The Application of the Biblical Law to Civil Government

Some general, perhaps random, thoughts on…

The Application of the Biblical Law to Civil Government 300px-Decalogue_jekuthiel_sofer_1768

  1. The Bible addresses the proper role of Civil Government in both the Old and new Testaments
  2. That Civil Government as a Divine Institution
    1. Is implied in the Dominion Mandate (Gen 1:26-28) when it established mankind as a regulatory institution that rules over “every living thing” including mankind.
    2. Is clearly defined as such in Romans 13 where rulers are called God’s ministers for good.
    3. Borders of civil jurisdiction fall within the scope of divine providential determination (Acts 17: 26-28).
    4. Civil jurisdictions will face divine judgment and will survive the present earth and exist in the New Heavens and New Earth.
      1. “It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in that day than for this city.”
      2. He shall call all the nations before him and shall “separate THEM,” the sheep from the goats.
      3. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the Nations.
      4. Among our eternal rewards will be the rule of cities and assemblages of cities, i.e. geographic regions.
  3. The OT establishes applicable principles and limits for civil government.
  4. As stated above, God will judge Civil Jurisdictions
    1. Cities
    2. Nations
  5.  Limits
    1. Cities of Refuge
      1. Civil government should provide for and place appropriate limits on acts of personal retribution.
    2. Eye for eye
      1. Civil government should place limits on the extent of punishment for specific offenses. The punishment should not exceed the magnitude of the crime.
        1. This is the meaning of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
    3. The most extreme punishments should be prohibited except in the case of clear and verifiable evidence
      1. In the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses shall every word be established.
      2. Degrees of provability are acceptable for determination of guilt but severity of punishment is limited by the degree of certainty of the evidence.
      3. Death Penalty limited by degree of certainty
  6. Concerning the death penalty, it was first given to Noah (Gen 9:6) for all mankind and only in the case of murder. According to the biblical passage, this was for the preservation of the dignity of human life and its significance and sanctity as creatures made in God’s image.  Apparently this is a punishment that is appropriate in all cultures IF properly applied.  The fact that other offences were not initially added but were added under the Mosaic covenant is an indication that these are not a necessity for mankind as a whole, though they might be considered in certain cultures and under certain circumstances but only as limitations, not as mandatory prescriptions and then, ONLY when rightly understood and applied and with great caution.
  7. God’s patterns of government serve as our patterns, showing where civil government’s proper functions and legitimate limits are.
  8. Specific application of biblical legal prescriptions and proscriptions.
    1. Human civil government shall not exceed the biblical design.
      1. What God authorized for civil government is right. In other wise, if God authorized a certain penalty a particular offense, then that offense may be regulated and the punishment inflicted upon the offender shall not, if applied, exceed the penalty biblically prescribed.
      2. There should never be any penalty that exceeds the magnitude of the crime.
      3. Death penalty may be permitted for certain offenses but we must endeavor to understand
        1. The nature of the offense actually being punished.
          1. For example, was the death penalty for homosexual acts merely a condemnation of the sexual behavior or was it a condemnation of the idolatry associated with the acts? And we must ask under what degree of evidence could this most extreme penalty be applied?
        2. The application of the principle of the law versus the application of the form of the law. Sometimes it is wise to adapt the principle being addressed into a more contemporary form or expression.
        3. The proper application of the specific restrictions and related punishments.
          1. With regard to whether what are perceived to be the extreme regulations of moral behavior should be applicable to us today there are several points to be considered.
          2. It is a common objection that biblical law should not be a guide to our concept of civil government because of such extreme punishments as the death penalty for homosexuality, adultery, etc. under Moses. This seems to be outrageous to our modern mind. It is a challenge to engage this topic because of the emotional dynamics on all sides but it may be helpful to consider these points:
            1. Some moral law should not be civilly implemented but should be left to the conscience of the individual as long as the behavior presents no harm to others or to society as a whole. This is a biblical principle by the way in that persons not born Jews could adopt the Jewish religion but on a strictly voluntary basis.  And, the Mosaic moral code, though it was a vast improvement over that of the surrounding cultures, it was only enforceable within Israel.
            2. Moral law, which is advisable to implement civilly, cannot be effectively implemented civilly without a social consensus.
        4. The application of the law as practiced by the Jews. For example, though death by stoning was authorized in scripture for disobedience to parents, it was never carried out in a single circumstance, but rather served as reminder of the severity of the offense and a warning of its deleterious effect on the culture.
        5. The biblical context of the regulation.
          1. Some laws and associated penalties were transitional in that they were a lessening of severity from what had previously been practiced.
          2. In some cases, what seem to be strictures on women, for example, are actually an elevation of women from what was previously practiced and was practiced at the time by surrounding cultures.
          3. Some biblical regulations are to be understood not as God’s ideal prescriptions, but as His regulation of man’s fallen condition in an imperfect world. For example, God “hates divorce.”  We can properly conclude therefore that he does not approve of it, yet, he divorced Israel and he regulates divorce, permitting it in certain circumstances in both Israel and the church.  Why does he permit and regulate divorce? Not because he approves of it, but because of the “hardness of your hearts,” Jesus said.
  9. A rejection of the present applicability of biblical law to present society because some portions are perceived to be extreme, does a great disservice in disconnecting society from the many redeeming aspects of biblical law when properly applied to culture. The following ideas are not just good ideas but ideas with divinely sanctioned:
    1. Representative constitutional government
    2. Separation of powers
    3. Limited civil powers
    4. Due process
    5. Equal Justice (the equality of all men before the law)
    6. Proper treatment of the disadvantaged
    7. Proper treatment of livestock
    8. Laws against bribes and prohibitions of financial gain resulting from holding a position of power
    9. Self determination
      1. Private property
      2. Whosoever will…
      3. The numerous scriptures on enjoyment of life
    10. Respect for the rights, liberties, and property of others
      1. Restrain your unruly ox
      2. Do not commit murder
      3. Do not harm your neighbor with a lie
      4. Do not steal
      5. Do not covet your neighbors’…
  10. These principles, applicable to just civil government, are drawn ALMOST ENTIRELY from the Old Testament.

