Life and Death Authority

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18 NIV)

I usually try not to lead my point with an Old Testament citation because so many arguments which rely on the Old Testament miss the clarity of focus on Christ given to us in the New Testament. But I believe the Old and New are reconciled in Christ and do not point to different things or rely on different principles; and in this case I think Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have a bit better presentation of the same point that Peter and company later made also:

The high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:27-32 ESV)

There is much in common between these two accounts. In both cases the people of God did not dispute the authority of their adversary. Nobody here claims a right to freedom of religion, free speech, freedom of assembly, or any other right we are taught today that we possess by divine mandate. Neither is there any record for us of threats of God’s punishment in retaliation for anything done to the believers. Anyone can infer that a god will defend or repay his followers, so there is an implicit threat, but the kinds of imprecations we expect from a threatened believer do not appear in the record. Although in neither case do the defendants challenge the authority of their adversary, nor even dispute their own liability for punishment if they continue, still in both cases they insist that obedience to God trumps any other authority.

These two points are equally important. We take it for granted that obedience to God (or really, in our thinking, to conscience) trumps any other authority. We forget or ignore that this does not escape us from the punishment or retaliation of those lesser authorities. “Conscientious objector” today suggests someone who departs from the expected course without direct penalty; in the context of either of these accounts that role could is synonymous with “convict.” We might say that nobody has the right to command us to disobey God, but it would be more accurate just to say that we are never right to disobey God. The consequences of obeying God and disobeying that other power are still real; we will most likely be thrown into the fire, and it is up to God how we come out of it.

Take note that Peter was beaten for his impudence after this fine moralizing speech. Not much later Peter’s friend Stephen was stoned to death with the tacit approval of the local authorities. This is the Peter who writes for us, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13-15 ESV). Some have tried to interpret this as a qualification, that only those authorities who punish evildoers and praise those who do good must be obeyed. But Peter and the apostles have personal experience with hostile authorities and speak of submitting to them, as far as obedience to God allows. Paul also says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:1-3 ESV). But he also admits that he himself used authority to persecute the innocent: “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10 ESV).

The perspective practiced by Peter and Paul is not one of inalienable rights but one of absolute authority, as Jesus himself said: “Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above'” (John 19:11 ESV). Jesus was subsequently put to death by the authorities. Our best information indicates nearly all of the apostles were as well. Around the same time, a revolutionary movement in Jerusalem exploded into open revolt. The political will for revolution was present around the apostles, and they suffered nearly every injustice known to man, but their default posture and recommendation remained submission to authority. Christians had died by the time Peter and Paul wrote their letters (Paul had a hand in killing some of them himself), but nevertheless their instruction remains “submit to those in authority.” Their confidence for this command was not the fair treatment of law-abiding citizens but the surety that true life belongs to the risen Christ, and the only harm Christ’s own can suffer is a temporary harm to a temporary body.

Neither the supreme power of the Babylonian empire nor the religious authorities in Jerusalem could compel God’s people to disobey. But their faithfulness was not a free pass out from under those authorities. Although Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not singed, they certainly realized as they stood before the king that they might be. Peter and his friends escaped with their lives but not without real bruises (and likely worse). Obedience to authority does not mean freedom from oppression in the Bible. God’s obedient and faithful servants suffer more economic, physical, and emotional hardship than they deserve.

This is the first post on a series about Authority. You can find the other parts here.