Earlier this week I shared 5 theological truths about the incarnation of Christ. These are important things to know! Yet we do not study theology just to know stuff. We study it in order to strengthen our relationship with God and be transformed into the kind of people he desires us to be. In other words, good theology is practical and affects our day to day lives.
The incarnation is no different. In Philippians 2 we find one of the most significant reflections on the incarnation and how it models the way we should live as followers of Christ. See for yourself…
 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Do you see the flow of thought here from the apostle Paul? His command to believers is to be selfless and others-oriented. Then, after making this command, he gives the incarnation as an example of this in action. Christ himself, though he is God in heaven, humbled himself by coming to earth in the form of a lowly human, in order to serve others and meet their greatest need, up to and including dying on their behalf. Could there be a greater example of selflessness in the universe? I think not!
This is intensely practical theology. In the incarnation we see the humility of Christ, his love, his selflessness, his sacrifice, his giving for others even at great cost to himself. If this is how Jesus lived his life, then certainly we should also!
Let us remember this Christmas the great example we have been given in the incarnation of Christ: selfless love and service to others without bounds. May we follow in the steps of our Saviour and love others with the same kind of self-sacrificing love!
Every Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ. In theological terms, this is known as the “incarnation”, a word which means “in the flesh”. What exactly does the Bible teach about this incredible event? Here are five facts you should know about the incarnation.
1) Christ existed before the incarnation
Jesus did not come into existence at the miraculous conception of Mary. Rather, the Bible teaches that Christ has existed from eternity past. At the incarnation, he simply took on human form.
John 1:1-2, 14 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”
Colossians 1:16–17 “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
These passages clearly show that Jesus existed since before the beginning of human history.
2) The Son became human; the Father and Spirit did not
The Bible teaches that there is one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. This is commonly known in Christian theology as the “Trinity”, or the triune nature of God (see here for an overview on the Trinity). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all God. Yet, during the incarnation, only the Son took on flesh. The Father and Spirit did not.
John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Mark 1:9–11 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'”
These, and many other passages, demonstrate that only the Son took on flesh. The Father and the Holy Spirit remained in their spiritual form during the incarnation.
3) Jesus is fully God and fully man
It is certainly beyond our comprehension, but the Bible teaches Jesus was both fully God and fully man at the moment of incarnation. Christ was already fully God, but he added to his divinity a true human nature as well, so that one could say “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is human” at the same time, and both statements would be correct. When Christ became man, he did not cease to be God.
This is why Jesus could both forgive sin (in Luke chapters 5, 7, and 23 for example), something only God can do, and also get hungry (Mark 11:12), tired (John 4:6), and even fall asleep (Mark 4:38), something human beings do.
The humanity and deity of Jesus existing together is known in theological terms as the “hypostatic union”. It, of course, is in many ways a wondrous mystery that we can never fully understand. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is both God and man at the same time.
Hebrews 1:2–3 “but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature [Greek: hupostasis], and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”
Philippians 2:5–8 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Again, while it is a challenge to grasp the exact details of it all, the Bible is clear that Jesus is both God and human, and that both his divine attributes and his human attributes are on display during his time on earth.
4) The incarnation was necessary for salvation
Why can’t God just declare “your sins are forgiven”? Why does Christ have to enter into the world, live, suffer, die, and rise again as a human being? The Bible teaches that the incarnation was necessary for salvation since only a sinless human could act as a substitute for guilty sinners. Recall that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and so a real flesh-and-blood death was needed. In addition, only a sinless person could die for another—otherwise they would be dying their own sin. Jesus fulfilled both obligations in the incarnation, by living a life of perfect obedience to God’s law as a human and taking upon himself the curse for sin on the cross.
Galatians 4:4–5 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Hebrews 2:14, 17 “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil….Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
5) The incarnation is essential Christian doctrine
Having a correct understanding of the incarnation is necessary to sound Christian doctrine. This is because it is an essential part of the person and work of Christ, so much so that if we are wrong in this area it severely (and harmfully) affects the rest of our theology and faith. If Jesus is not God, then we are guilty of idolatry by worshipping him. If Jesus is not man, then he is not qualified to die for mankind. These kinds of doctrines are important for understanding the true gospel.
1 John 4:1–3 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
2 John 7 “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
More than any other author of the New Testament, John puts particular emphasis on the incarnation of Christ as essential to the Christian faith. He notes that those who reject Jesus as God in the flesh are embodying the spirit of “antichrist”, making themselves enemies of God and the gospel. In other words, it is important for us to know who Jesus really is for us to fully appreciate what he has done for us and place our hope in him!
As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us not allow the power and mystery and significance of the incarnation to be lost on us. God himself has visited our world in order to live and die in our place, securing for us forgiveness and and eternal hope. How great lengths he has gone to demonstrate his love for us!
By now you have heard of the news that the Supreme Court of the United States is poised to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade case, which had essentially codified abortion access as a federally protected right. The decision to overturn Roe would mean a reversal on a nearly-50 year precedent, which would send the laws around abortion access to individual states to determine. It does not make abortion illegal, but almost certainly would mean heightened restriction on abortion in many areas of the country.
I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to break down the technicalities of the law. I’m not a political commentator, so I’m not going to give you my hot take on the issue. Instead, I’m a Christian and pastor, and so I am calling you to pray.
Pray that the decision to overturn Roe would not be thwarted by the efforts of those responding with intimidation to the leaked document.
Pray that the individual states would be able to pass legislation to further protect the life of the unborn.
Pray that more children would be spared as a result.
Pray that the hearts of mothers and fathers would be turned to their unborn children with affection and hope.
Pray that pro-lifers would not stop with overturning Roe, but would continue to advance the cause effectively.
Pray that those who oppose saving unborn babies would have a change of heart and mind.
Pray that this decision would also impact Canada, which has the most radical abortion access in the world.
Pray that Christians would respond with love to those who vehemently oppose them on this issue, while still standing firm in the truth.
Pray that pro-lifers would step up and support families who are in need of help.
Pray that crisis pregnancy centres would be resourced and staffed well to meet the needs of their communities.
Pray that the gospel would break out in a new way, transforming lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And in your prayers, don’t forget to give praise!
Praise God for allowing this to even be possible!