What Would Jesus Say About Borders?

map-world 022A Facebook friend, troubled, I presume, by the ill treatment of those who are here in the U.S. without legal status, who have only come here to have a better life asked me this question, “What would Jesus say about borders?”

Here is my response.

“What would Jesus say about borders?” I suspect from other things that you have said that you wonder whether he might see borders as antithetical to the oneness of humanity and as an expression of selfishness and unloving isolationism and nationalistic arrogance.  In the present circumstances, I think that is a very reasonable question.   I believe that Jesus addresses all those issues in a variety of ways and that borders, rightly administered, are no hindrance to the righteousness that Jesus would call us to.  As a matter of fact, I believe that, particularly due to our present condition, borders are necessary to the fulfillment of God’s intention for mankind on the earth.

There are at least three main questions here.  What would Jesus say about the existence of borders at all?  What is the purpose of borders?  And, what would Jesus say about how we should conduct the business of borders?

As far as I know Jesus didn’t directly address the question of borders, but there are implications in his teachings that can guide us, and then there is the context of his life which points back to the Old Testament for his thought framework, which has quite a bit to say.  Additionally, there is the development of these ideas by his earliest followers, particularly his apostles.  I take all of this as information on what Jesus would think of borders.

Before beginning let me be clear, there is a huge distinction to be made between whether borders should exist and how the civil governments and people within those jurisdictions should conduct themselves with respect to those borders.  If, indeed they should exist, that does not mean that we yet understand their full and proper purpose, or that everything we do with respect to borders is right.

I would like to start at the end of the book, not with Jesus words per se but with a principle that I believe he certainly embraced.  Three times in the book of Revelation, reference is made to “every tribe and language and people and nation.”  In one scene (Rev 5:9) the redeemed are before the throne of God worshiping him for their salvation. There are those from every “tribe, language, people, and nation” expressing their gratefulness for the great deliverance they have received.  Then in the middle of the book (Rev 13:7) the story is told of the earth falling under a malevolent influence that makes war on the redeemed and oppresses all the peoples of the earth of every “tribe, people, language, and nation.”  Finally, there is the story of the power of the good news that goes out to, again, “every nation, tribe, language, and people” (Rev 14:6).  It seems that, not only in this life are the distinctions acknowledged, they continue into eternity.  The idea here is this:  God has designed people groups to fill unique rolls in the family of man.  There are certain divine purposes fulfilled better by one culture than another.  This should make us all humble in dealing with other peoples and respectful of them as peoples in the providence of God.  Though, biblically speaking, the gospel has universal application, that does not mean that westernized Christianity is to be superimposed over all cultures.  This has been a mistake by a significant portion of western mission work over the last few hundred years.

