Lesson 22: Navigating This World (Romans 13)

Chapter 12 began the application portion of Paul’s letter to the saints in Rome, and application was needed. After all, if Christians are to have an obedient faith (Romans 1.5) and “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.4), then some instruction in how to obey and walk is needed. The primary application in chapter 12 seems to be regarding relationships within the church, instruction needed given the temptation for arrogance and pride that arise as different groups are transformed into “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12.5). However, not all of Paul’s instructions have to do with inter-church relationships (see Romans 12.14-21). Paul will return to the relationships among brethren in chapters 14-15, but chapter 13 provides further instruction for how saints can live transformed lives among the world.

The Saint’s Responsibility To Government (13.1-7)

This passage has often been abused over the centuries. It has been used to justify persecution by various governments, but more frequently the passage has been ignored. As Douglas Moo opined, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1–7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.” (New International Commentary on the New Testament). This section is difficult for many Christians, particularly as we see our own government move further away from godly principles. What must be kept in mind is that our submission to government has nothing to do with the merit of our leaders, but with honoring the will of God.

Paul’s reason for giving these instructions is unclear, but a few options present themselves:

  1. The gospel has redefined the people of God from a physical nation to all those who will put their faith in Christ (whether Jew or Gentile, Romans 1.16-17). That could pose political problem for Paul’s Jewish brethren, who had enjoyed sanction of their religion by the Roman authorities. Rome recognized Jerusalem as a “temple city”, i.e. a city devoted to a particular deity. As such, Rome would not carry imperial standards into the city and Jews throughout the empire were allowed to worship Jehovah according to the Law. So, what did this mean for God’s people who aren’t saved by the Law, but through faith in Christ? How would the Roman authorities treat this religion once it was fully established that Christianity wasn’t a sect of Judaism?
  2. Paul may have been guarding against a misunderstanding of his instruction that they must “not be conformed to this world (or age)”. Since governments are of this world/age, then perhaps God’s people don’t need to heed them?
  3. Paul could be preparing them for difficult days. Jewish Christians had already experienced difficulties in the capital during the reign of Claudius (see Acts 18.2). However, when Paul wrote this epistle it was during the early days of Nero’s reign. Later in his reign Nero would descend into madness and violently persecute Christians, but the early days of his reign were typified by peace as he heeded the words of his advisor, Seneca. However, trouble was on the horizon, perhaps even alluded to in Romans 13.6-7 as Rome experienced significant unrest over taxes around the same time that Paul penned the letter.

Perhaps none of these are the reason for Paul addressing the matter. Perhaps he was simply aware that all men are prone to resent their rulers. Whatever the reason, we must consider that the New Testament is uniform in its exhortation for God’s people to submit to earthly authorities (see Matthew 22.21; 1Peter 2.13-15; Titus 3.1; 1Timothy 2.1-2).

The passage itself is not difficult to understand and has an easy sequence to follow:

