The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Romans 13

Rom 13:1

Vv 1-7: Christian obligation to the government: Forbidding the Christian from taking vengeance and allowing God to exercise this right in the last judgment [cf Rom 12:19-21] might lead one to think that God was letting evildoers have their way in this world. Not so, says Paul -- for God, through governing authorities, is even now inflicting wrath on evildoers (cp Tit 3:1; 1Pe 2:13-17; Jer 27:17; 29:7; Mat 22:21; John 18:36; Acts 4:19,20; 1Ti 2:1,2).

See Lesson, Politics and voting.

SUBMIT: Here and in v 5 Paul seems to avoid using the stronger word "obey", because the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government. A circumstance may arise in which he must choose between obeying God and obeying men (Acts 5:29). But even then he must be submissive to the extent that, if his Christian convictions do not permit his compliance, he will accept the consequences of his refusal.

AUTHORITIES: Gr "exousia", a general term with no technical meaning: the "powers".

AUTHORITY: Gr "archon": those who are "first", leaders, or rulers. Sw 2Co 10:8; 13:10); 2Th 3:9, about ecclesial authorities, which may be included here.

THE AUTHORITIES THAT EXIST HAVE BEEN ESTABLISHED BY GOD: While the Christian has his citizenship in heaven (Phi 3:20), he is not on that account excused from responsibility to acknowledge the state as possessing authority from God to govern him. God permits the developments of the state -- even the tyrannical and those who have usurped the authority of other rulers: Dan 4:17; Deu 32:8; John 19:11; Rev 13:7.

ESTABLISHED: Gr "tasso" = to arrange in an orderly manner -- a military term.

Rom 13:2

HE WHO REBELS AGAINST THE AUTHORITY IS REBELLING AGAINST WHAT GOD HAS INSTITUTED, AND THOSE WHO DO SO WILL BRING JUDGMENT ON THEMSELVES: Refusal to submit to one's government is equivalent to refusing to submit to God. Those who resist God's ordained authority can expect to suffer condemnation by the government. This is really the indirect judgment of God (cf Mat 26:52). For example, capital punishment was ordained in Gen 9:5,6, and it has not been abolished by God.

WHAT GOD HAS INSTITUTED: "With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please" (Jer 27:5).

Rom 13:3

FOR RULERS HOLD NO TERROR FOR THOSE WHO DO RIGHT... THEN DO WHAT IS RIGHT: This seems to take no account of the possibility that government may be tyrannical and may reward evil and suppress good. A few years after Paul wrote these words, Nero launched a persecution against the believers at Rome; multitudes lost their lives, and not because of doing evil. Later on, other emperors would lash out against Christians in several waves of persecution stretching over more than two centuries.

One way to deal with the problem is to assume that Paul is presenting the norm, that is to say, the state as functioning in terms of fulfilling the ideal for government, which is certainly that of punishing evil and rewarding or encouraging good.

Another, and better, possibility: consider the principle of Rom 8:28, whereby God finds ways to bring good out of apparent evil, so that even in the event that the state should turn against the people of God and persecute them cruelly and unjustly (as in 1Pe 3:12-17), God will bring good out of that evil too, in the long run. Sometimes God may speak more clearly out of prison cells and graves than out of the lives of believers who live securely and at peace with their rulers!

AND HE WILL COMMEND YOU: Possibly the "he" here could refer to God -- who is, after all, the ultimate ruler and authority in any case!

Rom 13:4

HE DOES NOT BEAR THE SWORD FOR NOTHING: Even ecclesial elders did similarly: ie Peter with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Or Paul: "Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit" (1Co 4:21).

Rom 13:5

THEREFORE, IT IS NECESSARY TO SUBMIT TO THE AUTHORITIES, NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF POSSIBLE PUNISHMENT BUT ALSO BECAUSE OF CONSCIENCE: There are two reasons a Christian needs to be submissive to his government. One is that the government may punish him if he is not submissive. The other is that God may punish him. God's punishment may be during the Christian's lifetime or after that at the judgment seat of Christ.

"Conscience" refers to the believer's knowledge of God's will and purpose.

