look like?
Here, once again, is a question that Deuteronomy can help us with. Because Israel in the Old Testament, was meant, if you will, as a prototype, a first step in the world coming under God’s reign. This was Israel’s defining identity: they were a people seeking to live by the truth that the Lord God reigns. To use our modern terminology, Israel was a theocracy. When God brought his people out of Egypt, he brought them to Sinai, and there they made a covenant together, a covenant that established God as Israel’s God, as their ruler and them as his people. That is the central political reality.
The middle chapters of Deuteronomy, chapters 16-18 spell out some of the more logistical details of how it works to be a society under god’s rule. And while our context and historical position is different, if we look at these instructions for how to live under God’s rule, this will give us clues as to what it means to live under the rule of Jesus.
And I want us to notice two basic themes that permeate these instructions. In the kingdom of God, there is collective political responsibility. And in the kingdom of God, the goal is righteousness
Collective Political Responsibility
So how does a theocracy work? Have you ever thought about this? If God is the primary ruler, what are the practical structures God uses so that people together might live under his rule? Does God just give his covenant, the instructions of his law and leave it to each individual to personally apply it to themselves? Or does God appoint a central authority—a king or a high priest who represents God in all matters, such that the entire nation is run from Jerusalem, regularly sending out instructions to every village regarding what they needed to do?
The answer is, neither of these. While next week we will see that God makes allowances for the possibility of a king, the instructions he gives are to ensure that the king has very limited power. God’s way of structuring his society resisted centralization, making almost all of the political decisions were kept local. On the other hand, God here doesn’t endorse an individualism of private law-keeping, with every household for themselves. Rather, he gives the job collectively to the local community. Every member of the city was given the responsibility to see that the entire city lives under the rule of God.
This emphasis appears throughout. Verse 18: “You,” that is, the people of the city, should appoint judges, judges who would come from their city. Verse 19 says you—not just the judges, but the whole town needs to make sure there are no bribes. And, as we’re told in chapter 17, when there is found among you someone who does what is evil by transgressing the covenant—the constitutional document of this theocracy—specifically has turned to another God, then it is the job of the entire community to go through careful processes of investigation and then collectively to bring about the outcome—” The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.”
Do you see how this works? If instructions were given just to individuals, there would be little sense of responsibility for the community. On the other hand, if God made all the power happen at a central location, people would feel powerless to do anything. Instead, God gives the community both the power and the responsibility: they are collectively called to do the political task of living together under God’s rule. Everyone has a responsibility for the wellbeing of the community.
When I consider American Christianity, I can’t help notice ways in which we’ve lost this. On one hand, when it comes to serving King Jesus, we think of that as a private matter—it’s between me and Jesus, and really the only one I have responsibility for is me, and maybe my family. On the other hand, we can also be focused on questions of politics and government, because we instinctively know that we need to figure out how to function together. The effect of having these two different focuses—the individual and the big political is that we lose sight of our primary responsibility: to seek the well-being of our community, to seek the rule of Jesus in our community.
As we’ve already said, the church is not simply a club or a class or a weekly activity. To belong to a church is to belong a political community that is seeking to live out the political reality of Jesus’ kingship. Your and my first political responsibility is to pursue this together—to seek to be a community ruled by Jesus. This is why we are repeatedly throughout the New Testament told to exhort each other and encourage each other—because you and I both are responsible to see our community grow in righteousness. This is also why we are called, when someone turns away from King Jesus in their lives, to call them back to faithfulness and even in the most severe situations to warn in the act of excommunication, always praying that this will be a means of bringing repentance. Because we are responsible to see the community live under Christ’s rule.
And our responsibility extends further than this. As we come from and continue to belong to communities that do now acknowledge their king, our responsibility is to bear witness to them, to invite them in. This is what evangelism is: it’s not trying to offer people a product and be afraid they might refuse. It’s being part of the victorious community in Jesus inviting others to surrender and join us under his rule.
Within the kingdom of Jesus, we are called to work together to be a community that lives under his rule. We have a collective responsibility.
The Goal of Righteousness
Every political process needs some larger goal that guides individual decisions. Some might say that the different decisions being made need to be guided by economic concerns: what choices will bring the most wealth? Others might say that freedom should be the primary goal—what decisions bring the most personal liberty?
But my guess is that most would acknowledge that either of these must serve a larger goal. We all want a society that is good. Where people flourish, where there is not a high rate of teen suicide and depression, where there is no more school shootings or police brutality or racism or poverty, but rather where there is peace and joy and wholeness.
