“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” - Matthew 26:52-54
“Sic semper tyrannis.” Even if you have never taken a minute of Latin class in your life, you might know what this means. The phrase supposedly originated with Marcus Brutus, one of the conspirators against Julius Caesar. Supposedly Brutus uttered this phrase as he plunged his knife into Caesar’s body. Even more recently in American history, John Wilkes Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” immediately after shooting Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. The state of Virginia also has these three Latin words as its state motto.
“Sic semper tyrannis” is translated: “Thus always to tyrants.”
It is meant as a heroic cry, the proclamation of the oppressed underdog slaying the giant. When Brutus shouted it, he believed he was saving Rome from the tyrant Julius Caesar. When John Wilkes Booth said it, he believed he was avenging the South of President Lincoln’s oppression through the Civil War. When the state of Virginia adopts it as their motto, this is their way of saying that they will not succumb to the rule of bullies, despots, or dictators. “Thus always to tyrants!”
Yesterday we talked about how the Christian responds when the government appears to be overstepping its reaches. Although we may not agree with the policies, we obey as Christ has told his people to obey.
Today we go a step further. What if the government becomes a tyrant? How does the Christian respond to a government which actively oppresses the beliefs and activity of Christians? How would a Christian handle even an active persecution by the government?
There is a romantic notion in our culture that leading the charge against a tyrant is the noble and proper course of action. Images of William Wallace fighting the English in Braveheart or of Katniss Everdeen bringing down the Capitol in The Hunger Games evoke these emotions of heroism and courage.
But what did Jesus tell Peter when the headstrong disciple tried to fight for his master? “Put your sword back in its place.” If Jesus had been allowed more time with Peter, perhaps he would have restated some of his Sermon on the Mount. “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Or from that list of beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). Would he have reminded Peter of what he said the first time he sent his disciples out as missionaries? “All men will hate you because of me” but “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:22,28).
Jesus didn’t need Peter’s sword—nor did he want it. If it were God’s will, there would be thousands and thousands of angels there to rescue him.
Do you know what? If you are ever being persecuted violently for your faith—or even by somebody who is ignorant of your faith but is performing some evil against you—those same angels are at God’s disposal on your behalf. If someday our government decides that it is going to imprison pastors for preaching sin—which is something which seems more possible each passing day—God is able to save them, and he is able to save Christians in general, from their hands.
That doesn’t mean, though, he is going to—at least not in the ways we might want. Likewise God did not send those angels to save his Son Jesus from the hands of his Jewish captors, nor later from his Roman governor. Instead, to fulfill what the Old Testament prophets had said about Jesus’ death, God allowed his Son to march onward with his captors. It all led to Jesus’ death on the cross, where he rescues us from our sins and gives us his perfect life to wear as our own.
Your Father in heaven has promised to take care of you. He promises that he loves and you and holds you in the palm of his hand. He promises that no force in heaven or earth or hell will ever steal you out of his hands or away from his protection.
But he has not promised to deliver you from every form of temporal punishment. He has not promised to save you from the oppression of government. He has not promised to save you from being fined for speaking words that our culture deems “hateful” and “intolerant.” He has not promised to save you from being imprisoned for holding dear to you the views of Christianity that more and more people—especially those who have prominent positions in our society—call “narrow” and “dogmatic.”
But even when all the world is murderously and hatefully against us, the Christian walks in the footsteps of the Savior. Those footsteps may lead to a lot of different fates. Those footsteps may lead to fines. Those footsteps may lead to prison. Those footsteps may even lead to death. But those footsteps do not lead to Christians shedding the blood of their oppressors. Those footsteps do not lead to taking matters into our own hands. Those footsteps do not lead to uprisings of Christians or to a revolutionary charge to dismantle the government.
Even those situations give Christians the opportunity to show our world an example of model citizenship. The Apostle Paul, when he was in a Roman prison under Emperor Nero, implored Timothy not to launch a rescue mission, but instead instructed him that “prayers … be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Later in life when Peter was writing a letter, he said, “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ … If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (1 Peter 4:13-14).
We continue to live as models of Christ. During the intense persecutions of Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd-Century, a letter was written to him by one of his governors named Pliny the Younger. His accusations of the Christians were as follows: “they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97). Those heavily persecuted Christians followed the instruction of Peter, who has told us: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). By this we show the world that there is something different about us, that there is something special and unusual about Christians. We don’t appear to the world as normal, but are so different that we are viewed as “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11).
This is no easy task. It rubs against us as human beings who are programmed by sin to look out for self and skin. It rubs against the ideas of heroism and patriotism that are so prevalent in our culture. It’s tough! But, then again, nobody—not Jesus, not Paul, not Peter—ever said it would be easy to live as God’s people in this world. It requires carrying a difficult cross, as Jesus did. It requires denying ourselves, as Jesus did.
By the grace of God, whether the government be acting inane or even oppressive toward us, may his people respond with support through their prayers, through their taxes, through their duty, and through their obedience, saying “sic semper tyrannis.” May Christ’s people do good “thus always to tyrants.”
There is only one “if” in the matter of our obedience to the government, when the Christian then turns to civil disobedience. That will be our subject for tomorrow.
Until then, may God give us his strength and his Spirit to live as beacons of his light in this world, no matter what abuse that world—or even our government—might hurl against us.