As you know, last Sunday at the conclusion of the service I invited you to pray for the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and I did that purposely because obviously we would love to see him come to Christ. And this week I think probably all of you know that we wrote him a letter, an open letter. Since he is very open about advocating the things that dishonor God, we are also open about calling him to faith and repentance, and we have done that. And there has obviously been an amazing response to that coming from a lot of angles, but for the most part very encouraging to us.
But in the light of that I want to give you a kind of biblical framework for confronting rulers. Some have questioned, Why would you do that? And I wanted to show you how this is the calling of the church, as it has been for God’s people throughout redemptive history.
And we need to start at the beginning. And for us the beginning would be, then, what is the mission of the church in the world? What are we supposed to be doing here? You might think that we’re supposed to be providing entertainment for unbelievers, if you just took a look at the church superficially. You might think that we’re supposed to have some kind of manipulative power on the levers of authority and influence in the world, if you looked at the political preoccupations of Christians and churches. But you would be wrong on both counts.
The church exists in the world, really, with one mission, and that is defined for us in the Great Commission. Listen to the words of our Lord Himself. He defines for us our responsibility, and I’ll use three passages that are familiar with you. First, Matthew 28:19 and 20. The command to His followers is this: “Go therefore and make disciplines of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
That is the Great Commission: to evangelize the nations, bringing them the gospel so that they believe, trust Christ, are baptized, start on the path of discipleship, which is defined as being obedient to all that the Lord has commanded. So we are in the business of proclaiming the gospel by which people are saved, become disciples, and live and serve in obedience to God. That’s our mission.
Our Lord’s words in Luke 24 verses 46 and 47 give us another angle on the same commission. He said to the disciples, “It is written, that Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all nations.” There is our commission: to proclaim repentance for forgiveness of sins in His name, the name of Christ.
And then there is another wording of the commission in Acts 1:8, where we read, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem . . . Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” In all three commissions we have a global responsibility: to the ends of the earth, to the end of the age, and to all nations. And summing it up, it is to proclaim the gospel—the gospel of forgiveness of sins by repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, that makes one a disciple who lives in obedience to the commands of God. That is the gospel. That’s why the church is in the world. That’s what we need to be doing. That is our whole calling.
A couple of familiar passages are important for us to understand in the light of that. One is in Romans chapter 10, and you’re familiar with it, but let me read a few verses from Romans 10 starting in verse 13. “For ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” As we go preaching the gospel, we are encouraging people to call on the name of the Lord to be saved. The next verse says, verse 14 of Romans 10, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? How will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’
“However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah said, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” Fulfilling the Great Commission means we have to be sent, we have to preach; we have to preach the gospel so that people can hear, and in hearing believe and be saved.
So primarily when we think about the Great Commission, we’re talking about the preaching of the gospel. That is the priority, obviously. Those texts that I’ve just gone through make that clear. But there’s another text that I want to add to those that is very important and belongs right alongside of them, and it’s found in 1 Timothy chapter 2; so turn to 1 Timothy chapter 2. And at the beginning of that chapter—I want to read a number of verses down through verse 7, 1 Timothy 2 verses 1 through 7. Because here is another responsibility to which the church is called.
“First of all”—1 Timothy 2:1; here’s the priority—“I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgiving, be made on behalf of all men.” So we’re to be pleading with God for all men. In what exact sense is that prayer directed, for what purpose? Keep reading. “For kings and all who are in authority”—and that’s shocking, and I’ll comment on that in a moment. We’re to be praying on behalf of all men, but the one sample group that he identifies is “kings and all who are in authority.”
“So that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” If you want to live a quiet life, if you want to live a peaceful life in human society, and all godliness and dignity, pray for the rulers. Because so much of what a society is, as we know very well, is a direct result of its rulers and leaders. And God wants us to pray for those who rule over us.
Verse 3 he says, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” Why? Because He “desires all men”—all kinds of men—“to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle.”