Praise God for Supreme Court justices making the right choice!
Praise God for those who have laboured for nearly 50 years to protect unborn children!
Praise God for giving unborn children greater protection in the womb!
Praise God for being gracious to us sinners, more gracious than we deserve!
John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Ephesians 6:10–13 “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Recently I preached a sermon from Mark 14:3-11 which records an account of Jesus being anointed with expensive perfume by an anonymous woman a few days before his crucifixion. You can view that sermon below if you’d like:
In my study for this message, I came across a bit of a dilemma. The four gospels all contain very similar accounts of Jesus being anointed by a woman while at a dinner party. The issue is that each account has some discrepancies in it. Not all of the details are the same, and some even appear to contradict each other. How many times was Jesus really anointed? Do these tell the same story? Or do they tell of multiple accounts? Did the authors get some information wrong? How can we reconcile these differences?
A Quick Primer on Gospel Harmonization
The first thing to say is, Don’t be alarmed. The gospel accounts of Jesus’s life differ from one another, and also have a lot of overlapping similarities. Bible scholars have written massive volumes to address these issues on possible ways to harmonize the gospel accounts together. This is nothing new. Some people get really freaked out when they learn that the gospels have some apparent contradictions, but many Christians have learned this fact and go forward with confidence in God’s Word and their faith intact.
As I looked at some of the material on this particular story, it was clear that different authors have come to different conclusions about how many times Jesus was anointed in the gospels. For example, the popular website GotQuestions concludes that the gospels record three separate events. On the other hand, the ESV Study Bible notes conclude that Jesus was anointed only twice. Naturally, others have come to different conclusions even from these.
I want to briefly present my own conclusion and how I came to it, which is in agreement with the ESV Study Bible. I believe Jesus was anointed twice, and that three of the gospels record the same account, with the other gospel (Luke) recording a separate incident.
First, to help get a quick overview of the stories, I’ve created this chart to outline the basic elements of each story and how they compare to one another.
As you can see, some elements compare very similarly with each other. At other times, they are quite different. Analyzing the text closely reveals some important things.
What We Know For Sure
There are two things we can determine fairly easily. The first is that Luke’s gospel records a unique event that no other gospel contains. This can be determined by observing several major differences from the other accounts.
(1) The timing of the event. Luke’s anointing account happens very early in Jesus’s ministry, while the others all happen near the final week leading up to his death.
(2) The location of the event. Luke’s account takes place in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Even though Matthew and Mark say their account happen in the home of Simon the leper, these are clearly two different individuals.
(3) The objection. In the other three gospels, the primary objection from onlookers is that the expensive perfume used to anoint Jesus is wasted. In Luke’s account, the objection is that the woman who is touching Jesus is a dirty sinner. These are significantly different objections.
(4) Jesus’s response. In the other three gospels, Jesus responds to the objections by stating that the poor can be helped any time, but he can only be anointed for his short time on earth. However, in Luke’s account, Jesus forgives the woman and tells a parable about the power of forgiveness. His response, like the objections given, is completely different.
For these reasons we can see clearly that Luke records his own unique account.
The second thing we can deduce right away is that Matthew are Mark record the same event. Simply put, their accounts are almost identical to each other. The only difference is that Matthew says “the disciples” objected, while Mark says only “some” objected. Quite frankly, this amounts to a difference only in detail of description, not of contradiction. For instance, if (hypothetically speaking) four of the disciples objected, it is not wrong to say either that “the disciples” objected or that “some” objected. They mean the same thing, with only difference in detail. So we are safe to conclude that Matthew and Mark are thinking of the same event.
What About John?
John’s anointing account is the one that is harder to square away. John’s account shares some significant similarities with Matthew and Mark:
- They happen in Bethany within the week prior to Jesus’s crucifixion
- They tell of a woman anoints Jesus at a dinner party with expensive perfume contained in an alabaster flask
- Onlookers object to the “waste” of the perfume; it could have been sold and the money given to the poor
- Jesus rebukes them, and defends the woman.
- Jesus states that the poor can be helped any time, but he can only be anointed during his short time on earth.
- Jesus states she has anointed him for burial (it is unclear if that was the woman’s intent or not).
Taken together, these sound an awful lot like the same event! However, there are some key differences that might undermine this theory:
- Matthew and Mark’s account happens two days before Passover. John’s seems to happen six days prior. More on this later.
- Matthew and Mark’s account takes place in the home of Simon the leper. John’s is unspecified, although he says that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are the ones who put on the dinner, so it could be in their home.
- Matthew and Mark’s account state Jesus is anointed on the head. John states his anointing is on the feet of Jesus.
- In Matthew and Mark’s version, seemingly multiple disciples object. In John’s account, only Judas is mentioned.
Do these details demand we assume John’s account records a third anointing? I think not. Here’s why.
A Possible Harmonization
First, it is entirely possible that John’s account takes place in the home of Simon the leper, with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus spearheading the event. John does not specifically state where the feast was held, only who put it on. Likewise, Matthew and Mark state where the feast was held, but not necessarily who organized it. These details do not explicitly contradict each other. It is within possibility that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus planned the event, while Simon was the host.
Second, it is entirely possible that Jesus was anointed on both the head and the feet—or, possibly, first on the head and then dripping to his feet. That each author highlights a specific part could be for their own thematic purposes. For example, Matthew might highlight the anointing of Jesus’s head since his gospel is continually pointing to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. We know this because Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. An ancient Israelite would have recognized anointing one’s head as a sign of kingship, similar to the anointing of Old Testament kings. On the other hand, John highlighting the anointing of Jesus’s feet and wiping with hair might be a primer to the washing of the disciples feet, a story only he records and the other gospel writers omit. In other words, the authors are pointing out specific details that fit into the major themes they are writing about in Jesus’s ministry.
Thirdly, it is not necessarily a contradiction when John says that Judas objected, while Matthew and Mark imply multiple objectors. Both can be true at the same time. For instance, if Judas is the one who vocalized the objection, and several other disciples nodded along in agreement, it would be true to say that (1) Judas objected, (2) “some” objected, and (3) “the disciples” objected. Again, this is not a contradiction but a difference in detail.
