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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Romans 13

Verses 1-14

Chapter 13


13:1-7 Let everyone render due obedience to those who occupy positions of outstanding authority, for there is no authority which is not allotted its place by God, for the authorities which exist have been set in their places by God. So he who sets himself up against authority has really set himself up against God's arrangement of things. Those who do set themselves against authority will receive condemnation upon themselves. For the man who does good has nothing to fear from rulers, but the man who does evil has. Do you wish to be free of fear of authority? Do good and you will enjoy praise from authority, for any servant of God exists for your good. If you do evil, then you must fear. For it is not for nothing that the man set in authority bears the sword, for he is the servant of God, and his function is to vent wrath and vengeance on the man who does evil. So, then, it is necessary for you to submit yourself, not because of the wrath, but for the sake of your own conscience.

For this same reason you must pay your taxes too; for those set in authority are the servants of God, and continue to work for that very end. Give to all men what is due to them. Give tribute to those to whom tribute is due; pay taxes to those to whom taxes are due. Give fear to those to whom fear is due. Give honour to those to whom honour is due.

At first reading this is an extremely surprising passage, for it seems to counsel absolute obedience on the part of the Christian to the civil power. But, in point of fact, this is a commandment which runs through the whole New Testament. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we read: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and for all who are in high positions; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way." In Titus 3:1 the advice to the preacher is: "Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work." In 1 Peter 2:13-17 we read: "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is Gods will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.... Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor."

We might be tempted to argue that these passages come from a time when the Roman government had not begun to persecute the Christians. We know, for instance, in the Book of Acts that frequently, as Gibbon had it, the tribunal of the pagan magistrate was often the safest refuge against the fury of the Jewish mob. Time and again we see Paul receiving protection at the hands of impartial Roman justice. But the interesting and the significant thing is that many years, and even centuries later, when persecution had begun to rage and Christians were regarded as outlaws, the Christian leaders were saying exactly the same thing.

Justin Martyr (Apology 1: 17) writes, "Everywhere, we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes, both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Jesus. We worship only God, but in other things we will gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that, with your kingly power, you may be found to possess also sound judgment." Athenagoras, pleading for peace for the Christians, writes (chapter 37): "We deserve favour because we pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, until all men become subject to your sway." Tertullian (Apology 30) writes at length: "We offer prayer for the safety of our princes to the eternal, the true, the living God, whose favour, beyond all other things, they must themselves desire.... Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection for the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest--whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish." He goes on to say that the Christian cannot but look up to the emperor because he "is called by our Lord to his office." And he ends by saying that "Caesar is more ours than yours because our God appointed him." Arnobius (4: 36) declares that in the Christian gatherings "peace and pardon are asked for all in authority."

It was the consistent and official teaching of the Christian Church that obedience must be given to, and prayers made for, the civil power, even when the wielder of that civil power was a Nero.

What is the thought and belief at the back of this?

(i) In Paul's case there was one immediate cause of his stressing of civil obedience. The Jews were notoriously rebellious. Palestine, especially Galilee, was constantly seething with insurrection. Above all there were the Zealots; they were convinced that there was no king for the Jews but God; and that no tribute must be paid to anyone except to God. Nor were they content with anything like a passive resistance. They believed that God would not be helping them unless they embarked on violent action to help themselves. Their aim was to make any civil government impossible. They were known as the dagger-bearers. They were fanatical nationalists sworn to terrorist methods. Not only did they use terrorism towards the Roman government; they also wrecked the houses and burned the crops and assassinated the families of their own fellow-Jews who paid tribute to the Roman government.

In this Paul saw no point at all. It was, in fact, the direct negation of all Christian conduct. And yet, at least in one part of the nation, it was normal Jewish conduct. It may well be that Paul writes here with such inclusive definiteness because he wished to dissociate Christianity altogether from insurrectionist Judaism, and to make it clear that Christianity and good citizenship went necessarily hand in hand.

(ii) But there is more than a merely temporary situation in the relationship between the Christian and the state. It may well be true that the circumstances caused by the unrest of the Jews are in Paul's mind, but there are other things as well. First and foremost, there is this--no man can entirely dissociate himself from the society in which he lives and has a part. No man can, in conscience, opt out of the nation. As a part of it, he enjoys certain benefits which he could not have as an individual; but he cannot reasonably claim all the privileges and refuse all the duties. As he is part of the body of the Church. he is also part of the body of the nation; there is no such thing in this world as an isolated individual. A man has a duty to the state and must discharge it even if a Nero is on the throne.