Now the context here is salvation. Since God desires salvation, if He desires salvation from all kinds of men, if He desires them to come to the knowledge of the truth, that is why He has provided salvation through the “ransom,” verse 6, “for all” provided by “Christ Jesus.” So the context is salvation. One God and only one; therefore, only one true religion. One mediator and only one, the man Christ Jesus; therefore, only one Savior. One “ransom for all,” the only ransom; and thus one gospel, one way of salvation.
Because of God’s salvation plan and because God desires all kinds of men in all strata and nations and tribes and tongues and peoples, as heaven will show in the book of Revelation, we are to pray for the salvation of all men, but especially for those who rule over us because that conversion at that level changes culture dramatically. So when things aren’t the way you would like them to be, yes, we recognize sin has consequences. Yes, we recognize divine judgment is operating. But still the promise here is that we should pray for the conversion of rulers because it will change life as we know it.
Now what is fascinating about this command is the king at the time was Nero. So the apostle Paul is calling on the Christians to pray for the salvation of Nero. Why is that so strange? Because Nero was as wretched a ruler as would be possible or conceivable. He was obviously a Roman pagan of the rankest kind. He, for example, assassinated his own mother, who was also his lover. At the age of 15 he married his stepsister, then divorced her, then banished her, then had her wrists slit and then had her suffocated. And in one last act of indignity he decapitated her, the stepsister that once had been his wife.
He married another wife and murdered her by kicking her to death when she was pregnant. He slaughtered his nearest and dearest. He married again, only the next time he married, he married a castrated man dressed in a bridal gown in a full wedding ceremony. Nero is a name that is synonymous with degeneracy. He found satisfaction in tying people up publicly, naked, and then mutilating them—both men and women—for all to see. His cup was so full of wretchedness that he killed himself at the age of 30. And during all of this horrible, iniquitous 30 years he was busy also persecuting Christians—the first persecutor of Christians.
Paul is saying, “Pray for his salvation.” That’s a stretch. If you’re feeling the fury of this wretched man, if everything about him repulses you, you have to get over a lot to want him saved and to pray for that. That’s what Paul is saying. “Pray for Nero. Pray for his salvation. Pray for magistrates and judges and proconsuls and governors.” There’s nothing we can do to change the way these people are. Politically we can’t do that; psychologically we can’t do that. We don’t have any human means to alter the evil of rulers.
But that’s consistent with what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:4 when he said, “The weapons of our warfare”—spiritual warfare—“are not of the flesh.” They’re not human. We don’t use human weapons, human manipulation, political power, influence, whatever. “The weapons of our warfare are . . . divinely powerful,” Paul says, “pulling down strongholds.” “The weapons of our warfare are . . . divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” And what are the weapons of our warfare? The truth, the truth—God’s truth, gospel truth. So we fight against wickedness in high places with the gospel truth and also with prayer. That’s another weapon of our warfare.
You will remember in seventh chapter of Acts, Stephen was being stoned. And at the very end of chapter 7, the final verse, as his life is being crushed out, he says, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” and he asks the Lord to forgive the people stoning him to death. And one of them was a man named Saul. Chapter 7 verse 60 ends with him praying for God to forgive the people stoning him, and one of the people doing it was a man named Saul, and you meet him in the next verse.
That’s a fascinating connection because it says a verse later, in verse 3, that Paul led the persecution against the church, breathing out threatening and slaughter. Chapter 8 shows him persecuting, and chapter 9 you have his conversion. Could it not be that the conversion of Saul in chapter 9 was in part in answer to the prayer of Stephen?
God uses means. The effects of a fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Stephen prayed for forgiveness for those who took his life within a two-chapter span. That prayer was answered in the salvation of Paul. Just so you know, he would not be one that you would want to pray for any more than you’d want to pray for Nero. But God saved Paul.
And then in the sixteenth chapter of Acts, you remember, Paul and Silas were in jail. They were singing hymns and praying. Who do you think they were praying for? Well if they knew the words of Jesus, and they certainly did, they would remember that Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men persecute you.” They would remember that Jesus said, “You’re never more like God than when you pray for your enemies.” And so no doubt in their singing and praying, as prisoners in stocks in Philippi, they were including in their prayer the jailer. And you know the rest of the story. The rest of the story is that the jailer came to faith in Christ.
