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Saturday, May 25th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1

(1) Every soul.—A Hebraism for “every person,” though at the same time here, as in Romans 2:9, there is a slight stress upon the fact that man is a conscious and intelligent being, capable of moral relations, and it is especially with reference to these relations that the phrase is used.

Higher powers.—Authorities, i.e., magistrates, the abstract for the concrete.

There is no power.—It is strange that the Apostle seems to go almost out of his way to include even usurped and tyrannical power. He is, however, evidently speaking of the magistracy in its abstract or ideal form. It is the magistrate quâ magistrate, not quâ just or unjust magistrate. In this sense, not only is the human system of society a part of the divinely-appointed order of things, but it partakes more especially in the divine attributes, inasmuch as its object is to reward virtue and to punish vice. It discharges the same functions that God himself discharges, though in a lower scale and degree. Hence Bishop Butler feels himself justified in taking the principles which regulate civil society as an analogy for those which will regulate the ultimate divine disposition of things. “It is necessary to the very being of society that vices destructive of it should be punished as being so—the vices of falsehood, injustice, cruelty—which punishment, therefore, is as natural as society; and so is an instance of a kind of moral government, naturally established, and actually taking place. And, since the certain natural course of things is the conduct of Providence or the government of God, though carried on by the instrumentality of men, the observation here made amounts to this, that mankind find themselves placed by Him in such circumstances as that they are unavoidably accountable for their behaviour, and are often punished and sometimes rewarded under His government in the view of their being mischievous or eminently beneficial to society.” In other words, the machinery of civil society is one of the chief and most conspicuous instruments by which God carries out His own moral government of mankind in this present existence. It may be said to be more distinctly and peculiarly derived from Him than other parts of the order of nature, inasmuch as it is the channel used to convey His moral approbation, or the reverse.

The powers that be.—Those that we see existing all around us.

Verses 1-7


(1-7) Subject unto the higher powers.—Looking impartially at the passage which follows, it would seem at first sight—and perhaps not only at first sight—that the Apostle distinctly preaches two doctrines, both of which are now discredited, the doctrines of divine right and of passive obedience. The duty of obedience is grounded upon the fact that the power wielded by the magistrate is derived from God, and that duty itself is stated without qualification.

What are we to understand by this? Are we to say, for instance, that Hampden was wrong in refusing the payment of ship-money? Or if he was not wrong—and the verdict of mankind has generally justified his act—what are we to think of the language that is here used by St. Paul?
1. In the first place it should be noticed that though the duty of obedience is here stated without qualification, still the existence of qualifications to it is not therefore denied or excluded. Tribute is to be paid to whom tribute is due. But this still leaves the question open, whether in any particular case tribute is rightfully due or not. There may possibly be a conflict of rights and duties, and the lower may have to yield to the higher. All that is alleged is that, primâ facie, the magistrate can claim the obedience of the subject. But supposing the magistrate calls upon the subject to do that which some other authority co-ordinate with that of the magistrate forbids—supposing, for instance, as in the case of Hampden, under a constitutional monarchy, the king commands one thing, and the Parliament another—there is clearly a conflict of obligations, and the decision which accepts the one obligation is not necessarily wrong because it ignores the other. There will always be a certain debatable ground within which opposite duties will seem to clash, and where general principles are no longer of any avail. Here the individual conscience must assume the responsibility of deciding which to obey.