Fourth, we must deal with the difference in timing. This is certainly the most difficult detail to wrestle with. Matthew and Mark appear to say that the event happened 2 days before Passover, while John says it was 6 days before. Both can’t be true. So, which is it? Did one author misremember? Or did the event happen twice?
Let’s take a closer look at the texts and the introduction to each story:
Matthew 26:1-7 When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples,  “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas,  and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.  But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”  Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,  a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table.
Mark 14:1–3 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him,  for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”  And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.
John 12:1–2 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.
I want you to notice that, technically speaking, each of these accounts can be read in a way that changes the order of events. In John, for example, it says explicitly that Jesus came to be Bethany six days before Passover. However, it does not say that the dinner took place right away. We simply assume that because it is the next thing stated in the text. Yet the text does not demand that this event have taken place on that specific day, but could have taken place at almost any point after his arrival in Bethany.
Matthew and Mark can be read the same way. In Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem in chapter 21, which is followed by several chapters of events and public teaching. Chapter 26 records the anointing, and verse six simply states that “when Jesus was at Bethany” these events occurred. In other words, Matthew could be going back in time to recount the event of the anointing. He does not explicitly say it is what happened next, simply that it happened while Jesus was in Bethany, which technically covers parts of the previous 5 chapters (Jesus travelled between Bethany and Jerusalem all throughout his final week). So Matthew might not be reporting in chronological order, but more by theme.
It is the same with Mark, where 14:3 simply says “while he was in Bethany” Jesus was anointed. Mark also has recorded some of the events after Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem over the previous two chapters. It might be that in 14:3 he is going back in time to record an event out of chronological order.
Again, this should not alarm us. When comparing the gospels, it is quickly apparent that the stories are definitely not always put in chronological order. They are often grouped according the themes out of chronological order. Put simply, the texts of Matthew, Mark, and John do not demand that this event take place in a specific pre-determined timeline. All three of them can be read as possibly telling an account that does not chronologically follow the previous or subsequent events.
Since it is at least possible to harmonize Matthew, Mark, and John, I think we should consider that the most likely possibility. This would be confirmed by the fact that the stories are far more similar than they are different. It would make very little sense, for example, to have a woman anoint Jesus for burial at a dinner party, and have the disciples raise the exact same objection, to which Jesus responds with the exact same correction, on two separate occasions only days apart. That seems to make no sense to me. It seems far more likely that these three gospels record the same event with differing details.
And let’s not miss the main point of the story! Mary, the sister of Lazarus, demonstrates a beautiful act of worship towards Jesus, who says that she will be remembered for what she has done. And here we are, thousands of years later, still talking about her and learning from her example!
I recently sat down to watch the latest Disney-Pixar movie “Turning Red”. I had literally no idea what the movie was about since I had never heard of it or seen the trailer. All I knew is someone said it was a movie about “self-regulation”. It sounded potentially interesting, since Pixar had previously made an exceptional movie about inner emotions (Inside Out). Boy was I in for a surprise!
This movie is not what I expected at all. In fact, it is nothing like any Pixar movie I have ever seen. The movie is about a 13-year-old girl named Mei, whose family runs a traditional-style Chinese temple near downtown Toronto. And although Mei certainly could use some emotional self-regulation, the movie is actually about her journey into womanhood by experiencing puberty—beginning with her first period.
A Visual Metaphor (Spoilers Ahead)
Mei’s experience with puberty is symbolized in the movie by her unintentionally (at first) turning into a giant red panda whenever she is experiencing “big emotions”. The Mei we are introduced to at the beginning of the movie is completely unlike her alter ego. Mei is shown to be a straight-A student, good friend, and committed to her family. However, when the panda comes out, she is reckless, spontaneous, dishonest, disobedient, disrespectful, and disturbingly sexual.
It is one thing for a film to explore the challenges that puberty will present. In all fairness to Pixar, they definitely chose a difficult subject to address. I would expect any movie addressing the challenges of puberty to present some hard realities, and Turning Red does so without reservation. My issue with the movie, however, is that the message of the film unapologetically endorses the actions of the panda character, rather than demonstrating them to be foolish, dangerous, and immoral. The film’s core message is that brash independence and sexual liberation should be embraced by 13-year-old girls.
Lest You Think I’m Exaggerating
Let me give you some specific events and lines from the film to prove my point.
- Mei’s friends call her “brainwashed” for helping in family chores around their temple. Throughout the movie she becomes increasingly more rude and disobedient to her parents.
- All of the women in the family (mom, grandma, aunt’s etc.) are critical and controlling. Mei’s father, on the other hand, is portrayed as quite pathetic and incompetent. There are no admirable adult characters in the movie.
- As Mei becomes aware of her attraction to boys, she fawns over one who works nearby (a boy of 17) and secretly draws pictures of him shirtless and embracing her for a kiss. She draws other pictures that we don’t see but cause quite a reaction when her mother finds them.
- Mei and her friends also drool over the famous boy band coming to Toronto to play a concert.
- To raise money for concert tickets, Mei sells pictures of herself in panda form to her classmates at school, taking selfies while her friends keep watch lest a teacher catch them in the act. What exactly is this supposed to illustrate? The sexual nature of these acts is further suggested when a boy blackmails her into attending his birthday party, threatening to expose the pictures to her mother. He says “I wonder if your mom knows you’ve been flaunting your panda all over school.”
- Mei reluctantly attends the party (which has no adult supervision), partly for fear of exposing her behaviour to her mother, and partly because the boy pays for her to be there. The catch is that she must attend in panda form. Mei doesn’t really want to but determines “it will all be worth it in the end”. Again, what is this supposed to illustrate? Mei’s panda represents the womanly side of herself, a side she sells pictures of behind her parent’s back and is willing to flaunt for money.
- When Mei leaves the house in a condition her parents don’t approve of, she scoffs at them and says “my panda, my choice!”
- Mei and her friends lie, a lot.
- Towards the end of the movie, as Mei is embracing her panda side, she confronts her mother (in panda form) and shouts “I like boys! I like loud music! I like gyrating!” At this she slaps her behind and shakes it in front of her horrified mother. Disturbingly, she keeps doing it for a solid 10 seconds.
- At one point Mei declares “Be careful, honouring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honour yourself.”
- The movie concludes with this line: “We’ve all got an inner beast. We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?”
