By Pastor Glenn Pease
On Sept. 17, 1787 the leaders of our nation signed a document, which is to our freedom as Americans what the New Testament is to our freedom in Christ. They signed the Constitution Of The United States, and that is now the longest lasting Constitution every drawn up by leaders of a major nation. It is not perfect, and it has been changed considerably. Some of it is outdated and as obsolete as the musket, but it is still the solid foundation for most all of the values we treasure as citizens of the this great land.
Abraham Lincoln said of this valued document, "Let it be taught in the schools, in the seminaries, and in colleges, let it be written in primers, in spelling books, and in almanacs, let it be preached from the pulpits, proclaimed in legislative halls and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation." In other words, if you are truly an American, you will base your legal and political convictions on this document, just as you base your theological convictions on the Bible. There is much truth to this, but the analogy does break down, for the Constitution is manmade, and as good as it is, it is not God's Word, and so it can be, and has been changed. Nevertheless, it is one of the wonders of the world in its impact on man's freedom under government. Constitutions all over the world have been developed by using it for a guide.
The Apostle Paul was fortunate to have lived at a time when he had the blessing of a form of government that was based on law and not men. Roman law was concerned about justice and fairness. Paul appealed to Caesar because of his reputation for justice and fairness. Augustus Caesar, whom God used to make the decree that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, was known for his zeal in justice. He stayed in court until nightfall, and when he was ill he would have himself carried to court, or sometimes have the cases brought to his sick bed in the palace. He fought hard to make and enforce laws that encouraged and protected the family. He was strongly anti-divorce, and he was strict on limiting the obscene in the theatre.
Tiberius Caesar followed in his footsteps and spoke often to the Senate about the sanctity of the law and their duty to uphold it. The point is not that pagan Rome and it rulers were perfect or ideal. The evil and folly are abundantly evident, but the point is, they had an empire that was the most powerful and longest lasting in history because they had law and order, and because justice was highly prized. This was a life-saver for Paul because he was often in serious trouble with the Jews who wanted him legally eliminated. There are ten occasions in the book of Acts where they plotted to kill Paul.
On this occasion of our texts he was under arrest because the Jews were furious over his preaching that God loved the Gentiles equally with the Jews. When they heard this, their hatred was so aroused that they shouted, "Rid the earth of him! He is not fit to live." The Roman guards saved Paul's life, for they were in the process of inflicting their judgment of capital punishment upon Paul. We see this clearly stated in 21:31 where we read, "While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar." These government agents saved Paul from the religious mob, but they could not grasp what the riot was all about, and why the Jews were so angry at Paul.
They decided to get at the truth by beating it out of Paul. Paul did not see a lot of value in being rescued from one beating to take another, and so he said to the Roman who was preparing him for a flogging, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who has not been found guilty?" Paul is not doing research on the law at this point. He already knows the answer. He is asking this to reveal his rights as a Roman citizen. His question set off an immediate alarm. The Centurion went to his commander, and he came and talked to Paul about his citizenship. This put a definite damper on the inquisition, and all those connected with the incident made themselves scarce. They were hoping Paul would never recognize them, for they had already violated his rights by putting him in chains.
Paul could have taken them to court and many heads could have rolled because of this legal blunder. Paul did not press charges, however. After all, they just saved his life, and they assumed that a man being beaten to death by a mob was probably a low life ruffian, and not a citizen of the empire. Paul was just happy to be in their hands where there was an obligation to treat him with dignity and justice. From this experience of Paul we learn two important points about our rights as citizens. Both points can make us treasure our status under the United States Constitution as Paul treasured his status under the Constitution of Rome. The first point is-
I. RIGHTS WILL BE VIOLATED.
Paul was under arrest because the Jews hated his freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They could rid themselves of this man's rights by ridding Paul of his most basis right of all-the right to life. The Romans stopped them from beating him to death in chapter 21, but in chapter 23 we read that 40 men made a vow not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Few men in history have been object of such a sinister conspiracy as was Paul. He was saved, and again, it was by the help of the Romans. It is no wonder that Paul loved the Gentiles, for they were God's agents in keeping him alive so that he could take his testimony into all the world. Had he not been under the protection of the laws of Rome, he would have been an early martyr.