We are not called upon to enter into the casuistry of the subject. It may only be well to add one caution. Any such seemingly direct collision of duties must be at the very lightest a most serious and difficult matter; and though the burden of deciding falls ultimately on the individual, still he must be careful to remember that his particular judgment is subject to that fallibility to which, all individual judgments are liable. Where the precept is appealed to, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” one man will say that the particular point in question comes under the first head, another that it comes under the second. In either case a great responsibility is assumed, and it is especially desirable that the judgment of the individual should be fortified by the consent of others, if possible by the suffrages of the majority of those who are in a position to judge. It is one thing to say that a conflict of duties may arise, and that the higher is to be obeyed. It is another thing to say that in a certain given case such conflict has arisen, and that the duty which commends itself to the individual is the higher of the two. Whatever the decision arrived at, it ought not to be made in a spirit of levity, nor ought it to be supposed that the dictum of the single conscience bears anything like the same validity as the universal principles of morals. And there will be the further drawback, that in such cases the individual usually acts as judge in his own cause, where his conscience is pretty sure to be biased. There is therefore a very strong onus probandi thrown upon the person who takes upon himself to overrule what is in itself a clear obligation.

2. But the question of political obedience cannot be rightly considered without taking into account the relation of Christianity to political life generally, neither can this isolated passage in an Epistle of St. Paul’s be considered apart from other teaching upon the same subjects in the rest of the New Testament. Very similar language, it will be remembered, is found in 1 Peter 2:13-17. And going back to the fountain-head of Christian doctrine, we find, indeed, no express statements, but several significant facts and some important intimations. When He was arrested by the civil power, and unjustly tried and condemned, our Lord made no resistance. Not only so, but when resistance was made on His behalf, He rebuked the disciple who had drawn the sword for Him. When the didrachma was demanded of Him, which it was customary for the Jew to pay towards the repair and maintenance of the Temple, He, though as Lord of the Temple He claimed exemption, nevertheless, for fear of putting a stumbling-block in the way of others, supplied the sum required by a miracle. On another occasion, when a question was asked as to the legitimacy of the Roman tribute, He replied in words already quoted, “Render to Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.” And, lastly, when appeal was made to Him to settle a disputed inheritance, He refused, saying to His petitioner, “Man, who made Me a judge or a divider over you?” Here we have really the key to the whole question. So far as His practice was concerned, our Lord pursued a course of simple obedience; into the theory of political or civil obligation He absolutely refused to enter. The answer, “Render to Cæsar,” &c., left matters precisely as they stood, for the real question was, “What was Cæsar’s, and what was not? The ambiguity of the reply was intended. It was practically a refusal to reply at all.

The significance of this comes out very strikingly when it is contrasted with the state of feeling and opinion current among the Jews at the same time. With them politics and religion were intimately blended. They carried into the former sphere the fanaticism natural to the latter. Their religious hopes took a political form. The dominion of the Messiah was to be not a spiritual, but a literal dominion, in which they, as a people, were to share.
Clearly, the relations which our Lord assumed towards politics had especial reference to this attitude of the Jews. He wished to disabuse His disciples once and for all of this fatal confusion of two spheres in themselves so distinct. He wished to purify and to spiritualise their conception of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which He came to found. And, lastly, He finally submitted to the civil power, as the instrument divinely employed to inflict upon Him those sufferings which were to be the cause of our redemption. Vicit patiendo.

It would seem as if by some intuitive perception the disciples entered into the intention of their Master. Towards the civil power they maintained an attitude of absolute submission. They refused to avail themselves of the elements of fanaticism which existed wherever there were Jews, and at the head of which they might easily have placed themselves. Instead of this, they chose to suffer and die, and their sufferings did what force could never have done—they leavened and Christianised the world.

3. It is an expression of this deliberate policy (if by that name it may be called) which we find in these first seven verses of Romans 13:0. At the same time, the Apostle may very well have had a special as well as a general object. The Church at Rome was largely composed of Jews, and these would naturally be imbued with the fanatical spirit of their countrymen. The very mention of the Messiah would tend to fan their smouldering passions into flame. The Apostle would be aware of this. His informants at Rome may have told him of excitement prevailing among the Jewish portion of the community. His experience in Palestine would tell him to what unscrupulous acts of violence this might lead. And he forestalls the danger by an authoritative and reasoned description of the attitude which the Christian ought to assume.