(iii) To the state a man owes protection. It was the Platonic idea that the state existed for the sake of justice and safety and secured for a man security against wild beasts and savage men. "Men," as it has been put, "herded behind a wall that they might be safe." A state is essentially a body of men who have covenanted together to maintain certain relationships between each other by the observance of certain laws. Without these laws and the mutual agreement to observe them, the bad and selfish strong man would be supreme; the weaker would go to the wall; life would become ruled by the law of the jungle. Every ordinary man owes his security to the state, and is therefore under a responsibility to it.

(iv) To the state ordinary people owe a wide range of services which individually they could not enjoy. It would be impossible for every man to have his own water, light, sewage, transport system. These things are obtainable only when men agree to live together. And it would be quite wrong for a man to enjoy everything the state provides and to refuse all responsibility to it. That is one compelling reason why the Christian is bound in honour to be a good citizen and to take his part in all the duties of citizenship.

(v) But Paul's main view of the state was that the Roman Empire was the divinely ordained instrument to save the world from chaos. Take away that Empire and the world would disintegrate into flying fragments. It was in fact the pax Romana, the Roman peace, which gave the Christian missionary the chance to do his work. Ideally men should be bound together by Christian love; but they are not; and the cement which keeps them together is the state.

Paul saw in the state an instrument in the hand of God, preserving the world from chaos. Those who administered the state were playing their part in that great task. Whether they knew it or not they were doing God's work, and it was the Christian's duty to help and not to hinder.


13:8-10 Owe no man anything, except to love each other; for he who loves the other man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, You must not commit adultery, You must not kill, You must not steal, You must not covet, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in this saying--You must love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbour. Love is, therefore, the complete fulfilment of the law.

The previous passage dealt with what might be called a man's public debts. Romans 13:7 mentions two of these public debts. There is what Paul calls tribute, and what he calls taxes. By tribute he means the tribute that must be paid by those who are members of a subject nation. The standard contributions that the Roman government levied on its subject nations were three. There was a ground tax by which a man had to pay, either in cash or in kind, one-tenth of all the grain, and one fifth of the wine and fruit produced by his ground. There was income tax, which was one per cent of a man's income. There was a poll tax, which had to be paid by everyone between the ages of fourteen and sixty five. By taxes Paul means the local taxes that had to be paid. There were customs duties, import and export taxes, taxes for the use of main roads, for crossing bridges, for entry into markets and harbours, for the right to possess an animal, or to drive a cart or wagon. Paul insists that the Christian must pay his tribute and his taxes to state and to local authority, however galling it may be.

Then he turns to private debts. He says, "Owe no man anything." It seems a thing almost unnecessary to say; but there were some who even twisted the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," into a reason for claiming absolution from all money obligations. Paul had to remind his people that Christianity is not an excuse for refusing our obligations to our fellow men; it is a reason for fulfilling them to the utmost.

He goes on to speak of the one debt that a man must pay every day, and yet, at the same time, must go on owing every day, the debt to love each other. Origen said: "The debt of love remains with us permanently and never leaves us; this is a debt which we both discharge every day and for ever owe." It is Paul's claim that if a man honestly seeks to discharge this debt of love, he will automatically keep all the commandments. He will not commit adultery, for when two people allow their physical passions to sweep them away, the reason is, not that they love each other too much, but that they love each other too little; in real love there is at once respect and restraint which saves from sin. He will not kill, for love never seeks to destroy, but always to build up; it is always kind and will ever seek to destroy an enemy not by killing him, but by seeking to make him a friend. He will never steal, for love is always more concerned with giving than with getting. He will not covet, for covetousness (epithumia, G1939) is the uncontrolled desire for the forbidden thing, and love cleanses the heart, until that desire is gone.

There is a famous saying, "Love God--and do what you like." If love is the mainspring of a man's heart, if his whole life is dominated by love for God and love for his fellow men, he needs no other law.

THE THREAT OF TIME ( Romans 13:11-14 )

13:11-14 Further, there is this--realize what time it is, that it is now high time to be awakened from sleep; for now your salvation is nearer than when you believed. The night is far gone; the day is near. So, then, let us put away the works of darkness, and let us clothe ourselves with the weapons of light. Let us walk in loveliness of life, as those who walk in the day, and let us not walk in revelry or drunkenness, in immorality and in shamelessness, in contention and in strife. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ as a man puts on a garment, and stop living a life in which your first thought is to gratify the desires of Christless human nature.