So you have Stephen praying for the people who are killing him. You have Paul and Silas praying for the men who have locked them in stocks. And their prayers seem to attach directly to the salvation of the apostle Paul and the Philippian jailer.
So we need to know that this is God’s calling for us. Though it may seem hard, though there are a lot of things we don’t like about the people in power over us, we would do an act of disobedience against our calling if we did not pray for our rulers’ salvation. And that goes not only for governors but all rulers, all the way to the presidency and across the world. It’s a challenging thing to confront them.
Let’s go back to the preaching responsibility. You remember the story of John the Baptist, of course. John the Baptist, chapter 3 of Luke, confronted Herod the tetrarch. John was preaching the gospel, Luke chapter 3 verse 18, to the people, John the Baptist, when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done. Herod also added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Herod was the king at the time. He was a wretched man. His connection to Herodias, his brother’s wife, was incestuous; he had stolen her away from another. And John confronts him for his wickedness which he had done, and John was summarily locked up in prison—if you go to Matthew 14 and you read the rest of the story. And over this, John lost his head. His head was served on a platter to Herod. It cost John his life to be honest with a ruler, to present the truth to a ruler.
It cost Jesus His life to present the truth to a ruler. He spoke to Pilate. He spoke to Caiaphas. Collectively they all came together, had Him executed. And then there was Paul, in the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, where we have the account of his conversion. There’s a comment there that is tied into his calling; it’s a very direct comment, chapter 9 and verse 15. “The Lord said to him”—to Ananias, after the Damascus Road conversion. The Lord says about Paul, “He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
He was called to go in front of kings. Now mark it down, government is the ultimate persecutor of the church, always has been, because it has the power of prison and power of death. They kill John the Baptist for confronting them. They kill Jesus for confronting them. And here is the promise, at the very commissioning of Paul to take the gospel to kings, but because of that he’s going to suffer much. It’s in a sense, from human viewpoint, dangerous to do it because so much power resides in a ruler.
The prophecy concerning Paul that he would take the message to kings has some interesting fulfillment, if you’ll take just a minute or two with me. Go to Acts 24. In Acts 24 we find that Paul, now a prisoner, about to be shipped off to Rome where he would be executed under the authority of Caesar. But for this moment in the twenty-fourth chapter of Acts, he is still in the land of Israel, but he is a prisoner. And he is brought before a series of governors. The first one, chapter 24, verse 22, is Felix. And Felix had an “exact knowledge about the Way,” which was a reference to the Christian gospel. Somehow Felix had gotten the word of the message concerning Jesus, His death, His resurrection. So in verse 24, some days later, Felix arrived with Drusilla. Drusilla was an illegitimate wife, a wife of fornication and adultery who was seduced by a sorcerer away from her husband to become the wife of Felix. Felix arrives with this woman, his wife who was a Jew, sent for Paul, and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. If you sent for Paul, that’s what you were going to hear.
Paul came and spoke about faith in Christ Jesus to Felix. His message is delineated in verse 25: “He was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.” Boy, that is a direct hit. Paul was talking about “righteousness,” God’s righteous standard. And then he was talking about “self-control,” or the issue of sin, the inability of the sinner to meet the righteous standard because he cannot overcome his sinfulness. And then he spoke about the result of that: “the judgment to come.” Righteousness, self-control and judgment, and the result was Felix became terrified and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I’ll summon you.” He was terrified. He was such a lowlife that “at the same time also,” verse 26 says, “he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul.” Part of politics, isn’t it? Bribery. A wretched soul. But Paul confronted him with righteousness, sin, and judgment.
He was succeeded, in verse 27, by the next governor, Porcius Festus; and Paul goes before him. Chapter 25, go down to verse 10. Paul is talking to Festus; he says, “I’m standing before Cesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me”—the Jews were accusing him of crimes against Rome—“[then] nobody can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar”—“I am a Roman citizen.” “Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, ‘You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.’” No doubt in the conversation with Festus, Paul had another opportunity to delineate his story and even his conversion.
