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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-7

Christians and Government (13:1-7)

This chapter has puzzled people who know their Roman his­tory. The emperor at this time was Nero, the infamous Nero, the same one who later fiddled while Rome burned, the cruel brute who had evening parties in gardens where light was furnished by the flames of living human bodies smeared with pitch and burned. How could Paul call such a man an "authority ... from God," a "terror to bad conduct"?

One way to solve the difficulty is to take all this not as refer­ring to one particular emperor, but to the Empire as such. Paul felt that the Empire was (unintentionally, no doubt) the most powerful friend the Church had. It kept the peace far and wide; and missionaries went where they pleased, many of them pro­tected, as Paul was, by the Roman laws. Another solution is to say that Paul was supporting the Empire in opposition to the numerous anti-government "underground" organizations, run by Jewish extremists. The Jews were a notoriously riotous people, and Paul did not wish the Christians, a very new sect as the Ro­mans would see it, to be identified as subversive or on the govern­ment’s black list.

Still another suggestion is that although some Christians were already thinking of the Roman Empire as Antichrist, Paul thought of it as the power that held Antichrist back. On this view, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 refers to the Roman Empire. If this is the case, then of course Paul would regard the Empire as God’s ap­pointed servant.

Another and simpler explanation is that at the time Paul wrote this letter, Nero was in the "honeymoon" of his reign; the Empire generally was well governed, and Nero himself had not developed the extreme cruelty and insanity which ruined his later years.

Christians down the ages have disagreed over this chapter. By those who take it literally and apply the words to all govern­ments, this chapter has been used to bolster the status quo, the existing government no matter how bad, inefficient, or cruel.

In the twentieth century this has been an agonizing problem for Christians in many lands. When the Nazis took over Germany, many Christians on the outside wondered why Christians did not protest more than they did against the cruelties planned and prac­ticed by Hitler’s hoodlums. But in the German churches the peo­ple had had it drilled into them for centuries: Church and State are separate realms. The Church has no right to criticize the State; "he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed" (13:2). It was only when the State began to interfere with the Church that Christians woke up. Today, people in Western coun­tries often forget that on the other side of the Iron Curtain are millions of Christians. What are they to do under an atheistic, antireligious government? At what point must a Christian citizen turn rebel?

Two points seem clear, though how to apply them has to be left to the judgment of those who are caught in the dilemma. First, patriotic support of one’s own government is a part of the Chris­tian’s duty. In our democratic era we can often say that a Chris­tian’s duty is participation in government; this in Paul’s time was clearly impossible. Second, government is an authority from God only so far as, and as long as, it fits the description Paul gives of it. Indeed, this passage from Romans is a sort of handy indicator by which to tell good government from bad. Does the govern­ment, local or national as the case may be, in fact encourage good people and discourage bad ones? Is it the kind of government free Christians can respect? If not, and if its ills are incurable, then surely it can no longer claim to be "from God."

This passage about government illustrates also another point: that specific teaching in the Bible about specific problems cannot always be used as simply as a lobster fisherman uses his brass gadget to measure whether a lobster is of legal size or not. Moral problems even for Christians cannot be settled by brass rulers. For example: about the year 1860 a very conscientious Christian named Robert E. Lee was faced with a choice between loyalty to the United States of America and to his home state. The Ameri­can Civil War was about to begin. Lee was offered the position of top general of all the United States armies. Should he be loyal to the country in whose army he had long served, or to the state where he was born? Colonel Lee could not settle that problem simply by reading Romps 13:1-7. The Bible is not a rulebook covering all cases. Not even for the most conscientious Christian will the Bible save him the trouble of thinking, or guarantee that his interpretation will be always right.

Verses 8-10

Love and the Law (13:8-10)

Anyone who thinks Paul a legalist, a cold theologian, surely must have stopped reading Romans long before reaching chapter 13. Here we meet law again, the Law, too, of which Paul had said that the only good it did was to stir up a perverse desire to violate it. But now Paul tells us that love "is the fulfilling of the law." There is no contradiction really between what he says here and what he said, for example, in chapters 4 and 7. There, he was speaking of the Law as a code outside me, a set of Thou-shalt’s, Thou-shalt-not’s, thrown at me, my constant accuser, my final despair. Here, Paul is speaking of the Law within me (see Jeremiah 31:33), not as a set of rules but as the expression of love. Love is not a sentiment or an emotion; in the New Testament sense—in the sense in which Paul himself elsewhere describes it (1 Corinthians 13)—it is a continuing steady concern for the good of others not less than oneself. Love is the very basis of justice; love that is lawless is not God-like. Law and justice not rooted in love can be the most cruel injustice.

Verses 11-14

Make No Room for Evil (13:11-14)

Practically everybody who writes a book on Romans has to tell the famous story connected with these verses, especially with verse 14. Since presumably many readers of this present book have not yet heard the story, here it is again. A young man of great wealth who later became famous was convinced in his mind that Christianity was right and true, but in his heart and will he could not break away from his sin. He was a much torn and dis­tressed man. One day in a garden, where he had been reading this same Letter to the Romans, he heard children’s voices from over the wall, "Tolle, lege; tolle, lege." That was in the days when many people spoke Latin. The words he heard could mean two things. One was, "Put, take." Probably some little girls were play­ing a game of some kind. But the words also mean, "Take, read." It was like an angel’s voice to him. So he took the book, and there leaped out to his eye Romans 13:14. He read no further. "At the end of that sentence," he wrote afterwards, "all the shades of doubt were scattered." That was the moment when Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo, Saint of the Church universal, and one of the most influential minds in the past 2000 years, became a Chris­tian.

But also for those who are already Christians (as were those to whom Paul was actually writing) this is one of the great sentences of Scripture. When sins shake us that we should have shaken off, why is it? Is it not because we have made the way ready for the sin? We do nothing to prevent it beforehand. Put into very simple English, Paul is saying: Do not plan for sin; give it no welcome; offer it no opportunity. Kick the sin off your doorstep and you won’t have it in the house.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Romans 13". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/romans-13.html.
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