Paul lived in a world, just as we do, where everyone wants freedom, but where few want everyone else to have it. People have their prejudices and hatreds, and they want the right to deny rights to those they despise. This means the violation of rights is inevitable in a world where you have any kind of conviction or conduct that is not acceptable to others, and especially if the others are in authority. The Jewish leaders and the masses of Jews all felt Paul was a pain, and that he should be eliminated like a headache. They were the majority, and they had the power, and so they set out to get him killed. Majority rule is only good if the minority are protected from the majority. If one cannot be a minority without being crushed by the majority, the minority has no right to be non-conformists.
Paul was seen as having no rights by the majority, and so they were going to destroy him. He did the same thing to the minority group of Christians when he was in power and had the authority to do so. He rounded them up and put them in prison, and even persecuted them to death. Life is a terror for minorities when the majority has the power to violate their rights. Paul's chances of survival were about as slim as that of an ice cube in Death Valley. It was because the leaders of Israel were determined to violate his rights. Paul was in the same position the 13 Colonies were in when England was in power over them. Their very existence was threatened because the majority power was determined to rob the minority of their rights.
When the Colonies drew up the Declaration of Independence they were doing the same thing Paul was doing when he asked if it was legal to flog a Roman citizen who had not been found guilty. The Declaration says, "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed." Governments exist for the sake of promoting people's rights and in preventing the loss of those rights.
Government exists because the violation of basic human rights is inevitable in a fallen world. Paul would have been sunk without government help to protect his rights. God used government to save Paul on the physical level. God choose this period of history for the spread of the Gospel because it was the best time for government protection of human rights. United States has been one of the greatest sources of power for spreading Christianity into all the world. And it is because it has a form of government that promotes and protects basic human rights. It is a never-ending battle to protect these rights, for man is ever drifting toward gaining the power to violate the rights of others.
That is why the Declaration of Independence says, "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to altar or abolish it, and to institute a new government." People have a right to a government that protects their rights, and when it doesn't, they have a right to change it. They may do so by peaceful means or by revolution, which ever one it takes to do it. Our Constitution provides for peaceful means of changing the government. The people do not exist for the government, but the government exists for the people, and for the sake of preserving their rights.
One of the reasons we have such a good form of government is because it is based on the full awareness that the violation of rights is inevitable. Our government is based on the reality of man's sinful nature. Our Constitution assumes that the President will be a sinner and a tyrant if he can get enough power, and so it is designed to prevent that. It assumes that the Congress will be corrupt and rob people of their rights, and that the courts will be likewise. So it is designed with a balance of power to prevent any branch of government from getting so powerful that the other branches cannot control it.
The reason the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution was because our founding fathers knew that even American leaders would eventually become corrupt and begin to violate the rights of the people. Jefferson said in a letter to Madison, "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth..." Many great men felt this was not necessary. Alexander Hamilton felt is was a waste of time, but Jefferson argued, "I have a right to nothing which another has a right to take away." He knew the depravity of man would lead to the violation of rights because times would change, and they would not all be united as they were then.
Paul was a part of the Jewish community just a few years before this confrontation. He was one of their leaders who was doing their dirty work in persecuting the Christians. Now is the object of their wrath. Without government protection of his rights he would have been a goner. His former friends were now his foes, and they were out to violate his right to even be alive on the planet. The one lesson that history teaches clearly is that people in power will violate your rights unless they also are under a law that restrains them from that abuse. Even godly people will use their power to violate their rights if they are not restrained by law. The Constitution is that law that limits all powers from such abuse, just as the court of Rome limited what the Jews could do to Paul. Next we see-
II. RIGHTS SHOULD BE VINDICATED
The word vindicate is from the Latin and means to lay claim to and defend. It goes way back to the Roman law where it meant to assert one's legal right. This is what we see Paul doing. He had a right to be treated with dignity and respect until he was proven guilty of some crime and thus subject to punishment. He was innocent until proven guilty. The mob wanted him dead. The Romans were under pressure and considered him a public nuisance. One man could be eliminated and everyone could get back to business as usual. But Paul refused to satisfy the majority and give up. He had his rights as an individual, and he claimed those rights, and by so doing gave us as example of Christian assertiveness.
