The Law of God contains punishments for those who rebel against God’s righteousness. But it also contains commands that require us to do good to our neighbor. And this concept is what the apostle Paul was referring to in Romans 11:22 (NASB)—Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. And if we also have the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of the Law hangs on two commands, Matthew 22:37-40—“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the Law and the prophets.” We are to love and fear God—that we may not sin against Him. We love our neighbor—that we might not do him wrong. And so we see what Paul meant by the kindness and severity of God—kindness to those who love Him; severity to those who rebel against Him. And today’s text deals more with the severity of God toward those who despise Him and His righteousness.
Exodus 22:20, 28; Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8—“20 He who sacrifices to any god, except to the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed…28 You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people…23:1 You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 2 You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice…6 You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute. 7 Keep yourself far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked. 8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.” We have three principles in these verses. First—the most obvious—we are to worship God and God alone. The second is that we are to respect those that God has placed in positions of authority. The third principle is that we are not to put ourselves in a position of giving false testimony and condemning an innocent person. And we see the second and third principles displayed in the gospels.
To start, let’s look at Exodus 22:20, 28—“20 He who sacrifices to any god, except to the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed…28 You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” The first command: simple. Do not sacrifice anything to any god but God. On the other hand, the second command says to not blaspheme God or curse, as it says a ruler of your people.
If you’ve ever heard the word ‘theocracy’, it simply means a form of government with God as its ruler. (Actually, when you get right down to it, the universe is a ‘theocracy’. It is ruled and governed by God. He simply lets men hold some of the lesser offices. Like, President). God intended for Israel to be a theocracy. God was to be their only king. And God had placed men in positions of authority to act in His name and in His authority. In some translations these are called ‘judges’ or ‘magistrates’. God did not intend for the people to have a king over them—they were to be ruled by God and God alone. We know that down the road the people cried out for God to give them a king like the pagan nations had. And like the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Because we know from the history of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah that God gave them what they wanted. But in the society that the Israelites lived under until the time after the death of Joshua, the people were ruled by God.
Well, to despise the authority of the high priest and the government of God was to, in fact, despise God. Hebrews 10:28—Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Despising Moses’ law includes despising those who administer that law. And during the time when Christ walked the earth, this Law was administered by a body of men called the Sanhedrin. Christ also called it “the council” in some places. The Hebrew term that was the equivalent of the term “Sanhedrin” was “K’nishta”. Over time that term morphed into one that we actually hear sometimes today. You may be watching the news and hear them refer to the “Knesset”. This is the legislative branch of the Israeli government. It would be like our House of Representatives and the Senate rolled into one. Anyway, the most well-known trial that ever took place before that “Knesset” or “K’nishta” or “Sanhedrin” took place about 2000 years ago. Anybody know who the defendant was? It was before these magistrates, these “rulers” as they're called in Exodus 22, that Christ was brought to trial.
All of the prohibitions in today’s text were put on display in the trial of Jesus. We have people bearing a false report. People who joined their hands with the wicked to be a malicious witness. People who followed the masses in doing evil. We see men testifying in a dispute so as to pervert justice. And of course we see the murder of the innocent and righteous. But the first thing we see is Christ’s obedience to the Law by not reviling a ruler of the people. Matthew 26:57-64—57 And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. 58 But Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest's courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end. 59 Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, 60 but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward 61 and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'" 62 And the high priest arose and said to Him, "Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?" 63 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God:—in other words, “I put you under oath by You”—Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" 64 Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." So here we have this farce of a trial, presided over by the rulers of the people. And the means they used to carry out this trial went against all the rules that were in place for pretty much any trial, but especially a trial that involved the potential for the defendant to be put to death.
