Apologeet.nlRomans 13 — Thou Shalt Obey…
What Romans 13:1-7 Might Mean
Sometimes you just want to see whether there are more possibilities than one. Welcome to episode 4 about Romans 13:1-7, in which we are going to do just that! Examining the text to see what else it might mean.
We have looked at history and how our predecessors made of this text, and in the last episode, episode three, we’ve seen what this texts cannot mean. If you haven’t watched these videos I would suggest you do that first. It will make it easier to understand this video. You’ll find the links in the description below.
Early Church Needs to Survive
When I was thinking about the possible reasons of what Paul meant I came cross someone writing about the situation the early church was in. Christians haven’t always been the favourite of the rulers. Those nasty Jesus lovers who teach that you need to love your neighbour. Those people who actually treat their servant as brothers and sisters and in the process teach people they should only bow for God. Well, you probably know what I mean right?
Paul was very much aware of the fact that Jesus told His followers to go out into the world and preach the Gospel to all nations. Might it be that Paul’s concern was that the church would diminish faster than it could grow? What do I mean? Well, the church was still so young that there were just a handful of church leaders. Imagine that the rulers, most likely Nero at that time, started a full-blown campaign against the church. It would have been easy to target that handful of leaders and the rest might fall quickly after.
So when writing this letter, which happened around the same time Luke was writing Acts, he might have been tactical concerning politics. The small group of Christians wasn’t physically strong enough to resist Rome. Also, they didn’t have much to say in the political arena as well. Still, their teaching about Jesus’ second coming could easily be misunderstood by the emperor. I already said in part 2 that Claudius, the previous emperor, had expelled the Jews from Rome because he viewed them as dangerous. Claudius and later Nero viewed Christians as a Jewish sect, so that suspicion of revolution was always a concern in the minds of these men. Maybe they wanted to overthrow the government in order to help bring in Christ’s kingdom.
I said tactical and by that I mean that Paul full well knew that Christians would always obey God more than men. He might have written the text in such a way that a ruler wouldn’t be shocked reading it. Remember, Paul writes this letter to the Romans who live in… You’ve got it, Rome, the seat of power at that time. The letter talks a lot about the heavenly kingdom and about morals that weren’t quit the same as the morals lived out by the powers in Rome.
Changes are that, when you send a letter like that to Romans, the rulers get a hold of it. And just imagine, Nero reading all this stuff about other kingdoms, different values and obeying God above all. He would be furious and might have sentenced all Christians to death. But now Nero comes to chapter 13. You and I get it right? We will put God above all others. We all understand that Nero wasn’t the good guy in this story. But Nero (or one of his servants) reads it and thinks: “Hmmm, those Christians got it right! I am in this place because God ordained it… Heck! I am God! Those Christians are not such a big threat as I used to think. Let’s not kill them… Well at least not all of them.”
Don’t get Punished for Being Bad
Let’s assume you are a burglar, but you also profess to be a follower of Christ. What kind of witness will that be for the world around? Might it be that Paul actually build on the theme as given by Peter in 1 Peter 4:12-19. Peter says in verse 15 and 16 “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”
In other words, don’t shame the body of Christ by misbehaving yourself. There is no pride in being imprisoned for murder, theft or other clearly wrong stuff. But if you end up in jail, or when they hurt or kill you because you were doing Christ’s works, you can rejoice because it is to the glory of God.
Following this theme Paul might have tried to actually tell us not to do stupid things like partaking in riots or theft. Romans 13 seems to be in line with Peter’s teaching. Just obey the government when possible, and if you get caught doing honourable things for the glory of God you don’t have to be ashamed. In the end all disciples, except John, got in trouble doing the Lord’s work. We do not have to talk about them and feel ashamed. They’ve all got in trouble for preaching the good news.
What kind of legacy would we have if all Jesus’ first disciples died because they rebelled against governments or because they simple hurt other people. I do know of a religion that has this very legacy. Let me assure you, most of the radical followers of this religion are convinced that this behaviour is normal. So, they still run around, doing exactly the same as their examples of the old times, only now with modern day weapons.
No, that was not the kind of religion neither Jesus nor Peter had in mind. Paul understood this completely and with them, he might have tried to show the first Christians that they had to live according to the Kingdom values.
In the Ideal World
Another thing that pops up in my mind is that Paul might have written this with the intention to picture the ideal situation. We can all be pretty sure that during Paul’s lifetime the governing powers weren’t that great, to say it mildly. Just to name two rulers: Herod and Nero. Do I need to say more?
Actually we almost always picture Nero as a total deranged figure, but he wasn’t the only one. The Roman emperors were in a strange habit to act like complete lunatics. When you have some time on your hand you should read a bit about these emperors.
These rulers couldn’t care less about God’s word. They lived their lives without any restrains. Paul’s writing couldn’t possibly mean that he had these rulers in his mind. These rulers did punish people for just merely being in the way, while at the same time they hired an assassin to murder their opponents. In that light it doesn’t sound strange that Paul is writing this to show how the government should ideally function. It could.
It might also be that Paul wrote this down because he wanted to show some basic rules that governments should follow. We’ve talked about these so-called universal rules in part 2 of this series. Remember when we talked a little about Thomas Aquinas in part 2? You can’t remember? No worries, you’ll find the link to that part in the description below.
Anyway, He came up with this idea that the universal laws are given by God. Laws like, don’t murder or steel. Maybe Paul had this in mind when he said that evildoers will be punished by the governing power. And to be honest, most rulers do punish murderers or thieves. If they wouldn’t, their reign would end pretty quick I guess.
If this is why Paul wrote this text than it would mean that we should obey the rulers in that limited range. So, if the ruler says not to hurt people, you should just obey them.