The next ruler that he faces in chapter 26 is a man named Agrippa. Go down to verse 19. Paul is brought before this man, who has the power of life and death over him if he chooses to exercise it. “So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision”—he’s giving his testimony to Agrippa. He describes the Damascus Road experience in the previous verses. “But I kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” He tells Agrippa, “I’ve just been continually preaching the gospel of repentance and salvation in Christ.” “For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death.”
Verse 24, “While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, ‘Paul, you’re out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” “You’ve been around for a long time. You know the story of Christ, and you know the preaching of the gospel of His resurrection.”
“‘King Agrippa,’” verse 27, “‘do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.’ Agrippa replied to Paul, ‘In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian’”—it’s more a question than a statement of fact. “Are you kidding? Are you ridiculous? You think you can convince me to become a Christian?”
“Paul said,” verse 29, “I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains.” That was his heart. He desired the salvation of all of them. And Agrippa—Agrippa II, this is, by the way, the great-grandson of Herod the Great, the Herod in the time of the birth of Christ. His father was Agrippa I, who killed James and imprisoned Peter. But Agrippa II is a Roman-appointed ruler. He’s the last of the kings of Judea. He has a consort, a woman named Berenice who is not his wife, but she is his sister, and she is his lover. Incest was very common. She and him are also the siblings of Drusilla, the seduced wife of Felix. They are a very wretched group. By the way Berenice, his sister and lover, according to Roman history had many, many lovers but always returned to her brother. Now we don’t have any record of any repentance by any of these. There was scorn that came out of Agrippa.
So you might ask the question, Was there ever a ruler who, hearing the gospel, responded positively? And the answer is in the thirteenth chapter of Acts. Thirteenth chapter of Acts, and Paul is on the Isle of Cyprus, and you can go down to verse 6. They went “through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul,” that’s a regional governor. So here, we’re meeting a regional governor in Cyprus named “Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician”—which is just another name for Bar-Jesus—“was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” So Paul is evangelizing the proconsul, and this demon-possessed sorcerer is countering that evangelism by representing the devil.
“But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on [this sorcerer], and said, ‘You . . . are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?’” “You’re twisting and perverting the truth,” which is what Satan does. He tries to be disguised as an angel of light. So Paul unmasks this demon-possessed antagonist. In verse 11 he does more than unmask him: “‘Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.’ And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul”—Sergius Paulus—“believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching concerning the Lord.”
Yes, there is a governor who was converted when there was a satanic, demon-possessed sorcerer trying to, step-by-step, phrase-by-phrase, counter the preaching of the gospel. Sergius Paulus’s name is inscribed in ancient artifacts in Cyprus, and it’s also in the Natural History of Pliny, the Roman historian, that his name appears. So yes, rulers were confronted, and rarely, they responded positively, trusting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Was this new? Was this something new to the New Testament? No. Because John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and his confrontation of Herod cost him his life. The Old Testament gives us many illustrations. I could give you forty illustrations of Old Testament godly men confronting rules.
Let me just remind you of a few. In Exodus, Moses confronts Pharaoh to the face: “Let my people go.” In 1 Samuel 13, Samuel confronts Saul, the king, over his sin. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David over the sin of having Uriah murdered so that David could have an adulterous relationship with his wife, Bathsheba; and Nathan says to David, “You are the man.” Ahijah the prophet confronted Jeroboam in 1 Kings and said, “You have done much evil, much more evil than those before you.” In 1 Kings 18, Elijah confronts wretched, wicked Ahab. Later, 1 Kings 21, he confronts Ahab again for basically murdering Naboth so he could steal his vineyard. He said to him, “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh. Behold, I will bring evil on you.”
This was a role that prophets took throughout the Old Testament. Elijah denounces Ahaziah for consulting Baal in 2 Kings 1. He says, “You will surely die.” Isaiah prophesied the doom of Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, in 2 Kings 19. Isaiah taunted the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14. Jeremiah pronounced judgment to Zedekiah in Jeremiah 21 and 34. Hosea declared judgment on Israel’s evil rulers in chapter 4 and 5.
