In the previous chapter, Paul has given us exhortation on the believer’s proper attitude towards God and towards God’s church. And in that commentary he describes how we are to exercise our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church, and how we are to act in love towards other members of the church. Then at the end of chapter 12 he describes how as the church we are to act in love towards outsiders of the church.
Now in chapter 13, Paul describes how the church is to act in response to the governing authorities. And perhaps this passage is more pertinent today than usual given the effects of the virus and the government’s restrictions that they have enacted as a reaction to it. However, I want to make sure that you know that I have not composed this message in response to the government’s current restrictions on the church, nor should we limit the scope of this passage only as it relates to the virus and the ensuing government restrictions. But this message is timeless, in the sense that it was applicable in the day when Paul wrote it, living under the Roman Empire, and it has been applicable throughout the ages, whether in democracies or monarchies, whether under kings or presidents, whether in times of crisis or peace.
I would also suggest that if we understood the original context to the audience that this passage was written to address, the predominate issue in Paul’s day would have been the subject of taxation. And I think that becomes evident from the emphasis of the latter part of the text, verses 6 and 7. From history we know the Jews in particular had a lot of difficulty with taxation. And in fact Peter got Jesus and the rest of the disciples mixed up in a bit of controversy about whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. The Jews saw even the bust of the Emperor on the head of a coin as an offense to the law of God. Thus they had money changers who would sit at the temple to exchange Roman money for Jewish coins, so that they did not have to have a graven image in the temple, which is how they viewed the Roman coins.
There was also a popular counter revolutionary movement among the Jews of that day which was known as the Zealots. They recognized no king but God and paid taxes to no one but God. So the primary concern among Jewish people living under the Roman Empire was whether or not they were obligated to submit to the Roman government’s taxation.
But remember the counterpoint which Jesus made in regards to this issue of taxation. He said; “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but render to God the things that are God’s.” Now as you might expect, this was a particularly brilliant response on the part of Jesus which is applicable on a much broader scope than just the subject of taxes. And that statement stands today as the governing principle which we can use to properly interpret this passage before us. Caesar or governments have some legitimate authority. And furthermore, God has given them this authority. But all authority on earth is subject to a greater authority, that being the sovereignty of God.
Notice in that regard what Paul says in vs 1, “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” It’s interesting to note that when Jesus was at His trial, He said to Pilate in John 19:11 “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” Government’s authority then is not due to it’s own sovereignty, as if it is equal to, or independent from God, but governments are ministers to a degree of God’s authority which he has delegated to government.
Perhaps that relationship can be understood in light of how civil government works. In our government, there is the President and Vice President of course at the top of the hierarchy of authority, but the President appoints certain ministers of various branches of government to act on his behalf, such as the Department of Defense, of which the head may be called the Minister of Defense. So the Minister of Defense acts on behalf of the president to carry out the policies and programs of his administration through that department.
Now I believe that is how this passage indicates civil governments are supposed to function under the sovereignty of God, and how they act as a minister of God to carry out governmental responsibilities. And as God’s ministers of earthly government, we as the church are to be in subjection to them. Paul says in vs 1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” God has granted or extended a certain measure of His authority to civil governments and we must be subject to them as they carry out their duties.
But the question arises, what if the government tells me to do one thing, and God through His word tells me to do the opposite, what must we do then? Is there a point when government might overstep their authority and counter the supreme authority of God? Well, it should be obvious that government does sometimes act contrary to the law of God. But what we have already established is that whatever authority government has it has as a minister of God. So as it carries out the will of God then we are to be subject to them, as they are acting on behalf of God. But when they act in opposition to the will of God, then that is when we must obey God rather than men.
