Romans 13:1 begins let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
This is one of the most difficult passages we will have to face considering the current situation in the world. Obey the authorities? What if the authorities are themselves evil? What if the law itself is wrong? For instance, if the law required an individual to kill another person should that law be obeyed? If there was a law that required the abortion of a baby should that law be obeyed? Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of examples could be presented.
Let’s read Romans 13:2-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
There is no way we can cover all the problems related to our world in these verses. Let’s see what we can do with it and we will reserve the balance for a future sermon. When Paul wrote these words the whole Mediterranean basin was ruled by Rome! The Christian church came into being in the middle of a period called “Pax Romana”. (Meaning the Peace of Rome). There is no way we can cover all that is involved in that idea. Throughout the Empire there was a kind of peace. On the borders there was some fighting but not major warfare. Inside the borders of the empire, peace was maintained with an iron fist. If anyone disturbed the peace the authorities immediately put a stop to it. Someone once said that the Peace of Rome was very similar to the peace found in a graveyard. Any disturbance would be severely punished and repeat offenders were executed.
So why is Paul telling the Roman believers to “be subject” to the government? And instructing them to “do what is good” and they will be treated well by the government. Disobedience would be punished even by God’s wrath.
Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees when they asked if taxes should be paid to the Romans. Jesus asked them to produce a coin. When he held it up he could see that a face was engraved on it. Very much like our modern coinage. Even though Jesus knew the answer he asked them to tell him whose image this was. They replied with the obvious answer, “Caesar’s” they said. Jesus’ instruction? ”Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). They were amazed at his answer. Jesus never advocated resistance to the government, Roman or Jewish. When he was arrested he could have ended the trial with the truth. However he chose to remain silent. During his ministry, a period of about three years, Jesus pretty much avoided the government rather than resist it. Once, the collectors of the temple tax asked Peter if Jesus paid the tax. Peter said, “Yes”. Jesus told Peter that He did not have to pay the tax because He was the King’s son. Nevertheless, Jesus told Peter to go fishing and take the coins from the mouth of the first fish he caught and pay their taxes. (Matthew 17:24-27)
When Jesus was brought before Pilate he would not answer the charges against him. John tells about it in the gospel John 19:10-11 Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
If Pilate were asked where his authority came from he would have answered, “Caesar”, or “Rome”. Jesus changed the situation by pointing out Pilate’s authority came “from above”! Clearly Jesus was saying that Pilate was only there because God allowed him to be there. Through the whole arrest, phony trial and crucifixion Jesus was allowing the illegitimate rulers to exercise power like that Paul referred to in Romans 13. When you resist authority you resist God.
Society without authority is anarchy! Even when the authority is evil it is still operating under a system God established.
Remember, in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was explaining what was about to happen he did not allow his disciples to resist. Peter, in his boldness, drew his sword and cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Jesus’ response was to heal the ear (I’ve often wondered how this man reacted every time he touched his ear). While doing that, Jesus said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?”
(Matthew 26:43) We can see from that statement the authorities, though clearly wrong, were still the authorities! Jesus surrendered to them and allowed them to do whatever they wished. All the while telling his followers that this was the will of God for him.
When the disciples began ministry they were quickly arrested. How did they deal with that? After a phony trial the rulers instructed them to no longer preach the gospel. Peter’s and John’s response? “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). The outstanding characteristic of these two men was that they had been with Jesus. That caused them to be bold even though they were uneducated, common men. The priests were afraid to act against them because it was obvious that this was a miracle God had performed.
However, they did passively resist but they did not expect to escape punishment. They continued to speak the word of God with boldness. When they were again arrested and put in the public prison God sent an angel to open the prison doors. In obedience to the angel they immediately went to the Temple area to preach. When the priests again ordered them to stop preaching the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29-32). Their testimony caused the priests to be extremely angry and to want to kill them. One of the Pharisees a man named Gamaliel provided a defense for them. He pointed out that there had been others who had rebelled against Jewish and/or Roman authorities. These rebels did not survive. Gamaliel’s advice to them was to leave the apostles alone because if what they were doing was of God they would find themselves fighting against God himself. If what they were doing was not of God it would fail on its own. The Counsel responded by bringing the men back into the courtroom where they beat them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore! The council’s actions did not produce the result they wanted. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 5:41-42).