This was routine. And I read earlier Psalm 2, which is David’s—David contra mundum, David against the world of rulers, kings of the earth, taking action against God while God laughs at them. So it’s nothing new that John the Baptist did, Jesus did, Paul did, or any of the other apostles did. They had forebearers who showed them the pathway of the confrontation in the faithful, godly men of the Old Testament.
Turn to Deuteronomy 17, which sets up the responsibility of the ruler to expect to be confronted if he is unfaithful. In Deuteronomy chapter 17, just go down to verse 18. As the Lord is describing, “Now that you’re going to have a king, here is the responsibility of the king.” This is the duty of the king, Deuteronomy 17—18. “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom”—when he comes to reign—“he shall write for himself a copy of this law”—the whole law of God. He’s to write it out—every letter, every word, himself. And he’s to do it “on a scroll,” and he’s to do it “in the presence of [a Levitical priest],” so everyone knows he’s written every single letter.
And the reason for that is if he’s going to rule, as you heard in that beautiful anthem, “He that rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” So there can’t be any ignorance. He can’t claim that he didn’t know something. And to make sure that he has basically affirmed his responsibility, he has to write out every single letter in the law of God in front of all the priests. “It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life.” He’s got to continually be reading the law of God so that he stays on track—“that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen, that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons my continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.” You want to have a long reign? Stay faithful to the Scripture. You have to write it all out, you have to continually read it, and you must obey its statutes.
Well they got in the Promised Land, and it didn’t go that way, did it? King after king after king in both kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Southern Kingdom of Judea, forsook the law of God. They forsook the law of God, and they led the people into idolatry and all manner of sin and evil, which then sat up an inevitable confrontation: Who were the stewards of the revelation of God, to confront those disobedient kings who had violated their oath? The king’s oath was to be faithful to the Word of God. In fact the Word of God disappeared, and it wasn’t discovered, we find in 2 Kings chapter 22, until King Josiah many years later found the law and restored the law to its place. And Josiah brought righteousness back.
So this has always been God’s plan. So in the Old Testament you had prophets confronting unfaithful kings over and over and over and over again. And as we saw, you had the New Testament model of John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles doing the same with authorities. But even in church history—here’s a little from church history. Around the year 150 the Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote an open letter to the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, and in that letter he defended the truthfulness of Christianity and argued that the Roman government should stop persecuting believers—150, just, say, fifty years after the death of the apostle John.
Around the year 155, there was a renowned pastor in Smyrna who knew John, by the name of Polycarp, who stood trial before a Roman governor. He was accused of being a Christian, and he was urged to recant. Polycarp refused to do that, reiterated his allegiance to Christ, and urged the governor to repent or face the eternal fire of God’s judgment. In the generation after Polycarp an author named Tertullian wrote an apology of the Christian faith also. They called the Roman government to end their unjust persecution of the church.
In the fourth century another famous pastor from Alexandria named Athanasius boldly defended the doctrine of Christ deity. He was banished by the Roman powers for at least seventeen years, but he refused to be intimidated or to compromise because of governmental pressure. In the fifth century the “Golden Mouth,” John Chrysostom, the great preacher of Constantinople, confronted the empress for her worldly, sinful lifestyle. He was banished, and on his way to exile died.
If you come up to Reformation times, you have people like Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, John Huss, who all denounced corrupt authorities and were willing to pay with their lives. In 1521 Martin Luther took his stand, telling Emperor Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe, that he must repent and that Luther would never recant because to do so would be to go against the Word of God, which Luther would never do. As a result, Luther was declared a notorious heretic and would have been executed if they could find him.
1529 at the Diet of Speyer, a group of evangelical princes within the Holy Roman Empire wrote a letter of protestation in response to the emperor’s attempts to outlaw the Reformation. And because of that they became known as Protestants. In the 1530s and ’40s the English preacher Hugh Latimer would preach before the King of England, Henry VIII, no less. On one occasion he preached a sermon that enraged Henry with its boldness. The next week Henry warned Latimer to be careful what he said, since the power of the man’s life was in the hands of the king. Latimer’s response was to preach with more boldness.