We see from this that the purpose of mankind is not entirely uniform but is a composite made up of unique contributions from each people group. The very fact that nations are mentioned is an indication that borders are in play.  Territories are designated as the places where these divine expressions will emerge which will uniquely give honor to the Creator and Redeemer, bless the others, and contribute to the overall purpose of mankind.

This is stated more explicitly in the writings of Paul.  He said, in Act 17:24-28,  “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Here we see the oneness of humankind and its diversity.  This in itself is an expression of the very nature of the Creator who declares himself to be ONE (Deuteronomy 1:6), yet reveals that within himself there is diversity when he says to himself, “Let US make man in OUR image…” (Gen 1:26).

God has designed civil government to serve in the fulfillment of the first commandment to tend the earth which God has placed under man’s care (Romans 13:1-4; Genesis 1:26,27,28).  This involves a number of legitimate functions, some of which Jesus acknowledged directly, the most familiar being the payment of legitimate taxes in “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”  He also recognized limits on civil authority in the remainder of that statement “… but unto God the things that are God’s.”  There are limits on Cesar’s power and there are human responsibilities that no civil authority can usurp.

One of the limits of power has to do with the geography of its jurisdiction, its civil borders.  The existence of civil governments implies boundaries, otherwise there would be no way to determine where one government’s power ends and another’s begins.  By acknowledging the legitimacy of civil government, Jesus is acknowledging the proper determination of boundaries.

Since Jesus often referred to the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, as his authoritative guide to truth by saying “it is written”.  A quick glance of the four Gospels in the New Testament reveals 21 occurrences.  In addition to that, he often references the Old Testament narrative in various ways and appeals to the scriptures to establish his teachings and to answer his opponents who have created a whole new set of laws which he rejects.  So if Jesus continually refers to the scriptures without ever contradicting them, we can safely say that the opinion we find in the Old Testament is his opinion as well.  Not to mention the fact that, as the “word of God,” they are from him as the expression of his own mind who is the original and uncreated “Word of God” (John 1).

What does the Old Testament say about borders?  It says, “Do not illegally move a property boundary marker” (Proverbs 22:28).  This shows not only the legitimacy of establishing boundaries but to the importance of protecting private property.  Jesus also directly affirmed his belief in private property on many occasions.  I won’t burden you with a list here, but his acknowledgement of the 8th Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” should be sufficient for these purposes.

In addition, when God gave the land we now know as Israel to Abraham for him and his descendants, he laid out the borders.  Jesus would have believed this was a divine appointment and so would have acknowledged the legitimacy of borders.  In addition, within Israel, each of the Twelve Israeli tribes had their own designated territory.

We can find other references where Jesus specifically recognized boundaries of cities and territories.  Lines that determine the boundaries of the authority and responsibility of governmental entities are a necessity in order to determine whether a government is properly fulfilling its responsibilities or whether it is meddling inappropriately in the affairs of others.

In closing, I’ll go back to where we began, the last book in the Bible in the very last chapter.   The scripture speaks, in a number of places (Isaiah 65 and 66, as well as in I Peter 3), of a future where the Heavens and Earth will be remade and will be inhabited by the righteous, those who are righteous by virtue of their creation, the angels, and those who are righteous by virtue of redemption through Christ, redeemed humanity.  In that future perfected world, there will be nations.  I say this because, in Revelation 22 we read about a kind of tree that will be planted there whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.”  Then we will understand what fully healed nations are like and how they should relate to one another to the blessing of all.  I’m looking forward to that day.  There will be no border disputes but there will be borders, even if not physical ones.  There will be certain functions that some nations will fill that others will not.  Until that time comes, in this present fallen world, physical boundaries are needed.

L. H.

The Significance of Penticost

Since today is Pentecost Sunday as traditionally celebrated by the church, I’ve been considering its significance.  Initially a Jewish feast established under Moses, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost is reckoned by counting 50 days from the Feast of Firstfruits (7 weeks and a day).  According to Leviticus 23: 15, Pentecost (meaning fiftieth in Greek) occurs 50 days after Firstfruits on the day after the 7th Sabbath following.  That means Firstfruits always occurs on a Sabbath and Pentecost always falls on a Sunday. (When I google the Jewish feast dates, they vary each year and do not fall on Sunday. I haven’t figured that out yet because Leviticus seems pretty clear. “Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath…”)

God’s fingerprints are all over this in the numbers of days related to this event.  This strengthens the testimony of His satisfaction with the Firstfruits offering which was declared openly on Pentecost when He released the supply of fullness of the Spirit to the church.