Once again I’ll reiterate that a movie about teen puberty is a bold choice, but perhaps there is a way to pull it off with tact and wisdom. Turning Red has none of that. Rather, it is an in-your-face endorsement of every worldly value imaginable. Pixar is known for making high-quality movies with generally wholesome values that entire families can enjoy. This movie (rated PG) is a clear break from that path.
I would not recommend watching this movie. It is not worth your time. But if you do decide to watch it, or watch it with your children, do so ready to have some important conversations afterward. You will need to contrast the sinful folly that is promoted with godly wisdom. This is a big task, considering the multiple themes that need addressing:
- Managing sexual desires
- Peer pressure
- Obeying parents
- Celebrity influence
- Digital safety
- Teen independence
Romans 12:1-2 tells us, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This movie is a stark reminder that the world is eager to address tender subjects and disciple young people. Parents need to demonstrate a better path for their children than the one that the world offers, one that comes from a transformed mind that is able to discern what is good and honouring to God.
Essentially, everything that Mei does, you should do the opposite. I would encourage parents to assess for themselves if the movie is a worthwhile learning moment or not. But I would remind all parents that it is non-negotiable that we need to be addressing these issues with our children, because the world certainly isn’t shy about doing it, and it won’t be promoting the kind of values that will help our children develop into godly and mature adults.
Late last night I spent a few hours in the freezing cold welcoming the Canadian trucker Freedom Convoy 2022. The convoy is potentially the largest in history, spanning many kilometres long and travelling from British Columbia to Ottawa, Ontario, our nation’s capitol. The convoy has stirred up a good bit of attention, both positive and negative, and so I thought I’d briefly pen a few thoughts about the movement itself and also the nature of associating oneself with large-scale movements.
The Freedom Convoy is primarily a peaceful protest against vaccine mandates in Canada. Both national and provincial governments have put many measures in place in an attempt to coerce unwilling Canadian citizens to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For many, these measures have cost them their jobs, the ability to travel by air or rail, and generally participate in everyday practices such as joining a sporting league or eating at a restaurant. To be unvaccinated in Canada is to be treated as a lesser-than citizen. The Freedom Convoy seems to initially have been specifically a protest against forcing truckers to be vaccinated in order to keep their jobs, but the movement has gained more widespread meaning since then.
The convoy has attracted some, shall we say, questionable supporters. This has caused some people who moderately support it to back away for fear of being associated with racists or anarchists or other troublesome groups. I also don’t really wish to be associated with such values, since they do not reflect my own. So, why participate then?
The answer has to do with my recent study of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers sought to push back against the corrupt rulership of the Catholic church and bring about reform. They wanted to purge the Church in such a way as to make it pure again, free from the many issues it was maligned with at the time. This was indeed a noble task. The problem was that this movement, godly and well-intentioned, also gathered the interest of the less godly and well-intentioned.
In his excellent book The Unquenchable Flame, author Michael Reeves recounts:
“Something both Luther and Zwingli faced was the presence of radicals. In both Wittenberg and Zurich there were those who thought that the Reformation was going too slowly, or not far enough.”
He details many of the challenges radicals presented. They often were violent, operating in uncontrolled mobs, drunk and disruptive. One radical, Thomas Muntzer, managed to rally ordinary citizens into battle with the army, where they were easily defeated, killed, and disbanded. Reeves discusses the outcome of this event:
“With [Muntzer] died much good will towards the Reformation. Many rulers, unable to distinguish between Muntzer and Luther, now became implacably hardened towards the movement as a whole. If Reformation meant rebellion, they were determined to crush it. As for those rulers who were able to make the distinction, their anger and suspicion were just as equally focused on all forms of radicalism. It would no longer be tolerated.”
The Reformation was not a clean-cut, clearly-defined movement. Some, like Luther and Zwingli, had noble intentions. They wanted to do away with empty ritualism and instead call people to repent from the heart. Their reformation was not primarily focused on outward religious displays but on inward spiritual vitality. Unfortunately, some of those who claimed to follow them didn’t share this intent. They simply hated the power of the Roman Catholic Church, but could not care less for their own sinfulness. The leaders of the Reformation sought to quell these rebellions and distinguish themselves from it, but with limited success. The eyes of the rulers saw them as functionally the same.
Surprisingly, this did not slow the Reformers one bit. In fact, it drove them harder. You would think that they would withdraw from their attempts at reform, but they pressed on nonetheless. This is because they knew they could not control the actions of others, but they could clearly articulate their own. And that they did! The Reformers were some of the most prolific writers in history, producing volumes of work outlining their beliefs and intent. That others twisted them for their own sinful purposes was not something they could ever hope to control.
I think it is much the same with any large-scale movement, including the Freedom Convoy. As I see it, many of the supporters of the movement are pushing back against legitimate government tyranny—a noble thing, in my regard. Yet the movement has also attracted those who simply hate the government, hate authority, and want to rebel in general. I don’t believe that reflects the majority, and it certainly does not reflect myself.
Over the last two years, I have written in blog posts and shared in podcasts my concern with the Canadian government. I have used legal means, such as writing to government representatives, to express my hopes that they will use their positions of influence to effect change. I have prayed for my country and for our leaders, and will continue to do so. In other words, like the Reformers, I have done what I can. In the Freedom Convoy, I see potentially the largest voice to date that expresses some degree of the concerns I share, although not without disagreement. I’m not a fan of flying the flag upside-down. I’m not a fan of the F*** Trudeau signs. But I am a fan of upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and granting each right in full to every Canadian citizen. That I can get behind.
In short, it is impossible to associate yourself with anything, ever, without some cost. Even calling myself a Christian, which I proudly do, conjures up some negative associations in the minds of people, associations I myself would rather distance myself from. So what should I do? Stop calling myself a Christian? No. Rather, I will call myself a believer and continually clarify what that means each chance I get. It also means I will do my best to extend that courtesy towards others, and not automatically assume the worst about them because of their associations.
