The Book of Exodus

Tuesday: The Church and the State: Exodus 5:1-6:27

Exodus 5:1-6:27 In this week’s lessons, we look at Moses’ first appearance before Pharaoh, and learn how the Lord was going to work through that first difficult meeting.
Theme
The Church and the State

I want to point out that this is the way all totalitarian rulers respond to claims from God. Moreover, that really is the way many governments (even if they are not totalitarian) respond. That’s exactly the way the American government responds to any claims of religion upon itself, which is why it’s insisting in our day upon what we call the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

The idea of the separation of church and state is a perfectly valid doctrine, rightly understood. What that means is that the state is not to control the churches. In other words there is to be freedom of religion and churches can conduct their business as they please. And on the other hand, bishops or other officials in the church are not to dictate to the government. But it doesn’t mean that the state is not responsible to God, and never has to answer to the divine authority or live up to moral standards. It is the position of the church in a democracy where we have opportunity to speak out to remind the government that ultimately it is responsible to God, whether it acknowledges that or not.

There are four different views that have been put forth to try to explain the relationship the church and the state, or God and Caesar, as Jesus referred to it.

One view says that all authority belongs to God alone, and you deny any authority of Caesar. This is the view of monasticism, and sometimes of an evangelical kind of withdrawal from civic responsibility. Concluding that the government and culture of a country is so bad, people do not want to have anything to do with it. As a result, they move out into the desert and join a monastic community, or they shut themselves up in their churches—either way they don’t interact with the state at all.

The second view is exactly the opposite. This is the view that promotes the authority of Caesar alone with the denial of God. That’s the view of secularism, which says that the only things are what you can see and measure. Because you can’t see God or measure Him, therefore there is no God and we don’t have to think in religious terms at all. All we have to do is operate in a secular manner.

The third view is to recognize the authority of both God and Caesar, but the authority of Caesar is dominant whenever there is a question. The state has to rule. This is the view of cowards. The reason I say that is because it is perfectly evident that if you have God in the picture, God by the very definition has to have greater authority than Caesar. Why would you ever give greater authority to Caesar? There is only one reason: you are afraid of Caesar.

That’s the view of Pilate at the trial of Jesus Christ. In John 18-19, Pilate acknowledged three times that Jesus was innocent, believing Him to be guiltless before the bar of Roman justice. And yet, in the end he crucified Him. Why would Pilate do that when he found Jesus innocent? The answer is that he was afraid of Caesar. People who wanted Jesus executed told Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.” In reality, Caesar really wasn’t his friend anyway. Eventually Pilate got into trouble with Caesar and according to some historical accounts, died in exile in Gaul.

The fourth view is the right and biblical one. Both God and Caesar are legitimate authorities, but God’s authority is dominant. Yes, Caesar has authority, but all authority comes from God, as Romans 13 teaches. The state, therefore, receives its authority from God, whether the government recognizes the authority of God or not.

The role of the church is to remind the state of exactly that. They are responsible to God to do the right thing, which we are to articulate on the basis of our understanding of it as God has given to us in Scripture. Moreover, we are to rebuke the state when it departs from that. So if you have a state that’s engaging in an immoral practice, slavery for example, those who are Christian people have to stand up against it and fight it, and Christian people have done just that. There is never any significant moral advance in a culture unless it comes in that way.

Thus, you have this great confrontation between God and Caesar, and of course Caesar in the person of Pharaoh is going to insist on his own way. One thing we notice here is that Pharaoh’s heart was hard. That’s why he wouldn’t let the people go. You find those words again and again throughout the story, not only here but later in chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10. However, we are also told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Was Pharaoh’s heart hard because the Lord had hardened it? Or did God harden Pharaoh’s heart as a punishment because he had first hardened it himself?

Quite a few commentators are very worried about God’s reputation at this point, and they don’t want to suggest for a moment that somehow God did anything to make Pharaoh worse. F. B. Meyer, who I’ve often quoted favorably, is one of these people. In his book on Moses, Meyer has a chapter called, “The Love of God in the First Four Plagues.” His point is that God was actually trying to bring Pharaoh to repentance, so the Lord wasn’t hardening his heart.1

There are a few problems with that. First, the Bible doesn’t say anything about God trying to bring Pharaoh to repentance. You might try to read that into the narrative, but it is not there.

Second, the first time anything is said about Pharaoh’s heart, it’s God who is speaking to Moses back in the fourth chapter. God says, “I will harden his heart so he will not let the people go.” Since that’s the very first time Pharaoh’s heart is mentioned, if you take it in terms of sequence, it would suggest that God hardens his heart in order to demonstrate his power, and that because of God’s prior determination, Pharaoh actually hardened his heart himself.

Now, of course we have to say that God can harden hearts by simply allowing us to go our own way. God doesn’t have to intervene in a special way; our hearts are hard, and they get hard all by themselves. If God doesn’t work in our lives with softening grace, hardening is the inevitable result. This is what the theological term reprobation means. It refers to God’s allowing people to go their own way, which is the wrong way. God could have done it that way. He could have permitted Pharaoh’s heart to harden on its own, but the Bible says that God actually hardened his heart.

Tomorrow we will conclude our discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

1F. B. Meyer, Moses: The Servant of God (New York: Revell, n.d.), 51-59.

Study Questions
  1. What is the proper definition of the separation of church and state? How is it misunderstood?
  2. Describe the four views that have been offered to explain the relationship between the church and the state. Which one is the biblical view, and why?
  3. What is the issue involved in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?
Application

Application: How can you demonstrate a biblical view of the relationship between the church and the state?

For Further Study: Download and listen for free to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “Moses and Pharaoh.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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