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The state itself, no less than God's church, is a divine institution, existing by God's permission and authority, and absolutely necessary for the continuity of the race of people upon the earth; and it is the unqualified duty of the Christian to submit to it, except in whose situations where doing so would break the commandments of God. This cannot mean that the shameful deeds, of evil rulers are ever in any manner approved of God. It is not any particular implementation of the state's authority which is "ordained of God," but the existence of such an authority. Without such constituted authority, the whole world would sink in me chaos and ruin. Unbridled human nature is a savage beast that lies restless, and uneasy under the restraint imposed by the state, being ever ready, at the slightest opportunity, to break its chains and ravage the world with blood and terror.
Civilization itself is but the ice formed in process of ages over the turbulent stream of unbridled human passions. To our ancestors, that ice seemed secure and permanent; but, during the agony of the great war, it has rotted and cracked; and in places the submerged torrent has broken through, casting great fragments of our civilization into collision with one another, and threatening by their attrition to break up and disappear altogether. F1
Thus, Stanley Baldwin described the disastrous effects which always accompany the dissolution of states and the breakdown of authority. Paul's revelation that the state is "ordained of God" and an effective instrument of the holy will is not a new doctrine invented by him to ease the Christian community through a difficult political period, but it is essential element of Jesus' teachings. In this connection, a little further attention to Christ's teachings in this sector is helpful.
CHRIST AND THE STATE
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). His kingdom lies, for the most part, within a sector totally removed and separated from the secular state, that institution being also "ordained of God" but charged with a different function, that of preserving order upon earth. Christ himself honored God's ordained institution, the state, ordered the payment of taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:21), declared that the authority of the procurator, Pontius Pilate, was given to him "from above" (John 19:11), prophetically identified the armies of Vespasian and Titus as those of God himself sent for the purpose of destroying those evil men and burning their city, the city of Jerusalem (Matthew 22:7), submitted to arrest, even illegal and unjust arrest (Matthew 26:47-56), refused to allow Peter to defend with the sword against such an outrage, and meekly accepted the death penalty itself, which the state unjustly exacted, and which Christ had ample means of avoiding (Matthew 26:53), but did not.
Christ never led a riot, organized an underground, criticized the government, or took the part of the Jews against Rome. He did not offer himself as an advocate against society on behalf of any so-called victim of social injustice; and, once, he even refused to aid a man who claimed that he had been robbed of his inheritance (Luke 12:13). Jesus Christ was not a revolutionary in any sense of that word today. Although it is true that his holy teachings had the profoundest influence upon the course of history, it was always as leaven and not as dynamite that his influence worked.
Some of Jesus' parables had as their significant and active premises the institutions of civil government, as exemplified by the "king" who stood for God (Matthew 22:2), the legal contract of the householder who let out his vineyard, and even the "unrighteous judge" who granted the plea of the importunate widow, his unrighteousness in no way preventing his appearance in the parable as analogous with God! Had the state and its institutions been otherwise than "ordained of God," it is unthinkable that Christ would have borrowed such illustrations and made them analogies for the conveyance of eternal truth. Christ's usage of such terms as the officer, the judge, and the prison, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:25) also fits this conclusion.
All of the apostles understood and reiterated' Jesus' teaching in this field. Both Paul (here) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17) emphatically underscored this teaching. Not merely those laws of the state conceived of as "just laws" are to be obeyed; but, as Peter said, "every ordinance of man" was to be obeyed. In the New Testament, there was never any hint of Christians organizing any kind of campaign to change or nullify laws. That some laws were unjust was clear to all; but Paul sent a runaway slave back to his Christian master (Philemon 1:17), and provided specific instructions to both masters and slaves in his epistles to Ephesus and Colosse.
There is no suggestion here that the evil laws of Rome may be justified, nor the evil laws of any other state; but, in the light of Christian acceptance of such laws under the direct guidance of Christ and the apostles, the conclusion is demanded that the constituted government must be viewed as "ordained of God" and entitled to Christian obedience. Over and above all this, there stands the commandment of the apostles that the public prayers of Christians should constantly be directed to God upon the behalf of the state and its lawful representatives, on behalf of "kings and all that are in high place" (1 Timothy 2:1,2), to the intent that Christians might be permitted to "lead a tranquil life in all godliness and gravity," thus, by implication, making the provision of such privilege for Christians being the state's intended function.
