Listen To Article
By Branson Parler
Flags have been in the news a lot lately. In light of the shooting at Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, serious questions have been raised about the way the Confederate flag in still used by some southern states. With the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, rainbow flags have been seemingly ubiquitous, from the White House to Facebook profile pictures. And this past week a Baptist pastor in North Carolina has been making the news because he is urging churches who have a flag pole to fly the American flag below the Christian flag. This is obviously causing some controversy among Christians, but it’s been interesting for me to think about this move in light of the early church’s message in the book of Acts, the book through which I and another elder at my church have been preaching.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon ends on the triumphant note that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord. In other words, Jesus is king over everyone: the church, the Jewish political leaders, various Roman underlings, and even Caesar. Jesus is king! The gospel, from the beginning, makes a statement about who has the ultimate authority.
This comes through very clearly in the Psalms that the church uses to help people understand who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father, bringing all things (including his enemies) under his feet (Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:34-35). The kings of the earth rage and plot, but God rules over them through his Messiah, Jesus (Psalm 2:1; Acts 4:25-26). This is why the disciples and the early church can speak and live with boldness: King Jesus sits on the throne, and his resurrection secures their own resurrection. If they lose their life because of their boldness to speak for him, it is not loss but gain.
The early church didn’t just fly their Jesus flag, so to speak, when they felt like the political leaders of their day had made a mistake or had disagreed with them. It was a normal part of their life and proclamation of the gospel. For Peter and the disciples of Jesus, the message was clear: Jesus is our king and everyone else sits below him. Caesar, Herod, Pilate, the high priests, everyone.
We should be clear: Peter and friends weren’t just out to stick their thumb in Caesar’s eye or to take charge of the Roman Empire either. It’s not that they were out to be subversive toward Caesar. They were so subversive that they weren’t even trying to subvert Caesar because they didn’t need to. His kingdom would pass away and crumble, like all other human kingdoms. The church was the new kingdom ushered in by Jesus, the new people that God was birthing in the midst of the old order that was passing away. They thought proclaiming the good news of Jesus and living life together as the church was more important than trying to gain control of the Roman Empire or the broader culture.
As Christians in America we need to be careful. We shouldn’t just put Jesus above our country only when our country does something we don’t like, such as defining marriage a certain way or fighting a war with which we disagree. Jesus is king whether we agree with everything or nothing done by the President, Congress, or the Supreme Court. Our message, like that of Peter’s, should be consistent across the changes that come and go in the American political scene—Jesus is Messiah and Lord!
If I’m honest, though, my own life is probably a lot like that pastor who just now realized that Jesus’s flag should come first. That is, in my own life, I raise the Jesus flag only in moments of crisis or confrontation. When faced with the stark recognition of my own limits and the limits of all earthly kingdoms, I suddenly remember to put Jesus at the top. This gets to the heart of the matter: the problem is not just that people “out there”—Caesars, Supreme Courts, or Presidents—won’t submit to Jesus’s lordship, but that I see how my own heart is often fickle. I can point the finger at others, but I need to confess the way I daily displace Jesus from his rightful place through my sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
So rather than trying to make a statement with a flag and a flagpole, I think we could learn a lot from the early church. In word and deed they were a living signpost pointing to the love, grace, and good news that Jesus was king. Following them, may we renounce sporadic statements calculated to bother one side of the political aisle and embrace the consistent proclamation that unsettles everyone, Christians included, that Jesus is Lord and Messiah.
Branson Parler teaches theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.