Paul Trusted the Governing Power not to do Wrong
Canicus commented on my last video with a rather interesting thought. Let me just quote him because I think the way he ordered his thoughts are quite clear:
Part of the problem with this passage that leads to the variety of interpretations are:
- At the time St. Paul wrote Romans the Empire had not yet undertaken a systematic persecution of Christians. [which is correct because the first systematic persecutions started around 67AD after Nero had burned Rome]
- No living Roman emperor had yet demanded worship as a God; the practice was restricted to deceased emperors, so the concillia had not yet begun terrorizing the people to burn a little incense. Further, Christians were still considered Jews and were exempt from the pinch of incense to deceased emperors.
- The Romans had acted as a defence for Christians against the Jews. It had been more a boon than a bane at that point. [Although we need to recognise that Pilate was a Jew hater, but he was replaced after he caused an uproar]
- He asserts the Roman authorities are λειτουργοί [Lei-tour-gòi, servant of the government who do public work on behalf of the people. This word is translated in verse 6 with servants] of God, which had taken the sense of someone who conducts a formal rite to God.
- He quite plausibly from this context expects that the Romans would not punish right behaviour, ‘against which there is no law’ as he asserts in Galatians 5.23.
- St. Paul is later executed by the same authorities that he had praised [By this Canicus meant that Paul praised them not for their moral attitude but he thought them to be praiseworthy for the divine service of restraining lawlessness].
From this I think St. Paul meant quite literally the Christians had nothing to fear from the Romans. The severe persecutions hadn’t happened yet. I suspect his view of the Roman authorities was closer to the view in I Maccabees 8 with respect to Christians. He did not know, and had no reason to suspect, that Nero would use Christians as party lights and that emperors would soon begin demanding worship as gods while they were still alive.
Bad readings stem from forgetting this and a bad view of inspiration. When someone cites this passage for X, I remind them, ‘Yes, and those same Roman authorities made his head bounce three times.’ It also makes it easier to read limitations into the text and not abuse it.
Thanks Canicus for sharing these thought with us!
New Life in Christ
Okay, finally I would like to look at the broader context in which this passage is written. I know, we always should do that, so let’s do it now. The book Romans can be split up in three parts:
Doctrine and Theology — Chapters 1-8
God’s Plan for Israel — Chapters 9-11
The New Life in Christ — Chapters 12-16
For time’s sake wesare not going into the first two parts, but we dive right into part 3, the new life in Christ. Chapter 13 isn’t the start of this section, so let’s start a little earlier, at chapter 12. After explaining doctrine, theology and the situation of Israel, Paul starts with the famous text:
(Romans 12:1-2 NIVUK)
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
The main statement Paul is making here is, that if you are a real Christian, you are dead. That’s not a threat, no, it is the logical consequence of giving your life to Christ. You should no longer be conformed to the world, you should be dead for the world and alive in Christ. Paul says that a Christian is a living sacrifice. Yes sure, Christians still breath the same air and eat the same food as non-Christians, but they are already offered. A Christian is not offered in the same way people offer a lam, but a Christian is offered in a way that is pleasing to God. This means that a Christian no longer determines the plans for his or her life. No, it is the Lord who has a plan. A plan that surpasses this earthly world, with all its suffering and immorality, into eternity. Yes, it transcends our physical, mortal bodies.
Knowing this, we can read on. Now we know that we should conform to Christ instead of the world … What is chapter 12 saying? Love one and other; hate what is evil; cling to what is good; bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse; do not repay anyone evil for evil. Nowhere we read that we should have any intention of overthrowing the rulers. Paul is clearly emphasising the Kingdom values as taught by our Lord, Jesus Christ.
What is more, Paul is teaching that we shouldn’t long to take revenge on those who do us wrong. Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord. These are clearly Gospel minded teachings. You live your life as a pleasing sacrifice to God. That is the Christian world-view and it is far removed from the materialistic, naturalistic world-view of the world around us. Now Paul brings it a little closer. What does that mean for every day life? Let’s move on to chapter 13.s
Whatta you know! There is a government above you, and you have to deal with it. You may not like it, and the government may not even like you. But hey! You are not from this world. God, Who is sovereign over you is also sovereign over the rulers of this world. And it turns out that the government actually wield the sword and have the right to punish those who do evil. After chapter 12 Paul doesn’t have to explain that we live in a broken world. A world in which we more and more find ourselves in a lousy situation.
It might well be that Paul is trying to teach us that we should just deal with the issues. Don’t go around and refuse paying taxes because you want to make a point. Don’t neglect your duties towards the government. In all this, the Kingdom values should be emphasised at all times. In light of all this, it is very interesting to note that Paul concludes the whole obeying stuff with verses 8-10:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
Paul is addressing the Christians. Yes he mentions the government, but no, he is not talking to the government. The Christians were still in the minority and as such, Paul seems to suggest, they need to concentrate on the real important issues. Is government stuff not important? Yes, but for now they, the Christians, couldn’t do much. So focus on each other, strengthen each other, encourage and do good to each other. Live out those values our Lord has given to us.
Why? Because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. In other words, the day of Jesus’ coming is near, verses 11-14.
These were the possibilities of this text. And again, don’t think I agree or disagree with these views, I just wanted to sum them up for us to see that there are more ideas than just one. Did I miss a possibility? Let me know in the comments! I prefer reading the comments on Odysee.com because I have trouble loading YouTube and Bitschute because of our reception here. You’ll find the link to my Odysee channel in the description below. There you also find my invitation to create an account on Odysee. If you accept that invitation we both receive some free LBC.
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God bless you!