Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:1-7 ESV
At the heart of this passage is the sovereignty of God. That should not be overlooked or under-emphasized. All throughout his letter, Paul has been dealing with the subject of man’s justification before God. He has made it clear that this is the work of a sovereign God. He is the one who calls, justifies, sanctifies and ultimately glorifies all believers. And even in this section of his letter, where Paul is talking about the practical outflow of one’s faith in relationship to others, he keeps emphasizing God’s sovereignty. In chapter 12, Paul talked about spiritual gifts and their role in the body of Christ. Because they are given by God, there is no room for pride or boasting. Like salvation, they are a gift from God and have nothing to do with human merit. Paul wanted his readers to remember that they had “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6 ESV).
Now, as Paul addresses the subject of the believer’s relationship with civil authority, He continues to emphasize God’s sovereignty. It is important that we keep the words of Paul within their context. He is writing to believers who live in Rome, the capital of the Roman government, representing the most powerful nation in the world at the time. Both the Jews and the Gentiles who made up the church in Rome knew what it was like to live under the authority of the Roman government. And as far as the Romans were concerned, the Christians were little more than a break-off sect of the Hebrew religion. Their only real knowledge of Christianity was tied to the individual for which it was named, Jesus Christ, who was crucified by Pontus Pilate for claiming to be King of the Jews. The Christians, like the Jews, were tolerated by the Romans and given certain freedoms to practice their religions in peace. But the Jewish Christians would have had no affinity for the Romans, knowing full well that their people had lived under the weight of Roman rule for years.
Yet Paul tells his readers, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1 ESV). The word Paul uses is hypotassō and it means “to subject one’s self, obey” (Greek Lexicon :: G5293 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 23 Dec, 2015). In this passage, Paul does not address the question of what Christians are to do when those in authority over them overstep their God-given authority and begin to persecute their subjects. He simply encourages believers to submit to those in authority over them. And he was not alone in promoting this kind of behavior. The apostle Peter said something very similar. “For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT). And Paul provides the “why” behind his words. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV). It is a case of the sovereignty of God. Jesus lived out this very idea, having submitted Himself to the Roman authorities and submitting to their ultimate decision to crucify Him. But He knew that what He was doing was ultimately an act of submission to God. During His trial, when Pilate asked Him, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?” (John 19:10 NLT), Jesus responded, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above” (John 19:11 NLT).
The very existence of the Romans as a nation-state was decreed by God. And their presence in the land of Palestine and their rule over the people of Israel was not something that caught God off guard. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-7 ESV). At just the right time, God sent His Son. Right when Roman rule was at its zenith and the Jewish people were living under their control, the Messiah appears on the scene. The very existence of the Roman government in the land of Israel was going to play a vital role in fulfilling the promises of God. The death of Jesus, predicted in Isaiah 53, was fulfilled in detail because of the Romans and their practice of crucifixion. Jesus’ submission to the Roman authorities was based on His understanding of God’s sovereign will for His life.
When Paul encourages our subjection to governing authorities, he does so based on his understanding that all authority exists by God’s decree. And for a believer to resist God-given authority is to resist God. Again, Paul does not address the issue of what a Christian is to do when the government encourages disobedience to God. But if we follow the example of Paul, he submitted to the governmental authorities on many occasions, but was willing to go to jail when their demands contradicted the will of God for his life. Ultimately, Paul would even find himself in Rome as a prisoner, because of his faith. There may come a time when the believer has to resist and disobey civil authority, but we must always be willing to suffer the consequences for our disobedience, even if it means persecution.
Paul makes it clear that governing authorities are appointed by God. They are “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4 ESV). They are “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6 ESV). Ultimately, our submission to civil authority is to be seen as submission to God. He is in control. We are to live our lives with the understanding that our God is sovereign and rules over all, including nations, governments, leaders, parliaments, presidents, dictators, senates, and man-made authorities of all kinds. His will will be done. His plan for this world will be fulfilled. Our lives are to be lived out in submission to and trust in His sovereign power.