  1. The command: be subject to the governing authorities (vss. 1a, 5a).
    • “Paul calls on believers to “submit” to governing authorities rather than to “obey” them; and Paul’s choice of words may be important to our interpretation and application of Paul’s exhortation. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have authority over us… It is this general posture toward government that Paul demands here of Christians. And such a posture will usually demand that we obey what the governing authorities tell us to do. But perhaps our submission to government is compatible with disobedience to government in certain exceptional circumstances. For heading the hierarchy of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all subordinate “submissions” must always be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to him.” (Douglas Moo, NICNT)
    • A Christian’s primary allegiance is to Christ (Rev. 1.5), so if rulers make laws opposed to His will we must obey Christ (Acts 5.29). However, if it’s simply a matter of government making rules we don’t like, we must obey and even honor rulers because our King says to do so.
  2. The reason: all authority is instituted by God (vss. 1b).
    • This principle is stated in both the OT (Daniel 2.21; 4.17,25,32) and the NT (John 19.11).
    • There’s an unstated principle in these words: if God institutes all authorities, then He will also hold those authorities accountable for their actions. Thus, the vengeance principle found in Romans 12.19-21 would apply not only to individuals, but to nations.
  3. The consequences: punishment for resistance, approval for doing what is good (vss. 2-4, 5b).
    • The principles found in these verses are general ones. We know of many governments that oppress their people, but the general rule is that governments exist to administer justice among the people. This is the function that God has given them, and why they exist.
    • The Christian has two reasons to submit to the governing authorities (vs. 5b):
      • To avoid God’s wrath, which can be given by the designated authorities (vs. 4).
      • Because of conscience, i.e. the saint knows that this is the will of God.
  4. Application (vss. 6-7)
    • The issue of taxes may provide insight into the entire reason for Paul addressing the matter. “Those listening to his letter read out in Rome itself would know well enough what that reason was—the abuses, particularly of indirect taxation, which were causing increasing unrest in the capital at that very time. Paul must have been reasonably well informed of current affairs in Rome and would be well aware that Christian merchants and traders associated with the Jewish “superstition” were in a particularly vulnerable situation. Failure of a number of Christians to pay even an inflated tax might draw the authorities’ attention to the little congregations and put them at risk. Paul’s advice is not entirely clear as to whether he would have his readers pay excessive taxes without protest; but certainly his intention is clear that what the state could levy as a tax, indirect or direct, ought to be paid faithfully.” (William Lane, WBC)
    • The wise man gave this instruction to his son: “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise, for disaster will arise suddenly from them, and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?” (Proverbs 24.21-22) Paul’s instructions amount to the same: we are to give all their “due” because God says we should, not because we want to.

So, what does this mean for a Christian’s obligation to his government if that government is wicked and/or abusive to its citizens? I offer the following thoughts:

  • Don’t be surprised. We’ve already been told to expect persecution and that what God has in store for us trumps anything we must endure now (see Romans 8.31-39).
  • Don’t take God’s prerogative into your own hands. Remember, it is He who establishes all authorities, thus He will judge and hold them responsible. If vengeance is due, He will repay (see Romans 12.19-21).
  • Remember that the gospel is the most important thing, not our preferences or even our rights. Thus, we should strive to “live peaceably with all” because that provides the greatest opportunity for others to hear the gospel (see 1Timothy 2.1-7).
  • Be submissive to the government in all things, unless that would entail disobedience to Christ (see Acts 5.29).

The Saint’s Responsibility To Society (13.8-10)

Paul established that the saint has a responsibility to the ruling authorities, but what about society at large? How are God’s people to respond to the world at large; a world that may be antagonistic and hostile to God’s people (12.14)? In a word, love.

Loving others “fulfills the law”. This harkens back to the Lord’s words in Matthew 22.39-40 and is the basis for His commandment to His disciples (see John 13.34). Furthermore, Paul shows how the great commandment found in Leviticus 19.18 are the foundation for the final four of the Ten Commandments. Moral commandments are given because God is concerned with the effect our actions have on our own souls, and on the lives of others.

The Saint’s Responsibility To Be Ready (13.11-14)

I have no doubt that Paul was referencing the Lord’s return in this section. But, did Paul believe that the Lord’s return was imminent? We do disservice to the text if we read into it immediate predictions of Jesus’ return. As we’ve seen throughout the letter, Paul based his arguments on God’s revelations in the Old Testament. Consider what the OT revealed about the future:

  1. Establishment of the Messianic Kingdom (Daniel 2.44-45).
  2. Inclusion of the nations (Daniel 7.14).
  3. Persecution by world powers (Daniel 9.24-27).
  4. God’s judgment on world powers (Daniel 9.27).
  5. The end (Daniel 12.1-4).

From Paul’s perspective, the Kingdom had been established and the nations were being brought into the people of God. What was next? Persecution and deliverance. I believe that Paul’s words should be read in that context; trials were ahead, but so was deliverance!

The important point to take from the text is not an identification of when Christ will return, but the moral behavior that is expected of God’s people. If “the day is at hand” then we need to walk in the light. If we only think of the present, these instructions are difficult. But if viewed in the light of eternity, each of us should strive to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh”.

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