Sermon title: When Should We Disobey the Authorities?
Immanuel Baptist Church – September 20, 2020
When should we refuse to obey the authorities?
That’s a question that the coronavirus epidemic
has raised in many churches today.
Across the USA a number of church pastors
have been fined or arrested for refusing to comply
with regulations issued by
state and local authorities.
The Christian organization Liberty Counsel
is raising money for their legal defense.
Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur,
who has led the 10,000-member Grace Community Church
for over 50 years
is now publicly defying
California’s limitations on church services.
Is he right to do that?
He is even condemning churches
that do comply with state regulations.
Has he gone too far?
The Bible says at Romans 13:1,
“Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God's permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God.”
But other passages make exceptions
when what the state tells us to do
is contrary to God’s commands.
So, how do we sort it all out?
The 4th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles
tells of an incident that can help us see
the principles that are involved.
Let’s look at what we can learn from that incident.
As we saw last week, the Apostles Peter and John
stopped on their way into the Jerusalem Temple
to heal a man who had been born lame.
In the name of Jesus, they commanded him
to “get up and walk,”
and the surprised man did so,
leaping and praising God.
When the crowds in the Temple courtyard saw this
and came together amazed at what happened,
Peter used the opportunity
to share with those Jews the Gospel of Christ.
He told the crowd that they had killed the Christ—
the long-promised Messiah God had sent to them—
when they handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate
and called for him to be crucified.
But Peter told them God had raised Jesus from the dead,
and that he was now seated at God’s throne in heaven.
And that’s why the powerful name of Jesus,
pronounced over that lame man,
had healed him and enabled him to walk.
Peter called on those Jews to repent of their sins,
and to receive God’s forgiveness in Jesus’ name.
That’s where Acts Chapter 3 concluded,
that’s where we pick up today in Acts 4:1
where Peter & John were addressing the crowd.
1 As they spoke to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came to them, 2 being upset because they taught the people and proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. [ GO TO BLANK SLIDE ]
One reason why the priests were upset with the Apostles
was that they proclaimed Jesus was resurrected
from the dead.
Those priests were of the Sadducees faction of Judaism.
And Acts 23:8 tells us,
“The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.”
Like nominal Christians today, who are divided
into many denominations teaching different things,
the Jews of that day were also divided,
and the Sadducees were much like
what we today call “liberal” churches
that don’t believe the Bible.
I recall speaking years ago with a deacon
in a liberal American Baptist Church, and I asked him
where he believed people went when they died.
He said he didn’t believe the dead went anywhere—
they were simply gone—
no longer existing anywhere, in his view.
So, he believed much like this liberal sect of the Jews.
The sect of the Sadducees
denied any resurrection of the dead.
However, the resurrection of Jesus proved them wrong.
But, instead of learning from this,
they wanted to hide the evidence.
They wanted to stop the Apostles
from teaching that Jesus was alive from the dead.
And they thought they had the power to stop them.
They brought the police with them.
They had with them
the “the captain of the temple”
and his men—
in other words the Temple’s security force,
who acted as police officers
within the Temple grounds.
Verse 3 continues,
3 They laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was now evening. 4 But many of those who heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.
So, the Apostles had to spend the night in jail.
But their preaching had been fruitful.
There were around 3,000 disciples the day before,
and now many more believed:
“the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”
After their night in jail,
the Apostles faced an official inquiry—
a hearing before the Jewish high court.
5 In the morning, their rulers, elders, and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and as many as were relatives of the high priest. 7 When they had stood them in the middle of them, they inquired, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?”
So, this was an official inquiry, conducted by
the highest-ranking Jewish officials in Jerusalem.
They apparently hoped to intimidate the Apostles,
but their questioning
gave Peter the opportunity to speak,
and speak he did!—as we read at Verse 8.
He boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus,
and the truth and power of Christ’s resurrection.
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “You rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, 9 if we are examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, in him does this man stand here before you whole. 11 He is ‘the stone which was regarded as worthless by you, the builders, which has become the head of the corner.’ Psalm 118:22
Peter was not in the least intimidated.
In fact, the Holy Spirit empowered him to speak like that.