As a random face is in a sea of people, there is little I can do to clarify my own thoughts and intentions amidst the crowd last night. I did find one opportunity, however. Part of the convoy included a motor home, the owners of which were encouraging people to sign as they traveled across the country. I found in this a tiny sliver of a chance to state my intentions, and quickly wrote these words:
I greatly value political freedom. I think it is a good gift worth preserving, and I believe that it is consistent with my Christian worldview. But what I value even more is personal freedom, the kind of freedom from sin and death and shame that only Christ can provide. My ultimate allegiance is, and always will be, to that cause. Many of the people I stood with don’t understand that. They need to. I wish for them to. And so after giving up a few hours of my night in the cold I go back to what I really want to commit my life to: the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the community of Sault Ste Marie, a people who need freedom in more ways than they realize.
Jordan Peterson is in the news again, first for his scathing criticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in higher education—which caused him to recently resign from the University of Toronto—and shortly thereafter for his hours-long interview on the famous/infamous Joe Rogan podcast. Peterson has been a popular figure for several years now with millions of followers on social media, two best-selling books, and appearances on various well-known news outlets.
Interestingly, Jordan Peterson has gained a lot of popularity among evangelical Christians. I say “interestingly” because he doesn’t exactly fit the bill for your typical evangelical superstar. He is (or was), after all, a secular professor of psychology. Most non-Christian psychology professors don’t have very many positive things to say about Christianity, if any at all. So, what gives?
Peterson is not your average psychologist. One thing that sets him apart, and I believe is a major reason for the support from evangelicals, is that Peterson has a very high respect for the Bible, Judeo-Christian values, and belief in God. He has repeatedly noted that belief in God is necessary for a healthy society to function. He rightly recognizes that many of the blessings of Western society spring from its roots in Christianity. And, as the video below demonstrates, he recognizes that the Bible is true and the foundation for human order.
This is all, naturally, music to the ears of Bible-believing Christians. We hold to these beliefs as well, and it is nice to have them affirmed, rather than mocked, by such a famous public figure.
I would like, however, to add a word of caution to the Christian who is a fan of Peterson’s work. It is important to remember that we are called to be discerning people. Because of Peterson’s high regard for the Bible, it can be easy to assume that all of his ideas come from the pages of Scripture. As someone who has listened to and read a decent sampling of his work, I can assure you this is not the case. Peterson gets a lot of things right about the Bible, the nature of truth, human nature, societal dynamics, and the value of religion. He also gets a lot wrong, at least if you are assessing his ideas against the backdrop of Scripture. When I hear him speak about things related to the Bible or God or Christianity, I regularly say to myself, “That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s right, that’s wrong”. It is clear to me that he has a significant amount of understanding in reference to the Bible, but that understanding is often filtered through the lens of his psychology background.
Case in point. I read his book 12 Rules for Life and thought there was some good material in it. Much of the book I would describe as a non-fluffy self-help book. It was not your ordinary self-help book, but contained a lot more meat to it. I enjoyed that. I also recognized right away that the book is, when considered from a Christian frame of reference, something akin to moral legalism. Certainly many of his suggestions, or “rules”, you can find similar parallels for in the book of Proverbs or other portions of Scripture. But what Peterson misses is that the moral commands of God’s Word are grounded in a change of heart that is wrought by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I do not think he really grasps the concept of being changed by grace, which is a foundational concept in Christianity. This is someone, after all, who has a high respect for Jesus Christ but has yet to fully submit to him as Saviour, Lord, and God in the flesh. Without that starting point, how can someone really say they understand the Christian faith?
Peterson’s famous line to “clean your room” has a lot of common sense to it. But it also springs from a moralistic framework of life, not the grace-based framework of Christianity. Recall Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he chastises them for mixing human moral efforts with the changing power of God in the life of the believer.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)
The Galatian believers rightly believed that salvation was by grace—a work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But then they wrongly fell into believing that afterwards their spiritual life was lived by human effort. Paul calls them “foolish” for living this way. God not only begins his work in us by faith, he continues it by faith. He saved us by the Spirit, and he sanctifies us by the Spirit. Trying to improve your life human effort is antithetical to the Christian worldview, yet it is exactly the thing that Jordan Peterson often promotes.
This is why I say we need to be discerning. I think you can learn some helpful things from Peterson or any number of secular thinkers. But we must always filter truth claims through the lens of Scripture. Some things will pass the test. Many will not. We must be careful to reject the ideas of the world that are contrary to God’s Word.
Believer, who has bewitched you? For some people the answer might be “Jordan Peterson”. For one reason or another, you fell into the trap of following an impressive intellect without first relying on God’s Word as the arbiter of truth. I would caution Christians who listen to Jordan Peterson, or anyone else for that matter, to keep their ears tuned and their discernment turned on.
And, of course, remember to pray for Jordan Peterson. God seems to be greatly at work in his life, and he has tip-toed close to the line of conversion it seems, but isn’t quite there yet. Pray for God to open his eyes to the truth so that he might be saved.
There are really only two ways to see the world. Either the world and all that is in it has been created by God and therefore is under his sovereign power and authority, or there is no God and therefore all that is in the world is exists merely by cosmic chance and has no particular meaning or function at all. In the second scenario, a Godless world, the position of Ultimate Authority is up for grabs. If God does not already possess that role, then by necessity someone else will. In a world that rejects God, who calls the shots?
The answer to that question is not hypothetical. History has repeatedly shown us, including much of recent history—and by “recent history” I mean the last 22 months or so. When the authority of God is not acknowledged, the authority of man attempts to fill those shoes. A humanity apart from God is akin to a pack of dogs fighting over a piece of meat. The biggest dog gets the meat, and likewise the most powerful leaders get the throne. Put simply, a government that refuses to acknowledge the God above by necessity has a God-complex. Godless political theories have existed for thousands of years, and they exist to this very day.
The founders of both Canada and the United States understood this. They knew that a secular government inevitably drifts toward a God-complex. If there is no God, then the State itself becomes the functioning god.
Consider an illustration. The opening preamble to the Canadian Bill of Rights states:
“The Parliament of Canada, affirming that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions;
Affirming also that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law;
And being desirous of enshrining these principles and the human rights and fundamental freedoms derived from them, in a Bill of Rights which shall reflect the respect of Parliament for its constitutional authority and which shall ensure the protection of these rights and freedoms in Canada:“
In other words, the founding of Canadian rights were based on the “spiritual values” of the “supremacy of God”, and such rights are “derived” from these realities. Therefore, these rights and freedoms require “protection” by Parliament. Notice that our rights are protected by the government, not created by it. Our rights, so says our own Constitution, come from God and according spiritual truths. This is precisely correct. If the supremacy and authority of God is not acknowledged, human rights have no transcendent grounding. They are simply made-up by governing authorities and, therefore, can be un-made-up just as readily. After all, who is to stop them?