To those persons, present in every age, who reject the meek and submissive attitude of Christ regarding earthly governments, and prefer instead the belligerent posture of the aggressive revolutionary, it should be pointed out that this is not a new attitude but an old and discredited one. It existed contemporaneously with Christ and the apostles. The Jewish people preferred Barabbas the seditionist to the gentle Jesus; but it must be added that when they finally got the revolution they wanted, it terminated in a situation far worse than what existed previously. The tragic results of taking the route of Barabbas, instead of the way of Christ, may serve as a classical example of the superiority of Jesus' way. In our own beloved America today, those people who are flirting with revolutionary schemes, if they should ever have their way, shall certainly overwhelm themselves and their posterity with sorrows, and far from attaining any worthy goals, will reap a gory harvest of tragedy and disappointment.
Then, may it never be overlooked that the established order in the civilized world, in spite of its deficiency, despite the inequalities and injustices, despite its halting and stumbling, is still far better than anarchy; and that, even if some complete overthrow of established institutions should occur, the new order, judged in the light of what history invariably discloses, would be no better than the old and would probably be much worse, especially when contrasted with the magnificent and benevolent policies already existing in our own beloved United States.
To that affluent host of Christians in present-day America, let it be thundered that they must not now allow the submerged torrent of blood, lust, and anarchy to break through. This may be prevented by their love, support, honor, and prayers for the present government, and by the necessity of their voting in a manner consistent with their prayers, to the end that the government may be able to survive the assaults being made upon it by forces of evil; and may their diligence in this be stimulated by the thought that if a breakthrough against the government succeeds, none will survive it, least of all, those who sought the tranquil life as God directed.
Present-day Christians are the privileged heirs of the greatest earthly inheritance ever known in the history of the world, a fact that angers Satan. Don't throw it away, or allow some revolutionary to rape you intellectually and rob you of it. And if, through indifference or tacit support, you should ever contribute to the overthrow of present institutions, and if you should live for a single day without the legacy you now hold in your hands, an ocean of tears could not ease your heartbreak or give you another inheritance like the one in which you now stand secure. Keep it! We currently pass through an era that glorifies the extremist; the seductive voices of the far left are calling; stop your ears and bind yourselves to the mast, like the sailors of Ulysses. Death and destruction shall reward you if you turn your back upon the teachings of the Saviour and cast in your destiny with the seditionists. The Marxists, revolutionaries, Rousseauists, and screaming agitators are not the friends of the people but enemies. To trust them is to have your throats cut and to lose your souls also.
Take up the whole armour of God that ye may be able to stand against all the fiery darts of the evil one, and having done all, STAND (Ephesians 6:13f).
Reject every form of extremism, and heed the apostolic injunction to "Let your moderation be known unto all men" (Philippians 4:5).
Implications of the Christian attitude toward the state are far-reaching and include the deduction that Christians may serve in military or political capacity, vote, and engage freely in the participation allowed and encouraged by the state itself, the only restriction being that conscience, being under God above all, should not be defiled. It is a comment upon the extreme worthiness of our own government, as compared to other worldly states, that many Christians do share in the management of its institutions and hold offices of public trust, the nation being far better off for the presence of such citizens within the structure of its political and civil institutions.
Not merely sedition and violent opposition to human government are proscribed for the child of God, but "resistance" which is inclusive of all forms of opposition and disobedience. Jesus Christ our Lord never disobeyed any law, nor did he ever advocate civil disobedience, or any other kind of disobedience. As he said, "I came not to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). This verse teaches that breaking the laws of human governments is equivalent to breaking God's laws, because such laws are also of God's will and authority. The "judgment" in this place refers primarily to the legal punishment of violators of the state's laws; but the displeasure of God regarding such violations implies that there will also be an eternal accounting to God for such sins. As Moule said,
This is founded on the idea of law and order, which means by its nature the restraint of public mischief and the promotion of, at least the protection of, the public good. "Authority," even under its worst distortions, still so far keeps that aim that no human civic power punished good as good, or rewards evil as evil; and thus, for the common run of lives, the worst settled authority is infinitely better than real anarchy. F2
It is a comment upon the effectiveness and success of the state as God's ordained institution that such a statement as this stands as truth. Aberrations may be catalogued and failures noted; but, in the principal part, and in the overwhelming number of examples afforded by history, Paul's language here must stand as unchallenged truth. There has hardly been a state in history where the private exercise of Christian faith has been the object of governmental hatred and punishment. The glaring exception to this is in the ruthless Marxist governments which have appeared in the present century; and, should that type of government gain ascendancy in areas populated by Christians, there could well be another age of martyrs like that which descended upon the first century, shortly after these noble words were penned. The truth of Paul's words here is not contravened, either by the persecutions of the first century or the threat of persecutions now.
