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This is rough reading for the nineteenth century. It was not written in this century, or under the circumstances which constitute the aspect and responsibility of this age. It may be none the less applicable. It is the glory of the Bible that it contains principles which know nothing about time or space as constituting limit. On the other hand, we must read the Bible in the light of current necessity, established history, enlightened reason, and sensitive and active conscience. What application these words had to the people to whom they were written would be evident to themselves. It is perfectly certain that this passage is not to be taken literally and absolutely, but spiritually, and according to the religious conscience and understanding of men.
"Let every soul" ( Rom 13:1 ). That is a Hebraism. "Let every person" would amply express the apostolic idea. The Hebrew is fond of the word "soul." When men go in companies they say there were so many hundred souls; when the census was taken in the olden time the return was given in souls. Yet we must not reduce this wholly to a letter. A religious meaning may be hidden even in this word "soul." Yet let us not overstrain the emphasis. The word "soul" ought, indeed, to be its own emphasis, touching as it does all that is highest and noblest in the constitution of human nature. Yet the appeal is to the soul, and the soul must not be treated as dead, irresponsible, irrational, and as having no voice in the matter. It is the peculiarity of the soul, as we understand that term, that it can ask questions, reason, compare, conduct retrospective inquiry, and look at all things in a large, moral, and philosophic light. "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." This is ideal. This is not actual, but this is what ought to be. In properly constituted society there will be sovereignty; not always personal sovereignty; sometimes the sovereignty may be democratic, that is to say, it may represent the reason, the conscience, and the will of the whole people. The whole people constitute themselves into a sovereignty, and they must obey themselves as so constituted. There is a point at which we lose our individuality; we become merged into the larger life, the commonwealth, and it is at that point of merging that we must be morally alert and sensitive. There are some who like to give their individuality away, because they know they are making a small donation to the common good. There are those whose individuality has made society possible under God. There are men amongst us who ought to be very careful how they seek to reduce even the aggressiveness of some sorts of individuals. There is an indifference that would be only too glad to keep its head upon its downy pillow, and to murmur there under the warm and comforting clothing This belongs to everybody; let them do it: I do not care to obtrude my individuality upon the commonwealth. Such slumberers never made history. They have made history difficult; they have enfeebled many an effort made by the spirit of progress. That there is an individualism too aggressive, too self-assertive, may be granted, but we owe much to the individualism which has insisted upon the right of private judgment, the right of conscience, the liberty of the soul; and we owe much to that individuality which has said, even to the State, We only obey you as we see God in you.
The Apostle is careful in all this reasoning to introduce the word "God" at four points. If the argument is a geometric structure, then at every corner there is God. You must not debase God by putting up a drunken magistrate, and calling him the vice-regent of heaven. Because God is in the text all the powers will fall into right relation and perspective. This is a committee of the whole nation, with God at the head of it; as is the head, so must be the members: we must not have a head of light and a body of darkness, a head of spiritual loveliness and a body corrupt and given over to work all uncleanness with eagerness. The Apostle is conducting an argument in which he can familiarly use the word God. Some terms clear a space for themselves, define the application of the whole of the remainder of the argument. This is emphatically a case of this sort. The rulers ought to be appointed by the people. When the Lord has sent a man to lord it over the people, he has sent him to punish, not to bless the nation. The people had no business to ask for a king, and thus to heathenise themselves, in the olden time; but the Lord said, "Yes" to their ignorant and selfish prayer. The Lord granted the petition of their vanity. Sometimes the Lord grants us our request, and sends leanness into our hearts. We have no king but Christ, we have no sovereign but God. We have no hierarchy but the High Priest himself who is entitled to his hierarchic glory because of his human suffering: he has won the throne by the Cross: honour and majesty and dominion and power be unto him who sitteth upon the throne; for a throne sits upon the Cross. If the powers that be are ordained ideally by God, people should be very careful how they constitute those powers. Never let us believe that anybody will do for prime minister or judge or magistrate or leader or president. He who is at the head should be at the head in every sense intellectually, religiously, sympathetically should entitle himself to be at the head, not by some vote which means success of partisanship, but by the right eternal of superior mind and superior character. That is the tendency of all society under Christian inspiration. That tendency cannot realise its issue all at once. History requires plenty of elbow-room. We must not be impatient with