The American Declaration of Independence is even more clear and explicit in this regard:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Again, notice that rights come from God and are to be protected by the government. They have their origin in the Creator, not in the opinion of any governing body.
What then would happen, say, if a country were to largely reject the notion of a Creator? Since these documents correctly ground the existence of human rights in God, a rejection of God would result in human rights without grounding. At best, a government could attempt to keep those rights alive without acknowledging where they come from. But that is pretty shaky ground, no?
If God is not the Ultimate Authority, then the State will be. In fact, many political philosophies not only recognize this but actively desire it. A few hundred years ago, G.H.F. Hegel famously wrote “The state is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” Authoritarians who reject the authority of God by default make a god of the State. The State becomes the highest authority in the land, taking over the responsibilities that belong to God alone.
In his collection of writings The Prison Notebooks, Marxist Antonio Gramsci says, “Socialism is precisely the religion that must kill Christianity. [It is a] religion in the sense that it too is a faith … [and] because it has substituted for the consciousness of the transcendental God of the Catholics, trust in man and his best strengths as the sole spiritual reality.” Put differently, Gramsci and others like him are intentionally trying to replace faith in God with faith in the power of man, which results in a God-like political State. They see faith in God and an authoritarian State as competing opposites.
So what we have at work here are two forces colliding together. On the one hand, you have power-hungry leaders and politicians who have a God-complex and believe they are the chosen ones to dictate social life that will lead to utopia. If only their policies are in place, everything would be great. On the other end, you have a population that no longer trusts in God to take care of their needs, and therefore believe it is up to man to solve all of our own problems. These two desires—the State’s desire to be a god, and the people’s desire to be saved by a god—collide to create a government with a God-complex. The people are seeking a powerful force to help them, and the leaders are more than pleased to take on that role.
This is why many people seem not only to lack fear for an authoritarian State, but actively cheer it on. They are cheering for their god. The State, in their minds, is a Saviour. The all-powerful State will enact justice, right all wrongdoing, teach, correct, discipline, and generally solve all of the problems that plague mankind, ultimately ushering in some sort of a utopia where we all run through the hills singing the Sound of Music. And Godless, power-hungry leaders are more than happy to take those reigns from the public and run with them.
Canadians, behold your country. Canada is not a God-fearing country, and hasn’t been for a long time. Not only has our Godlessness given birth to secular humanism, that baby is all grown up now and strong enough to wreak some real havoc. A government with a God-complex is a dangerous thing. When leaders feel like they are at the top of the power rung, and not under the authority of a God to whom they must give an account, massive amounts of power combine with an ego-driven sinful nature to make one potent cocktail.
None of this should be surprising, of course. The Bible does say, after all, that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). God never promised that governments would humbly submit to him, or that politicians would flee from idolatry. No, I’m not wringing my hands in angst over these things, and neither should you. Not ultimately, anyways.
Our ultimate hope is in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Our hope is in the King of kings and Lord of lords, even if our earthly kings and lords don’t realize they have an authority over them. We place our truth in the sovereign God of the universe who is in control of all things, and works them out according to his good pleasure.
But we can do two things simultaneously, can we not? We can put our ultimate hope in God and we can seek revival in the here and now. We can pray for our leaders. We can vote for those who will uphold righteousness. We can aim to sway public policy, educate our children in the way of the Lord, build strong Bible-teaching churches, and share the gospel of Christ with anyone who will hear it. Yes, we can and should do these things as well.
The moment we are living in is significant. Canada needs God, and the more we reject him, the more we will empower the State who refuses to acknowledge him. A State that rejects God as the highest source of truth and righteousness is ripe for human misery. Let our prayers echo what Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come”.
- Human authority is not bad in and of itself
- God has ultimate authority
- He has delegated some authority to human governments
- Human governments serve God and people by enforcing a righteous moral law
- Christians should generally be submissive and obey human governments
The word “generally” in that last point is the kicker. Although Scripture calls on believers to submit to human government (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17), the very same Bible also lays out many cases where God’s people were disobedient to human government and commended by God for doing so. Are these principles in contradiction?
Certainly not. This is because human government carries limited authority. Their authority is not absolute. The only absolute authority in the universe belongs to God. The government is not God and is subject to him. Thus, when we see cases of civil disobedience in Scripture, what we find are instances where obedience to the government and obedience to God conflict. These are situations where obedience to God must take precedence.
To some extent, even secular people recognize that human laws are sometimes unjust. Simply because a law exists does not mean the law is morally right. Virtually all people recognize that there is a transcendent moral law that exists above and beyond earthly laws. We can look at a government edict and say “that’s wrong”, and when we do, we are appealing to some standard of right and wrong which is supreme over human opinion. Secular people have nothing in their worldview to support this action other than personal preferences. Those who believe in the existence of God ground their judgment in the transcendent nature of a supreme law-giver.
Because human government is comprised of sinful man, it is bound to get things wrong. If man were perfect, then the law would be perfect. If only it were so! But since moral perfection belongs to God alone, we must judge human government according to the standards of God. God’s standards are revealed in his law, expressed in the Bible. Jesus himself prays to the Father and says “your word is truth” (John 17:17). 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us the Bible is “the word of truth”. This is consistent with the Christian worldview and virtually all Christians would affirm this reality.
Since Romans 13:1-7 tells us that God has given the government authority on earth to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer”, the government must first assert what is considered morally right or wrong. Western nations were largely founded under the influence of Christianity, and thus their original law was loosely based on the ten commandments, as well as the general thrust of Scripture. Even though nations like Canada and the United States explicitly refer to some of these concepts in their founding documents, the government has strayed a long ways away from this moral foundation. The secularization of culture has led to a secularization of government (or maybe the other way around?). As such, laws of the land are increasingly based on personal preference, ideology, ungodly moralistic thinking, popular opinion, and human philosophy.
