At the end of chapter 12, we see Paul describing how believers should interact, not only with one another (as one in Christ), but also how believers should react with even those deemed their enemy.
Romans 12:19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 12:20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 12:21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
There is a desire for believers to self-preserve and it is very enticing to ‘get even’ when someone has wronged you. However, we are reminded that the vengeance our enemies deserve is for the Lord to exact. Why? Because the Lord’s vengeance is always righteous and the way He carries it out is likewise. Our vengeance would be tainted with our unrighteous decisions, so better to leave it up to Him.
But, we raised the question then if it means that we should be pacifists as believers. Should believers be engaged in activism or political activities? Should believers fight in their nation’s wars? Is what is written to these Romans, about their civil dealings, something that should transcend to us today?
These are good questions and it seems there are some principles we should not ignore as it relates to this.
First, in Psalm 144:1, David says,
Psalm 144:1 A Psalm of David. Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:
Israel was certainly no stranger to warfare and many of their battles were at God’s direction. When God divided the nations, He kept back Israel as His portion (Deuteronomy 32:8-9), yet the other nations of the earth, following after their gods, became the enemies of God’s portion. So, Israel often found themselves in battles, yet it was the Lord who was leading the charge. However, at the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Israel, as a nation under God, didn’t really exist. They had left the confines of their captivity (from Babylon and Assyria), yet, they had never been reunited as that one nation, under God. The exile has essentially never ended (until the point God reunites the divided nation). This was true in Paul’s day (as it is in ours). For the believer, in Christ, Paul doesn’t speak from the standpoint of defending one’s national interests (as was the case with Israel itself). Paul, however, has a different mindset. His mindset is that of peace and recognizing the true reality.
For the believer, rising up and mounting coups against their government wasn’t in their best interest. Even for the slave, as Paul writes to Philemon, it was better to be a good slave under Roman Law than to strive for freedom. Paul never encourages folks to go on an abolish crusade – again, vengeance is the Lords. Paul would say (Colossians 3) to live as a good slave and allow the Lord to pick up the slack, so to speak. Not just with slaves, however, but just as ordinary citizenry, Paul would agree that a quiet and peaceful life is a life for more desired for the believer.
1Timothy 2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2:2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 2:3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
It is then “wrong” for a believer to join a nation’s fight or to fight against his nation? It seems this is a matter of carefully-considered preference rather than hard-line protocol. In other words, Paul’s preference, based on the grand reality of our life in Christ, is that we live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty because this is good and acceptable in the sight of God. Paul is reassuring Timothy that by not fighting, he (Timothy) is in nowise not in a good light with God. Again, God will pick up the slack and repay, but in His timing. Romans 12:18 says to live peaceably with all men as much as it is possible. The over-arching preference is that believers live quiet and peaceably, as much as it is possible.
This is not only true when it comes to how we deal with one another (in Christ) and in society at large, but also as it relates to our interactions with government. Keep this backdrop in mind as we begin Romans 13.
Romans 13:1 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. 13:2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 13:6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 13:7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
See the desire for submission to the higher powers? In Paul’s day, the Roman saints were under great duress because of the persecution of Nero. Recall that Nero caused destruction in his empire and used that to blame Christians. Nero created a false flag in order to advance his pretense. Yet, in this society of persecution, Paul says to let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, but, for a specific reason – for there is no power but of God. In other words, the powers that be are allowed to exist because of God’s divine allowance.
In Daniel 2, we find the account of Daniel interpreting the dream of king Nebuchadnezzar . Recall that Nebuchadnezzar kept having this dream that no one in the land could interpret. He gets rather ticked off because of all of the so-called “wise men” in the land just couldn’t help him. He gets so mad about this that he orders all of the identified “wise men” in the land to be killed. Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Arioch as his chief executioner and he was the one to carry out this execution order. Daniel pleads with Arioch to stay his execution orders until Daniel had a chance to speak with the king. Before Daniel spoke with the king, Daniel goes home and speaks with his companions and that they would make a great plea unto God to know the meaning of the king’s dream. Once the meaning of the dream is made known unto Daniel, Daniel praises the Lord and makes some interesting statements:
Daniel 2:19 Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. 2:20 Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: 2:21 And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: 2:22 He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.