The word rendered "he" in this verse could be translated "it"; but the translators are correct in making it personal, for only a person could be spoken of as bearing the sword. The person in view, therefore, is the policeman, the legally constituted arm of human government, making the law-enforcement men of cities, states, and nations to be every whir as much "ordained of God" as any minister of the gospel. A gutless namby-pambyism has come to characterize far too many Christians of this age, who naively and stupidly suppose that police departments are dispensable, that love can just take everything, and that our own enlightened (?) age does not need the old fashioned relics of barbarism, such as policemen and jails. Let all hear it from the word of God, if they are so blind as to be unable to read it in history, that the policeman also is God's man, and that without him there is nothing. The writer once invited two New York policemen into his living room, gave them a cup of coffee, and read this chapter to them, with the same exposition as here. Their astonishment and gratitude were nearly incredible. One of them reached for the New Testament to read it himself and said, "I do wish that everyone knew this." The other spoke up and said, "Well, it would help a lot if all the clergymen in our city knew it!" We say the same. Much of the vilification, harassment, and warring against policemen in the current era has blinded some good people to the absolute indispensability of governmental authority, including an effective police establishment.
Capital punishment is clearly allowed to be a legitimate prerogative of human government, by Paul's statements here. Those states which have yielded to the naive "do-gooder-ism" of the present era by abolishing the capital penalty will eventually pay the price of their foolishness. Present-day lawgivers are not wiser than God who laid down such penalties and enforced them in the Old Testament dispensation. True, the Decalogue says, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13); but the same God who said that also said, "Thou shalt surely kill him" (Numbers 15:35). These commandments do not nullify each other, because they speak of different things. Moffatt's translation made the difference clear, thus:
Thou shalt do no murder (Exodus 20:13).
The man must certainly be put to death (Numbers 15:35).
Moffatt took account of the essential difference in two Hebrew words, [ratsach] and [harag], the latter meaning "put to death," the other meaning "murder." Murder is, of course, forbidden; but the imposition of the death penalty by government is not forbidden. Humanity will never find a way to eliminate such a penalty completely, because it is the threat of death alone which enables policemen to apprehend and capture perpetrators of crime. Taking the gun out of the policeman's hands is the surest way to make all people victims of the lawless.
There are twin reasons for the Christian's observance of society's laws: first, as a matter of conscience, it is a sin for him to break the law; and second, in order that he might not incur the legal penalty of lawbreaking. The preeminent consideration is that of pleasing God, as Peter expressed it, "Obey every ordinance of man, for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13).
Thus, all that was said of policemen in Rom. 13:1-5 is likewise applied here to all civil servants and officers of the secular state. Being part of the institution "ordained of God," which is the state, they partake of the dignity and authority pertaining to it, and are entitled to obedience, respect, courtesy, honor, and the cooperation of all Christians, who, in the discharge of such obligations, are doing so "as unto the Lord," and not "as unto men," for such is the commandment of the scriptures.
Had there been any doubt, up to here, that the total establishment of human government is to be honored, respected, and obeyed by Christians, upon pain of God's displeasure if they fail, it would have been effectively removed by this blanket inclusion of "all." Peter's words, already referred to, are:
Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God, Honor the king (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Before leaving this section of Romans which details the relationship of the Christian to his government, one other consideration needs emphasis. Such is the attractiveness to the masses of mankind of the idea of overthrowing governments which they consider unjust or oppressive, that even Christian ministers sometimes make a distinction between obeying "good" governments and "bad" governments, actually suggesting in their specious logic that it is all right for conscientious and well-intentioned activists to go forth and pull down the government if they think it is bad. No. A Christian is prohibited from any such role, nor may he even "resist" (Romans 13:2), a conclusion that is based not alone on what Paul wrote here, but also upon the fact that no Christian of the apostolic age ever did anything remotely akin to pulling down a government.
The great apostle Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship, invoked its protection, and refused to pay a bribe to Felix, despite the fact that a bribe was solicited and would have procured his release from prison. As just noted, Paul commanded Christians to obey civil laws, honor policemen as ministers of God, pray for the establishment, and insisted that the total arm of human government be respected, honored, and obeyed.
Paul spent many years in prison, being hailed before many judges; but there is no record that he was ever required to be bound and gagged to preserve order in the courtroom. No Christian, much less an apostle, ever organized an underground for runaway slaves, edited a radical newspaper, bombed the baths of the emperor, scrawled obscene slogans on the walls of the palace (even though it was Nero's palace), nor disturbed the public peace. Was it because they did not care for injustices under such evil rulers as Nero? No, indeed. None ever cared as much as they; but, inspired men of God, they KNEW that extremist methods would have done no good, but would have, on the other hand, done much harm in the multiplication of human misery and sorrow.