The result is that some government laws will end up reflecting ungodly morality. When this happens, the government betrays their God-given role of punishing wrongdoers and instead uses their sword to punish those who do right. Again, I speak here of right and wrong according to biblical morality. What should a Christian do when the government inevitably falls into this trap?
The prophet Isaiah spoke of such things. In Isaiah 5:20 he says “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Likewise, in 10:1 he says “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees”. There is nothing new under the sun. History is rife with governments gone awry through mixing up good and evil and overreaching on their authority. Therefore it should not surprise us that Scripture has quite a bit to say about this issue.
An Important Distinction
It is imperative that we do not call everything that the government does wrong “tyrannical” or “immoral”. Sometimes government errors do not constitute wickedness but rather ineptitude or inconvenience.
Consider the command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). Historians have noted that this verse refers to the practice of Roman soldiers forcing civilians to serve as a guide (helping them navigate an unfamiliar area) or a porter (carrying supplies on their behalf). Evidently, this law could be applied arbitrarily for a distance up to one Roman mile (something like 1,000 paces). We see a biblical instance of this law in action when Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross of Christ to the place of crucifixion (Matthew 27:32).
An objective look at this law would raise some reasonable questions. Is it fair for Roman soldiers to interfere in civilian life in such a manner? Since this was not an act of punishment for lawbreakers, isn’t it a rather trivial law? Isn’t the application of this law far too discretionary? Is it right to inconvenience a law-abiding citizen who might have other worthy tasks to attend to?
Jesus, no doubt, would have been familiar with these complaints. And yet his command to his followers is not only to obey this law, but voluntarily go over and above. The modern phrase “go the extra mile” comes directly from Jesus’s admonition to serve a commanding solider for twice what is expected of you—literally to go the extra mile.
This tells us that Jesus does see a distinction between tyranny and triviality, between injustice and inconvenience. We should be very slow to resist a law simply because we don’t like it. Disagreeing with a government law is not the same as it being immoral or worthy of disobedience. Such distinctions must be made carefully. The general thrust of Scripture is that believers are to be obedient to the law and even be those who go above and beyond in order to serve others. This should be our overall demeanour even if some laws don’t align with our personal preferences.
Some laws, however, go beyond a difference of opinion to the point of being immoral or unjust. I have heard Christians describe our response to such instances this way: “We have a duty to disobey when commanded to do something God forbids or forbidden from doing something God commands.” The apostles of the New Testament put it this way: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If obedience to the law causes us to sin against God, obedience to God’s law trumps obedience to human law. In those cases, civil disobedience is our moral duty.
Possible Responses to Government Tyranny
What might resistance to unjust laws look like? The Bible gives us many examples. Although there is no detailed procedure laid out in Scripture, I have listed these out in the order that makes the most sense to me.
Don’t skip reading this one. Our first and most important response is to call upon God for help. Sometimes Christians think “yeah yeah, I already know that one. Give me something practical to do!” Prayer is practical. Prayer is powerful. The Bible tells us specifically to pray for leaders and those in authority over us. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 tells us “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Believers should be in prayer for their government leaders every day. It is God, after all, who can change the human heart. Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” God changed the heart of other human authorities in the past (Daniel 4). He can certainly do it again!
Prayer also helps us to gain necessary wisdom and courage. We need wisdom to discern between our personal disdain for a law and it being unjust according to God’s standards of righteousness. We also need wisdom to know the proper way to respond to unjust laws. And lastly, we need courage to take a stand when the situation demands it.
Unjust rulers can be removed from power using the legal means of voting. Though the modern democratic form of voting is not known in Scriptural times, a somewhat similar procedure is used in Deuteronomy 1:9-15 where leaders are chosen from among the people to lead the people. Unjust laws can be reversed by changing those in power over the law-making process. Though the Bible does not command believers to vote (and thus abstaining is not a sin), it does seem generally like a wise thing to do. Christians should prayerfully consider which candidates would best uphold a righteous rule of law and then support them through voting.
Access to policy-makers is not always as direct as one would hope, but often there are means to communicate directly with those in authority. For instance, during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote to the Ontario Premiers office through their official website, as well as to the regional health unit using the contact information on their website. Since these offices held direct influence over varying public health mandates, and there was a line of communication available to me, I wanted to share with them any concerns I had over their approach.
This type of action is modelled in Scripture by Moses who directly appeals to Pharaoh to release the enslaved people of God (Exodus 5:1). The persecution of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s rule was in contradiction to the will of God, and the first step to correcting this wrong was the commissioning of Moses to go directly to the man in charge. The rest of the story, we know, involves God’s personal intervention to free his people. But we should not overlook the human method used by Moses which involved a direct appeal to an unjust ruler to change their mind.
Appeal to Lesser Magistrates
Since human government has various levels of power, unjust or immoral laws can come from a variety of levels of authority. When such a law comes from a high level of power, lower levels of government (aka “lesser magistrates”) have the opportunity to resist it. They would take this action because, by enforcing an immoral law, they too would become complicit in immorality. It is the brave duty of lesser magistrates to stand up for the people under their care and resist unjust authority that comes from above them.
Again, examples of this could be seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Ontario officials gave the go ahead to police to stop vehicles at random and question civilians as to why they were not home, police forces across the country refused to enforce the edict. As a result, the edict was rescinded. Many examples of this kind of resistance from lesser magistrates could be given. It is perfectly acceptable for citizens to appeal to lesser magistrates regarding unjust laws in the hopes that they will stand in the gap for them.
A Scriptural example of this procedure can be found in Daniel 1. After the Babylonians conquered Israel, some of the finest young men were chosen to serve in king’s palace. They were to be given a portion of the royal food by decree of the king. Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way” (1:8). The chief official initially hesitated to grant this request, but eventually made a compromise to do so. The lesser magistrate overrode the decree of the greater authority in order to protect the conscience of an individual. Similar actions can be taken in other scenarios as well.
Virtually all legal systems contain forms of checks and balances. One form of legal appeal is through the court of law. A law may be challenged in court through a filed suit, following the legal process outlined. For example, when Grace Community Church continued in-person services in contravention of California lowdown mandates, the case went to the courts. The church eventually won a lawsuit against the State of California and were awarded an $800,000 settlement to cover their legal fees. Such an appeal is an example of the kind of legal options that are available in the case of unjust laws.
