Paul has just called the church to unity and peace with all men. He has taught them to treat one another with love and humility. Now he opens a new element of the discussion by treating of a topic that may require a little thought from us to understand why it takes such prominence at this point:
Let every soul be subject to the authorities having over, for there is not authority except under God, but those that exist are established by God. (13:1)
Why does Paul move to a discussion of submission to governmental authorities at this point? Well, the immediate connection is with the concept of peace and unity with all men that he has already presented. Here is another area where it is important to seek peace. Paul admonishes Christians not to be unruly citizens who cause disturbances in the peace. We ought to recognize the authority of government over us and submit to it as much as we can.
The basic purpose of government, Paul tells us, is to protect righteousness by rewarding those who do right and punishing those who do evil. Surely we as Christians will not run afoul of a government ordained by God for that purpose. It would be a sad testimony for the church if we did.
But this immediate connection with the previous passage is not the whole of the picture that we should grasp. Perhaps it might strike some readers of Romans as slightly odd that Paul would place as much emphasis on this subject as he does. If we had to list the five or ten most important aspects of righteousness and morality in Christian practice, would submission to government enter into the list? Perhaps not, but perhaps we also ought to appreciate the importance of this subject a bit more in general.
However, if instead of thinking only in the absolute sense of all morality and Christian practice, we think according to the focus that Paul has demonstrated throughout this book on the matter of Jew and Gentile, perhaps we will understand the emphasis here a bit better. The truth is that this is a very important matter, especially for Jews to consider.
Why would the Jews particularly need to have a special emphasis given to them concerning this matter of submission? Just think about what the Jewish mindset was in regards to political relations with other nations. What did it mean to be a Jew? It meant that God, from all the nations in the world, had chosen your people to be His special possession. It meant that your nation was exalted above all the others to be God’s special treasure. You were given the promises of ruling in the Promised Land and over all other peoples around. Your king was God’s chosen anointed one. If those from other nations wished to enter into the fullest measure of God’s blessings, it was by coming to you and even by becoming Jews themselves.
Now, with this way of thinking ingrained into you for many generations, it would be very difficult indeed to humbly give up the prominence and self-rule among the nations of the world as Paul’s gospel now leads you to have to do. Paul has shown us that the Jews as a nation are no longer to be considered as having this exalted position over the Gentile nations. Their right to political autonomy is no longer in place. The rejection of the Messiah by the Jewish nation has resulted in God’s turning away from them as a nation.
This was a very difficult thing for the Jews to accept. We see this as a very significant matter among the Jews during the ministry of Jesus. It was a source of conflict and controversy as Jesus taught:
Jesus, therefore, was saying to those Jews who had believed in Him, “If you abide in My word, truly you are My disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered Him, “We are the seed of Abraham, and we have not yet been enslaved to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will become free.’” (John 8:31-33)
As Jesus was teaching about spiritual matters of freedom from sin and bondage to wickedness, the Jews were only thinking in terms of political freedom, a matter of great importance in their mind, especially in its religious implications. Did you notice how they naturally connected political freedom to their heritage as the seed of Abraham? For them, the promises to Abraham necessarily resulted in the guarantee that they would have political rule over all nations. It would be unthinkable for them to lose that self-rule and become subject to a foreign power. Paul’s dealings with the true nature of what it means to be the “seed” of Abraham will have grave impacts on this way of thinking by the Jewish nation.
The truth is, of course, that the Jews had indeed become subjects of foreign rule. We know that long ago the Jews were taken into exile to Babylon, and the reality is that they never fully recovered their independence in a settled manner. They were very renowned and famous for their resistance to foreign rule, though, and this formed a large part of the history of their people in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ (and the time immediately following). They fought bitter wars to protect and re-establish their freedom. They were sooner ready to die than subject themselves willingly to a foreign yoke. They held on with great fervor to the hope that their nation would be re-established as sovereign over itself and even over the other nations around. The nations that did establish their authority over the Jews were never long free from problems of their uprising and revolt. It was an ongoing problem for them always.
We see the mindset of the Jews concerning this matter also in other ways in the gospels. For instance, many of you will have heard before the explanation of the hatred of the Jews for the “publicans and tax-collectors.” These men were those who were considered as traitors to their nation because they had accepted the foreign rule and gone to work for them, collecting taxes from the Jews to give to the foreign power. This was to accept an unacceptable thought, that the Jews were indeed subject to another nation.
The Jews who opposed Jesus on one occasion sought to make use of the national animosity towards foreign authority by trapping Jesus in a question about paying taxes to the foreign government:
Is it lawful for us to give taxes to Caesar, or not? (Luke 20:22)
We know how Jesus so wisely and ably defeated this attempt to snare Him in words, but the point we make now is simply that this issue was very volatile and controversial among the Jews. They revolted at the thought of foreign dominion, believing that as God’s chosen people, no other nation had any right to claim authority over them.