In 1550 a group of protestants in Magdeburg wrote a confession in response to the efforts of Charles V to wipe out Protestantism everywhere, and they acknowledged that they would do what is right no matter what hostility the government brought against them. Famously in 1563 John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, confronted the Catholic Queen of Scotland about her unbiblical marriage, and he was so powerful that she began to cry. In 1603 a thousand Puritan leaders wrote a letter to King James I, calling him to reform the church of England. He ignored the petition and continued to persecute the Puritans. And then in 1638 Scottish believers signed a national covenant resisting the efforts of King Charles to interfere with the church and with true worship. And so it’s gone through history.
We can go all the way back, and start with Moses confronting Pharaoh and come all way through church history. In fact it’s only in the modern era that the church has not done this. How sad is that? How sad is that? That’s our calling. It doesn’t go well; I understand that. They killed the prophets. They killed John the Baptist. They killed the Lord Jesus. They killed the apostles. They killed the faithful preachers through church history—but it doesn’t change the mission or the responsibility.
And you might ask, Is there any indication that this can be successful? These people become so wretched, is there any hope for them? Well we don’t know anything about Sergius Paulus, but he repented. And in the Old Testament, by the way, the king of Nineveh repented. But let me just give you two illustrations of the fact that it can happen.
Open your Bible to Daniel chapter 4, and let me reintroduce you to the king of the universe, as he called himself: Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar built a 90-foot-high idol of himself, overlaid with gold, and demanded that everybody bow down and worship. And when the three Jewish young men wouldn’t bow down, he threw them in the fiery furnace. You know that. The Lord protected them. But he demanded deity; he demanded to be the one worshipped.
He was as wretched a man as imaginable. He destroyed all kinds of nations, all kinds of leaders, to rise to power. He destroyed Judea. He plundered, destroyed Jerusalem. He massacred thousands of Jews, took thousands more into captivity into Babylon, and when he got them there he loved to strip them naked and shame—and in shame march them through the public crowds. Some of the things he did to gain power over some nations are illustrated by how he treated one king by the name of Hiram, who was the king of Tyre. He tortured him to death after raping his wife before his eyes, who by the way was also his mother.
And regularly Nebuchadnezzar, it is said, daily engaged in sodomy. He slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons, Jewish ruler Zedekiah, slaughtered his sons before Zedekiah’s eyes. It was the last thing Zedekiah saw because after he had slaughtered his sons before his eyes, he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes. So the last vision he would have was of his sons being slaughtered. He then took the blind Zedekiah and led him to Babylon in chains. His life is just an incomprehensible chronology of wickedness.
Is there any hope for a man like that? Well you have to hear his own testimony. Look at Daniel chapter 4. This is Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony: “Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language that live in all the earth”—king of the earth—“may your peace abound!” This is Nebuchadnezzar signing in: “This is from me to you.” In ancient letters they introduced who the author is at the front. And this is what he says: “May your peace abound! It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me. How great are His signs and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and His dominion is from generation to generation.” Whoa. He was the king of the whole universe. Something dramatic happened.
Here is his first-person testimony, and you can see it in verse 4: “I, Nebuchadnezzar,” verse 5, “I saw a dream.” And you go through that whole chapter, and he gives this amazing testimony about a dream and about finding Daniel, who interpreted the dream. And the dream, as you remember, was bad news for him, really bad news. He was told, go down to verse 24, “[Here is] the decree of the Most High,” verse 25, “that you be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods”—seven years—“will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.” In verse 27, “Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you,” says Daniel, “Break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your inequities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity.”
Daniel is interpreting the dream, saying, “It’s not looking good for you. Seven years, you’re going to have what psychologists call boanthropy”—like lycanthropy. “And this is not going to be some personal-selected identify shift. You’re going to think you are a cow for seven years.”
“Twelve months later,” verse 29, it hadn’t come to pass, and Nebuchadnezzar was feeling pretty good about himself. “He was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon. The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’” Pride. “While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven [years you will be unable really to enter into civilization again. You’ll live like an animal] until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whoever He wishes.’ Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled, and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.” The humbling, seven years of it.