Rom 13:6

THIS IS ALSO WHY YOU PAY TAXES, FOR THE AUTHORITIES ARE GOD'S SERVANTS, WHO GIVE THEIR FULL TIME TO GOVERNING: It is the duty of the believer to pay his taxes (cp Mat 17:24; 22:21). Building on his allusion to conscience, the apostle explains the payment of taxes on this very basis. The clearer the perception of the fact that the governing authority is God's servant, the greater appears the reasonableness of providing support by these payments. The man in authority may be unworthy, but the institution is not, since God wills it. Without financial undergirding, government cannot function.

GOD'S SERVANTS: For the third time Paul speaks of rulers as God's servants, but this time he uses a different word, one that means workers for the people, or public ministers. But the relationship to God is added in keeping with the emphasis made in v 4. Their work is carried on under God's scrutiny and to fulfill God's will. These public servants give their full time to governing; therefore they have no time to earn a living by other means. This is a reminder of the truth that "the worker deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7).

Rom 13:7

GIVE EVERYONE WHAT YOU OWE HIM: Some of the reluctance to pay taxes to the Romans that was associated with political unrest in Palestine may have infected Jewish believers at Rome, accounting for Paul's specific allusion to the subject.

TAXES: Sig tribute paid to a foreign ruler (it appears in Luke 20:22 in the incident concerning paying tribute to Caesar).

REVENUE: Pertains to indirect taxation in the form of toll or customs duties. It forms a part of the word for tax gatherer.

RESPECT: Veneration due to the highest persons in the state. Or possibly, the "fear" due to the very highest authority, God Himself.

HONOR: A somewhat lesser term of respect, due to all officials.

Rom 13:8

Vv 8-10: The obligation of love: Although Paul has previously stressed the need for love (Rom 12:9,10), he now returns to this theme, knowing that he cannot stress too much this essential ingredient of all Christian service. The connection of the present paragraph with the foregoing section is indicated by the use of the word "debt", which has the same root as "owe" in v 7. There is a neat transition to the very highest demand on the child of God. He owes submission and honor to the civil authorities, but he owes all men much more!

LET NO DEBT REMAIN OUTSTANDING: This translation avoids the danger of giving a wrong impression, such as might be conveyed by the KJV's "Owe no man any thing." It is not wrong to incur debt, for Jesus said, "Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Mat 5:42). The NT does not forbid borrowing, only the practice of charging exorbitant interest on loans and failing to pay debts (Mat 25:27; Luke 19:23). On the other hand, to be perpetually in debt is not a good testimony for a believer, and to refuse to pay one's debts is absolutely wrong.

EXCEPT THE CONTINUING DEBT TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER: Now comes the exception to the rule. There is a "continuing debt to love one another", and that debt can never be marked "paid in full"! Why? Because the believer has been the recipient of the infinite and undeserved and unearned agape-love of the Father (John 3:16), and such love is too great ever to be repaid! All the believer can do is live out his life, making regular "payments" on the staggering debt, by giving love to his fellowman -- even while knowing that such payments cannot even cover the "interest" on the principal owed! Paul seems at pains to emphasize that there is no point where the believer can say, "There, I've done enough!"

The usual emphasis is on one's duty to love his fellow believers, but the wider reference -- to the whole world -- is also to be found (Gal 6:10; 1Th 3:12).

FOR HE WHO LOVES HIS FELLOWMAN HAS FULFILLED THE LAW: It is our obligation to seek the welfare of our fellow human beings (cf Rom 8:4). The Mosaic Law required the same thing (Lev 19:18, cf Mat 5:44; 22:39,40; Col 3:14), and found its perfect fulfillment in the "law" of Christ. In Christ the preeminent fruit of the Spirit is this same love (Gal 5:22,23).

Rom 13:9

Paul summarizes the "commandments" enshrined in the Ten Commandments that have to do with treatment of one's neighbor -- all of which are themselves summarized further by the Lord's words, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mat 22:39,40; cp Lev 19:18). "Jesus rebuked the narrow nationalistic interpretation of the word 'neighbor' in the parable of the good Samaritan. The literal meaning of neighbor is 'one who is near.' Both the priest and the Levite found their nearness to the stricken man a source of embarrassment (Luke 10:31,32), but the Samaritan saw in that same circumstance an opportunity to help his fellowman. In the light of human need, the barrier between Jew and Samaritan dissolved. Love provides its own imperative; it feels the compulsion of need" (EBC).

