John W. Taylor

The first article in this series laid out the beginnings of a case for a biblical view of limited government. The main point was that absolute power and authority belong only to God, and human rulers become more idolatrous the closer they get to total control of the people under their authority. In this article I want to show some of the specific ways in which, according to the Bible, God limits governments.

Governments are limited temporally. The biblical picture is that all human governments have term limits set by God himself. The prophet Daniel declared that God “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:21).[1] Daniel predicted the rise of a series of kingdoms, which appeared in his vision as parts of a giant statue – an image or idol made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. These kingdoms-as-idols will rise, and fall (Dan. 2:37-43), until “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). The only kingdom that will never fall is the kingdom of God himself.

A similar picture is found in Daniel 7. A series of kingdoms are predicted, which in the vision are seen as ravenous and destructive beasts. But the time and the power of each kingdom is limited by God, and in the end the power of all of them is taken away and given to “One like a son of man” (Dan. 7:13). His kingdom is eternal and universal: “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14). Eventually, “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ (Dan. 7:27).

These passages prophesy the eternal kingdom of God, and were meant to give hope to Israel, in exile and oppressed by the powerful Babylonian and Persian empires. But they also point forward especially to Jesus Christ himself, the son of man, and son of God (Mark 14:62, Revelation 1:13), through whom the kingdom of God was inaugurated, and whose followers will ultimately reign forever with him (2 Tim. 2:12).

The Holy Roman Empire (not to be confused with the Roman Empire) lasted over a thousand years in central Europe, but it came to an end (800-1806). Its German successor lasted only forty-seven years, and Hitler’s Third Reich, or third kingdom, which he imagined would also last a thousand years, lasted only eight (1933-45). The point is that no human government lasts forever, but the kingdom of God is everlasting. This gives hope to those oppressed by governmental tyranny, and it should lead all governments to act with appropriate humility and modesty.

Governments are limited geographically. In the Book of Acts Paul is shown preaching in Athens: “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” (Acts 17:26-27). The pagan world that Paul was addressing believed that all nations had their own gods, who were gods of the land. The peoples, their gods, and the lands were all joined. A powerful people must apparently have a powerful god who can enable them to defeat and rule over their enemies (2 Chron. 32:14-15). Even then they had to respect the various gods of the lands they conquered (2 Kings 17:24-34). But Paul insisted that all nations were created by God himself, and are under God’s authority. He sets their times, and he sets their geographical boundaries. In the background of Paul’s preaching at Athens is likely the story of the tower of Babel. God divided the unified but rebellious people, who were trying to build a tower, to make a name for themselves. He confused their languages, and dispersed them over the world (Genesis 11:1-9). Paul understood this judgment, but also saw the redemptive plan that God had for the nations. The purpose of God goes beyond judgment to mercy. All nations should seek him and find him. In the end there will be people redeemed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev.5:9).

Limits of Time and Space. It is God himself who limits nations and their governments by time and space. God’s rule is wise, just and merciful. Wisely he limits governments in the time they have to operate. Justly he judges the nations. Mercifully he gives the nations space and time, so that they might seek and find him, and submit to his reign, his government, his kingdom. Governments, and those who hope in them, need to recognize that their boundaries, and their times, are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15), and that the very point of each nation’s existence is to find God, who, as Paul said in Athens, “now … commands all people everywhere to repent”. And this is, Paul says, because the day of reckoning is coming, when the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ himself, will judge the nations (Acts 17:30-31). And then the governments of the world will give way completely to Christ’s eternal and righteous reign. As the Bible says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

 

[1] Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.

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