For instance, in Acts 4 there is the account of Peter and John who were arrested by the high priest and the Council, which was the ruling party of Israel, and they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;
for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”. When Peter and John persisted preaching Jesus, they were arrested again and put in prison. But during the night the angel of the Lord released them from jail, and the next morning when the rulers came to examine them they found that they were no longer there, but in fact were preaching in the temple. And so they brought them back to the council for questioning and they instructed them not to teach anymore in the name of Jesus. But Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
So there are obviously times when government can overstep it’s authority and in such cases it is right to obey God rather than men, because God is the ultimate authority, and government’s authority is only extant when it conforms with God’s rule. If government should demand that we sin, or that we go against God’s law or commands, then we have a higher obligation to obey God rather than to that government.
Another example of that is found in the life of Daniel. Daniel was a high level official in the king’s administration. But jealousy on the part of other commissioners towards Daniel caused them to propose to the king that no one should pray to any god or man other than the king for 30 days or he would be thrown into the lion’s den. Now Daniel had been in the habit of praying three times a day from his open window facing Jerusalem. And that was well known to the other commissioners who had devised this plan to do away with Daniel. There were perhaps a lot of ways that Daniel could have secretly continued to pray and they would not have found out about it. But Daniel deliberately disobeyed the edict, and continued his practice of praying facing the window of his room which was obviously in plain sight of anyone watching. Consequently his enemies reported him to the king and Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den. But the fact that God delivered Daniel from the lions is evidence that Daniel’s disobedience to the government was approved by God.
Let me give you one other example. Because believe it or not, I have heard many preachers attempt to debunk both of those examples as not relevant to civil disobedience. In the days of Moses, Pharaoh decided to kill all the baby boys born in Israel that were under the age of 2 years old. And as more babies were born it seems that the midwives were tasked with putting the boy babies to death as soon as they were delivered. But Exodus 1 tells us that the Hebrew midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. And once again, we see that God commended the midwives rebellion as it says in Exodus 1:21 “Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.”
Now there are other examples of that sort of civil disobedience as well that are to be found in scripture, but I think that should suffice. So what kind of authority does the government have and to what extent is Paul saying that we should be subject to it? Well, I think the answer may come from noticing some key phrases of this passage.
Notice the first part of vs 2. “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God.” Now what should be recognized in that statement is that the ordinance of God is carried out by the governing authorities. What is the ordinance of God? Ordinance means legislation enacted by a governing authority. So then the law of God, the rules of God, the commands of God are carried out by the governing authorities.
Perhaps the best way to understand that is to recognize that all law, in every nation, has as it’s foundation a moral code which is based on the moral code of God. I would dare to say that I doubt you could find any government on earth, regardless of it’s prevailing religion, that does not view murder as a crime, that does not view lying as a wrong, or stealing as wrong. Back in Romans 1:32 Paul spoke of this universal realization of right and wrong, saying, that even thought they did not acknowledge God, they knew the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death.
And so God’s ordinances for how men should conduct themselves in this world are universally accepted principles that governments have adapted into their own legislation. Government’s primary responsibility is to enforce the law, to keep the peace, to make laws regarding conduct and trade and so forth in order to regulate society for it’s good.
And notice how Paul references that aspect of government in vs 3. “For rulers are not a fear for good behavior but to evil.” Notice that phrase – good behavior, or good conduct. That is what government is to promote as an minister of God. In other words, they enforce God’s laws, God’s ordinances regarding human conduct.
So Paul continues, “Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”
Paul says if you do what is good you will have praise from the government, for it is a minister of God to you for good. Another way of saying that is government is God’s minister to do you good. If the government enforces and regulates conduct which is good, by laws and ordinances which are good, then it is acting as a minister of God. And by and large, most legislation which government enacts is good. It promotes lawful, peaceful life in community and that is good for us, especially as the church.
To that end, Paul told us in 1Tim. 2:1-2 “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties [and] prayers, petitions [and] thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” That is God’s purpose for government, to produce a peaceable and quiet life in all godliness and dignity, and it’s one that the church should support and submit to.
But on the other hand, if the government should encourage the practice of evil, then it no longer is acting on behalf of the authority given it by God, and if we do good in opposition to the evil which it promotes, then we cannot expect to receive praise from the government. But the fault then is on the part of government when it does not promote good in coordination with the ordinances of God.