Verse 34, “At the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar”—back to the first-person account—“raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of earth are accounted to nothing, but He does according to His will and the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways righteous, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” What an amazing conversion, isn’t it? Amazing conversion.
There’s one more amazing conversion, and that’s King Manasseh. In the mid-seventh century Manasseh has the story about him provided for us in 2 Kings chapter 21, so turn to it. We’ll just take a few moments looking at it; it’s such a powerful story. Second Kings 21, verse 1, “Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king.” By the way he co-reigned with his father, Hezekiah, for the first ten years or so, and he wound up reigning “fifty-five years in Jerusalem, and his mother’s name was Hephzibah.” Became king at 12, first ten years he co-ruled with his father Hezekiah.
Hezekiah was a godly individual. He was personally mentored by his father. His father was a good king, ruled for twenty-nine years, destroyed the idols in the land—destroyed even the statute of the bronze serpent that Moses had raised because it had become an idol—purified the Temple, reinstated the celebration of the Passover. So little Manasseh had wonderful opportunity to see the provision of God. And by the way, when he was five years old was when the Assyrians threatened his father’s throne and the kingdom, and an angel from heaven came and slew 185,000 Assyrians to protect his people.
So Manasseh had seen a lot as a child, but what does verse 2 say about him? “He did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Now that’s familiar. If you’re reading about the kings of Judea and Israel, you see that “He did evil in the sight of the Lord like his fathers,” or, “He did good in the sight of the Lord like his father.” They’re all basically compared to their father, but not Manasseh. No, “He did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord dispossessed before the sons of Israel.” You couldn’t even use another Jewish king as an illustration of his wretchedness because it was pagan. You could only compare him to the abominations of the Canaanites. And down in verse 11 it says his abominations were worse “than all the Amorites,” and the Amorites had at least 16 deities and all unimaginable wretchedness. He couldn’t even be compared to any other Jewish king, the most wicked of all kings in the 330-year history of his people. How do you get that evil? Homosexuality, bestiality, child sacrifice, idolatry, polytheism.
Verse 3, he can only be compared to the wretched unbelievers because “he rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; erected altars for Baal, made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.” He worshiped the sun, moon, stars, planets. He was syncretistic. He places altars all over the Temple, all over the Temple courtyard, even in the Holy of Holies. He filled the streets of Jerusalem with statues. He was the worst of the worst, the most ungodly.
It reached those familiar proportions after verse 5 says, “He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.” It says in verse 6, “He made his sons pass through the fire”; he sacrificed his sons to Molech, to Baal, to the gods. Why did they do that? Because that was the ultimate sacrifice, because you were raising a son to take care of you in your old age. You were raising a son to take the estate, to perpetuate the family, to perpetuate the valuable treasures the family possessed. And you are so devoted to this god that you would say, “I abandon everything. The greatest sacrifice I can make to you is to incinerate my son so that I am telling you I honor you to the degree that I abandon all security from my future in the world.” That’s how devoted they were.
How did they get so devoted to Baal? Because they believe that Baal was the god of storms, the god of thunder, the god of lightning, and the god of rain. And if it didn’t rain, then Baal was angry. And if it didn’t rain, it was a question of fertility and then it was a question of survival. And so they would go to the point where they would actually sacrifice the children they were raising to care for them in the future. Worship of Baal involved all kinds of magic and rituals and sacred prostitution, both male and female. And it was all that sacred prostitution was to arouse Baal to bring rain. Manasseh worshiped Baal.
Verse 16 of chapter 21 says he shed innocent blood, “very much innocent blood until he filled Jerusalem from one end to another.” Imagine. Who is he slaughtering? Prophets who confronted him, godly people, anybody who stood in his way. The worst, the worst.
The end of the story is in 2 Chronicles 33, 2 Chronicles 33. It’s a surprise ending. 2 Chronicles 33:10: “The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the Lord brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon.” He was humiliated just the way Nebuchadnezzar was. He was chained and marched off on what was a four-month walk to Babylon, in humiliation.