Rom 13:10

LOVE DOES NO HARM TO ITS NEIGHBOR: This is an understatement, for love does positive good. But the negative form is suitable here, because it is intended to fit in with the prohibitions from the law (v 9).

LOVE IS THE FULFILLMENT OF THE LAW: By concluding with the observation that love is the fulfillment of the law, Paul returns to the same thought he began with (v 8).

What, then, is the relationship between love and "law"? In Christ the two concepts, which seem to have so little in common, come together. To love others with the love that Christ exhibited is his new commandment (John 13:34). And if this love is present, it will make possible the keeping of all his other commandments (John 14:15). Love promotes obedience, and the two together constitute "the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2).

Rom 13:11

Vv 11-14: The believer's obligation is to live in loving and hopeful expectation of the return of his Lord -- not in the excesses of sin that are all too common in the world. In short, he should love his fellowman, but not the "world" in which that fellowman lives!

AND DO THIS: "This" refers to all of Rom 12 and Rom 13.

WAKE UP FROM YOUR SLUMBER: We must not be lulled to sleep by indulgence in pleasure, nor be influenced by the suggestion that the Lord delays his coming (Mat 24:48). "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled" (1Th 5:6; cp 1Co 15:34).

OUR SALVATION IS NEARER NOW THAN WHEN WE FIRST BELIEVED: Salvation is the goal of our faith (1Pe 1:9): we await the Saviour from heaven (Phi 3:20). The believer should not be like a child looking for a clock to strike the hour because something is due to happen then. He is content to do his duty every day, knowing that with every passing moment the end is that much closer to realization.

Rom 13:12

THE NIGHT IS NEARLY OVER; THE DAY IS ALMOST HERE. SO LET US PUT ASIDE THE DEEDS OF DARKNESS AND PUT ON THE ARMOR OF LIGHT: The line of thought closely resembles the treatment in 1Th 5:1-11. Even as darkness is symbolic of evil and sin, the light fittingly describes those who believe in Christ. Paul pictures the believer as one who anticipates the day by rising early. His night clothes are the works of darkness, the "old man" (Eph 4:22), the deeds that belong to the old life. The garments to which he transfers, however, are unusual. They are likened to armor as in 1Th 5:8 and Eph 6:12,13 (cp 2Co 10:4) -- suggesting that his walk through this world as a child of light involves a warfare with the powers of darkness. Even though the actual "day" of Christ's coming, or the "day of salvation" (2Co 6:2), has not yet arrived, the believer belongs to that day (1Th 5:8), and his transformed life -- even in this present evil world -- is a living anticipation of the glory that will then be revealed (2Co 3:18; 4:4).

Rom 13:13

LET US BEHAVE DECENTLY, AS IN THE DAYTIME: It is quite plain from Paul's statement here, and our experiences will bear this out, that the night seasons, with their seductive cover of darkness, are the times for most sins of excess. But the believer is not a child of darkness -- the night finds him safe at home, in bed! Sins enough are to be found in the broad daylight; he will not go out at night looking for them!

NOT IN ORGIES AND DRUNKENNESS, NOT IN SEXUAL IMMORALITY AND DEBAUCHERY, NOT IN DISSENSION AND JEALOUSY: There may be an intended order here: Intemperance in drink or drugs weakens the natural inhibitions, and this often leads to sexual sin. Such sins, augmented by a guilty conscience, may frequently result in an attitude of contention and quarreling. The committing of sin does not bring rest to the spirit but rather dissatisfaction; this betrays itself by finding fault with others, as though they are responsible. And so every ruined life is characterized by bitterness and hate, as though something else (one's parents, one's friends, or the smooth-talking stranger in the bar) -- but never oneself -- has brought the sinner to his or her sorry end!

Rom 13:14

RATHER, CLOTHE YOURSELVES WITH THE LORD JESUS CHRIST: Paul returns to the theme of putting on the armor of light (v 12). Every believer puts on Jesus Christ when he or she is baptized (Gal 3:27; cp Eph 4:23,24).

DO NOT THINK ABOUT HOW TO GRATIFY THE DESIRES OF THE SINFUL NATURE: Still, dedicating oneself positively is not all that is necessary. There must also be a deliberate turning away from desires that indulge the flesh (cf Rom 6; 2Ti 2:22; 1Pe 2:11).

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