The apostle Paul on at least one occasion used legal means to appeal unjust actions against him. In Acts 22:22-30, Paul appealed to his legal rights as a Roman citizen to escape being flogged and earn a hearing before the Sanhedrin. The series of events cover several chapters, where Paul’s case goes up the chain of command to Felix, then Festus, and eventually to king Agrippa (chapters 22-26). This entire process was following the legal procedures available to Paul under his rights of Roman citizenship.
Legal options are available to those who believe their rights are being trampled on by others, including by the government itself. Believers should not shy away of making use of these rights just as the apostle Paul didn’t shy away from using his. This does not make someone a contentious person or one who is not submitting to government. Rather, using the legal process available is a form of submission to the government even if it ends up challenging their own authority. It is a “legal appeal” after all. While Christians should not be challenging each other in court (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), they are free to challenge ungodly authority in court the way Paul modelled.
By “prophetic confrontation” I have in mind a direct moral challenge to the actions of a tyrant. This is similar to the “direct appeal” method although I do see one distinction. The direct appeal intends to challenge a ruler over a specific law they oversee, whie the prophetic confrontation method challenges the personal actions of a ruler.
Consider a few Scriptural examples. In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts king David for his actions of adultery and murder. It is not exactly a national decree that is being challenged; rather it is the ungodly conduct of the king himself. Because of that confrontation, David repented for his sin. In a similar fashion, John the baptist confronted king Herod for his adultery, as Herod was sleeping with his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18). The outcome in this instance is quite different. Though Herod believed John to be a holy man and therefore feared to hurt him, he was eventually tricked into having John beheaded.
I believe these examples permit God’s people to confront and challenge immoral conduct from governing authorities. In some instances, immoral conduct warrants action against a leader, through methods like impeachment or recall. At the very least, it certainly demonstrates that while those in authority are worthy of respect and honour, they are not above criticism. Both private and public criticism are valid means of challenging ungodly leadership when such criticism is warranted.
When obedience to human authority leads one to disobey God, defying human authority is a moral duty. Our ultimate allegiance is to God and not the state. The above paragraphs reveal that dissenters have many options on the table when it comes to dealing with unjust rulers and laws. When all else fails, defying an unjust law is necessary.
We celebrate some modern-day heroes for this very reason. We champion the likes of Martin Luther King Junior, Rosa Parks, and Corrie Ten Boom for refusing to do what they were told. They understood that just because something is law does not make it moral. Right and wrong are determined by God.
Scripture has many examples of godly men and women defying ungodly human leadership. In Exodus 1:15-22, Pharaoh demands that the Hebrew midwives kill every baby born to the Israelites that is male. The midwives however “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” They feared God enough to disobey an immoral command.
In Daniel 3, king Nebuchadnezzar builds a giant golden statue in his likeness and demands that everyone in the region bow down and worship it. Those who do not will be burned alive in a fiery furnace. Recognizing it as wicked idolatry, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse. They say “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (v 17-18). They were right to disobey.
Later in Daniel chapter 6, Darius the king sends out an edict that all in his kingdom are to pray only to him. Again, realizing this as gross idolatry, Daniel refuses. He continues to pray to God as he had previously done. As punishment, Daniel is thrown into the lions den.
In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John are questioned by the Sanhedrin for their public preaching about Christ. When they are charged to stop doing this, they refuse. “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'” (v 18-20).
Just one chapter later, they are again arrested and questioned by the Sanhedrin with a very similar outcome. They are reminded that they had been charged to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Once again the apostles refuse to comply, stating “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
These biblical examples, among others, verify that there are times and places to defy governing authorities. Again, if following human law causes you to sin against God, we have no other choice but to engage in civil disobedience. Christian history is rich with examples of God’s people standing up to tyranny when the need arises, often at risk of great persecution or death. Even now, believers all over the world continue to study God’s word and sing his praises in defiance of governing laws. They are right to do so and should be commended by other believers for it. Indeed God does and will commend them.
One final option for the believer is to flee tyranny. Sometimes this is the best option. This was, after all, the way the life of young Jesus was spared from certain death. In Matthew 2:13-15, Herod became jealous that magi had come from the East to worship the Christ. In an effort to protect his throne, he decreed that all boys aged 2 and under be put to death in the region of Bethlehem. Having been warned by God of this plot in a dream, Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus secretly fled to Egypt.
Early in the life of the Church, persecution arose against believers. The religious leaders in Jerusalem had Stephen stoned to death in the public square. Acts 8:1 tells us “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” As you can see, most of God’s people fled for their lives.
Another example comes to mind. Acts 9:23-25 records the apostle Paul (formerly Saul) fleeing a plot on his life: “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.”
Jesus also spoke of a time when Christians will need to flee intense persecution (Luke 21:21, Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:16). The book of James is written “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). Likewise, the epistle of 1 Peter is written “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1:1). Although we are not commanded to flee any and all persecution (indeed that would be both impossible and undesirable), it is a valid option on the table.
Historically, countries like the United States and Canada have been places of refuge for those fleeing government tyranny. Increasingly it seems that even those within the US and Canada are seeking refuge in specific states or provinces that maximize personal freedoms. There is nothing inherently wrong with relocation to a district that is governed more justly than another, so long as it is done prayerfully and in good conscience.
The government’s role is to apply God’s standards of righteousness to the law of a given region. They are given the sword by God to punish wrongdoers. Sometimes the government will abuse its power and use the sword to punish those who do right and reward those who do wrong. When such a situation arises, the Bible reveals that Christians have a variety of tools at their disposal to respond to a corrupt government. These options must be weighed carefully and be driven by prayer, devotion to God, and love for neighbour. Ultimately we know that God is in control and his own purposes will prevail.
I would remind you of the verses from Isaiah quoted earlier in this article. Isaiah cries “woe” to those who mislabel good for evil and evil for good. He cries “woe” to the one who is “unjust” and issues “oppressive decrees”. It is a biblical way of warning “heads up!” to those who do such things. God is watching. If the biblical story shows us anything, it is that God judges nations that defy him. In God’s own ways and in God’s own time, he thwarts the plans of man and brings to nothing the nations that reject him. Nevertheless, there is hope for those who repent and call out to God for deliverance.
2 Chronicles 7:14 If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.