  • Pentecost is seven weeks plus one day from Firstfruits:
    • Seven times seven (7 x 7 = 49), seven being the biblical number of completion or perfection, indicates God’s full satisfaction with the sacrifice that brought forth the initial harvest and the end of the Law as a means of establishing righteousness.  The resurrection of Jesus, who could not be held by the grave because death had no claim on him since he died not for his own sins but for the sins of others, occurred on the first day of the week, the day after the weekly Sabbath of Passover week.
    • Adding an additional day to the completion of the 7th week adds an 8thday.  Eight is the biblical number of new beginnings. For example:
      • Noah and his family were 8, saved by the flood from the corruption of the world, which gave the world a new beginning.
      • Jesus was raised on the first day of the week (the 8th day) which gives all who believe a new beginning.
  • The reckoning begins under the Law (Sabbath) and is fulfilled on the first day of the week, the 8th day/Sunday, under Grace.

According to Acts 2, in pouring out the Spirit on Pentecost, God declared the full satisfaction of the Law in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  He declared the establishment of His Kingdom and, by the release of the Spirit, established Christ-followers as true and effective witnesses of all He has done in redeeming us through the sacrifice, resurrection, and glorification of His Son.

Now let us fulfill Christ’s promise and calling in the power of the Spirit: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

(Leviticus 23:9-22, esp 15; Acts 1:8, Acts 2:8, 22-25,30-33, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23)


The Coming Flood


For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  (Habakkuk 2:14)


When will these days come?  Perhaps when the church is ready to steward the outpouring.  Just as the waters of Noah’s flood of devastation did not come until his boat was ready, this flood of renewal may not come until the church has prepared herself and the Kingdom of God to be ready to receive it.  Since the day of Pentecost, there have been many subsequent outpourings.  Some of them have had long and lasting influence and others have been gone almost as quickly as they came.  In part this seems to have depended upon the readiness of those on whom the Spirit fell.  In order to prepare for “the big one” we should earnestly seek to become that church of which the apostle spoke, the one that stands in “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Eph 4:13) and who makes known to the heavenly powers “the manifold wisdom of God.” (Eph 3:10).

Almost certainly we will need many lesser outpourings to prepare us for the greater one.  We will also need to change the way we see ourselves, the world around us, and of course, the one who made us and redeemed us.  Our current thought processes, our current level of devotion, our present approach to a life of faith, our approach to the world around us will not take us there.  We need a new way of thinking.  We must come to see Christ as Lord of All, not merely the religious realm.  We must see how His life and principles impact every aspect of life and we must learn to implement them in daily life.  We must learn to convey that truth to the world around us, not in a coercive way as rulers, but as servants.  We must both demonstrate and “teach all nations” the full breadth and scope of what it means to live in “all that he has taught us.” (Mat 28:18-20).

“ Repent (translated from the Greek metanoia: literally, to change the mind) therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out,  that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus,  whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things…” (Acts 3:19-21)



Maintaining Vision – A Necessity for Successful Transformation

“Where there is no vision, the people perish…” Proverbs 29:18

There is lack of cohesion in any society where there is no common vision to hold it on its course.

If we embrace the idea of incrementalism as normative, even essential as a mechanism of change, we must also be aware of its most significant weakness – the difficulty of maintaining direction toward an intended destination when the only visible change appears, by itself, to be insignificant.

It is easy to lose steam, easy to lose hope that the small changes will ever accumulate to the point of establishing a new way of thinking and acting in the culture.  If energy is not maintained, change will become less directional, more random, less productive or even destructive, and the individual will see himself as a small boat adrift on the ever fluctuating sea of public sentiment rather than as part of an armada on a grand voyage.

Those wishing to foster significant transformative change, or even  wishing in some cases to simply maintain a given state, must be ever mindful of the overarching purpose of their common vision and must work to nurture it and broaden its embrace within the culture.  This requires, as mentioned in an earlier article, the development of a significant level of consensus, and it requires a core of adherents committed to marshaling its best efforts toward promoting the cause.

This vision must of necessity be long-term.  Each participant must see his or her role as a significant part of something greater than himself or herself.  The people that are part of the movement must come to embrace the vision and the true significance of their respective parts at a level sufficient to maintain engagement, with a determination to see the mission through to the realization of the vision.  Some transformation requires a commitment of weeks, some of years, some of multiple generations. Continue reading “Maintaining Vision – A Necessity for Successful Transformation”