Remember that the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes, with one domineering personality. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster, as happened with the medieval papacy. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug, as has happened in our day.
It is easy for us to blame these governing entities for filling up the vacuum, but we really ought to find fault with ourselves because we (and our lack of self-control) are the ones who create the vacuum. When the people are slaves to sin, they cannot enjoy the balance of form and freedom that God has ordained for humanity. A family filled up with scheming manipulators will not be at peace with one another. A congregation of porn-users will not see the law of liberty unleashed in their midst. A nation of fornicating potheads will not enjoy civil liberty. As well expect to plant thistles and harvest barley.
“And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it” (Rev 21:24-26).
“In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).
“Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee. And the sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee: for in my wrath I smote thee, but in my favour have I had mercy on thee. Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought (Is 60:9-11).
“And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine” (Ezekiel 47:12).
Summary of the Texts:
Instead of just one text, I have selected a mash-up of texts. In doing this I am not attempting to pull a fast one, but am rather following the example of the New Testament writers, who frequently present us with a collage of quotations from all over the Old Testament.
In that spirit, the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the Isaianic Zion, and Ezekiel’s great Temple, are all one. Comparing them with one another, and seeing what is said of them, we see that they are all symbolic images of the Christian Church, neither more nor less. The Jerusalem above is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26). When we gather to worship God, as we are doing right now, we are assembled on the heavenly mountain, the heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:18). Come, the angel said to John, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb. And who is that Bride? It is the Christian Church (Eph. 5:25). And then he showed him the New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for her husband (Rev. 21:2). The great Harlot was the old Jerusalem, now divorced and put away. The New Jerusalem is the Holy of Holies, a living shrine of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16; 1 Cor. 6:19; Rev. 21:16). So much is basic.
My point with these texts is to show you the distinction between this Church and the redeemed nations of men. The boundary between them is porous, but still clear. Ezekiel’s Temple does not grow and fill the earth, but water flows from her until it inundates and heals the earth. The earth does not become the New Jerusalem, but the kings of the earth bring their honor and glory to her, and acknowledge and support her. Kings will be nursing and nurturing fathers to the church, and queens will be nursing mothers (Is. 49:23). They simultaneously support the church and submit to the church. What they don’t do is vaporize. The great Zion of Isaiah does not swallow the world, but the ships of Tarshish sail to her, with all their wealth. There is an ongoing traffic of peace between them.
When men are forgiven and set upright again, they find themselves functioning within the framework of three basic governments. The first is the government of the family, following the order that God has established. The husband is the head, his wife is his body and the executive, and together they shepherd their little ones. The family is the Ministry of Health, Education, and Welfare. The second is the civil magistrate, which is the Ministry of Justice. Their task is to make it possible for you to walk across town safely at 2 in the morning. Justice here is defined by the Bible, and not by the hurt feelings of somebody. The church is the Ministry of Grace and Peace, who is the Holy Spirit Himself.
Because the word justice is so abused in our day, I need to say something brief about the civil magistrate’s duty to enforce justice. Injustice is not the violation of someone’s rights, however those rights may be defined. Injustice is the violation of God-given rights. God gave us all the right to a fair trial if we are accused of some crime. And so, if we get an unfair trial, the kind that Jesus got, this is an injustice. But God did not give us the “right” to $15 an hour. For if He did, that means that somebody else has the obligation to pay you that amount. And when the state steps in to enforce that kind of obligation, the result is always tyrannical.
The Relationship of the Three:
In God’s order, not one of the three is permitted to domineer over the others. Each has its assigned task, and each one needs to tend to its own knitting. The church does not declare war, or collect the trash. The family does not administer the sacraments. The state does not review cases of church discipline. And not one of these spheres is dependent on any of the others for its existence. Now in times of crisis, as when Rome was threatened by the Lombards, one government may pick up some of the responsibilities of another. Say there is a failed state, but the church is still present. Or in unusual circumstances, it may be the same, as when Paul prohibits Christians filing civil suits against one another before unbelieving judges (1 Cor. 6:1-7). Ordinarily, the church ought not to be adjudicating property line disputes, but we should prefer that to the scandal of asking pagans to define justice between two believers.
But with that said, there is definitely a hierarchy of honor in this glorious and eschatological fulfillment. And this is what it looks like. The church does not fill up the world, and the church does not make every day into Sunday. But the knowledge of the Lord does fill up the world, as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). How does this work? In our texts, notice the flow in two directions. The living water flows from the church out to all the families and nations of men, and all the families and nations of men flow to the church. But they don’t stream to the church in order to live there. They don’t come into the church to establish permanent residency. They come to eat from the tree of life, and then they go back out again with a benediction, with the peace of Christ upon their heads.
So picture it this way. The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople—their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs—how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.
The church is therefore at the center of the kingdom, but the church and the kingdom are still very different.
And Christ is Lord of All:
So the authority of Jesus—the kind of authority that is granted to a sacrificial king—is an authority that mediates the kindness of the Father, and He mediates that kindness with the center fixed and all the edges in play. The church teaches you how to be a father, but does not take over the role of a father. The church instructs the magistrate, but does not rival the magistrate. The church teaches wives to submit to their husbands, and models that submission through dutiful and cheerful submission to the authority of Christ as found in the Scriptures. Reflecting Christ, the church suffuses all of life, the way sunlight fills up the day. It does not displace ordinary life, the way one billiard ball displaces another. Rather, it informs and instructs ordinary life—wherever you are in the town, out in the kingdom, whatever you are doing, whether changing a tire or changing a diaper, you can turn around and look, and from that place you can see the church spire. And whenever you do, whatever you are doing, you are reminded that you are part of the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.