The Christian and the State
The historical parts of Daniel are as prophetic as the rest of the book. They are a revelation of principles that will operate throughout the times of the Gentiles, typical events the like of which will be ever recurring. Chapter 1 shows the type of man God will use in such a day. Chapter 3 reveals the attitude of Gentile rulers to religion and the duty of the godly in relation to these rulers. For the people of God this has always been a truly serious subject, and it has suddenly become so again in modern Europe. The right to freedom of conscience and expression is being challenged, and in several countries the battle is becoming ever more overt.
In chapter 2 the Gentile world empire had been portrayed before Nebuchadnezzar by a great image. It may be presumed that this was still in his mind when the king made his own great image in chapter 3. He had created an empire such as never had been, and he would have all men own and honour it, and the image was his representation of it. The state was to be all: its needs paramount, its demands imperative, its commands absolute law.
The golden image was to be worshipped. Nothing less than divine honour was to be rendered to it, and such honour was to be rendered to none other. Great statesmen like Nebuchadnezzar have always been too astute to ignore the instinctive religious element of human nature. Man must render homage to something outside of himself, but an impersonal thing like the state will not stir the enthusiasm of the human heart for long. It will lose its fascination unless it becomes embodied in a person who can be revered or feared. Thus the Babylonian empire, as set forth in the golden image, was the expansion of its founder. To honour it was to honour him, and by requiring all men to worship the image he ensured that they should honour himself, the Empire’s creator, genius, and inspiration. Consequently, religion is an affair of the state and its outward forms are to be regulated by law. There is to be only one religion for the “peoples, nations, and languages” (Dan. 3: 4), and so when “all the peoples heard . . . all the peoples, the nations, and the languages fell down [and] worshipped” (v7). So it shall also be at the end of the age: “the whole earth wondered after the beast … as many as should not do homage to the image of the beast should be killed” (Rev. 13: 3, 15). In particular, all officials must conform to state worship: “the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the justices, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image” (Dan. 3: 3). Government service, and especially official position, is more dangerous for the children of God than private employment. Public employees are the first to be required to bind their conscience and actions by the oath of allegiance and obedience. Thus is precipitated an inescapable and irreconcilable conflict.
The NT lays upon the child of God no duty to the state. Where is the verse that tells the Roman Christian that he owed a duty to the Roman Empire? The instructions given in the NT are that we should obey whatever king or governors we are under, the reason being that they are appointed by God for the purposes of repressing crime and supporting good (see Rom. 13: 1–7; 1 Pet. 2: 13–17). For this beneficial work rulers of all ranks have divine authority, but for their state schemes and measures they can plead no warrant from God, and the precepts commanding obedience to them cease to apply. It has been the perpetual habit of rulers to extend their actions into matters for which God has not given them authority, the attempt at redefining marriage being one recent example. By this means, state aims and policies arise—for powerful personalities use the idea of the state to further the grand ends for which they were not appointed by God and for which they hold no divine warrant. There is therefore a vital distinction between the ruler and the state. The one is a person owned by God for a needful and definite work, the other is a conception and creation of man for purposes of his own. The Lord did not say, ‘Pay then what is the state’s to the state’, but “Pay then what is Caesar’s to Caesar” (Matt. 22: 21). He obeyed all the laws in force in His land and taught others to do so (see Matt. 8: 4; 23: 2, 3), but in the affairs of the Jewish state He took no part, and indeed refused to do so. His people were then suffering under the heel of the Roman Empire, and only waited an opportunity to free themselves. Yet the Lord Jesus refused to allow Himself to be made the leader of the national hopes (see John 6: 14, 15). How could He have done so without trespassing upon the overruling of affairs by God His Father, who had permitted the Romans to gain dominion over Israel as foretold in Deut. 28: 49. Caesar, and Pilate his representative, had been given their power “from above” (John 19: 11), for “there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13: 1), and therefore the Son of God would not resist them, not even when, as in this case, the power was misused.
It also ought to be noted that it was not God’s wish or plan that his earthly people should be in such relations to world empires as those in which Daniel, Mordecai, and others found themselves. It was purely a result of Israel’s sin and as captive slaves that they so served. Being where they were through no fault of their own, God used Daniel and others like him for gracious purposes, but they would have been out of His will had they sought such positions of their own volition. Nor is it the mind of God that His heavenly people should fill such positions in world affairs today. God’s day for Israel and the Church to share in the government of the nations is yet future, when Christ returns and takes over the government. In the meantime we are to submit cheerfully to the present authorities, willingly going two miles when the law demands only one (see Matt. 5: 41). The limit of obedience is if rulers require what God does not permit or trespass into realms not sanctioned by God. What had Shadrach and his companions to do with the king’s herald or his commission to secure obedience to the royal decree as to worship? They simply ignored him and his proclamation, acting as if he had not published the king's order. And what have we to do instructions from the state as to making the Assembly of God conform to the equality agenda? Nothing! When the issue is forced there is but one course open to the godly: passive, but uncompromising resistance. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer thee in this matter. If it be [so], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver [us] out of thy hand, O King. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image that thou hast set up” Dan. 3: 16–18).
In several countries today this is a real and pressing matter. Is the state supreme or is God? Praise God for all who are resolute upon this point. Jewish rulers pressed the apostles with the same sharp issue: “We strictly enjoined you not to teach in this name: and lo, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine” (Acts 4: 28). This prompted the same determined refusal: “God must be obeyed rather than men” (v29).
Behind all this bitter antagonism is the Prince of this world. For a time his agents may moderate the expression of their Master’s hatred to Christ, but the fire is there, and is ready to blaze at any moment. “Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury” (Dan. 3: 19). Formerly from his throne he had smiled graciously upon his three servants, but now the form of his visage was changed against them. God may grant to His Church a season of tranquillity as has occurred in recent times in Britain and America, but this is wholly exceptional, and we cannot count upon its continuance. We do well to arm ourselves with the mind of Christ (see 1 Pet. 4. 1), who came into the world knowing from the first that He must be lifted up (see John 3: 14; 12: 32), and that the path to glory lay through suffering. Let us not imagine that we shall escape tribulation in this world (see John 16: 33) for “to you has been given, as regards Christ, not only the believing on him but the suffering for him also” (Phil. 1: 29). Again, “Let none of you suffer indeed as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer . . . but if as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4: 15, 16). And even as Shadrach and his companions were promoted to higher dignity and office in the service of the king (see Dan. 3: 30), so “if indeed we suffer with [him] ... we shall also reign together” (Rom. 8: 17; 2 Tim. 2: 12).