What government should be doing, according to this verse, is promoting good and punishing evil doers. “If you do what is evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Punishment is a necessary part of the administration of government. In fact, when government punishes evil, Paul says it acts as an avenger for God to bring wrath on the evildoer.
So simply speaking, when government is working as God intends it to work, then it is punishing evil and promoting good. And when it does that by regulation of conduct by the law of God that is written in our hearts and codified in our legislation, then such government is a minister of God.
Now to bear the sword is a phrase that in that day and throughout most of history has meant to put to death. That verse then makes it clear that capital punishment is something that governments are tasked to do in their administration of God’s authority. Such governments, Paul says, are acting as God’s servant, an avenger to bring God’s wrath upon the one who practices evil.
“That is why,” vs 5 continues, “it is necessary to be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.” He is speaking of the fact that government is acting on behalf of God when it executes punishment, and so he says because of that, it’s necessary to be in subjection not only to avoid wrath, but also for the sake of your conscience. A Christian obeys God rather than man. And we obey God for the sake of our conscience. Whether man sees us or not, we obey God because we have an enlightened conscience. If we love God we must obey God. The punishment aspect of government should not concern us because we operate on the basis of a higher principle, out of a love for God and our conscience convicts us when we deviate from that. We should not need the penal aspects of government to keep us from sin. Love keeps us from sin.
Now this enlightened conscience convicts us and helps us to not only obey God, but by application to obey government. The principle is that we submit to government, and now the application is we submit to the arm of government that collects taxes. And Paul states that by saying in vs 6, “This is why (for the sake of conscience) you pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.” I don’t know if Paul wrote that a little tongue in cheek or not. But what he is saying is that rulers devote themselves to collecting taxes.
Now none of us like taxes. And the Jews in particular hated tax collectors. But what Paul is saying is that we should not consider taxes as some sort of tyrannical oppression. But taxes are necessary for the maintenance of government. Therefore those who collect taxes are doing so in their capacity as God’s ministers of government.
In the Old Testament, under a theocratic rule of government, we read about tithing, which was a form of taxation. And since the priests were ministers of God both in religion as well as civil matters there were several different tithes that took care of all their governmental functions. Someone has said that all the taxes or tithes that were paid by the Hebrews in those days totaled around 33 percent. But a large portion of that went for the upkeep of the temple and the administration of government. So the Jews were not strangers to paying taxes. They just didn’t like paying taxes to Caesar. Nevertheless, God says that it is right to pay taxes to government because they must use that money for the maintenance of civil government, which is by extension, God’s government.
The government after all is working for your good, if it is operating as God intended it, and as the scripture says a worker is worthy of his wages. Therefore, Paul concludes this commentary on the church’s responsibility to government with a summary application in vs 7; “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax [is due;] custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”
Peter has a passage in his first epistle in which he says virtually the same thing, but he also gives us more exposition as to why we must do so. So I will let Peter be the final commentary on Paul in this case. In 1Peter 2:13-17 Peter says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. [Act] as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but [use it] as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” Notice once again the emphasis is on doing right, doing good. By doing right you silence the ignorance of foolish men. We have a freedom as God’s people and we might say that because of that we need not honor government, but that is not what the scriptures say. It says we are to submit to such as ministers of God as they punish evil and praise good. We are to pray for them that they might do the job which God has given them to do, so that we might lead peaceful lives and live in godliness and dignity. And when it’s necessary, due to the fact that they are not acting on behalf of God but in opposition to His ordinances, then we must obey God rather than men.
But as much as it is possible, Paul says in the previous chapter, If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. We cannot do evil, no matter if the government should call for it, but we must do good for sake of conscience towards God. Let us pray our government acts as ministers of God for our good that we may silence the critics of the church. Let it not be said that we should ever suffer for doing evil, but let our good behavior be a testimony to a watching world.