venerable, solemn, slow-going history. History rubs nothing out. They who want to write fluently and dashingly may have a good deal of obliteration and interlineation to do, but grim, solemn, majestic, wrinkled history never erases, but keeps on the record, and says, To the record must be your appeal. Yet there is a spirit in society and civilisation, called tendency. The tendency may be upward and may require almost mathematical investigation to detect its inclination; sometimes the tendency may be downward, and so minutely and microscopically downward, that there may be contention as to its trend: but the Lord is seeing to it that the tendency of things is towards the consolidation, the purity, and the consequent sovereignty of manhood. Jesus Christ was the Son of man: every woman was his mother; every man his brother. If the Jew was ever on him it was but for a moment, it fell off, and he stood up, in the garment that vindicated the election of God, to be the true and eternal Adam of the new race. The time must not be forced. It is written in the books that the day shall dawn when we shall have no king but Christ, when every man will be king over himself because he has been crucified with Christ; when there will be no need to cry Order, for the spirit of order will be in the human mind and the human heart, and every man will anticipate every other man in actions of peacefulness, harmony, and practical music. We should insult some magistrates if we told them they were appointed of God. They would know that we were not serious. We know how they were appointed, but for want of frankness we allow them to sit out their little twelvemonth and quietly vanish among the shadows. It would distress our reason, not to say our conscience, to recognise in some men true kings, true judges, and true leaders of the world. Sometimes we are driven to think that there must be some little mischievous grinning sprite that throws out offices and dignities, never imagining that certain men will have the ineffable impudence to take them up. Yet there is before us the ideal picture of divinely-constituted and divinely-ruled society.
When there is a bad law, what have we to do? We have first to try to amend it; secondly, we have to try to amend it; thirdly, we have to try to amend it; and fourthly, failing, we have to break it. But if the great men of the Church say it is the law, what have we then to do? To break it. Not at first, not wantonly, not violently, not foolishly. No great purpose is ever served by mere wantonness and defiance, but there comes a time when men must go to prison rather than obey certain laws; and if certain men had not gone to prison certain other men never could have gone to church. It is a misconception of history which leads us to think that our privileges have come to us by chance. If we have any liberties, other men secured them for us. We dishonour the dead if we do not live in the spirit of their heroism. We may not be able to exemplify it under the same conditions or on the same scale: but a man can be a hero if he wants to be one in the conquest of his temper, in the sovereignty of his passions, in the conquest of himself in matters of taste, so that he shall go in many directions which would have ruffled him so long as he was of the earth earthy, and of the flesh fleshly. Every man has opportunity to show that he has in him at least the making of a hero, and Christ so judges mankind, that if he sees anybody who would have been a hero if he could, he will give him a hero's heaven. There are some so dainty that they will not break a law. The only law that is not to be broken is the eternal law. Laws of human kind, laws as constituted by Plato, and as suggested by the founders of society, were temporary, relative, excellent for the time, or the only possible thing that could have been done at the time; all such laws must "widen with the process of the suns"; such laws were made for man; man was not made for such laws. If there is any law that hinders Christian brotherhood, amend it; failing to amend it, trample it under foot: but if that should involve loss of living, blessed be. God for such poverty, it is the true wealth.
What remains, then, as the perpetual law? That is stated: "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another." The meaning is, Though you have rendered tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, honour to whom honour, there is something over and above that fills up all the interstices; and that surplus divinest something is love. You could not shut up the action of love in Romans 13:7 . That verse is arithmetical, statistical; it is a kind of pence-table of the time. "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour." A pagan could have written that programme; it required a Christian to write this supplement Owe no man any thing but love. And love is a debt you can never discharge. When you have paid it you have only acknowledged it; when you have strained yourself to love some other human creature you have only begun to realise the meaning of the Divine sovereignty. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love: "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," his love, not a little surface rain that sprinkled the leaves and stems of things, but a plentiful baptism of the heart that went down to springs and roots, filling and reviving and blessing all. Nor must this be regarded as mere sentiment. Mere sentiment is never found in the Gospel of Christ. A religion founded on a Cross soon puts an end to all mere sentiment. It is the Cross that determines the quality of all that follows. If any man bring his little offering of sentiment the Lord will say to him, One thing thou lackest Crucifixion.