It does not necessarily follow that precisely the same attitude is incumbent upon the Christian now. In this section of Christian teaching there was something that was temporary and local, and that had reference to conditions that have now passed away. And yet as a general principle, the injunctions of the Apostle entirely hold good. The exceptions to this principle are few and far between. And he who would assert the existence of such an exception must count the cost well beforehand.

Verse 2

(2) Damnation.Condemnationi.e., the sentence passed upon him by the judge or magistrate as God’s representative.

Verse 3

(3) To good works.—Literally, to the good work, as if it were personified. Human law can only take account of that which is actually done, not of the intention.

In this and the following verse it is clearly the ideal aspect of the magistracy that the Apostle has in view. So Bishop Butler, in the paragraph next to that just quoted, continues: “If it be objected that good actions, and such as are beneficial to society, are often punished, as in the case of persecution and in other cases, and that ill and mischievous actions are often rewarded, it may be answered distinctly: first, that this is in no sort necessary, and consequently not natural, in the sense in which it is necessary and therefore natural, that ill or mischievous actions should be punished; and in the next place, that good actions are never punished considered as beneficial to society, nor ill actions rewarded under the view of their being hurtful to it. So that it stands good . . . that the Author of Nature has as truly directed that vicious actions, considered as mischievous to society, should be punished, and put mankind under a necessity of punishing them, as He has directed and necessitated us to preserve our lives by food.” Occasional failures of justice on the part of the executive do not make the strict administration of justice any the less its proper duty and office.

Verse 4

(4) The sword.—Not apparently the dagger worn by the Roman emperors, but, in a strict sense, “the sword.” “To bear the sword” seems to be a recognised Greek phrase to express the power of the magistrates. It was carried before them in processions, and on other important occasions.

It is clear from this passage that capital punishment is sanctioned by Scripture. At the same time its abolition is not excluded, as the abolition of slavery was not excluded, if the gradual development of Christian principle should seem to demand it. Whether or not capital punishment ought to be abolished, is a question for jurists, publicists, and statesmen. The theologian, as such, has no decision to give either way.

Verse 5

(5) It follows, from this divine authority and title enjoyed by the magistrate, that he ought to be obeyed, not only from fear of the punishment that he is empowered to inflict, but also from the respect due to legitimate power. Of this respect conscience is the natural guardian.

Verse 6

(6) Ministers.—The words thus translated here and in Romans 13:4 are not the same, but both are words commonly used in the New Testament of a sacred office; that in Romans 13:4 is the original of our word “deacon,” that used in this verse is (in another form) the original of our word “liturgy.” The choice of such terms harmonises with the conception which is presented in this chapter of the divine origin and character of the state system.

Verse 7

(7) Tribute.—Rather, taxesi.e., taxes upon person or property as opposed to the customs levied upon goods. These were collected by different officers.

Fear . . . honour.—There would be one class of officers who could claim respect for their official position, though they had no special means of enforcing it. Another class would have the power of inflicting punishment. This last would necessarily be feared, looked upon with a certain awe and reverence, as well as honoured.

Verse 8

(8) Owe no man anything.—The word for “owe” in this verse corresponds to that for “dues” in the last. The transition of the thought is something of this kind. When you have paid all your other debts, taxes, and customs, and reverence, and whatever else you may owe, there will still be one debt unpaid—the universal debt of love. Love must still remain the root and spring of all your actions. No other law is needed besides.

Another.—Literally, the other—that is to say, his neighbour, the person with whom in any given instance he has to deal.

We naturally compare with this passage Matthew 22:39-40; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8. It shows how thoroughly the spirit of the Founder of Christianity descended upon His followers, that the same teaching should appear with equal prominence in such opposite quarters. The focusing, as it were, of all morality in this brief compass is one of the great gifts of Christianity to the world. No doubt similar sayings existed before, and that by our Lord Himself was quoted from the Old Testament, but there it was in effect overlaid with ceremonial rules and regulations, and in other moralists it was put forward rather as a philosophical theorem than as a practical basis of morals. In Christianity it is taken as the lever which is to move the world; nor is it possible to find for human life, amid all the intricate mazes of conduct, any other principle that should be at once as simple, as powerful, and as profound.