In one of Isaiah’s prophecies, he speaks of a society in which the lowly and the poor of the earth will be well-cared for, where justice will reign, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb without conflict, and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. It’s a picture of everything fitting together in harmony, of truthfulness, of goodness; everyone being able to enjoy the goodness of this world as they relate rightly to God.
The word the Bible uses for that is righteousness. Righteousness is not just about individual character. It is a word that describes an entire community and all of life. In its simplest sense, righteousness speaks of the world being and living according to the way we were designed to be under God. When we see things clearly, it’s what we all want.
And as we look at the instructions to Israel, we see that as cities work together to live out God’s rule, righteousness is to be their guiding standard in all their decisions. In the opening verses when it speaks about appointing judges, we are told that they shall judge with righteous judgment, they shall not subvert the cause of the righteous. And then verse 20, translated justice, actually is the same word: Literally, “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.”
Which also means, and this is the flip side, that judgments should work to remove evil from the community. You’ll notice that in the two sections of chapter 17, that’s the key idea: you need to “purge the evil” from your midst. Because, of course, evil and righteousness are opposites. For the world to be beautiful and in harmony, injustice, abuse of power, cruelty, all must be removed.
The city is meant to work together politically to seek God’s rule. This is what their judgments are to be guided by: this orientation of removing evil and pursuing righteousness.
Which, as we know is not how things played out for Israel. Their deep resistance to the rule of God meant that they failed to remove evil from their midst and to experience the righteousness God had for them.
Really, this seems to be the fate of human history. No human government has shown the capacity to lead a people, a society into greater righteousness. Just think of our government today—how many of us think that if we got just the right president and congress that this would transform society into a peaceful, healthy, joyful righteous public? Human governments can’t do that.
Well, except for one. When Jesus went to the cross, he took the evil of humanity upon himself—in his very body, he dealt evil a death blow. And now the risen Jesus comes with power for his kingdom. Whenever someone surrenders from their life of independence and acknowledges Jesus as king, they are cleansed of their evil, and they are given the Spirit by whose power righteousness comes. This is what the reign of Jesus is about: to make all things right and to remove all that is wrong.
And Jesus brings righteousness, not just at an individual level, but a societal level. In small but real ways in these little political societies that we call the church, righteousness is breaking in.
I realize that’s a controversial statement in our day where so much attention is legitimately given to the flaws that we see in churches. The stories that have come out of abuse and corruption and hypocrisy are real and they are horrible.
Without wanting to trivialize those stories in any way, those aren’t the stories that should surprise us. We hear of similar terrible things in every sphere: in Hollywood, in the news industry, in educational institutions, in the government, in the military. Again and again we are regularly being exposed to similar accounts of corruption and abuse. This, tragically, is the sin that is part of our present human condition.
But what is remarkable about the church is that even in the face of the reality of that sin, there is also a second storyline. If we look closely, we see real and meaningful changes and movements toward righteousness. Righteousness from Jesus that has even changed society.
We’ve mentioned this before, but Roman Society was very, very different from our present day. The strong and the powerful were admired for their strength and power, and it was believed they had the right do whatever they wanted. The poor and the weak were treated as subhuman and often left to die. Women and slaves were often treated as little more than sexual outlets for the desires of the powerful. And all this was considered normal.
But it isn’t anymore. Why is that? Not because some emperor suddenly changed the culture with a few rules. No, it was because churches sought to live differently under the rule of Jesus. Churches being ruled by King Jesus learned to care for the poor and the weak and the least of these. Churches under this risen King learned that all human beings—man or woman, slave or free, whatever the ethnicity, were to be treated with dignity as equals. And as in their little political communities, they practiced these things, and as they invited others into this new reality, little by little the world changed. The rule of Jesus brought righteousness.
And I want to suggest that this, this must be our political vision. In this time of difficulty and disorder in society, it’s easy to just say, a pox on all of their houses—I’m just going to take care of my family. We’re called to more than this. Similarly, as we feel discouraged by what we see, we will be inclined to try to change this country through investing all of our political energy on secular politics. To be clear, there is an important way we as Christians can be involved in secular politics, a complicated discussion for another time. But what we must understand is that this is not the way we will change the world and lead it into righteousness.
Because we will not be the ones who change the world. Jesus will. He is the king. He is the one prophesied in Isaiah as the king who will cause the wolf to lie down with the lamb and fill the earth with the knowledge of God. He is the one who will do it. Our job is to be a community that lives under his rule. That together seeks to live out his righteousness as a witness to the world, to be, as Jesus puts it, a city set on a hill, to be Christ’s beautiful church, and as we seek to do this, to live out his rule together, we invite others with these most radical of political statements: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus Christ is Lord.”