The early apostles’ approach to government’s interference was to preach the gospel publicly and if arrested accept the punishment.
For example, let’s see what Paul did when faced with legal authority. Paul and Silas had traveled to Philippi and on the Sabbath day they went to the river where they believed they would find a prayer group. They were able to bring the gospel to the group and at least one of the ladies, Lydia, accepted Christ.
She invited them to her house to stay. At a later date they were on their way to the place of prayer and found themselves being followed by a slave girl who was used by her owners as a fortuneteller. The slave girl was calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” (Acts 16:17). She kept this up day after day and finally Paul turned on her and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” (Acts 16:18). The result was her owners no longer had an income producing property!
They set out to remedy the problem by attacking Paul and Silas, dragging them into the marketplace before the rulers. The magistrates ordered them beaten with rods and turned them over to the jailer. The jailer was ordered make sure they did not get away.
Now, think about it, what would we do under similar circumstances? Call a lawyer! Demand our “rights”! What these people did, including the magistrates, was clearly illegal. We’ll look at that more in a moment.
The jailer took them into the inner jail fastened them in stocks. Instead of calling for a lawyer and demanding their rights Paul and Silas, around midnight, began praying and singing hymns to God! As they were praying a great earthquake occurred. It was a strange earthquake because it not only shook the jail but it shook open the doors and caused all the chains and stocks to fall off the prisoners.
The jailer woke up as the earthquake was roaring around them and went out to assess the damage. Seeing the jail doors open he drew his sword to take his own life. The Roman authorities would never accept his allowing all those prisoners to escape, earthquake or not. Paul somehow knew what the jailer was about to do and called out to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” (Acts 16:28). The jailer came into the jail and ask Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) I submit to you that this is the most important question anyone has ever asked.
What happened after that was very interesting. Paul and Silas ministered the word of the Lord to all who were in his household. The jailer immediately washed their wounds and he was baptized, with all his family. Instead of returning them to the jail he brought them to his house which apparently was not damaged in the jailhouse earthquake! Now, a side issue, where did the other prisoners go? I submit to you that they also were saved and would not leave until their sentences were taken care of.
By that time the night was passing and it was moving toward daylight. There was much rejoicing since the jailer and his household had believed in God. The magistrates sent the police with orders to let Paul and Silas go. At that turn of events, Paul brought up something that had not been asked! The jailer encouraged them go on their way and they replied “no”. Then Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” (Acts 16: 37). The police hurried back to their bosses and revealed the fact that they had beaten and jailed, without a hearing, Roman citizens!
Paul had a similar experience when he was mobbed in the temple precincts in Jerusalem. He was accused of bringing a Gentile onto holy ground. The Romans rescued them from the Jewish crowd and, in order to find out what really happened, and prepared to apply a Roman lie detector! The Tribune in command that day ordered them to be beaten. Paul’s response was, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). This immediately put an end to Paul and Silas being beaten.
One more example from Paul’s life. When he was detained at the temple by the Romans he was kept, illegally, in custody. The Roman governor liked to talk to Paul and also hoped to receive a bribe to release him. After two years in such confinement a new governor came on the scene and tried to sort things out.
He called for the Jewish leaders to see what charges were held against Paul. When it appeared that Paul was going to be taken back to Jerusalem, where he would be killed, he used the law to his advantage. Here is Luke’s account what Paul said: “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” (Acts 25:8). The Roman governor asked Paul if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem. Again we will turn to what Luke wrote: But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” (Acts 25:10-11). The governor had no choice but to send this Roman citizen to Rome.
Paul had known he would be going to Rome. But he didn’t know, until this moment, that he would travel at the expense of the Roman government.
We cannot know all of the positive results from this move on the part of Paul.
The decision was made to take Paul and some other prisoners by ship to the vicinity of Rome. It’s very possible that if Paul had not been on the ship it would have gone down in the storm and everybody would be lost. After a lengthy storm they jettisoned all the cargo and land the ship on to reef. This put them ashore on the island of Malta. It turns out that the father of the chief men of the island was sick. Paul laid hands on him and he was healed. Many other people were healed by God through Paul.
During his time in Rome Paul was able to rent a house and live there with one or more Roman guards. We will never know the consequences of this living arrangement. That there was positive circumstances goes without doubt. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in Rome. Near the end of the letter, Paul wrote these words All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:22).
All scripture quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.