by Roger McCay
10 November 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 12:20-25
Link to Sermon Audio
Have you ever considered how secularism is a false reality? It divides reality into two realities—one that is religious and one that is secular. Hence, secularism is a denial of the one true God-established reality, that Jesus Christ is King and rules over all.
The Scriptures clearly teach that God rules over all creation, all the nations. E.g. Psalm 103:19: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” At the incarnation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God in his person. As he proclaimed in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…” After the Lord’s resurrection, at the ascension recorded in Matt. 28, he proclaimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
The Kingdom of God is by definition God’s rule. Thus, where Jesus’ authority resides, so is his rule, his Kingdom. As the incarnate, risen, and reigning Son of God, Jesus is King and Lord over all. He reigns from Heaven now, and we wait until he comes bringing the Kingdom in its full glory on the Day of Judgment.
Yet, secularism has attempted to remove Christ from the center of reality by saying something can exist without him—completely contrary to what we are taught in Scripture (e.g. Colossians 1:15-20). It attempts to set up a reality apart from God’s rule, as a rejection and rebellion against God.
Today, we find that this secular false reality has permeated our country, finding, perhaps, its most dangerous form in our government. The Dictionary of Christianity in America helps us grasp the problem, stating that Secularism “denotes a religious commitment to this world, or anything within it, as ultimate.” Separated from the true King in a false reality, the government has become a religion for many, raised up as god. Which just makes sense, for when the Lord is rejected, false gods quickly vie to fill his place.
Brothers and Sisters, as Christians, we live in constant opposition to the lie that there can be a reality without the living and true God—the Lord. As salt and light in the world, it is important that we remain prayerfully vigilant against the lie and its resulting temptations.
The events in vv. 20-21 of our passage today are also recorded by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. He writes:
On the second day…he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him.
Herod’s silver robes flashing in the sun was no accident. Giorgio Agamben describes the phenomenon in his book The Kingdom and Glory, identifying “in Glory the central mystery of power.” Glory gives a mysteriousness, an otherness, and the impression that its object is above the normal man. Herod knew what he was doing. It was an age-old trick, and it is one still in use.
Today, the media is the primary tool for this effect. As Agamben explains, the media is so important in modern democracies “not only because they enable the control and government of public opinion, but also and above all because they manage and dispense Glory.” In America, our politicians are often glorified on the screen leading people to fawn over them like rock stars. Presidential elections are the worst offenders, as the millions and millions of dollars paid to glorify the candidates speaks for itself.
And oh, how we exalt our government! The official ceremonies are like worship services. Just think of the glorious national hymns we sing; the saints we exalt such as Washington and Jefferson and other heroes of the faith. We have our holy document—the Constitution; we have holy relics such as the Declaration of Independence; holy shrines such as the Lincoln Memorial; holy icons such as the American flag. Further, there is the holy object that we promote above all other things – freedom; and a missionary zeal to take the freedom, that only a democracy like ours can give, to the rest of the world.
Now, please know I am not disrespecting our heritage by any means. These things I’ve mentioned are important to our heritage as Americans, and help define who we are as a country. Yet we need to be alert to people and things that are glorified in our government, which can seduce to the point of inducing worship. They can seem to have glory that is their own, but that glory is really like the flash of the sun on Herod’s silver robes. The real power and glory reside in the true King – Jesus.
Jesus has all authority on heaven and earth. Every nation on the earth is subordinate to him—whether they acknowledge him or not. Our greatest political leaders are merely viceroys to the King given limited power according to the divine mandate of government (which I’ll briefly discuss in a moment).
Living in our American culture, we need to be wary of the glory that is projected our way exalting our nation, our government, and the politicians who would bask in such glory. Such is just glitter in the sun. Remember that any glory the government has, in any of its aspects, is only a reflection of the glory of the true King. Let us not get confused in this matter. Give glory to God alone.
Do you see the danger of government in a secular vacuum? The glory of God the King becomes confused with the reflection, and a reflection has no inherent light. Hence, people are fooled, and the empty glory of the government is celebrated as the greatest glory—even becoming god to some. Because Jesus Christ is King, we must recognize that the glory and power of the government comes from him.
Verse 22: “And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’”
Perceiving the reflected glory of the sun on Herod’s silver robes, taken-in by his oration, the people were fooled. In the presence of such magnificence they perceived Herod as more than a man, and so, proclaimed that he was a god.
This can be a problem, a danger to all we hold dear in this world, even in our country today. I referenced earlier something called the divine mandate of government, which is a theological concept. Other mandates include the spheres of family, labor, and the church.
Scripture teaches that God has given certain limited authority to the government. Romans 13 is a key passage towards our understanding this doctrine. What we see there is that the divine mandate of government includes protecting and rewarding the good, and restraining evil. Hence, the government is granted the sword to carry out justice. Biblically and logically, the divine mandate of government comes after the divine mandates of family and labor.
The government’s responsibility is to provide, by the power of the sword (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, in his book Ethics), “an outward justice in which life is preserved and is thus held open for Christ.” He goes on to say,
“Marriage is performed not by government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, science and art, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision…But government never becomes the subject or originator of these fields of labor. If it asserts its authority beyond the limits of its assigned task it will in the long run forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.
Concerning its relationship to the church Bonhoeffer states:
“Through its service towards Christ, government is ultimately linked with the Church. If it fulfills its mission as it should, the congregation can live in peace, for government and congregation serve the same Master.”
One is not over the other, but the church and government are both under the command and authority of Christ. The mandates are mutually complementary, mutually limiting, and provide checks and balances.