Like so many great men, Paul was haunted by the shortness of time. Andrew Marvell could always hear "time's winged chariot hurrying near." Keats was haunted by fears that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:

"The morning drum-call on my eager ear

Thrills unforgotten yet; the morning dew

Lies yet undried along my fields of noon.

But now I pause at whiles in what I do

And count the bell, and tremble lest I hear

(My work untrimmed) the sunset gun too soon."

But there was more in Paul's thought than simply the shortness of time. He expected the Second Coming of Christ. The Early Church expected it at any moment, and therefore it had the urgency to be ready. That expectancy has grown dim and faint; but one permanent fact remains--no man knows when God will rise and bid him go. The time grows ever shorter, for we are every day one day nearer that time. We, too, must have all things ready.

The last verses of this passage must be forever famous, for it was through them Augustine found conversion. He tells the story in his Confessions. He was walking in the garden. His heart was in distress, because of his failure to live the good life. He kept exclaiming miserably, "How long? How long? Tomorrow and tomorrow--why not now? Why not this hour an end to my depravity?" Suddenly he heard a voice saying, "Take and read; take and read." It sounded like a child's voice; and he racked his mind to try to remember any child's game in which these words occurred, but could think of none. He hurried back to the seat where his friend Alypius was sitting, for he had left there a volume of Paul's writings. "I snatched it up and read silently the first passage my eyes fell upon: ' Let us not walk in revelry or drunkenness, in immorality and in shamelessness, in contention and in strife. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, as a man puts on a garment, and stop living a life in which your first thought is to gratify the desires of Christless human nature.' I neither wished nor needed to read further. With the end of that sentence, as though the light of assurance had poured into my heart, all the shades of doubt were scattered. I put my finger in the page and closed the book: I turned to Alypius with a calm countenance and told him." (C. H. Dodd's translation.) Out of his word God had spoken to Augustine. It was Coleridge who said that he believed the Bible to be inspired because, as he puts it, "It finds me." God's word can always find the human heart.

It is interesting to look at the six sins which Paul selects as being, as it were, typical of the Christless life.

(i) There is revelry (komos, G2889) . This is an interesting word. Originally komos ( G2889) was the band of friends who accompanied a victor home from the games, singing his praises and celebrating his triumph as they went. Later it came to mean a noisy band of revellers who swept their way through the city streets at night, a band of roysterers, what, in Regency England, would have been called a rout. It describes the kind of revelry which lowers a man's self and is a nuisance to others.

(ii) There is drunkenness (methe, G3178) . To the Greeks drunkenness was a particularly disgraceful thing. They were a wine-drinking people. Even children drank wine. Breakfast was called akratisma, and consisted of a slice of bread dipped in wine. For all that, drunkenness was considered specially shameful, for the wine the Greek drank was much diluted, and was drunk because the water supply was inadequate and dangerous. This was a vice which not only a Christian but any respectable heathen also would have condemned.

(iii) There was immorality (koite, G2845) . Koite ( G2845) literally means a bed and has in it the meaning of the desire for the forbidden bed. This was the typical heathen sin. The word brings to mind the man who sets no value on fidelity and who takes his pleasure when and where he will.

(iv) There is shamelessness (aselgeia, G766) . Aselgeia ( G766) is one of the ugliest words in the Greek language. It does not describe only immorality; it describes the man who is lost to shame. Most people seek to conceal their evil deeds, but the man in whose heart there is aselgeia ( G766) is long past that. He does not care who sees him; he does not care how much of a public exhibition he makes of himself; he does not care what people think of him. Aselgeia ( G766) is the quality of the man who dares publicly to do the things which are unbecoming for any man to do.

(v) There is contention (eris, G2054) . Eris ( G2054) is the spirit that is born of unbridled and unholy competition. It comes from the desire for place and power and prestige and the hatred of being surpassed. It is essentially the sin which places self in the foreground and is the entire negation of Christian love.

(vi) There is envy (zelos, G2205) . Zelos ( G2205) need not be a bad word. It can describe the noble emulation of a man who, when confronted with greatness of character, wishes to attain to it. But it can also mean that envy which grudges a man his nobility and his preeminence. It describes here the spirit which cannot be content with what it has and looks with jealous eye on every blessing given to someone else and denied to itself.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 13". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.