Paul, now one chapter into his inspired instruction to the Romans on how to live, explores the origin of earthly authority as we begin chapter thirteen. He makes it clear that the source of all authority is God. Any power that ruling bodies have on earth has been given to them by God, and it is therefore our duty to submit to them.
Not only does submitting to government demonstrate our capacity for obedience (a quality that God seeks in each of us), but it also helps to maintain order in civil culture. Submitting to the government is an idea that would have been difficult for many Christians at the time. You may know that the Roman government looked down on the Jews as a people and as a nation. As a minority, the Jews were seen by the Romans as a small group of religious people that needed to be managed and to a degree, controlled. In the dramatic scene played out by Pilate where Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion, elements of this attitude can be seen (John 18:28 – 19:22).
Even though some Christians at the time may have resented the Roman government and its subsequent representatives, they are encouraged to obey them in alignment with the commandments of God. For the same authority that calls upon them to believe in Jesus Christ calls on them to obey the ruling bodies on earth. And the same rewards and consequences are to follow for disobedience to these bodies, as seen in Romans 13:4-7: “For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” If this last phrase in Romans 13:7 sounds familiar to you, that is likely because it echoes the same concept as spoken by Jesus in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The conclusion in Romans 13 is simple. We honor God by obeying the government, paying taxes, and being responsible citizens. Governing bodies such as Nebuchadnezzar’s, where the authorities sought to find fault with the Jews, namely Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, and Daniel (Daniel 3:8-18 and 6:1-9), are exceptions to this rule as they attempt to supersede the authority of God.
This guidance leaves little to no room for what is today common protest against governing bodies. God calls upon us to be obedient, which includes receiving punishment for lack of obedience and reward for obedience. This is a simple and clear concept, easily explained and very accessible to readers of all ages, cultures, and timelines. It applies to all people, at all times, everywhere. God is our Creator and source of all authority and power. Christ, as part of the three persons of the Godhead, identifies Himself as an authoritative benefactor as well in Matthew 28:18: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” In the sense that God gave Jesus the authority mentioned in this verse, God has also given it to our local and national governing bodies.
The final portions of the chapter provide gentle and righteous encouragement to love your neighbor. This includes being good, honest, and kind to your fellow man, showing them love and honor in your dealings with them. The fact that Paul mentions that love is the fulfillment of the law bridges the gap yet again from old law to new, showing that Christ was part of God’s extended plan from the beginning.
Romans 13 concludes with the encouragement to be like Christ because the end is nearer now than it was at the first. This statement likely had a bigger impact on the readers of the time than it does on us. Their proximity in timer to Christ was much closer and reading the warning from Paul that “The night is far spent, the day is at hand” would have persuaded the Christians at that time that Christ was coming back very soon. This would have been very easy for them to believe because many of them would have remembered the time not long before when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Paul’s expression about the night being far spent suggests that the waiting for Christ to come back was nearly over but of course we know now that the waiting was only beginning. In fact, where we are now, in this moment, is a place where our salvation is “nearer than when we first believed.” This is something we very much have in common with first century Christians.
It behooves us then to also obey the strongly encouraged words of Paul to imitate Christ in all we do: “…let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
These words encourage us, much like the words in Romans chapters 6, 8, and 12, to walk and live in the spirit. Where do we think we are going? Do we think we are heading towards college, family life, or retirement? Of course, many of us are heading towards these things. But God’s Word in Romans asks us to think deeper, to reach higher. Because we are definitely heading towards one of two places: heaven or hell, and with this ultimate and finite fact, our prime efforts in life are best spent preparing for eternity rather than making plans and expending energy that have their ends in the physical world and with our mortal bodies. Our bodies, our homes, our earthly possessions after all are wasting away further and further each day.
Let us conclude this study with the words of Jesus on the matter: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”