“It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (vv. 6–7).
To understand our relationship as Christians to the state and our responsibilities to the governing authorities, we must take into account all of Scripture. Passages such as Romans 13 are essential, for they tell us our duties when the state is, for the most part, fulfilling its God-given vocation and not showing overt hostility to the church. Yet, as we all know, the state is not always friendly to Christians. Throughout history, and even in our own day, many states have shown hostility to the Christian faith.
Of course, Scripture understands that the state may turn on us and become hostile, even violent, to the church. Turning to today’s passage, we see John’s description of the beast that rises from the sea, receives authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation,” and is allowed to “make war on the saints” (Rev. 13:7). There is good reason to believe that John is referring to Nero, the infamous first-century Roman emperor who persecuted the church, for the numerical value of the letters in Nero’s name is 666, which is “the number of the beast” (v. 18). Some Christians think that the beast signifies a future enemy of the church who will arise at the end of history to persecute believers. Either way, the takeaway for believers in every generation is this: the state may turn beastly and violently oppose God and His people.
Therefore, Christians must take care that they never confuse their allegiance to Christ with their allegiance to the nation where they hold their earthly citizenship. There is a legitimate form of patriotism and love of country that believers may and should express, but it must never become an affection that is blind to how the state may be violating the law of God. We may not assume that the Lord is always on the side of our nation, whatever nation we happen to live in. No earthly government is perfect, and Christians must respect their authorities and obey them insofar as doing so does not require them to violate the Lord’s commandments. But it is possible for a state to become so corrupt that it no longer fulfills God’s call to protect citizens and their property from evildoers. No Christian can have an unquestioned allegiance to their nation that confuses submission to the state for the Lord’s sake with obedience to the state no matter what it orders us to do. As Dr. R.C. Sproul says, “We need to understand that at all times our first allegiance is to our King, to the heavenly kingdom to which we belong.”
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Identifying the precise moment when a state becomes beastly can be difficult. Nevertheless, it is possible for the state to turn on God and His people, and we must be vigilant so that we notice when this happens. If we use patriotism to justify breaking the Lord’s commandments, we have confused our earthly citizenship with our eternal, heavenly citizenship.