I got an email the other day asking about certain Old Testament passages that seem to contradict a few of my most recent posts I have written about how Christians ought to view politics and the government. Below is my response, which has been slightly edited from the original.
When discussing how Christians ought to understand and view their role and responsibility toward politics and government, it is absolutely essential to understand the larger narrative and movement of the Bible. For without backing up and taking a more broad look at the progression of the larger story, there is a real risk of reading the text myopically and out of context. It would be akin to focusing so narrowly on the individual notes of a song that one might actually miss the appreciation and beauty of the song as a whole.
There is a direction in which the biblical narrative is heading that culminates in the full revelation of God in Jesus, that then helps us understand everything else leading up to that point. That is why picking and choosing verses or chapters of the Bible piecemeal is so unhelpful, because when they are not seen or understood as a progression toward the full revelation in Jesus, they can be narrowly understood and applied significantly out of context to support virtually any argument.
And in my best estimation, that is why Christians are so all-over-the-board when it comes to virtually every issue, but specifically politics and government, because we simply do not approach the heart of the biblical text uniformly. Many pick and choose verses to validate their positions, even if those positions stray significantly from the full revelation of God in Jesus.
There is a more complete and uniform way to read the biblical narrative, that culminates in Jesus, which then becomes the template through which we see all things and by which we live our lives.
The starting point is reading the Bible as a narrative in which God partners with mankind to successively and progressively reveal what it looks like to be a human in perfect relationship with God and other human beings. That is the larger song, if you will.
But how would you, as God, begin the process of writing this song? Where would you even begin? If your starting point is amongst a pagan and barbaric people thousands of years BC, it’s not like you can skip over the introductory notes or the notes that comprise the verses and chorus. For there would not be any appreciation or understanding of how amazing the grand finale in Jesus really is. It would not make any sense to insert Jesus into that context and be like, “Hey, follow and be like this guy.” The primitive heart, mind, and soul would have no appreciation, understanding, or context to understand why loving enemies, forgiving others, going the extra mile, or turning the other cheek is the essential heart of God and God’s deepest longing for humanity.
So how do you meet them where they are at and walk with them, while also preparing them in such a way that when God’s heart and character are fully revealed in Jesus… they will understand it and see the need for God’s heart and character in their lives?
The answer is slowly, progressively, successively. And that is exactly how we see God working through history up to and culminating in Jesus.
The Old Testament is a step-by-step forward progression toward Jesus. What we see from the beginning is human rebellion, which is a turning from God, and then as a result, people turning against one another. We see steps throughout the OT in which God met the people where they were at in their primitive, barbaric thinking and lifestyle and began to take steps with them to a higher ethic, or higher, more godly consciousness.
One step in this progression was with Abraham. At a time when a primitive, barbaric people were sacrificing humans for the blessing or approval of their deities, we find that Yahweh instructs Abraham to do the same thing… but then provides a ram for sacrifice instead of his son. In a culture where human sacrifice was the norm, God helped a people take a step away from that kind of barbarism, and a successive step toward valuing human life. Was all human conduct and relationships perfect after that step? No, far from it. But it was a step toward the true heart and character of God.
Another progressive step was with Moses. In the midst of terrible oppression and slavery, God moved on behalf of the Hebrew people to deliver them out of slavery and bondage… and then, for 40 years in the desert, stripped away the pagan beliefs and practices they had acquired from the Egyptians. And then, meeting them where they were at morally and ethically, God helped them take another successive step by giving them a higher ethic and morality in the 10 Commandments (and the rest of the Law of Moses). This was certainly not the end, but just another step to help a people develop morally and ethically and then to begin to see the “how they fall short” of the Law.
So while there was another step taken toward helping people begin to see God’s true heart, God’s full revelation had not yet been revealed. But despite God meeting humanity where they were at, at specific moments in history, people still operated in ways that were broken. And we see this all throughout the OT. God wanted to be their only King, but the people wanted a human King and this grieved God. People still offered animal and food sacrifices to God, but all God ever wanted was their hearts. And it goes on like that throughout the entire OT.
But also scattered throughout the OT, we hear the voices of prophets saying that there will be one who comes who will end all division, who will establish a different kind government, who will be called the King of Kings, whose reign will go out throughout the land and bring together all people, who will lead his people into peace, righteousness, and freedom, who will write the law on our hearts rather than on stone, and who will establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
And in Jesus, God took yet another progressive, successive moral and ethical step… from written laws to God’s own Spirit demonstrated in flesh.
Demonstrating that his character is not one that demands people offer sacrifices to him, but that his character is self-sacrificial in nature. Showing his people the profound limitations and evil that can come from human kings, politics, and governments, and then inviting everyone into a kingdom in which he again is the King of his people. And revealing that, in all the ways humanity has misunderstood his character, the full revelation of God looks exactly like the self-sacrificial, enemy-loving, peaceable, and forgiving Jesus. And it is this step in Jesus, in which God was moving people from hierarchies, dividing lines, social stratification, oppositional thinking… and making a new people, of a new kingdom, with a higher law and ethic of the Spirit, who would become the body of Christ in the world.
That is why Jesus’ primary message of the Kingdom of God is so important, because it is the full revelation of God’s character in human flesh and the perfect union with God and others. It is an invitation away from divisive politics, inferior governmental systems, and tribal thinking and into a new Kingdom in which Jesus is the Lord and King and the values and ethics of this “new country” is the values and ethics of God demonstrated and taught by Jesus (i.e. The Sermon on the Mount). And we, as those who give our pledge and allegiance to this King only, continue the present work of inviting people out of inferior systems and inferior vales into something more fulfilling, more beautiful, and fully of God. In a very real way, we get to experience “a foretaste of what’s to come” or “the first fruits of new creation.”
So the issue with how most Christians read the Bible is this- they do not read or understand it as a gradual, successive, progressive revelation of God culminating in the highest moral, ethical, and transcendent values of God demonstrated in Jesus… but rather as a patchwork in which pieces can be picked at and used when it fits a particular agenda or issue. That’s why it is not justifiable to use the OT as a proof source for how Christians ought to deal with governments or politics or war … because God met those people where they were at with what they could understand at a specific moment in time to help them take another step … but the full revelation of God through Jesus had not yet come to humanity.
At just the right time in history, humanity had moved enough from an ethical perspective (but still far from perfect) for God to demonstrate what the final step looks like. It’s Jesus. That is God’s full revelation to us! We do not regress into old ways of thinking or old ways of living. The pattern and template for a new humanity has been given to us who are ready to receive it. But unfortunately, many in the Church still want to reside in the old conception of life… the tribal and barbarian way, rather than the way of new creation, the way of the new humanity. And it is difficult to help people understand that in the Church.
Please understand. If your positions, stances, or beliefs are not rooted in, and do not look like, the full revelation of God in Jesus, then your positions, stances, or beliefs are resting in the old, inferior, animal or social conception of life. It is time for the you, as a follower of Christ, and your church to take a step forward into the divine conception of life, the life of the Spirit, the life of new creation, the life of the new humanity, which always looks like the full revelation of God in Jesus.
“The whole historic existence of mankind is nothing else than the gradual transition from the personal, animal conception of life to the social conception of life, and from the social conception of life to the divine conception of life. The whole history of ancient peoples, lasting through thousands of years and ending with the history of Rome, is the history of the transition from the animal, personal view of life to the social view of life. The whole of history from the time of the Roman empire and the appearance of Christianity is the history of the transition, through which we are still passing now, from the social view of life to the divine view of life. This view of life is the last, and founded upon it is the Christian teaching, which is a guide for the whole of our life and lies at the root of all of our activity, practical and theoretical.” Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You