There was a fellow named Simon Greenleaf, and he was the dean of the Harvard Law School many, many years ago. He became a very skilled writer in defense of the truth of Christ. He wrote a book called "The Testimony of the Evangelists," and this book includes a whole section by a gentleman named Joseph Salvador on how the Sanhedrin was to conduct a trial involving the death penalty. I won’t reproduce it here, but I will share with you the boiled-down, condensed version from John MacArthur—
“In the Jewish trial of Jesus Christ, they violated every single law of justice and jurisprudence known to them. They violated every single one of them willfully so that the trial of Jesus Christ is THE most unjust trial in human history…the motto of the Sanhedrin was this: ‘The Sanhedrin is to save, not to destroy life’…No criminal trial could be carried through the night, this one was. The judges who condemned a criminal had to have a day in between before the execution and they had to fast all day, they didn't. They killed Jesus the same day...There had to be defense, there was no defense…And that and many other illegalities make up a list of things they did to violate the laws that they themselves affirmed.”The high priest has leveled this accusation against Christ—a lie that even the high priest knows is false. Jesus could have very easily said, “You're a liar and a crook! Now let Me go!” But He didn’t. Why? Because God said “You shall not curse a ruler of your people.” If He had rebuked the high priest, He would have broken the Law of God that He was sent to fulfill. But he didn’t have to accuse them—they accused themselves. His silence fulfilled not only the Law, but also the words of Isaiah 53:7 (NASB)—He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. There is another passage that is fulfilled in Jesus’ response, and that is Psalm 38:12-14 (ESV)—12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. 13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. 14 I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.
Now, the Sanhedrin were not the only ones who condemned themselves. Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8—“1 You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 2 You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice…6 You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute. 7 Keep yourself far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked. 8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.” Everybody involved in the trial of Christ did everything they could to condemn the Man. And they all wound up condemning themselves. Listen to what these witnesses testified.
Mark 14:57-59—57 Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, 58 "We heard Him say, 'I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.'" What they were trying to accuse Him of was saying that He could—and would—destroy the temple in Jerusalem and rebuild it in three days. Now, the temple had been under construction for nearly 46 years when these events took place. But He did not say He would destroy the temple—that is, the building that we talked about last week that was eventually destroyed by the Romans. He actually said that they would destroy “this temple.” John 2:19-21—19 Jesus…said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. When someone wants to believe a lie, they will latch onto any little tidbit they can. And here, they really go out on a limb, testifying that Jesus really claimed to be able to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem in three days. (Well, He could have, but that was not what He was claiming.) If they had really believed He was merely a man, it would have been foolishness for them to think He could have ever even made this claim, let alone try to pull it off. Which is why He didn’t answer. He knew His hour had come—the hour in which He would glorify God, and the hour in which man would condemn himself.
Now, in the time we have left let’s ask the question, “What does the commandment from Exodus 22-23 mean for us today? After all, we don’t live in a theocracy.” Well, I'm glad you asked. What it means is this: That when a government makes a law we are to obey it. Because whether the government is based on God’s word, or whether it is based on tyranny and oppression, that government receives its authority from God Himself. Now, someone may say, “Well, what about the government in countries where they arrest and torture and execute Christians?” God knows what they do. God has not forgotten. But it is in those countries that God is most glorified through His people. Because when His people are brought to trial, and ordered to renounce the name of Christ, and they stand firm and do not deny, they glorify God.
Romans 13:1-3—1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. We don’t have time to do an in-depth study on this passage, but here is what Paul is saying in a nutshell. Whatever governments exist are appointed by God. That’s what he’s saying in verse 1. In verse 2, he is repeating the command found in Exodus 22:28, to not curse the ruler of your people. And in fact, he tells us to pray for those men in 1st Timothy 2:1-2—1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. Now, when we get to Romans 13:3 we may be tempted to say “Now wait a minute! Communist China terrorizes those who confess Christ!” That’s not the point Paul is making. The ESV says it best, Romans 13:3 (ESV)—For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. That’s why he asks if we want to be unafraid of our government? Do you really want the government to not enforce the laws? Ever notice how the people who scream the loudest that the police are corrupt and the police are this or that—who are the first people those folks call when someone’s broken into their house?
A couple more passages about government being appointed by God. Colossians 1:16—For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. 1st Peter 2:13-15—13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. And Jesus Himself said the very same thing—the very government that would nail Him to the cross was appointed and ordained by God. John 19:10-11—10 Then Pilate said to Him, "Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?" 11 Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” John Gill—
“Meaning, not from the Jewish Sanhedrim…nor from the Roman emperor, or senate of Rome, the higher powers; by whom Pilate was made governor of Judea… but reference is made to the place from where he came, and to the decree and council of God above, and the agreement between the eternal three in heaven. Christ speaks of a power Pilate had against Christ, that is, of taking away his life; he had no lawful power to do it at all; nor any power, right or wrong, had it not been given him by God.”Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.