49. Romans 13:1-7
Submit to authorities
Paul spent chapter 12 discussing how Christ-followers are to live together in Christ’s body, honoring and building up one another by means of God’s gifts of the Spirit and by concept of honoring civil authorities. As we study this passage, we need to remember that means also of the love He gives them. In chapter 13 Paul moves to the more difficult during the time Paul wrote, the civil authorities were probably all pagan, and the cruel Nero was emperor of Rome.
This passage of Romans is not the only place Paul instructs believers to honor their governors. To Titus he wrote, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:1-2)
A Christ-follower must be respectful and responsible, “good citizens” under all conditions. In other words, no matter what the circumstances, believers are to represent Jesus and do nothing to bring dishonor to His name.
Peter also wrote on this same subject: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”
The reason we are to respect authority is that God is ultimately the One who establishes people in positions of government. Jesus declared this fact to Pilate when he tried to intimidate Him: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:11).
Daniel praised God for His sovereignty over nations and rulers when He revealed to Daniel the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning” (Daniel 2:19-21).
Daniel further explained this truth in Daniel 4:17 when he told Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his dream: “The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.”
Paul further established God’s ultimate control over governments in his sermon in Athens found in Acts 17:26-28: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 'For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.’”
Even when rulers are evil, the fact is that God has ultimately established them in their positions. Our example for honoring and submitting to ungodly authority is Jesus. He submitted to the evil authorities who did not protect Him, who flogged Him and sentenced Him to death. It’s important to notice that He did not acquiesce to them; He did not compromise or give in. Rather, instead of fighting and defending Himself, He submitted to their decisions to punish Him even though He was innocent. Paul also demonstrated this kind of respect. He didn’t fight for His rights, for protection or for vindication. He accepted imprisonment for the sake of the gospel, but he did not turn against or turn others against the civil authorities.
The question that arises, however, is why we are to honor civil authorities. How can we be sure that obeying civil mandates is God’s will?
In the Sinai desert God addressed this problem with Israel. The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out of Egypt because they missed the ample food, and they were sick of the rigors of their wandering. God told Moses that He would send them bread from heaven and meat to eat, but the manna would come with divine mandates. “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions,” God said.
Moses announced the coming provision to Israel and told them this miraculous supply of food was to be the glory of the Lord; He was sending it because they had grumbled against Him.
“Who are we, that you should grumble against us?…Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against God” (Exodus 16:2-8)
Moses was emphasizing that while Israel was angry with and blaming him for their plight, they were actually grumbling against God who had established Moses as their leader and was directing Moses in how to care for them.
Peter wrote that believers are to submit themselves “for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.” These authorities are sent by God to punish wrongdoers and commend those who do right. This commendation and punishment is not necessarily reflecting whether or not people are believers in God. Their authority is civil and is required to keep order and peace in society.
Clearly, countless evil leaders have done wickedly, but the people in the positions of authority are there by God’s sovereign will, and the seats of their authority are there by God’s command. Even if the leader misuses his authority, his position is nevertheless established for the good of the citizens, and as Christ-followers we are to respect our civil leaders and do what we can to make their jobs easier and more effective.
Acts 17:26-27 gives one of the most startling affirmations of God’s control over kingdoms and leaders. Paul states, in this passage, that God made every nation from one man and determined “the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” The rise and fall of nations and powerful rulers is entirely ordained by God. He orders their existence and influence, and He works to accomplish His purposes through the situations of the world even while the rulers work to accomplish their own desires.
Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy that “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Our respect and prayers for our leaders are God’s will for two reasons: to invite God’s protection and intervention for believers in a secular society, and also for the leaders themselves to be faced with the reality of Jesus and the call to integrity and belief.
During the restoration of Jerusalem, when Jews were returning to the land under the direction of Ezra, he read the book of the law to them. He exhorted the returning Israelites to bring whatever the priests requested for burnt offerings every day without fail, “So that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.”
When God establishes authority, He also gives us the commission to pray for those in authority. Spirit war rages around us unseen, and our prayers are part of God’s appointed means for accomplishing His will in the world.
When authorities are evil
The Bible makes clear that Christ-followers have an obligation to respect, obey, and pray for their civil leaders. What does one do, however, when the civil leaders legislate evil?
Throughout history there have been people who honored God in disobedience of civil authorities. Acts 4:13-19 records Peter and John in the early days after Pentecost. When they healed a man at the temple gate, the Sanhedrin ordered them to leave the premises and then conferred with each other. They realized they had a dilemma on their hands. The people knew they had performed an amazing miracle, and the Sanhedrin could not deny that fact. They were worried that their influence would spread among the people, so they decided that they had to order them to cease from speaking in the name of Jesus.