Thus, the conclusion must be allowed, that if one considers the vice, wickedness, and terror of that age, the consummate wickedness of human government under the control of men like Nero, Caligula, etc., coupled with the government's support of such institutions as human slavery, witchcraft, and prostitution - that if one considers all this, along with the Christian community's total refusal to engage in any actions of opposition or subversion against such a government, and if it be further understood that the Christian's refusal to obstruct or oppose such a regime was due to reasons of doctrine and conscience, honoring the commandments of Jesus and the apostles - then the conclusion is inevitable and must be received as binding that it is a sin for a Christian to engage in the projected overthrow of an earthly government, despite any faults or injustices that might either correctly or falsely be ascribed to the state they would overthrow.
The problem of military service and participation as a soldier in any kind of a war is also related to the questions in focus here; and those desiring to know further scriptural teaching in that sector are referred to "The Ten Commandments, Yesterday and Today," chapter 8.
Greathouse understood the first clause here as the negative statement of the first clause in Rom. 13:7, thus referring it to the obligations of custom, tribute, honor, etc. He said:
This means, do not continue in a state of owing any of the obligations referred to in Rom. 13:7, but fulfill them and discharge them. There is only one debt of which you can never get rid - the debt of love. F3
The discharge of all debts and the keeping of all commandments is summed up in the one word of a man's loving others as he loves himself. This applies to all commandments of a social or man-ward nature. There are other commands which spring out of the love of God, this dual direction of human obligation being demonstrated in the fact of there having been two tables of the Decalogue. Paul made this nice distinction by quoting only man-ward obligations in his next statement.
As noted above, Paul here adhered to the pattern of Jesus' summation of all the Decalogue under the two headings of love to God, and love to people (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:29-31), the latter division being the one considered here. The Christian life is realized, not by an item tabulation of commandments kept or broken, but by a conscious filling of the heart with love toward others, a fulfillment being made possible only by the sacred enthronement within, of the Holy Spirit.
That Paul consciously followed the teachings of the Master throughout is observable in several particulars, as noted by Lenski:
Already in connection with Rom. 13:1-7, we noted that Paul is repeating the very teachings of Jesus with regard to government and taxation; he certainly repeats the Master's instructions here, ... has the same order of the commandments as that found in Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20, where the sixth commandment is named before the fifth. F4
This passage does not teach that if one loves his neighbor he has license to break any of the commandments, but that truly loving one's neighbor will positively restrain from any sinful action against one's neighbor. This is profoundly true and means that the first and uppermost concern of God is that human hearts should indeed overflow with love to mankind, such love making it impossible that specific evil deeds in the social spectrum could be committed.
This is eternally true of them that sleep from either lethargy or sin, and it is positively not required in understanding this verse to believe that Paul thought the second advent of Christ was to be expected any day. True, he said the day is at hand in the next verse; and from this, the commentators have jumped to the conclusion that all the Christians of that era believed the end of the ages was upon them. Christ so mingled his prophecies of his final coming and of the coming destruction upon Jerusalem (Matt. 24) that it was nearly impossible to avoid thinking that the two events would occur simultaneously, instead of being separated by many centuries. "The day" in the sense of Christ's coming in judgment upon Jerusalem was indeed "at hand," and only a little over a decade removed from the time when Paul wrote this letter. Paul used the words exactly as Jesus used them; and there is a tremendous weight of material in Paul's writings that shows he did not fall into the common error of confusing the two events as to their simultaneous occurrence. He knew, for example, that his own death would precede the final judgment (2 Timothy 4:6), that a space of time sufficient to allow the revelation of the man of sin would intervene before it (2 Thessalonians 2:3ff), and that the fullness of the Gentiles would come in first (Romans 11:25), all of which knowledge on Paul's part made it impossible for him to have considered the judgment day as being just around the corner. His reference to Christ's coming, and such expression as "the day is at hand," applied to the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the judicial coming of Christ in that epic event. There is no ground for supposing that Paul was ignorant to the point of confusing the judicial coming with the final coming.
Paul's mention here of a spiritual condition called "sleep," and his call for people to awaken out of it, provide strong emphasis upon the dangers of such stupor. The person who sleeps is in a state of insensibility, not knowing anything that is going on. A fire may sweep through the city, a revolution rage in the streets, or a tornado bear down upon him, but he knows it not. An assassin may slay him, a thief despoil him, or any unexpected peril overcome him; and, regardless of what might occur, he is vulnerable, asleep, in danger. It is also a state of inactivity. The sleeper is doing nothing, all activity being suspended. Further, it is a state of illusion, the dreamer and the sleeper being identical as to their state. Many a spiritual sleeper has delusions of grandeur and glory which pertain not at all to him. Many a soul has been lost while its possessor slept.