Daniel, sitting under Babylonian rule (in captivity/slavery) yet looks upon Nebuchadnezzar as one that God established. In fact, because God can just as easily remove a king from his throne as He can set him up, it makes it a no-brainer for Daniel to accept God by faith. He can look at Nebuchadnezzar and not look with fear upon the shell of a man, but look through Nebuchadnezzar and reverence the Power that allows Nebuchadnezzar to even exist, let alone be king.
This is the idea as Paul begins Romans 13. As believers, even when our government operates against freedom and promotes tyranny (as Nero was doing), we can look through the government and stand in faith because of the reverence we have for the One who even allows our government officials to exist. This is why those who resist the authorities resist the power of God. In other words, it is taking a stand against God to go against your authorities (because the authorities exist by God’s allowance in the first place).
This can be touchy – what would this suggest then about the American Revolution? They were “fleeing religious persecution” and mounting a rebellion against their government. In Romans 13, Paul understood the persecution of Nero and no where do we read Paul telling them to fight for their freedom. Why? Because the freedom of this world is nothing compared to the freedom in Christ. The freedom to have lower taxes and less rules lording over our lives are moot in the light of the freedom of Christ. Paul’s focus was the liberty in Christ and if there was a battle to fight, it wasn’t with flesh and blood (for physical freedom, on earth), but was with spiritual wickedness in high places – for the souls of men, to know Truth and allow Truth to set them free.
Now, when Paul says that they that resist will receive unto themselves damnation, we shouldn’t be quick to conclude this means that if you resist the government, then you are now hell-bound. Paul’s point is that the government will prosecute those who stand against it. For, Paul says, the government is an entity not against good works, but a terror against evil. Therefore, if you do well, you’ll have praise of the government, yet, if you do evil, then by the authority of God, the government will execute wrath against the evil. Does this mean that governments are always righteous in their decisions? No, certainly not. Governments are made of men and men, individually, do not always make righteous decisions – so, why collectively as a government, would we think unrighteous decisions are no longer applicable? However, what is our role as a believer when governments go awry?–to pray for all men, especially those in authority, that we may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness. Those in government will bear a greater liability in judgment – because they were established by God to be a promoter of good and a terror to evil, should they go off the rails, God will avenge – God will repay.
Paul knew that having this mindset would keep believers rooted and grounded in the midst of the persecution they faced. But, Paul goes one step further and says to pay all of their tributes, for their work. In other words – pay your taxes. Jesus iterated this initially,
Matthew 22:21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
Mark 12:17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
Luke 20:25 And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.
Christ wasn’t about His followers going against the government. Paul is simply carrying forth that idea to the Romans. Some today might protest – but what if they use my tax money inequitably? God will avenge – God will repay. It isn’t up to us to decide the recommence of their error. If your government gives you the option to vote on various means they will attend to (including taxes), then certainly take advantage of what they are offering. That’s being subject to the authorities. And, if you are so inclined to conclude that you are not going to give them any more than what they are already taking, then vote so forth. However, if you have the option to vote or not but yet withhold taxes from the government for your own personal reasons – from a human/conservative/libertarian perspective, it makes perfect sense, yet, Paul would say that isn’t our battle. Be subject to the higher powers. Also, note there isn’t any mention here of what type of government structure is most godly — that’s because regardless of what government structure you find yourself under, our battle is for the souls of men, not those in Congress. Fighting for freedom, from a Congressional level is just a distraction from fighting for freedom that is in Christ.
Suffice it to say, I think we can see Paul’s attitude towards how believers carry themselves in the light of their government – whether their government is acting righteously or not. Paul is going to take this same mindset and turn back to how we interact with one another. This will finish out chapter 13 and occupy the vast majority of chapter 14.
Our story continues…