Paul did not have any rights as a Christian. There were no laws that said Christians have to be respected and treated with dignity, and to be given a fair trial if charged. John the Baptist had no trial at all, but was killed at the whim of Herod. James and Stephen were killed by brute force without a trial. Paul was not spared because he was a Christian. It was because he was a Roman citizen. Had he not been, he would have been beaten by the Romans, and then probably turned over to the Jews to finish the job. It was his citizenship under a government of law that respected human rights that spared him. Blessed are those Christians through history who were citizens of the kingdom of God, and also citizens of a nation where they had a Constitution that protected their basic rights.
The reason we honor the first President of our land is because he not only led our troops to victory in the Revolutionary War, but he led the battle to win a national Constitution for us. He was not knowledgeable about government, but he was a national hero, and he was selected as President of the Constitutional Convention. His partner was Madison, and he was very opposite from him. Washington was 6 feet tall when the average American was just over 5 feet tall. He was like Saul in Israel. Madison was more like Zaccheaus. He was very scrawny and little. But he knew everything to be known about government together they became a potent pair. One became known as the Father of our country, and the other Father of our Constitution. And both became President of our nation.
We need to see that their dream was surrounded with nightmares. Just as we see Paul coming to Jerusalem with high hopes of sharing the Gospel, and instead there is a riot and an attempt to kill him. People do not always respond as we dream, and the origin of our Constitution is not all glorious and glamorous. The delegates who met in 1787 in Philadelphia were not the easiest group to work with. You had men like Charles Pinchny from South Carolina who was a brash young smart aleck who irritated his elders because he happened to be almost as smart as he thought he was. Many were so full of pride. John Mercer of Maryland was so conceited that he only stayed a couple of days. He decided that the rest were a bunch of doddering old fools, and so he left.
Luther Martin was such a drinker that when he took the floor to speak he rambled endlessly and aimlessly, and he was against everything. Along with the truly marvelous there were tragically mediocre men deciding the fate of Americans future. Only about 20 of the 55 men who met had a sense of urgency about their mission. They argued and fought all summer, and by Sept. 17, when it was completed, only 39 delegates were there to sign it. The rest got fed up and left. Some of those who signed it did not like it. Even after it was signed there was an unbelievable battle to get it ratified by the states. Finally, however, this nation became, because of all this hassle, a nation where men do not rule, but law rules.
In nations where men rule you are at the mercy of those men. If they are prejudiced and do not like you or your way of life, or your faith, they can boot you out or kill you. When the rights of men are in the hands of other men, those rights will be violated. But if the rights of men are guaranteed by law, then those rights will be vindicated. Thanks to our Constitution we can do what Paul did. We can protest the decisions of men, and even officials of the government who make decisions that deprive us of the rights guaranteed by our Constitution.
Is it right was the question of Paul, and by his action he said that Christians are to claim their rights under law. They are to demand a government what the government exists to give, and that is protection of their rights. These officers may have hated it that this trouble making little Jew had to be treated with respect, but they had no choice. His rights were not a matter of the subjective feelings of men, but of the objective law. These men were bound by law to grant Paul his rights.
We have the right to criticize the leaders of our land, and they cannot persecute us, for we are guaranteed that right. We can even take the government to court. Some Christians have strange ideas about going to court. They take Paul's rebuke of the Corinthians because they were going to pagan judges to solve their deputes, and they apply it to our culture where going to court is one of our basic rights. If you want to see the issue from another perspective, look at Paul in the last chapter of Acts. He is in court most of the time defending his right to be a Christian, and to preach the Gospel. He applied to Caesar, which means he went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend his rights. Paul was not anti-court, but he was just anti-foolishness and selfishness, which made Christians look bad before the world.