Illustration: On the night of September 2, 1757, when the soldiers of the Marquis de Montcalm, commandant of the French army of Quebec, retired to their tents, they slept the sleep of insecurity. Only a few sentries were left to guard the heights overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence river; but, while they slept, the soldiers of General Wolfe scaled the heights of the river and defeated the French the next morning on the plains of Abraham. The Dominion of North America changed hands while people slept! A thousand examples from history could be brought forward to show what a disastrous thing sleep may be.
May all the sleepers be aroused by the call of the apostle's words here. They ever stand, electric, upon the sacred page:
Awake, thou that sleepest. Arise from the dead and Christ shall shine upon thee (Ephesians 5:14).
Nearer than when we first believed ...
is far from being a statement that it was, even at that time, "near" in the sense of soon. This is invariably true of all, that salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Every man's salvation is nearer as life unfolds; and, for every man, it is sealed and assured, when his faithfulness has been manifested even unto the end. Writing to Timothy, in the last of his apostolic messages, Paul said,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but to all them that have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7,8).
Significantly, even in that last statement, Paul did not indicate that he expected the immediate second coming of Christ. "That day ..." as discreetly used here, leaves the time element of when it will occur absolutely out of sight.
Paul's imagery here still refers to sleepers waiting too long to rouse out of slumber. They were such as had slept long past the normal time of awakening. It was not merely dawn, but daylight had fully burst upon them. This metaphor applied with specific force to the lifting of the long night of pagan darkness which had wrapped the world in Woe. Paul was saying that darkness was lifted a generation ago; the glorious daylight of the gospel is already shining. There are Christians, of all places, in Rome itself! The old sins and debaucheries of the pagan darkness must be cast off. The armor of light was available for all who would receive and wear it. That such was actually Paul's meaning here is evident from a comparison with Eph. 5:14, quoted under Rom. 13:11, above, where "Christ will shine upon you," does not mean at the judgment, but right now! Thus, "day" in this passage, having reference to the same time, means "at the present time, in the gospel age."
The armour of light ...
is one of Paul's favorite metaphors for the gospel of Jesus Christ, which he called the "whole armour" in Eph. 6:13-17). In that exceptional passage, Paul made the "whole armour" to be the truth, or the gospel of salvation. Even in the piece-by-piece consideration of the armor, their intimate connection with and identity with the word of God is evident.
Becomingly, as in the day ...
suggests the beauty and adornment of Christian behavior, which is of a kind not to be ashamed of in broad open daylight, contrasting sharply with the Gentile debaucheries usually committed at night, and therefore called the works of darkness. Deeds that are becoming to Christians are those of virtue, integrity, faithfulness, purity, and love. It was becoming of Christ to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). Even the discussion of gross sins was forbidden to Christians upon the ground that such guarding of the conversation "becometh saints" (Ephesians 5:3). A further glimpse of the meaning of "becometh" is seen in the word chosen to replace it in the various translations. "Worthy of" (Philippians 1:27) and "befitting" (Titus 2:1) are two examples.
Revelling and drunkenness ...
refers to riotous and boisterous conduct, such as undisciplined behavior that follows indulgence in alcoholic beverages. Anyone familiar with this type of behavior will testify to its obscene, profane, and repulsive nature.
Chambering and wantonness ...
as retained in the English Revised Version from the KJV, mean "debauchery and licentiousness" (RSV), or "debauchery and vice" (New English Bible).
Strife and jealousy ...
refer to the animosities of men inflamed with liquor, sated with vice, and living the lives of debauchees. To say that such conduct does not become Christians must have been intended by the apostle as a meiosis, an understatement for the sake of emphasis.
Paul had already mentioned (Romans 13:12) the new investiture of the Christian, calling it the armor of light; and here is a return to the same figure, only here it is Christ himself who is to be put on by the Christian. Barmby observed that
Christians are said to have already put on Christ in their baptism; here they are exhorted still to do so. There is no real contradiction; they are but exhorted to realize in actual life the meaning of their baptism. F5
Provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof ...
refers to the investment of time, preparation and money in such a manner as to allow or facilitate the gratification of fleshly lusts. When one thinks of the countless pleasure palaces, and other hideaways bought and provided for no other purpose than that of facilitating the fulfillment of fleshly lusts, the apostle's wisdom in forbidding such investments to Christians is evident.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.