This was the mindset not only of the Jews who opposed Jesus, but also of His own disciples:
And behold, a man was in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and godly, awaiting the consolation of Israel. (Luke 2:25)
Jesus, therefore, knowing that they were going to come and seize Him so that they might make Him king, departed again to the mountain Himself alone. (John 6:15)
But we were hoping that He was the one who was going to ransom Israel. (Luke 24:21)
They were asking Him, saying, “Lord, if in this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel.” (Acts 1:7)
So, then, the hope of the disciples for salvation was always tied to their expectations of the restoration of the glory of Israel, even up to the very time when Jesus had been resurrected and was returning to glory with His Father. They were awaiting this as the promise and hope from God for them as a nation. They looked forward to the coming of Messiah as the coming of the Son of David who would restore them to their former glory. David was the king above all others in their history who had brought them power and authority, subduing their enemies and achieving glory for the nation. The coming son of David was expected to do likewise, and more.
Jesus Himself sought to broaden the minds of the Jews concerning this matter during His ministry, demonstrating that the Messiah was not only the son of David, but much more. Ultimately, the Messiah was not only David’s son, but David’s Lord. Paul likewise opens this very book of Romans by showing that though Jesus was the son of David, he was also the Son of God. The Messiah, David’s son has come, but the understanding of the Jews concerning what this son of David would do was not accurate. He did not come to restore the hope of Israel at this time.
Paul has shown that the expectation of the Jews concerning their nation as having again a special position in this world is not to be fulfilled as they expected. The times have changed. God’s plan has moved on, and the present time no longer holds the Jews in such prominence. They as a nation are not the true spiritual heirs of the promises to Abraham. The Jews are going to have to accept this fact and submit themselves to the authorities that are now over them. It is for this reason that Paul here makes such an emphasis upon the fact that these authorities are established by God Himself.
The Jews are going to have to accept the fact that God has set other nations in the position of authority over them. They must not try to rebel against that, but rather, they must see and accept God’s plan in the history of the world, which now allows the Gentiles to have prominence and even rule over the Jews politically. They are going to have to pay taxes, after all, to these governing authorities. They are going to have to honor those to whom honor is due as having rule over them.
Paul is also wanting to demonstrate that this is no contradiction of the promises of God to Israel, and he does so in an interesting way to begin with. The law has often been prominent in Paul’s thought so far, and it comes in here again, but in a new way. Paul is going to tell us here that the governing authorities over Christians have an important purpose: Fulfilling the law. How will unbelieving governments fulfill God’s law? The government is established by God to make sure that evil is punished and righteousness is rewarded and protected. Paul argues that as Christians, we should be loving our neighbors, thereby fulfilling the law, and thus not having conflict with the government. They have the same basic purpose as we do, in this sense. Though we know, of course, that there are exceptions to this general picture, Paul’s general argument nonetheless remains true.
The second fact Paul brings before us in defense of God’s promises is that the present time is not the end. Rather, we live in a time of transition, where God’s promises and plans are not yet fully achieved. Paul instructs us as Christians to understand that the fullness of God’s kingdom has not yet been implemented on the earth. The fact is that the Jewish hopes and expectations of a restored glory upon this earth were not all wrong, by a long stretch. Though they now have been shown that it is not only to the physical seed of Abraham that the hope is given, it is still as true as ever that the true spiritual seed of Abraham will inherit the whole earth as their own dominion in God’s kingdom. And perhaps the believing Jews and Gentiles together might feel like they should have the political authority upon the earth and not have to submit to unbelieving rulers. There is a good basis in God’s promises for some of this way of thinking. However, that time simply is not yet fully come. We have already seen some emphasis in earlier chapters upon the need to wait patiently for the future fulfillment of glory, and Paul here will again describe for us our salvation as yet in process of being fulfilled:
And this knowing the time, that the hour is already here to arise from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. For the night advances forth, but the day has drawn near. Let us, therefore, put off the deeds of darkness, but let us put on the instruments of light. (13:11-12)
The day of full salvation is drawing near, and at that time we will receive our full expectation of reigning upon this earth. No ungodly government will ever be in authority over us. We will reign with Christ and inherit the earth as our own with Him. For now, though, we must accept that God has not yet brought this about. For now, our job is to live peacefully and righteously upon the earth, living as light in the midst of a world of darkness. This will mean humbly submitting to the government that God has placed over us, even if that government be not always righteous and often no friend of God. God is working the salvation of the whole world, the redemption of all things, but that full time has not yet come. Let us understand rightly what the current stage is of God’s plan, and let us gladly accept our place in it for the present. Yet let us also see that the full day is dawning and God’s full purposes will one day soon be fulfilled on our behalf.