Tuesday, August 26, 2014
The Kings of the Earth Will Bring Their Glory
My Christian friends have more reasons for rejecting anarchism than, as my parents used to say, Carter has pills. We’re talking here about reasonable people, people trying to serve Jesus and their neighbors, conforming to their lives to biblical standards. One objection I heard from a friend awhile back was based on Revelation 21:23-25:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.
For those of you interested in churchspeak, this particular friend and I both consider ourselves theonomic postmillennialists: theonomic, meaning that we believe that the Old Testament is still binding in some sense and Christian discipleship involves conformity to it at some level, and postmillennial in that we believe that the church will successfully evangelize the world – make disciples of the nations – in some sense before Jesus returns. Where we differ, of course, is in our view of the role of the state in the process, and as a result we find ourselves using the same words with radically different definitions.
So how do I define the state? According to Romans 13:1-7, the state is the powers that be, ordained of God. It might be Stalin or Hitler, it might be [name a good one], but whoever it is, they are those whom God has given the power to do as they please with the lives and property of their subjects.
While my friend would probably word the definition more charitably, and he would definitely add that the powers that be will answer to God for how they use their power, he has said in as many words that even if he were to risk his life fighting foreign invaders, if he survived the war and the invaders won, he would accept the new regime as the powers that be, ordained of God. (Come to think of it, I guess I would too: I would consider the new boss as illegitimate as the old boss.) Ergo, I can’t get rid of the mental picture of my friend telling Hitler, “I disagree with what you do, but I’ll defend to the death your right to do it.”
Anyway, a while back he defended the legitimacy of the state by quoting the prophecy in Revelation 21. As postmillennial theonomists, we agree that at least one fulfillment of that prophecy is the church, the kingdom of God on earth. His quite reasonable question was how, if the state is illegitimate, will the kings of the earth bring their glory into the kingdom? No state means no kings, so the prophecy can only be fulfilled if there are kings, and thus states, and so the state is legitimate.
Dodge that one, Mr. Smartypants Quill Pig.
I’ll give my second rejoinder first. Note the context in which the kings bring their tribute: a city with no sun or moon. Why does the city have no need of sun or moon? The answer in the passage is that Jesus is the lamp that lights the city. Fine, but is this passage an answer to the question of how the inhabitants will be able keep from tripping on the sidewalk, or does it deal most importantly with some matter of the heart? If the latter, what does it mean?
When God made the world, he made “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (Gen 1:16). The word rule there is what kings and God do (1 Kgs 5:1, 9:19; 2 Kgs 20:13; 1 Chron 29:12). When Joseph tells his brothers that in his dream the sun and the moon bowed before him, his family understood that to mean that those humans in authority over him, his parents, would bow before him. (As it turns out, the “moon” never did, or did in the person of her sons.)
For there to be no sun or moon in the kingdom is quite plainly a claim that (for all intents and purposes anyway) there will be no human authority there: Jesus will be the authority in a way that at least eclipses human authority as we know it. This brings us back to Romans 12:2: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” How do you know it’s God and not the world, the flesh, or the devil that is changing the way you think?
The theonomist’s answer is Matthew 5:17-18: “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God's law will remain until its purpose is achieved.” If it’s in conformity to God’s law, it’s from God. If it’s not, it’s not.
So what about those kings? There is nothing in the passage that disparages them.
I don’t know, but I have a couple of guesses.
One is an extension of what we see when Christians make arrangements with hostile governments to serve the people at the bottom of those societies. When the government fails to provide needed services to its subjects but gives the church the opportunity to do so, it is surrendering its glory to – bringing its glory into – the church.
This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Two chapters earlier, we see that the “kings of the earth” are not on God’s side: “Then I saw the beast gathering the kings of the earth and their armies in order to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army” (Rev 19:9). A bit further back we see that “the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with [the mysterious Babylon], shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning” (Rev 18:9). Far from being God’s agents to enforce righteousness at gunpoint, the kings of the earth “prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the Lord and against his anointed one.” So it would appear that those who bring tribute in Revelation 21:24 are the rulers of societies still in rebellion against God.
(For an example of the opposite, the church surrendering its glory to the state, see here. Note what they call their eternal standard.)
An even better guess comes from the more important rejoinder I would make to my friend’s main question. In what I hope is true Jesus style, the rejoinder is a question: What use does Jesus have for the tribute of kings?
While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people putting their gifts into the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two pennies. "I assure you," he said, "this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has." (Luke 21:1-4)
Here Jesus is contrasting the honor given God by the rich, the “dollar amount” of whose tribute was much greater than that of the widow, but whose hearts did not honor God as much, precisely because they would have plenty left over when they were finished. These rich presumably worked hard for their money, either physically as farmers or smiths, or in long hours and hidden responsibilities as merchants. If God is more honored by the widow’s pennies than by the generosity of those who work hard for a living, how much less is he honored by the generosity of those whose living comes from extracting taxes? I suppose one can congratulate an archon for finding the top of the Laffer curve – having the tax rate high enough to get the maximum amount from his subjects but not so high that revenues don’t fall off because people stop working – but is Jesus more impressed by money that has been extorted, or by money given voluntarily? And how often will a king be like the widow and give “everything [he] has”?
Surprise, though – there are kings who get their money voluntarily. As close as I can come to an example is Sam Walton.
Let’s assume, since we don’t have the facts – remember, we’re illustrating principles here – that Sam built his first Wal-Mart stores on the same legal basis as his competitors, with no government assistance whatever, either at the retail end (i.e., sweetheart tax breaks) or at the production end (i.e., the government in Dirtpooristan looking the other way while he ran sweatshops that his competitors couldn’t buy from). Let’s further assume that he was able to enter the competitive suburban market because he served the rednecks and other people of modest means in Flyover Country better than his competitors and lived below his means for years so that he had the capital to invest in stores in populated areas, again on a level moral and legal playing field. Today Walmart is ubiquitous. Sam Walton (well, his heir) is the king of Walmart, and I pay him tribute whenever I trade him money for merchandise.
Now, if the king of Walmart were to bring his glory into the church, wouldn’t that be more glorious than, say, our current regime bringing in money it has taxed from us (or borrowed from China or created through inflation)? The king got where he is by serving his fellow humans and living below his means. He would be giving to the kingdom money he got in voluntary transactions, not what he extorted from those who could not say no. It is he, not the spiritual heirs of Hitler or [name a good one] who fulfills Jesus’ words here: "In this world the kings and great men order their people around, and yet they are called 'friends of the people.' But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant” (Luke 22:24-26).
Bottom line: the fulfillment of Revelation 21:23-25, like the fulfillment of the Old Testament law in general, includes the abolition of the state. It’s time to take our loyalty and as much time and money as we can away from the state and give it to the kingdom of God!