When they called Peter and John back to hear their decision, Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
When the religious authorities clamped down on their speaking in the name of Jesus, they graciously but firmly refused to accept the gag order. In fact, they turned the burden of proof back on their accusers: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” They knew that, although the Sanhedrin was opposed to Christianity, they did believe that a person must obey God rather than men. When confronted with this challenge, they had no good response.
In the next chapter, Acts 5:25-29, Peter and the apostles were brought to the Sanhedrin again for preaching in the temple courts. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the high priest said to them.
Peter and the others replied, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The Old Testament also has examples of people defying civil authority in favor of obeying God. When the king of Egypt issued the decree that the Hebrew midwives were to kill all baby boys born under their care, they did not comply. They feared God, it says in Exodus 1:15-21, and they refused to obey. The Pharaoh was angered and summoned the midwives, asking them why they had let the babies live.
They answered, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
This passage in Exodus ends with these words, “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”
In this instance the midwives not only refused to obey the demonic decree, but they lied to the Pharaoh when he asked why they had let the babies live—and God blessed them.
The point here is not that God sanctions lying to get out of a tight spot, but that even in the middle of a compromised situation in which evil is at work, God sovereignly honors the faith of those who honor Him. We can’t extrapolate from this story that we have permission to lie to evil authorities. What we can know from this is that God will glorify Himself and honor us when our hearts and minds are submitted to His will regardless of the consequences. When we trust God more than we protect ourselves, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego also disobeyed a pagan king. They refused to bow and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image because such an order required blatant worship of a false god and the betrayal of God. They were thrown into a blazing furnace, but God saved them. The king saw four, not three, men walking in the flames, and they were not being consumed. The king called them out, and all the officials crowded around them to see the miracle. Not a hair had been harmed.
Daniel likewise refused to honor Nebuchadnezzar’s degree that for 30 days, not one was allowed to worship any god but Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel could not comply, and he continued his tradition of kneeling in his window ad praying to God three times a day. As a result, the king, according to his decree, had to throw Daniel into the lions’ den. In the morning, however, those hungry lions had not attacked Daniel. The king hurried to the pit where Daniel and the lions were, and Daniel told him that his God whom he served had shut the lions’ mouths (see Daniel 6:10-17).
While we are instructed to honor our civil leaders, we are to honor God above all. We can expect that our worship of the one true God and our trust in the Lord Jesus will result in anger and mistrust from many people. But we are to place our trust and hope in Him. We honor the Lord Jesus above all others—and we can trust Him to keep us and protect us. He assumes responsibility for us when we trust Him and submit to His will.
Civil authorities as God’s “tools”
At the same time we are honoring God by honoring the civil authorities He establishes, we can also know that those God establishes are under His sovereign control. God accomplishes His purposes through whomever He chooses, whether the person is a believer or not.
The history of Israel is punctuated with pagan leaders whom God appointed to accomplish His will for the nation. For example, in the earliest days of Israel’s history, God orchestrated their escape from slavery under Pharaoh’s cruel reign. Exodus 9:13-16 describes God commanding Moses to confront Pharaoh and to let His people go. He had Moses warn him that if he did not release the slaves, He would send plagues against him and all his people so “you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.”
Further, God had this message for Pharaoh: “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
In other words, God could have destroyed the rebellious, cruel Pharaoh when he refused to let Israel go. Yet had God swiftly dealt with Pharaoh and allowed Israel to escape without opposition, the message of God’s sovereignty and purpose would have been lost to history. God used even the evil Pharaoh as an instrument for His glory. Not only the contemporary world during Pharaoh’s reign but all history knows the story of the wicked despot oppressing God’s people and refusing to allow them to leave. All of history knows that God sovereignly sent plagues upon the evil Pharaoh and his people, and history records that still Pharaoh refused to allow Israel to leave.
When Israel finally did leave, it was completely clear to everyone watching that God alone released them. God alone could have orchestrated the death of the first-born in every home that did not have the blood of a lamb on the doorpost. God alone could have protected the home of every person in Egypt who had covered himself with the lamb’s blood. And God alone could have led the huge body of Israelites out of Egypt in spite of a stubborn monarch who had refused to bow the knee to the God of Moses. All humanity now knows that God redeems His people—God alone, without human help—and God can be trusted to have the last word, even over rebellious evil that seeks to short-circuit God’s plans.