If Paul was alive today as an American, he would be in love with our system, and he would use it to claim his rights as an American citizen. Would he use the courts? Of course he would. In our system of government the going to court is the only way there is to destroy unjust laws. The legislature has the power to make laws. If they are bad laws that rob people of their constitutional rights, there is no way to get rid of it apart from taking the issue to court. The court alone can rule that it is unconstitutional. So if nobody takes it to court, the unjust law can be enforced against thousands and nobody can stop it.
For a Christian in our culture to say that he will never go to court is to say that he will never fight injustice, and never fight for the rights of the Constitution. He is saying that he will let evil reign and not lift a finger to prevent it, even though God in His providence has given him the power to do so. He who knows to do good and does it not is sinning, said James. Do not use Paul's anti-court experience as an excuse to neglect his pro-court conviction, which made him one of the great freedom fighters of history. Do not hide behind the petty perversions of the Corinthians as an excuse for passiveness in the face of rights violations. Paul never took a Christian to court even though he had a good many reasons to do so, but he did spend a great deal of time in court fighting for his rights and his freedom.
Christians in America have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money fighting for their rights in court. The Baptists have been in the forefront of the battle, and everyday they are involved in cases where religious freedom is at stake. Only about a third of the world has the kind of rights that we have guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. We would not have them if Christians did not go to court to prevent those rights from being violated. Madison wrote to Jefferson in 1788, "Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done." The only solution he said is a form of government not governed by men, but by laws. It is the court that determines what is just or unjust. If you never go to court against what is unjust, you undermine the very foundation of our freedom.
The Constitution says there are only two things you can do that make you a traitor to your country. You have to go to war against it, or be a supporter of others who are at war with it. This is the only crime defined by the Constitution. In England the king could declare anything he did not like to be treason, and then have the offender hung. The founding fathers said we will have none of that here. You have to be a real enemy of the government before it can touch you. The result is, Americans have the greatest liberty in criticizing their government. We are not ruled by men, but by law, and it says that men cannot rob us of our rights even if they are powerful and hate what we do with our rights. The leaders of our land are under the law just as much as those who are led.
Jews for Jesus recently won a case in the Supreme Court. The Los Angeles airport refused them the right to pass out their literature and to witness to people of their faith. They asked, "Is it legal to stop an American citizen from sharing his faith with others?" The Constitution says that it is illegal to stop them, and so they won their case. You cannot stop an American citizen from sharing his faith publicly. Even if all the government leaders, and all the rich and powerful people say that they hate what you believe, they cannot stop it. It is because we are not ruled by leaders, but by law, and the law says we have the right.
Because they misunderstand the role of government and their rights, Christians have given up some of their rights. The laws of our land have limited the freedom of government, but not of the people. The law says the government cannot teach and promote religion in public schools. It is the government that cannot do it. The people can do as they please. If a Christian student wants to study the Bible and pray, he is free to do so. The law protects that right. He can pray without ceasing, or use study hall for prayer or Bible study. The Christian is free to pursue any religious subject of his choice, and to share his faith with anyone who will listen, and that includes the teachers. It is the government that is limited. The people have full religious liberty, but they don't take advantage of it and claim their rights.
The right of religious education is supported by our government. The government has no right to teach it, or to make anyone take religious instruction. But all children have a right to receive it, and so the public schools have to release children to get religious instruction if the parents want it. The government is not free to choose. They have to cooperate with those who want to exercise their rights. Because Christians claim this right you have released time classes where thousands of children leave school to get religious instruction. Unfortunately, many Christians do not claim this right. We are privileged people, but no privilege is of much value if it is not used. One of our great privileges is the right to go to court, and we should do so if our rights are being violated.
It can be costly to fight for your rights. It cost Jews for Jesus a quarter of a million to win their case. Jesus paid the ultimate price for the ultimate right, which was the right to become a child of God. As Christians we have a right to confess our sins, be forgiven, and become children of God. As Americans we have a right to share this good news with anyone. Thank God for rights, and thank God for the protection of those rights. We have much to celebrate, and that is why we do celebrate what Jesus did on the cross in communion, and that is why we should join our nation in celebration of the Constitution.