Verse 12, “When he was in distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication.” Did you hear that? God was moved by his supplication, his plea, “and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.”
He rebuilt, down in verse 16, “He set up the altar of the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings and thank offerings on it and ordered Judah to serve the Lord God of Israel. Nevertheless the people still sacrificed in the high places, although only to the Lord their God.” They were still syncretistic. There was only one altar; that was in Jerusalem in the Temple. They had many, and so it was a syncretism that continued.
“The rest of the acts of Manasseh even his prayer to God, his God”—I love that—“and the words of the seers who spoke to him in the name of the Lord God”—which means there were people talking to him, there were prophets talking to him and calling him to repentance, all of it is part of “the record of the kings of Israel. His prayer also and how God was entreated by him, and all his sin, his unfaithfulness, and all the sites on which he built high places”—idols—“and erected the Asherim and the carved images, before he humbled himself, behold, they are written in the records of the Hozai. So Manasseh slept with his fathers.” Manasseh is the worst. He’s the worst. God humbled him, and he came to believe. You’re going to see Manasseh in heaven.
This is a problem. This is a problem to Judaism. I’ll tell you how much a problem it is. I was reading something of the Haggadah, which is the rabbinic commentary on Scripture. And they have a hard time dealing with Manasseh, the rabbis, because it’s clear in the text of Scripture that he was restored to his kingdom. And so they acknowledge that he was restored to his kingdom because of his repentance, but one of the comments of the rabbis is, “But it was a superficial repentance. It could only get him back a temporal part of his kingdom.” And directly, it says, “He is not part of the kingdom of heaven.” They rejected that. “He forfeited that by his life.”
Why is it necessary for them to postmortem him as a hypocrite who is not in the kingdom of heaven? Because if your system is salvation by works, he undermines the whole thing. If you can be this bad and this wretched, and be forgiven and end up in heaven, the whole system collapses. You can’t take the worst two who had ever lived in terms of Old Testament power, Nebuchadnezzar and Manasseh, and put them in heaven without the entire system, or works righteousness, come crashing down. There’s no grace in Judaism, but there is grace with God. Amen?
One final testimony of one final person in authority. Go back to where we started, 1 Timothy 1, back to where we started. We were in 1 Timothy 2; go back to 1. There was another monumental conversion of someone in authority, and here is his testimony: 1 Timothy 1:12. This is Paul the apostle. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”
“Forget Nebuchadnezzar. Forget Manasseh. I am the worst. I had authority; I had authority to imprison, the slaughter Christians. I was a persecutor. I was a violent aggressor. I was a blasphemer. No way could I be in the kingdom except that God showed me mercy.” “The grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with faith and love found in Christ Jesus,” and “it is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, [not so much for my sake, but] so that in me as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
What’s Paul saying? You’re never too far, because Jesus will save those who are the worst of sinners to demonstrate His perfect patience and grace with even the worst. And Paul concludes with a doxology, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” And as I said when we started, prayers of Stephen might have been part of what God used to save Paul. He is a man of authority, a man with power over life and death, a man representing government power, who was saved by grace. And he was a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor and an unbeliever, and the Lord saved him. Why does He do that? Why does He save such wretched people? Because that’s how He demonstrates His grace. Right? You’re never beyond that possibility. And so that’s why in chapter 2 he says pray, pray—pray “for kings and all who are in authority,” that they may be saved. That’s part of our ministry.
Let’s pray together. Father, we thank You again for, as we always do, the truth of Your precious Word. The message comes out at the end as it always does, that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. No one is going to be saved by works. You’re saved by grace through faith. Works isn’t going to get you anywhere. But the good news is that even the worst of sinner is not beyond divine grace. They have to hear, and we need to continue to pray. Lord, may we be faithful to pray for those in leadership, pray for those in authority, as well as take every opportunity to proclaim the gospel to them and to all others. Let them know that the ransom has been paid by Christ, if they will repent and put their trust in Him. This is our mission in the world. May the church be faithfully focused on it. We pray for Your glory. Amen.
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