A couple of months earlier, Peter had been
in the courtyard of those same chief priests
where he watched Jesus’ trial from a distance,
and back then Peter was so afraid
that he denied three times even knowing Jesus.
Yet now, empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit,
Peter accused those same men to their faces
of crucifying God’s Messiah.
And Peter boldly proclaimed Jesus as the one foretold
in David’s Psalm 118:22 as the symbolic stone,
rejected by the builders,
yet become the cornerstone,
the most important stone of all.
So, Peter publicly told Israel’s spiritual leaders
that the miracle of healing that crippled man
proved them to be wrong
in all that they said and did about Jesus,
and proved them wrong
in their denial of the resurrection of the dead.
The fact that invoking Jesus’ name
could heal a man who had been crippled all his life
proved that Jesus was the Messiah
and proved that Jesus was resurrected.
And then Peter concluded by telling everyone listening
that “Jesus” is the most important name under heaven.
12 There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!”
As on earlier occasions, Peter didn’t mince words.
He told them straight out
that Jesus was the way of salvation—
the only way of salvation.
Just picture the scene.
Here were these well-dressed, wealthy religious leaders,
educated by the top religious schools of the Jews,
holding the highest positions and fanciest titles
of religious scholarship and authority.
They were all met in formal assembly
to investigate a couple of uneducated
They couldn’t believe their ears
when Peter spoke to them like that.
Verse 13 tells us,
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and had perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled. They recognized that they had been with Jesus.
But the religious leaders were faced with a real problem.
Although Peter and John lacked any credentials,
from their standpoint,
the miracle they had performed in public
was now the talk of all Jerusalem.
And there was no denying the power behind that miracle.
Verse 14 continues,
14 Seeing the man who was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it. 15 But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What shall we do to these men? Because indeed a notable miracle has been done through them, as can be plainly seen by all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we can’t deny it.
They found themselves in a quandary.
They couldn’t deny what had taken place.
All they could come up with
was to take steps to limit further damage.
17 But so that this spreads no further among the people, let’s threaten them, that from now on they don’t speak to anyone in this name.” 18 They called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.
This was an official government order,
and it carried the force of law.
So, we need to pay special attention
to how the Apostles responded,
since conflicts between Church and state
are emerging in our society today.
We, ourselves, need to know how to respond
if the government orders us
to stop preaching in Jesus’ name—
and the Apostles’ answer
should set a pattern for us.
The religious leaders of the Jews “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.”
That carried the force of law.
The Roman Empire ruled that part of the world,
and Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor in charge,
but the Romans allowed the Jewish religious leaders
to govern their own people in religious matters.
Rome, at that time, had no interest
in getting involved in religious issues.
For example, we read about a case later on,
in Acts Chapter 18,
where Jews in another Roman-ruled city
tried to prosecute the Apostle Paul
in a Roman Court.
Beginning in Acts 18:12, we read,
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat, 13 saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”
14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews,
“If indeed it were a matter of wrong or of wicked crime, you Jews, it would be reasonable that I should bear with you; 15 but if they are questions about words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves. For I don’t want to be a judge of these matters.” 16 He drove them from the judgment seat.
So, the Romans left Jewish religious disputes
up to the Jews themselves.
And at this point,
just a couple months after Christ rose from the dead,
Jesus’ disciples were all Jews.
No one on earth at that time realized
that Judaism and Christianity were about to
go their separate ways,
and be viewed as two different religions.
At that time the Christian believers
were all Messianic Jews—
Jews who looked to Jesus
as their promised Messiah.
And so, the chief priests at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem,
had the force of law behind them
when they ordered the Apostles
to stop proclaiming Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
But the Apostles knew that they were obligated
to obey a higher authority—
the authority of God himself.
Acts 1:8 tells us that,
just before they watched Jesus ascend into the sky,
he told them,
“You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Being witnesses to Jesus meant that
they needed to speak about him,
to bear witness to him by telling others about him.
And he told them to start out being
“witnesses to me in Jerusalem”
before going out to the rest of the world.
Peter and John realized that obedience to Christ
would prevent them from obeying
the Temple authorities’ command
“not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.”