Verse 9

(9) Thou shalt not commit adultery.—It will be seen that in this arrangement the seventh commandment precedes the sixth. The same arrangement is found in Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, and James 2:11. On the other hand, the ordinary arrangement appears in Matthew 19:18. There can be no doubt that St. Paul followed an order that was found in the copies of the LXX. that he was in the habit of using. The famous Codex Vaticanus still presents the same order in Deuteronomy 5:17. In Exodus 20:13-15 it places the seventh commandment, first, then the eighth, then the sixth.

Verse 10

(10) Fulfilling of the law.—The form of the Greek word implies not only that love helps a man to fulfil the law, but that in the fact of the presence of love in his heart the law is actually fulfilled.

The principle here stated is beautifully worked out in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

Verse 11

(11) And that, knowing the time.—And that there is all the more urgent motive for you to do—this law of love it is the more incumbent on you to practise—because you know what a critical moment it is in which you are living. The word for “time” is different from that used in the next clause, and means a definite and critical season.

Awake out of sleep.—A striking metaphor. The true, the genuine Christian life is like the state of a man whose eyes are open and whose faculties are all alert and vigorous. All besides, whatever it be, the state of heathenism or of imperfect and lukewarm Christianity, is like the torpor of sleep.

Our salvation.—That blissful participation in His kingdom which the Messiah at His Second Coming should inaugurate for His people. (Comp. Romans 8:19; Romans 8:23, “the manifestation of the sons of God,” “the redemption of the body;” Luke 21:28, “your redemption draweth nigh.”)

When we believed.—When we first became Christians. Every hour brings the expected end nearer.

Verses 11-14

(11-14) The Apostle now gives a reason for enforcing this and other duties upon his readers. The end of the world itself is near.

St. Paul, like the other Apostles (comp. 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 22:20, et al.), certainly believed that the Parusia, or Second Coming of Christ, was near at hand. This was in strict accordance with Mark 13:32, and resulted naturally from the peculiar form of the Jewish Messianic expectation. A great shock had been given to the disciples by the crucifixion of Him whom they thought to be the Messiah, and though they began to recover from this as soon as they were convinced of His resurrection, they yet could not reconcile themselves to it entirely. The humiliation of the cross was still a stumbling-block to them taken alone, but falling back upon another portion of their beliefs, they looked to see it supplemented, and its shameful side cancelled, by a second coming “in power and great glory.” Their previous expectations, vague as they were, led them to regard this as part of the one manifestation of the Messiah, and they did not expect to see a long interval of time interposed.

Verse 12

(12) The night.—The time during which the Messiah is absent from His people is compared to night. He is the sun. whose coming converts it to day.

It is rather strange that here, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, the metaphor of night and day should suggest that of “armour.” The warfare in which the Christian is engaged is between the powers of light and of darkness. (Comp. Ephesians 6:12.) And the use of the word “putting off” (stripping oneself as of clothing) supplies a link between the two ideas by suggesting the putting on of a different kind of clothing, the Christian panoply.

Verse 13

(13) Honestly.Decorously, becomingly, as men do when their actions are seen.

It is interesting to know that this verse, happening to catch the eye of St. Augustine, had a great effect in leading to his baptism and change of life.

Verse 14

(14) Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.—A continuation of the metaphor introduced in Romans 13:12. So invest and identify yourselves with the spirit of Christ as to reproduce it in your outward walk and conduct.

Make not provision for the flesh.—Take no thought for the flesh, so as to supply a stimulus to its lusts. A life of luxury and self-indulgence is apt to excite those fleshly impulses which the Christian should try rather to mortify. He therefore warns his readers not to give their thoughts to such things.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Romans 13". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/romans-13.html. 1905.
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