God ordained King Cyrus the Mede to facilitate the Israelites rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple there. Isaiah 45:1-7 has God calling Cyrus his “anointed”. He would subdue the enemy nations, provide means and protection, and otherwise make it possible for Israel to rebuild. The prophecy in Isaiah 45:1-7 includes God’s promises to give Cyrus honor and political and military success “though you do not acknowledge me”.
God said He would do these things “so that…men may know there is none besides me.”
“I am the Lord,” God said, “and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.”
Again in Isaiah 44:24, 28, God declares that He is the Lord and Israel’s Redeemer who formed them in the womb and made all things, “who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please.’”
Cyrus never became a follower of God, but he did accomplish God’s will on behalf of Israel. He did receive God’s blessing and protection. God made his heart favorably disposed toward Israel, and he set in motion a restoration project for the Israelites that Darius honored years later when Cyrus original decree was found.
Ezra 4:1-4 describes Cyrus writing the original decree to rebuild Jerusalem. The decree included the command for the people where the Israelites had been living in exile were to provide “silver and gold, with goods and livestock” for them.
Ezra 6:1-5, 12 describes King Darius issuing an order to find Cyrus’ original decree when Governor Tattenai and his associate Shethar-Bozenai tried to stop the progress of the construction. After a search revealed the original scroll, Darius said, “My God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem. I Darius have decreed it. Let it be carried out with diligence.”
Jeremiah made many prophecies about God’s will being accomplished through people who didn’t worship Him. In prophesying the Israelites’ seventy years of Babylonian captivity, he called Nebuchadnezzar “my servant Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon”, foretelling how he would destroy Israel and make them “an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin.”
Then Jeremiah prophesied that after the seventy years were over, God would “punish the king of Babylon and his nation… for their guilt.” They would also be enslaved by other nations and kings (Jeremiah 25:8-12).
Jeremiah 27:4-7 further prophesies that God would make countries and even wild animals subject to Nebuchadnezzar “my servant”. The passage also ends with the statement “All nations will serve him ad his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.”
Jeremiah 48:813 also foretells the destruction of Moab, the descendants of Lot and his older daughter. The land had existed without change, like wine that sits unpoured on the dregs, “But I will send men who pour from jars, and they will pour her out; they will empty her jars and smash her jugs” (Jeremiah 48:8-13). God would use evil men to overthrow Moab, a nation that was related to Israel but never honored Israel as God’s anointed and as the place of God’s dwelling.
God uses even evil people as His instruments. He wastes nothing; He is sovereign over all; He redeems everything.
A matter of conscience
God has instructed us to honor civil authorities. For example, Proverbs 24:21-22 has an interesting dual command: “Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious, for those two will send sudden destruction upon them, and who knows what calamities they can bring?” In the same breath the writer commands us to honor God and the king—for the same reasons: they can destroy those who rebel. The emphasis in this text is not on the king’s intrinsic worth in comparison to God’s intrinsic worth; rather the focus here is on the king’s authority, especially to deal with wicked and disobedient subjects. The point is that we are commanded by God to respect our leaders’ authority in a manner similar to our submission to God’s authority. The ruler is brought to power by God Himself, and we are to honor his position and his right to rule. We are to be good citizens and not be rebellious subjects.
Ecclesiastes 8:2-6 further develops this point. “Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.”
God is asking people to practice humility, to recognize that they are not laws unto themselves but that they are to live in submission to authority. They are to learn to respect those whom God has placed in leadership and give those people the honor due their positions.
This respect for civil authority extends even to taxes. The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking Him it was right to pay taxes or not. Pointing out that Ceasar’s image was on their common currency, Jesus gave His famous reply, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:14-22.
This exchange only emphasized Jesus’ earlier conversation with Peter in which Jesus addressed not only civil taxes but religious ones as well. After establishing that even in civil governments, leaders collect their taxes not from their sons but from others, he demonstrated his own submission to the authority of the religious leaders, even though they were corrupt, by saying, “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours” (Matthew 17:24-27).
Even though Jesus was technically not a “son” of the Pharisees but was the fulfillment of all the Pharisees represented, He still honored their authority and position. Refusing to offend them on a technicality, He miraculously provided the tax money for Himself and for Peter. Jesus’ modeling this honor for and submission to authority tells us two things. First, we are to surrender our pride and accept the fact that God asks us to submit not just to Him but to all those He brings into power. Even if a ruler is wicked or foolish, we are not to indulge in private resentment or rebellion against them. Our hearts must be steadfast in the Lord Jesus and our identities secure in Him. Then we will be able to honor human authority because our primary allegiance will be to God, and as we submit to Him, He gives us the strength to honor human leaders.