They also recalled Jesus’ other commands to them.
Luke 24:47 says Jesus told them that
repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
So, they were under divine command to preach
“in his name . . . beginning at Jerusalem.”
The command from the Temple authorities
went directly against that command of Christ’s.
And, at Matthew 28:18 Jesus gave them
what we call “The Great Commission”
when he told them,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The rulers of the Temple claimed to have authority
to command the disciples
to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.
But Jesus said he has
“All authority in heaven and on earth.”
That’s more authority than the Temple rulers had,
and more authority than the Roman governor had.
“All authority in heaven and on earth.”
The Temple rulers commanded Peter and John
to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.
But Peter and John had a command
from a higher authority to keep on preaching
“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
So, how did they answer the men
who told them not to “teach in the name of Jesus”?
Continuing at Acts 4:19, we read,
19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves, 20 for we can’t help telling the things which we saw and heard.”
So, the Apostles made it clear
that the authorities were forcing them to choose
between listening to them, or listening to God.
That really left them no choice.
In this case, the ruling authorities didn’t push the matter.
21 When they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people; for everyone glorified God for that which was done. 22 For the man on whom this miracle of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
All the people of Jerusalem were glorifying God
for the miracle performed through Peter and John.
So, it would have been very difficult politically
for the authorities to punish them for it.
But, later on in the next chapter of Acts,
which we’ll cover in a of couple weeks,
the matter came to a head again,
and this time the Apostles paid a heavy penalty
for defying the authorities.
So, what do we learn from this
that applies to the issues churches are facing today?
We learn that we are obligated to obey God
as the highest authority.
But we are also obligated to obey state authorities,
as long as they don’t require us to break God’s commands.
And that’s where it may be difficult to know
where to draw the line.
Circumstances may differ,
and individuals’ consciences may differ.
The Bible at Hebrews 10:25 tells us
not to give up meeting together.
And John MacArthur quotes that passage,
in deciding to open his huge California mega-church
in defiance of state orders.
But, are there alternative ways of meeting together
that would please God, while not violating state law?
What if the church building is on fire,
and the fire department orders everyone out
for their own safety?
Would we rush back into the burning building,
citing Hebrews 10:25 as our justification?
So, then, what if the Public Health Department
determines that any large gatherings of people
endanger, not only the people who gather,
but also the surrounding community?
If movie theaters face the same restrictions as churches,
and people who hold large parties in their homes
are also penalized,
this is not a case of anti-Christian persecution.
Christians can still find ways to gather together
in small groups in homes,
as they did back in the First Century,
or to gather online using modern technology.
My feeling is that we should not go out of our way
to pick a fight with state authorities,
as John MacArthur seems to be doing.
We have a number of examples in the Scriptures to guide us.
In the Old Testament book of Daniel,
Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego
refused to bow to an idolatrous image,
even though they faced the death penalty.
And many early Christians chose death
rather than worship the Roman Emperor.
Daniel himself faced a challenge
when his enemies got the Persian Emperor
to issue an order prohibiting prayer to God.
They knew that Daniel prayed publicly
from his open window every day,
and they hoped to make trouble for him
through that royal decree.
Now, Daniel could have prayed privately,
to avoid getting caught.
He could even have prayed silently,
which no one could prove.
But Daniel chose to continue praying publicly
from his open window,
even though that carried a death penalty.
That does not mean, though,
that we must always openly resist.
If we can avoid a direct collision with state authority,
it may be best to step aside.
Our Lord Jesus said at Matthew 10:23,
“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.”
So, ultimately, how we respond
to conflicts between church and state
depend on the circumstances and our conscience.
As public health authorities
battle the coronavirus pandemic
and try to keep their communities safe,
some of them may cross the line
and make unreasonable demands.
But that calls to mind Peter’s advice at 1 Peter 2:18
“Servants, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but even to those who are unreasonable.”
Rather than pick a fight with the authorities,
we should look for ways to cooperate,
without compromising our integrity.
There are issues where we need to take a stand,
when the state comes into conflict with God.
And there are other areas where we can avoid conflict,
while keeping our integrity toward God.
In all cases, we should be guided
by prayer and by the written Word of God.