See how wide is the application of this great principle of owing every man love. It means that the strong owe their strength to the weak. When a man is very strong he by his very strength says to all weak people: Draw upon me: so long as I have a pulse left no man shall hurt you without at least protest from me. If any man have the gift of speech, he owes it to the dumb. Make the dumb understand that when eloquence is needed they can call upon you; you will open your mouth for the dumb, and plead the cause of those who have no words. If any man have wealth, he holds it as a trustee for the needy and honourable poor. If any man has influence, he says to those who are honestly seeking to live in the world an honourable life, What influence I have belongs to you: call upon me: I owe you this, not as a patronage, but as a duty: I hold it for another. When the Christian realises that spirit and assumes that attitude we shall know the meaning of apostolic usages, especially the usage which is described as having all things common, not in some little narrow arithmetical and changeable sense, in which life shall become a scramble and strength shall be only wanton might, but in the sense of brotherhood, sympathy, rejoicing with those who do rejoice, and weeping with those who weep, and carrying half the burden of the man who is overloaded. "He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law." That application is so wide that it can scarcely be described in words. The Apostle clusters the commandments "Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment [if there be any other mechanical stipulation, any other requirement of decency and good behaviour], it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" ( Rom 13:9 ). Some men cannot attack the commandments one by one. Other men can do nothing else; they are great at commandment-keeping. One young man said, "All these" throwing a sort of frivolous emphasis into the word "these" "have I kept from my youth up": I am a respectable young man. The Master said, Thou hast not begun to keep any one of them yet. Other men come into the sanctuary through great emotional experiences; they are, so to say, borne in upon a flood of noblest feeling, holiest sense of obligation and brotherhood, and they begin to keep the Commandments from the other end. The action need not be reversed or interrupted or criticised in a hostile spirit. Every man must work according to his own gift, and according to his own faculty and temperament, and opportunity: the one thing to be attended to is this, that every effort must end in holiness.
The Apostle was great when he touched the subject of love. He outran John, and John was no slow runner in this garden of love. But when you get a great intellect really fired nothing can love like it. It begins argumentatively and massively, and reasons and analyses and combines and protests; but let it go on; the more it prays the nearer it is coming to the burning point: another vision of Christ, and that great, stupendous intellect shall become a fountain of tears, and Paul shall write the anthem of Christian love. John shall talk about it on his level, in a sweet, tuneful, flowery way, but when the Apostle, the sovereign Apostle, comes to take it up, his anthem will silence for the time all other music.
Paul could not conclude this chapter without a grand religious exhortation, and that religious exhortation explains all he has been talking about:
"And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand." (Romans 13:11 , Romans 13:12 .)
Let there be no chaffering about magistracies, let there be no debate and controversy about mere matters of detail: this is not the time, the Apostle would have said, to be rearranging judicial benches and magisterial appointments, and inquiring into mere matters of adjustment and detail: Brethren, he would say, why talk upon these subjects? The day is at hand, already the silver light is on the eastern hills; an hour more and the King will be here. This was the apostolic music always. They all expected the Lord coming instantaneously as it were. There are annotators upon the Scriptures who want to make out a contrary view, and I cannot follow them; and I make no attempt to represent them, but to represent my own thought. It seems to me that the Apostles expected the Lord every moment, he will be here presently, so let all little subjects alone, "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying" ( Rom 13:13 ), but let us get our clothes on, the robe of beauty, for the Lord has already taken the first step out of heaven, and he will be here before you get your garments on if you do not make haste. "But put ye on the Lord Jesus": garb yourselves in the raiment of heaven, for Christ will be here presently to claim us and to announce the festival. The Apostles were, in detail, wrong; they were, in principle, right.
There are persons who are now expecting the Lord coming in a kind of handbill way, so they are announcing "The Second Coming of the Lord: Lecture in The Back Street at eight o'clock, by " I forget whom. Ah me! that is not the Lord's way. O fools, and slow of heart! he has come, he is coming, he is always coming. I saw him this morning; I spoke to him not a minute ago; he is with us now. Such is the mystery of the kingdom of God. It cometh not by observation; it is not a great caravan shaped in clouds, that some clever man will first see, and announce to other clever men, that they may get ready while all the sinners are scourged down to hell. That is not our Christ. The dear Lord came when the sun rose this morning. Nay, he was here, or the sun would not have risen; he never went away during all the cold and fog of the night; he glittered in every star, he looked down upon us from every height; he laid his fingers upon our eyelids and gave his beloved sleep. In every noble impulse, in every yearning after immortality, in every pang of soul-hunger that calls for the bread of life, he came, and is coming: we have but to say to him, Lord, abide with us I to find him house-room, find him a guest-chamber in the heart. They who take this view never can be inactive, never can be worldly, selfish, paltering in their policy; because they know that they are entertaining a Guest whose presence makes every chamber in the heart-house a sanctuary. Even so, Lord Jesus come quickly!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Romans 13". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11