Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon starts around the 20:17 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I say the word “order,” in the sense of how things are ordered, what’s the first word that comes to your mind? “Love,” right? No? Love isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind when I talk about the order of things? I suspect it’s not the first word that comes to most people’s minds. We think of “order” as confining, restricting, rigid. Love, on the other hand, we think, is free, spontaneous, joyful.
Love isn’t the first word that comes to our minds, but it’s the word Paul thinks of when he talks about order in creation. Last week, Paul instructed us to “let love be genuine.” And in the second half of chapter 13, Paul uses the word love five times. We have so separated the order of creation and God’s provision for people that we can barely make sense of what Paul is saying here. “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul says—that is, Jesus who sent Paul says it. He uses four different words related to “order” in these first few verses. And that order is for the sake of love. It’s hard for us to see, because we don’t have any television shows called Love and Order. But Paul says love is the fullness of the law, and the law orders life in this creation; order to law to love.
In America, it’s kind of strange that we don’t trust or believe politicians when they tell us things, but we put our ultimate trust in them. If I were to ask you how many of you believe a politician when that person makes promises, I’m not very optimistic about getting high percentages. I think it would be the same in most places. We don’t believe politicians when they make promises to us, and we have people doing fact-checks on their speeches, precisely because we’re unsure if they’re telling the truth.
At the same time, how many people put their ultimate trust in a politician or the outcome of an election? If this or that person is elected or not elected, then the country will be saved, or I will be saved, or these people will be saved, or we will finally attain the highest level of American values. But it’s not going to happen. They can’t save anything. And to put that ultimate trust in them is called idolatry.
Paul does sort of the opposite: he trusts and submits and honors the governing authorities, but he will never put his ultimate trust in them. He knows that they are not there of themselves, or even of the people’s will. Who puts the governing authorities in place? God does. Which means that all of them, of whatever status, are literally “under God.” They are responsible and accountable to God, because God put them there. And He put them there for a very specific purpose: to do good to those who do good and to punish those who do evil. And this is all for the love of the neighbor, the love of the citizen, the love of those in some kind of need.
Because of that, because the office of authority in a nation is a servant of God, Paul says it is for that reason that we pay taxes. He says, give to each one what is owed: taxes, other revenue, fear, and honor. And then he says something that sounds like he’s contradicting what he just said: owe no one anything except to love one another. We would never connect taxes and honor of the governing authorities to love of one another, but Paul does. He says that, in fact, all of that is so the governing authorities can carry out their service. This is how God Himself serves His creation and His creatures. He does it, in part, by this ordering in the service of love.
But we look around or think about all the bad things that have been done by the governing authorities and in the name of that authority. What then? How can the governing authorities be established by God if those who hold that office do evil and horrible things? But this is exactly the same question as about any good created thing. The fact that sinners abuse and corrupt and distort what they have been given by God is irrelevant to the fact that God has given and established it. It is very much like marriage, which is a good, created gift of God. God made marriage. He made Adam and Eve and joined them together. And Jesus Himself says that this is how it was meant to be from the very beginning, that a man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two would become one flesh. And what God has joined together, let no one tear apart.
But to humans sin within marriage? Do they use marriage to sin against each other? Has marriage been corrupted and distorted and have marriages been torn apart by sinners? They absolutely have been. But that doesn’t mean that God didn’t establish marriage. And the fact that sinners corrupt and distort and sin within their offices of governing authorities does not mean that God didn’t establish the office, and for the purposes He says. People misuse every single good gift that God has given, and God still gives them.
And so we are subject to the orders that God has created, including government and marriage and parents, even when the people in those offices sin and misuse those gifts. And we are subject to them because God has established them. In other words, we are subject to God. And when we submit to the governing authorities, we are submitting to God who made them, and who uses them to do good, and preserve, and sustain His creation.
We submit to the governing authorities when we do what Paul instructs Timothy to do. We are to pray for those in authority over us, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness, because this is good and pleasing to God, who wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. We pray for that the governing authorities would do what God has put them there to do, so that the Church in peace and quietness will do what God has put the Church there to do. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Church will stop doing her work if we don’t have peace and quiet. When the apostles were not given peace and quiet, when they were arrested and beaten and threatened, they didn’t stop preaching. They counted it all joy and they continued on, because we must obey God rather than men. So God has commanded the governing authorities to do certain things, and the Church to do certain things. And when one or the other doesn’t do it, that can’t stop the other from doing what God has commanded.
But when the Church does what God has commanded her, and that’s in opposition to what the governing authorities command, we will still submit. But that means not that we will do what the government says; it means we know that if we go against the authority that has been established, there may be consequences. If we are told not to preach Jesus, or to receive the gifts Jesus gives, and we are fined, or imprisoned, or something else, we will submit to that authority, in the same way we would submit to the consequences of disobeying parents for the sake of keeping God’s commands.
We submit to that authority to punish, even when they punish the wrong people for the wrong things. At the same time, we remind the governing authorities that there is a higher authority, by Whom they have been established. God put them in place, and they are to act according to God’s will. And when they don’t, they ought to fear the wrath of God, to whom they will be held accountable. When they punish those who do good and when they let the evil go unpunished, they are going against the One who put them there. And they ought to fear.
We fear God more than we fear people, and we also know that we have a good conscience before God in Jesus Christ, so we submit to their authority. But we submit to them because they are representatives of God in this world, to do good and not to do evil. And we know that the day will come when they will be revealed for the instruments of God that they are, and the true and eternal order will be revealed. There is one Lord, one God, one Ruler, and one Authority. Jesus told Pilate that he would have no authority over Him at all, unless it were given to Him from heaven. The day is coming when, as John saw in the Revelation, that all the kings of the earth, all the authorities, will bring their tribute to the King of kings, Lord of lords, God of gods, the one who is over all and through all and in all, under whose feet will be put all authority, and all power. On that day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
For now, only those who see and believe Him by faith bow and confess. We bow and confess Jesus as Lord, and so we will bow temporarily before the governing authorities He has established. But we know that there is only one Lord and God. And we know Him as the merciful God who took on flesh and suffered, died, and rose from the dead. He ascended where He reigns with the Father. He is the Judge. This is the God who gives us everything we have, everything we need for body and soul, in all the ways that He has established. He is the God who feeds us here, the Lord who gives us His Body and Blood right in the midst of this world where sinners use and abuse His gifts. And we know that all other authorities will be accountable to Him. We know that it is His to avenge and repay, and He will do so. And trusting Him, we will submit to the orders He has established, and all of that for the sake of loving one another, in which the whole law is truly fulfilled, as Jesus Himself fulfilled the law in His love for us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/4/20