When we begin to think that the government grants our freedom to worship and proclaim the gospel, we have put the government on a pedestal over the Lord. The government does not have the authority to give us permission or to deny us the authority to proclaim the Word of God (every aspect of it), or allow the people of God to act according to his will in worship and life. It is the Lord who gives his Church this authority, not the government. When we somehow think such freedom comes from the government we put it in a position to take those freedoms away and usurp God’s authority.
So, in allowing the government to go beyond its divine mandate, we give it attributes and authority that only belong to God. Combined with the acceptance of the lie of secularism, which is a rejection of God’s authority over the state, the divine mandate to limit the government from taking the role of god in the life of its citizens, is removed. In such a situation the exaltation of the deity of state is inevitable.
My friends, we must deny the lie that there are dual realities—the secular and the religious. Resist the culture as it attempts to force us to live this lie. Disciples of Jesus Christ are not to live in a secular reality for part of their life (the one lived day in, day out in the world) and then keep their life in Christ private and something for Sunday mornings. To do so not only is to accept a false reality, but it is to surrender to the world. And, it is to open ourselves up to idolatry—especially so when we consider the government from such a position.
Jesus Christ is King over all. Any notion of reality that does not take him into consideration is, as Bonhoeffer said, an aberration. And so, because Jesus Christ is King, we must resist anything that would exalt government as a god.
23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.
The point of this passage is that Herod accepted glory and exaltation that only belongs to the Lord. Notice too, that he did not actually proclaim himself as god. He just accepted the people’s adoration.
The Lord’s judgment was immediate. Herod was struck with internal bowel problems, described here as “eaten by worms.” It took five days for Herod to die, according to Josephus, and he died in agony. Josephus also notes that Herod died knowing what his sin was in this case, and he understood that his death was judgment for his hubris.
I think we, as the people of the United States, can take a note of warning from this. And, if you love our country, as I do, you would be wise to heed this warning. We do our country no favors by exalting it as a god, whether in adoration or by expectations.
The Lord raises up kings and nations, and he casts them down (Job 12:23). The Lord is a jealous God who will accept no other god before him (Exodus 20:3-5). The Lord is also a God who reserves the right to bring judgment when he wills. We have Herod as an example, and also consider Nebuchadnezzar from our OT reading.
We tempt the Lord and his judgment when we exalt politicians or the government to the place that is only the Lord’s to have. When the politicians or the government accepts or acts on that exaltation to the status of a god, then he, she, it or they risk God’s immediate judgment, possibly involving total destruction; even punishment upon the people of the nation.
Could America’s government be in trouble? Well, it seems likely, if not certain.
It claims separation of church and state, which is fine as long as it is under God. But separation of church and state has become increasingly separation of state from the Lord.
In some ways it has been set up as a god to people. For example, it has been set up as the provider; the one to whom people pray to help them with their needs and the troubles of life. Such exalts the government to be the ultimate hope of the people (their messiah). Some politicians even run on this platform.
It is very good at fulfilling some of the mandates of government, yet it is selective. This is evident in how our government is responsible for the murder of millions of innocent children, having abdicated its God-given responsibility to defend its people from evil.
It is as if our country is taunting God, daring him to bring judgment. Now, the Lord, as the true ultimate provider, has, by his grace, blessed our country with so much abundance to be beyond words. But how long will he tolerate our country’s sin?
By God’s grace, he has raised up many Christians who spend their lives in the public sphere in service to their God and country. They seek the glory of God, battling secularism every day, fighting for things like saving the lives of innocent children, seeking to limit government to its divine mandate under God, and resisting the urge to exalt government to the status of a god. Praise the Lord he has raised up such men and women as his servants.
Perhaps God is calling you to public service. We certainly need more disciples of Christ in politics and government, working for the Lord’s glory. But we don’t have to be a politician to have a say. As citizens, we are blessed to participate in our government by voting and through petitions. We must not neglect these blessings. Not every country has these rights.
Concerning voting, we need to be deliberate about it. Do we vote according to the Biblical teachings as to what responsibilities and the place the government is to have in our lives? Do we vote according to Biblical principles? Do we vote Christians into office, whenever possible, or do we vote based on worldly practicality? And do we vote according to what the media influences us to do based on passions and the trickery of false glory?
We are blessed in this country that we are able to vote according to our Christian beliefs. We really need to be prayerfully discerning and take advantage of this right. At least then, when the Lord does bring judgment, we will have acted according to his will. Because Jesus Christ is King, we must recognize that the Lord might bring judgment at any time.
This is all pretty heavy, I know. Yet, the Scriptures do not leave us without hope. Verses 24-25:
24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
Despite the persecution of King Herod and his attempts to eradicate Christianity in order to please the Jews, including the execution of James; despite the turmoil in the church as a result of that persecution; despite God’s judgment on Herod which resulted in a change of government when he died (for, upon his death, the Romans reestablished Roman governors as the rulers over Judea); despite all this turmoil, death, and destruction, the Word of God increased and multiplied, and his work through his apostles and disciples continued unabated.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of salvation for all who believe. Nations rise and fall, but the gospel stands forever. Its promises are true. And they are ours if we believe.
As Christians we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and because Jesus Christ is King, we must remain secure in the knowledge that no power on earth or heaven can ever stop his Word. Remember, Jesus is King, who reigns over the earth and heavens right now. The glory and power of the government is only a reflection of his glory and power.
Let us prayerfully resist anything that would exalt government or politicians as a god or gods. And let us praise the Lord that no power on earth or heaven can ever stop the increase of his Word, and the work of his disciples (which is us). Because Jesus Christ is King, we must have no other gods before him.
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 523.
 Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 245.
 Ibid., xii.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 336.
 Ibid., 340.
 Ibid., 341.
 Flavius Josephus, 523-524.