Second, Jesus demonstrated that He will provide the means for us to pay our taxes. We have to be committed to obedience, and God will provide all we need.
Paul told Timothy that “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Ezra records Cyrus’ decree that the Persians were to help Israel by providing all that they needed to build their temple. “Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:9-10).
It is God’s command that we not only respect and honor the human authority He establishes on the earth, but we are to pray for them, that they will come to a knowledge of the truth and rule well, providing a safe environment where truth can flourish and God’s people can live with dignity.
God is asking us to acknowledge those He has placed in our lives whom we must respect and honor. We all have bosses and pastors, and we also have local and national leaders. Even if we hate a leader’s policies and procedures—even if the leader is evil—we are not exempt from behaving with dignity and respect toward him. Further, we are to do more than be externally “nice” to a leader we dislike. We are to pray for them because, as Paul says, it is God’s will that all come to a knowledge of the truth. Further, he says, praying for them can enhance the possibility that we may be able to live peaceful and tranquil lives in godliness and dignity.
We are not responsible for the evil in a leader’s heart, but we are responsible to act on God’s instructions to us. As Christ-followers with the literal life and presence of God in us, we have an obligation to intercede for our leaders. As the Bible records, God can provide for and protect His people even through the provision of men and women who do not honor Him.
Further, we are not to be looking for loopholes to avoid the legal requirements of us as citizens and members of our local congregations. As those who honor and know the Lord of the universe, we are to pay what is required of us.
Honoring our leaders does not mean we necessarily trust them. For example, Jesus did not trust the Pharisees or the Roman rulers to make wise or godly decisions. He did not naively place Himself at their mercy, closing His eyes to their duplicity and worldly ambition. Neither did He give His allegiance to any human ruler. His allegiance was to God’s rule alone. He did only what the Father told Him to do. Yet He respected and honored human authority, and He lived in submission to their rules and law insofar as they did not conflict with God’s commands.
Pray that God will show you your personal responsibility regarding taxes, respect, and prayer for leaders. Ask Him to help you see as He sees, love as He loves, and to honor Him by correctly honoring human authority. Ask Him also to guard your heart against blind allegiance to political figures or human leaders. Ask Him to give you wisdom and discernment to honor God with your heart’s loyalty but to submit to the Lord Jesus by upholding and respecting the human leaders in your life.
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:26-28a).
Give what you owe
Paul has spent all of chapter 12 discussing how Christ-followers are to live together in Christ’s body, honoring each other and building each other up by means of God’s gifts to them and by means of the love which He gives them when they are in Him. Now he moves to the more difficult concept of submitting to and honoring civil authorities. It is important to remember that the civil rulers when Paul was writing were probably all pagans, and the cruel Nero was emperor of Rome during this time.
1. Paul admonishes us to submit to governing authorities. How do we do this, and how do we reconcile this command with the fact that many authorities are evil? (see Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Daniel 2:19-23; 4:17; John 19:8-11; Acts 17:24-28)
2. Why are we to honor civil authorities, and how can we be sure honoring evil governments is God’s sovereign desire? (see Exodus 16:2-8; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Acts 17:26-27; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Ezra 6:9-10)
3. In verses 3 and 4, Paul explains that if a person obeys civil laws, he has no need to fear civil authorities. On the other hand, civil disobedience results in punishment. How are Christ-followers to respond if civil authorities are legislating evil? (See Acts 4:19; 5:29; Exodus 1:15-17; Daniel 3:16-27; 6:10-16)
4. How is it possible for an unbelieving or evil authority to be God’s appointed ruler, and how do they mete out God’s punishment and will? (see Isaiah 45:1-7; 44:24, 28; Jeremiah 25:8-9; 27:4-7; 48:8-14; Ezra 1:1-4; 6:1-5, 12; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Exodus 9:13-16)
5. How is obeying civil authority and honoring civil authorities a matter of conscience? (see Proverbs 24:21-22; Ecclesiastes 8:2-6; Matthew 22:18-22; 17:24-26; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Ezra 6:9-10)
6. To whom do you owe respect and honor?
7. How is God convicting you of His will for your responsibility with regard to taxes, respect, and prayer for leaders?
8. Ask God to reveal to you how He wants you to relate to civil authority. Ask Him to show you your blind spots where you might confuse respect with trust, honor with allegiance, and where your own disapproval or resentment might cloud your responsibility to pray or to give honor where it is due.
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